Rams look to stay atop division in a three-way race for NFC West.

LA Rams running back Todd Gurley II (30) runs past the Arizona Cardinals defense to score a touchdown in the second quarter. Arizona Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams play in the NFL London Games at Twickenham Stadium in London on Sunday, October 22. photo: Dave Shopland/ NFL

It’s been one of the busiest off-season’s in recent memory, following up on an NFL season for the ages. Contenders have been bolstering their rosters while the bottom of the league has committed to their rebuilding process’. 

So who is coming out on top this year in the NFC West? Let’s find out.

Los Angeles Rams

What a turnaround it has been for the Los Angeles Rams. Since the firing of Jeff Fisher and hiring of Sean McVay, the NFL’s NFC representative from LA has been nothing short of impressive.

Of course, McVay is to thank at least in part. The offence has been running like a well-oiled machine, but this is also due to two of the most important pieces on said offence. For starters, the rapid evolution of Jared Goff.

Goff definitely struggled mightly in the Super Bowl, but compared to his rookie season all he has done is turned heads. After his recent contract extension made him the highest-paid QB in the league, the expectations will continue to grow.

Then there is Todd Gurley. Gurley spent the majority of 2018 in towards the top of the MVP race. With Gurley and Goff both having career years, the Lombardi Trophy seemed all but theirs. Alongside the dynamic QB and RB combination, Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp made up one of the best receiver trios in the league. 

The only thing that could stop the Rams was injuries, and the first shoe to drop was Kupp. LA lost their star slot receiver to a season-ending injury, taking away a key dimension to the offence. Then there was Gurley’s lingering knee injury. If it wasn’t for the renaissance of backup running back CJ Anderson, the Rams might not have made it past the Cowboys in the division round. 

LA finished 13-3 and only one win from sitting atop all of the NFL. After their loss to New England, speculation seems to have filled the air around 2018’s NFC Champs.

This unit has all the right pieces to win a division and NFC Championship. However, it might be proven that the Rams need Gurley at 100% if they want to win it all. After he was diagnosed with arthritis in his knee and Anderson left in free agency, LA’s Super Bowl aspirations might be in trouble. 

The defence is still strong and the rest of the offence is the healthiest it has been. The Los Angeles Rams will remain the NFC West favourites if this remains. They need a healthy Todd Gurley for anything more.

Seattle Seahawks

It was a peculiar season for the Seattle Seahawks last year. Facing one identity crisis after another on both sides of the ball, it feels like a miracle that the Seattle even made the post-season. 

Finishing a modest 10-6, 2018 ended at the hands of Dallas. Now as 2019 rolls in, a newly paid Russell Wilson looks to go further this year.

At the height of their success, you can find a consistent ground and pound offence. A balanced attack, relying more on running the football, taking the pressure off Wilson and the at times questionable offensive line. It’s what they did with Marshawn Lynch and again due to the rise of Chris Carson and Rashad Penny. 

The RB duo did wonders for the Seattle offence as well as keeping the defence off the field. This will likely continue after the loss of Doug Baldwin. Wilson will miss his long-time favourite target, and will now rely on Tyler Lockett and rookie DK Metcalf.

Many questioned how the loss of Jimmy Grahm would affect the Seahawks. Will Disley and Nick Vannett will be looked upon to grow as the two main targets at tight end. 

Defensively, the recent addition of Jadeveon Clowney is massive. The pash rush will be the most menacing since the loss of Michael Bennett. They gave up little for Clowney and he will likely stay a Seahawk for the foreseeable future.

The Seattle Seahawks have their formula. If they can get decent production from an unproven receiving and tight end group, an NFC West title is not out of the question. 

San Francisco 49ers 

2018 held far too hefty expectations for a San Francisco 49ers team in the middle of a rebuild. This tends to be the case when a new QB comes into town and creates the hype that Jimmy Garoppolo did. 

His winning streak at the end of the 2017 season, along with the emergence of tight end George Kittle, made Niners fans as excited as could be. Then came the knee injury against Kansas City. 

Garoppolo went down for the rest of 2018, essentially dooming the rest of his team’s playoff hopes as well. Now no injury is good, but this gave the organization clarity. Commit to the rebuild and the improvement of a young roster. 

After the Jim Harbough era had abruptly ended, it didn’t seem like there would be a light at the end of the tunnel. Rapid retirings, terrible coaching hirings, the entirety of the Colin Kaepernick; when would the trouble end? 

First came new head coach Kyle Shannahan, then Garoppolo. The offence is ready to perform at a high level, and possibly more importantly so is the defence. The additions of veteran Dee Ford and rookie Nick Bosa will immediately improve their unit. Richard Sherman also looks for redemption after a brutal 2018.

All this team can do is improve. There are lots to be excited for but patience is key. So much talent, a great young head coach, the quarterback of the future. Stay patient and the wins will come soon.

It’s unclear whether the slight yet important roster improvements will be enough for the San Francisco 49ers to go off this year and win their division. There will be improvements though, key improvements. That is the progress that’s most important for this organization right now.

Arizona Cardinals

Certain teams have incredibly clear cut paths when a new season arrives. For the Arizona Cardinals, that path is a full-on rebuild. 

Let’s check all the boxes. A rookie head coach with zero NFL coaching experience? Check, his name is Kliff Kingsbury. The Texas Tech product who helped make Patrick Mahomes the NFL prospect he became will now have a new project. An entirely new coaching staff as well as a rookie quarterback

No, not Josh Rosen. After being traded to Miami one year removed from being a top 10 pick, that project comes in the form of number one overall pick Kyler Murray. The 2018 Heisman trophy winner and the ex-MLB prospect has quite a hill to climb.

Many believed his height would act as a ceiling for Murray if he chose football over baseball. With his NFL debut mear days away, the NFL and sports world alike will see how he lives up to the astronomical expectations. 

However, even with Kingsbury and Murray’s high expectations, the rest of the organization will not be held to the same standard. To be frank, no one is giving the Cardinals a chance this year, which is not inherently a bad thing.

David Johnson looks to get back into top running back form. He appears to be 100% healthy for the first time in a few years, and his play should help the development of his rookie QB. 

Arizona also has two players in the twilight of their careers, carrying out the rest of their playing days with the Cardinals.

First is newcomer Terrell Suggs, who finally left Baltimore. Suggs has been a defensive workhorse for what feels like three-decades, and though he isn’t exactly the same player he used to be he should produce for his new club. His presence will also be important for the young defence already in place.

The next is long-time veteran Larry Fitzgerald. His storybook career will come to a close sooner than later, and it is unlikely he will get his championship ring with his beloved Cardinals. Maybe he will end up with a playoff contender before his retirement.

The Arizona Cardinals have one job in 2019. Don’t let Kyler Murray get hurt. Let him develop, establish the connection between him and Kliff Kingsbury as well as David Johnson. I would say finally get a Super Bowl victory for Larry Fitzgerald, but that does not seem like it’s in the cards for Arizona in 2019.

Predictions

Andre Dixon:

LA Rams 

Seattle Seahawks 

SF 49ers

Arizona Cardinals

Paulie Fiorentino:

LA Rams 

SF 49ers 

Seattle Seahawks

Arizona Cardinals