Best-Case/Worst-Case: NFC West Edition
Photo Credit: All-Pro Reels, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
As we continue our Best-Case/Worst-Case series, we come to the NFC West, home to the two representatives of the NFC Championship game, the San Francisco 49ers and the Super-Bowl champions Los Angeles Rams. Don’t forget about the Arizona Cardinals - they finished with eleven wins and led the division for most of the year , after all.
The Seattle Seahawks, meanwhile, saw quarterback Russell Wilson depart for the Denver Broncos in the offseason. Their home-field advantage at Lumen Field has earned their fans the moniker “The Twelfth Man,” but it sure seems like these Seahawks could use an actual “twelfth man” on the field if they’re going to avoid the bottom of this division. Still, despite how tough they appear on the surface, there are cracks in the Rams’, 49ers’ and Cardinals’ foundations. Could the Seahawks be the surprise team of 2022?
TE Trey McBride (draft)
WR Marquis Brown (trade)
OG Will Hernandez (free agent)
DE Chandler Jones
LB Jordan Hicks
WR Christian Kirk
Best-Case: 12 - 5, 1st in NFC West
Kyler Murray got PAID this offseason. Five years, $230 million to be exact - and no more study clauses! Things are looking up for the Cardinals, and 2022 might be the year everything comes together for head coach Kliff Kingsbury and company.
When Murray is on, he can be about as devastating as it gets from the QB position. There’s almost nothing he can’t do on a football field. He’s fast, elusive and strong. He throws a mesmerizing spiral. His arm strength is fantastic. He’s accurate. He’s the complete package.
The Cardinals’ best-case scenario season begins with an MVP season from Kyler. If he can pull that off, the Cardinals, as currently constructed, have plenty of talent to support him as they push for a division title.
This team is deep offensively. Marquis Brown joins the team after being traded from Baltimore, giving Murray the speedy downfield target he desperately needed. DeAndre Hopkins, once he returns from his PED-suspension, is one of the best WRs in the NFL when he’s right. Second-year receiver Rondale Moore has the juice to do some real damage as a gadget player near the line of scrimmage. Tight end Zach Ertz is settling in after arriving in Arizona midseason last year, and the Cardinals further supplemented the position by selecting Trey McBride with their first pick of the draft. Talk about options.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Cardinals are good, not great, but that won’t necessarily stop their team from rolling over opponents on a regular basis. Defensive end Chandler Jones is no longer in the building, but three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt returns for his twelfth season, and All Pro safety Budda Baker continues to patrol the back-end of the secondary. If youngsters like linebackers Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins can emerge as top-end contributors, this defense could be more than capable of supporting the offense to a division title and possibly the top seed in the NFC.
Worst-Case: 5 - 12, 4th in NFC West
I just have a bad feeling about this team. Maybe it’s the fact that owner Michael Bidwill, the front office, Kyler Murray’s agent, and Murray himself had such poor foresight that a clause requiring the fourth-year QB to study for four hours each week was added to his record-contract. Maybe it’s the fact that this team can’t avoid its regularly scheduled late-season collapse under the Kyler-Kliff coalition. Maybe it’s the fact that the team’s best receiver was suspended for taking PEDs. Maybe it’s the fact that outside of Baker, I can’t name one of their defensive backs off the top of my head.
That’s a lot of bad juju. It should surprise exactly no one if this team finally trades its late-season collapses for a full-season one. This could very well be the last year of Kingsbury’s tenure. Murray is probably safe for now, considering the ink on that brand-spanking new contract is still drying, but his seat will get nice and hot come 2023.
It’s the defense, though, that will probably end up being the Achilles heel. Kingsbury and Murray have enough firepower to do some damage on that side of the ball, but it wouldn’t take much for this defense to fall apart completely. Watt is aging and hasn’t been that productive as of late. The rest of the defensive front is scary, and not in a good way. Baker might be a stud, but as the last line of defense, he’s not going to stop opposing offenses on his own. Add it all together, and the Cardinals could easily slip to the bottom of the NFC West.
Los Angeles Rams
ILB Bobby Wagner
WR Allen Robinson
WR Odell Beckham Jr.
LT Andrew Whitworth
OG Austin Corbett
WR Robert Woods
DE Von Miller
Best-Case Scenario: 12 - 5, 1st in NFC West
The defending Super Bowl champions…tell me, why couldn’t this team go ahead and repeat?
Frankly, they could. It will be tough (obviously) but with the sheer number of elite players this team has, it’s certainly not out of the question.
Basically, the whole band is back together - at least, the headliners are. Offensively, quarterback Matt Stafford returns alongside Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp and head coach Sean McVay. Defensively, shutdown corner Jalen Ramsey leads with arguably the best defensive player in the league (not arguably) Aaron Donald creating absolute chaos up front. If you graded every team based just on their top four players and their coach, the Rams would be first by miles.
