The NFC West can state its case as football's toughest division, as all four teams have a golden opportunity to reach the postseason. While no NFC West team advanced past the divisional round of the playoffs in 2020, the division beat up each other through a grueling regular season -- and housed two of the last three Super Bowl representatives in the NFC.
Leave it to the NFC West to get even better into 2021. The Los Angeles Rams acquired Matthew Stafford in the offseason, catapulting them to Super Bowl contenders in the conference, while the Seattle Seahawks were able to keep Russell Wilson on the roster. The San Francisco 49ers have a talented roster back after injuries derailed their chances to repeat as NFC champions and the Arizona Cardinals loaded up in free agency to take the next step from a .500 team to a playoff regular.
Whatever team wins the NFC West is anyone's guess, which makes the division race all the more intriguing in this 17-game season. There are plenty of questions that need to be solved in the NFC West, and we'll do our best to answer them.
Los Angeles Rams: Can Matthew Stafford make this an elite offense again?
Since Sean McVay took over as the Rams' head coach, the Rams are ranked fourth in the league in points scored and fifth in the league in point differential. Los Angeles was also third in the league in total yards during that stretch. In McVay's first two years, the Rams scored the most points in the league and had the third-most yards.
Over the last two years, the Rams have been slightly above average offensively (depending on the category). The Rams are just 15th in scoring and sixth in total yards, but they are sixth in passing yards and 18th in rushing yards. That's not the innovative offense McVay is known for or why he's known as an offensive guru around the league.
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McVay believed the problem lied within Jared Goff, who the Rams traded to the Lions -- along with two first-round picks -- in order to acquire Matthew Stafford. The Rams have the quarterback with the most passing yards through a player's first 165 games (45,109) in NFL history and tied for the seventh-most touchdowns (282) in that stretch. Stafford is a significant upgrade over Goff and the Rams are pairing him with Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, DeSean Jackson, and Van Jefferson at wide receiver -- along with Tyler Higbee at tight end. The Rams also saw the emergence of Cam Akers at running back last season, forming a 1-2 punch at running back with Darrell Henderson.
It's no secret the Rams are all-in on making the Super Bowl, but their offense needs to be close to the level of their defense for that to happen. Los Angeles is banking on Stafford (and the offensive line to remain healthy) in order to take them over the top.
Seattle Seahawks: Can this revamped OL keep Russell Wilson happy?
There has been no quarterback over the last 50 years that has been sacked more than Wilson over his first nine seasons. Wilson has been sacked 394 times during that stretch, 28 more than Randall Cunningham (second on that list). The hits have been getting to Wilson, who has received help at the skill positions -- but not up front.
Wilson has never missed a game, but he's not getting any younger as he's in the prime of his career (turns 33 in November). The Seahawks have tried to upgrade the unit again this offseason, and had to be creative with few draft picks available. Seattle traded a fifth-round pick to the Las Vegas Raiders for Gabe Jackson, who will play right guard as Damien Lewis moves over to left guard to replace the retiring Mike Iupati.
The Seahawks re-signed Ethan Pocic at center, but he's going to have to compete against Kyle Fuller for the starting job. Not going after Corey Lindsey may come back to bite them if Pocic doesn't improve. Duane Brown returns at left tackle and Brandon Shell is back at right tackle. The Seahawks could possibly entice Mitchell Schwartz to improve the tackle position, but can get by with Shell (20 pressures, three sacks allowed last year in 11 games).
This offensive line is better with Jackson at right guard and Lewis gets a restart at left guard. Is this current unit good enough to keep Wilson happy in Seattle -- so the Seahawks don't have to go through these trade rumors again with their franchise quarterback? Perhaps adding Schwartz (Seahawks have just over $4 million in cap space) will make Wilson feel more comfortable. Pocic also needs to improve.
Wilson was pressured 36.4% of the time (fourth-highest in the NFL) and pressured 253 times (second-most) last year. That has to decrease if the Seahawks are going to have any shot at repeating as division champions and competing for a Super Bowl. Seattle certainly has the talent to make a deep playoff run -- and the franchise quarterback capable of winning another title.
