NFC West back to powerhouse division fueled by busy offseason
Expectations have heightened for the Arizona Cardinals in Year 2 of the Kliff Kingsbury era.
Not only do the Cardinals have franchise quarterback Kyler Murray back after an impressive rookie season, the team went out and made the biggest splash this offseason in acquiring All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins from the Houston Texans.
Throw in returning running back Kenyan Drake, an offensive line that has noticeably improved and a defense that figures to take a big step forward with coordinator Vance Joseph at the helm, and Arizona has improved on paper.
But it wasn’t just the Cardinals who used this offseason to their advantage. The rest of the NFC West made the most of theirs, bolstering what was already viewed as one of the toughest divisions in the NFL.
With that being said, here’s a deeper look at the NFC West outside of the Cardinals as we race to Week 1:
San Francisco 49ers
Total win over/under: 10.5
Let’s start with the team that had a Super Bowl victory in its grasp, only to let it slip in a fourth-quarter collapse against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
The San Francisco 49ers return much of their championship-caliber team, preserving most of their defensive line led by Arik Armstead. Armstead had a nice payday after the 2019 campaign, receiving a five-year extension that locks him in with the team until 2024.
He wasn’t the only 49er to cash in, with Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle earning a five-year extension of his own, becoming the highest paid player at his position in the process.
San Francisco is a clear favorite to win the division, if not the conference, for a second straight season.
Key departure – DL DeForest Buckner
San Francisco may have brought back most of its defensive line, but there’s one player from 2019 missing from the trenches.
Buckner was traded in March to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for the Colts’ 2020 first-round (13th overall) draft choice. The 49ers then traded that and another selection to Tampa Bay in exchange for the 14th and 117th picks. The team added defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw out of South Carolina with the first-round selection.
In the last two seasons with the 49ers, Buckner tallied 19.5 sacks and 129 tackles, 38 of which were for losses, to go with 34 QB hits.
Key arrival – OT Trent Williams
Williams returns to the football field after almost a 20-month hiatus. The tackle was traded to San Francisco following a rocky 2019 in Washington.
Williams asked to be traded multiple times after accusing Washington of downplaying a medical issue that later turned out to be cancerous. He also was in a contract dispute before the 49ers offered two 2020 draft picks for the veteran tackle. Williams slides into a starting role after former tackle Joe Staley retired from football.
Strength – Pass rush
While the team’s run game has been solid under head coach Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco’s pass rush was the team’s most dominating factor in 2019.
Behind defensive end Nick Bosa’s impressive rookie campaign, the 49ers defense racked up 48 sacks, tying the Minnesota Vikings for fifth-best in the NFL. Bosa accounted for nine of those sacks, earning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in the process. Opposing quarterbacks averaged just 169.2 yards per game.
Weakness – Wide receiver
The wideout corps has been absolutely decimated by injury this offseason.
It started with projected No. 1 wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who suffered a Jones fracture in his foot during offseason workouts. Richie James Jr. injured his wrist during offseason activities.
Once training camp started, more bad news came from the WR front in the form of a torn ACL for Jalen Hurd. It marks the second straight season Hurd is unavailable for the 49ers.
Not long after Hurd went down, 2020 first-round pick and former ASU wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk added to the woes after injuring his hamstring running routes.
The Dude – TE George Kittle
Kittle has cemented himself as the top scoring threat on the 49ers offense. In back-to-back seasons, the tight end recorded at least 1,050 yards, 85 receptions and five touchdowns, firmly planting him as one of best in the game. He was No. 1 among tight ends in yards after catch in 2019 with 622.
Kittle has been selected to two Pro Bowls since entering the league in 2017 and was a First Team All-Pro last season.
He’ll be leaned on more than ever with the injuries to the receiver room.
Can the 49ers repeat as NFC Champions and return to the Super Bowl, or will they succumb to the runner-up curse in 2020?
The Legion of Boom may be dead and gone, but the Seattle Seahawks remain squarely in contender talks thanks to an offense led by quarterback Russell Wilson.
Missing out on the division crown by basically a yard last season, the Seahawks return to the gridiron a little more under the radar than in past seasons.
Like the 49ers, the Seahawks added by subtraction this offseason but were dinged on both sides of the line.
Key departure – DE Jadeveon Clowney
With Clowney finally signing a one-year deal with the Tennessee Titans this past Sunday, the defensive end and his 32 career sacks are officially out of the NFC West.
Spending just one season (13 games) with the Seahawks, Clowney recorded 3.0 sacks, 31 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 13 QB hits, four forced fumbles and an interception in 2019. He was tied for third on the team in sacks and first in tackles for loss.
Key arrival – SS Jamal Adams
Clowney may be out of the Cardinals’ hair, but with every departure there’s an arrival.
The Seahawks went out and solidified the secondary this offseason with the acquisition of Adams.
