The NFC West in recent times largely has been dominated by the Seahawks, with the Cardinals mixing in as contenders as well when things are clicking. The Rams and 49ers have been for the most part discounted as long-term rebuilding projects.
Heading into 2017, those easy, seemingly consistent distinctions up and down the NFC West seem to be holding to form. Most expect the Seahawks to take the division, but the Cardinals also are expected to be competitive. The Rams and 49ers are clearly in rebuild mode after bringing in new coaching staffs this offseason.
But will any of these teams surprise, for good or bad? There are certainly signs that the shoo-in contenders are built upon houses of cards, while the forgettable also-rans could prove more exciting than you think.
Seahawks, Cardinals fail to address biggest issues
It was a secret to no one that the Seahawks needed to do more to protect quarterback Russell Wilson, and the focus in free agency and the draft was expected to be on the offensive line. A few cosmetic changes were made in free agency, notably bringing in Luke Joeckel as the expected left guard, but the tackle spots were still an issue. Surely they'd address that position in the draft, right?
Wrong. Seattle loaded up on defense throughout the three-day draft, otherwise spending a second-round pick on an interior lineman and virtually ignoring the bookends. What that means is that one year after George Fant graded out as one of the three worst tackles in football, per Pro Football Focus, he's expected to return to the blind side once again.
Wilson's mobility was compromised last season as he dealt with ankle and knee issues, and his performance suffered because of it. Expecting him to remain healthy for 16 games with another mediocre offensive line seems questionable.
The Cardinals lost several key players on defense this offseason and did a solid job of finding solid veterans like Karlos Dansby and Antoine Bethea to plug those holes. But they did nothing to address cornerback across from Patrick Peterson, a starting slot that saw Justin Bethel and Brandon Williams both fail to impress last season before Marcus Cooper saw most of the playing time (and didn't perform any better).
That weakness continued a troubling trend for the Arizona defense. When Patrick Peterson was a rookie, he was thrown at 113 times, and in his next three seasons, he saw targets in the 90s each year. Over the past two seasons however, teams have been targeting him less and less, including a career-low 71 targets against last season. The problem hasn't been health -- he's played in every game, every year. It's the talent across from him, as quarterbacks aren't paying any price for avoiding Peterson in the passing game.
So what did the Cardinals do? Sign a new starting strong safety and draft two more safeties, leaving Bethel and Williams to compete for the starting job once again at cornerback. Will plan B be to use rookie Budda Baker or Tyrann Mathieu at cornerback more often than expected? Would that even work? Unless Bethel and/or Williams takes a huge step forward, Peterson will see a familiar sight again this year: the ball consistently heading in the other direction.
Seahawks take anti-Patriots approach at quarterback
Many expected the Patriots to deal backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo this offseason, figuring it would be worth getting assets in exchange for the talented backup before he leaves in free agency. Instead, the Patriots treated the QB2 spot as a premium position, understanding that a significant injury to Tom Brady could torpedo their title chances without a high-end replacement in place.
The Seahawks, on the other hand, are banking on their franchise passer to stay healthy after doing nothing behind him on the depth chart.
Though Wilson is locked in as the long-term starter, the only quarterback behind him is Trevone Boykin, an undrafted free agent last year who was arrested multiple times this offseason for public intoxication and drug possession. There's virtually no reason to keep him around in Seattle -- he isn't tied to an onerous contract, he doesn't have a ton of experience in the system, he hasn't proven himself much at the NFL level.
Despite all that, the Seahawks made no move to bring in a potential long-term backup in the draft or sign anyone with experience in free agency. That means an injury to Wilson likely would sink playoff hopes altogether, and that's not something you want to hear when you have an offensive line as patchwork as that of the Seahawks.
