The battle for the NFC West looks to be just as intense in 2014 as it was last year. Both the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have weathered the first run of free agency mostly intact and have turned their attention to the draft and upcoming season.
Which team has the advantage at the moment? Let’s go down each team’s starting lineup and see which team has the advantage at which positions.
Keep in mind that both teams are in fine shape, and I fully expect both teams to make the playoffs in 2014. I’ll highlight where each team has legitimate question marks, but with both teams in good positions, which team is better is really a matter of degrees.
How much of San Francisco’s passing-game struggles last season were due to the injuries to the wide receiver corps, and how much was due to Colin Kaepernick? It’s a difficult question to answer, really, but it’s true that the passing game stepped up dramatically once Michael Crabtree returned from his injury.
Kaepernick still has issues progressing to his second read, but they’ve been overblown by the media. He’s a top-10 quarterback.
You have to say Russell Wilson’s taken a step past Kaepernick at this point, however.
Wilson outperformed Kaepernick on the field last season, and he has a higher completion percentage, touchdown percentage and yards per attempt than Kaepernick does. He also gets credit for hosting the Lombardi trophy, which Kaepernick failed to do the year before. Both teams are just fine at the position, but Kaepernick has a little ground to make up.
Tarvaris Jackson is also better than Blaine Gabbert as a backup, solidifying a win for the Seahawks here.
While Frank Gore has the advantage in terms of his career production, he’ll be 31 in 2014 and has just slowly begun to lose a step. Three years younger, Marshawn Lynch is still in the prime of his career. He doesn’t have much more room to improve, but he’s an elite player in the NFL. For all that Gore brings to the table, at this point in his career, he’s only very good. "Beast Mode" is elite.
The backups are unproven at this point in time, so it’s hard to compare. The 49ers have every hope in the world behind Marcus Lattimore, but he’s never taken an NFL snap. The Seahawks are big fans of Christine Michael, but he only has 18 career carries. Nothing here to make up for the advantage of having a player like Marshawn Lynch in his prime.
Major advantage: Seahawks
This is the first position each team has an issue with, and both teams might use an early-round pick on a receiver to boost their corps. Each team will be happy with their duo of starters; Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin are both sure possession receivers, while the Seahawks have a bit more explosive potential with Percy Harvin and Doug Baldwin.
The third receiving slots, however, are more question marks. The 49ers right now would use Quinton Patton, a 2013 rookie who missed half of last year with injuries. The Seahawks would turn to Jermaine Kearse, who has a bit more experience. Both could be improved upon in the draft.
Patton is probably the worst regular on the 49ers. That’s an amazing thing—half the teams in the NFL would love if Patton was their worst player. If the 49ers had one more receiver on Crabtree and Boldin’s level, this would be a closer contest.
However, Percy Harvin, when healthy, is by far the best receiver on both teams. “When healthy” has been the big issue with Harvin, but when he’s on the field, the Seahawks outclass the 49ers at all three of their top receiving positions.
This is a difficult spot to do a direct comparison, as the Seahawks use two tight ends, while the 49ers generally use one and a fullback. For the purposes of comparison, we’re matching Bruce Miller with the Seahawks’ second tight end, Luke Willson.
If you accept that grouping, then the comparison really leans heavily San Francisco’s way. Miller is one of the top fullbacks in the game; a blocking dynamo who blasts holes open for Gore. Vernon Davis is one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the NFL, and he can block well, too.
Zach Miller is a fine player, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not in the same league as Davis. Willson is decent enough as a role player, but he’s nothing to write home about. Neither holds a candle to their counterparts on the 49ers.
The 49ers actual second tight end is Vance McDonald, who looks to take a big step forward this upcoming season. The Seahawks actual fullback is Derrick Coleman, who was only in on 145 snaps last season. Neither changes the balance of power at the position.
Major advantage: 49ers
This is Seattle’s weakest unit as a whole. Russell Okung is more than solid at left tackle, and Max Unger has the center position locked down, but the other three starters all need to be improved.
James Carpenter is currently penciled in at left guard and is probably the worst starter on Seattle’s team. J.R. Sweezy, the right guard, isn’t much better. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Seahawks draft Xavier Su’a-Filo at the end of the first round. Right tackle Michael Bowie was solid last season, but he could still be improved upon.
The left side of San Francisco’s line is very high quality with Joe Staley and Mike Iupati putting up Pro Bowl-caliber play on Kaepernick’s blind side. The right side isn’t too far behind them, with Alex Boone and Anthony Davis poised to take a step up to greatness.
The question mark lies at center, where Daniel Kilgore looks set to take over from Jonathan Goodwin. The 49ers gave Kilgore a contract extension this offseason, but they could still bring a player in during the draft to compete.
All in all, this is the 49ers’ greatest advantage over the Seahawks. Even if their skill-position players are, on the whole, a bit weaker than Seattle’s, the offensive line makes up that ground by giving Kaepernick and company the protection and time to work.
Overall, the offense ends up split fairly evenly. The Seahawks are currently better-situated with their skill-position players, but the 49ers counter with beef and physicality up front. It’s also hard to declare a full winner here, as both teams are going to be adding talent in the early rounds of the 2014 draft.
If I had to pick a winner here, I’d lean a very slight advantage Seattle’s way, simply because they have the advantage at the most important position in football. Kaepernick is definitely capable of getting his stats up to Wilson’s level this year, but until that happens, I’d have to give the Seahawks the slightest of advantages on offense.
