NFC West: NFL 2021 season preview

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 14:44, 10 September 2021 | Updated: 10:27, 24 September 2021

Heading into the 2021 season, the NFC West is the deepest, most talented, and narrative-rich division in the NFL. This is an absolute must-watch

The 2021 NFL season is upon us. We’re here to make sure you’re prepared. In this, our final instalment, we take a look at perhaps the most intriguing division in the league.

All four teams have genuine playoff aspirations. Each of the four quarterbacks sports has a distinct narrative. Kyler Murray, the ascendant young superstar, is looking to vault into the tier in which Russell Wilson has long resided. In L.A., Matthew Stafford’s cannon arm should finally be deployed in meaningful games once again. Finally, all eyes in San Francisco will be on a quarterback controversy of Kyle Shanahan’s own creation.

Meanwhile, three of these defenses should rank among the NFL’s elite, and the fourth, is no slouch.

On this, the morning of the 2021 NFL season, let’s appreciate just how much the NFC West is about to give us.

Arizona Cardinals

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 8-8, missed playoffs
  • Head coach: Kliff Kingsbury
  • Starting quarterback: Kyler Murray
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 10-11 wins, top-2 in the division, and a playoff berth

Kilff Kingsbury is young. He’s cool. He’s conducted an NFL Draft from here. He’s also under serious pressure to make a leap.

Two years ago, when he was hired away from Texas Tech University, the move was deemed ‘out-of-the-box’. Kingsbury was hired not for the coach he was, but for the coach that he could be.

His teams weren’t nationally relevant, but this guy, an Air Raid disciple, was an offensive guru and a quarterback whisperer. After all, he coached the top pick in the 2018 draft, Baker Mayfield, and spent three years grooming all-universe QB Patrick Mahomes. His teams put up a ton of points in college. They spread the field, created space, flung the ball around, and ran as many plays as possible.

Two years on, Kingsbury’s tenure in Arizona has been “fine”. He took over a team that won three games in 2018. In 2019, he and new franchise quarterback, Kyler Murray, guided the Cardinals to five wins (and a tie). Last season, Murray, with both a year’s experience and a bona fide #1 receiver, led an improvement to 8-8. Pretty good, right?

The problem is that the Cardinals have tended to look good, and then swoon. In 2019, after a tie and three loss to start the season, they won three straight… before losing seven of nine. In 2020, they started 6-3 and looked like a playoff team… and then they lost five of seven. That they closed out the season so poorly was bad enough. The way in which they did was maddening. They blew second-half leads to the Dolphins and Patriots and produced a toothless Week 16 performance against a 49ers team with nothing to play for.

The offense was good (sixth in total yardage) but not great (13th in points scored), leading to questions about Kingbury. In big games (and big moments), his play calling becomes conservative and predictable. Compounding the issue is the fact that the Cardinals led the NFL in penalties, which suggests a lack of discipline.

Murray, meanwhile, improved on his rookie season, completing passes at a higher rate, for more yardage, more touchdowns, not more interceptions, with a higher passer rating (94.3, vs. 87.4 ) and QBR (68.9, vs. 57.7). For good measure, he ran for 819 yards and 11 TDs, which helped the Cardinals finish seventh in the league in rushing. During the season’s first ten games, when Murray was completely healthy and at his best, he looked like an MVP candidate.

Over the last six games, while bothered by a shoulder injury, Murray had a passer rating of just 86.8 (vs. 98.7 in the first ten), just 200 rushing yards, and one touchdown. The good news is that his offensive line, which did a far better job of keeping him upright (Murray was sacked 27 times in 2020, compared with a league-high 48 times as a rookie) profiles as one of the league’s dozen best, and one of the deepest.

This season, with so much on the line, there’s more than enough talent on offense, to consistently keep opponents on their toes.

Though franchise icon Larry Fitzgerald is gone, the receiving corps is a strength. The group is led by DeAndre Hopkins, one of the best receivers in NFL history (by yardage and receptions) through the first eight years of a career. He’s joined by the solid (though hopefully more sure-handed) Christian Kirk, former Bengals star A.J. Green, and diminutive but blazing fast rookie Rondale Moore, who could have a big rookie season.

