Unpacking the NFC West

by James Barker (@SeahawkzUK)

The NFC West has been labelled as the toughest division in all of football, and as we go through this division overview, you’ll soon see why. In this article I will be diving deep into this headline-filled division, taking a close look at each teams roster and the moves they’ve made in the off-season, before attempting to predict the fate of each team and the division.

San Francisco 49ers

Let’s begin our journey in the sunshine state, however if you are of a San Francisco 49ers persuasion, you’d be forgiven for thinking that your team had packed up it’s bags and moved sticks to the Pacific North-West in 2020, because it rained hard last year for the red and gold. It’s not often that a team who finished the regular season with a 6-10 record and last place in the NFC West - following a Super Bowl appearance in the season prior - should deserve such high praise, but with the amount of injuries to key players in 2020, six wins was a very respectable achievement for the 49ers. In fact, by the time the niner gang hosted the Green Bay Packers on week 9’s Thursday Night Football, the team had a reported $80M worth of player contracts on the injured reserve list, and indeed by the end of the regular season, had the second-most injuries of any NFL team in the last 20 years. Ouch. Literally. Some of the key players who missed most, if not all of the 2020 regular season for the 49ers were: Nick Bosa, Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, Raheem Mostert - I could keep going but I think you get the point.

So heading into the 2021 off-season, general manager John Lynch knew he had some decisions to make, but the biggest of all decisions came in Round 1 on NFL Draft night in Cleveland. The Niners held the 12th overall pick, but GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan felt that North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance would not be there for them at 12, so the blockbuster trade of the NFL Draft was made. San Francisco traded their no.12 pick, 2022 first and third-round picks, as well as a 2023 first-round pick to the Miami Dolphins, in exchange for the number 3 overall pick, and thus Lance became a 49er.

(49ers QB Trey Lance, C/O The Mercury News)

So, they gave up all that draft capital, that means Lance is the starting Quarterback in week 1, right? Well, not necessarily. The head coach of the Detroit Lions - 49ers week 1 opponents - has made clear that his team is preparing to face both Lance and Garoppolo. The latter fractured his index finger in the 49ers final pre-season game vs the Raiders, so it is expected that Garoppolo will lead the red and gold out in week 1, and potentially beyond, as HC Kyle Shanahan has never stated who his QB1 is.

Let’s take a look at some other key additions/returning players for the 49ers. Former All-Pro and 2x Pro Bowl Linebacker DeMeco Ryans takes over as defensive coordinator from now New York Jets HC Robert Saleh. Center Alex Mack was the teams big free agency splash, handing the 35 year-old 6x Pro Bowler a three-year contract worth $14.85M. Other notable FA additions included: CB Josh Norman - 1-yr, $2.5M, LB Samson Ebukam - 2-yr, $12M. The 49ers were also able to bring back two foundational pieces, as LT Trent Williams signed a monster 6-yr, $138M contract, whilst CB1 Jason Verrett signed a 1-yr, $5.5M deal. There was also some key departures too, as WR Kendrick Bourne signed a 3-yr, $22.5M deal with the New England Patriots, leading sack producer in 2020 in the form of DE Kerry Hyder signed a 3-yr, $16.5M deal with division rivals the Seattle Seahawks, whilst RB Tevin Coleman, DT Solomon Thomas and CB Richard Sherman all made their departures too.

So what can the San Francisco 49ers achieve in 2021? As a Seahawks fan myself, it pains me to say this, but they can win it all. Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, George Kittle and Deebo Samuel are all back and ready to go for the start of the regular season, and this team has largely stayed together from their 2019 Super Bowl appearance squad. If, and it’s a big if, the 49ers can stay healthy in 2021, this roster is as back-to-front talented as any other of the 31 NFL rosters, add in the potential of a significant upgrade at quarterback with Trey Lance, and all the dynamism he could bring to the offense, this could be the team to beat in the NFC. Floor - 9-8 Ceiling - 14-3 Prediction - 14-3 NFC West - 1st

Arizona Cardinals

The next stop on our NFC West tour takes us to the scorching desert plains of Arizona, as we check in with the 3rd placed team in the NFC West in 2020, the Arizona Cardinals. Heading into a bye-week after seven games, and off the back of beating the Seattle Seahawks in a 37-34 overtime win, The Cards were sitting at 5-2, and in 2nd place in the NFC West. However, come the end of the regular season, the Cardinals finished with an 8-8 record, and another year without post-season football.

