Wild NFC West: A look at the Cardinals’ division rivals in 2019
Before 2018, the Arizona Cardinals had not finished last in the NFC West since 2012. That streak ended last season after a dubious 3-13 campaign. The Cardinals will look to bounce back with new head coach Kilff Kingsbury and rookie quarterback Kyler Murray.
Standing in the way of that will be a potentially daunting division that includes the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams, a Seattle Seahawks team that has made the playoffs in six of the past seven years and the San Francisco 49ers, who have made significant upgrades on defense this offseason while getting their quarterback back from injury.
2019 Vegas projected win totals:
- Los Angeles 10.5
- Seattle 8.5
- San Francisco 8
- Arizona 5
Let’s take a look at Arizona’s division foes for the upcoming season:
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams won the division for the second consecutive year and controversially shoved their way into the Super Bowl last season. But they were stopped short of glory by the New England Patriots in a gritty 13-3 defeat.
Most key offensive players from the NFL’s second-highest scoring offense are still on the team, including newly extended quarterback Jared Goff and standout wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who missed the final stretch of the season and playoffs due to a torn ACL.
Last year, Goff became the sixth quarterback since 1966 to compile more than one 10-win season before his 25th birthday, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
The offensive line around him went through some changes, though, with departures of veteran staples Rodger Saffold (previously the longest-tenured Ram) and John Sullivan. That could be concerning, especially since star running back Todd Gurley’s health has been in question this summer.
The defense was the weak link in 2018, so general manager Les Snead grabbed two veterans who were stalwarts for their former teams in safety Eric Weddle (Baltimore) and linebacker Clay Matthews (Green Bay). Both are entering their mid-30s, but they managed to stay healthy last season.
X-factor: RB Todd Gurley
Gurley has been a top-three rusher in the NFL in three of his four seasons. The problem is that he missed the last couple of games in 2018 with knee soreness, and he struggled mightily in the playoffs afterward.
During the offseason, he was diagnosed with arthritis in that knee. His workload this summer has been decreased to every-other-day practices, according to ESPN. There could be a lot of carries coming for second- and third-string running backs Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson in order to manage Gurley’s health.
Strength: Offensive arsenal
Los Angeles was a top-five passing and top-three rushing offense last season. Kupp’s return in 2019 is a major key, as he finished second on the team in yards per reception as well as in catch percentage. When he went down, so did Goff’s numbers. Kupp will once again round out a potent receiver trio with Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods.
The Rams were in the bottom-half of the league in points allowed in 2018, with Kansas City being the only playoff team that allowed more. Weddle and Matthews have strong pedigrees, but they are 34 and 33 years old, respectively. The defensive front, led by reigning defensive player of the year Aaron Donald, should still intimidate opponents, but the linebacker core and secondary run the risk of being slow.
Los Angeles is the most complete team in the division and should bring home their third straight division crown. If Gurley can overcome his health issues and produce, then the offense should be the best in the NFC. The Rams have made progress in each season since returning to California, and the only step up now is to hold the Lombardi Trophy. Anything less is a failure.
The Seahawks continued their defensive retooling this offseason. They saw “Legion of Boom” standout Earl Thomas walk to Baltimore and traded 2018 sacks leader Frank Clark to Kansas City.
In response, general manager John Schneider drafted defensive end L.J. Collier in the first round and added pass rushers Ezekiel Ansah from Detroit and Jadeveon Clowney from Houston.
The defensive front looks strong once again, but the secondary did not receive much help and could unravel if some younger players do not step up.
On offense, Seattle could be very productive on the ground. Running back Chris Carson improved a lot last season from 2017, and 2018 first-round halfback Rashaad Penny showed glimpses of excellence during the back half of his rookie year. Quarterback Russell Wilson should always be counted on for a quality season, but his receiving corps leaves lots of questions after Doug Baldwin abruptly retired.
X-factor: OL Mike Iupati
The Seahawks added the former Cardinals guard to shore up the run protection. Since Seattle is expected to run a lot with Carson and Penny, Iupati’s performance will be vital to create space up the middle. He performed admirably in 2018, as he was ranked the sixth-best run blocker in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. But he has struggled with multiple injuries in his last few years with Arizona and this offseason — when he first suits up for Seattle is in question.
Strength: QB Russell Wilson
It seems that even when the Seahawks have lesser talent, as long as Wilson is on the roster, they will be competitive. Wilson is a five-time Pro Bowler who is coming off of one of his best seasons. He connected on 35 touchdown passes to just seven interceptions in 2018.
Plus, he led four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter for the fourth time in his career.
Much of last season’s young defensive backs will be playing significant snaps once again this fall. Seattle’s three primary cornerbacks allowed over 60% of passes their way to be completed.
The secondary is one of the most the youthful in the league, so there is a chance that it can develop with more experience. If it does not, opposing teams could light them up down the field.
The Seahawks’ defense got a huge boost from Schneider’s trade with Houston last weekend. Clowney is coming off of consecutive nine-plus-sack seasons and should bolster the pass rush. The linebacker core still has franchise greats K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner too. This defense could propel Seattle into the postseason, but the secondary needs to improve to do so.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers’ 2018 season lost its promise when starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo went down with a torn ACL in Week 3. San Francisco is 6-2 in games he starts over the past couple of seasons. The offense could live or die by his performance, which is tricky since he has not stayed healthy for an extended period of time in the NFL.
San Francisco worked hard this offseason in upgrading its defense. It selected edge-rusher Nick Bosa with the second overall pick, traded with Kansas City for Dee Ford (seventh in the league in sacks in 2018) and improved depth at linebacker by signing 2017 Pro Bowler Kwon Alexander from Tampa Bay. The defense allowed the fifth-most points in the NFL last year, so how the new additions fit could decide how well this season goes.
X-factor: QB Jimmy Garoppolo
This is an easy choice. “Jimmy G” has performed well as a starting quarterback but has never started for even half of a season.
In 10 career starts he has completed 65.4% of his throws and racked up 17 touchdowns to eight interceptions. But several different players have shown varied results after returning from an ACL tear. Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz tore his in 2017, during his MVP year. In 2018, he came back and was not as sharp (his QBR dipped by 12.3 points). In 2014, Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer suffered the same injury, but he returned in 2015 and had the best season of his career.
How Garoppolo responds is a wait-and-see.
Strength: Pass rush
The team as a whole may have done a poor job of reaching the quarterback last year, but DeForest Buckner was one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL at doing so. Only Donald had more sacks at his position. Now that Buckner has the help on the edges, he should be even more effective.
Weakness: Offensive reliability
Garoppolo has yet to stay healthy for extended time in the NFL, the receiving corps has limited experience and starting center Weston Richburg was just taken off of the injury list, according to NBC Sports. Besides standout left tackle Joe Staley, there are very few parts of the offense that don’t produce questions.
The 49ers should finish better than 4-12 in 2019 with the refurbished defense alone. But there are too many questions on offense to pencil them in as a Wild Card team just yet.