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The running back spot will also be key. 2020’s lead back, Kenyan Drake, is gone, but Chase Edmonds (better on a per-carry basis, and a far better receiver) is back. He’s joined by power back James Connor, who signed as a free agent from Pittsburgh.

Despite the (rightful) reputations of Kingsbury’s Texas Teach teams as defensive pushovers, the Cardinals defense in 2020 was quite good, finishing 10th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and ninth in DVOA against the pass. That they did so with All-Pro pass rusher Chandler Jones (who had 60 sacks over his four previous seasons) missing 11 games is very impressive. This season, not only is Jones back, he’s joined by three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, who was signed after his release from the Texans. Watt is 32, and missed 32 games between 2016 and 2019, but he played in all 16 games last season, not at his peak level but well nonetheless. If healthy, these two and Markus Golden will provide a great pass rush.

Perhaps most excitement is in the linebacking corps, which is led by the excellent Jordan Hicks. 2020 first-round pick and potential position-less wonder Isaiah Simmons is expected to take major steps after a rookie-year baptism by fire. Joining them is another highly gifted and versatile athlete, 2020 All American and 2021 first-rounder Zaven Collins. The unit should be good now, but the thought of what they will be in a couple of years is exhilarating.

If the pass rush stays healthy and the Cardinals can find interesting ways to use their young linebackers, this should be a top-ten defense once again.

The Bottom Line: Barring a deluge of injuries, the offensive line and the defense in Arizona are in excellent shape. An historically great lead receiver is in place, as is a talented two-pronged backfield.

Whether this group realizes its potential all comes down to two people: Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray. If Kingsbury has learned enough in two NFL seasons, and trusts himself to be the offensive innovator he was hired to be, the sky is the limit for this offense. Of course, this assumes that Murray, a superstar in waiting, is healthy and takes another step forward.

If these two are on the same page all season, the Cardinals will make a run at the NFC West crown. Until they’re not, let’s assume that they are.

Seattle Seahawks

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 12-4, lost in Wild Card round to Rams
  • Head coach: Pete Carroll
  • Starting quarterback: Russell Wilson
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 10-11 wins, top-2 in the division, and a playoff berth

It’s tough to fully work out the situation in Seattle.

In the weeks after the Super Bowl, it was reported that Wilson was unhappy with the team. It was then reported by The Athletic that Wilson felt his suggestions during the season on how to improve the offense were not taken seriously, and that he’d like more input on such matters. It’s believed that he favours a more pass-centric approach than does long-time head coach Pete Carroll. Around the time of the Athletic report, it was also revealed that Wilson had provided the Seahawks with a list of teams to whom he’d accept a trade… though he swears he never requested a trade.

When there’s this much smoke swirling around the least edgy and controversial guy in the sport, there’s probably a bit of a blaze.

In the meantime, Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams and star left tackle Duane Brown spent much of the offseason demanding new contracts, and refused to practice when training camp opened up. As the saga dragged on, it was reported that Wilson was willing to restructure his own contract in order free up salary cap space to pay his teammates.

The contract issues were ultimately sorted out, with Adams receiving the richest-ever deal for a safety, and a restructuring of Brown’s contract ensuring him more guaranteed money. That’s one Russ hurdle cleared.

On the other front, while it remains to be seen just how much input Wilson is given on decisions. An effort has been made to address his stylistic concerns with the hiring of former Rams passing game coordinator Shane Waldron. Waldron, who’s renowned for his creativity has apparently made a great impression on Wilson, who that he’s “an amazing mind” and “super collaborative”.

So far, so good.

On the field, the Seahawks return their most meaningful offensive contributors: Pro Bowl receiver DK Metcalf (83 catches, 1,303 yards, 10 TDs), #2 receiver Tyler Lockett (100 catches, 1,054 yards, 10 TDs), running back Chris Carson (681 rushing yards, 287 receiving yards, 9 total TDs), and tight ends Will Dissly and Greg Olsen (490 combined receiving yards). Joining this group are speedy second-round receiver D’Wayne Eskridge and former Rams tight end Gerald Everett.

