NFC West 2018 Team Previews

Read our thorough team-by-team preview of NFC West. Starting with the Los Angeles Rams, the Seattle Seahawks, the Arizona Cardinals and then the San Francisco 49ers.

Overview

All four teams in the NFC West have made Super Bowl appearances, and three of them have won at least one championship. Eight seasons ago, the NFC West became the first NFL division ever to have a champion with a losing record when the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2010. 

In 2017, the NFC West first place Los Angeles Rams went 11-5 with their new head coach Sean McVay, who’d replaced five-year coach Jeff Fisher after his 2016 team went 4-12. The Rams made their first playoff appearance since the 2004 season but lost to the defending NFC champions, the Atlanta Falcons, 26-13. They’ve had an active 2018 offseason, naming co-offensive coordinators, using free agency to tighten up their pass defense and the draft to brighten their future.

The 2017 Seattle Seahawks couldn’t build on their previous season’s 10-5-1 record and thanks to an inconsistent offensive line and running game, ended up in second place with a record of 9-7 and were eliminated from the playoffs for the first time since 2011. After a questionably effective offseason, the Seahawks are counting on their Super Bowl winning quarterback to play big and a slightly deepened backfield to play better in order to compete in 2018.

The 2017 Arizona Cardinals finished in third place in the NFC West with a record of 8-8, slightly better than their previous season’s output of 7-8-1, and missed the playoffs for the second straight season. His head coach retired, general manager Steve Keim not only hired a new one, but also changed offensive and defensive coordinators and created a whole new quarterback room, including a first round pick from UCLA.

The San Francisco 49ers went 6-10 in 2017, which was actually a respectable improvement on their previous season’s 2-14. After going 1-10 to start the season, new general manager John Lynch signed former backup to Tom Brady turned free agent Jimmy Garoppolo and the team finished 5-0. Needless to say, the 49ers’ success in 2018 rests firmly on Garoppolo’s shoulders.

The Los Angeles Rams

For the last two seasons, the Los Angeles Rams have started out 3-1. Except unlike in 2016 – when things went terribly wrong in the second half of the season and the Rams went 1-11 in their final 12 games – in 2017 things went terribly right.

Under new head coach Sean McVay, the NFC West first place Rams went 11-5 and made the playoffs for the first time in 12 seasons.  They got beat by the defending NFC champions, the Atlanta Falcons, 26-13, but it was a successful season during which they turned their low scoring offense around and somehow sparked their second year quarterback to life.

And they actually did it by teamwork.

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McVay makes Goff’s life a lot easier

Quarterback Jared Goff had a tremendous turnaround in 2017 playing under McVay after a rough rookie season with previous head coach Jeff Fisher. In 15 games, Goff completed 296 passes for 3,804 yards and 28 touchdowns with only 7 interceptions for a passing rating of 100.5. He’s said to be doing more now at the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped and he’s looking better in the pocket. He’ll have 2018 to prove he’s heading in the right direction now.

Coach McVay used to be a college wide receiver and more recently the offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins. He and Goff are working incredibly well together with McVay calling plays and last minute audibles that Goff is able to effectively relay to the team and execute.

How well does it work?

The Rams went from dead last in total offense in 2016, scoring an NFL-low 224 points, to becoming the highest scoring team in the league in 2017 with an average of 29.9 points per game and 478 total points scored – both best in the NFL.

Last season’s offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur obviously wasn’t keen on McVay calling all the plays since during the offseason he took the same (but better) job with the Tennessee Titans where he’ll be their play caller, too.

During the 2018 season, the Rams offense will be coordinated by committee. The 8th ranked run game will be coordinated by promoted line coach Aaron Kromer while the 10th ranked pass game will be coordinated by promoted tight ends coach Shane Waldron.

Goff’s got some tools to work with

Running back Todd Gurley was ranked second in the NFL last season, having run 279 times for 1,305 yards (87 per game) and 13 touchdowns. He averaged 4.7 yards per run, his longest being a 57-yard touchdown run that capped off a three-touchdown first half of a 42-7 retribution win over the Seahawks in December. He also caught 64 passes for 788 yards and 6 TDs. He has to hang onto the ball, though, since 2 of his 5 fumbles last season were lost.

