Preview and predictions for the NFC West in 2020
The NFC West was by far the most competitive division in all of football last season. The 4 teams combined for an outstanding 38-25-1 cumulative record. As a matter of fact, the top 3 teams (San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams) combined to go 33-15 (.688). While the last place Arizona Cardinals saw 5 of their 10 losses come by 7 points or fewer. Can the 49ers repeat as NFC West Division champions?
Will San Francisco get to the Super Bowl for a 2nd consecutive season? Will the Rams get back to postseason action after not making it there last season for a first time in 3 years? Will Seattle challenge the 49ers for division supremacy? Can the Cardinals turn it around and be a legitimate playoff contender? Those answers and much more are included throughout this NFC West Division futures preview.
Below are the futures odds for all four teams in the NFC West and is courtesy of 5Dimes.
|Los Angeles Rams||+500|
|San Francisco 49ers||+112|
Arizona Cardinals (+525)
Arizona finished 5-10-1 a year ago and last in the NFC West standings. However, there is much for them to be encouraged about heading into the 2020-2021 regular season campaign. Last year’s #1 draft pick, quarterback Kyler Murray,had an outstanding rookie season, all things being considered. They fully expect Murray to elevate his productivity and maturation in his second year on the job. The Cardinals also made a significant offseason trade by acquiring all-pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins from Houston, while not giving up anything close to equal value in return.
Kyler Murray was everything the Cardinals could hope for in his rookie year. The former Oklahoma Sooner quarterback completed 64.4% of his passes for 3722 yards and 20 touchdowns. Additionally, Murray ran for 544 yards and four scores. He figures to benefit expeditiously by the addition of Hopkins while also maintaining the chemistry with his other two wideouts, Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. Hopkins has amassed a combined 315 pass receptions over the past three regular seasons with Houston, which was good for an enormous 4115 yards and 31 touchdowns. Last season, Fitzgerald and Kirk had a cumulative 143 catches for 1523 yards and seven touchdowns.
Besides obtaining Hopkins, General Manager Steve Keim also made an outstanding trade at the mid-point of last season by procuring running back Kenyon Drake from Miami. Throughout Arizona's final 8 regular season games, Drake piled up 643 yards rushing, ran for eight touchdowns, caught 28 passes for 171 yards, and scored 8 touchdowns. Over a 16-game regular season schedule, that equates 1628 total yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns. Arizona opted to use the transition tag on Drake and signed him to a $8.4M, 1-year contract in late April.
An area of huge concern for the Cardinals is at tight end. The depth chart at that position currently consists of unproven players that have shown little in the way of playmaking ability. The projected starter is Maxx Williams who was signed as an unrestricted free agent last season. The former Baltimore Raven was a huge disappointment during his first year with Arizona after collecting only 15 pass receptions for 202 yards and 1 touchdown, while appearing in all 16 games.
The offensive line drew mixed reviews when assessing their performance from a season ago. They paved the way for Arizona finishing #10 in rushing at 124.4 yards per game. Yet, they also allowed their quarterback to be sacked a colossal 50 times.
If Arizona hopes to move their way up the standings or even contend for a postseason position, then they must show substantial improvement defensively. The Cardinals ranked last in total defense (402.0 YPG), 31st in passing (281.9 YPG), and 28th in scoring (27.6 PPG). They also allowed their opponents to convert on a worrisome 46.7% of their 3rd down attempts, which ranked next to last in the NFL.
Los Angeles Rams (+500)
Notwithstanding of their 9-7 record last season, Los Angeles failed to qualify for postseason action for a first time in three years. They finished 3rd in the NFC West behind San Francisco and Seattle.
Quarterback Jared Goff threw for an impressive 4638 yards last season. Nonetheless, you can make a case that he regressed some compared to his performance line during the prior two seasons. Throughout the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 NFL seasons Goff threw for 60 touchdowns versus 19 interceptions. Last year he tossed only 22 touchdown passes and was picked off an alarmingly high 16 times.
The Rams will have an unenviable task of replacing former star running back Todd Gurley's production. Through his first five NFL seasons, all spent with the Rams, Gurley manufactured 7494 total yards from scrimmage and scored 70 touchdowns. He was a fantasy player's dream running back. In any event, the Rams chose to let Gurley move on and he signed a free agent contract with Atlanta. There were speculative reports that the organization was concerned with Gurley's deteriorating knee condition that he originally injured in college while playing for Georgia. Los Angeles will have to hope returning running backs Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson can step up in more prominent roles. Neither of those backs has ever topped 300 yards rushing in a season during their still young NFL careers.
The Rams return their top two producing receivers from a year ago in Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Over the past two seasons, Woods has reeled in 176 pass receptions and amassed 2353 yards receiving. Kupp is coming off the best season of his NFL career after hauling in 94 passes that accounted for 1161 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns.
Los Angeles is in good shape at the tight end position with Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett. The pair combined for 106 catches and 1142 yards receiving last season.
The Rams stop unit will once again be led by star defensive tackle Aaron Donald. All he has done over the past three seasons is contribute 44 sacks and force 11 fumbles. Donald possesses a rare combination of power and speed, which is unique for a defensive tackle.
Cornerback Jalen Ramsey will be looking forward to his first full year with the Rams, after being acquired in a trade with Jacksonville early last season. Still only 25-years-old, Ramsey has established himself as an elite lockdown NFL cornerback.
The Rams were middle of the road statistically in most defensive categories last season. Yet, they sacked the quarterback 50 times and that was fourth best in the NFL.
Seattle Seahawks (+300)
Seattle went 11-5 last season and finished second to San Francisco in the NFC West standings. They ended up being an NFC wildcard team and won at Philadelphia 17-9 in an opening round playoff contest. Unfortunately, they were eliminated the following week after suffering a 28-23 loss at Green Bay.