So what went wrong and who was to blame? I think one of the best ways to sum up the 2020 Arizona Cardinals was inconsistency on both sides of the ball. Kyler Murray was not the problem, and in fact, he certainly showed clear signs of progression in 2020, throwing six more touchdowns, threw for more yards, and had a better completion rating than his rookie 2019 season. The offensive line was also not the problem, with Pro Football Focus ranking the Cardinals O-Line as being the 12th best unit in 2020, which is considerably better than that of previous years. The main problems lied in under-production from wide receivers not named DeAndre Hopkins, and inconsistency from veteran defensive players, none more-so than star cornerback Patrick Peterson.

So heading into the 2021 off-season, general manager Steve Keim and head coach Kliff Kingsbury knew they needed to strengthen their squad, and it was evident in the key additions that they made, that they targeted guys that they knew could be relied upon when on the field. Future Hall of Fame defensive end J.J. Watt was the teams stand-out addition during the off-season, as the most dominating pass rusher the NFL has seen since the days of Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White and the late Derrick Thomas, and even further back to legends such as Deacon Jones and “Mean” Joe Greene, signed a 2-yr, $23M contract. Veteran wide receiver, and 8x Pro Bowler A.J. Green penned a 1-yr, $6M contract, giving Kyler Murray a dangerous tandem of Hopkins and Green to target. Linebacker Markus Golden signed a 2-yr, $9M extension with the Cardinals, after returning to State Farm Stadium in October of 2020 via a trade with the New York Giants. Whilst running back James Conner, and cornerback Malcolm Butler *shivers as a Seahawks fan* both made the move to Phoenix too. Notable picks in the draft included the Cardinals taking the versatile, play-making linebacker Zaven Collins out of Tulsa with the 16th overall pick, whilst also snagging the speedy and elusive wide receiver Rondale Moore from Purdue with the 49th overall pick in the 2nd round.

Arizona Cardinals JJ Watt, ℅ Bleacher Report)

In terms of departures, there was no bigger move made this Cardinals off-season than that of the aforementioned cornerback Patrick Peterson. After 10 seasons of being consistently one of the best cornerbacks in the game, and cementing his stature as a Cardinals legend, his time in Phoenix came to an end, as he swapped the Cardinals red for the Minnesota Vikings purple in a 1-yr, $10M move. Other notable departures included: OLB Haason Reddick - 1-yr, $8M with the Carolina Panthers, RB Kenyan Drake - 2-yr, $14.5M with the Las Vegas Raiders, TE Dan Arnold - 2-yr, $6M with the Carolina Panthers, whilst kickers Brett Maher and Zane Gonzalez were released.

So what can the Cardinals achieve in the 2021 season? Well if you talk to GM Steve Keim, he’ll tell you - and has gone on record - that the Cardinals expect to be playing multiple play-off games this season, I’m not as convinced. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Cardinals are a better team in 2021 than in 2020. Since 2012, Chandler Jones and J.J. Watt lead the NFL in sacks produced; Watt - 95.5, Jones - 97, so needless to say, with those two on the same line D-Line, this has Cards fans licking their lips. I also like the additions of A.J. Green and James Conner, however, even though Patrick Peterson had his first non-elite season in his career, Malcolm Butler is a significant downgrade at the position in my opinion. The Cardinals secondary as a whole - not including Budda Baker - would give me serious cause for concern as a Cards fan. J.J. Watt is a monster when healthy, but there is an unfortunate high chance that his injury history will deny him a full season. Kyler Murray’s health is also cause for concern, partly due to the nature of his game, but he still takes far too many hits than you would ideally like, even behind an improved 2020 offensive line. But what will most likely deny the Arizona Cardinals another year of play-off football is the strength of the NFC West, and their schedule. Aside from division games, they also notably play the: Titans (A), Browns (A), Packers (H), Bears (A), Colts (H) and the Cowboys (A). So in my opinion, they can expect to finish the season at around 9-8. Floor - 6-11 Ceiling - 9-8 Prediction - 9-8 NFC West - 4th

Los Angeles Rams

Our penultimate stop on our NFC West tour takes us to the city of angels, as the LA Rams look to open their inaugural season in their swanky new $5.5 billion SoFi Stadium - that’s some serious air conditioning unit - with a Super Bowl win in their own backyard. But will the Rams be taking a stroll down the walk of fame come February? Or will it be a walk of shame? Let’s take a look at the 2nd placed team from the NFC West in 2020.

