2008 NFC West Preview

49ers improve; Seattle still king
By Paul Bessire, WhatIfSports.com
June 18th 2008

We will preview an NFL division each day for eight days, before presenting final standings, fantasy and statistical leaders, award winners, playoff results and power rankings. This analysis is part of a broader endeavor with FOXSports.com's Fantasy Football.

Rosters and depth charts are up-to-date and as accurate as possible as of June 8, 2008. A schedule of upcoming NFL preview content including links to other previews that have already been posted is located here.

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For this analysis, each regular season game is simulated 1,000 times, with the sum of the winning percentages of those games being our final predicted record. As can be noted, sometimes a team is "favored" (wins more than 50% of the time) in a different number of our games than the expected record shows. We list this record as the Absolute Record. The assumption of the Absolute Record is that the more likely scenario always happens. Since we know that it does not (see Super Bowl XLII), our expected record (in parentheses next to each team) is far more accurate. Also, especially since we are rounding, it is possible for a team to win a game more often, yet score the same or fewer points on average. In those cases, for Absolute Records, we always take higher winning percentage and are not predicting a tie or a win by an underdog. This is another reason why the expected records are more accurate, as the teams are so evenly matched, the game could easily go either way.

Today we preview the NFC West.

Seattle Seahawks (9-7)
Despite several additions, Seattle's offense is declining. The defense, on the other hand, is one of the best in the NFL. Some of the defensive numbers for 2008 are inflated due to a relatively weak schedule (save for playing the Cowboys and Patriots in back-to-back weeks). The talent is there, however, to dominate and help the team win its close games. The Seahawks average 20.6 points per game (#26 in the NFL) and allow 18.1 points (#2) against a schedule featuring six games against 2007 playoff teams.

Absolute Record: 11-5

Most Significant Newcomer: Julius Jones, RB - Jones is the first newcomer we have discussed whose impact is not necessarily positive. By definition though, he will have more impact on this team in 2008 than any other player who was not on the roster last season. Jones is an average NFL back with decent hands, but he lacks dynamic ability in the run and pass game. He is not really an every down or every situation back. Going to a team that has seen its offensive line age and regress over the last few years may not help. Nonetheless, Julius Jones is an upgrade over no one (aka Shaun Alexander). We will see plenty of Maurice Morris again in 2008. And the team is also high on T.J. Duckett. For Jones, we project 927 rushing yards on 235 carries.
Biggest Strength: Mike Holmgren - Yes, the defense is very good and getting better, but Holmgren has kept this team in the playoff hunt almost every year since he joined the team in 1999. Somewhat like Jeff Fisher, Mike Holmgren is a coach who seems to be able to find a way to turn the 9-7 above into the 11-5 also listed. This is also reported to be Holmgren's last season, so the players may step it up for the coach even more than usual.

Most Exploitable Weakness: Running Game - Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett (haven't Washington and Atlanta tried this before?) are not the saviors for a below-average running game. With D.J. Hackett and Marcus Pollard gone from the passing game, and other wide receivers Deion Branch, Nate Burleson and even Bobby Engram (see 2006) constant question marks, even more pressure will be on the running game to produce. That does not bode well for this offense.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Owen Schmitt, RB - This is a very deep sleeper and not worth a draft pick in 99.99% of all leagues, but keep an eye on him. Matt Hasselbeck loves to throw to fullbacks as he has with Mack Strong and Leonard Weaver. And Mike Holmgren does not mind using a fullback to pick up some crucial yards. With Schmitt, the hard-nosed, 260-pounder out of West Virginia, the Seahawks have the heir apparent to Strong in a guy who can plow through linebackers while blocking or running the ball and catch a pass when needed. His experience in the spread offense, where he averaged over six yards a carry, could even help him get the corner and break a few big runs.

Closest Game: Washington (Week 12) - One of a couple low-scoring games on the schedule, these are the types of outcomes that Mike Holmgren's teams typically win. If the San Francisco 49ers are breathing down the Seahawks' necks, expect Seattle to try to turn it up a notch to give its coach and its fans another division title. Pressure does not always work in a team's favor and the outcome of this game should indicate how the Seahawks are handling it.

