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Are the 49ers better than the Seahawks?

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Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

One of the funniest things about this job to me is when I write about or mention the quality of another team, having that team’s fans respond to me with “Why don’t you focus on your own team?” as if the relativity of talent doesn’t matter in competitive sports. Relativity is ... everything. And writing about the quality of other teams, especially teams within your own division where relativity is everything (and explains things like “How do the Patriots win the AFC East every year for almost two decades?” and “How did Chuck Pagano keep a job for so long?”), is just as necessary for predicting success as evaluating the state of the team you’re covering.

The state of the Seattle Seahawks, for many, is as down as it has been since pre-2012.

The state of the San Francisco 49ers, for many, is as high as it has been since their last winning season in 2013.

However, those two opinions are largely based off of the general feelings that people had at the very end of last season, when the Seahawks missed the playoffs for the first time in five years and the 49ers won five games in a row with a brand new quarterback. It is not based on their final records (Seattle won three more games than San Francisco, including two over the pre-Garoppolo Niners) or their recent history, in which the Seahawks had won a playoff game in five straight years and the 49ers had won just 15 games in the three seasons following their loss to Seattle in the NFC Championship.

And maybe that is fair.

Teams have to go in different directions at some point, so perhaps 2018 is the turning point that gives San Francisco an outstanding edge over the Seahawks in a way that they’ve never really had in the 16-year history of the current NFC West. Perhaps the 49ers new quarterback is legitimately undeniable and builds off of his seven career starts in same direction as his 7-0 record in those games would imply. Perhaps Kyle Shanahan is even more successful as a head coach than his father, and Pete Carroll hangs it up less than a year from now. Consider how quickly things changed for San Francisco from 2013 to 2014 and you’ll see that it isn’t hard for a franchise so clearly on the upswing to suddenly lose everything.

The Seahawks have undoubtedly purged recognizable talent, either by choice (Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett) or by circumstance (Kam Chancellor, Cliff Avril). The 49ers have clearly made efforts to improve through their vast amounts of financial flexibility (Jimmy Garoppolo, Sherman, Weston Richburg, Jerick McKinnon). But for just this article at least, I’m asking you — just like I’m asking myself — to remove those negative or positive feelings and to just focus on what assets each team actually has in 2018.

Forget about the end of last season. Forget about who was cut or traded. Let’s just look at the two rosters, many of their expected starters, and just judge which team is actually better on paper in March of 2018. I could look at this and decide that things are worse for Seattle than I assume they are, or better for San Francisco than I assume. I just want to see these two teams on paper and judge for myself: Which roster looks better right now?

No more preconceived notions or gut feelings. Offense vs Offense, Defense vs Defense, who has it better right now?

Offense

Quarterback

Russell Wilson vs Jimmy Garoppolo

I would concede that if a person would rather start their franchise with Garoppolo over Wilson, that’s fine. You’ve seen a little bit of him, you like him, maybe you think Wilson has peaked, and you want to go with Garoppolo for your long-term future. However, I think anyone that would choose Garoppolo over Wilson for 2018, based on their histories, is being a little bit foolish.

Garoppolo has made seven career starts and has a career rating of 99.7.

Wilson has made 96 career starts and has a career rating of 98.8.

Wilson led the NFL in passer rating in 2015 and in touchdowns in 2017. You could argue that he should be a two or three-time MVP. He’s made five more playoff starts than Garoppolo has made total regular season starts. It’s fine to choose Garoppolo over Wilson, that’s your prerogative, but if I’m trying to make my best guess as to who will be better in 2018 then it isn’t even a question: In Garoppolo’s best case scenario, he becomes as valuable to the 49ers as Wilson has been to the Seahawks over the last six seasons. Wilson already is Wilson.

Running Back

Chris Carson vs Jerick McKinnon

It’s hard to gauge for both of these players how they’ll respond to some changes in 2018. Carson only has four starts and is coming off of a serious injury, but they were some great four starts. (Like a “Garoppolo of RBs,” you could say.) McKinnon has not been outstanding in his four-year career, but Shanahan seems to think so highly of him that the 49ers made McKinnon the second-highest paid back in football for next season after Le’Veon Bell.

Depth is key here too, as C.J. Prosise, J.D. McKissic, and surely others will play a role in the backfield for Seattle, while Shanahan certainly has plans to use multiple backs like he did with the Atlanta Falcons. 2017 Pro Bowler Kyle Juszczyk comes into play for San Francisco as well. I’d give the edge to the 49ers, but McKinnon has still averaged just 3.6 YPC over his last two seasons so I’d need to see just how significant of a boost this new offense is really going to be for him. The Niners are still just guessing this is a great fit, and we’ve seen other such guesses (DeMarco Murray to the Eagles) not work out before. However, the Seahawks are really starting from the bottom with their RB situation.

