1. Los Angeles Rams Projected Record: 12-4
The Los Angeles added some of the leagues most exciting players to an already loaded roster, and they have asserted themselves as legit Super Bowl contenders. The addition of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh creates possibly the most terrifying inside combination in league history, as he teams up with All-Pro Aaron Donald to provide offenses with the impossible choice of who to double team. Los Angeles linebacking corps is still the team’s weakest unit, but a strong season from linebacker/safety Mark Barron could alleviate some of the team’s weaknesses. In the secondary, the Rams added cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to an already stellar group of defensive backs. While Peters and Talib will need some time to acclimate and may not quite be as dominant as expected from week one, but come playoff these former All-Pros should be back to form. Offensively the Rams took a huge step forward due in large part to the pairing of quarterback Jared Goff and head coach Sean McVay. In his first season as head coach, McVay proved himself something of a coaching savant. Goff was placed in the ideal situation for a quarterback of his stature, and running back Todd Gurley compiled a league leading 2,093 all purposed yards. The Rams wide receiving corps is solid, with last year’s third round pick Cooper Kupp looking to build off his intriguing rookie season. Schematically Los Angeles alway seemed one step ahead of the opposition last season, and there’s no reason to think that will change this year. Adding more talent to an already stacked roster spells more success this season for the Rams, and a long playoff run seems in the cards.
2. San Francisco 49ers Projected Record: 9-7
The pairing of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and head coach Kyle Shanahan might be the most exciting aspect of the new NFL season, with the two representing a new era in 49er football. Garoppolo is one of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks, and he set the league on fire last season when he failed to lose a game in his six starts for San Francisco last season. Shanahan appears to be the next great offensive mind, and watching him duel with division rival Sean McVay will be an absolute joy for the forseeable future. The weapons surrounding Garoppolo are good but not great, and the season ending injury to running back Jerick McKinnon forces Matt Breida and Alfred Morris into featured roles. Regardless, Garoppolo has more than enough talent to elevate the average talent around him and should lead this unit to a top ten finish. This team’s biggest question marks lie on the defensive side of the ball. Free agent acquisition Richard Sherman should provide some legitimacy to an otherwise young and unproven secondary. Linebacker Rueben Foster is an absolute stud in the middle of San Francisco’s defense, and former first round picks DeForest Buckner and Erik Armstead help anchor the 49ers defensive line. In total, this team will go as far as Garoppolo and Shanahan can take them, and if everything breaks nicely this team should find themselves in the thick of the playoff race.
3. Seattle Seahawks Projected Record: 7-9
The Seattle Seahawk dynasty is certainly coming to an end, but the remains are still there of a Super Bowl team. Russell Wilson remains under center, and even with one of the league’s worst offensive line, he has enough individual talent to transcend their mediocrity and lead this unit to relevancy. The Seahawks are also lacking in skill position talent, and the injury to Doug Baldwin doesn’t help, but there’s enough ability between Tyler Lockett, Chris Carson, Brandon Marshall and others to keep Wilson sane. Rookie running back Rashaad Penny had a disappointing camp, and ultimately lost the starting job to Carson, but there’s enough promise there to think he could emerge later in the season. On the other side of the ball, the situation is dire with the exception of two future Hall of Famers. Free safety Earl Thomas and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner are two of the leagues best at their position, but they are surrounded by a lot of league average talent. Their defensive line is one of their weakest in recent memory, and it’s hard to see how current Philadelphia Eagle wouldn’t have helped this unit. The secret weapon on this team is their punter, Michael Dickson. The rookie from Texas looked absolutely dominant in the preseason, consistently placing his kicks within the opponents ten yard line. For a team that looks to struggle a fair amount on offense, having one of the leagues best punters could swing a handful of games and put this Seahawks right back in the playoff hunt.
4. Arizona Cardinals Projected Record: 4-12
The Arizona Cardinals return superstar running back David Johnson to a team that won eight games last season, yet the outlook remains bleak in Arizona. Quarterback Sam Bradford is the team’s option under center, but top ten pick Josh Rosen is nipping at his heels. The team’s offensive line looks to be one of the worst in the league, so there may be some thought that it’s advantageous to keep Rosen on the bench where he can’t get slaughtered. The Cardinals also aren’t doing whoever’s under center any help with their current crop of wide receivers. Ageless wonder Larry Fitzgerald remains a steadying presence for a unit searching for another competent pass catcher. Second round pick Christian Kirk seems promising, but the unit as a whole doesn’t project as a strength. The offense will be funneled through Johnson, and if he has another fantastic season there’s a chance he drag this team to relevance. Defensively, Arizona has a nice assortment of weapons at each level of the team. On the defensive line, Chandler Jones is one of the best pass rushers in the league and commands the attention of the entire opposing offensive line. Linebacker Deone Bucannon is one of the most versatile players around, and the perfect fit for the modern NFL. In the secondary, second year safety Budda Baker impressed in his rookie season and should have a monster season as the team’s starting free safety. In total, the Cardinals have a handful of really exciting players, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but not enough overall talent to overtake the other teams in their division.