NFC West WAY Too Early Preview – Who’s Good, Who’s Not, Who Knows?

Today marks less than 6 weeks to go until NFL regular season Football is back, and while that may sound like a long wait, those weeks and days and hours and minutes are going to absolutely fly by. Before you know it, you’ll be wearing shades indoors on the Tuesday after Labor Day and wondering how you’re going to function for an entire day without interacting with anyone that matters. That night, you might even foul up your fantasy draft and spend the entire season wondering what you were thinking. But that’s for another time.

Right now, we’re trying to figure out what exactly the NFC West will look like this season. Not that any prior year has been easy to predict how the division will shake out, given that all four teams have won the division crown at least once going back to 2011. At least all four teams are part of the west coast now (or close).

The Rams surprised everyone by going 11-5 last year, made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, won the NFC West, and claimed the #3 seed in the NFC. Then they got caught by surprise themselves by the Falcons and made an early playoff exit in the wild card round. Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn may not field a consistent offense, but he sure knows how to disrupt one.

In the offseason the Rams turned the heat up several notches, as they signed cover corner Aqib Talib and DT Ndamukong Suh, traded for the very talented young corner Marcus Peters, traded for world class receiver and speedster Brandon Cooks, and kept their very promising young core of QB Jared Goff, RB Todd Gurley, WRs Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp (and don’t sleep on WR/KR Pharaoh Cooper) and DT/DE Aaron Donald intact all the while. That’s how you go from surprise playoff team and division winner, to Super Bowl contender overnight.

But don’t tell them it’s 1999 all over again, because these Rams are looking like a hodgepodge of the 70s Steelers and the early 80s 49ers. One of the top dual-threat running backs, an underrated receiving corps, a cerebral young QB with an eye for big plays, a ridiculously talented young play caller/head coach in Sean McVay, and a defense ready to set the world afire, led by one of the best defensive coaches the league has ever seen. Best of luck to you, everyone else.

After that, there is a big drop off, on paper at least.

The Seahawks went 9-7 in 2017 and are reeling after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011, and the defense will look, well, let’s just say – different. Remember the Legion of Boom? Well, that’s what they are now, a memory. Richard Sherman is in enemy colors after being released by Seattle and signed by the 49ers. Earl Thomas is entrenched in a contract/trade holdout (no one seems to know which option he prefers most), Kam Chancellor is most likely retiring, and there is little to zero depth behind second year corner Shaq Griffin. And it just gets more concerning from there.

The elite pass rushing combo of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett are no longer on the team, as Bennett was traded to Philadelphia and Avril was released after failing a physical.

To solve all of these defensive issues, the front office used their first round pick on a running back, they did not have a second round pick as it was included in the trade last year for one-year-rental DT Sheldon Richardson (who since signed with Minnesota). They used their third round pick on DE Rasheem Green, and in the fifth round they selected Griffin’s twin brother Shaquem Griffin at linebacker, after which they selected DB Trey Flowers.

The defense will be led by a different coordinator /play caller for the third time in five years, as Ken Norton, Jr was hired to replace Kris Richard who replaced Dan Quinn after he replaced Gus Bradley.

On offense, the play caller will be different for the first time in the Pete Carroll era, as Darrell Bevell was fired and Brian Schottenheimer was brought in to replace him. The only major player related changes were TE Jimmy Graham signing with Green Bay after a down year that saw both sides looking for new scenery, and WR Paul Richardson signed with Washington. Popular “reserve” TE Luke Willson (he seemed to be on the field more than Graham, hence the quotations) is now in Detroit, leaving QB Russell Wilson without his favorite security blankets.

That leaves QB Russell Wilson, WR Doug Baldwin, FS Earl Thomas, LBs Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright, and P Jon Ryan as the only starters from the 2014 Super Bowl team still on the roster, and both coordinators from that team replaced. The NFL is a war of attrition but being down to 6 players compared to their lineup less than 5 years ago and replacing both of your top assistants seems nuts. It could compare well to what other teams have done, but it doesn’t look good.

In the coming weeks you’ll hear plenty about the optimism in camp or the young talent on the roster or the ability of Wilson to extend plays and elevate the talent around him; but regardless of how many games they find a way to win this season, the Seahawks are officially in rebuild mode.

If you thought the Seahawks have gone from overnight success to hot mess, allow me to introduce you to the Cardinals, who had a long rebuild followed by a very short success followed by another rebuild. They are coming off an 8-8 season that fell below expectations, but it wasn’t all their fault. QB Carson Palmer only appeared in seven games and was a shell of his former self, which is saying a lot given how up and down his career was. He has since retired and the team has moved on to injury prone Sam Bradford and rookie Josh “Chosen” Rosen.

