As the NFL season kicks off this week, it is fun to look ahead and project what the storylines at the end of the season will be. Instead of picking who will play each other in Super Bowl L this year, this exercise will go division by division looking at the players each roster has to offer, including who could breakout or breakdown this year, who the best rookies are, and where the best rookies of next year will likely play on each team. This piece highlights the NFC West.
Surprise Player: Alex Okafor, LB
Okafor already broke out last season, recording eight sacks in just thirteen games after playing in just one game his rookie season. The surprise will come when Okafor proves that 2014 wasn’t a fluke. Okafor is now a leader of one of the weakest linebacking groups in the league, and will need to continue to make plays as one of two proven pass rushers in the Arizona front seven.
Bust: The ground game
Arizona has the potential to produce a serviceable ground game in 2015. Unfortunately, their two best chances at achieving that are listed below their other two running backs on the depth chart. Andre Ellington went from averaging a good 5.5 yards per carry as a backup to averaging a much-less-exciting 3.3 in 12 games as the starter. Behind Ellington is Stepfan Taylor, whose averages and performance have been comparable or slightly worse than Ellington’s in the two seasons they have been in the league. Behind those two are recent signee Chris Johnson, who has reached 1,000 yards every season he has been the full-time starter, and rookie David Johnson, who has a true argument toward being the second-best back on the team. The success of half of Arizona’s offense will depend on whether the Cardinals use what hasn’t worked the last two years, or try and change things up.
Update: Taylor is projected to be the bottom running back on the depth chart for their opening game.
Best Rookie: Rodney Gunter or possibly Xavier Williams, DT
This wouldn’t have been my pick before starter Corey Peters went down with an injury. If Peters were healthy, Xavier Williams might not have even made the team. Now, Gunter is an impromptu starter, and Williams is his competition to keep the job. Signs and on-field ability point to Gunter keeping the job all year, but just in case Williams begins making plays out of nowhere, his name appears here as well. Gunter will need to work hard to prove he belongs with the rest of the starters, but compared to the majority of Cardinal rookies (who probably won’t get much playing time), he is already the best based purely on his position on the depth chart.
Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Pass Rusher, Quarterback, Tight End
San Francisco 49ers
Surprise Player: One of the replacements
Perhaps for this particular team, it is best to read the bust paragraph below before this one. Spoiler alert: I briefly mention that many players will be getting their first chance at starting for this year’s team. This is sort of a reader’s choice as to who they feel could best surprise fans this season. I’m personally leaning toward Aaron Lynch or Corey Lemonier, two linebackers who showed immense potential in college, but haven’t been given much time to play (Lemonier) or start (Lynch) in the last two seasons (and now have excellent opportunities after defensive changes this offseason, which are discussed below). If linebackers aren’t your preference, look at running back Carlos Hyde or perhaps tight end Vance McDonald, both of whom are in line for many more touches in 2015.
Bust: The defense
There might not be any easier pick on any team in any category of any entry in this series. San Francisco witnessed one of the single greatest offseason implosions in NFL history. Gone from one of the best defenses in the NFL are Patrick Willis (a long-time consensus top linebacker in the league), Chris Borland (filled in for Navorro Bowman and didn’t miss a beat), Justin Smith (their best defensive lineman for several years), Chris Culliver (one starting cornerback), and Perrish Cox (the other starting cornerback). Sure, the silver lining is that San Francisco may find new long-term answers for their defense that were previously buried behind those players. But the harsh reality is that San Francisco’s defensive implosion sent a fringe playoff team down into a competition for one of the first picks in next year’s draft.
Best Rookie: Arik Armstead, DL
I make this pick with little confidence, because after an offseason that was trumped only by Chip Kelly’s mad scientist routine in Philadelphia, it is almost impossible to guess what San Francisco will be doing on the field this season. Armstead gets the nod simply because the 49ers have shown a history to groom defensive linemen, and he was drafted first. Players like Eli Harold, Mike Davis, and Jaquiski Tartt all have fighting chances to perform the best out of all the rookies; it just depends on which one becomes the flavor of the month for the longest period of time.