Fantasy Notables: Matt Hasselbeck (9) 3,720 yards, 22 TDs, 13 INTs; Julius Jones (32) 1,162 total yards, 8 TDs; Bobby Engram (28) 74 receptions, 933 yards, 6 TDs; John Carlson (37) 31 receptions, 295 yards, 2 TDs; Brandon Coutu (29) 35/35 XPs, 23/29 FGs

Projected 2008 Results:

WeekOpponentWin%Avg Score
1@Buffalo Bills6519-17
2San Francisco 49ers5722-16
3St. Louis Rams7426-14
5@New York Giants3516-25
6Green Bay Packers4517-17
7@Tampa Bay Buccaneers7319-15
8@San Francisco 49ers6222-20
9Philadelphia Eagles5521-14
10@Miami Dolphins7523-17
11Arizona Cardinals6724-14
12Washington Redskins4719-20
13@Dallas Cowboys3616-26
14New England Patriots1918-27
15@St. Louis Rams7224-18
16New York Jets5622-14
17@Arizona Cardinals6521-17



San Francisco (8-8)
Before the 2007 season, the 49ers seemed to make all the right moves to get back to respectability. Then they were hit by several key injuries and some very inconsistent play from the young players on the team. This offseason, the 49ers again did not hesitate to make big moves. In 2008, they start to see the fruits of their labor. The kids and maturing and the offense should be able to put a lot of points on the board under Mike Martz. The 49ers average 25.3 points per game (#10) and allow 24.8 points (#21) against a schedule featuring six games against 2007 playoff teams.

Absolute Record: 8-8

Most Significant Newcomer: Mike Martz, Offensive Coordinator - Isaac Bruce, Bryant Johnson, Justin Smith, Dontarrious Thomas and DeShaun Foster are all important, but they will not have as much impact individually as Martz. Alex Smith started to "get it" under Norv Turner in 2006. Then, he took some steps backward with mediocre play and an injury last year. This is his make-or-break year. If he can handle Martz's system, he could put up big numbers. If he cannot, Shaun Hill or J.T. O'Sullivan will get that coveted opportunity. With a dynamic, all-around back in Frank Gore, a hungry deep threat in Bryant Johnson, a freakish athlete in Vernon Davis (though Martz does not often utilize a tight end), a guy who knows the system in Isaac Bruce, a good backup running back who can catch the ball in DeShaun Foster and an Hakim-or-Furrey-esque possession receiver in Arnaz Battle, there is no reason this offense should not succeed under Martz.

Biggest Strength: Stars in the making - Patrick Willis and Frank Gore have the ability to be considered the best players at their respective positions as early as 2008. Gore is an injury risk, yet his production is up there with LT, Brian Westbrook and Steven Jackson when healthy. Willis is a tackling machine. San Francisco has spent a lot of money to bring in name free agents in the last two years. It has also drafted well and added good pieces around these two stars.

Most Exploitable Weakness: Sacks and Interceptions - These two stats tend to get lumped together like "hustle stats" in basketball. San Francisco lacks the "hustle" to get to win the sack and turnover differential battles. Mike Nolan should be a guy who can turn this around and Justin Smith will help. Still, 2008 looks to be a season in which the 49ers fail to create turnovers like its opponents and see the quarterback on his back far more often than the other guys.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Jason Hill, WR - He is not mentioned above because he is not a proven commodity. By all accounts though, Alex Smith and Mike Martz love this burner out of Washington State who could really break out in 2008. The simulated season gives Hill 37 catches for 643 yards and five touchdowns.

Closest Game: @ New Orleans (Week 4) - Playing a road game against a recent playoff team like New Orleans, which has a below-average defense, will be a great, early barometer for this offense and this team. The Saints also fall short in some of those hustle stats, so the 49ers have an opportunity to win the sack and interception competition and use a win to drive success into the rest of the season.

