NFC West preview: Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks
Is it Kyler Murray and the Cardinals' time? Does Matthew Stafford make the difference in Los Angeles? Will Russell Wilson and the Seahawks once again be top dogs? Or are the resurgent 49ers set to resume their position atop the West after an injury-plagued 2020 season?
By David Currie
Last Updated: 07/09/21 11:06pm
The time for talking is nearly over, with the 2021 NFL season just around the corner. And as kickoff edges ever closer, Sky Sports NFL writers are breaking down all eight divisions from the key men to the marquee acquisitions.
Thursday, September 9 is the date to mark in your diaries as the reigning Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys, which you can see live on Sky Sports NFL from 1.20am in the early hours of Friday morning.
For now, let's take a look at the contenders - continuing with the NFC West.
Head coach: Kliff Kingsbury
Key man: This team's postseason hopes rest on Kyler Murray at quarterback and whether he can take another sizeable leap in his play in year three.
Murray impressed as a rookie, even if the team as a whole didn't - Arizona posting a 5-10-1 record in 2019 - but he and the Cardinals took a step forward last season, finding themselves well in the playoff hunt, only to then take two steps back as they lost five of their last seven to stumble to .500 as they finished the season 8-8.
Major additions: J.J. Watt, A.J. Green, James Conner. Those are some sizeable guys, both in name and in stature, that have arrived in Arizona this offseason, although they each come with questions over whether their best days are behind them.
Three-time defensive player of the year, Watt, should be a superb addition to a reasonably young Card defense. Although the last of his DPOY crowns came all of six years ago, while the injury prone 32-year-old has only completed a full 16-game season for the Texans twice in the last five, and his 2020 totals in solo tackles (36), sacks (5), and forced fumbles (2) were all career lows.
Green too is a bit of an unknown, with the 33-year-old receiver named to the last of his seven Pro Bowls four years ago, while he tallied only 523 yards and two TDs in his first season back for the Bengals after an ankle injury kept him out of the whole of 2019. Conner, meanwhile, is now three years removed from his 973-yard rushing and 12-TD year with the Steelers.
Arizona Cardinals: 2020 Tale of the Tape
Last season: The Cardinals appeared to be cruising into the postseason for the first time in five years as Murray - garnering some league MVP buzz - carried the team to a 6-3 start, with the last of those wins over Buffalo earned in the most spectacular of fashion as the Arizona QB threw a 'Hail Murray' game-winning touchdown pass to De'Andre Hopkins in the dying seconds.
Rather than inspire the team to even greater heights, the Cardinals proceeded to lose their next three and five of their final seven, with Murray's play in particular tailing off amidst talk of him being bothered by a shoulder complaint.
Prospects: The West is arguably the toughest division to call in football, with any one of these four teams well capable of clinching the division. All four, in fact, could conceivably make the playoffs, with the three remaining clinching the NFC's Wild Card berths. Arizona will be in the mix for one of those, though they might not quite have the might to take down all three of their division rivals.
Prediction: 4th (9-8)
Los Angeles Rams
Head coach: Sean McVay
Key man: Matthew Stafford.
The Rams roster is littered with superstar talent, namely Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey on defense - the former, arguably the best player in the entire NFL, and the latter certainly one of the best, if not the best, defensive back in the game.
But you don't trade away two first-round draft picks (2022, 2023) and a 2021 third-rounder (plus Jared Goff) for Stafford if he's not going to be your 'key man'. McVay and the rest of the Rams hierarchy have obviously made it clear that they consider poor QB play the main offender in holding them back since their Super Bowl run three years ago. Having missed out on the playoffs completely in 2019 and with only a Wild Card win to their name last year, it's over to Stafford to get the Rams back to where they feel they belong.
Major additions: Stafford is the most notable, while DeSean Jackson's arrive from Philadelphia immediately gives him a deep threat in addition to wideout weapons Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. Tutu Atwell - the Rams' second-round selection in this year's draft (this team doesn't tend to bother with the first round!) - is another exciting addition to the receiver corps, while running back Sony Michel has the chance to get his career back on track after a rough 2020 season with the Patriots.
Last season: The Rams' first season at their epic new SoFi Stadium stadium was a bit of a damp squib, not only due to Covid preventing sell-out crowds, but because the home team were a bit hit and miss throughout the 2020 campaign.
Los Angeles Rams: 2020 Tale of the Tape
The Rams lost twice to the 6-10 injury-ravaged 49ers, as well as at home to the then-winless 2-14 Jets in Week 15. Yet, they also won memorably on the road in Tampa Bay, their defense picking off the great Tom Brady twice, while they were just as dominant on that side of the ball to win on the road in Seattle on Wild Card Weekend before Green Bay ended their 2020 season.
