As we close out our NFL Previews, will the NFC West see a new champion for a fourth consecutive season, or will Russ and the Seahawks prove to have some staying power within a division in which the competition is annually tight???
If there is any division in the NFL that is the most difficult to handicap from one year to the next, it’s undoubtedly the NFC West, which has seen three different teams wear the crown in as many years, with two of their number advancing to the Super Bowl. With that said, the forecast for 2021 is as murky as ever for while a rare repeat is not out of the realm of possibility, last year’s last-place finishers could very well ascend to it’s summit. After earning their first division title since 2016, have the Seahawks done enough in rebuilding the Defense and bolstering their ranks around (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Russell Wilson to keep their throne? Will the Rams’ gambit at Quarterback propel them back to contender status? Are the Cardinals and the electrifying Kyler Murray ready to take the next step? Will the 49ers emerge from their latest QB competition stronger than ever after a season derailed by a rash of injuries? So let’s conclude our NFL Previews with a trip down the West Coast and attempt to forecast the most unpredictable of divisions that the National Football League has to offer…
The Favorite: Los Angeles Rams
After returning to the Playoffs following a one-year hiatus, the Rams easily made the most noise within the NFC West as they effectively turned the page at Quarterback, trading Jared Goff (and his mammoth contract) along with some premium draft picks to the Lions in favor of Matthew Stafford (64.2%, 4,084 YDS, 26 TD, 10 INT, 68.4 QBR). This is a fascinating gamble by Los Angeles, who clearly came to a breaking point with Goff, who just two seasons removed from leading the franchise to Super Bowl LIII hit a proverbial wall in 2020 thus falling out of favor with (Head Coach) Sean McVay, who sent the 26-year old packing to the Motor City. In his place is Stafford, who despite being seven years older than his predecessor is primed to succeed after finally escaping Detroit; the former Pro-Bowler has thrown for 45,109 yards and 282 touchdowns in twelve seasons with the franchise that drafted him No. One Overall back in 2009, going 74-90-1 as the starter with two postseason appearances resulting in zero victories. However, the train of thought is that the veteran should thrive with McVay’s coaching and a better supporting cast around him, which is something that he rarely enjoyed over the last three seasons. One thing that he’ll need to bring to the Offense is more efficient execution, for despite ranking eleventh in total yards (387.5), Los Angeles managed a markedly worse finish in terms of points (23.3, 22nd Overall) thanks in large part to committing twenty-five turnovers (25th Overall). With that said, make no mistake that the backbone of this team is (and should continue to be) the Defense, which finished the campaign tops in the league in a slew of categories including points (18.5), total yards (282.0), passing yards (190.7), and net yards per attempt (5.1) allowed. (All-Pro Defensive Tackle) Aaron Donald (45 TKL, 14 TFL, 28 QBH, 13.5 SK, 4 FF, 1 PD) claimed his third Defensive Player of the Year award (in four years no less), while fellow All-Pro, (Cornerback) Jalen Ramsey (44 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 INT, 9 PD) routinely shut down one side of the field. Granted, replacing (former Defensive Coordinator) Brandon Staley is a tough task to be sure, but in this case Los Angeles would much rather keep the personnel in place. The overall question though is that if the team’s overall approach will net the desired results; McVay’s roster is absurdly top-heavy with little depth behind their stars after mortgaging a plethora of draft picks (and other assets) to remain in win-now mode. The City of Angels has long adored their stars, and the Rams have delivered them in spades, though at some point they’re going to need to deliver a Lombardi trophy to truly establish themselves in their new residence.