Starting wide receiver Sammy Watkins left for the Chiefs. Joining All Rookie wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who caught 62 balls for 869 yards and 5 TDs in 2017 and Robert Woods (56 catches for 781 yards and 5 TDs) will be free agent pickup wide receiver Branin Cooks, who looks to be a great add to the Rams 10th ranked passing offense. With the Patriots last season, Cooks had 65 catches for 1,082 yards and 7 TDs and his 2016 numbers with the Saints were even better: 78 catches for 1,173 yards and 8 TDs.

The 2018 season will be tight end Tyler Higbee’s third, and he’s hoping to continue his growth from last year when he caught 25 balls for 295 yards and a touchdown.

The Rams offensive line, including first team All Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth and second team All Pro guard Rodger Saffold, allowed only 28 sacks last season, fifth best in the NFL. The line got deeper with the draft: tackle Joseph Noteboom (TCU), center Brian Allen (Michigan State) and guard Jamil Demby (Maine) were added with the O-line’s future in mind.

An active offseason for the Rams front office

This offseason saw a lot of Rams defensive players leave: defensive end Robert Quinn to the Dolphins, linebacker Alec Ogletree to the Giants and cornerback Trumaine Johnson to the Jets.

The transition to new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips last season ended up being a bit bumpy. The Rams defense was ranked 15th the prior season but ended up ranked 19th under Phillips. General manager Les Snead spent the offseason using free agency and the draft to try to change the direction of those numbers.

The Rams were last in the league in interceptions, grabbing only 7 last season. So Snead signed cornerbacks Marcus Peters, who had 5 interceptions for the Chiefs last season, Aqib Talib, who had 31 combined tackles and an interception for the Broncos and Super Bowl winner Sam Shields, who’s ready to play after sitting out last season in Green Bay recovering from his concussions.

The Rams defense was 4th in the league in sacks, taking down their opponent’s quarterback 48 times in 2017. So Snead doubled down and brought in quarterback hunter Ndamukong Suh, who’s had 51.5 career sacks and 4.5 last season for Miami. Suh will play end across from All Pro Aaron Donald, who had 11 sacks himself last season. Let the sacking begin.

The leg’s back is healthy

The Rams first team All Pro kicker Greg “the Leg” Zuerlein, who once kicked the longest field goal in Rams history, 61 yards, was 95.0% accurate last season. Zuerlein led the league in scoring with 158 points (11.3 points per game) despite playing only 14 games due to a back injury. After a successful surgery in December, coach McVay says Zuerlein’s ready to go.

Bottom Line: The Rams 2018 schedule is tied for 5th toughest (with the Seahawks and Browns), so Goff and coach McVay will need to continue their effective partnership and score big (and often) again this season. The Rams got pummeled by a Jimmy Garoppolo let 49ers in Week 17 after barely beating a Brian Hoyer led 49ers in Week 3 41-39, so improving on their divisional record of 4-2 might prove difficult, but that will be a must for the Rams to top the NFC West for the second year in a row.

ESPN predicts the Rams will go 12-4 in 2018.

Bleacher Report predicts the Rams will go 9-7 in 2018.

CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Rams 2018 over/under win total at 9.5

The Seattle Seahawks

Second place and single digit win records don’t cut it for Pete Carroll, who at 67-years-old is currently the oldest NFL head coach, and has a 79-48 overall record with the Seattle Seahawks and a 9-5 record in the playoffs. The 2016 Seahawks were 10-5-1 but the 2017 version came up a game short at 9-7 and for the first time in six seasons Carroll’s team didn’t make the playoffs.

The Seahawks offense ranked middle of the NFL road at 15th but was unbalanced. Their rushing offense was 23rd in the league while their passing offense was 14th. General manager John Schneider used the offseason to bring in a new runner while hoping his main offensive weapon, quarterback Russell Wilson, continues to fire big.

Wilson had quite a 2017.

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Wilson is tremendous but could use a better line

Lucky new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer gets to work with Wilson, last season’s 9th ranked quarterback who completed 339 passes for 3,983 yards, 34 TDs and only 11 interceptions. He led the NFL in touchdown passes with 34 and broke Eli Manning’s NFL record for most 4th quarter touchdowns in a single season with 18, the previous record being 15.

Seahawks offensive line didn’t keep Wilson very safe in 2017, allowing 43 sacks. But the only change Schneider made was to the middle of the line with the signing of free agent guard D.J. Fluker (NYG) who’d been placed on injured reserve in November for a toe injury that has since healed.

