Preseason Watch List: NFC West

A detailed look at the key questions facing each team in the preseason

ARIZONA CARDINALS

The Arizona Cardinals head back to the University of Phoenix Stadium feeling like title contenders after an 11-5 season and a playoff berth. Bruce Arians has impressed in his first two seasons at the helm, and welcomes back veteran quarterback Carson Palmer to an offense that struggled (24th in points and yards) in his absence. On defense, the Cardinals didn't match their 2013 excellence -- allowing 5,891 yards (24th) -- but finished as a top-5 scoring unit (299 points allowed).  James Bettcher was promoted to defensive coordinator after Todd Bowles accepted the New York Jets head coaching offer.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 15 -- Kansas City 9:00 pm
  • Aug 22 -- San Diego 10:00 pm
  • Aug 30 -- @Oakland 8:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- @Denver 9:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Is Carson Palmer healthy? -- Palmer needs to be healthy for the Cardinals to achieve their goals. He averaged nearly 300 years per game last season (11 touchdowns, 3 interceptions) and the team was 6-0 before Palmer tore his ACL. At 35 years old, Palmer can ill afford a setback in camp; neither can the Cardinals.
  • Did Arizona finally do enough to fix the offensive line? -- The Cardinals thought they fixed their line last year with the additions of Jared Veldheer and the maturation of Earl Watford and Jonathan Cooper, but there's more work to be done. Enter All Pro guard Mike Iupati and rookie 1st rounder D.J. Humphries.
  • Is David Johnson a threat to Andre Ellington's job? -- Fantasy owners are excited about Andre Ellington, but the fact remains Ellington missed four games last season and was ineffective in the 12 he played. He averaged just 3.3 yards per carry, which opens the door for rookie David Johnson to earn a role with a strong preseason. Ellington is a gifted receiver, but Johnson may be one of the best receivers to come into the league in years.
  • Solving the three-headed monster at receiver -- Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald were supposed to be options 1 and 1a last season -- but rookie John Brown had other ideas. Brown essentially matched Floyd's production in 9 fewer starts, and it looks as though all three will play equivalent snaps. If there's any indication Brown can overtake Floyd in the starting lineup, his fanasy ADP should skyrocket.
  • Replacing Antonio Cromartie -- Cromartie returned to the Jets, which leaves Jerraud Powers and Justin Bethel vying for the starting role opposite Patrick Peterson.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

The Seahawks couldn't repeat their 2013 championship run, but they came unbelievably close. An errant interception at the end of the Super Bowl cost Seattle back-to-back titles. That defeat gives one of the NFC's best teams a chip on their shoulder entering the 2015 season. Seattle's defense returns most of the key pieces from last year's #1 unit, but will have a new man at the helm -- Kris Richard replaces Dan Quinn. On offense, the Seahawks ranked 9th in yards and 10th in points scored. The team seems committed to surrounding Russell Wilson with the best weapons of his career; most notably leading to the offseason acquisition of All Pro tight end Jimmy Graham.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 14 -- Denver 10:00 pm
  • Aug 21 -- @Kansas City 8:00 pm
  • Aug 29 -- @San Diego 8:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- Oakland 10:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Will Seattle open up the passing game? -- We asked this question last offseason and the answer was "no" as Wilson only attempted 452 passes. Entering his 4th season, and now armed with Jimmy Graham (and a hefty new contract), it seems hard to imagine Wilson won't be given more opportunities to throw the ball. Look for clues during camp and the preseason that the run/pass balance is due for some normalization.
  • Integrating Jimmy Graham -- It's not often you see teams exchange young stars, but the Seahawks and Saints did just that by sending center Max Unger to New Orleans in exchange for All Pro tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham is, without question, the best receiving threat Russell Wilson has ever had in the huddle. Will Graham become the focal point of the offense, or will his opportunities be reduced commensurately with the Seattle's more conservative approach?
  • Who backs up Marshawn Lynch? -- Chrstine Michael recently let it be known on social media he would welcome a trade; reflecting his frustration over taking a back seat not only to Marshawn Lynch, but to Robert Turbin. Michael needs a strong push in the preseason to sustain his dynasty value as a future NFL starter.
  • Who replaces Max Unger? -- Jimmy Graham didn't come cheaply. The Seahawks traded young, powerful center Max Unger to the Saints and that leaves a 3-horse race in the preseason to replace him. Lemuel Jeanpierre, a six-year veteran, is the early favorite but he will be pushed by Drew Nowak and Patrick Lewis in the coming weeks.
  • Putting Kris Richard's identity on the defense -- Dan Quinn took the Falcons head coaching job, and the Seahawks made the logical choice to promote Kris Richard to the role after several years heading up the secondary. Inheriting the league's top defense assures Richard will make tweaks versus major changes. One of his first challenges will be rebuilding a secondary that lost Byron Maxwell in free agency, has a disgruntled Kam Chancellor holding out, and Earl Thomas on the PUP list rehabbing from offseason surgery.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