The offensive line, solid a year ago, added Raiders guard Gabe Jackson in trade. The only real question is how quickly and effectively third-round pick Damien Lewis, a guard in college, can transition to center. There may be an adjustment period, but this is still a solid group.

On defense, the line is not what it was in its heyday, but is a deep, high-floor group that features competent trios of both veterans (Carlos Dunlap, Benson Mayowa and free agent signee Kerry Hyder), and youngsters (Darrell Taylor, Rasheem Green, and Poona Ford). The linebacking corps will feel the loss of new Raider K.J. Wright, but the anchor of the entire defense, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, is still here. Wagner is the gold standard in the NFL at his position and a true “franchise player” on defense. The secondary, meanwhile, features an excellent safety duo in Jamal Adams and Pro Bowler Quandre Diggs. Uncharacteristically, though, the cornerback spots are major question marks. Ahkello Witherspoon was signed from the 49ers to replace departed free agent Shaquill Griffin. He’ll be battling D.J. Reed Jr., Tre Flowers and fourth-round pick Tre Brown for snaps. The ‘Legion of Boom’ this is not.

The Bottom Line: In Russell Wilson, receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, safety Jamal Adams and left tackle Duane Brown, the Seahawks boast top-end talent at just about every important position on the field.

This offseason, though, brought a brutal reminder: it’s all about Russ. Plain and simple. Whether or not Wilson actually wanted out, he passive aggressively forced the Seahawks to reckon with the possibility. The team responded by taking care of his teammates and hiring a respected and creative offensive mind to work with their franchise quarterback.

Whether this is the beginning of a philosophical shift or just a temporary appeasement, Russ is happy and on board, which, until further notice, means at least 10 regular season wins. Given the questions in the secondary, it probably won’t be much more than that.

San Francisco 49ers

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 6-10, missed playoffs
  • Head coach: Kyle Shanahan
  • Starting quarterback: Jimmy Garoppolo
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 9-10 wins, battling for a Wild Card

Once upon a time, rookies quarterbacks didn’t start Week 1. This was especially true if a team already had a veteran in place. This was especially true if the team in question was less than two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance.

This, however, is a different age. It’s been more than 15 years since a quarterback selected in the top 20 didn’t start during his rookie year.

Which brings us to the curious case of Jimmy Garoppolo. Somehow, Garoppolo’s still only started 32 NFL games in his career. Thirty of these have been with the 49ers. He’s won 22 of them, with a passer rating over 98, and averaged over eight yards per attempt. In his last full season, 2019, the Niners won 13 games and made the Super Bowl, which they led by ten points more than halfway through the fourth quarter, and by four with three minutes remaining. That they ultimately lost by eleven has left scars.

Any attempt at a return trip was thwarted, as the 2020 49ers were brutally ravaged by injury. They lost vital pieces all over the field, from pass rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, to superstar tight end George Kittle, to receiver Deebo Samuel, to cornerback Richard Sherman, to Garoppolo himself. 

The result was a 6-10 record and the twelfth pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Rather than retool a contending roster, they packaged that pick, with first-rounders in 2022 and 2023, and a third-rounder in 2022, to jump up #3, and select hyper-talented North Dakota State QB Trey Lance. Somewhere along the line, head coach Kyle Shanahan lost his faith in Jimmy G.

The preseason has consisted of endless questions about who will start the season under center (or if both would), whether Garoppolo will be traded (the Niners insist not) and, if indeed Garoppolo does get the nod… when will he get the hook?

That’s important thing to remember. Sooner rather than later, Garoppolo’s time as starter is winding down. Quality quarterback play on a rookie contract is the most valuable asset in the NFL. While first round QBs are still drafted for what they might become, there’s an expectation of immediate contribution. That’s because, if a young QB hits the ground running, he opens a multi-year window in which a team can build aggressively while he’s ‘cheap’. However, this plan doesn’t usually involve a high-priced veteran sitting on the bench, offsetting that advantage.