Fantasy Notables: Alex Smith (15) 2,814 yards, 21 TDs, 13 INTs; Frank Gore (16) 1,414 total yards, 12 TDs; Bryant Johnson (20) 63 receptions, 971 yards, 7 TDs; Isaac Bruce (34) 67 receptions, 974 yards, 6 TDs; Vernon Davis (14) 31 receptions, 468 yards, 4 TDs; Joe Nedney (26) 46/47 XPs, 21/25 FGs

Projected 2008 Results:

WeekOpponentWin%Avg Score
1Arizona Cardinals5428-21
2@Seattle Seahawks4316-22
3Detroit Lions7031-20
4@New Orleans Saints5326-24
5New England Patriots2220-29
6Philadelphia Eagles4422-23
7@New York Giants2918-30
8Seattle Seahawks3820-22
10@Arizona Cardinals4722-29
11St. Louis Rams6130-21
12@Dallas Cowboys2721-33
13@Buffalo Bills5325-26
14New York Jets7837-20
15@Miami Dolphins7328-21
16@St. Louis Rams7632-24
17Washington Redskins3528-31



Arizona Cardinals (6-10)
It seems as though this team has already missed its window. Edgerrin James is clearly on the back end of his career. Matt Leinart and the once-promising defensive backfield have problems staying healthy. And the wide receiving corps lost Bryant Johnson and may see Anquan Boldin depart in the not-so-distant future. In 2008, after years of underachieving, the computer appears to have caught on and set the bar low for Arizona. The Cardinals average 21.4 points per game (#22) and allow 25.5 points (#22) against a schedule featuring six games against 2007 playoff teams.

Absolute Record: 4-12

Most Significant Newcomer: Early Doucet, WR - As just mentioned, Bryant Johnson has moved on to San Francisco to be Alex Smith and Mike Martz's go-to guy. That leaves 46 catches and 528 yards open from last year - not to mention Anquan Boldin's unrest. Enter Early Doucet. Doucet is actually used to being productive despite not being the focal point of the offense. In the simulated season, he catches 29 balls for 423 yards and three touchdowns. Clark Haggans is a possibility here as well. The former Steeler will be called upon to fill Calvin Pace's (NYJ) shoes and at least match Pace's six sacks from 2007, though the projections don't see that happening (Bertand Berry's return to health plays a big role in that).

Biggest Strength: Potential - Antrel Rolle, Matt Leinart, Larry Fitzgerald, Karlos Dansby, Anquan Boldin, Leonard Pope, Steve Breaston, Alan Branch, Gabe Watson, Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett... With so many high draft choices from previous years on the roster, just about every player is loaded with talent and was very productive in college. They just have to keep everyone healthy and working together.

Most Exploitable Weakness: The Arizona Cardinals - Every year, pundits and others like us who look at that talent and look at the numbers each individual is capable of putting up think that this team has the makings of a playoff contender. The division is typically weak and winnable. Yet, every year, that backfires. The Cardinals even had losing seasons in which they finished in the top ten in both offense and defense. Now, the numbers are not in their favor. Let's see if the trend reverses.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Steve Breaston, WR - This should probably be Doucet again, but we'll go with the next guy in line as a deeper sleeper. Breaston looks frail and was far more of a return man in college; however, the coaching staff seems to be raving about his ability and he may be needed if anything happens to one of the big two receivers on this team. At the very least, the team may find creative ways to get Breaston the ball and see what he can do in the open field.

Closest Game: St. Louis (Week 14) - The Cardinals are the anti-Titans (in many ways). Even their close games by percentages are not so close in score. Hosting St. Louis late in the season is a game that should not really matter for either team. Pride and divisional rank are on the line. Given its track record, neither of those things seem to matter to Arizona, but we'll see what happens.