Compare that to the Cardinals, who signed Blaine Gabbert to a one-year deal this week. Sure, Gabbert isn't a franchise quarterback, but he should work as a solid QB2 who can fill in if something happens to Carson Palmer. Drew Stanton has struggled in limited duty in the recent past, and so doing something to strengthen the backup quarterback position made sense to the Cardinals. On the other hand, the Seahawks did nothing at that spot. And that makes no sense.
Don't sleep on Shanahan in Year One
We've covered the favorites, and how they've left serious holes that could cause their houses of cards to collapse. If that happens for one or both, who could step in and fill the void?
Can I interest you in the San Francisco 49ers?
Yes, the 49ers went 2-14 last season and landed the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. And while no one expects a Super Bowl run from first-year coach Kyle Shanahan, there are several reasons to like this 49ers team to surprise in Year One of the rebuild.
First, the 49ers had a severe talent deficiency across the board last season. Their top pass catcher was Jeremy Kerley -- by a wide margin. As a whole, the team had no chance of moving the ball down the field under Chip Kelly. The defense was even worse, stopping no one in the rushing game or the passing game. They gave up the most points in the league last season. That includes a Week 1 shutout, so they did a worse job keeping points off the board in 15 games than 31 other teams did in 16 games.
Fast forward to the upcoming season: The team has a proven offensive genius in Shanahan manning the controls and several new pieces on offense, including Pierre Garcon, Kyle Juszczyk, Tim Hightower and plenty of other depth. The defense got a huge boost with Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster (if he's healthy) in the draft, and the shift to the 4-3 should bear fruit, if they can get the most out of their secondary.
And at quarterback, Brian Hoyer struggled with Shanahan's system in Cleveland .. but he was 10-6 as a starter with the Browns and has done an excellent job when on the field the past two seasons in Houston and Chicago. Is he a franchise difference-maker? Of course not. But even solid play at the position could lead to a team that surprises in the standings, and he's shown capable of that in recent years.
Look, I'm not saying they're going to go toe-to-toe with the Seahawks or Cardinals if things are breaking right for those teams. The 49ers are at the very beginning of their rebuild, and it's going to take time to figure out what works and what doesn't. But if those contenders don't catch the breaks in terms of health and development from young players to patch their holes, there's going to be a sliver of room for one of the also-rans to make an earlier move than expected. Consider the 49ers a six- or seven-win team that has an outside shot at making noise in the division if things break right.
Season One of 'The L.A. Rams' necessitates a reboot
The 49ers spent 2016 being a doormat in the NFC, but the Rams weren't much better in their first season in Los Angeles. After a 3-1 start built on outstanding defensive performances against the Seahawks and Cardinals, the team utterly collapsed over the rest of the season, winning just one of its last 12 games. Like the 49ers, that caused sweeping changes on staff, including the hiring of young coach Sean McVay and nabbing maestro Wade Phillips to fix the defense.
Also like the 49ers, the Rams decided to throw a ton of resources at their offense, though many of these were more of the high-priced variety. That included big contracts given to Andrew Whitworth, who could be a savior at left tackle, and Robert Woods, who will look to develop into a key weapon for McVay. The Rams then went hard after pass-catchers in the draft, adding receivers Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds as well as tight end Gerald Everett with their early picks.
Throw in sophomore disappointment Todd Gurley, and McVay should have all the ingredients needed to build a successful offense -- with the lone possible exception coming at the most important position on the field.
It's too early to determine whether Jared Goff is a bust. He was thrown into the fire before he was ready and went 0-7 as a starter last year while delivering subpar numbers. McVay will have to cater to his strengths in Year 2, and Goff will have to buy in fully and show progress in 2017 to avoid the Rams going QB searching in 2018 for McVay's handpicked franchise passer of the future.
The Rams feel like a team that could go 1-15 or 11-5 and it shouldn't shock too many people. Phillips could unleash a dangerous defense immediately, and McVay could get the most out of his young offensive talent in his first year. Or Goff could make no progress, Gurley could fail to rebound, and the Rams will be right back to not scoring points on a regular basis.