The first wave of free agency has officially come and gone as the NFC West experienced a changing of the tides. Arguably the best division in football, the NFC West got better as each team is currently engaged in a chess match for division supremacy.
The Seattle Seahawks currently hold the division crown and managed to hang onto Russell Wilson -- for now -- while the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams got significantly better. Let's not leave the San Francisco 49ers out of the mix either, as they pulled off the blockbuster trade heading into the 2021 NFL Draft -- moving up nine spots from No. 12 to No. 3 and positioned themselves to select a franchise quarterback.
Los Angeles appears to be the early favorite to win the division for the first time since 2018, while Arizona continues to be one of the rising teams in the league. Seattle will always have a title shot with Wilson at quarterback and San Francisco has a talented roster that will be healthy heading into 2021. Don't count any team out in this division.
How did each of the NFC West teams fare after the first wave of free agency? We break it down in our grades below:
Los Angeles Rams
- Key additions/re-signings: QB Matthew Stafford, WR DeSean Jackson, DL Leonard Floyd
- Key departures: QB Jared Goff, S John Johnson, CB Troy Hill, DL Samson Ebukam, TE Gerald Everett, RB Malcolm Brown
The Rams couldn't do much in free agency as they battled to get under the salary cap, but significantly upgrading at quarterback gives general manager Les Snead a high mark. Adding Matthew Stafford to an already talented roster may be enough to put the Rams atop the division and back to Super Bowl contention. The pressure is on head coach Sean McVay to show what kind of offensive guru he actually is with one of the game's top 10 quarterbacks in his prime.
DeSean Jackson was the only major free agent signing, as he provides a valuable asset as a deep-ball receiver for Stafford -- which he always had in Detroit. Retaining Floyd was critical for the Los Angeles pass rush, especially since it was inevitable Johnson and Hill were going to depart in free agency.
Los Angeles still has a talented roster, but the lack of first-round picks over the next several years could prevent the Rams from being the best in the NFC. That unit is good enough to become the early favorites in the NFC West, thanks to the acquisition of Stafford.
- Key additions/re-signings: DE J.J. Watt, WR A.J. Green, C Rodney Hudson, CB Malcolm Butler, K Matt Prater, G Brian Winters
- Key departures: CB Patrick Peterson, RB Kenyan Drake, LB Haason Reddick, TE Dan Arnold
The Cardinals made a big splash early in free agency by landing J.J. Watt, adding even more strength to a pass rush that has Chandler Jones returning and Jordan Phillips on the interior. Arizona still needs help at cornerback, but was able to add Malcolm Butler on a one-year deal after losing Patrick Peterson to Minnesota (the Cardinals need more man corners in defensive coordinator Vance Joseph's system).
While the defense still could use a few more additions, the offense received a boost with the signing of A.J. Green as the No. 2/No. 3 wide receiver for Kyler Murray. If Larry Fitzgerald decides to return, a wide receiver group of DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk, Green, and Fitzgerald is arguably the best quartet in the division.
The Cardinals also decided Chase Edmonds on his rookie contract was a better option than re-signing Drake, which will turn out to be correct. Time to see what Edmonds can provide as a featured back. Getting Hudson and Winters on the offensive line immediately makes the unit better -- and should keep Murray upright throughout the season.
The Cardinals are on the door of making a postseason return.
- Key additions/re-signings: DE Carlos Dunlap, RB Chris Carson, G Gabe Jackson, DE Kerry Hyder Jr., TE Gerald Everett, CB Ahkello Witherspoon, C Ethan Pocic, T Cedric Ogbuehi, G Jordan Simmons
- Key departures: CB Shaquill Griffin, TE Jacob Hollister, RB Carlos Hyde, WR David Moore, WR Phillip Dorsett
Seattle still has Russell Wilson on its roster, making this free agent season good thus far. Here's the underlying issue -- did the Seahawks do enough to keep Wilson satisfied?
Wilson wants help on the offensive line, and Gabe Jackson immediately improves the interior. Losing Mike Iupati to retirement hurt and Seattle appears content on running it back with Pocic at center, Duane Brown at left tackle, Damien Lewis at left guard and Brandon Shell at right tackle. Seattle has depth by keeping Ogbuehi and Simmons -- but more upgrades are needed in order to protect Wilson.
Losing Griffin was a major blow to the secondary, and Seattle is hoping Witherspoon can fill the void. Retaining Dunlap and adding Hyder significantly boosts a pass rush that finished seventh in the NFL with 46 sacks last season and third in pressures with 182. Keeping Carson also makes the run game formidable, as he's the clear No. 1 running back until Rashaad Penny can showcase the form he had two years ago.
Seattle needs more depth at wide receiver, which can be addressed in the draft. Freddie Swain could also take the next step in his development, but Seattle needs to do more on offense to keep Wilson happy.
San Francisco 49ers
- Key additions/re-signings: T Trent Williams, FB Kyle Juszczyk, C Alex Mack, OLB Samson Ebukam, DT D.J. Jones, S Jaquiski Tartt, CB K'Waun Williams
- Key departures: DE Kerry Hyder, CB Ahkello Witherspoon, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Kendrick Bourne, DE Solomon Thomas
The biggest move of the 49ers offseason was keeping Trent Williams in the fold at left tackle, which would have been a major loss if he was going to depart to the Kansas City Chiefs. Not only did San Francisco keep Williams, but the 49ers offensive line got better with the addition of Mack at center. Mack isn't the Pro Bowl player he once was with the Atlanta Falcons, but he's still one of the top 10 centers in the league.
Getting Samson Ebukam is a more than adequate replacement for Hyder as the 49ers pass rush is getting Nick Bosa back from injury -- along with Arik Armstead and Dee Ford on the unit. The 49ers were decimated by injury last season, so they didn't have to do much on the defensive side of the ball in free agency. The inevitable loss of Richard Sherman in the secondary will hurt, even if Sherman will be 33 this year. Retaining Tartt was a strong move with Sherman likely departing.
The 49ers didn't have to do much to improve their roster and made the biggest splash in the division by moving up nine spots in the draft. San Francisco is going to select its next franchise quarterback, giving up a lot of draft compensation (2022 and 2023 first-round picks to start) in order to compete in this division for the next decade. The 49ers have a talented roster, but they'll need to get this quarterback right in order for this offseason to be successful.