By Lucas Kochevar
Suddenly losing power while working on something is very similar to just losing your star player to injury. That's what happened to me this past weekend here in the good ole peach state, but I'm back on track to bring you the next division in the season preview series, the NFC West. This division is fascinating to look at with it's many unknowns. The division has three playoff caliber teams and the Cardinals. The 49ers are talked about among the best in the league with numerous terrific players, however, they have the uncertainty of Brock Purdy at quarterback. Can he repeat his success? The Seahawks have put together back-to-back terrific draft classes and they just paid Geno Smith. The Rams just suffered from the worst Super Bowl hangover ever, but they still have Sean McVay, a healthy Matthew Stafford and Aaron Donald. Lastly, the Cardinals have the worst team in the league, but could they pivot off Kyler Murray and select USC's Caleb Williams? These questions make the NFC West fascinating and I'm looking to answer some of this in this volume of LK League Notes.
San Francisco 49ers (13-4 Last Season)
Trey Lance advocates are in the mud. Specifically, I am in the mud. His injury was a domino last season that opened up the door for Brock Purdy and Purdy seized the opportunity. The issue that Purdy is facing now is an elbow injury that would likely take a pitcher out for the year. It feels weird because no one seems concerned about an injury to the arm of quarterback like the way people would be concerned about an ACL injury for a running back. Alas, the 49ers will still look to Purdy to carry on his success from last season. Along with him, they have the most dangerous weapons in the league and a defense that can rival the best in the league. With all this, the 49ers also have mastermind head coach Kyle Shannahan to lead them.
Shannahan has a fun cast to play with this season starting off with running back Christian McCaffery. He's one of the most electric players in the league and showed the potential in that offense last season. Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk makes up one of the better wide receiver tandems in the league. It feels like Samuel took a step back last season, but injuries and more mouths to feed dropped his production. It feels like we've been waiting on the Aiyuk next step for a couple years now, but he still managed to get over a thousand yards last season. Then they have George Kittle and Trent Williams, who are some of the best at their respective positions. Still, everything leads back to that quarterback position. Purdy came on to the scene as an unknown and really thrived. No defenses really caught on and the 49ers rattled off all those wins in a row, however, this is the NFL we're talking about. Defensive coordinators have had the entire offseason to adjust and they'll throw some crazy looks at Purdy, but maybe this offense is still too talented for that.
I wasn't even able to touch on the defense, which is uber talented. Nick Bosa, Fred Warner and Arik Armstead are some big names on that side of the ball, but they'll have to overcome losing their defensive coordinator. They brought in Steve Wilks, who had a great year with Carolina last season. The 49ers have a lot of pressure on them as their roster is far too talented to not make the Super Bowl. I don't think Shannahan is on the hot seat or anything, but there might have to be a dialogue on him if the 49ers fall flat on their face or choke a playoff game. I still really like the 49ers to win the division and finish near the top of the NFC.
Seattle Seahawks (9-8 Last Season)
The Seattle Seahawks were a pleasant surprise last season with the emergence of Geno Smith and they made the playoffs. The Russell Wilson trade was thought to be the kick starter to becoming a rebuilding team, however, the Seahawks earned a big time boost to their resources. Specifically, numerous draft picks added to the arsenal. On top of the draft picks, the Seahawks nailed most of the picks they made. Tariq Woolen and Kenneth Walker III were terrific picks and were under consideration for rookie of the year honors. Now that they paid Geno Smith, they look to make the next step.
Geno Smith is now a $100 million dollar man and looks to build off of last season. Smith and the Seahawks faltered to end the season, but this year they look to be more consistent. The offense should be humming again with two young tackles going into their second season. Rookie tackles often struggle so the fact that these guys were good and can still improve should be a beacon of hope for the attitude of this offense. Another position group that should provide a ton of optimism is the wide receivers. DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett are one of the most underrated receiver duos in the league and they added Jaxson Smith-Njigba to that mix. Smith-Njigba comes into the league as my favorite rookie receiver and he has two great platers to learn from. The defense should be better too. They're another unit that was full of young kids that have matured over the last season. They brought back Bobby Wagner for a strong veteran leadership and I think they'll be a surprising unit in the top half of the league.