Wide Receivers

Doug Baldwin & Tyler Lockett vs Pierre Garcon & Marquise Goodwin

Another place where depth is important. I think Baldwin is a top-10 receiver league-wide and definitely the player in these groups who I’d like the most to have. Lockett has been way too inconsistent during his three seasons and will have to take on more responsibility in 2018.

Garcon is about to be 32 and missed half of last season, while Goodwin had a breakout campaign but still needs to catch more than 53% of his targets to be a consistent number one or two threat. Whether that simply improves with a full season of Garoppolo instead of C.J. Beathard and Brian Hoyer, who knows, it just need to happen.

I don’t think either of these teams have much that is “thrilling” at receiver beyond their top two threats.

Tight End

Ed Dickson vs George Kittle

If you add in the number two TEs, then it’s Nick Vannett and Garrett Celek being judged as well. Dickson is not going to replace Jimmy Graham but he does play a huge role in pass blocking, which is going to be new for the offense. Kittle had 194 yards in San Francisco’s final three games last season and could be a player to watch in the NFC West next year.

Again, I don’t know that either one of these teams will rank above the league average at tight end production or quality in 2018; the Niners have the better receiving threat, Seattle might have a blocking advantage with Dickson.

Tackles

Duane Brown & Germain Ifedi vs Joe Staley & Trenton Brown

I don’t know that Brown and Staley are far apart in quality and they’re fairly neck-and-neck in age. (Brown is 32, Staley is 33.) I think Ifedi and Trenton Brown are similarly good/bad bets at right tackle. San Francisco may be higher on Brown than Seattle fans are on Ifedi but I couldn’t say that the two are far off from each other or that teams would easily select Brown over Ifedi if given the choice. It may be the George Fant will become the starter at right tackle, or D.J. Fluker, and the Niners are currently rolling with former Seahawk Garry Gilliam as their depth.

Overall, I don’t think the tackles for either team are clearly “winning” this round, perhaps a slight advantage to San Francisco because Staley is so well-established there. But his age, like Duane’s, must be taken into account.

Interior Offensive Linemen

Justin Britt, Ethan Pocic, & D.J. Fluker vs Weston Richburg, Jonathan Cooper, & Josh Garnett

You may think Seattle is in a terrible position with Pocic, Fluker, Jordan Roos, and Rees Odhiambo at guard, but I would not get excited about Cooper, Garnett, and Laken Tomlinson either. Both teams have notable issues at guard. You could say that the centers are “comparable” but a large factor into that evaluation would most likely be coming from Richburg’s mega-contract handed out to him by the 49ers; however, Britt’s had two very solid seasons at center in this offense and Richburg missed 12 games last season and is moving to an entirely new situation. I don’t doubt that the two could be comparable, and overall I’d say both interiors have similar strengths and weaknesses.

San Francisco 49ers potential starting offense:

49ers depth chart

Position Name Backup
Position Name Backup
QB Jimmy Garoppolo C.J. Beathard
RB Jerick McKinnon Matt Breida
FB Kyle Juszczyk
WR Pierre Garcon Aldrick Robinson
WR Marquise Goodwin Kendrick Bourne
TE George Kittle Garrett Celek
LT Joe Staley Darrell Williams
LG Jonathan Cooper Laken Tomlinson
C Weston Richburg Zane Beadles
RG Josh Garnett Erik Magnuson
RT Trenton Brown Garry Gilliam

Seattle Seahawks potential starting offense:

Seahawks Depth

Position Name Backup
Position Name Backup
QB Russell Wilson Trevone Boykin
RB Chris Carson J.D. McKissic
WR Doug Baldwin Jaron Brown
WR Tyler Lockett Tanner McEvoy
WR Amara Darboh David Moore
TE Ed Dickson Nick Vannett
LT Duane Brown George Fant
LG Ethan Pocic Jordan Roos
C Justin Britt Joey Hunt
RG D.J. Fluker Rees Odhiambo
RT Germain Ifedi Tyrus Thompson

Offense vs Offense

Everything starts at quarterback, so the Seahawks have a clear advantage to me.

Past Wilson and Garoppolo, I think the offensive lines are comparable, and the weapons are somewhat comparable. It’s hard for me to give a distinct advantage to either side when not factoring in the quarterbacks, and even when you do factor them in, Garoppolo could really go either way for me. I’m just not in the camp that Garoppolo is already a top-10 quarterback — I’m in the camp that he’s relatively unknown and unproven. He had some exceptionally good moments during his 5+ games in San Francisco last season, but he also had mistakes and was very close to losing two of those games while facing competition like the Bears, Texans, and everybody’s-benched Rams. Garoppolo’s best came in a 44-33 win over the Jaguars, so it’s just a matter of if the 49ers are getting that type of player or one who is closer to the Matt Schaub-Texans side of things. Neither would be “bad” but for the 49ers to be dramatically better next season, I think Garoppolo needs to be great.