Prospects: This Rams team is a tough one to call. Their roster has some elite, top-tier talent but it isn't the deepest. That said, with Stafford an undoubted upgrade on Goff at quarterback, they should improve their record on last season - even if only by one win.
Prediction: 2nd-tied (11-6)
San Francisco 49ers
Head coach: Kyle Shanahan
Key man: Jimmy Garoppolo. And Trey Lance.
That's right; as usual, the quarterback position is key in the NFL - it's just that San Francisco happen to have two of them. And they're both going to need to play their part if this is going to be a successful season for the 49ers.
Garoppolo led the team all the way to a Super Bowl two years ago, but his issue has been staying healthy - the 2019 season was, in fact, the only occasion he's completed a full 16-game slate since his trade from New England midway through 2017.
Another lost year in 2020, with the likes of Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard stumbling their way to a 6-10 record, saw San Francisco act decisively in the draft. They jumped up from No 12 to 3 in a blockbuster deal with Miami to go get their guy Lance who, though won't start the season as the starter, will get plenty of snaps under center and will eventually be the future of this franchise.
Major additions: Lance is the most notable arrival, with the 49ers giving up their 2021 draft pick at No 12, as well as 2022 first-round and third-round picks and a further 2023 first-rounder to get their guy. There's a lot riding on his success in the league.
Beyond that, San Francisco's most notable business was in re-signing key players as apposed to major additions, with offensive tackle Trent Williams penning a six-year deal with the team and Kyle Juszczyk five. But Mohamed Sanu and Trent Sherfield do both help bulk out the receiving corps, while veteran Alex Mack is a strong addition at center who should help bring along their rookie QB.
San Francisco 49ers: 2020 Tale of the Tape
Last season: Things couldn't have gone much worse for the defending NFC conference champions, with their roster ravaged by injury. In 2020, at one point or another, San Francisco had to do without key names like Garoppolo, George Kittle, Raheem Mostert, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford and Nick Bosa - the latter two pass rushers lost for the entire season when they went down.
Somehow Shanahan still managed to make his makeshift squad competitive, as the 49ers beat their division-rival Rams twice, as well as earning notable wins on the road in New England and Arizona. However, scattered in among those rare successes were seven defeats in nine to end the season and see them comfortably out of playoff contention.
Prospects: This is still a Super Bowl calibre squad - injuries notwithstanding - and a Super Bowl calibre coach, and the 49ers should prove that this season by returning to the postseason promised land.
Prediction: 1st (12-5)
Head coach: Pete Carroll
Key man: Seattle's greatest work this offseason was ensuring that quarterback Russell Wilson returns for at least one more season after rumours circled that he was after a trade following their Wild Card defeat to the Rams in the playoffs.
The Seahawks are a team that constantly punches above their weight, and that is largely down to Watson, who has helped hide a porous offensive line, an at-times stale run game and a dodgy defense in recent years with his exemplary play. Without him, this is a five-win team, at best; with him, they likely double that tally or better.
Major additions: Not many. Certainly not via the draft - Seattle made just three picks total, the fewest of any team - although their third-round selection, receiver D'Wayne Eskridge out of Western Michigan, could enjoy himself as D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett take up most defences attention.
The Seahawks' secondary was pretty non-existent last season, with the team giving up the second-most yards per game (285) through the air, so can cornerback Tre Brown - a fourth-round pick up out of Michigan - make an immediate impact. Elsewhere, Gerald Everett hops across from their divisional rivals in Los Angeles to add depth to their tight end group.
Seattle Seahawks: 2020 Tale of the Tape
Last season: The Seahawks came flying out of the gate, putting up 30-plus point on offense in the first four games of a five-game win streak to start the season - Wilson playing at an MVP level. Those successes masked a leaky defense though, one which finally caught up to them as they stumbled back to an 8-4 record before again finishing strong. Despite a 12-4 record, Seattle were humbled by a banged-up Rams team in the Wild Card round to be one-and-done in the playoffs.
Prospects: The team doesn't look like much improved on the 2020 vintage, with the lack of draft picks and action in free agency potentially hurting them. However, the 'Wilson tax' will add on its traditional five or six wins for the season, while they've still got plenty of playmakers dotted around - Metcalf and Lockett most notably on offense, and Bobby Wagner and Jamal Adams on defense - to still be a playoff team.
Prediction: 2nd-tied (11-6)