The 49ers don’t have a single below-average starter on their entire defense. Their defensive line is solid from start to finish, with Justin Smith, Glenn Dorsey and Ray McDonald providing a fine front three. Yes, Smith’s age will come into play eventually, but that’s what Tank Carradine was drafted for. He’ll get his first real shot at NFL action this season.
It’s hard to argue with the success that Seattle has had, however. Michael Bennett is an elite player and re-signing him was arguably Seattle’s best move this offseason. You’ve got another great player in Brandon Mebane on the line, while Cliff Avril and Tony McDaniel wrap up a dangerous front four. They’ll be hurt some by the loss of Red Bryant due to cap considerations, but they’ve got a frightening front.
Slight advantage: Seahawks
The 49ers enjoy an embarrassment of riches at linebacker. While NaVorro Bowman will likely miss some time at the beginning of the season, he’ll be back in time for the games that really count. The pairing of Bowman and Patrick Willis is arguably the best middle linebacking pair in NFL history.
The troubled Aldon Smith, as I believe we’re now required to call him, is another elite player. The big worry there is that he’ll miss time due to suspension, as his off-field legal troubles keep adding up. On the other side, you have Ahmad Brooks, who is somehow the weak link of this corps, despite making the Pro Bowl last season. It’s a terrifying foursome.
The Seahawks aren’t too shabby themselves. Bruce Irvin was roundly mocked when the Seahawks took him in the first round, but he’s developed into one of the most feared pass-rushers in the league. Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith are no slouches, either.
However, there simply isn’t another linebacking corps in the league that compares to what the 49ers have right now.
Seattle has earned their "Legion of Boom" moniker. They’ve taken some hits in the secondary his offseason, losing Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner, but they have the parts to spare.
Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas are as good at their positions as Willis and Bowman are at theirs. Kam Chancellor isn’t that far behind them, either, and Byron Maxwell’s a solid contributor at the other cornerback position. This is a tough, physical group that will punish opposing receivers. They talk a big game and back it up.
Jeremy Lane moves into the slot corner position now that Thurmond and Browner have gone. He’s the worst starting piece on Seattle’s defense, but he looked pretty good in relatively limited action last season. The Seahawks could draft someone else here, but Lane will work most of the time.
The 49ers have new pieces and question marks in their secondary. They brought in Antoine Bethea and Chris Cook this offseason, to replace the departing Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner. These aren’t downgrades, but they aren’t upgrades, either—it’s treading water.
On a more positive note, Eric Reid had a fantastic rookie season and looks to keep developing into a great starter. The duo of Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver looks fine on paper, but are both lacking in experience. The 49ers could easily spend a first-round pick here to bring in more talent.
The 49ers can get by with this secondary and still have Super Bowl hopes—it’s not exactly an Achilles’ heel. The Seahawks, however, consider this the pride of their team, and it’s hard to argue with that.
On defense, Seattle’s advantage in the secondary and San Francisco’s advantage in the linebacking corps sort of cancel each other out, leaving Seattle’s slight advantage on the defensive line as the deciding factor here.
However, it’s not just a zero-sum game. When you consider how much the NFL has developed into a passing-focused league over the past few seasons, the importance of a shutdown secondary rises more and more.
I have to consider the presence of the Legion of Boom to be a significant advantage for Seattle. It’s not a huge advantage, but I think it’s larger than the near-infinitesimal gap between the two offenses.
So, if I think the Seahawks have a slight advantage on offense and a notable advantage on defense, they’re going to win the division in 2014, right? Well, not so fast.
Percy Harvin will be a big deciding factor. Harvin’s only started eight games over the last two seasons; while he has the potential to be the biggest offensive weapon on either team, he has to stay healthy enough to contribute for him to matter.
If Harvin goes down, that propels Ricardo Lockette into the starting lineup, which is enough to tilt the balance of power in San Francisco’s favor there. The 49ers don’t have a health concern on nearly the same level. Harvin going down gives the 49ers the advantage on offense.
You also have to wonder which set of young players will keep improving. Looking at Pro Football Focus’ projected lineups, you can see Seattle, per Gordon McGuinness, has more than a dozen players who have the potential to step up a rung in the 2014 season. Because this is a forward-looking ranking, that comes into play when saying which team is better, but none of it is set in stone.
Maybe Harvin, Kearse and Baldwin don’t all take a step forward this year. Maybe J.R. Sweezy remains below average and doesn’t reach a decent grade. Maybe Wilson and Chancellor don’t join the ranks of the elite.
The 49ers, per Ben Stockwell, had fewer players on the borderline—essentially, they had more players who had already reached that solid standpoint. Seattle’s advantages depend on their young players continuing to develop, and that’s far from a given.
Finally, you have the schedules for the two teams. The Seahawks have to play the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers, while the 49ers get the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints. That’s an advantage for the 49ers there—the Bears have massive defensive problems, while the Saints had to get rid of players due to salary cap reasons this offseason.
In addition, the 49ers and Seahawks’ common opponents take place in opposing stadiums—that is, the 49ers’ home slate is the Seahawks’ road schedule and vice-versa.
Of the four common playoff teams they face, the 49ers get to welcome the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers to Levi’s Stadium, while only going on the road to face the Denver Broncos. That means the Seahawks only get their home-field advantage against Denver, facing the other three playoff squads on the road.
With two teams as evenly matched as these two, little differences in the schedule might be the deciding factor in determining who wins the division. As of right this moment, I’d have to make the defending Super Bowl champions a slight favorite in the NFC West race, but it’s really too close to call.