The NFC West is top-to-bottom the best division in the NFL. Last season, each NFC West team had the best record in the conference for their rank in the division. With just one more win for the Los Angeles Rams, there would have been three NFC West teams in the playoffs.
And of course each team’s individual ranking is dragged down by the six brutal division contests throughout the year. Even the division’s lowest members, the Arizona Cardinals, posted a respectable 4-5-1 record against the rest of the NFL outside of the division.
Looking ahead to next season, the NFC West promises to be a bloodbath yet again. There’s an argument to be made that every team in the division has a path to the playoffs. I will outline the steps along this path for each team, working my way down through last year’s standings.
If it ain’t broke — San Francisco 49ers:
Fresh off a 13-3 season and Super Bowl loss, the San Francisco 49ers should make the playoffs next year. They have plenty of things going for them:
- One of the most dominant run games in history
- An offensive genius head coach in Kyle Shanahan
- Borderline-elite quarterback Jimmy Garropolo
- Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa
Of course, this time last year the Rams were fresh off a 13-3 season and Super Bowl loss, with a dominant running game, an offensive genius head coach, and borderline-elite quarterback Jared Goff and Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.
The Rams are a cautionary tale: The NFC West is wild, and the 49ers should not rest on their laurels, instead making moves to ensure they remain on top.
- Let Arik Armstead walk: Armstead was a key piece of the niners dominant defensive line last season, posting 10 sacks in the regular season and two more in the postseason. However, prior to last season, in which he certainly benefited from playing alongside Bosa and Deforest Buckner, his performance was not at the same level for which he will now get paid. Unless they can arrange a tag and trade, the same as they were on the other end of to acquire Dee Ford last season, they should save cap for future free agents — like Buckner himself and superstar tight end George Kittle.
- Dip into deep WR draft: Another key free agent decision for the 49ers will be wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who revitalized their passing offense halfway through the season after being traded from the Denver Broncos. The Niners would do best to let Sanders get his payday elsewhere and instead take advantage of a historically talented set of wide receivers at the NFL draft to add to their arsenal for cheap.
- Improve OL depth: With the cap they save on players like Armstead and Sanders (along with likely releasing other players whose cap hits outweigh their production, like Jerrick McKinnon and Marquise Goodwin) the Niners should bolster the unit that powers their run-first offense. Hopefully 35-year-old tackle Joe Staley returns for one more season, but more offensive line talent is always a good thing to have. Especially with center Weston Richburg again facing a long term injury, the Niners should look to acquire more linemen to fit Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme.
If the Niners do all this, along with a few other key moves (resigning free safety Jimme Ward should be a priority, align with drafting or signing a cornerback to replace the inconsistent-at-best Akhello Witherspoon), they will find themselves back on track on the “Quest for Six.”
Free Wilson — Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks only made the playoffs because of Russell Wilson last year. Outside of Wilson, their roster was not talented or particularly healthy.
Luckily for them, Wilson is a magician. He put in an MVP-level performance to carry Seattle to an 11-5 record and playoff berth. The most important thing for the Seahawks to do is enable Wilson to do his thing: give him more offensive weapons and let him take the reins early and often, not holding him back with conservative play-calling as they have in the past.
They took a step in the right direction offensively with the signing of veteran tight end Greg Olsen, who will join Will Dissly to make a talented tight end group. But the Seahawks need improvements throughout their roster if they want to earn another playoff berth, so Olsen should be just the first step.
On the other side, to be a true contender, the Seahawks desperately need to address their defense, which is far removed from its glory days as the “Legion of Boom.”
Legion of Room
- The Seahawks defense allowed 24.9 points per game last season, the most of any playoff team.
- The largest holes are at defensive line, a unit that was one of the league’s worst last year, especially rushing the passer, averaging an anemic 1.75 sacks per game last season.
- The Seahawks should resign d-linemen Jarran Reed and Quinton Jefferson, but need to do more.
Luckily, they have nearly $45 million in cap space, and there is d-line talent for the taking this offseason, so they will have options, and should look to acquire at least one of the following players:
- Jadeveon Clowney is the obvious option, as he was a Seahawk last year, and performed well, posting low sack numbers but otherwise being a disruptive force and arguably their best defensive player.
- Yannick Ngakoue will likely be tagged by the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he could be traded. A dominant pass-rusher, the star end would be the perfect fit for the Seahawks.
- Dante Fowler Jr. is another former Jaguar who would help Seattle put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, as he posted 11.5 sacks last year playing for the Rams.
While a pass rush would go a long way to helping the defense, the Seahawks also have other holes to address to make a jump to the next level.
- Cornerback: The pass rush wasn’t being done any favors by lackluster play on the back end of the Seahawks defense as well. They should look to sign at least one cornerback to play alongside Shaquill Griffin.