Schneider spent his offseason time acquiring weapons

Last season’s inefficient running backs have moved on: Eddie Lacy has become a free agent and Thomas Rawls has signed with the Jets. So in the first round of the draft, Schneider selected Rashaad Penny (San Diego State) who in 2017 ran the ball 289 times for 2,248 yards and 23 touchdowns; he also caught 19 balls for 135 yards and 2 TDs. Other teams had rated Penny in the second or third round, so it remains to be seen if he was worth choosing over Georgia running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel or LSU’s Derrius Guice, who were all still available.

Schneier also signed aging and ‘dramatic’ wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who says he’s healed from his season ending ankle surgery, as well as signing receiving tight end Ed Dickson, who grabbed 30 balls for 437 yards and a touchdown for Carolina last season. Blocking tight end Will Dissly (Washington) was drafted in round four to help fill out one of the barest positions on the Seahawk’s roster.

Seattle’s defense has a new Sherriff

New defensive coordinator and former NFL linebacker Ken Norton Jr. knows how to win. He’s the only player in NFL history to win a Super Bowl ring in three consecutive years. His Seahawks linebacker room is a decent one with All Pro Bobby Wagner (133 combined tackles, 1.5 sacks and 2 interceptions in 2017), K.J Wright (108 combined tackles and 1 interception) and newly signed free agent Barkevious Mingo who had 47 combined tackles, two pass deflections and two sacks for the Colts last season.

Defensive end Frank Clark had 9 sacks, but he’s lost his partner Michael Bennett, who had 8.5 sacks last season, to the Eagles. Dion Jordon and third round draft pick Rasheem Green (USC) will compete to replace Bennett on the line.

Seattle’s passing defense was ranked 6th last year allowing opponents to throw for only 209.2 yards per game. Their backfield had 14 interceptions last season, tied for 8th in the league, but they’re losing cornerback Richard Sherman, who’s left for the 49ers. Sherman had 35 combined tackles and 2 interceptions last season, numbers that were significantly lower than the previous season’s 58 and 4. They’ve deepened their cornerback room by signing Dontae Johnson (SF) and drafting Tre Flowers (Oklahoma State) in the fifth round.

Second-team All Pro safety Earl Thomas is returning after a season where he made 88 combined tackles and 2 interceptions. Seattle signed free agent safety Mo Alexander (LAR), who had 20 combined tackles last season after only starting and playing in four games due to the competition

Bottom line: If the Seahawks’ freshly plucked and newly re-grown defense can’t step up in 2018, it will be entirely up to Wilson to find ways to win games and improve his middle of the NFL ranked offense. With the Garoppolo-led 49ers and the Goff-led Rams competing for the NFC West title, the Wilson-led Seahawks will probably have to settle for a battle over third place with the Bradford/Rosen-led Cardinals.

ESPN predicts the Seahawks will go 8-8 in 2018.

Bleacher Report predicts the Seahawks will go 8-8 in 2018.

CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Seahawks 2018 over/under win total at 8.5

The Arizona Cardinals

Last season, the Arizona Cardinals finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the second year in a row. When head coach Bruce Arians retired after his fifth year at the job, general manager Steve Keim hired Steve Wilks, the former coordinator for the Carolina Panthers 7th ranked defense who was an in-demand head coaching prospect.

Wilks will be working with new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who had that same job with the Denver Broncos last season but was fired in November after a six-game losing streak. He replaces Harold Goodwin, whose squad ranked 6th last season.

It will be McCoy’s fun job to figure out who’ll be starting as quarterback in 2018.

The Cardinals’ quarterback room is re-stocked and ready

The big news was who Arizona drafted in the first round – Josh Rosen, the UCLA quarterback who was considered a top choice in the quarterback rich 2018 draft. His Junior year he completed 283 passes for 3,756 yards, 26 TDs and 10 interceptions for a passer rating of 147. He’ll likely begin the year on the sideline with a clipboard, but he has the skills to start if it comes to that.

Keim signed starter Sam Bradford, the free agent who spent most of 2017 on injured reserve, but whose 2016 numbers are impressive: 395 completions for 3,877 yards, 20 TDs and only 5 interceptions. The question is whether Bradford can return to his pre-injury form quickly enough before the crowds start calling for Rosen.