If, as left tackle Trent Williams has said, Trey Lance really is “a generational talent” (the potential is there), then the 49ers couldn’t afford to wait. However, now the clock is ticking. Lance impressed in the preseason, but was not so overwhelming that he absolutely had to be a Day One starter. Then, a little over a week before the season opener, he chipped a bone in his right index finger. This, perversely, simplified the situation, as Garoppolo is again the presumptive starter. For now.

With the exception of Shanahan himself, no one knows the exact timetable. We do, however, know the inevitable conclusion. This type of lingering uncertainty is not ideal for a team with championship aspirations. 

On the bright side, the rest of the roster is, in fact, that good.

To a top-ten offensive line, the Niners added center Alex Mack, arguably the best at the position over the past half-decade.

The receiving corps is loaded, with the versatile and tough (9.6 yards after catch in two NFL seasons) Samuel and 2020 first-rounder Brandon Aiyuk leading the way. Veteran Travis Benjamin (provided he can stay healthy) and fourth-year man Richie James provide excellent deep threats.

Then, of course, there’s Kittle. Though he doesn’t provide the outside threat of a Travis Kelce, Kittle is a both phenomenal inside receiver (71.5% career catch rate on 264 receptions, for nearly 14 yards each) and run blocker. If he can avoiding injuries, he is as good, all-around, as any tight end in the game.

On top of all that, there’s the fact that Shanahan is game-planning for this group, regardless of who’s at quarterback. That’s always a plus.

The defensive front is similarly stacked. The pass rush is spearheaded by Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Dee Ford. Bosa and Ford both missed essentially all of the 2020 season. Bosa was spectacular as a rookie in 2019, which, not coincidentally, coincided with Armstead’s career-best sack total. The trio, along with 2020 first-rounder Javon Kinlaw will wreak havoc.

The linebacking corps, meanwhile, is the best in the NFL, with the excellent Dre Greenlaw and Samson Ebukam (acquired from the Rams) flanking the best inside linebacker this side of Bobby Wagner, Fred Warner.

The secondary is less certain. There is talent, but much depth, and health will be huge. Jason Verrett was fantastic in 2020, but it was just his second healthy season in seven in NFL. Keeping Verrett,  Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt, Emmanuel Moseley and K’Waun Williams, all of whom have struggled with injuries throughout their careers, on the field will be vital. 

The Bottom Line: Better to be a moderately distracted team with Super Bowl aspirations that a happy mediocrity, right?

The 49ers have questions heading into the 2020 season, namely in the defensive secondary and, gasp, at quarterback.

Long term, we already know where that situation is headed. However, a decision will have to be made for the present. There’s simply too much at stake to stay in flux. Fortunately, there’s also too much elite talent everywhere else for a healthy Niners team to run into too much trouble.

The uncertainty with which they enter the season – and the process of sorting it out – may wind up costing this team a win or two. In a division that’s this talented and bunched-up, that could be fatal.

Los Angeles Rams

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 10-6, lost in Divisional round to Packers
  • Head coach: Sean McVay
  • Starting quarterback: Matthew Stafford
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 9-10 wins, struggling for a Wild Card

Jared Goff has been selected to more Pro Bowls (2) than has Matthew Stafford (1), boasts a higher career passer rating (91.5, vs. 89.9), and is nearly seven years younger. And yet, when the two were traded for one another this off-season, Goff was accompanied to Detroit by a pair of first-round draft picks (2022 and 2023) and a 2021 sixth-rounder. That draft haul alone would have been sufficient to land any one of several starting QBs.

Like with Garoppolo, the fallout from a bad Super Bowl showing was simply too much for Goff to overcome. For this iteration of the Rams, which does not believe in half measures when it comes to dealing draft picks and doling out dollars in free agency in pursuit of a Super Bowl win, that means bold and decisive action.

Though Stafford’s on-paper achievements don’t seem to warrant the superstar (even MVP candidate) hype that he’s received since the trade (though, to be fair, over 45,000 yards, 282 touchdown passes and three trips to the playoffs WITH THE LIONS is pretty good!), he’s widely respected around the league, as a teammate and a leader, and still possesses the kind of rocket that’s previously only resided in head coach Sean McVay’s dreams. McVay is regarded as one of the NFL’s most brilliant young offensive minds. That he and Goff had, frankly, a fantastic run has many, many observers believing that Stafford’s arm and McVay’s brain will unlock football Nirvana.

