NFC West poised to become ‘one of the best divisions in football’
The Seahawks have mostly dominated the NFC West in recent years, finishing first in the division in 2013, 2014, and 2016. In 2017, though, the Los Angeles Rams secured the title and finished first in the NFC West for the first time since 2003.
The shift in power has certainly set things up for an interesting race in 2018, and as a result, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell told John Clayton the NFC West is becoming one of the better divisions in football.
“Who really saw this coming 12 months ago,” Barnwell told Clayton during his appearance on 710 ESPN Seattle. “It’s a fascinating division. It really changed so quickly.”
Under first-year head coach Sean McVay, the Rams finished 11-5 – which was their best record in 14 seasons, and a dramatic turnaround from their 4-12 finish in 2016. Second-year quarterback Jared Goff threw for over 3,800 yards and 28 touchdowns, while running back Todd Gurley looked nearly unstoppable with 2,093 combined rushing and receiving yards and 19 touchdowns. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the 49ers were posting one of the worst records in the league (1-10) through Week 12; however, the team managed to take off for a five-game win streak once Jimmy Garoppolo took over at quarterback for an injured C.J. Beathard.
As for the Seahawks, they finished 9-7 and missed the postseason for the first time since 2011. While they could lose big name playmakers (like tight end Jimmy Graham) this offseason, they still have a number of Pro Bowlers on their roster and one distinct advantage over the Rams and 49ers: they’ve been to two Super Bowls in the last five years.
That being said, the Seahawks’ regression and the Rams’ and 49ers momentum will certainly make things more competitive. Here’s a look at what Barnwell had to say about each NFC West team.
Seahawks (last year’s record: 9-7, 2nd in NFC West)
Barnwell recently wrote about five important moves the Seahawks should make this offseason to gain an advantage, and chief among them is to make an attempt to re-sign defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, acquire a tight end to replace Graham, and re-sign their likely Hall of Famers (starting with Pro Bowl free safety Earl Thomas).
Seattle has just over $13 million in cap room (only five teams have less) and it will make those offseason moves trickier for general manager John Schneider.
Cardinals (last year’s record: 8-8, 3rd in NFC West)
The Arizona Cardinals have a bit more wiggle room than Seattle, with $22.4 million in cap space, and will see the return of future Hall of Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. However, they’ll have a few tough decisions to make.
“They’re in sort of a rough cap situation,” Barnwell said. “They have a ton of talent there, but a lot of the young players who you figured might come through, your John Browns for example, they haven’t really developed into sort of every-down players that you would’ve hoped for a couple years ago. So now they have players like Tyrann Matthews, who was signed at the peak of his value, who’s maybe not worth quite as much as he’s getting paid at this point. So the cap situation is definitely problematic. As they look for a quarterback, it’s more likely that they’re going to have to draft somebody, just for cap reasons, as opposed to going out and signing somebody like Kirk Cousins. It’s going to be a tough situation.”
Rams (last year’s record: 11-5, 1st in NFC West)
According to Barnwell, the Rams are in good shape cap-wise, but will need to make a few decisions about wide receivers and defensive backs.
“At wideout, Tavon Austin, you assume, is going to be cut. But Sammy Watkins is going to be an interesting case… he played a role, but he was their fourth receiver on most plays. So do you franchise that guy? I think you can probably use that money better elsewhere (because) they’re (also) going to have to really invest in that secondary.”
Starting cornerback Trumaine Johnson will be an unrestricted free agent come March, and cornerback Kayvon Webster suffered a season-ending Achilles injury (and recently underwent a shoulder surgery). Barnwell said the Rams could look to free agency for a replacement in the secondary, and sign someone like Aqib Talib.
49ers (last year’s record: 6-10, 4th in NFC West)
The 49ers not only have the most cap room in the NFC West, but with $80.6 million, they have the second-most cap room in the entire league. It will make it easier for them to search free agency for tools to build around Garoppolo, whom they recently signed to a five-year, $135 million deal.
“They have a franchise quarterback who’s making a ton of money now,” Barnwell said. “They have over $80 million in cap space, so they have a lot of things to work with. They want to go out and get that No. 1 cornerback. Maybe they’re a spot where (current Rams cornerback) Trumaine Johnson ends up landing. You do want to support that pass rush. And then you want to build around Garoppolo.
“They’re going to spend. I think they’re closer to competing than we would’ve thought.”