San Francisco 49ers: When will Trey Lance take over for Jimmy Garoppolo?
The 49ers did not move up nine spots in the draft -- and give up 2022 and 2023 first-round picks -- to draft Trey Lance at No. 3 overall and not play him in 2021. Jimmy Garoppolo has been a lame duck quarterback for a while now, and saving $25 million in cap space this year (cut or trade post-June 1) and $25.6 million in 2022 is a perfect reason to move on from him in favor of Lance.
Garoppolo has completed 67.5% of his passes in his 31 starts for the 49ers, throwing for 7,352 yards with 46 touchdowns to 26 interceptions (98.1 passer rating). Of quarterbacks that have thrown 750-plus pass attempts over the past four years, Garoppolo is fourth in completion percentage and ninth in passer rating. He's second in yards per attempt (8.33) behind only Patrick Mahomes -- and the 49ers are 22-9 in his 31 starts. So why would Garoppolo lose his job in 2021?
With Lance lurking over his shoulder, the pressure is on Garoppolo to perform all year -- starting in training camp. The 49ers have a roster that's good enough to win the division and compete for another conference championship, but will Garoppolo be the quarterback to see it through the whole year?
If Garoppolo plays to his 2019 form, it will be very hard for Lance to unseat him as the starter. The 49ers went 13-3 as Garoppolo started all 16 games, completed 69.1% of his passes for 3,978 yards, 27 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, and a 102.0 passer rating. His fourth-quarter performance in Super Bowl LIV raised questions about his future, which he went 3 of 11 for 36 yards and an interception in the final 15 minutes (2.8 passer rating) -- which also featured an incompletion to a wide-open Emmanuel Sanders on an X-post that would have given San Francisco the lead with 1:49 to play (the 49ers were trailing 24-20 at that point).
If Garoppolo goes into that dry spell where he is inconsistent across the board, the 49ers won't be hesitant to pull him for Lance. The rookie will get his chance at some point this year, but it's up to Garoppolo to keep him on the bench for as long as he can.
Arizona Cardinals: Can this offense function if Kyler Murray is mortal?
Murray has been incredible in his two seasons leading the Cardinals. He was just 29 yards away from becoming the first player in NFL history with 4,000 passing yards and 800 rushing yards in a season -- and the Cardinals still only finished 8-8. He's the first player in NFL history with 7,000-plus passing yards, 45-plus touchdown passes and 15-plus touchdown runs in his first two NFL seasons and set the record for most games with a pass touchdown and rushing touchdown in a single season (nine, 2020). Murray has been everything the Cardinals have asked for as a franchise quarterback and more.
What happens when Murray's arm or legs are taken away? Murray suffered a shoulder injury against the Miami Dolphins in Week 9 and the Cardinals closed the season at 3-5 -- squandering a 5-3 start to miss the playoffs. Arizona was just 2-6 when Murray was held under 40 yards rushing, which occurred five times over the final eight games of the year. The Cardinals were 23rd in the NFL in scoring (22 points per game) over their final eight games and 17th in total offense (347.1 yards per game) in that stretch. Arizona was seventh in the NFL in points (29.3 per game) and first in yards (422 per game) prior to the injury.
Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury didn't help Murray by having him throw 38.3 times per game in the seven full games he played since the injury, relying on him to be superman every possession. The Cardinals need to commit to the run more if the offense is to function in the event Murray becomes severely banged up again. Decreasing his pass attempts (Murray has the sixth-most pass attempts in a player's first two seasons) will help too.
The Cardinals are talented enough to go to the playoffs and snap a six-year playoff drought. Murray can be superman and get them the 10 wins they need to get there, but Kingsbury has to pull the reins back a bit and allow a balanced offense -- picking his spots for Murray to carry the unit.
If Kingsbury can't do that, he may be unemployed after the 2021 season. Fair or not.