2017 NFC West Breakdown by Position: The Offense

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During the month of August, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article contains a position-by-position breakdown of the NFC West offenses. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2017 NFC West Breakdown by Position: The Offense

Quarterback

The Best: Seattle Seahawks

The Rest: Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers

Russell Wilson is coming off of the most inconsistent year of his career, but is still the best quarterback in the NFC West. His offensive line let him down last season. Wilson suffered his first of three injuries in the first game of 2016, which limited his mobility all season. Although Wilson is a phenomenal passer, he’s at his best when he’s able to scramble. The Seahawks already lost their left tackle, George Fant, for the season, so Wilson will likely be running for his life again this season. But that’s when Wilson is at his best, when he’s able to scramble and find his receivers on broken plays. If he’s able to stay healthy, there’s a good chance he’ll have the best year of his career in 2017.

Carson Palmer struggled in 2016, but he’s still one of the most respected quarterbacks in the NFL. He’s past his prime, but should have a solid chance of bouncing back after last year’s struggles. Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald will try and make a last run at a Super Bowl. Both players are aging, but they have an uncanny chemistry that seems ageless. Palmer will need to get more consistency from his other receivers. With Michael Floyd out of the picture, the Browns will have a chance to step up. John Brown is extremely injury prone and Jaron Brown is extremely inconsistent. Palmer isn’t able to win games on his own anymore, he needs help.

Jared Goff is one of the most controversial top overall picks in recent memory. The 2016 first overall pick had a terrible rookie season. Although it’s too soon to judge a player after one year, there were warning signs that he wasn’t an NFL caliber quarterback before he was even drafted. Coming from a gimmicky college offense, Goff had to make a huge transition to the NFL game. He doesn’t have a strong arm, so he has to rely on timing and anticipation to find open receivers. But he played in a college system that didn’t allow him to read defenses. The Rams overlooked these flaws and traded numerous picks to obtain him, which looks like a terrible decision after one season. But the Rams have spent the off-season giving him weapons, including Sammy Watkins, one of the most talented receivers in the NFL. If Goff can’t put it all together this season, he never will.

The 49ers are a complete dumpster fire of a team, and it starts with their quarterback. Now that Colin Kaepernick is out of the picture, the 49ers will have to try and win with an even worse quarterback than before. Brian Hoyer will be the week one starter. Giving his lack of talent and lack of offensive weapons, it’ll likely be only a matter of time before he’s replaced. But unfortunately for the 49ers, he’s the best quarterback that they have. Matt Barkley showed potential for a few games last season in Chicago before reverting back to normal Matt Barkley. The 49ers had a phenomenal draft a few months ago, but made one head scratching pick. They decided to select Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard in the third round, a player that many experts thought deserved to go undrafted. This will be a long year for the 49ers and their quarterbacks.

Running Back

The Best: Arizona Cardinals

The Rest: Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers

The NFC West has a lot of talented running backs, starting with David Johnson. The former college receiver is one of the best three down running backs in the NFL. He’s big, fast, and strong enough to run between the tackles and bounce the ball outside. His years as a receiver help him a lot in the passing game. Johnson isn’t a great blocker, so instead the Cardinals use him as a receiver on third down. Johnson led the NFL with 2,118 yards from scrimmage in 2016, and should have similar production in 2017 if he stays healthy. The Cardinals also have oft-injured Andre Ellington, Chris Johnson, and Kerwynn Williams on their roster, but none of them will see the field often if David Johnson stays healthy.

Todd Gurley had a terrible 2016, but that can be attributed to the pieces around him. Now that head coach Jeff Fisher is gone, the Rams should have a chance to actually win games outside of their division. It’s too early to tell if new head coach Sean McVay will be good at the helm, but at least he’s not Jeff Fisher. That’s an example of addition by subtraction. The Rams offensive line improved this off-season with the addition of Andrew Whitworth, which should help Gurley immensely. He was one of the best players in the NFL as a rookie and still has that talent inside of him.

The Seahawks have a plethora of injury prone running backs with enough talent to rush for 1000 yards. Either Thomas Rawls or Eddie Lacy will be the week one starter. Lacy started his career with two 1,000 yard seasons for the Green Bay Packers before dealing with injury and weight issues. He’s a bruising back in the mold of Marshawn Lynch, which should excite Seahawks fans. But it’s hard to depend on him to stay healthy. Rawls had a fantastic 2015 taking over for Lynch. Unfortunately for Rawls, he also has injury concerns. He broke his ankle in 2015 and missed much of the 2016 season with injuries. C.J. Prosise and Chris Carson are the two most intriguing running backs on the roster. Carson is a seventh round rookie that has impressed all off-season. He’s been electric during the preseason. Prosise was a third round pick in 2016 that showed flashes as a rookie. The former college receiver will likely be a third down back because of his receiving skills, but he has the potential to play on all three downs if he can stay healthy.

