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With the offseason now in view for the majority of NFL teams, it’s time to spin forward. While all 32 clubs will spend the next few months searching for every possible way to upgrade their rosters, each team has one major question front and center in their mind. Here, we’ll explore the most pressing question each NFC West team must answer before the 2019 NFL season begins, and how it pertains to fantasy.
Pressing question: What will the offense evolve into?
New head coach Kliff Kingsbury was one of the most fascinating hires of the offseason. Kingsbury was fired as the Texas Tech head coach and landed with USC for just a few months before leaving to interview for NFL gigs.
While on the surface, a head coach who couldn’t cut it in the Big 12 might seem like a curious choice, to put it kindly, Kingsbury’s air raid discipleship is what brought intrigue for a pro league desperately trying to push offense forward.
Arizona was a natural fit for just such a young, progressive offensive mind.
By almost any measure, the Cardinals were one of the worst offenses in the NFL last year. Arizona ran the second-fewest plays (902), ranked 32nd in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and finished 31st in both rushing and passing success rate on first and second down.
The prehistoric nature of the offense was extremely noticeable in the first half of the season with Mike McCoy at the helm. The long-time offensive coach structured his scheme around up-the-middle runs with an all-world receiving back and high-degree of difficulty throws to the outside for his quarterback.
The results didn’t change much under Byron Leftwich, who took over as the season wore down. In the end, all that occurred simply made life too difficult on rookie quarterback Josh Rosen. The UCLA product finished with the lowest expected completion percentage among quarterbacks tracked by Next Gen Stats.
The difference between the teams who are making life easier on their young quarterback and those needlessly making the task arduous has never been more obvious. Coaches who follow the latter path lose.
Kingsbury’s task will be altering that course. He must reinvigorate this offense by taking the air raid concepts that made him famous at the college level and adapting them to the pro game. Little will look the same in Arizona in 2019. It would be hyper foolish to proclaim that the results will be even close to the same but from purely a stylistic approach, Rosen going from the skeleton of the Mike McCoy offense to Kingsbury could be as drastic as Jared Goff going from Jeff Fisher to Sean McVay.
Kingsbury already took a solid first step toward adapting his style of offense to the pro-level by signing long-time Mike McCarthy lieutenant, Tom Clements. McCarthy’s approach ran stale in Green Bay about four years prior to his eventual axing but one would think a long-time west coast offense veteran would hasten Kingsbury’s task of blending the air raid concepts into his NFL attack.
Andy Reid set the standard for integrating spread and air raid concepts with the traditional west coast offense. Installing a similar system is the No. 1 solution to what broke Arizona last year.
If Kingsbury does intend to make something resembling a Rams 2016-to-2017 evolution down in the desert, he and general manager Steve Keim must fix the offensive line. Doing so in a single offseason is difficult, but the Los Angeles brass’ hell of a job doing two years ago was the unsung hero in the Rams turnaround.
Rosen’s 38.1 passer rating under pressure, per Pro Football Focus, was abysmal and the waves of pressure clearly derailed the 2018 offense. Injuries were clearly a problem but the unit needs an infusion of talent.
The Cardinals could go hard in free agency for a player like the Patriots’ Trent Brown. The 26 year old is coming off a fabulous year and the Patriots drafted their theoretical left tackle of the future last year.
More depth should join a big-ticket add like this to aid both Rosen and David Johnson, whose 2018 felt all too familiar to Todd Gurley’s 2016.
While Arizona will likely target a blue-chip pass rusher with the No. 1 overall pick, several of their other selections should be spent infusing the pass-catcher spots with talent. Christian Kirk is a keep and Larry Fitzgerald will be back but a vertical presence would open this offense up. Look for a playmaker like Marquise Brown of Oklahoma.
San Francisco 49ers
Pressing question: Does Jimmy Garoppolo’s return alone elevate us to winner’s circle?
The likely answer to this question is, “No.” The 49ers didn’t win games when Jimmy Garoppolo was briefly on the field to start 2018.
However, the idea of the clearly gifted passer reclaiming the throne on an offense that punched above its head in the second half of the season is mighty appealing. Despite the team consistently losing games, the offense remained on schedule even with several backups playing.
Nick Mullens proved a capable presence in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. The 49ers finished 15th in passing success rate despite the undrafted rookie leading the team in pass attempts (274).
The rushing attack was consistently productive even as losses piled up. Matt Breida took the top gig after Jerick McKinnon went down in training camp and finished fourth in the NFL among backs with over 100 rush attempts with 5.4 yards per carry.
George Kittle was one of the biggest breakout stories of the NFL, crushing the tight end record for receiving yardage in a season and leading all players with 873 yards gained after the catch.
There’s little debating the matter; the 49ers have the playmakers and head coach to create a strong offensive ecosystem for their highly-paid quarterback. If Jimmy Garoppolo plays at a level closer to his 2017 finish, San Francisco has a chance to be the perfect post-hype sleeper team in 2018. Of course, tweaks will need to be made to what’s already on the offensive roster and the other side of the ball could use an infusion of talent.
The 49ers have plenty to build off of offensively but far too many holes on defense. Outside of DeForest Buckner, too many of their first-round picks in the front seven have been whiffs. Buckner is one of their few cornerstones and needs a contract extension. Despite taking a few bites at the apple already, expect the 49ers to address their pass rushing woes (22nd in sacks) with their top-five pick.
San Francisco should also explore help in the secondary. Future Hall of Famer Richard Sherman gave them a better season than anyone could have possibly hoped for, but was easy to avoid. He was targeted in coverage just once every 12.6 snaps, the fewest rate among any starting corner last year. Opponents knew they could simply torment every other member of the Niners’ backend.