Also signed was backup Mike Glennon, who started four games for the Chicago Bears last season going 1-3 before being benched for rookie first-round pick Mitchell Trubisky. Glennon will be key to mentoring rookie Rosen from the sidelines.

A healthy Johnson the key to Arizona’s offense

Running back David Johnson, who missed most of last season due to a wrist injury, says he’s healthy and ready to play in 2018. If Johnson gets back to his 2106 numbers when he ran 293 times for 1,239 yards and 16 TDs and caught 80 balls for 879 yards and 4 TDs, he’ll bring life back to a Cardinals rushing offense that only averaged 86.6 yards per game, third worst in the NFL.

Wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and J.J. Nelson had depth added behind them with 2nd round draft pick Christian Kirk (Texas A&M) who caught 71 passes for 919 yards and 10 TDs his Junior year. Kirk also scored one touchdown on 10 punt returns for 191 yards and one touchdown on 22 kickoff returns for 490 yards.

The Cardinals also signed free agent receiver Brice Butler (DAL) – 15 catches for 317 yards and 3 TDs last season – and hope he fills the gap left by the departure of John Brown to the Ravens.

After the offensive line allowed 52 sacks last season, tied for the league worst, Keim rebuilt the entire right side of the offensive line by signing two free agents: guard Justin Pugh formerly with the Giants and tackle Andre Smith, formerly with the Bengals. Keim also drafted versatile lineman Mason Cole (Michigan) to bring a solid backup to the re-vamped O-line.

Holcomb to try to improve a mediocre defense

Arizona’s defense, 22nd  in the league, has a new coordinator in 2018, Al Holcomb, who helped the Panthers get to Super Bowl 50 as their linebackers coach. He replaces James Bettcher who left for the same job with the New York Giants.

Defensive end Olsen Pierre had 30 combined tackles and 5.5 of the team’s 37 sacks last year, but 2nd year defensive end Robert Nkemdiche has to do way better than his single tackle last season.

All Pro linebacker Chandler Jones had another great season in 2017 combining for 59 tackles and a whopping 17 sacks. Markus Golden’s season ending torn ACL is still rehabbing, so defensive end Benson Mayowa was signed from Dallas to provide depth while he recovers.

All Rookie and All Pro safety Budda Baker (74 combined tackles and one sack) will be working next to cornerback Jamar Taylor who was traded from the Browns where he combined for 62 tackles and half a sack. They’ll be trying to improve on a pass defense that allowed 221.3 yards a game last season, 14th in the league.

Bottom line: Without a proven commodity playing quarterback, there’s no telling how the Cardinals offense will produce. If Johnson can get back to pre-injury form he’ll certainly take a lot of the pressure off whoever starts as quarterback, but this team is not ready to compete in the NFC West just yet, especially with a schedule that’s tied for eighth toughest.

ESPN predicts the Cardinals will go 6-10 in 2018.

Bleacher Report predicts the Cardinals will go 6-10 in 2018.

CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Cardinals 2018 over/under win total at 5.5

The San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers went 6-10 in 2017, but their record is much more complicated than that. Quarterback Brian Hoyer started the first five games and went 0-5, and then backup C.J. Beathard was given a chance Week 6 through Week 12 and went 1-5.

In Week 13, new general manager John Lynch made the move that turned his struggling franchise around. Lynch traded a second-round pick in this year’s draft for the much sought after backup to Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, who started the final five games and went 5-0. Including his two wins in New England, Garoppolo is now 7-0 as a starter.

Garoppolo’s offensive coordinator in 2018 is also his head coach.

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Shanahan wearing two big hats these days

 2017 was head coach Kyle Shanahan’s first season with the 49ers. Having been the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, Shanahan decided not to hire an offensive coordinator, choosing to handle those duties himself. His offense ranked 12th in the league last season, 9th for passing but only 21st for the run.

Lynch attempted to address the run game weakness by signing Jerick McKinnon to a four-year, $30 million contract. McKinnon was the backup runner for the Vikings who ran 150 times last season for 570 yards and 3 TDs. He’s also got decent hands – he caught 51 balls for 421 yards and 2 TDs – which gives Garoppolo yet another target.

McKinnon, who runs a 4.35 40-yard-dash, had the longest run of his career last season: a 58-yard touchdown run against the Bears in Week 5 where he showed off  his lateral quickness and then his open field speed, outrunning two trailing Bears defenders for the score.