Whether this is true, and Stafford is indeed a superstar, shackled for those dozen years in Detroit, or if he’s simply a good, sometimes very good but not transformative, quarterback remains to be seen. The reality is, the way in which the roster in constructed, the Rams don’t actually need Stafford to be a superstar to succeed.

The loss of second-year star running back Cam Akers to an offseason Achilles tear will sting. Talented backup Darrell Henderson Jr. should fill in ably, but, as a rookie, Akers looked like a rare talent and, rarer still, a true every down feature back. In addition to Henderson, the remainder of the skill position corps – namely an excellent pair of receivers, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, and a potential star at tight end in Tyler Higbee – will help to pick up the slack. There will be some pressure on the wideouts to stay healthy, as second-year man Van Jefferson (19 catches as a rookie), almost-35-year-old DeSean Jackson, and 5-foot-9, 160-pound rookie Tutu Atwell round out the depth chart. Similarly, the offensive line, profiles as the best in the division and one of the best in the NFL, but is not deep.

The defense, certainly, will remain a strength. This is largely due to the presence of arguably the NFL two best cornerbacks, and, simply one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the sport.

Jalen Ramsey has been one of the best corners in the league since his arrival following the 2016 draft. He’s never had remotely resembling a subpar season, despite the fact that he was tasked with the toughest assignments from Day One. These days, most opponents don’t even bother attacking his part of the field.

As for Aaron Donald… the words truly are elusive. He is, in every conceivable way, a force of nature. Thanks to an incredible combination of speed, quickness, strength, adaptability and intelligence, he’s impervious to double teams. The scheme that can negate him has yet to be devised. Aaron Donald is the ultimate defensive difference maker.

By virtue proximity to Donald’s blocker vortex, Leonard Floyd should have an excellent year rushing the passer. Meanwhile, Darious Williams is one of the best #2 corners in the league. HOWEVER…

First and foremost, the coordinator of last season top-ranked defense, Brandon Staley, is now the head coach of L.A.’s other team. His replacement, Raheem Morris, is a respected veteran coach, but Staley is one of the NFL’s sharpest and most innovative minds.

Every bit as importantly, the manner in which recent Rams teams has been built – mortgaging the future in search of success today – is only sustainable for so long. It seems the bill is nearly due. This offseason provided a glimpse into the Rams’ not-too-distant future, when financial commitments curtail free agent spending (and retention), and there simply are no draft picks with which to restock.

Gone via free agency are safety John Johnson, linebacker Samson Ebukam, cornerback Troy Hill and defensive end Morgan Fox. Also, gone via trade is defensive lineman Michael Brockers. In their places have come… not a single free agent of consequence or a rookie drafted before the third round. The teams has had just four draft picks in the top 100 over the past two drafts. Only one of these has gone toward the defense, and the lone one in the 2021 draft was spent on a tiny wide receiver.

The linebacking corps is weak, and there’s not much depth in the secondary  or at edge rusher. And there’s really not much to be done about it.

Now more than ever, thank goodness for Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.

The Bottom Line: The Rams are still going to be a good team. However, it’s tough to ignore the fact that, behind the awesome, top-tier talents, the roster has begun to thin out.

On the one hand, Matthew Stafford doesn’t need to be a superstar for the Rams to succeed. At the same time, if he’s merely the ‘good’ quarterback that he was in Detroit for a dozen years, it’s unlikely he’s all that big an upgrade over Jared Goff. Given this, that he cost an additional pair of first-round choices is potentially problematic. The loss of Cam Akers is also a big one. 

A defense that features both Donald and Ramsey is always going to be pretty good. However, the depth of quality on the unit simply isn’t what it once was, and they’re now without a brilliant coordinator.

In a division a brutally tough as the NFC West, these are fatal flaws. In a vacuum, every one of these teams is objectively ‘good’. However, they’ve all got compete against one another and someone is going to finish last. Unless they catch a few breaks, there’s a decent chance that it’s the Rams.