As we hurtle toward the regular season, check out our division-by-division primers highlighting players and storylines to watch in 2017. Conor Orr tackles the NFC West below.
Most significant changes from 2016
The bottom of the division is rising again. Following the end of the Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco, the Seahawks and Cardinals had a two-year free reign on the NFC West, while the Rams and 49ers tried and failed to rebuild their rosters. Enter the Rams' Sean McVay, the youngest head coach in NFL history, and the 49ers' Kyle Shanahan. Both will, at the least, be a welcome improvement to their respective offenses. In the preseason so far, 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer has looked excellent. Former No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff has also seen some improvement with McVay -- and the team recently acquired Sammy Watkins. We're not predicting either of these clubs will make the playoffs in 2017, but both will be far better than they were a year ago.
Coaches don't often think in terms of opening and closing windows like fans do, but Bruce Arians has to be kicking himself for Arizona's ho-hum 2016. All of a sudden, the pecking order is starting to shift once again. Could the 49ers' dynamic defensive line be enough to disrupt a few games this season? Could Goff and Watkins pull out a game or two together that the Rams couldn't in 2016?
One player to watch on each team
ARIZONA CARDINALS: Robert Nkemdiche, defensive tackle. A 2016 first-round pick who let an entire rookie season slip away. Dogged by head coach Bruce Arians, Nkemdiche made just five appearances (zero starts) during his rookie season -- recording a single tackle and symbolizing a Cardinals team with so much promise but not enough results on the field. This preseason has been different. I watched Nkemdiche log a pressure or backfield disruption on almost every one of his snaps against the Cowboys in Canton -- a promising development that seemed to continue in the second preseason game and practice. Nkemdiche's currently on the shelf with a calf strain, but when healthy again, the former five-star recruit could add a significant bump to a fierce-looking Cardinals defense.
LOS ANGELES RAMS: Jared Goff, quarterback. Goff flies under the radar more than just about any No. 1 overall pick I can remember in recent NFL history. (Well, maybe aside from Eric Fisher.) The addition of McVay adds a little intrigue this year, given how successful the new Rams head coach was in helping to develop Kirk Cousins in Washington. This preseason, Goff has completed 75 percent of his passes (24 of 32 for 250 yards) with one TD strike and one pick. As any presumptive starter should, he finished his preseason with the highest passer rating of any quarterback on the depth chart. The Rams finally have the infrastructure to develop a franchise QB, including a Pro Bowl left tackle in Andrew Whitworth. If Goff does not take a massive step forward in Los Angeles this season, the Rams will find themselves in a Jaguars-type situation, floating toward an option year without a concrete view of the future at QB.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Reuben Foster, linebacker: We're in a transition phase for NFL linebackers. Some teams, like the Packers, are looking to phase out any traditional inside linebackers who will be a liability against the pass. Foster is not one of those linebackers. More in the mold of Luke Kuechly, Foster has already flashed the ability to break down in front of pass-catching backs or receivers and make huge open-field tackles. He read and destroyed a short outlet pass to Dalvin Cook in last week's preseason game at Minnesota. If the 49ers' risk-taking pays off with Foster, this defense can go from bad to top-15 in a hurry.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Shaquill Griffin, cornerback: In doing research for a longer piece about Griffin this offseason, I came upon a pretty interesting nugget: Almost no teams were in contact with him during all-star game season. Then Griffin blows scouts away with an impressive showing at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine and doesn't have a weekend without team visits until the draft. Especially coveted by both New England and Seattle, Griffin ended up in the Legion of Boom. Just as quickly as the Seahawks assembled their dominant secondary, they've had to replenish it due to age and free agency. Watch for Griffin to be a mainstay on your TV this season, with teams opting to throw away from Richard Sherman and toward the untested rookie.
What we'll be talking about at season's end
It's hard to dispute Kyle Shanahan being one of the best offensive coordinators in football -- if not the best -- over the past five or six years. He's generated great seasons out of bad players and productive offenses on teams without franchise quarterbacks. How? He absorbs the administrative and political side of the game, as well. Having a savvy TV personality like general manager John Lynch in the building should help Shanahan along in the process -- note how they always seem to do interviews and appearances together. By the end of the season, though, we should have at least a rough idea of just how far Shanahan's rising star could go. This is a complete rebuild -- the ultimate test for a young coach new to the big chair.