This might be Carlos Hyde’s last chance to shine in San Francisco. The former Buckeye has been impressive every year of his young career when he’s been able to stay healthy. The problem is, Hyde is rarely every healthy. The 49ers signed a capable backup in Tim Hightower just in case Hyde gets injured again. Hightower was signed off the street in 2015 by the New Orleans Saints after being away from the game since 2011. He was able to put together two impressive seasons as a backup and occasionally played over the oft-injured Mark Ingram. He’ll be able to take some of the third down duties because of Hyde’s inability to catch the football. If both players stay healthy, the 49ers should have a solid 1-2 punch in the backfield. But that’s a mighty big if.

Wide Receiver

The Best: Seattle Seahawks

The Rest: Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers

The Seahawks have one of the most underappreciated wide receiving corps in the NFL. Due to Pete Carroll’s love of running the football, Seattle’s wide receivers don’t get as many opportunities as most other NFL receivers. Doug Baldwin is a star, even though he does most of his damage out of the slot. He’s one of the best route runners in the NFL and has great hands. Tyler Lockett is coming off of a gruesome broken leg that ended his 2016 season. He’s also more of a slot receiver, but doubles as a returner. Lockett is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Paul Richardson was electric in last year’s playoffs, but he’s essentially made of glass. The oft-injured talent-tease has already suffered an injury during the preseason. Jermaine Kearse is still around, but he’s not very good at football. Amara Darboh and Kasen Williams might take Kearse’s place this season. Darboh is a rookie, but he’s a better route runner than most coming out of college. Williams has been the biggest surprise of the preseason. The former Washington Husky was projected as a future first round pick during his early collegiate years, but suffered an injury that caused him to fall out of the draft completely. Three years later, it looks like Williams has regained his explosiveness and will have a chance of playing meaningful snaps this season

Larry Fitzgerald is one of the best receivers in NFL history. The future Hall of Famer caught 107 passes last season. That’s extremely impressive for a guy that is a few years past his prime. But Fitzgerald is a different animal than most guys, and will likely have another stellar season. The Brown duo reside in Arizona, and will likely be Carson Palmer’s second and third receivers. These unrelated Browns aren’t similar receivers, but struggle with similar inconsistencies. John and Jaron Brown will be counted on this season more than any other point in their careers. J.J. Nelson is essentially John Brown insurance. Both receivers are extremely fast and undersized. Nelson will play even if Brown is healthy, but he’ll take Brown’s role if he suffers another injury. Chad Williams was a third round pick in the 2017 draft. He has a ton of talent and athleticism, but he’s extremely raw coming out of Grambling State. He’ll have a chance of contributing this season, but it’ll take a few years before he reaches his prime.

The Rams would have the worst receiving corps in the NFC West if it wasn’t for the addition of Sammy Watkins. Although Watkins hasn’t lived up to the hype since being selected from Clemson, he is still one of the most talented receivers in the NFL. He’s been a star when healthy, which hasn’t happened often. The fact that Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr. were drafted after Watkins helps push the narrative that he’s overrated, but that’s completely false. Watkins will be a star in Los Angeles if he can stay healthy. Robert Woods is coming off of a solid year in Buffalo, now reunited with Sammy Watkins. Tavon Austin might be free now that Fisher is gone. Austin is a gadget player that should get screens, handoffs, and chances to run routes out of the slot. He’s a great talent that has been misused his entire career. Rookie Cooper Kupp has impressed during his time in Los Angeles and seems to be building a rapport with Goff. Mike Thomas is on the roster, but he’s not the good Mike Thomas.

The 49ers made a great decision in signing Pierre Garcon. The perennial overachieving receiver is best served as a secondary option, but he’ll play at a high enough level to validate his contract. Marquise Goodwin is an Olympic caliber sprinter, but unfortunately for the 49ers he isn’t an NFL caliber receiver. Jeremy Kerley is also fast and small, but at least he deserves some playing time on an NFL roster. He’ll be utilized best as a slot receiver. Aldrick Robinson was a major surprise for the Atlanta Falcons last season. But now that he’s no longer playing with Matt Ryan, he’ll likely fade back into obscurity in 2017. Victor Boldin Jr. is an undrafted free agent from Oregon State that’ll have a good chance of making the roster. He’s undersized, but is extremely athletic. He can double as a returner and can be used sparingly as a runner.

Tight End

The Best: Seattle Seahawks

The Rest: Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals

Jimmy Graham is the best tight end in the division and it’s not even close. Coming off of a torn Patellar Tendon, Graham wasn’t expected to contribute much in 2016. These injuries usually take longer to recover from than ACL and Achilles tears. But Graham was determined to return to form last year. He wasn’t as consistent as he’s been in years past, but still had nearly 1,000 yards receiving and made it to the Pro Bowl. Now that he’s lost weight and has spent all off-season working on improving his game, Graham could have the best year of his Seattle tenure. Luke Willson returned to Seattle this off-season, and will be a perfect complement to Graham as Seattle’s second tight end. Nick Vannett will be the Seahawks third tight end. The second year pro is extremely talented, and should have a chance of passing up Willson on the depth chart.

