Why won’t Cardinals contend in NFC West? Inside linebackers


(Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

The NFC West is as tough a division as you will find in the NFL. The Seattle Seahawks are the reigning Super Bowl champions and the San Fransisco 49ers have made the NFC title game three years in a row, including a Super Bowl loss to the Baltimore Ravens two years ago. Plus, according to Bucky Brooks of NFL.com, the NFC West is unquestionably the top defensive division in football.

With two heavyweights figuring to be among the top three teams in football, there is little chance the St. Louis Rams, who haven’t been able to top eight wins in the past decade, can make much noise but the Arizona Cardinals might after becoming just the 10th team to win 10 or more games and not make the playoffs.

Last season, the Seahawks led the league in Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System (13.0), which is a team’s average point margin, adjusted up or down depending on the strength of their opponents. The Denver Broncos were second (11.4) and the 49ers third (10.1). Here are the rankings for the 2013 NFC West:

NFCWest
Source: Pro Football Reference

There is a loose, but positive, correlation between how a team fared in SRS from one season to the next, so it is possible to make some 2014 projections for each team in the division and see how a hypothetical season would play out by running a monte carlo simulation 10,000 times. And ultimately, this still looks to be a one-horse race with two contenders vying for second.

What makes Arizona’s quest for the playoffs particularly daunting is the uncertainty of their inside linebackers. Karlos Dansby left via free agency and Daryl Washington was suspended for the entire 2014 season because of another violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. That leaves Kevin Minter and Larry Foote at the top of the depth chart. They are also adding Desmond Bishop, who was limited to just four games last season before he tore his anterior cruciate ligament and missed the entire 2012 campaign with a hamstring injury. Here are how the new additions stack up to the old, including their approximate value, an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year.

AZ ILB

The loss of Washington hurts the most. According to Pro Football Focus, he ranked 17th among 79 inside linebackers taking at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps in their overall ranking and 14th for run defense. PFF awarded him the third best ranking for his pass coverage last season, and quarterbacks had a 73.8 passer rating when they threw in his coverage.

The play of Washington certainly helped Arizona’s fifth best ranking in Defensive SRS last season, and without him, it will be near impossible to get back to a 10-win season or the playoffs.

Neil Greenberg analyzes advanced sports statistics for the Fancy Stats blog and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd.
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