The NFC West was one of the toughest divisions in the league last season. They have had a team in the Superbowl each of the last three seasons. That includes the two-time defending NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks, who after a slow start, pulled the division out from the Arizona Cardinals in the last few weeks of the season. There have been major changes within the division, and some teams who used to be competitive may have fallen from grace.
Division Winner – Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
If the Seattle Seahawks had handed Marshawn Lynch the ball, we would be talking about them being two-time defending NFL Champions, but instead we all know what happened. My question is, will that emotional loss leave them broken, or leave them hungry to restore the glory? The additions they made this offseason make me think they will be right there in the hunt again this season.
They wrapped up Lynch and QB Russell Wilson with long term deals. Then they acquired All-World TE Jimmy Graham from the New Orleans Saints in exchange for C Max Unger. The rich kept getting richer. But now, with veteran S Earl Thomas on the PUP list, and athletic freak Safety Kam Chancellor holding out for a better contract, the Legion of Boom are without the middle of the defense. The Seahawks will not be as dominant this season, but expect them at the top of the division once again.
Second Place – St. Louis Rams (8-8)
Any team coached by Jeff Fisher will be a tough team that will always play hard. Last year the St. Louis Rams were no different. Unfortunately injuries, and the fact that the talent didn’t measure up to the toughness, made last season a losing effort. This offseason, they traded often-injured QB Sam Bradford to the Philadelphia Eagles for QB Nick Foles, with the hope of bringing stability to the quarterback position.
The Rams hope the addition of DL Nick Fairley will make them tougher up the middle, and OLB Akeem Ayers of the New England Patriots will help them in the pass rush. They drafted Georgia HB Todd Gurley in the first round (#10 overall), hoping his strength and athleticism will allow him to contribute immediately in the run game. Their biggest issue might be protecting Foles this season. They had protection problems last year, and with the departure of OLs Jake Long and Scott Wells, that should only get worse.
Third Place – Arizona Cardinals (7-9)
The Arizona Cardinals defense was scary last year. So scary that despite starting four different quarterbacks, the Cardinals won eleven games, made the playoffs, and were one of the toughest teams in the league. This year, they are banking on QB Carson Palmer staying healthy if they hope to return to the postseason. Larry Fitzgerald, as always, will have a productive season, but he can only be as good as his quarterback will allow him to be, and it is pretty bare behind Carson.
To keep Palmer healthy they took OL DJ Humphries with their first pick (#24 overall). They added Rookie HB David Johnson in the third (#86 overall) and explosive UAB WR JJ Nelson in the fifth (#159 overall). They recently signed aging HB Chris Johnson to help improve a running game that struggled through most of last season. The Cardinals will be tough to beat again this season, but unless they can stay healthy, I predict a decline.
Cellar Dwellers – San Francisco 49ers (5-11)
After three straight NFC Championship appearances, the San Francisco 49ers missed the playoffs a year ago in what was an all-around tumultuous season for the team. When the season ended, they cut ties with successful Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, a move everybody saw coming. The ongoing saga of pass rush aficionado Aldon Smith finally hit a head, and the team released him after another DUI incident. On the bright side, the team did sign QB Colin Kaepernick to a seven year deal worth over $120 million.
Kaepernick looked as if he regressed last season, and early indications are that this season may not be much better. Given the fact that Justin Smith and Patrick Willis retired, and Michael Crabtree left for Oakland, this team will be without the veteran presence, the core that led them to success. This will be a rebuilding year for the Niners unless Kaepernick can prove he is worth all the money he will make.