Will he be? I don’t know. Will Wilson be great? I have little reason to think he won’t be. That’s the difference.

Poll

Which team has the better offense on paper in 2018?

This poll is closed

  • 75%
    Seahawks
    (1829 votes)
  • 24%
    49ers
    (586 votes)
2415 votes total Vote Now

Defense

Defensive Ends

Frank Clark & Dion Jordan vs Arik Armstead & Solomon Thomas

Similar to the Doug Baldwin-receivers evaluation, I think Clark is clearly the best player in these groups but as things play out, the 49ers might end up having an advantage. Thomas has only had one year and clearly had a ton of positive attributes going into the 2017 draft. Clark is more proven (and also somewhat inconsistent), but Thomas could end up as a top-3 defensive end in the whole NFL. Or Thomas could be a bust. I think Armstead is already trending in that direction with six sacks in three seasons with 18 games missed in the last two. Jordan’s got his own set of issues and a potentially similar valuation to Armstead.

There isn’t a clear advantage here to me, but Clark’s got the longest track record and has proven to be extremely disruptive in the past.

Might as well note now that with Robert Saleh at defensive coordinator in San Francisco — a former Carroll assistant in Seattle — they are trying to build their own version of the Seahawks defense. Case in point: Sherman, Cassius Marsh, Brock Coyle, Malcolm Smith, and Tyvis Powell.

Defensive Tackles

Jarran Reed & Nazair Jones vs Earl Mitchell & DeForest Buckner

Buckner seems a star in the making and Mitchell, who Seattle was also going after in 2017, played really well. I am satisfied with the development of Reed and excited about the prospects of Jones, but would have to say that the 49ers have the advantage here. A big x-factor will be the progress of Malik McDowell, if there is any. If not, the Seahawks have significant depth issues at defensive tackle. I mean, they already do and I assume this will be one of the top priorities in the coming months.

Outside Linebacker

K.J. Wright & Barkevious Mingo vs Malcolm Smith & Eli Harold

Nickel cornerback is really a starting position now but we’ll expand out to talk about two outside linebackers for both teams. There’s no question that Wright is “the guy” here and nobody else is really worth mentioning in his same breath. This is not too dissimilar then from Buckner at DT in San Francisco’s favor.

Smith’s not been that good in his time as a starter and his $26.5 million contract in 2017 was baffling. He didn’t play last season and is due a $4.45 million cap hit with no relief if released.

Inside Linebacker

Bobby Wagner vs Reuben Foster

Wagner is a top-five defensive talent league-wide and Foster may be facing a long suspension. As Niners Nation pointed out, the team may not have him at all in 2018, and if they treated all things equal like how they handled Tramaine Brock’s arrest, they’d have released him by now. Of course, this is the NFL and things are not treated equal, because Foster was a first round pick in 2017. They want to see him succeed. If Foster doesn’t go, then Smith or Coyle could be the starting MIKE. That alone is a major point of emphasis when comparing the two rosters. Major.

Cornerbacks

Shaquill Griffin, (Byron Maxwell?), & Justin Coleman vs Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon, & K’Waun Williams

This is perhaps the most complicated evaluation because most of us expect Maxwell to be re-signed, but he hasn’t yet. If Maxwell doesn’t re-sign, then like DeAndre Elliott or Neiko Thorpe move into a starting role temporarily, with it being extremely likely that Seattle would sign a veteran free agent. Beyond that temporary hole though, I think these comparing these two units is interesting.

Sherman was still one of the best corners in the game up until his injury and I’d expect him t continue being that if he’s healthy; Saleh knows Sherman and the 49ers wouldn’t sign Sherman to do things differently than how he was doing them in Seattle. So why wouldn’t we expect Sherman to be a top-5 or top-10 cornerback if healthy? I’ve written in the past that Sherman is not beyond his prime years as elite cornerbacks tend to be successful from 30-34 and sometimes for a few years after that. The return from injury and the lack of Earl Thomas behind him could be a factor as well.

Conversely, Griffin is not expected to be “the next Richard Sherman.” He’s just the current Griffin, which is pretty good. If asked to pick between the two corners long-term, I’d think Griffin is the choice because he’s young and seemingly quite talented, but if picking for 2018, it’s either an advantage to Sherman or very close. Close if only because Griffin could be trending up and Sherman could be trending down — or at least slowed from injury — but maybe that’s not the case and Sherman is clearly still better. Besides, it’s not necessarily comparing Griffin to Sherman but could be comparing Griffin to Witherspoon, in which case Griffin has the clear advantage while Sherman would have the clear advantage over Maxwell, or someone else.

