NFC West inside intel: Vital rookies, key position battles, juicy subplots

Charley Casserly spent three decades in the NFL, starting as an unpaid intern and ultimately serving as general manager of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans, snagging three Super Bowl rings along the way. During his rise up the scouting ranks and eventual entry into the front office, Casserly made connections across the league -- lasting connections that extend to this day and provide rare access to the team-building process.

In the Inside Intel series, our resident GM mines his sources across the league to relay the inside word on impact rookies, prominent position battles and remaining questions. You'll find the NFC West intel below.

Arizona Cardinals
Arizona Cardinals
2019 record · 5-10-1

IMPACT ROOKIE


Isaiah Simmons, linebacker: The No. 8 overall pick is a versatile defender who can play multiple positions in Vance Joseph's unit (linebacker, safety or nickel). Simmons will start in the Cardinals' 3-4 base defense as an inside linebacker, but his role may vary from week to week. Look for him to match up in man coverage against tight ends when Arizona faces division opponents, especially George Kittle and Greg Olsen.

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
RT Marcus Gilbert Josh Jones
DE Zach Allen Rashard Lawrence Leki Fotu
OLB Haason Reddick Devon Kennard

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

How will DeAndre Hopkins mesh with the offense? The receiver's transition from Bill O'Brien's offense to Kliff Kingsbury's should be an easy one. Arizona's offense is built on throwing short passes and allowing pass catchers to make plays, which fits right into Hopkins' skill set. He's a football magnet who excels on crossing routes and at gaining YAC. He'll also be a major red-zone threat with his size and ability to win 50/50 balls.

Los Angeles Rams
Los Angeles Rams
2019 record · 9-7

IMPACT ROOKIE


Cam Akers, running back: Will he emerge as the Rams' RB1? It's certainly possible, but expect the Rams to operate with a backfield committee. Akers can boost Sean McVay's offense as a strong inside runner with big-play ability. 

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
C/RG Brian Allen Bobby Evans David Edwards Joseph Noteboom
ILB1/ILB2 Troy Reeder Kenny Young Micah Kiser Travin Howard
CB2/NCB Troy Hill David Long Darious Williams

Along the offensive line, the plan is for Austin Blythe to start at either center or right guard, leaving the four O-linemen mentioned above to compete for the other spot.

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

Can the offense re-establish its identity from a couple years ago? In L.A.'s run to Super Bowl LIII, the offense had a strong running game that set up the pass. McVay wants to get back to that style of offense, and for that to happen, it's essential that the offensive line improves, especially the interior. The Rams parted this offseason with Todd Gurley, who was exceptional during the 2017 and '18 seasons and averaged 22.7 touches, 88.1 rush yards and 135.3 scrimmage yards per game with 40 scrimmage TDs in that two-year span. The three backs on the depth chart -- Cam Akers, Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown -- all have skills that will help the Rams have a strong ground game. Brown has proven to be a good short-yardage runner, while Akers will provide them with a physical rusher between the tackles who's capable of big gains. Henderson must come through in the passing game with his ability to make explosive plays.

San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers
2019 record · 13-3

IMPACT ROOKIES


Javon Kinlaw, defensive tackle: The 49ers are looking for Kinlaw to make an immediate impact as a three-technique. He can be a disruptive player in both run and pass situations, but, based on what I saw on his college tape, he must become more disciplined with his gap responsibilities. I think that can be achieved.


Brandon Aiyuk, wide receiver/return specialist: Aiyuk, the 25th overall pick in this year's draft, can be another playmaker opposite Deebo Samuel -- or play in place of him while Samuel recovers from injury. Aiyuk's best asset is his ability to run after the catch, as he averaged 10.9 YAC in his final season with Arizona State in 2019, per PFF. Expect Jimmy Garoppolo to get him the ball on short passes and screens, where he'll do the most damage. However, Aiyuk won't be limited to short and quick passes, as his size and physicality will allow him to be an asset on downfield plays, too. Aiyuk could make an impact on special teams as a kick returner, as well.

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
WR1/WR2 Brandon Aiyuk Kendrick Bourne Dante Pettis Jalen Hurd
RG Tom Compton Daniel Brunskill
DT1/DT2 Javon Kinlaw Solomon Thomas D.J. Jones
CB2 Ahkello Witherspoon Emmanuel Moseley

With Samuel expected to be out until at least mid-September, the 49ers must fill both the WR1 and WR2 roles. Aside from the rookie Aiyuk, this group got some experience in the team's Super Bowl run, but everyone will need to step up now. Pettis is the best fit outside because of his speed, so he might be the best option while Samuel is out.

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

How will the defensive line come together after losing DeForest Buckner? The strength of this team has been the defensive line, and if the 49ers intend to keep it that way in 2020, they'll need a few things to happen. They know they can't replace Buckner, who was dealt to the Colts this offseason, with only one player, so they need a trio of DTs to bring it. The Niners are looking for Kinlaw to produce against the run and pass. Solomon Thomas, who has worked out with Aaron Donald this offseason, needs to have his best year yet, and San Francisco needs D.J. Jones to stay healthy. On the outside, Dee Ford, who was a valuable part of last year's dominant pass rush when healthy, also needs to stay healthy. Arik Armstead must live up to his lucrative new contract by continuing to be a headache on the outside and a force when he swings inside as a pass rusher on third down. The 49ers rode their D-line to Super Bowl LIV and are counting on another big year from it considering they didn't make any major additions to the secondary.

Seattle Seahawks
Seattle Seahawks
2019 record · 11-5

IMPACT ROOKIES


Jordyn Brooks, linebacker: Brooks gives the Seahawks great speed in the middle of the defense, and he can be used as a spy when playing mobile QBs like Kyler Murray from the division-rival Cardinals. Brooks has excellent instincts vs. the run and pass, with the speed to run with TEs and RBs in the open field. He will compete for a starting position and may find playing time early as K.J. Wright recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.


Darrell Taylor, defensive end: The Seahawks considered taking Taylor in the first round of April's draft, but ultimately they took Brooks in Round 1 and traded up in Round 2 for Taylor. Seattle expects him to help its pass rush -- and compete for a starting job -- as the rookie possesses the ability to anticipate the snap count, get off the ball quickly and dip his shoulder to get under the tackle's block. 

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
TE Greg Olsen Will Dissly Jacob Hollister Luke Willson Colby Parkinson
LG Mike Iupati Chance Warmack
C B.J. Finney Ethan Pocic
RG B.J. Finney Damien Lewis Jordan Simmons Phil Haynes
RT Cedric Ogbuehi Jamarco Jones Brandon Snell
Strong side DE L.J. Collier Rasheem Green
LEO DE Bruce Irvin Benson Mayowa Darrell Taylor Alton Robinson
OLB Jordyn Brooks Cody Barton
CB Tre Flowers Quinton Dunbar

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

How will the O-line jell? The Seahawks parted with George Fant, Justin Britt and Germain Ifedi this offseason, so expect heavy competition in camp to sort out these O-line battles. Having a full preseason would help this group tremendously, but the most important piece of getting this unit to play together will be the center, who must know the line calls and execute them correctly.

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