It might be way too early in some ways (will the season even start on time?) but as attention turns towards the 2020/21 NFL season which divisions, at this moment, look more exciting than others? For me, there was only one place to start and it was way out west. The best of both conferences came from the west last year to meet in Super Bowl LIV, will it be a repeat next season? In part 1 of this 2-parter heading “way out west” we look at the NFC West.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers were arguably 9 minutes away from a dominant Super Bowl win before Patrick Mahomes took the game away from them. They will return with renewed effort, motivated no doubt by getting so close last year. They have made astute roster changes in order to maneuver within their cap space (e.g. trading away DeForest Buckner then drafting a ready-made replacement in Javon Kinlaw). The addition of veteran Trent Williams should bolster the offensive line and it will be intriguing to see how Head Coach and offensive guru Kyle Shanahan utilises first-round pick, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk. However, the loss of Emmanuel Sanders to the New Orleans Saints and the recent injury to rookie sensation Deebo Samuel could limit Jimmy Garoppolo’s ability to push the ball downfield. George Kittle will once again be key to the 49ers offensive fortunes and watch out for 2nd year receiver Jalen Hurd. He missed his entire rookie season when he was placed on IR after a very promising pre-season. Look for him to make an impact this time around. I expect Robert Salah’s all swarming defense to have similar production to last year, making it difficult to rack up numbers against the 49ers.
The Seattle Seahawks were inches away from beating the 49ers in week 17 last season, a result which would have changed the entire NFC side of the playoffs. The Seahawks under Pete Carroll are always competitive. Four division titles in the last decade and a winning record every year since 2012. They will be in the hunt again this season. So much of what they do revolves around Russell Wilson although their emphasis on the run game is also vital (3rd in 2019 on number of run attempts per game behind the 49ers and Baltimore Ravens). A committee approach (similar to the 49ers) looks most likely with Carlos Hyde arriving in free agency and late round draft pick Deejay Dallas added to the ranks. Third-round pick Damien Lewis will hopefully help the line in front of Russell Wilson, as this was a little patchwork at times last year, relying on Wilson’s ability to get out of trouble and extend plays. On defense the Seahawks definitely have a blueprint, drafting raw talent with the athletic traits (e.g. early 2020 picks Jordyn Brooks and Darrell Taylor) and confidence the coaching staff can develop their technique. Their pass rush could benefit if they were able to bring back Jadeveon Clowney on the right terms, although limited current cap space may prevent this.
Los Angeles Rams
The LA Rams are licking their wounds after their Super Bowl LIII hangover which seemed to last most of last season. They appeared to lose their mojo on offense, with the constant question marks over Todd Gurley’s fitness, and their defence went missing in some games shipping 30+ points in five games. Although they managed nine wins, only two of these were against teams with a winning record (the Seahawks and the New Orleans Saints). After seemingly going for broke in the last 2 years with expensive free agency signings, the Rams have been forced into a mini-roster reset. Notable departures have included Dante Fowler JR, Cory Littleton and Todd Gurley. The addition of former first round pick Leonard Floyd, a free agency signing from the Chicago Bears, is a gamble based on his production thus far but perhaps the biggest impact will be felt on the coaching staff with new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley replacing the legendary Wade Phillips. On offense, the Rams may well have picked up two of the best value picks on day 2 of the NFL draft, adding running back Cam Akers and wide receiver Van Jefferson. Akers flew a little under the radar behind a poor Florida State University offense and his talents may have been under-appreciated by NFL teams. Van Jefferson was one of the best route runners coming out of the College game and will prove a reliable target for Jared Goff. The Rams will be looking to get back on track in 2020.
Finally, the potential ‘beserkers’ of the NFC West, the Arizona Cardinals. They could be the most exciting team to watch in the division, the Cardinals are a franchise on the up. After a strong 4 years under Bruce Arians they have been rebuilding more recently (2018; 3-13, 2019; 5-10-1). Quarterback Kyler Murray impressed enough to win the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, his 20 TDs supplemented with a little north of 500 rushing yards. When he looks up this season his primary targets will be Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk and DeAndre Hopkins, as good a trio as you will find in the league. Head Coach Cliff Kingsbury was able to breathe life into a previously 32nd rated offense (DVOA 2018) lifting it to 13th in 2019. Although there is talent through the air, there is also a healthy running game in Arizona and a committee of Kenyon Drake, Chase Edmonds and late-round draft ‘steal’ Eno Benjamin will produce again in 2020. On defense, the Cardinals picked up potentially the most exciting prospect on that side of the ball. Isaiah Simmons can do it all and may be the best example of a new type of defender, lining up pretty much anywhere he is needed. It will be intriguing to see the schemes Arizona employ to gain maximum benefit from his talent. In order for the Cardinals to advance out of this highly competitive division the defense will need to step up to the challenge.
Prediction for the 2020 division standings
The NFC West has the advantage of playing two of the weaker divisions in the NFL in 2020 as they go East. On strength of schedule the 49ers have the hardest task ahead (4th) followed by the Cardinals (8th), Rams (10th) and finally Seahawks (13th).
The Arizona Cardinals have the opportunity to put a marker down in the division in week 1 as they travel to the 49ers. A win there and they would springboard into a very winnable early season 4-game stretch (Redskins, Lions, Panthers, Jets). What price the Cardinals sat at 5-0 early doors? By contrast, the LA Rams have a tough start home to the Cowboys and then away at the Eagles then Bills. A 0-3 start could prove difficult to overturn in this division.
If the 49ers do navigate past Arizona in week 1 their subsequent fixtures ease them into the season with only the Eagles a standout opposition until week 7 when they embark on a testing four-game stretch before their bye (Patriots, Seahawks, Packers, Saints). Seattle’s schedule does not stand out as such, although an early bye (week 6) may impact late in the season if injuries stack up. If they can get to week 13 in good shape then the following run of Giants, Jets, Redskins should help propel them to a playoff spot.
It will all come down to the week 16 and week 17 divisional double-headers. I would expect the Seahawks and 49ers to be battling for the division title again and that week 17 fixture in Santa Clara could be winner takes all for the second year in a row. When the Rams host the Cardinals in week 17 that could be with a wildcard spot at stake.
Overall, I think every team will finish the season .500 or better and three teams will make the playoffs. My prediction for what it is worth is as follows:
San Francisco 49ers 12-4
Seattle Seahawks 11-5
Arizona Cardinals 9-7
Los Angeles Rams 8-8
In both cases it could be a week 17 coin flip that decides who makes it through to playoff football. Next time I’ll cross the conferences to look at the home of our reigning Super Bowl champions, the AFC West.