The Seahawks will need their franchise quarterback to continue his upward trajectory. Smith finally got his opportunity and seized the day, but now that the expectations are there, can he live up to them? That'll be the big question. I'm not sure I would slot in the Seahawks as a guaranteed playoff team, but I think they'll be a competitive team. I do think they'll be in the running for one of those Wild Card spots. They'll have to make this run sooner than later since head coach Pete Carroll is getting up there in age.
Los Angeles Rams (5-12 Last Season)
The Rams are in a critical period for their teams history. The Rams won the Super Bowl two years ago, but they've quickly fell from grace by having one of the worst seasons in history following a Super Bowl win. Still, I'm not willing to downplay what the Rams currently have. Sean McVay seems close to retirement, however, that day is not today! McVay is one of the best offensive minds in the league and he still has a well-respected quarterback and receiver combination. Cooper Kupp demolishes the league when he's healthy. On defense they also have Aaron Donald, one of the best defensive players the game has ever seen.
I name those few guys, but when you look at the rest of this roster it gets dark quickly. The Rams have Cam Akers at running back, which went horribly last year. The wide receiving core consists of Cooper Kupp and some other guys! Those other guys are Ben Skowronek and Van Jefferson. They're both fine guys, but to rely on them as their other weapons is just dark. Their offensive line also didn't make any improvements to their terrible unit. They added a rookie at left guard, but that's not a real upgrade. The defense is not much better with naming guys outside of Donald. Russ Yeast and Cobie Durant are definitely players that I've never heard of. It really feels like a rebuilding defense. It feels like a rebuilding team. With little to no draft picks too. It's a dark looking future for this Rams team. It'll take some serious development from this coaching staff to make these defense into a respectable unit.
The Rams are much worse off than I thought heading into this preview. There was a bit of hope from the names that I did know, but then you quickly realize the state of a team that sold their soul for a Super Bowl. They don't have much of a future and their present isn't very good either. If the Rams hold on to their 2024 first round pick, it'll be the first time they'll make a first round pick since Jared Goff. It feels insane when you put it like that. I'm curious how long it might take for the Rams to decide it's time to sell off these pieces. The Rams seemed like they wanted to trade Stafford this offseason but pulled him off the trade market. I think Stafford could find his way on the trade market again if the Rams crash and burn. The Rams stink and I'm afraid they'll be picking in the top ten this season. Good luck, Los Angeles.
Arizona Cardinals (4-13 Last Season)
Just when I thought the Rams were bad, my goodness the Cardinals are dreadful. This team is a leading candidate to earn the first overall pick in this years draft because of their own pick and the fact that they have the Texans first round pick. The Cardinals will have a big time decision to make if they do happen to earn the first pick. Kyler Murray is one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the league when healthy, but unfortunately tore his ACL last season. If they get the first pick, they'll have to decide whether they want Murray or draft one of the generational quarterbacks in this years class. Caleb Williams or Drake Maye would be worthy selections, but you'd have to move off of Murray. It'll be interesting to see how they handle this decision.
With Murray out, first year head coach Jonathan Gannon will have to roll with Colt McCoy or rookie Clayton Tune. Either way, they'll just be filler guys until Murray can comeback. Outside of quarterback, they have a couple of skill position guys that are okay in running back James Conner and wide receivers Hollywood Brown and Rondale Moore. On top of that, they have a good tight end duo with Zach Ertz and Trey McBride. These are good players, but definitely not superstar level talents. Their offensive line is better than I thought with rookie tackle Paris Johnson Jr. slotting in to tackle. Their defense is also better than I thought in terms of young guys that can develop into actual starters. B.J. Ojulari is a name that I'm looking to pop as a pass rusher. They're similar to the Rams on defense where they have a number of guys I'm not sure are consistent starters in the league, but in a rebuilding year, they can figure out who can stick around. Jonathan Gannon will get to tinker with this unit to figure out his ideal defense too.
Overall, I like the direction the Cardinals are heading. They're clearly a losing team and they know it. They have the resources in draft capital and if they decide to move off of Murray, they'll have even more. I like what the Cardinals are doing a lot more than the Rams due to the simple fact they're not lying to themselves. They understand they'll be stinky and that's okay. They have some good prospects to build up and can play spoiler to some teams down the stretch. They're a team playing with house money and I expect them to be some big time losers next season.
Next Week: AFC North