The story of the NFC West for the 2017–2018 season doesn’t really appear to be any different than the story we’ve seen in recent years: there are two teams in the division with legitimate aspirations of a deep playoff run, and then two teams that are still mired in a prolonged rebuilding process.
At the start of the season, it’s really hard to see anyone other than the Seattle Seahawks being the favorite to win the division crown.
While the team sputtered to a 6–4–1 record over its last 11 games last year, they were decimated by injuries to so many key players. Even from a purely mathematical standpoint, it’s difficult for a team to endure that level of injury issues for yet another season. In doing his part to stay healthy through the course of the season, Russell Wilson came into training camp this year in the best shape of his life, working with celebrity nutritionist Dr. Philip Goglia in the offseason, losing 10lbs of weight and dropping his body fat by 6%. With no real superstud at running back — the team will cobble together a ground game featuring Green Bay Packers castoff Eddie Lacy, incumbent Thomas Rawls, and 2016 draft picks C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins — this offense really belongs to Wilson now. It’s much more about him running the show, throwing the football to Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, Jermaine Kearse, Paul Richardson, and tight end Jimmy Graham. If the patchwork offensive line can simply give him any time to actually get the football out, he could be poised for an MVP-caliber season.
And, of course, you can’t talk about the Seahawks without mentioning the defense. The unit will return nine of 11 starters, including defensive backbone Earl Thomas, meaning it should once again be as stout as we’ve come to know it in recent years.
Enduring an injury-riddled season in 2016 themselves, the Arizona Cardinals are looking to rebound closer to the form which saw them win an NFL-high 13 games in 2015. The biggest question for the Cardinals — along the lines of staying healthy — will be whether Carson Palmer’s arm can hold up for all 16 games, especially in an offense that demands a lot of vertical throws. Palmer has shown a penchant in recent years for starting out the season hot, but demonstrating arm fatigue as the year goes on. Of course, the latter the could be mitigated as the team begins to rely more on superstar running back David Johnson, whose combined 2,118 yards from scrimmage last year was second most in the NFL. Johnson’s ability as a running back and pass catcher make him one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL, and will likely make him the focal point of a somewhat aging Cardinals offense.
Arizona’s defense faces questions of their own around health and personnel, especially as they’re looking for the return of a healthy Tyrann Mathieu — who finished last season on injured reserve for the third time in four years — and to overcome the loss of defensive lineman Calais Campbell. However, Arizona has done an excellent job in “restocking the cupboard” on defense with young talent, starting with defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (their top pick in the 2016 NFL Draft), linebacker Haason Reddick (taken with their first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft) and safety Budda Baker (their second round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft). There are still plenty of core players left on this team to lead them to one last deep playoff run, if things can finally break right for them.
Los Angeles Rams
During an episode of HBO’s Hard Knocks, (now former) head coach Jeff Fisher of the Los Angeles Rams chastised his team for resembling a football team destined for a 7–9 record. Little did Fisher realize that his team would be so lucky as to finish with a 7–9 record. The Rams finished a 4–12 record at season’s end, and Fisher didn’t even make it through the season before he was dismissed from his position (which many saw as long-overdue move).
As his replacement, the Rams went in the total opposite direction, hiring offensive wunderkind Sean McVay — the former offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins — and making him the youngest head coach in NFL history (he was officially hired just days before his 31st birthday). McVay’s primary responsibility will be to rectify all the damage that Fisher and his staff did to quarterback Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Meanwhile, McVay smartly hired defensive guru Wade Phillips, the latter of whom is only two years away from overseeing a defense that led its team to a Super Bowl victory (in Denver).
Supposedly, the early whispers from the new regime are filled with glowing optimism, and everything you hear out of Los Angeles is that the player recognize what a difference in experience, leadership, and intellectual horsepower the new coaching staff has already brought. However, this roster still has major holes to fill — mostly on offense — before it can consider itself a contender in this division.
San Francisco 49ers
Rounding out the NFC West is the San Francisco 49ers, who underwent a much-needed housecleaning of their own last season, dismissing long time General Manager Trent Baalke and embattled head coach Chip Kelly. In their place will be new head coach Kyle Shanahan, fresh off leading the Atlanta Falcons to one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history, and new General Manager John Lynch, a surprise hire who lobbied Shanahan for the unorthodox opportunity of jumping straight from the broadcast booth to being the man in charge of a team’s front office.
The two of them went to work adding numerous players to a roster that was badly in need of a talent infusion all over the board. At quarterback, journeymen Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley will vie for the team’s starting job in the near future, but it wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprising to see them them address the position with one of their picks in the 2018 NFL Draft (which looks to have a quarterback class absolutely loaded with talent).
Early on, they’ll look to the defense to keep them in games, after spending a first round pick on a defensive lineman — Soloman Thomas from Stanford University — for the third year in a row, and then trading up into the latter part of the first round to select linebacker Rueben Foster from the University of Alabama. The defense has some really intriguing players in pass rushing specialist Elvis Dumvervil, stalwart linebacker NaVorro Bowman, free safety Jimmy Ward, and defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead (their first round picks in 2016 and 2015 respectively). But, with a much-needed roster turnover taking place over the long-term, this team is still years away from being ready to make any real noise in the division.