At nickel, Coleman and Williams seem fairly close in quality and value. From all I’ve read, Williams had a nice season in the slot for Saleh in 2017.

Safeties

Earl Thomas & Bradley McDougald vs Jimmie Ward & Jaquiski Tartt

Whether you’re talking about Kam Chancellor or McDougald in the strong safety position, this is a significant advantage for the Seahawks. Earl is still one of the best free safeties in the NFL, while Ward has been constantly shifted around the defense and started 24 games since being a first round pick four years ago. Objections to Earl over Ward are, for lack of a word I’d rather use, stupid. Unless Earl is traded, this is a huge advantage, much like Wagner over any middle linebacker other than Foster.

Tartt was a second round pick three years ago and started 22 games, never more than eight in any season. McDougald played well in place of Kam Chancellor last season and has a clear advantage over Tartt. The safety spots are clearly more talented and more well established in Seattle, so unless the Seahawks make a change, that’s an advantage for them.

San Francisco 49ers potential starting defense:

49ers Depth Chart

Position Name Backup
Position Name Backup
DE Arik Armstead Elvis Dumervil
DT Earl Mitchell Chris Jones
DT DeForest Buckner Sheldon Day
DE Solomon Thomas Cassius Marsh
LB Eli Harold Brock Coyle
LB Reuben Foster Dekoda Watson
LB Malcolm Smith Jeremiah Attaochu
CB Richard Sherman Trovon Reed
CB Ahkello Witherspoon Greg Mabin
NCB K'Waun Williams Channing Stribling
FS Jimmie Ward Adrian Colbert
SS Jaquiski Tartt Tyvis Powell

Seattle Seahawks potential starting defense:

Seahawks depth chart

Position Name Backup
Position Name Backup
DE Frank Clark Branden Jackson
DT Jarran Reed Malik McDowell
DT Nazair Jones Garrison Smith
DE Dion Jordan Quinton Jefferson
LB K.J. Wright D.J. Alexander
LB Bobby Wagner Josh Forrest
LB Barkevious Mingo Paul Dawson
CB Shaquill Griffin DeAndre Elliott
CB Byron Maxwell (?) C.J. Smith
NCB Justin Coleman Mike Tyson
FS Earl Thomas Mo Alexander
SS Bradley McDougald Delano Hill

The Seahawks have an advantage at outside linebacker, inside linebacker, and safety, and at least three of those players are in an entirely different class than their Niners counterparts. The 49ers have an advantage at defensive tackle and number one corner, while number two corner (if it’s Griffin vs Witherspoon) goes to Seattle. The defensive ends are a push for me.

Per DVOA last season, the Seahawks were 13th overall and 10th in weighted defense, meaning they improved as the year went on, even with Sherman, Chancellor, and Avril. So that would seem to suggest that those same players who were there in the second half of the season are still capable of producing a top-10 season unless Michael Bennett and Sheldon Richardson were the key to everything. The potential improvement of Griffin, Reed, Jones, and a full season of Jordan could help keep Seattle trending upwards on defense.

The 49ers were 26th in defensive DVOA and 25th in weighted DVOA and the only notable change they’ve made to the starters is the signing of Sherman. That’s potentially a huge get, but does the swapping of Sherman flip the two defenses in the course of one offseason? I could see the Seahawks getting a little worse and the 49ers getting a little better (Thomas going into year two, Buckner into year three) but at best maybe they meet in the middle?

With all the focus on Garoppolo and Shanahan though, I think people are overlooking that San Francisco is starting Ward, Tartt, Witherspoon in the secondary, and maybe Smith, Coyle at linebacker. And that Armstead is a name because he was a first rounder but not thus far a very good player. Who are the 49ers established starters on defense that could start for almost any team? Buckner, Mitchell, Sherman are the three that come to mind quickly, while Foster, Thomas would be in the right circumstances. (We can’t overlook Foster’s legal troubles and the NFL won’t be either.)

Seattle still has Thomas, Wagner, Wright, Clark as stars, and I’d see Reed, Griffin starting for most teams. It’s perhaps not what it once was but also perhaps still in the top-10.

Poll

Which team has the better defense on paper in 2018?

This poll is closed

  • 77%
    Seahawks
    (1651 votes)
  • 22%
    49ers
    (483 votes)
2134 votes total Vote Now

Special Teams

- K Jason Myers, P Jon Ryan, KR/PR Tyler Lockett

- K Robbie Gould, P Bradley Pinion, KR Matt Breida, PR Trent Taylor

I don’t really know because special teams are so volatile, but San Francisco seems to have a clear advantage at kicking and punting.

Poll

Which team has the better roster as of 3/21/18?

This poll is closed

  • 56%
    Seahawks
    (1092 votes)
  • 43%
    49ers
    (849 votes)
1941 votes total Vote Now