What a difference a year makes. Last offseason the 49ers were viewed as Super Bowl contenders after consecutive trips to the NFC Championship game. They had an elite defense, a young ascendant quarterback, and one of the league's most respected head coaches. A year later, the team finds itself with more questions than answers after an 8-8 finish, the departure of Jim Harbaugh and much of his staff, and a shocking number of losses on the defensive unit. Jim Tomsula takes over a team that finished 25th in points scored and has to hope new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini can coach up a new group of defenders if they have any hope of sustaining last year's 10th place ranking.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 15 -- @Houston 8:00 pm
  • Aug 23 -- Dallas 8:00 pm
  • Aug 29 -- @Denver 9:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- San Diego 10:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Establishing the post-Harbaugh identity -- Harbaugh was a larger-than-life personality, and Tomsula isn't. What he does bring is gravitas and the respect of the players. Tomsula coached the 49ers defensive line through three head coaches, which is no small feat. One big difference between the 2015 and the Harbaugh era has been evident in the early days of training camp. The team is hitting less, and is laughing more. Whether that equates to success in the regular season remains to be seen.
  • Is Colin Kaepernick a difference-making starter? --  Kaepernick regressed last season to the point where many question if he's a legitimate franchise quarterback. Fantasy owners have given up on him, but a strong preseason will reshape the narrative and vault his ADP back into fringe QB1 territory.
  • Carlos Hyde's opportunity is now -- Frank Gore is in Indianapolis and Carlos Hyde gets the opportunity to be the lead back in his 2nd season. The bruising (6'0", 235 lbs.) runner has looked sharp in early camp and has the talent, frame and demeanor to be the offensive workhorse. He'll need to prove himself as a pass protector in the preseason, and must also show enough as a receiver to keep Reggie Bush's touches at bay.
  • Integrating Torrey Smith -- Smith was good-but-not-great in Baltimore yet received a free agent bounty to add an extra dimension to the 49ers passing attack. Last year the team lacked a legitimate deep threat. Smith will certainly provide that, but is he good enough to reshape the moribund passing attack? Time will tell, but fantasy owners don't appear to be overreacting to Smith's new digs. 
  • Rebuilding the offensive line -- Mike Iupati took free agent riches from Arizona and Anthony Davis retired in his prime; leaving the team with gaping holes on the front five. Can Erik Pears and Brandon Thomas step into starting roles and flourish?
  • Rebuilding a decimated defense -- Has a team ever lost this many defensive cogs in one offseason? Patrick Willis retired. Justin Smith retired. Chris Borland retired. Dan Skuta gone in free agency. Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox are both gone. It will take a Herculean coaching effort, and major steps forward for young players on the roster, to keep the 49ers near the top of the league's defensive standings.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

The Rams return to Rams Park hoping to turn the franchise around after years of ineptitude. Jeff Fisher has to be feeling the pressure to win after three straight losing seasons. He'll count on a new offensive coordinator (Frank Cignetti), a new quarterback (Nick Foles), a new franchise power back (Todd Gurley) and a rebuilt offensive line to fix an offense that's failed to crack the top 20 in any of his three seasons as head coach. Defensively, it's time for Gregg Williams to get the best out of an undeniably impressive roster that has somehow failed to crack the Top 10 under Fisher.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 14 -- @Oakland 10:00 pm
  • Aug 23 -- @Tennessee 8:00 pm
  • Aug 29 -- Indianapolis 8:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- Kansas City 8:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Is Nick Foles an upgrade? -- Rams fans are understandably tired of the Sam Bradford Era, but is Nick Foles a legitimate upgrade? He had a stellar first season under Chip Kelly (27 touchdowns, 2 interceptions in 13 games) but the film showed he was luckier than most. In 2014 he was far less impressive and Kelly found him expendable. Considering Chip Kelly also fielded a Top 5 scoring offense with Mark Sanchez under center, should Rams fans be confident their talent evaluators know the position better than Kelly? I wouldn't be.
  • Implementing Frank Cignetti's system -- If you hadn't heard of Frank Cignetti prior to his promotion to offensive coordinator, you're not alone. The Rams can spin the promotion anyway they chose, but the reality is Cignetti was the fallback option after a number of high profile coaches turned down the job. Cignetti's was the Rams quarterback coach for the last three seasons and promises to keep the same system in place, but to simplify the approach. The idea is to let the players do fewer things, but do them better. While that sounds good in principle, one has to ask why Brian Schottenheimer's system should remain in place after years of ineptitude.
  • When will Todd Gurley make his mark? -- When the Rams drafted Gurley with the 10th overall pick, it was clear he is the future of the franchise. But coming off an ACL tear, most suspected Gurley would be brought along slowly. Surprisingly, Gurley was cleared for the start of training camp and now appears a good bet to open the season on the active roster. What does that mean for Tre Mason's fantasy prospects? Can Mason parlay a strong preseason into a committee role during the regular season?
  • The WR pecking order -- St. Louis has invested a lot of draft capital into the receiver position in recent years, with little return. Tavon Austin (1st round), Brian Quick (2nd), Stedman Bailey (3rd) and Chris Givens (4th) have all had moments but none have delivered consistently. All four, along with veteran Kenny Britt, have eyes on major snaps. The preseason will shed light on the depth chart, but it's unclear whether fantasy owners should care.

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