2020 was another solid season for the Rams, a 10-6 regular season record, and a road play-off win against division rivals the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card round, before their season ended at the hands of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional round. 2020 was also head coach Sean McVay’s fourth season in charge of the Rams, with three out of four of those seasons entailing the Rams making the play-offs. And since McVay’s arrival in 2016, quarterback Jared Goff has been with him every step of the way. When the Rams traded up with the Tennessee Titans and took Goff with the 1st overall pick in 2016, it looked as though LA had found their franchise QB, and for a while, they had. In 2018, Goff led the Rams to the franchises’ first Super Bowl appearance since 2001, in a regular season where the third year QB threw for over 4,600 yards and 32 touchdowns. Deservedly so, the Rams signed Goff to a 4-yr, $134M extension in the following off-season - an NFL record for most guaranteed money at the time -, since signing that contract however, Goff was never able to recoup that 2018 form, thus bringing us to 2021…

The NFL world was stunned, when on the final day in January of 2021, and still licking their wounds from play-off heartbreak, the Rams pulled the trigger on one of the biggest QB-QB trades the NFL has ever seen. 2022 and 2023 first-round picks, plus a third-round pick in 2021 was enough to strike a deal with 33 year-old Detroit Lions want-away QB Matthew Stafford. So what does Stafford offer the Rams that Goff didn’t? And is it an upgrade? It’s almost universally agreed in the NFL world that having Stafford as your QB over Goff is a definite upgrade at the position. Stafford does multiple things better and more consistently than Goff, for example; Stafford has a stronger arm and throws one of the best deep-balls in the league, Stafford doesn’t need a clean pocket to make accurate throws, with Stafford consistently being among the best in passer rating when under pressure. To put it simply, Stafford is a proven, consistent, reliable, good NFL quarterback, Goff has shown that he can be a top notch QB, but inconsistency, poor decision making, and effectively a 2-1 TD-INT ratio in his career (107-55) has held him back.

(Rams QB Matthew Stafford was the big move of the offseason, ℅ of NFL.com)

So the arrival of Stafford will no doubt open up McVay’s play book even further, but the offense has undoubtedly hit a setback with the season-ending injury inflicted upon emerging star RB Cam Akers. If this wasn’t bad enough, LA’s second best RB Darrell Henderson has continued to deal with a nagging hand issue this off-season. This forced the teams hand, as the Rams acquired RB Sony Michel form the New England Patriots. So there are some undoubted question marks heading into the regular season as to who is RB1, and whether a last minute change to the rushing attack will hamper a potentially potent offense. Stafford does have a dangerous receiving corps to work with though, with two criminally underrated receivers in Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, as well as star TE Tyler Higbee, throw into that mix the enigma that is DeSean Jackson, 2021 second-round pick Tutu Atwell and second year receiver Van Jefferson. Despite losing TE Gerald Everett to the Seahawks, and WR Josh Reynolds to the Titans, you would have to think the Rams are confident that their offense could take a big step forward in 2021.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Rams were able to bring back the majority of their defensive players that have helped form the NFL’s no.1 defense. Despite this, the Rams did say their goodbyes to three defensive starters, as free safety John Johnson III, and experienced cornerback Troy Hill both left for Cleveland, whilst defensive tackle - and long-time co-pilot to Aaron Donald - Michael Brockers was traded to Detroit. Now of course, the Rams still possess arguably the no.1 corner in the game in Jalen Ramsey, and arguably the best defensive tackle to ever play the game of football in Aaron Donald, but the Rams will need players such as DT A’Shawn Robinson, CB David Long, and safeties Jordan Fuller and Taylor Rapp to really step up and plug gaps, otherwise the Rams defense could be prone to taking a step back in 2021. It should also be mentioned that defensive coordinator Brandon Staley also departed from the Rams, moving across LA’s inner-city to join their noisy neighbours the Los Angeles Chargers as their new HC. Taking the reigns of the NFL’s best defense in 2021 is former Atlanta Falcons interim HC Raheem Morris. It’s certainly going to be interesting to see how this defense fares in 2021…

So what can the Rams achieve in 2021? This is such a tough team to put a finger on and say this is what they will achieve. Their starting 11’s on both sides of the ball are very talented, at almost every position, but if injuries start amassing, their strength in depth does not look great. This team has the potential to reach an NFC Championship game if all goes completely to plan, but in the NFL, that rarely happens, so I don’t think they’ll go that far, but I can see the Rams being a team that - once again - nobody wants to play when it comes to play-off football. I think Stafford is better than Goff, but I also don’t think he’s the saviour of the Los Angeles Rams as some are painting him out to be. I’d say the Divisional round is a safe bet once again, anything past that is a bonus in my opinion. Floor - 9-8 Ceiling - 12-5 Prediction - 11-6 NFC West - 3rd