The rest of the division’s tight ends are full of unproven players and veterans past their prime. The Rams have two interesting tight ends that could emerge this season. Tyler Higbee is in his second season and was an offensive star at Western Kentucky. The former Hilltopper wasn’t a great blocker in college, but his receiving skills should give him the edge over rookie Gerald Everett. Everett is an athletic receiving tight end from South Alabama that shot up draft boards during the draft season because of his athleticism and receiving skills. Tight ends take longer to acclimate to the NFL game than most other positions, so it might take a while for these two to gel with quarterback Goff.

The 49ers have a plethora of tight ends that could make the roster. Vance McDonald has underachieved since being selected in the second round of the 2013 draft, but the 49ers are confident in his abilities. George Kittle is a rookie tight end  from Iowa that should see the field as a blocker. He has better hands than most blocking tight ends, but won’t be able to use his athleticism to get open. Logan Paulsen and Garrett Celek are two veterans with a chance of making the roster. Unfortunately for the 49ers, they got the wrong Celek brother. Blake Bell was an interesting quarterback at the University of Oklahoma, but is trying to make it as a tight end in the NFL. He’s a great athlete, but hasn’t put it all together yet. Cole Hikutini has the best chance of any undrafted tight end to make an NFL roster. He would’ve probably been drafted if he didn’t get hurt in his bowl game. The former Louisville Cardinal was Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson’s favorite weapon this past season. He’s a decent blocker, but might make the team because of his receiving abilities.

The Cardinals tight end competition is between Troy Niklas and Jermaine Gresham. Niklas is a young tight end that hasn’t lived up to the hype since being a second round pick in 2014. He only has eight career receptions, one of which came last season. He’s a good blocker and has potential as a receiver, but having eight receptions in three years is laughable. Gresham is past his prime, but should still see the field regularly. The former first round pick isn’t a mismatch weapon anymore, but is a savvy enough route runner to get open. Rookie Ricky Seals-Jones is one of the most intriguing players on the roster. The former five star wide receiver recruit didn’t live up to the hype at Texas A&M, but still flashed elite potential. He’s a big body receiver and was a physical blocker in college. He’ll be making the transition to tight end, and has more potential than the other tight ends on the roster.

Offensive Line

The Best: Los Angeles Rams

The Rest: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks

The NFC West does not have elite offensive line play. The NFL has an offensive line crisis, which manifests itself on all four NFC West rosters. The Rams have the best offensive line in the division. They signed Andrew Whitworth, who seems to be an offensive tackles’ version of a fine wine; he keeps getting better with age. At some point he’s going to decline rapidly, but it shouldn’t be this year if he stays healthy. Rodger Saffold and Rob Havenstein will likely both be starting. Both have a lot of experience. Neither have a lot of ability. Jamon Brown should be the starting right guard. The former 2015 third round pick has impressed this off-season. John Sullivan is a solid starting center that should be able to anchor this offensive line.

The Cardinals offensive line could struggle mightily this season. A lot of their successes or failures will be attributed to left tackle D.J. Humphries. He’s extremely talented and athletic, but lacks a lot of experience. Guard Mike Iupati and center A.Q. Shipley have a lot of experience. Iupati is past his prime, but he’s still a good player. Jared Veldheer will start at right tackle. He’s a journeyman offensive tackle with a lot of experience. Evan Boehm is Arizona’s starting right guard. The 2016 fourth round pick doesn’t have a lot of experience, but he’s smart and physical enough to have a successful season.

The 49ers offensive line will likely struggle this season, like the rest of the football team. Joe Staley used to be one of the best left tackles in the NFL. He’s still a starter caliber player, but is past his prime. Josh Garnett, Zane Beadles, and Brandon Fusco will compete for the two starting guard spots. Garnett is a mauler in the run game, but struggles in pass protection. Beadles is a once-talented veteran that shouldn’t start anymore. Fusco will likely start at right guard, but isn’t as talented as the two other guards. Daniel Kilgore is a solid center that should help anchor the offensive line. Trent Brown will be the starting right tackle. He’s huge, even compared to most other lineman. His size can help him at times, but he’s prone to getting beaten by quicker pass rushers.

The Seahawks offensive line is a joke. Tom Cable believes that college teams don’t coach their lineman correctly, so he’d rather find large people who don’t know how to play football. But that’s been proven to be a horrible strategy. Cable’s belief of taking terrible football players over talented football players needing a technique overhaul is probably the main reason why Russell Wilson almost died last year. Starting left tackle George Fant will miss the year with an ACL tear. The former college basketball player was arguably the worst starting left tackle in the NFL last year. He’s improved drastically this offseason, but is still not a starting caliber player. But Seattle doesn’t have a better replacement. Former second overall pick Luke Joeckel and Rees Odhiambo might replace Fant, but they are both terrible. Justin Britt is the one good lineman on the team. He was a terrible tackle and guard early in his career before finding a home at center. Oday Aboushi or Mark Glowinski will likely start at right guard. They’re also terrible. Germain Ifedi struggled last year as a right guard and will now move to his more natural position as a right tackle. He has a lot of potential, but was a complete dumpster fire as a rookie.

If you have not yet, check out the NFC West defensive breakdown!

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