But, of course, this team wasn’t going to rest on its laurels in the offseason. With receiver Odell Beckham Jr. unsigned and recovering from an ACL tear in the Super Bowl, the Rams added Allen Robinson, a guy who hasn’t had a decent QB throwing him the ball in his entire nine-year career. And to the defense, the Rams completed their strategy by having an elite player at every level by adding former Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner. Between Wagner, Robinson, Stafford, Kupp, Ramsey and Donald, the six have a total of sixteen Pro Bowl appearances, fourteen All Pro nominations and three Defensive Player of the Year awards. 'Nuff said?
Worst-Case: 8 - 9, 3rd in NFC West
Will the desire be there to repeat? It’s easy to talk about getting back to the Super Bowl in the offseason, but actually accomplishing that task? That’s a whole different ball game.
A lot needed to go right for the Rams to reach, and win, the Super Bowl last year. Already, things are a little different.
For one, Stafford, who arrived in LA from Detroit last year and went on to have one of his better seasons as a pro, has been dealing with shoulder and elbow soreness to begin the season. Given the options they have behind him, that could be a real problem for this Rams team. If Stafford is limited, or has a severe decline, it will be impossible for the Rams to replicate their production from last year.
This brings me to the second big issue. Kupp, who dominated the NFL last year and became the first WR in ages to complete the “Triple Crown” (he led the NFL in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns), facing a serious uphill battle to repeat those numbers. Now that Stafford is dealing with some limitations, and given how unbelievable their connection was last year, the duo will be hard pressed to have the same success.
A decline in Kupp's production could have a ripple effect that severely diminishes the offense. This was already a team that didn’t run the ball particularly well. If Kupp can’t threaten defenses like last year, and especially if Robinson proves that QB-play wasn’t the thing holding him back, opponents will be able to stack the box against the Rams’ running backs.
Finally, Andrew Whitworth, the 2022 Walter Payton Man of the Year and one of the best left tackles in the NFL during his long career, retired, leaving a massive hole on the left side of the offensive line. His replacement Joseph Noteboom has acquitted himself nicely so far, but he has seventeen starts in four years in the NFL. The line also lost guard Austin Corbett in the offseason as well. There are a lot of fresh faces around, and that won't make an already-injured Matt Stafford's job any easier.
If the offensive line takes a step backward, that could be the final nail in the coffin for the 2022 Rams’ offense. There’s significant potential that they slip to the bottom third of the league in terms of production. If that happens, the defense, which will always have a baseline of competence due to the oversized impact of Donald and Ramsey, will have a very hard time picking up the slack. It’s hard to envision the Rams falling too far under .500, given how outstanding their best players are, but the NFC West could be very strong this year - and that might be enough to knock the Rams down a peg or two.
San Francisco 49ers
CB Charvarius Ward (free agent)
DE Drake Jackson (draft)
OG Laken Tomlinson
DE Arden Key
NT D.J. Jones
CB Josh Norman
C Alex Mack
Best-Case Scenario: 13 - 4, 1st in the NFC West
This one is simple. Best-case scenario is second-year quarterback Trey Lance turns out to be Patrick Mahomes and the Niners win the Super Bowl. Easy peasy.
Of course, Lance has a long way to go before we can look at him the way we do Mahomes, but the talent…the talent is all there.
We haven’t seen much of Lance, but one thing is for certain: this guy is a hell of an athlete. There are few players who make throwing a football look as effortless as Lance (Mahomes also comes to mind). If he can reward the Niners faith in him this year, this is a team with depth and top-end talent - the right combination for a Super Bowl run.
Surrounding Lance is a cast of playmakers and protectors that rivals any in the league. Deebo Samuel turned into probably the most dangerous player in the NFL with the ball in his hands last year. The do-everything receiver/running back hybrid turned in fabulous performance after fabulous performance, all while working with a severely hampered Jimmy Garoppolo at QB. This year, he gets the raw, but supremelyLance.
Alongside Samuel are receiver Brandon Aiyuk and tight end George Kittle, two monsters in the short and intermediate passing game. Though they differ in size and skill, Aiyuk and Kittle, like Samuel, are extremely threatening when running with the ball. This all works in tandem with head coach Kyle Shannahan’s West Coast/Zone Running offensive scheme that makes every play look exactly the same. With Lance’s ability, Shannahan’s scheme and the wealth of receiver talent, the Niners have one of the most dangerous offenses in the NFL on paper.
Defensively, this Niners team has plenty of firepower to make life miserable for opposing QBs and offensive coordinators. Defensive end Nick Bosa returned from a lost 2020 season to make a strong push for Comeback Player of the Year, recording 15.5 sacks. Linebacker Fred Warner continued his stellar play, establishing himself as the premier cover ‘backer in the game. The back-end may not have the name recognition of the front seven, but steady veterans like cornerback Charvarius Ward and safety Jimmy Ward are no pushovers. This is a deep and balanced roster, and the best record in the NFL is in play if things go the 49ers’ way this year.
Worst-Case Scenario: 7 - 10, 3rd in the NFC West
So, did anyone bother to check out Jimmy G’s stats from last year? They’re probably a lot better than you might remember.