The team doesn’t require many additions on offense. This squad just needs a breath of fresh air in the health department. Marquise Goodwin and Garoppolo hit it off in 2017 and both of their healthy returns could bring a needed vertical element back to this scoring attack. Jerick McKinnon may not be the pure outside zone runner that Matt Breida proved to be, but could provide a fine outlet receiving option.
Dante Pettis flashed playmaking ability as a rookie. The key for Shanahan will be finding the proper role to continue to get the best out of Pettis. He would look excellent in a JuJu Smith-Schuster type of role as a route-running fiend from the slot.
Value should be there for the taking in fantasy circles across the 49ers offense this side of George Kittle. Garoppolo will likely be a prime late-round quarterback target. Breida is unlikely to get the respect he deserves coming off a strong 2018 run. Goodwin and McKinnon will fall after injury-ruined campaigns. Pettis’ strong rookie season will likely go forgotten and make him a prime target in the final rounds.
Pressing question: Are we getting in our own way?
Credit where it’s due. The Seahawks declared at every possible moment last offseason they intended to “get back to their roots” and become a run-first team once again. They did it. Seattle’s 52.4 run play percentage was the highest in the NFL last season.
While they accomplished their self-given goal, one has to wonder if Seattle is capping their own ceiling by building their offense this way. For all their running, the Seahawks finished outside the top-10 with the 11th-best success rate as a rushing offense.
Meanwhile, their quarterback crushed in almost every efficiency metric. Russell Wilson’s career-highs in touchdown rate (8.2) and passer rating (110.9) are just the first layers of his sterling data points.
Seattle’s playoff loss almost perfectly exemplified the issue. While the running backs spent the first half plodding for short gains amid a conservative game plan, Wilson was able to get them within striking distance late when the game was totally in his hands. It wasn’t enough.
With slot receiver Doug Baldwin presumably healthy in 2018 and the hyper-efficient Tyler Lockett fully integrated into the offense, Wilson finds himself with a receiver duo that could light up scoreboards. Yet, it seems that Seattle wants to keep the brakes pulled on their star passer in favor of their ground-based philosophy. The team might just be robbing us of a truly special passing attack, given what this trio has proven capable of with a limited workload.
All these years later, it appears Pete Carroll and the Seahawks are still trying to exercise the demons that haunt them for not running Marshawn Lynch at the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX by continuing to establish the run.
A full-scale revelation that they’re living with a prehistoric mindset would be a nice first step toward a fix. Since that’s unlikely to happen, the Seahawks can look to take a step to maintain the wild efficiency of their passing attack.
For all the brilliant passing metrics in his 2018 portfolio, Wilson got dropped for sacks far too often. His 10.7 sack rate was the highest of his career, despite the offensive line clearly being the best group he’s played behind in years.
Wilson took a sack on 25.2 percent of his pressured plays, the second-most among quarterbacks to start 16 games. The line got out of the NFL cellar in terms of quality last year but another step forward would go a long way.
Los Angeles Rams
Pressing question: How do we re-tool this roster after our failed all-in bid of 2018?
The Rams have more than their fair share of difficult questions to stew over while looking in the mirror after losing the Super Bowl.
The world still wants to know why Todd Gurley vanished from the game plan in the team’s final two games despite their instance he was healthy. Sean McVay should spend the next few months developing an ability to find a counterpunch. Despite being perhaps the best play caller in the NFL when things unfold to his plan, he failed to adjust his script and fight back when knocked off course at times in 2018.
Yet, the core puzzle the Rams must solve after coming up just short in 2018 revolves around constructing a new-look roster after their all-in group from last offseason could face some fissures.
Defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Dante Fowler, who both showed up big in the playoffs, will hit the open market the offseason. Safety Lamarcus Joyner will join them, as will guard Rodger Saffold. The secondary already didn’t perform to expectations this year as their cornerback duo struggled through injuries. Offensive line emerged as a major need for the team with pass protection sinking LA even with Saffold in the picture.
The Rams sit right in the middle of the pack with just under $30 million in cap space. However, that can quickly dry up if they move to retain some of the pieces that were brought in simply for a 2018 championship chase. When and if that happens, the Rams won’t have much money or resources to make further adds.
Luckily, the offense is set from a skill position standpoint. For all the questions we have surrounding Los Angeles from a grand-view franchise perspective, it’s not one of the offenses fantasy players will have many debates over.
As the Rams decide how they’ll remake this roster in the wake of their failed all-in 2018, they can find the solution in the face of one of their other pressing questions. No decision looms darker in the distance than what the organization will do with Jared Goff’s contract when the time comes for an extension.
So far in his career, Goff has proven to be a capable starting quarterback. When playing within McVay’s desired structure, Goff can execute with precision. However, when chaos hits, Goff has also shown signs of being incapable of adjusting to play left-handed. It’s fair to say we still have next to no evidence he’s the type of quarterback that can elevate the roster around him to new heights.
Having such a passer isn’t a big deal when they’re on the cheap rookie contract. It does become a massive concern when you are forced to hand out top-five money to that player.
If the Rams want to keep Goff around, they’ll be faced with the reality of paying him $30-plus million soon. That is a crushing blow to your roster if your quarterback isn’t a transcendent player. In that situation, you’re stuck with a Matthew Stafford-like conundrum where you have a clear starting quarterback but one that’s an anchor to your overall team progress.
While trying to squeeze another all-in year into their cheap quarterback window, the minimum answer is clear for the Rams: Kick the can down the road another year with Goff’s extension.
It would be the most fascinating experiment ever to see a loaded team like this let their clearly good quarterback walk in favor of a replacement at a cheaper cost rather than damning their roster to the iron price of the extension and changing their team complexion forever. Don’t hold your breath.
It’s doubtful any franchise, even one so bold as the Rams, would willingly walk into the quarterback wilderness when they at least have a seat in purgatory.