There's arguably no NFL division with more juice entering the 2021 season than the NFC West. The Rams have their sights set on another shot at the Super Bowl after upgrading at quarterback. The Seahawks are fresh off a flirt with Russell Wilson drama. The 49ers just drafted their own future QB while preparing for a return to the postseason. And the Cardinals have one of the most electrifying young signal-callers in Kyler Murray. It's anyone's guess as to which team will ultimately end up on top.
As we look ahead to the 2021 campaign, here are three questions each of the West's four teams must answer before kickoff:
What is Kliff Kingsbury's plan on offense? For the first two years, it's mostly been, "Chuck it or run it, Kyler." And that's not necessarily dumb, considering Murray is one of the game's top dual threats. But the Cardinals need to have a smarter, more defined approach to that side of the ball. Murray, of course, also needs to make better decisions, but good coaching goes a long way.
How much do the old guys have left in the tank? By old guys, we mostly mean A.J. Green and J.J. Watt, who will both be 32 or older at kickoff. Are their names bigger than their value these days? Arizona had better have a good idea going into the season, because if Green can't return to form post-Cincinnati, the Cards will be relying on another Larry Fitzgerald return or injury-prone rookie Rondale Moore to help Murray take the next step. Watt, meanwhile, is the only proven pass rusher opposite Chandler Jones.
Is the defense good enough to make a run? Kingsbury and Murray are the true keys to it all, but the Cardinals need a better defense if they're going to really challenge out of the West. Can Watt stay healthy? Will Chandler Jones stay happy? Is Zaven Collins ready? Is the secondary deep enough? It would behoove them to know, going in, if they've at least got a serviceable unit.
San Francisco 49ers
How close is Trey Lance to taking over at QB? Jimmy Garoppolo has the clear and understandable lead on the top job, but San Francisco didn't invest so much in a younger, more athletic specimen to let him run gimmick packages. It'd be ideal for the Niners to have a general idea of what it'll take for their new man to step in, whether for short- or long-term purposes. A slow start from Jimmy? Another injury? A bunch of inspiring Lance practices? The rookie's debut could mean either an injection of energy for a title run or an official turning of the page to the future.
Is the wide receiver room deep enough? Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are a good, explosive start. But who's catching passes besides them and George Kittle? Between Richie James, Jalen Hurd, Trent Sherfield and a cast of forgotten characters like Mohamed Sanu and Travis Benjamin, the 49ers need someone else to step up (or keep exploring outside options).
Is the secondary actually finalized? When the 49ers made their recent Super Bowl run, they had Richard Sherman in Pro Bowl form and guys like Akhello Witherspoon, K'Waun Williams and Emmanuel Moseley trading valuable snaps. Now, they're relying on another healthy year from Jason Verrett, as well as rebounds from Williams and Moseley. The corners, even more than the WRs, need help or a standout.
Los Angeles Rams
Is Matthew Stafford comfortable in the new system? Only time -- and game performance -- will tell whether the longtime Lions QB is just a decent or monumental upgrade on Jared Goff. But going into the year, it's important the new signal-caller has a good grip on Sean McVay's offense. We've seen QBs turn it on late (see: Brady, Tom), but the quicker the acclimation, the better.
Is the offensive line Super Bowl-caliber? The Rams may have a QB upgrade and an enviable cast of weapons, particularly out wide, but it won't mean much for Stafford if the line can't hold up. Injuries are the main antagonist here, because as is, the starting five is solid. But Andrew Whitworth, approaching 40, is coming off an injury-riddled season and must prove ready for another deep run.
How will the defense respond to Raheem Morris' direction? The Rams aren't lacking talent on this side of the ball. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey alone give L.A. a high floor in key areas of pressure and pass coverage. But the switch from Brandon Staley to Morris, who bounced around all kinds of roles in Atlanta in 2020, will be important to a strong start.
Are Russell Wilson and Shane Waldron on the same page? You'd certainly hope/think so, considering Wilson has significantly downplayed his concerns about Seattle's offensive philosophy since adding Waldron as the new coordinator. But the question must still be answered going into Week 1, or else the team's star QB is due for even more internal friction this year.
Is Pete Carroll also on the same page? Again, this might seem obvious, but there's a reason Wilson's big-picture concerns came to light this offseason; he and Carroll have had differing visions for how to best utilize the QB's talents in the framework of the offense. For the entire team's sake, Carroll and Wilson and the offensive staff need to be on the same wavelength out of the gate.
Can the defense take pressure off Wilson? Even if there's offensive confusion, the mere presence of Wilson -- alongside star talent like DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and Chris Carson -- makes Seattle's floor very high. But a championship run probably won't happen if the "D" isn't at least somewhat improved. The Seahawks should welcome any clarity they can get at spots like pass rusher and corner ahead of the season.