Heading into the 2016 campaign, Around The NFL is taking a closer look at each division over the course of this week. Which storylines -- and players -- will define the coming months within each of the league's eight sectors? Check out the NFC West entry below.
Most significant changes from 2015
The Cardinals pressured Cam Newton on a season-low 20.7 percent of dropbacks in a disastrous NFC Championship Game performance, leading to the obvious conclusion that the defensive front seven needed an upgrade. General manager Steve Keim thus swung for the fences, trading for PatriotsPro Bowl edge rusher Chandler Jones and pulling the trigger on enigmatic defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche in the draft's first round.
After enjoying the presence of Marshawn Lynch as a tone-setter for the past half-decade of near-dynastic NFC dominance, the Seahawks are turning the backfield over to a committee led by 2015 rookie sensationThomas Rawls and preseason dynamoChristine Michael. Will they find room to run behind a revamped offensive line?
It was an offseason of transition for the Rams, who moved their operations from St. Louis to the Los Angeles area. Tired of watching underwhelming quarterbacks holding the offense hostage while the rest of the team spun on an annual hamster wheel of mediocrity, the Rams traded a franchise-altering harvest of draft picks for the opportunity to draft Jared Goff No. 1 overall.
Jim Tomsula lasted one year as the head man in San Francisco, giving way to former Eagles iconoclast Chip Kelly and his controversial up-tempo offense. Four years after Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, the dual-threat quarterback has been unable to unseat former Jaguars washout Blaine Gabbert as the starter.
Players to watch from each team
Arizona Cardinals: David Johnson, running back. As a rookie in 2015, Johnson led the NFL with 131.7 yards from scrimmage per game once he reached the starting lineup in mid-November. Already being hailed as a Hall of Fame talent and the best receiving back to come along since Marshall Faulk, Johnson has the potential to emerge as an MVP candidate while operating as the focal point of a high-octane offense.
Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff, quarterback. When will the draft's top pick make his debut? Goff's preseason performance shows a quarterback who is simply not ready to run an NFL huddle or crack the code of faster pro defenses. On the other hand, nothing we've seen from Case Keenum to date suggests he's going to hold off the future of the franchise for an entire season.
Seattle Seahawks: Christine Michael and Thomas Rawls, running backs. Rawls' 5.6 yards-per-carry mark was tops in the NFL among backs with at least 100 attempts last season. His rookie game film suggests he's one of the NFL's top-10 backs, as long as he can recapture the form he showed before an ankle fracture ended his season prematurely. After missing the entire offseason and preseason, though, he's no lock to start over an awakened Michael, who is finally realizing his vast potential with a star turn in August.
San Francisco 49ers: Carlos Hyde, running back. The 49ers' skill-position talent is virtually non-existent on offense, which means Hyde will be Kelly's showpiece. Although Hyde displayed an impressive blend of power, speed and elusiveness in last year's season-opener versus the Vikings, injuries prevented a true breakout campaign. If it doesn't happen in Kelly's running back-friendly system, it might never happen.
What we'll be talking about at season's end
Seattle and Arizona remain perennial powerhouses, while Los Angeles and San Francisco continue to spin their wheels in rebuilding mode. The Cardinals are strong enough to enter 2017 with another season of "All or Nothing" mentality, but it'll be time to recognize the Seahawks as a legitimate dynasty after another Super Bowl appearance.