Garoppolo’s main targets will remain the same

Wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin are both ready to have Garoppolo help them put up big numbers. Garcon only made 40 catches for 500 yards and no touchdowns for the 49ers in 2017, but the prior year with the Redskins his numbers were 79 for 1,041 and 3 TDs. Goodwin had a stellar 2017, setting new career highs in receptions (56) and receiving yards (962) along with 2 TDs, impressive enough to earn him a three-year, $20.3 million contract extension.

Also returning is exciting 2nd year receiver Trent Taylor (43 catches for 430 yards and 2 TDs). Lynch also drafted some receiver depth in the second round, the 6-foot-1, 195 pound Dante Pettis (Washington), and in the seventh round, Richie James (Middle Tennessee State).

Garoppolo knows that tight end George Kittle can catch the ball – in Week 17 they connected for a game high 4 receptions for 100 yards, adding to Kittle’s season numbers of 43 catches for 515 yards and 2 TDs. That partnership should benefit an already successful 49ers passing offense that threw for 245.3 yards per game last season, 9th best in the league.

The San Francisco O-Line re-tooled…

The offensive line that ranked 21st in rushing yards per game (104.0) has officially been re-tooled. Lynch signed center Weston Richburg (NYG) and guard Jonathon Cooper (DAL) to solid up the inside of the offensive line that allowed 43 sacks last season.

To help improve the run game, Lynch traded right tackle Trent Brown to the Patriots and drafted  right tackle Mike McGlinchey (Notre Dame) in the first round. McGlinchey should contribute right away and eventually be able to step in for first-rate left tackle Joe Staley, who turns 34 in August. Free agent tackle Andrew Lauderdale (NO) was also signed.

…but no re-tool for the 49ers defense, though.

Second year coordinator Robert Saleh’s defense was ranked 24th last season, but not much was done about it over the offseason. The D-line, which allowed 116.3 rushing yards per game, looks to be the same in 2018.

The 49ers defense only had 30 sacks last season, which puts them in the league basement in that category. It was defensive end Solomon Thomas’ rookie season and he had 3 of those sacks. End Arik Armstead, who’s now recovered from his Week 6 broken hand, had 1.5 sacks. Lynch drafted some D-line depth in the fourth round, defensive end Kentavius Street (NC State) and defensive tackle Julian Taylor (Temple).

All Rookie linebacker Reuben Foster, who combined for 72 tackles his first season in the league, will return with cohorts Eli Harold and Malcolm Smith. Third round draft pick Fred Warner (BYU) and free agents Jerry Attaochu (LAC) and Korey Toomer (LAC) should up the linebacker competition in 2018.

The 49ers only had 10 interceptions in 2017. Newly signed veteran cornerback Richard Sherman (SEA) is questionable for Week 1 with an Achilles injury, but when he’s healthy, he and his 32 career interceptions should help improve that statistic for San Francisco.

Second year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon hopes to improve on his decent rookie numbers. In only 12 games, Whitherspoon had 2 interceptions and 32 combined tackles.

Safety Tarvarius Moore (Southern Miss) was drafted in the third round with the hope that with his size (6-foot-1, 190-pounds) he can play outside corner in addition to safety.

Bottom Line:  Everybody likes a great NFL comeback, and Lynch and Shanahan look to be planning one for the 49ers in 2018. It all rests firmly on Garoppolo’s shoulders, but it’s obvious the man’s tired of being a backup and is ready to be San Francisco’s version of Tom Brady. With the fourth-place schedule the 49ers face in 2018, look for them to finally make a run for the top.

ESPN predicts the 49ers will go 10-6 in 2018.

Bleacher Report predicts the 49ers will go 10-6 in 2018.

CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the 49ers 2018 over/under win total at 8.5

Final Take

Both the Rams and the 49ers could realistically win the NFC West in 2018, but don’t forget, Garoppolo’s 49ers owned Goff’s Rams in Week 17 last season. We never got to see Garoppolo play against the Seahawks, but given how close the scores were without him, chances are he’ll take good care of that business, too. If Garoppolo continues to deliver  – and the 7-0 starter has already proven he can with the team he’s been given – the NFC West could be a tight two-way race between his 49ers and Goff’s Rams. If Wilson can revitalize the Seahawks offense, they could strike a few blows, too, but they might only have what it takes to stay on top of the healed-Bradford-or-rookie-Rosen-led Cardinals in 2018.

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