Projected 2016 First-Round Picks: Linebacker, Cornerback, Offensive Line
Surprise Player: Dion Bailey, S
I will go deeper into the Kam Chancellor situation in the next paragraph, but here’s a cliff notes version: Chancellor is currently unavailable for the Seahawks, and Bailey is his temporary heir apparent. Seattle fans may be upset about losing one of the best safeties in the game for the time being, but there is a positive to the situation: they get to see Dion Bailey shine in the Legion of Boom. Bailey, who played both linebacker and safety at USC, is exactly the type of player the Seahawks have made stars recently: undrafted college playmaker who can excel in the type of defense they employ. Depending on how long Chancellor holds out, Bailey could make the Seahawks much more comfortable letting Chancellor leave.
Bust: The Seahawks’ cap situation
Alright, so I took the easy way out on this one. But come on, this team has made the last two Super Bowls and probably has had the best luck in recent history at finding players in the late rounds and UDFA pool. There are no obvious busts on this team. Unfortunately for their front office, having so many good players on one roster will eventually lead to major cap problems, and those problems finally came to a head with the Kam Chancellor situation. How long Chancellor’s holdout last will be a storyline to watch as the weeks go on, but even if Seattle is able to appease Chancellor, they will simply be buying time until the next major contract needs dealt with (players like Brandon Mebane, Russell Okung, J.R. Sweezy, Tharold Simon, Jon Ryan, and Steven Hauschka will all need to be dealt with in the next couple offseasons). Combine that with the high likelihood the Seahawks find at least one other diamond in the rough, and they will have to start making the hard decisions on which stars to let walk.
Best Rookie: Tyler Lockett, WR
This is a two-horse race between Seattle’s first pick, defensive end Frank Clark, and the guy they traded four picks to move up for, Tyler Lockett. While both impressed through the entire preseason, the edge belongs to Lockett. Clark will get opportunities to be sure, but Seattle has solidified starters at both end spots in Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Lockett is no lock to start at receiver, but he has already proven himself to be one of the best returners in the game today with his work this preseason. Between his two jobs as a returner and receiver (both of which should grow as the season goes on), Lockett should be able to outperform a defensive end who isn’t likely to start for most of the year.
Projected 2016 First-Round Picks: Center, Offensive Tackle, Wide Receiver
St. Louis Rams
Surprise Player: Akeem Ayers, LB
Akeem Ayers has been riding a roller coaster through four seasons. His first two seasons saw improvement and a bright future for the second-round pick, but over the next two years, that future appeared to evaporate. A trade to New England (where he was used to turn a seventh-round pick into a sixth-rounder) brought new life to Ayers’ performance on-field, and St. Louis noticed, rewarding him with a six-million dollar deal. Ayers joins an absolutely loaded defense, especially up front, so his numbers at the end of the season may not scream “solid starter”, but his performance should.
Bust: Tavon Austin, WR/KR/PR
Another player who already has the word “bust” loosely attached to him, Austin was drafted first by the Rams to be the weapon that completed their offense. Instead, he has started just 11 games, has to yet to reach 700 receiving yards for his career, and has only returned twenty kicks for St. Louis. As a punt returner, Austin has been a good player for the Rams, but they paid a steep enough price for him that Austin should be doing a lot more than just working on special teams.
Best Rookie: Rob Havenstein, OT
I will admit, part of this pick was done with the intention of seeing how many people would notice I didn’t put Todd Gurley here. Gurley just doesn’t have the proven role in the Rams’ offense that Havenstein does. Gurley is still recovering from injury, and has already been ruled out for one game (with more likely to follow). Even when he does make it on the field, he will be in a timeshare with Tre Mason (at least initially). Gurley will no doubt be the most exciting rookie in a Rams’ uniform, but Havenstein will be starting from the first snap on an offensive line that needs impact players to develop, and dependability at a position of weakness for all sixteen games makes a better rookie than an exciting player in a timeshare who could potentially miss several games.
Projected 2016 First-Round Picks: Wide Receiver, Cornerback/Safety, Guard/Center