Fantasy Notables: Matt Leinart (24) 2,719 passing yards, 17 TDs, 12 INTs; Edgerrin James (19) 1,500 total yards, 11 TDs; Larry Fitzgerald (5) 89 receptions, 1,310 yards, 7 TDs; Anquan Boldin (27) 69 receptions, 968 yards, 6 TDs; Leonard Pope (25) 27 receptions, 353 yards, 2 TDs; Neil Rackers (16) 36/36 XPs, 27/32 FGs

Projected 2008 Results:

WeekOpponentWin%Avg Score
1@San Francisco 49ers4621-28
2Miami Dolphins7430-18
3@Washington Redskins4318-25
4@New York Jets3719-27
5Buffalo Bills3322-25
6Dallas Cowboys2522-30
8@Carolina Panthers3919-27
9@St. Louis Rams6527-23
10San Francisco 49ers5229-22
11@Seattle Seahawks3314-24
12New York Giants2221-28
13@Philadelphia Eagles4018-26
14St. Louis Rams5128-23
15Minnesota Vikings3119-25
16@New England Patriots1718-37
17Seattle Seahawks3517-21



St. Louis Rams (5-11)
Personally, we like the Rams and like the potential with players like Steven Jackson, Chris Long, Adam Carriker, O.J. Atogwe and Victor Adeyanju. That being said, the young Rams start the season with about as brutal a schedule as a team can face in the NFL. The first seven games feature five playoff teams, including both Super Bowl participants and all seven are .500 or better in 2008 according to this analysis. That should help these young players in the long run, but this is not March Madness. Not everyone can overcome a tough schedule to make a run. Whether the Rams' egos can take it should be evident in the final nine games of the year, yet it really only affects 2009 and beyond. The Rams average 21.3 points per game (#24) and allow 28.2 points (#28) against a schedule featuring seven games against 2007 playoff teams.

Absolute Record: 5-11

Most Significant Newcomer: Chris Long, DE - Many people think he will have an even better year than we give him. As it stands, Long and Carriker are the future of this defense and they will use 2008 to build for that future. Long is not just a pass-rusher. He can stop the run, get in the passing lanes and make big plays. In 2008, we project him to make 34 tackles and seven sacks.

Biggest Strength: Steven Jackson - Dude is a monster (in all the best ways possible). When offensive coordinator Al Saunders says that Jackson has not yet even touched his potential, our jaws drop. But, we believe him. Saunders has helped to maximize the productivity of guys including Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson and Clinton Portis. Steven Jackson is not just in the same conversation as those guys; he could end up being better. In the first year of the new system, we give him 1,823 total yards and 15 touchdowns.

Most Exploitable Weakness: Turnovers - St. Louis was last in the NFC with 37 turnovers on offense in 2007. Thirty of those turnovers came from former Pro Bowl players who should know better. Starting with the veterans, this team needs to focus more and limit mistakes.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Randy McMichael, TE - If the fantasy league has ten or more teams in it, Randy McMichael had better be starting. By all accounts, 39 catches for 429 yards from 2007 came in a year when he was under-utilized and the passing game struggled far more than usual. Now, Al Saunders, who brought us Tony Gonzalez and Chris Cooley, will use McMichael to stretch the middle of the field. Draft him before Desmond Clark or Vernon Davis.

Closest Game: @ Atlanta (Week 17) - By this time, both teams will be playing for next year. If the young players on St. Louis are truly hungry and ready to be competitive in 2009, they will make a statement in Atlanta.

Fantasy Notables: Marc Bulger (18) 3,396 yards, 19 TDs, 17 INTs; Steven Jackson (4) 1,823 total yards, 15 TDs; Torry Holt (10) 95 receptions, 1,236 yards, 6 TDs; Drew Bennett (48) 63 receptions, 698 yards, 5 TDs; Randy McMichael (10) 51 receptions, 624 yards, 3 TDs; Josh Brown (23) 37/37 XPs, 24/28 FGs

Projected 2008 Results:

WeekOpponentWin%Avg Score
1@Philadelphia Eagles2819-31
2New York Giants1017-32
3@Seattle Seahawks2614-26
4Buffalo Bills2721-27
6@Washington Redskins2518-29
7Dallas Cowboys2020-32
8@New England Patriots1517-36
9Arizona Cardinals3523-27
10@New York Jets5123-24
11@San Francisco 49ers3921-30
12Chicago Bears4726-25
13Miami Dolphins6332-23
14@Arizona Cardinals4923-28
15Seattle Seahawks2718-24
16San Francisco 49ers2424-32
17@Atlanta Falcons5225-25

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