Russell Wilson has certainly instituted himself as an elite NFL quarterback who has been dynamic dating all the way back to his rookie season. Wilson is coming off a superb 2019-2020 regular season campaign which saw him accumulate 4110 yards passing, while throwing for 31 touchdowns against only five interceptions. Wilson also ran for 342 yards and 7 touchdowns. He is a textbook modern-day dual threat NFL quarterback.
Seattle running back Chris Carson is coming off two consecutive 1000-yard rushing seasons. He will be joined in the backfield by Carlos Hyde, who signed an unrestricted free agent contract during this still current offseason. Last year Hyde rushed for over 1000-yards for a first time in his NFL career while with the Houston Texans.
The Seahawks also signed veteran tight end Greg Olsen to a free agent contract. Although Olsen is in the twilight of his career, he still totaled 52 pass receptions, which was good for over 500 yards receiving while with San Francisco last season. He will be backed up by returning tight ends Will Dissly and Luke Wilson. Overall, this position group is rock solid.
The offensive line was terrific in their running blocking last year. After all, Seattle was #4 in rushing a season ago while averaging 137.5 yards per game in that statistical category. However, what has remained an ongoing problem over recent seasons has been pass blocking. Seattle allowed 48 sacks last year and that was 9th worst in the NFL. This is certainly concerning when bearing in mind that Russell Wilson is an extremely elusive quarterback.
If Seattle is going to be regarded as a genuine Super Bowl contender, their defense must improve dramatically from a season ago. They were 26th in total defense while allowing a lofty 381.6 yards per game. Seattle was notably vulnerable through the air which is evidenced by them surrendering 263.9 passing yards per game. Only 6 NFL teams were worse than Seattle in defending opposing aerial attacks. Seattle's lack of a pass rush had a lot to do with their defensive woes against the pass. They were only able to muster a paltry 28 sacks, which ranked next to last in the NFL.
The strength of Seattle’s defense is at linebacker. Veterans Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are exceptional performers. They will be joined by highly touted 2020 top draft pick and former Texas Tech Red Raider Jordan Brooks to form a seemingly formidable group.
One thing the Seattle defense was adept at doing last season was creating turnovers. Seattle had 32 takeaways which was 3rd most in the NFL, while trailing only Pittsburgh and New England in that department. Otherwise, their points allowed per game would have been much higher than 22.6.
It is worth noting, Seattle has finished in the plus column when it comes to turnover differential every year since 2011. Coincidentally, Pete Carroll has been Seattle’s head coach since 2010.
San Francisco 49ers (+112)
San Francisco won the NFC West last season with a 13-3 record. Their season climaxed with a Super Bowl loss to Kansas City. It was a bittersweet ending to an otherwise marvelous 2019-2020 NFL campaign. Particularly with them blowing a 10-point 4th quarter lead to the Chiefs.
The 49ers offense will once again be spearheaded by quarterback Jimmy Garappolo. Last season Garappolo threw for 3978 yards and 27 touchdowns, while completing an outstanding 69.1% of his pass attempts.
Garappolo will be protected by a stellar offensive line that only got better with the offseason free agent signing of former All-Pro tackle Trent Williams. This group was responsible for San Francisco being the NFL's 2nd best rushing team at 144.1 yards per game last season.
The 49ers running backs are more than adequate with a 1-2 punch of Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman. Those two backs combined for 1676 total yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns last season.
The projected starting wide receivers are extremely young, but amazingly talented. Deebo Samuel enters his second NFL season after recording a rookie year in which he had 57 receptions for 802 yards and three touchdowns. Samuel also added 159 yards rushing and an additional three touchdowns. His 961 total yards from scrimmage and 6 touchdowns were accomplished in only 11 starts and with him missing one game.
As of this moment in time, Samuel will be flanked by incoming rookie wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, out of Arizona State. Aiyuk was the 49ers first round draft pick and obviously will be expected to make an immediate impact. Aiyuk had 65 receptions for 1192 yards and 8 touchdowns in his final year at Arizona State. He also averaged an eye popping 18.3 yards per catch. Aiyuk also displayed the ability as an explosive kickoff team specialist as he averaged 31.9 yards per return. Furthermore, he averaged 16.1 yards per punt return and scored a touchdown while doing so.
The 49ers undeniably have one of the best tight ends in the NFL with George Kittle. During the past two seasons Kittle racked up 173 catches for 2430 yards, which are incredible numbers for a tight end.
Saying that San Francisco’s defense was stout last season may be a vast understatement. They were 2nd in total defense while surrendering just 281.8 yards per game. The 49ers allowed just 169.2 passing yards per contest and that was a league best.
Defensive ends Erik Armstead and Joey Bosa are nothing short of a spectacular pair. Collectively they sacked opposing quarterbacks 21 times and had 29 tackles for loss. Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman has been a stabilizing force in the secondary since coming over from Seattle.
Final Analysis and Pick
I do believe that Arizona will be a dramatically improved from the 5-10-1 team we saw a season ago. Nevertheless, it would be a stretch to forecast them winning a division title this year.
I predict the Rams will have a difficult time attaining a winning record this season. My biggest concern is their lack of a proven feature running back.
Seattle will be a fun team to watch offensively. However, there are too many defensive deficiencies, especially in the secondary for me to think they can be better than San Francisco over a 16-game regular season slate.
San Francisco is the class of what may once again end up being the NFL’s strongest division from top to bottom. They have the most balance between offense and defense which lends itself to sustainability and consistent winning. My NFC West futures prediction is on San Francisco.
Pick: San Francisco +112
Ross Benjamin is a top sports analyst and one of the sports industry's most respected handicappers. Follow him on Twitter: @RossBenjamin1 or visit his website at RBWins.com