The Contender: Seattle Seahawks
Meanwhile, looking to remain on their throne within the AFC West are the Seahawks, who will attempt to become the first repeat champions in the division since 2018. Indeed, Seattle was a bit of a surprise to finish first, but nonetheless rode the exploits of (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Russell Wilson (68.8%, 4,212 YDS, 40 TD, 13 INT, 73.5 QBR) to a 12-4 finish, though their postseason jaunt was brief, as they fell to the Rams on Wild Card Weekend (30-20). Moving forward, the concerns are two-fold: will the Offense provide more substance around Wilson with a new Coordinator calling the shots, while can the Defense continue the growth that exhibited over the course of the second half of the season. After relying too heavily upon Wilson’s talent, (Head Coach) Pete Carroll ultimately decided that it was indeed time to find a younger playcaller, and the longtime skipper hired Shane Waldron from the Rams, with the expectation that he will bring a more modernized approach to the attack, which had become more feast or famine over the past two years. The ground game has plenty of juice (123.2 Y/G, 4.8 Y/C) with a deep Backfield, while the Receiving Corps is littered with playmakers, chief among them (Pro-Bowler) D.K. Metcalf (83 REC, 1,303 YDS, 15.7 Y/R, 10 TD), though the Offensive Line somehow continues to be a unsolved riddle after all these years. Defensively, the Seahawks made quite the turnaround from the first half of the year to the next; through the first eight games they were gashed for a whopping 30.4 points on 455.8 total yards, including a staggering 362.1 yards against the pass, though stiffened mightily from Week Ten onward, relinquishing just 16.0 points on 305.4 total yards and 207.9 yards versus the pass. Seattle retained the long-term services of (Pro-Bowl Safety) Jamal Adams (83 TKL, 11 TFL, 14 QBH, 9.5 SK, 1 FF, 3 PD) via contract extension this Summer, while hoping that their young crop of Linebackers, including (Sophomore) Jordyn Brooks (57 TKL, 2 TFL, 2 PD) and (Rookie) Darrell Taylor can eventually take the baton from (Pro-Bowler) Bobby Wagner (138 TKL, 7 TFL, 13 QBH, 3.0 SK, 8 PD) and K.J. Wright (who was released in the Offseason). However, there are still lingering questions in regards to the pass-rush and at Cornerback, where Carroll & Co need someone to emerge as a playmaker; Adams led the team with 9.5 sacks as a Safety, which while impressive is far from ideal, particularly given their previous struggles in coverage. As in the past, expect the Seahawks to travel as far as Wilson can carry them, though with a little good fortune they could repeat as division champions but a prolonged postseason run is an all likelihood too much to ask.
The Wild Card: San Francisco 49ers
If it seems like a long time has passed since the 49ers bludgeoned their way to Super Bowl LIV, it’s because last season was nothing short of taxing for a franchise that was utterly decimated due to injury in 2020. You don’t go from 13-3 to 6-10 overnight, for there were a number of significant contributors that bit the dust last season; (Starting Quarterback) Jimmy Garoppolo (67.1%, 1,096 YDS, 7 TD, 5 INT, 61.5 QBR) made just six starts due to a lingering high ankle sprain and sprained MCL, while (Pro-Bowl Edge-Rusher) Nick Bosa (6 TKL, 1 QBH, 1 FF) saw his sophomore campaign trimmed to only two games with a torn ACL, with (All-Pro Tight End) George Kittle (48 REC, 634 YDS, 13.2 Y/R, 2 TD) and (veteran Cornerback) Richard Sherman (18 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PD) each missing over half of the season due to various ailments. (Head Coach) Kyle Shanahan would also go on to lose (Defensive Coordinator) Robert Saleh and (Passing Game Coordinator) Mike LaFleur, who both left for the New York Jets, but with all due respect all anyone could talk about throughout the Offseason was the arrival of the No. 3 Overall Pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Trey Lance and the ensuing Quarterback competition between he and Garoppolo. Rumors have swirled around the Bay Area for over a year that Shanahan and (General Manager) John Lynch were indeed eager to move on from Jimmy G, with their infatuation with the top prospects in the Draft the worst kept secret in the league. That came to a head when they selected Lance, though the Rookie certainly comes with his share of questions; he made just one start last season for (FCS denizen) North Dakota State (due