The safety heads to Seattle after spending his first three NFL seasons with the New York Jets. Over that span of 46 starts, he recorded 273 tackles, 28 of which were for losses, 12.0 sacks, 23 QB hits, 25 passes defensed and two interceptions.
The Seahawks are obviously in win-now mode as the price tag for Adams came to the tune of two first-round draft picks the next two seasons, a third-rounder in 2021 and safety Bradley McDougald.
Strength – Passing attack
Death, taxes and the Seahawks finding ways to win through the air.
But while Wilson is a known commodity, his pass catchers are in the spotlight in 2020.
After missing out on the 1,000-club two years ago, receiver Tyler Lockett broke through the threshold with 1,057 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019. He’s scored a combined 18 touchdowns over the past two seasons.
Replacing veteran Doug Baldwin was a tall task for the Seahawks in 2019, but it looks like they struck gold by drafting D.K. Metcalf. Metcalf put together an impressive rookie season, recording nine touchdowns and 900 yards on 58 catches.
The team also secured veteran tight end Greg Olson and wide receiver Phillip Dorsett in free agency this offseason, giving Wilson more weapons at his disposal.
Weakness – Pass rush
Even with Clowney, the Seahawks struggled last season along the defensive line.
Seattle posted the second-worst sack total (28) in the league, trailing on the Miami Dolphins (23). The Cardinals, 49ers and Rams posted at least 40 sacks. The Seahawks also landed 27th in passing yards allowed (4,223).
The Seahawks are hoping Benson Mayowa and Bruce Irvin can make up for Clowney’s absence.
The Dude – QB Russell Wilson
Wilson undoubtedly is the glue that holds the Seahawks together. The All-Pro QB is 86-41-1 in eight seasons and has yet to miss a start. Since being drafted in 2012, the Seahawks have won at least 10 games and made the postseason in seven of his eight seasons in the league.
Wilson is the only NFL signal caller to throw at least 30 touchdowns in the last three seasons. He also strung together a league-leading 11 game-winning drives over that span.
Can the Seahawks defense make enough of a leap in 2020 to take the pressure off of Wilson and the offense?
Los Angeles Rams
Total win over/under: 8.5
After taking home the NFC West division in 2017 and 2018, the Rams failed to make it a three-peat last season.
It didn’t stop there, though, as Los Angeles missed out on the postseason with a 9-7 record just a year removed from making it to the Super Bowl.
The team’s rushing attack has drastically changed, but the defense remains stacked with two Pro Bowlers leading the way.
Key departure – RB Todd Gurley
The biggest move from the Rams this offseason had to be the departure of Gurley.
The five-year starting running back for the Rams posted three seasons of at least 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns over that span. He’s a two-time First-Team All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler.
Last season, Gurley posted the lowest rushing yards of his NFL career with 857. He did, however, still manage to compile 12 touchdowns. He also caught 31 receptions for 207 yards and two scores.
Key arrival – RB Cam Akers
In an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new move, the Rams seemingly replaced Gurley with second-round pick Akers.
While he’s not officially the starting running back, Akers could see himself thrust into the role with Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown the only other backs fighting for playing time.
In 11 games at Florida State as a junior, Akers rushed for 1,144 yards and 14 touchdowns on 231 attempts, all career highs. He also put in some work as a receiver in 2019, catching a career-high 30 balls for 225 yards and four touchdowns.
Strength – Pass rush
Led by defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Los Angeles had one of the best pass rushes in the NFL a year ago.
Coming in as one of four teams with at least 50 sacks, the Rams’ strength is down in the trenches.
Donald and the line are getting some added help this year in the form of free-agent signing Leonard Floyd. Signing a one-year, $10 million deal with the team, Floyd heads to California after posting 3.0 sacks and 40 tackles, three of which were for losses, to go with 12 QB hits with the Chicago Bears last season.
Outside of Donald, and Floyd, Los Angeles brings back linemen Michael Brockers and Morgan Fox. The two combined for 5.0 sacks and 81 tackles last season.
The Rams also signed A’Shawn Robinson away from Detroit to help add more depth to the line. Robinson finished last year with 1.5 sacks and 40 tackles.
Weakness – Running game
With Akers rumored to be the team’s best weapon on the ground, the Rams’ running game could be a weak point in 2020.
The franchise back is gone, and in his place is the rookie and a pair of veterans who combined for 402 yards and five scores last year.
Luckily for the trio, they are healthy, something Gurley wasn’t fully in 2019. That led to the team falling to 26th in the NFL in rushing.
The Dude – DT Aaron Donald
No one does it better defensively for the Rams — and most of the NFL — than Donald.
The defensive tackle has made the Pro Bowl every season since 2014, earning five First-Team All-Pros along the way.
In 94 games, Donald has compiled 72.0 sacks, 312 tackles, 117 for losses, 15 forced fumbles and 173 QB hits.
Donald led the league in sacks (20.5) and tackles for loss (25) in 2018 and was first in the NFL in TFLs in 2019 with 20.
Do the Rams have enough offensive firepower to make it back into the postseason?