- Offensive Line: Despite Wilson’s unique talent at dancing away from pressure, Seahawks still allowed the most hits to the quarterback in the NFL last season. This has to change, so look for them to acquire more protection for Wilson to have time to work his magic.
With these changes, Wilson’s magic should be enough to take them back to the playoffs — he’s only failed to do so once in his 10 year career.
One big hole — Los Angeles Rams
As mentioned above, last season was obviously a huge disappointment for the Rams, missing the playoffs a year removed from their Super Bowl run. But the team still has much of the talent from the 2018 squad, and could easily return, if not to the Super Bowl itself, at least to the playoffs.
To do that, the Rams really have one big problem to fix: their offensive line. The Rams offensive line was woeful at times last season, and their struggles in the trenches were largely responsible for their lack of success as a team.
- Can’t run, can’t win: The Rams rushing yards dropped drastically from 2,231 to 1,499—from third in the league to 26th. According to Football Outsiders, Rams running backs were also “Stuffed,” hit at or behind the line of scrimmage, on 21% of runs, compared to 14.6% in 2018.
- Warm under pressure: Jared Goff, the league’s fourth highest paid quarterback, cannot handle pressure. When he’s not under pressure, he comes close to deserving his contract, posting a top 5 DVOA when given time. However when his line doesn’t give him that time, as was the case throughout 2019, Goff crumbles, dropping to near the bottom of the ratings.
Defending the defense: Further highlighting how offensive struggles were the main source of the Rams woes, the Rams defense was actually better last season than in their Super Bowl season. They allowed less total yards and total points, and its not just because teams didn’t have to chase their offense — they allowed nearly one whole yard less per play as well.
- Unfortunately for the Rams, they are near the bottom of the league in cap flexibility. Because of this, they likely won’t be able to add any truly elite offensive linemen, and have to rely on lower-tier free agents or drafted rookies.
- We recently dove into some specific players the rams should target. No matter whom they decide on Los Angeles will certainly need to improve their o-line play to make noise in the playoffs.
- Additionally, they should resign free agent linebacker Cory Littleton. Littleton led the team in tackles, and should be a priority to retain over Fowler Jr, as Aaron Donald alone can keep the team’s defensive line above average.
The Rams roster has one gaping hole, literally and metaphorically. If they fill it this offseason, they should be set to make another playoff appearance, and potentially another Super Bowl run.
Russell Wilson 2.0?—Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals last year were bad, but they showed potential.
- Rookie Quarterback Kyler Murray certainly earned his Offensive Rookie of the Year award, at times looking reminiscent of Russel Wilson himself.
- Pro Bowl linebacker Chandler Jones continues to be underrated, and was one of the few bright spots on the defensive side of the ball for the Cardinals as he finished second in the league with 19 sacks.
- First-time Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury and his air-raid offense translated to the NFL better than many thought it would, helping Kyler shine and keeping them in games that often turned into shootouts.
However, the Cardinals finished 5-9-1, and one of the main reasons why is pretty clear: their defense was terrible.
This defense loses games
- The Cardinals were last in the league in yards allowed, allowing over 400 yards per game.
- This was not just a result of a faster pace resulting in them facing more plays. They allowed an abysmal six yards per play.
- A big cause of this tendency to give up big plays was the Cardinals lack of ability to generate consistent pressure. Despite blitzing on the third highest percentage of plays in the league, the Cardinals hurried the QB less than 8% of the time — bottom 10 in the league.
- And giving NFL quarterbacks time to think makes it easy for other teams to keep the chains moving: The Cardinals also allowed the most first downs of any team in the league.
Obviously for the Cardinals to make the playoffs next season, their defense will have to improve. They should also look to support Murray by adding offensive talent, especially at wide receiver and offensive line.
With the right tools, there’s a chance Murray could take the fabled “second-year jump” and propel the Cardinals to be in the playoff hunt as early next year. Otherwise, here’s their path to the playoffs:
Russell Wilson holds one-man strike: The Cardinals best chance to make the playoffs would rely on Wilson, who has already announced he will vote no on the NFL and NFLPA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement, sticking to his guns and holding out until a better agreement is reached.
Kittle joins WWE: It has long been rumored that legendary tight end Rob Gronkowski would join the WWE after his playing days. Kittle announcing his retirement to join Gronk in the ring would go a long way to helping the Cardinals reach the playoffs.
Sean McVay, coach coach: McVay’s offensive genius is key to the Ram’s success, and many other teams have tried to poach his assistants and steal the magic. Seeing this, and sick of losing all his assistants, McVay will resign as Rams head coach, and open his own coaching academy for struggling NFL coaches to attend.
Listen, the Cardinals aren’t going to make the playoffs next season.