All-Pro and dual threat RB David Johnson hurt his wrist in week one and missed the remainder of the season, and replacement starter Adrian Peterson (acquired in a trade with New Orleans) played well but only appeared in six games before hurting his neck and missed the rest of the season. Johnson is expected to start in week one and Peterson was given his outright release to pursue a starting job elsewhere. He is currently available.

The ageless Larry Fitzgerald is on the roster for at least one more season, and is still looking for who will replace Anquan Boldin, who hasn’t been in Arizona since 2012. Larry Legend part deux will need a lot of help as he struggles to gain separation on the perimeter, which is why the team prefers to play him out of the slot against the opposition’s third best corner. There really aren’t any established offensive playmakers on this roster aside from Johnson and Fitzgerald, so whoever starts at QB will have their work cut out for them. There is a lot of buzz around rookie WR Christian Kirk out of Texas A&M, but rookie receivers tend to have a steep learning curve so they can’t count on his production early on.

Injury prone but very effective (Bob Sanders anyone?) safety Tyrann Mathieu was cut in the offseason, and signed with Houston on a one year deal. That leaves All-Pro cover corner Patrick Peterson essentially holding the pass defense on his shoulders, yet again. CB Tramon Williams who won the starting job opposite Peterson mid-way through last season, signed with Green Bay.

If you thought 2013 was an interesting year to be a Cardinals fan, wait until you see the product on the field this season. They might surprise us all, but they could also be one of the worst teams in the league.

And then there are the 49ers. What a mess they have been the last few years, but after crawling through a tunnel of losing Andy Dufresne wouldn’t envy, they seem like they have finally righted the ship.

San Francisco went 6-10 last season and was mostly a listless franchise prior to a mid-season trade that got them their QB of the future in Jimmy Garoppolo. If that trade didn’t happen, we most likely see a 1 or 2 win team and Kirk Cousins in a 49ers jersey this fall, but instead we get to see Jimmy G try to resurrect the 49ers dynasty after a promising end to 2017.

GM John Lynch and head coach/play caller Kyle Shanahan got off to a rough start in year one, going 0-9 before beating the eventually two-win Giants and going in to their bye week to prepare Garoppolo to be their starter. He officially took over in week 13 and the team didn’t lose a game the rest of the way despite a bevy of non-household names and castoffs taking the field in a patchwork offense.

To improve the young secondary, CB Richard Sherman signed an incentive-laden contract to protect them if he fails to get back to form, but the team hopes he can get back to the shutdown corner status he achieved in his best years in Seattle, which would open up opportunities for the promising defense.

RB Carlos Hyde is now in Cleveland, and the team signed former Minnesota running back Jerick McKinnon as his replacement to pair with second year back Matt Breida, with the expectation being that Shanahan will replicate the excellent ground game he formed in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Speaking of Coleman, we can probably count the days until he signs with the 49ers as he will be a free agent in 2019. Now all they need is Julio Jones to force his way out of Atlanta and the transformation will be complete (this seems less likely now that he has a new contract).

The 49ers have made good progress and while it’s unlikely they will make a push for the playoffs in a very crowded NFC, if they can find a way to win 8 or more games this season it will mark their first winning campaign since Jim Harbaugh and the team parted ways in 2014, which began one of the strangest transitions the NFL has seen.

So what can we expect this year in the wild, wild NFC West? A lot of mayhem, potentially two playoff teams (maybe a third?), and a lot of uncertainty – just the way they drew it up.

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About Casey Mabbott 238 Articles
Casey Mabbott is a writer and podcast host born and raised in West Philadelphia where he spent most of his days on the basketball court perfecting his million dollar jumpshot. Wait, no, that’s all wrong. Casey has spent his entire life here in the Pacific NorthWest other than his one year stint as mayor of Hill Valley in an alternate reality 1985. He’s never been to Philadelphia, and his closest friends will tell you that his jumpshot is the farthest thing from being worth a million bucks. Casey enjoys all sports and covering them with written words or spoken rants. He has made an art of movie references, and is a devout follower of 80's movies and music. I don't know why you would to, but you can probably find him on the street corner waiting for the trolley to take him to the stadium or his favorite pub, where he will be telling people the answers to questions they don’t remember asking. And it only goes downhill from there if he drinks. He’s a real treat.