Arizona Cardinals (Last year's record: 11-6)
The Cardinals produced points on 46.5% of their drives last year. That was eighth best in the league. Arizona only turned the ball over 15 times all year. Only three teams were better. Just five offenses possessed the football at a higher rate than the Cardinals. Last year the Cardinals led the league in the usage of four or more wide recievers for the third straight season and they averaged 8.3 yards per play with their 10 Personnel (1 RB/0 TE). Arizona lost Christian Kirk and Chase Edmonds from this side of the ball in free agency and will have to withstand a six-game suspension to DeAndre Hopkins. To make up for the loss of Kirk and Hopkins, the Cardinals used their first round pick to trade for Marquise Brown and also used their first pick on Trey McBride, the first tight end drafted this year.The Cardinals took the ball away 27 times, which was the seventh most in football in 2021. Only three defenses blitzed a higher percentage of the time than Arizona. When the Cardinals rushed six or more defenders, they averaged a paltry 2.6 yards allowed.The Cardinals +12 turnover differential was by far the best in the division and ranked fourth in the NFL last year. They recovered 69% of their fumbles, the highest percentage in the entire league. Arizona was 8-1 on the road last year. They opened last season with a seven-game winning streak but went on to win just one of their final five contests before losing to the Rams in the Wild Card round. The biggest news around this team of late of course is the massive contract extension that was very recently given to Kyler Murray.
Los Angeles Rams (Last year's record: 12-5)
The Rams 6.0 yards per offensive play was better than every team in the league except for San Francisco and Tampa Bay. Just six offenses produced more points per game as well and only two offenses finished drives with points a higher percentage of the time than Los Angeles. The Rams offense was in 11 Personnel (1 RB/1 TE) on 86% of their snaps, far and away the highest percentage in the league. Robert Woods is now in Tennessee and Odell Beckham remains unsigned, but the Rams did grab Allen Robinson in free agency. The Rams were at the bottom of the league in percentage of targets to the running back position. Opponents blitzed Matthew Stafford just 20% of the time. Only Patrick Mahomes was blitzed at a lower percentage, which makes perfect sense since Stafford averaged 7.6 yards per play against blitz and threw 19 touchdowns against just a single interception when the opponent brought added pressure.On defense, the Rams gave up just 5.2 yards per play. Just six defenses were better. No defense in the league rushed six or more defenders at a lower percentage of the time than Los Angeles. This defense played with six or more defensive backs on 26% of their snaps, the third highest percentage in the NFL. But they only blitzed a defensive back 5% of the time. The Rams defense lost a probable Hall of Fame performer in Von Miller to the Bills but did add another in Bobby Wagner.The Super Bowl Champions produced .8 yards per play more on offense than they allowed. That was fourth best in football. The Rams were +19 in sack differential last year. This organization hasn't made a draft pick in the first round since using the first overall pick in 2016 on Jared Goff, who was part of the Matthew Stafford trade and now plays in Detroit. However, while Los Angeles might not make early picks, they do make a lot of draft choices. Going back to 2003, the Rams make, on average, 8.9 picks per draft year, only making seven or less picks one time during those 20 draft classes. Not only did the Rams win seven of their first eight games in 2021, but they finished the regular season winning five of their final six contests before rolling through the league on a way to a title. Over the past five seasons, Los Angeles boasts a record of 55-26, Sean McVay's five seasons as the Rams head coach.
San Francisco 49ers (Last year's record: 10-7)
The 49ers averaged 6.1 yards per play on offense last year. That was best in the entire league. San Francisco utilized 21 Personnel (2 RB/1 TE) on 34% of their snaps. Not only was that the highest percentage in the league, but no other offense used that personnel grouping more than 23% of the time in 2021. And only one offense used a sixth offensive lineman with more regularity than San Francisco. The 49ers have led the NFL in average yards after the catch now for four straight seasons and this was the third straight year that San Francisco led the NFL in the usage of presnap motion. They also produced 9.1 yards per pass play when using play action, the best in football. Jimmy Garoppolo likely will not be a member of this team going forward. Clearly it is now Trey Lance's offense.The Niners defense allowed just 5.1 yards per play. That was third best in the NFL and best in the NFC West. Seattle and San Francisco's defenses tied to lead the division in points allowed, giving up just 21.5 points per game. Only three defenses blitzed at a lower rate than San Francisco, but San Francisco racked up the fifth most sacks behind the Steelers, Vikings, Rams, and Bears. When they did blitz, this defense surrendered 8.6 yards per play, the worst in the league. Going back to 2015 when San Francisco selected Arik Armstead with their first pick, six of their last eight first selections were used on defensive linemen. This defense was responsible for 629 yards of penalties, the highest number in the league.*San Francisco's yards per play differential was the best in the NFL besides the Bills in 2021. They were also +15 in sack differential. The 49ers won four of their final five and seven of their final nine regular season games and went on to defeat Dallas and Green Bay in the playoffs before falling to the Rams in the Conference Championship.
Seattle Seahawks (Last year's record: 7-10)
The Seahawks ran only 56.1 plays per game. Not only was that the fewest in the league, but Atlanta was 31st at 59.2 offensive plays run per contest. To put that into context, Baltimore averaged 69.7 plays per game. So that means that the Ravens offense ran well over three full games of plays than Seattle's in 2021. Although Seattle ran very few offensive plays, they did produce 5.8 yards per snap which was better than every team except for seven. They also only turned the ball over 13 times all year. That was tops in the NFL. The Seahawks didn't run one offensive snap with an extra offensive lineman on the field. In one of the biggest moves in recent history, Seattle traded Russell Wilson to the Broncos. Drew Lock came back in that deal and will battle for the Seahawks starting quarterback job. Duane Brown also retired and should be replaced with first round pick Charles Cross at left tackle. Just three franchises (including the Steelers) currently have less salary cap space dedicated to the offensive side of the ball than Seattle.Seattle and San Francisco's defenses tied to lead the division in points allowed, giving up just 21.5 points per game. Seattle's defense was on the field for a whopping 57.9% of their total snaps last year. Not only was that the highest percentage in the league, but they were the only defense asked to play more than 54.5% of their team's total snaps. Only seven teams took the ball away less than the Seahawks and no defense played with four defensive backs on the field at a higher percentage of their snaps than Seattle. Seattle parted with ways with Bobby Wagner in their overall team youth movement.The Seahawks quarterbacks were sacked 12 more times last year than the number of times Seattle sacked the opponent. Since 1950, only three teams have had a worse plays per game differential (-14.5) than Seattle in 2021. Before their seven-win season last year, Pete Carroll's team had won double digit games in three straight seasons and eight times of nine seasons. Over that nine-year stretch, Seattle was 98-45-1. But after such a great run, it looks as though the Seahawks are now in the midst of a rebuild.