Seattle Seahawks

Here we go then, the final stop on our NFC West tour brings us up to the Pacific North-West, and indeed to the home of the reigning NFC West champions, my Seattle Seahawks. Before I go any further, I would like to make clear that I will be as objective and unbiased as I possibly can be, so just bare that in mind when I predict us to win the Super Bowl, it was done objectively so don’t stress it. Well, let’s unpack this Seattle Seahawks team that has been surrounded in headlines and off-season dramas this year, but as Seahawks fans will tell you, when isn’t it? Let’s take a look.

Since 2012, the Seattle Seahawks have not had a single losing season, and 2020 would not be any different. The hawks finished the regular season with a 12-4 record, which was enough to see them crowned NFC West champions for the first time since 2016, before unexpectedly bowing out in the first round of the play-offs in a frustrating loss to the Los Angeles Rams. 2012, however, was also the year a young, fresh-faced and undersized quarterback from Wisconsin named Russell Wilson was drafted by the Seahawks, and it was evident from his first pre-season displays, that the Seahawks had found their franchise quarterback of the future. Since his arrival, Wilson has never spoke a bad word about any of his team-mates, coaches, or the Seahawks organisation, it was always head down, and get to work with Russ.

In 2021 however, Russell Wilson decided that he’d stayed silent for long enough, it was time for his opinion to be voiced. Wilson made it clear to HC Pete Carroll - who signed a 5-yr extension in Nov. 2020 - that he was fed up of being the most sacked quarterback almost every year since he entered the NFL, and he had a point. No QB has been sacked more times since 2017 than Wilson (189), and in the nine seasons he’s played in the league, he’s been sacked 394 times, that’s an average of 43.8 sacks per season, which is more than any QB in the Super Bowl era (post 1970). Yet despite the Seahawks consistently choosing to neglect investment into the offensive line, and often handing him late-round, undrafted and over the hill free agent receivers, and no long-term tight end, he’s still played at an MVP level almost every season. This proverbial snarling of the teeth from Wilson appeared to take Pete Carroll and the organisation aback, as this was so out of character, and in the time that ensued whilst the coaching staff pondered whether this was a mistimed April Fools joke, what became known as the ‘trade list’ appeared. Wilson - who has stated this list was true - stated that he would be willing to waive his no-trade clause in order to be traded to one of the following four teams: Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, Las Vegas Raiders or the Chicago Bears.

If the organisation wasn’t taking his words seriously before this list, they absolutely were afterwards, as within a blink of an eye, last season’s offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was fired, and replaced with Rams passing coordinator Shane Waldron, in a hiring process that heavily involved Russell Wilson’s opinion on candidates. The team then went and made two offensive moves, signing free agent TE Gerald Everett from the Rams - who has consistently graded as one of the best blocking tight ends since he entered the league - and traded a fifth round pick to the Raiders to acquire veteran guard Gabe Jackson. Seattle wasn’t done yet, as they seemingly were trying to reignite the spark of a love that’s on the rocks. They went into the draft with only three picks - as a result of the Jamal Adams trade - but two of those picks were blatantly made with Wilson’s happiness in mind. Seattle took Western Michigan receiver D’Wayne “Dee” Eskridge with the 56th pick in the 2nd round, with Eskridge being another dynamic, pocket-rocket speedster for Wilson to throw too. And with Seattle’s final pick, they took the biggest immovable object they could find in the shape of 6’8”, 310+lbs left tackle Stone Forsythe out of Florida in the 6th round.

(Rookie WR D’Wayne Eskridge, ℅ Field Gulls)

So with Wilson seemingly back on side, what other moves did Seattle make to strengthen their team? On the offensive side of the ball, Seattle locked in stud running back Chris Carson on a 2-yr extension. Seattle has also locked in star left tackle Duane Brown, not via a contract extension, just lots of shiny financial incentives that has convinced him to suit up this season. Seattle also claimed guard/center Dakoda Shepley off of waivers from the San Francisco 49ers, and has made the 53 man roster. Aside from also bringing back running back Alex Collins on a 1-yr deal to add depth, that was pretty much it for the offense. One potential weak spot however is the center position, as 2020 starting center Ethan Pocic has not taken a snap in pre-season due to injury, and the jury was still out on him at the position regardless. As of week 1, it looks like Kyle Fuller will take over, which does not fill even the most optimistic of 12s with confidence, as he’s never looked like a starting calibre center in the NFL when he’s played for the Seahawks.

