In 2017, the NFC West had a shift in the balance of power with the LA Rams claiming the top spot. With the San Francisco 49ers signing former Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo, they ended the season strong and with room for plenty of optimism. The Arizona Cardinals struggled with the loss of David Johnson but he returns in 2018 looking to pick up where he left off two seasons ago. The usual juggernaut of this division, Seattle, was very inconsistent with the lack of OL help and key injuries in the secondary which put them at a modest 9-7. With so much changing in the NFC West, how will these teams fare in 2018?
Los Angeles Rams
Under new head coach, Sean McVay, the culture seemed to change among the Rams. Usually one of the laughing stocks of the division, the Rams boasted an 11-5 record en route to their first playoff appearance since 2004. One of the more complete teams in the league a season ago, the Rams had it all. QB Jared Goff was playing like a veteran minimizing turnovers and slinging the ball to receivers. RB Todd Gurley had an MVP caliber year as he was a workhorse from start to end. Breakout WR Robert Woods shined in the back-half of the season along with a defense that had a legitimate front seven and secondary.
More is expected of the Rams in 2018 as their defense arguably got better from last season. Although losing LB Alec Ogeltree, they made key additions up front and in the secondary with DT Ndamukong Suh, CB Marcus Peters, and CB Aqib Talib. The defensive line for LA can pose problems for offenses as the duo of Suh and Aaron Donald presents nightmare matchups. In the secondary, the duo of Peters and Talib can give LA their own “No Fly Zone” with two of the best shutdown defensive backs in the league. The one weakness that the Rams do have on defense is their LB core by losing Ogeltree that really only leaves Mark Barron to control the LB group.
Offensively, the Rams should expect similar if not better numbers in 2018. Their main position players remain in tact yet with the loss of WR Sammy Watkins but gain of former Patriots WR Brandin Cooks. Cooks serves as the #1 option, with Woods at #2, and Cooper Kupp as the third option. Expect Goff and Gurley to continue performing at a high level with another year under the McVay system and the Rams to keep rolling.
Arizona had an uphill battle in 2017 from week one where star RB David Johnson injured his wrist and missed the next 15 games. Unable to get anything going, they finished last season at a lackluster 8-8. Now with Carson Palmer retiring, all eyes are on QBs Sam Bradford and rookie Josh Rosen to fill the void. The RB spot won’t be an area of concern as “DJ” looks to give Arizona another high-caliber season.
The defense for the Cardinals was pretty poor last season and expect more of the same in 2018. Losing Tyrann Mathieu was a big loss for this defensive unit as they added former 49er FS Antoine Bethea to replace. Other than that, this defense shows signs last season of being able to grow with one another after a year of experience. Keep an eye on second year SS Budda Baker as he has the starting job going into training camp. Budda Baker looks to have a breakout season for the birds to give this secondary and Patrick Peterson some help.
On the offensive side of the ball, Arizona will look a little different from a season ago. RB David Johnson is back fully healthy along with new Cardinals QBs Bradford and Rosen where Bradford (for now) looks to be the starting option for the black and red. In the receiving core, loss of John Brown gives way to rookie Christian Kirk who looks to quickly solidify the #2 spot behind Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. Look for Kirk to flourish this season as Arizona’s lack of defense will give them plenty of opportunities with the ball. As a former Texas A&M WR, Kirk shined a year ago giving the Aggies an All-American type year before getting drafted.
San Francisco 49ers
One of the most talked about teams this offseason, the sky’s the limit for the 49ers. Trading for Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo midway through the season paid dividends as they went undefeated in games he started. In fact, Jimmy G has yet to lose an NFL game, also going 2-0 in New England. Although a mediocre 6-10 record a season ago, the 49ers have the opportunity to flip those numbers around and make potential noise come December.
The young defense of the 49ers experienced its ups and downs last season. While not providing a particular strong-suit, two key additions being CB Richard Sherman and LB Malcolm Smith, San Francisco has a chance to disrupt opposing offenses in 2018. Three other young guys to watch are all first round picks from within the last three years. DT DeForest Buckner, DE Solomon Thomas, and LB Reuben Foster all look to have breakout seasons and live up to their high draft pick hype. One downside is that San Fran will have to wait until week 3 to get Foster back from suspension. Other than that, the 49ers defense can make big leaps from a season ago as their DL, LBs, and DBs all contain impact players that can trouble opposing offenses.
The offense for San Fran is where they can shine. Jimmy G has shown amazing ability over his brief NFL career to have success with big name or no name WRs. Although they lost Carlos Hyde to the Browns, they picked up former Vikings RB Jerrick McKinnon to fill the gap and added former Falcons WR Aldrick Robinson. Although the receiving core isn’t anything special to date, Marquise Goodwin showed big play ability a season ago and veteran Pierre Garcon can be a trusted “go-to” guy in key situations. A name to watch complementing these receivers is rookie Dante Pettis. Drafted in the second round from Washington, he will fight for the #3 receiving spot with Robinson. With OL additions, it seems that expectations will be high for Jimmy G and the 49ers.
Once a dominant franchise with a hold on the NFC West and the once feared “Legion of Boom,” Seattle has severely underperformed as of late. In 2017, the lack of OL depth showed as QB Russell Wilson was sacked as much as any QB in the league. They also had uncertainty at the running back spot which hurt their offensive flow. Injuries to safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas allowed offenses to attack this once unstoppable defense. Now with Chancellor having retired (a recent tweet of his), pressure will be on the defense to return to its once high-caliber form.
When looking at this Seahawks defense for 2018, it may be the worst defense I have seen them go into a season with in years. Starting on the defensive line, inexperience is apparent as their front four are Frank Clark, Jarran Reed, Nazair Jones, and rookie Rasheem Green. For the type of defense Seattle puts out there, that’s a disappointment already. Looking at LB they added Barkevious Mingo while keeping Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright. Cornerbacks will be slim for this defense as their top three as of now are Shaquill Griffin, Neiko Thorpe, and Byron Maxwell. For the once deemed “Legion of Boom,” that secondary is rock bottom. Besides the LB core, I don’t see much success for this once talented Seattle defense.
The offensive line for Seattle shows little improvements from a year ago which is something QB Russell Wilson does not want to hear. Rookie first round RB Rashad Penny looks to step right into the starting role behind Russ to hopefully give Seattle some offensive balance. The top three receivers look to be Doug Baldwin, former Giants Brandon Marshall, and Tyler Lockett. Not knowing how much Marshall has left, what this OL will improve on, or what Penny will give from the running back spot, the Seahawks remain a team full of questions and I’m not sure if they can improve much on last season.