to concerns over COVID-19), though his mobility and arm strength were enough to catapult him towards the top of the draft class. Shanahan has long been one of the most innovative offensive minds in the NFL, and the potential of what he could do with Lance under Center is tantalizing, but there are serious concerns over whether or not the 21-year old is indeed ready to be the starter. After all, he’s started just one game since 2019, and his performance throughout the Preseason has proven that he has plenty to learn. While that would lead most to believe that the incumbent Garoppolo will begin the campaign as the starter, Shanahan has remained bullish that he plans on utilizing bother signal-callers, daring to alternate between them from series to series. Granted, that could be some competitive gamesmanship from the 41-year old, for such a strategy has rarely resulted in sustainable success, but all signs point towards Lance eventually earning the full-time gig. How early that happens should tell us a lot about the Niners in 2021…
The Rest: Arizona Cardinals
Last but certainly not least we have the Cardinals, who look to make another leap in quality after improving from 5-10-1 to 8-8. However, given the other teams within the NFC West, improvement can be glacial. In their third season of the Kliff Kingsbury/Kyler Murray Era, Arizona decided to swing for the fences and bring some veteran experience to a young team that struggled during the second half of the campaign, losing six of their final nine outings. The club signed (three-time Defensive Player of the Year) J.J. Watt (52 TKL, 14 TFL, 17 QBH, 5.0 SK, 1 INT 1 TD, 2 PD) along with (seven-time Pro Bowl Receiver) A.J. Green (47 REC, 523 YDS, 11.1 Y/R, 2 TD) and (three-time Pro Bowl Center) Rodney Hudson, particularly after bidding farewell to longtime stalwarts, Larry Fitzgerald and Patrick Peterson. With that said, 2021 is all about the continued ascent of Murray (67.2%, 3,971 YDS, 26 TD, 12 INT, 68.9 QBR), which should be facilitated by the incoming reinforcements. Protecting the electric athlete was a major emphasis coming into last season, and by large the Cardinals accomplished that; Murray was sacked just twenty-seven times in 2020, which a HUGE improvement over the league-leading forty-eight that he suffered as a rookie. His ability to make plays with his legs is what really makes this Offense dangerous, for you won’t find another Quarterback this side of Lamar Jackson who is more prolific on the ground; the 24-year old rushed for 819 yards and eleven touchdowns on a healthy 6.2 yards per carry, altogether accounting for a staggering 77.8% of Arizona’s total yardage. Adding (Pro-Bowl Receiver) DeAndre Hopkins (115 REC, 1,407 YDS, 12.2 Y/R, 6 TD) proved to be another major facilitator of his growth, with the 29-year old authoring his most efficient season to date with a career-high 71.9% catch percentage. In order to make the next leap, they must find a way to be more consistent rushing the football outside of Murray, for they were rather inconsistent on Third Down (39.6%, 21st Overall) for a team ranked sixth in total yards (396.2). And then there is the young Defense, which is expected to see further development under (Defensive Coordinator) Vance Joseph. (All-Pro Safety) Budda Baker (118 TKL, 7 TFL, 3 QBH, 2.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 INT, 6 PD) was a bonafide playmaker in his fourth season with the franchise and will be expected to lead the Secondary following Peterson’s departure, and though though they lost (Linebacker) Haason Reddick in Free Agency, they’ll return a healthy Chandler Jones (11 TKL, 1 TFL, 7 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FR), who was relegated to just five games in 2020 with a knee injury. It will be on (Sophomore Linebacker) Isaiah Simmons (54 TKL, 4 TFL, 3 QBH, 2.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 2 PD) and his rookie teammate, Xaven Collins, will be counted on to help lead the charge for a run defense that was routinely bludgeoned on the ground; the Cardinals relinquished 125.5 yards per game against the run (22nd Overall) on 4.6 yards per carry (25th Overall). If they can continue to flesh out these other parts of their team then Arizona could easily challenge within a loaded AFC West, but if the Defense struggles to find it’s footing then it will once again be up to Murray to carry them, which may be a burden that he isn’t quite ready to carry at this point of his career.