On the defensive side of the ball, there was one story that rumbled on all off-season, when will the Seahawks extend safety Jamal Adams? And how much will they pay him? After giving up an unheard of amount of draft capital for a safety - 2021 and 2022 1st round picks, 2021 3rd round pick and safety Bradley McDougald - to acquire Adams prior to the start of the 2020 season, Seattle also knew that they would have to pay Adams come the end of the season. The figure Adams would inevitably demand only became higher after he set the single season sack record for a safety with 9.5 sacks, which was made only more impressive considering he only played in 12 games in 2020. It took until the second week of the 2021 NFL pre-season, but the Seahawks front office eventually caved, handing Adams a record breaking 4-yr, $72M contract, with $38M fully guaranteed. Aside from Adams, Seattle also brought back dominant pass rusher Carlos Dunlap, the still productive swiss army knife that is Benson Mayowa, acquired free agent pass rusher Kerry Hyder from the 49ers, they even brought back an old friend in defensive tackle Al Woods. Stalwart linebacker K.J. Wright did depart however, but the organisation made it clear multiple times during the off-season that they were going to move forward with their young talent that they’ve invested in - guys such as Darrell Taylor, Cody Barton, Jordyn Brooks etc -.

The cornerback position is where the glaring question mark lies on this Seahawks defense. The Legion of Boom seems further in past than ever right now for Seahawks fans. The hawks’ CB1 for the past few years has been Shaquill Griffin, but he left in free agency to sign with the Jaguars, whilst fellow 2020 trade acquisition Quinton Dunbar was a move that was doomed from the start. He was involved in legal proceedings involving him being suspected of participating in a fast-food restaurant shooting, not the best first impression. Nothing was proven and he was eventually allowed to play, but most Seahawks fans would probably of preferred if he hadn’t, as he put in one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen from a Seahawks CB on the road against the Bills, and he was gone at then end of the season. D.J. Reed however, appears to be another one of Pete Carroll’s reclamation project gems - we pretty much have an annual one - and is CB1 at this moment. The Seahawks did try an Akhello Witherspoon shaped project, but he got beat out on the depth chart by Tre Flowers of all people, and was quickly shipped off to Pittsburgh. Rookie third-rounder Tre Brown out of Oklahoma has been nursing a knee sprain, and will miss the opening few weeks of the season. The Seahawks recently made trades to acquire Sidney Jones from the Jaguars and John Reid from the Texans respectively, as well as signing free agent Blessaun Austin from the Jets, but all three were acquired in the last two weeks, and will need time to learn the system. So it appears the outside CB starting alongside Reed in week 1 will be Tre Flowers, who requires a breakout season if he wants to remain in Seattle beyond 2021.

So what can the Seahawks achieve in 2021? This is a crossroads season in Seattle. The franchise QB has made it publicly known that he is prepared to leave if he doesn’t see an improvement in his protection, and he wants to see this team take a notable step forward. If Wilson doesn’t see this and leaves after 2021, what happens to Pete Carroll? He’s 69 years of age, will he have the time and hunger to rebuild a franchise? The Seahawks have to get back to an NFC Championship game minimum in my opinion, anything less will be viewed as a failure. And they have the talent to do just that. Wilson has his most talented group of receiving weapons he’s ever had at one time in Seattle. He has a potent running game. He has his most talented offensive line since he’s been in the NFL. The defensive line was a unit transformed in the second half of the season, or for easier reference, from the moment Carlos Dunlap became a Seahawk, and they led the NFL in sacks in the second half of last season, with the vast majority of those players returning to the team. With Bobby Wagner still playing at an All-Pro level, and with Jordyn Brooks - who looks every bit of a future All-Pro LB too - next to him, along with a plethora of young talent at the position, that position looks as strong as normal. The Seahawks also believe they have the best safety combo in the NFL in Pro Bowler Quandre Diggs, and All-Pro Jamal Adams. The two things that are most likely to hold the Seahawks back in 2021 is the uncertainty of talent at the cornerback position, and the strength of the NFC West division. But I expect the Seahawks to be around the 12-5 - 13-4 mark when it’s all said and done. Floor - 10-7 Ceiling - 14-3 Prediction - 13-4 NFC West - 2nd

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