Over the past decade or so, the trajectory of the NFC West relative to the NFL’s other divisions has been fascinating. With the recent emergence of the Los Angeles Rams as a prospective NFC powerhouse, every team in the NFC West has had it’s shot at supremacy. However, it seems that every team’s run at the top of the division ends before the general NFL fan base thinks.
The NFC West has gone from being dominated by one or two teams to one of the most competitive and deep divisions in the league at various times. In fact, since February 2009, when the Cardinals took on the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, every NFC West team has made a Super Bowl appearance. While it appears the Rams enter in pole position again this season, the rest of the division seems up for grabs, which could mean a playoff spot is available to somebody other than L.A., if indeed the division does play out that way.
Last season: 3-13
Players to watch: Kyler Murray, David Johnson, Patrick Peterson
It’s not totally out of the question that Kyler Murray comes in and sets the league on fire. We’ve seen it before with the likes of Cam Newton or even more recently with Patrick Mahomes (though Mahomes didn’t start immediately as a rookie). If that’s the case, who knows how high the Cardinals’ ceiling can be? There have been teams in the past that have entered the season with lesser expectations than Arizona and put together successful seasons.
Of course, there’s a lot of give-and-take between any future success Murray may have and what the skill positions players around him can produce. Larry Fitzgerald is still around, but, while still a very capable receiver, age has diminished his role on the team on the field. Which means the team will have to lean on youngsters like Christian Kirk, Kevin White, Andy Isabella, KeeSean Jackson, and Hakeem Butler, among others. Kirk is receiving some buzz as a breakout candidate in his second year; White is a reclamation project who couldn’t stay on the field while with the Bears. The rest are even more unknowns.
Defensively, the Cardinals have a decent upside but with at least as much disaster potential. Last season, Arizona ended 26th in the NFL in terms of points allowed. During the draft, they chose to spend a lot of picks to protect and surround Murray with weapons. Only four of their 11 picks were used on defensive players. However, one of those was on Washington-product Byron Murphy, who could take some pressure off of Patrick Peterson at the cornerback position and give the Cardinals one of the best CB duos in the league, although there’s some stiff competition for that title even inside the NFC West.
Los Angeles Rams
Last season: 13-3, lost in Super Bowl
Players to watch: Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp
Aaron Donald might be the best player in the NFL. But his impact – as large as it is – isn’t as great as Jared Goff’s is to the Rams. That’s just the nature of modern-day football: you’re only as good as your quarterback. There have been exceptions, of course, but despite Donald’s presence, L.A.’s defense might come up short when judged against the truly historically great.
The loss of Cooper Kupp last season proved more costly than realized at the time it happened. Couple that with Todd Gurley’s roller coaster of finish to the season from a production and health standpoint, and it’s not hard to understand why the Rams’ high-powered offense went relatively stagnant in the playoffs. There may be some untapped potential with L.A.’s offense if Goff can take a leap this season, so long as everyone stays healthy.
L.A.’s defense has some star power but there are some legitimate questions regarding how it all fits together (if they have players willing to do the dirty work, outside of Donald) and overall depth. Now that this team has made it deep in the playoffs, they may approach the regular season differently by managing players’ snap counts. The Rams are as dependent on their top handful of players as any team in the league, keeping them healthy is of paramount importance to getting back to the Super Bowl.
San Francisco 49ers
Last season: 4-12
Players to watch: Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, Nick Bosa
Entering last season, it felt like the 49ers were ready to make a jump and possibly compete for an NFC playoff spot. Then quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a torn ACL, knocking him out for the year, in the third game. That doomed San Francisco. Garoppolo may be back under center but it’s possible that last season set this organization’s timetable back a bit.
This is a team that could have forced their rebuild a bit by splurging on big-ticket free agents. Instead, they’ve largely opted to build through the draft and have been very judicious in picking the veterans they bring in. The seeds for a contender are planted, but this season may be more about growth than getting to a particular win total.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, they didn’t get to enjoy the rookie-scale contract years of Garoppolo. As we’ve seen, a productive quarterback on a rookie contract is the NFL’s version of the golden ticket. Paying their franchise QB so early in his tenure makes things tricky for the Niners, but they’ve still on track to arrive as a true contender a year from now.
Last season: 10-6, lost in NFC Wild Card round
Players to watch: Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, Tyler Lockett
A lot of folks around the NFL thought the Seahawks were due for a big, dramatic step back last season. That proved not the case, as the team ultimately made the playoffs. But now Seattle is yet another year removed from the days of the “Legion of Boom” days. And the past year represented as significant a losses as they’ve seen in a calendar year with the exits of Earl Thomas III (now with the Ravens), Doug Baldwin and Kam Chancellor (both retired).
The offense will rely on Russell Wilson as much as it ever has, if not more so. (And that’s saying something, given Wilson’s style of play and the Seahawks’ offensive system.) Baldwin’s production will have to be made up for in some form. That will largely fall on Tyler Lockett, Jaron Brown, and rookie D.K. Metcalf.
It also wouldn’t hurt if there was an uptick in performance out of the backfield combination that features Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny, and C.J. Prosise. Carson was great in 2018 but the Seahawks may prefer a more balanced attack from the running back position in 2019. They also have J.D. McKissic, who they’ve used in a hybrid running back/wide receiver position in the past. He could prove to be a sleeper candidate for a huge season. Although McKissic has only played in 19 total games over three seasons, in 2017 Seattle gave him 46 rush attempts and 46 targets as a receiver (in which he converted 34 into catches).