NFC WEST: After five long months the new football season is almost here, and it is a big year for all four teams in the division as Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams battle to keep their stranglehold on top spot in the division.
The Rams season ended in something of an anti-climactic Super Bowl defeat at the hands of the New England Patriots, with an injured Todd Gurley struggling to make an impact and quarterback Jared Goff failing to get their free-slowing offence going.
Meanwhile, the 49ers season was lost to the injury of big-money signing Jimmy Garoppolo, the Cardinals repeatedly shot themselves in the foot as they consistently misfired under one-and-done head coach Steve Wilks, and Russell Wilson’s Seahawks exited the playoffs in the wildcard round.
Heading into pre-season, here is what to look out for from the four NFC West sides.
Undoubtedly, the biggest change in the division is in the desert this season, as coach Kliff Kingsbury looks to bring his air-raid offence to the NFL in his first big time role.
Alongside Kingsbury is much-hyped number one draft pick Kyler Murray, who is all but guaranteed the starting role when the Lions come to Arizona on September 8. Before then, all eyes will be on the young quarterback during the pre-season as he seeks to prove he belongs as a starter in the NFL.
Also looking to prove themselves for the NFC West side will be the ever-growing cast of receivers that have been brought in to help Murray bring Kingsbury’s air-raid style to life.
Most importantly for the rookie signal caller will be veteran catcher Larry Fitzgerald, whose unquestionable ability and experience will be something of a safety blanket. Second year star Christian Kirk also needs to step up, while newly drafted Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler and KeeSean Johnson will all have something to prove in the next month.
Los Angeles Rams
All eyes in LA are on running back Gurley as the Rams return for pre-season. The drastic decline of the superstar’s input at the back end of last season played a big part in the side’s flat Super Bowl performance.
Having drafted rookie Darrell Henderson, coach McVay already seems to be making plans to take some of the heavy workload off number 30 in a bid to retain the NFC West and go one step further an win the Super Bowl this year.
However, given the Rams tendency to not send top stars on to the field in pre-season, the only assessments that will be made of Gurley will likely be in footage from practice.
And with it unlikely many starters will be on show during the Rams pre-season schedule, another intriguing storyline will be the effect McVay can have on former Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles.
Since taking the helm in LA, many have suggested McVay could transform anyone into a starting QB – and here is his first chance to prove them right.
Bortles was written off by fans and pundits after a dismal showing last season in Jacksonville, but it was not so long ago he almost took the Jags to the Super Bowl. It will be more than interesting to see what McVay can do with him.
San Francisco 49ers
Unquestionably, the one question every football fan has about the 49ers this season is how well Garoppolo will bounce back from his season ending knee injury.
Heading into the last campaign, many believed San Francisco were going to take the game to division standouts the Rams and push them all the way for the division title – but it was not to be. However, coach Kyle Shanahan showed his ability as a play caller, making the best of back up quarterbacks, including Nick Mullens.
Also up for a big season is tight end George Kittle, who will be one of a small group competing to make themselves the heir to Rob Gronkowski’s number one spot at the position.
On the opposite side of the ball, the 49ers defence needs to step up this year, with the franchise having used four first round picks since 2015 on defensive lineman and giving up a second rounder for Kansas City’s Dee Ford.
Pre-season will be the first opportunity to see how rookie Nick Bosa fits on the defence, along with big money free agent acquisition linebacker Kwon Alexander as well.
In the off-season, the Seahawks announced they were releasing veteran receiver Doug Baldwin, who had been struggling to overcome injury. The big talking point of this pre-season will be how they replace the output he provided them.
Fifth-year pro Tyler Lockett will be the main receiver expected to step up to the plate and fill the gap left by Baldwin and he certainly showed last season he may have what it takes to do so, recording 10 touchdowns and 965 yards off 57 catches.
Also looking to make a name for himself is young DK Metcalf, who was selected in the second round of the draft having recorded 14 touchdowns in his three years in college with Ole Miss. The buzz surrounding the 21-year-old after his 4.33 second 40-yard dash at the combine was huge, but he will have to know he faces a tough task in making the jump to the big time, with some watching for him to be a flop.
After years of being one of the most-feared defences in the league, times have changed in Seattle.
Linebacker Bobby Wagner is one of the best in the league, but after him there is something off a drop-off and that will not be helped by the team trading away Frank Clark, who recorded 32 sacks over the last three seasons.
And with Earl Thomas leaving as well, Seattle’s defence are really in for a sink or swim campaign.
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