Shifting Sands – 2021 NFC West Preview

The 2021 NFC West season will be one of change for all four teams in the division. Arizona adding more veterans to their core of talent, Los Angeles adding a brand new leader behind center, the ever-changing roster in Seattle and the eventual change at quarterback in San Francisco. But the real question is which change will be the one that allows a team to win the division?

 

Arizona Cardinals

Record in 2020: 8-8

Key Player: Quarterback – Kyler Murray

Player To Watch: Wide Receiver – A.J. Green

The Arizona Cardinals became one of the league’s must-watch teams in 2020. Led by their dynamic second-year quarterback Kyler Murray, Arizona got off to a 5-2 start and had control of their playoff destiny after a Week 15 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. But two disappointing losses on the road to San Francisco and the Los Angeles Rams kept this group out of the playoffs.

Murray and star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins connected for over 1,400 receiving yards and Murray threw for 26 touchdown passes, including four different players catching four or more touchdowns. What makes him even more dangerous is that he can cause damage on the ground. He had 819 yards rushing (second on the team) and a team-high 11 touchdown carries.

But with every passing season, there are always changes. Gone is arguably the best player in franchise history in wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and former Cincinnati Bengals’ All-Pro A.J. Green will take his place. Also, former Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl running back James Conner joins Chase Edmonds to provide a very good one-two punch in the backfield. Not to mention the Cardinals added former Pro Bowl Center Rodney Hudson from the Las Vegas Raiders in a trade.

But the offense wasn’t the only side of the ball that made changes. Gone is former All-Pro and longtime starting cornerback Patrick Peterson, who left for Minnesota. Even though Arizona didn’t add a big time addition in the secondary, they made one of the biggest splashes on the defensive line. With the addition of former Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, Arizona will have potentially the best pass rushing duo in the NFL. Expect Watt and Chandler Jones to amass at least 25 combined sacks.

Arizona is talented on both sides of the ball, but if Green can produce like he did before the injury bug hit him in Cincinnati, they could be a dark-horse Super Bowl contender in the NFC. Prediction: 10-7

 

Los Angeles Rams

Record in 2020: 6-10

Key Player: Running Back – Darrell Henderson

Player To Watch: Head Coach – Sean McVay

The Los Angeles Rams made one of the biggest changes in the NFL when they traded for Matthew Stafford. After spending his entire career in Detroit, Stafford will lead a Rams’ team that was in the Super Bowl two years ago. The Rams had the potential to be one of the best offenses in the NFC until July 20th.

That’s when starting running back Cam Akers tore his Achilles right before the start of training camp and will miss the entire 2021 season. Even though he became a breakout star with his play at the end of the season, he wasn’t the team’s leading rusher in 2020. Darrell Henderson will regain his starting spot in the backfield and as long as he can play like he did in the opening half of the season in 2020, the Rams will have the running game that is needed to match what Stafford brings to the passing game.

On defense, what will not change is what Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey bring to the table. Donald is the best and most dominating player in the entire league and because he demands double teams on every play it allows the Rams to be able to rush the passer effectively.

Ramsey will make sure his side of the field is locked down and whoever he is guarding will have a below average game. Now the question for the defense is how would they make up for the loss of Michael Brockers’ departure to Detroit?

Before Akers injury, the Rams would have been in the mix to win the division, now they will be in the mix for the final playoff spot. Prediction: 9-8

 

 San Francisco 49ers

Record in 2020: 6-10

Key Player: Defensive Tackle – Javon Kinlaw

Player To Watch: Running Back – Trey Sermon

Quarterback play was one of the major reasons why the 49ers could not repeat as NFC champions last season. Jimmy Garoppolo couldn’t stay healthy and even when he was, his play was not as good as it was the previous season. His 182.7 passing yards per game was 60 yards per lower than his 2019 season.

Garoppolo is entering a contract year and the 49ers had a decision to make. So instead of keeping him long-term, San Francisco traded up in the Draft and selected Trey Lance with the third overall pick. They traded multiple high draft picks to get their future signal caller.

Whoever is behind center will have to hope the playmakers at the skill positions can stay on the field. Wide Receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk will have to stay healthy in order to make plays down field in the passing game.

On defense, San Francisco is elite. Nick Bosa, Fred Warner and Dee Ford lead one of the best front sevens in the NFL. The 49ers need a healthy Javon Kinlaw to produce from his defensive line position. They traded away former all-pro DeForest Buckner to Indianapolis in order draft him in the first round in 2019.

The 49ers will not be considered a playoff team at the beginning of the season. But if they can change last seasons health problems, they could find themselves playing in January. Prediction: 7-10

 

Seattle Seahawks

Record in 2020: 12-4

Key Player: Linebacker – Jordyn Brooks

Player To Watch: Tight End – Gerald Everett

The NFL’s best offensive player to never win the Most Valuable Player award will try once again to lead the Seahawks back to the big game again. Surrounded by wide receivers DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and running back Chris Carson, Seattle has a team that can put points on the board. But the biggest change this year was addition of Gerald Everett from the Rams.

Everett has good size and speed from the tight end position. He has increased his number of catches in each of his four seasons in the league. Last season 59% of his 41 catches led to first downs. Expect Wilson to find Everett on a consistent basis when first downs are needed.

On defense, linebacker Bobby Wagner and safety Jamal Adams are elite level players at their positions. But second-year linebacker Jordyn Brooks is the one to keep an eye on.

He had a strong final four starts in the regular season, as he amassed 28 tackles and earned a place as a key member of the defense going forward. If he can continue to produce at that level, it will allow Wagner to be even more dangerous from his spot at linebacker.

Seattle could make some noise on defense if Brooks can continue his development and if free agent acquisition Ahkello Witherspoon can make plays from the cornerback position. If they can, Seattle can not only win the division, but provide problems for Tampa Bay in the NFC. If they can’t, Wilson can still get this team into the playoffs. Prediction: 12-5

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