Shockingly, Garoppolo actually led the NFL in yards per completion last year. Sure, this isn’t an end-all-be-all kind of statistic, but it demonstrates how efficient Garoppolo was in his fifteen starts. If Lance is unable to replace, or even approach, those efficiency numbers, the Niners might be in real trouble.
Lance may have a tremendous arm, but he doesn't have Jimmy G’s touch on passes near the line of scrimmage. Garoppolo was excellent at putting the ball into his playmakers hands and giving them the opportunity to make something happen after the catch. Without that ability, the best parts of Samuel’s, Aiyuk’s and Kittle’s games could be completely negated.
There’s also the possibility that Lance just isn’t good. This point has been belabored, but Lance is very unproven. Even in college, the guy threw just 318 passes. Jimmy G threw the ball 411 times last year alone - and that was in just fifteen games on a team that wants to run the ball down your team’s throat!
Complicating matters is the unsettled nature of the interior offensive line. With the departure of Laken Tomlinson and retirement of Alex Mack, the Niners are counting on young players stepping up and filling those roles adequately. If they can’t perform at the appropriate level, that could have a cascading effect on the entire offense. Lance with less time could equal more mistakes. Less room to run the ball could mean more pressure on Lance’s shoulders. Even Shannahan, who is, by all accounts, one of the brightest offensive minds in the game, may struggle to plug these leaks.
Finally, though the defense has some elite players and solid depth, the secondary could be a weak link. Charvarius Ward is a solid player, but he was humbled by some of the best WRs in the NFL, particularly Ja’Marr Chase. At this stage, he’s the Niner’s top CB. The depth behind him isn’t great, either. If teams are able to throw the ball and score quickly, that will further diminish the Niner’s run game, compounding the issues I outlined previously.
Add it all up, and there’s a few reasons to be skeptical of the Niners’ Super Bowl chances this year. There’s plenty of talent on this roster, more than enough to avoid a fourth-place finish in the NFC West, but year one of the Trey Lance experiment could be one to forget, and Shannahan could be on the hot seat come 2023.
QB Drew Lock (trade)
TE Noah Fant (trade)
DE Shelby Harris (trade)
OLB Uchenna Nwosu (free agent)
OT Charles Cross (draft)
QB Russell Wilson
ILB Bobby Wagner
CB D.J. Reed
Best-Case Scenario: 9 - 8, 2nd in NFC West
Has everyone forgotten that this team still has some scary offensive weapons? Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf are about as good as it gets as a 1-2 wide receiver combo. Running back Rashaad Penny looked like a revelation after being activated off injured-reserve, rushing for a ridiculous 706 yards over the final six games of the season. Plus, they added running back Kenneth Walker II from Michigan State in the second-round. There’s a lot to work with for newly-anointed starting quarterback Geno Smith.
Longtime QB Russell Wilson may be gone, but that doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the 2022 Seahawks. There’s enough playmaking talent to cobble together an above-average offense, and if Smith can blossom in his ninth year in the league, it could be even better than that. It’s unlikely, but the 31-year-old looked plenty capable in his four starts last year, earning a 103.0 quarterback rating and throwing for five touchdowns to one interception.
Besides, it’s not like the Seahawks forgot to get a return from the Broncos when they traded away Wilson. Tight end Noah Fant looks like a potential breakout candidate, and defensive end Shelby Harris fills an immediate need. They might not be the most recognizable names, but Fant and Harris can help this team win games. Double-digit wins in the sinister NFC West are probably out of reach for this team, but a surprise Wild Card appearance is possible, especially if the other teams in the division can’t live up to the hype.
Worst-Case Scenario: 3 - 14, 4th in NFC West
Remember Geno Smith’s time with the New York Jets? Not good. That could be the kind of QB-performance Seahawks fans are in for this year. If that happens, good luck finding four wins on this schedule. Oof.
With possibly the worst QB situation in the league, the Seahawks look to be in prime position to select a passer with their first pick in the NFL Draft next year. Honestly, this might be a “punt” year for the front office - but apparently no one has let head coach Pete Carroll know. With his usual infectious energy and positivity, all signs point to the Seahawks attempting to have a competitive season. All signs, of course, except for the talent on the roster.
Though the offensive weapons are solid, the rest of this team looks in disarray. The offensive line, which has been a problem for almost a decade now, still isn’t fixed. Penny and Walker could be a good committee, but Penny has had one good stretch in his career and Walker is a rookie. The rest of the receivers behind Lockett and Metcalf are forgettable.
On the defensive side of the ball, there’s even more cause for concern. Aside from Harris, who’s solid, but not a major disrupter, there’s very little in the way of proven talent. Will former first-round linebacker Jordyn Brooks live up to his draft position this year? Can Carroll coach up this cornerback room that looks like a bunch of castoffs and late-round picks? Will strong safety Jamaal Adams ever make an impact in the passing game? How hard is free safety Quandre Diggs’ job this year?
Unfortunately, there might not be many positives on the horizon for this Seattle team. Unless Geno Smith proves everyone, including history, wrong, the Seahawks will be sporting a fresh face at the position this time next year.