In this new series, Off The Ball will be reviewing each division in the NFL - taking a look at each team’s 2019 season, their ups and downs, as well as looking ahead to what their 2020 might look like.
The NFC West was one of the best divisions in the league in 2019. It contained an NFC conference champion from 2019 in San Francisco, an NFC conference champion from 2018 in Los Angeles, one of the more dominant teams in the league since 2013 in Seattle, and a team with the number one draft pick in Arizona.
A common quip among the NFL community is to state that NFL stands for ‘not for long’, and that’s pretty fair when you look at the fleeting success of some teams like the Rams. The Niners came close to winning it all in 2019 too – so can anyone from the NFC West go one better in 2020?
The Cardinals went into the 2019 season having pulled off one of the more unusual off-season moves of drafting a quarterback at number one, just 12 months on from selecting one at number 10 in the previous draft.
Josh Rosen out, Kyler Murray in. And the result? A pretty fun team to watch, albeit not quite in contention just yet.
Murray would go on to win the Rookie of the Year prize, and he probably deserved it too. He threw for 3,722 yards, 20 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 64.4% completion rate.
His accuracy and a spread offense is something they can really build on this year and beyond.
A 5-10-1 finish to the season sounds pretty bad, but they also had some stiff competition – playing at Baltimore, New Orleans, Seattle, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and LA. Being in the NFC West itself proved tough in itself.
It’s a tough division, and the Cardinals were the worst of a division that had two playoff teams, and one team who just missed out.
2020 promises to be a bit better though. They’ve landed DeAndre Hopkins, after managing to pry him away from a very willing Bill O’Brien. They also have the eighth overall pick.
Assuming they don’t decide to find another quarterback, then a stud defensive lineman or offensive protection should be the priority. Their defense was quite poor in 2019, so maybe that’s the route to explore.
How their 2020 season goes is, in part, predicated on how well their division performs. They lost five of their six divisional games in 2019, so that has to improve.
The Rams look like they’re leaking players by the day, and San Francisco may well regress too – so there’s potential for much change in how the NFC West finishes up. Arizona should improve, just not enough to make the playoffs.
Remember when the Rams were in the Super Bowl?
That was just over a year ago. Since then, they’ve missed out on the playoffs (albeit narrowly), let Wade Phillips go, released Todd Gurley, plus a plethora of other pieces have moved on too. The former NFC champions feel like an entirely new team.
The reality is that approach to building their team meant that this could always happen. They spent big on talent and traded away draft pick after draft pick. The last time they actually had a first-round pick was 2016.
They’re trying to make it work though. Signing Leonard Floyd will help fill a gap, and it wasn’t long ago that they traded for Jalen Ramsey. They also possess the best defensive player in the league in Aaron Donald. They have big talent in key places.
In terms of negatives, they went from being a top-three offense to a middling team in 2019. Jared Goff has been asked to do more than he is capable of doing, since Gurley hasn’t been himself, and that showed. Injuries certainly didn’t help either, but they feel like a team in regression without much draft picks or cap space to save them.
While Arizona look like they’re on a crescendo towards contention, the Rams are going the other direction. It’ll be interesting to see how they perform in 2020 with the worst roster McVay has had since taking over.
A poor record won’t mean a referendum for McVay’s job, but if he manages to turn in an impressive campaign, then he’ll be even more revered than he’s been to date.
The Rams’ brand refresh feels appropriate right now – they’ve spent a lot of money on it, but they’re ultimately worse than they were last season. Their schedule doesn’t look too gruelling though, so a middling season may beckon for LA.
San Francisco 49ers
Much of the narrative after the Chiefs’ comeback Super Bowl win over San Francisco was around Shanahan bottling it on the big stage. They were a very good team all season though, and a lot of that is down to his scheme. Did they excel due to a pretty easy schedule? In part, yes. But they also have a lot of talent on their roster.
However, almost two months on from the Super Bowl, they’ve lost Sanders and Buckner. They’re two pretty pivotal pieces on offense and defense. Plus their quarterback, in spite of his winning record as a starter, has a perennial question mark over him.
So what happens to this team in 2020? An exciting young coach, a superstar defense and a quarterback who doesn’t have everyone’s backing sounds a bit like the Rams 2.0, to an extent at least.
But they still have a strong running game and players like Bosa and Armstead who can disrupt opposition’s lines. They’re not in a bad position. And yet, there’s a feeling that the Niners could also regress in 2020.
A slight regression for one of the best teams in the NFL isn’t a huge concern. They’ll be in playoff contention again, and although Sanders is gone, this draft class is littered with talent in that position, so don’t be surprised to see them dip into that pool for a replacement.
After that, their draft capital is lacking, so there shouldn’t be too much change to their roster in the scheme of things.
How people feel San Francisco will fare in 2020 may depend on your view of Garappolo. If you believe in him, then they should be making a push again. If you don’t, and you feel like they had to carry him in 2019, then you might feel like they’re three or four wins worse off.
Rumour has it that they discussed the possibility of signing Tom Brady. If they were investigating that, then maybe the Niners organisation isn’t so confident in Garoppolo themselves.
Give this to Seattle – they are very consistent. They’ve made the playoffs in seven of the past eight seasons, and yet, they don’t feel like a true contender either.
Some might say they overachieved in 2019, going 11-5 and making it to the divisional round, but equally, when you have Russell Wilson as your quarterback, anything is possible.
Indeed, if not for Lamar Jackson’s remarkable campaign, Wilson may have finally won the regular-season MVP award. He’s been one of the best in his position for some time now, and that’s often forgotten because of someone else taking the role to new heights (Mahomes, Jackson spring to mind).
Wilson aside, they saw great production from rookie DK Metcalf, who managed 900 yards and seven touchdowns in his debut season. They managed 1,057 yards and eight touchdowns from Tyler Lockett, and running back Chris Carson rushed for 1,230 and seven touchdowns.
The Seahawks were 10-2 by week 13, and although San Francisco took much of the plaudits during the season, it was their rival in Seattle who looked primed to steal the number one seed at a point. But they faded away.
Carson’s injury was certainly a factor, as was losing Josh Gordon to suspension, but above that, Wilson (one of the best quarterbacks in the league, remember?) was often misused, with Seattle handing the ball off instead.
In terms of their defense, resigning Clowney is looking unlikely. He wants $20million a year, and the fact that they haven’t obliged him to date would suggest he’ll go elsewhere.
Regardless, they do need help in rushing the passer, and that could well be their plan with the 27th pick in the draft.
It’s difficult to doubt Seattle’s ability to challenge again in 2020. They’ve been one of the best teams in the league since Carroll took over, and although his game management has been questioned at times, they are well-coached and they’re still a gritty force to be reckoned with.
Written by Matthew Carolan.