Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. Adam Maya examines the current makeup of the NFC West below.
There was no stronger division in football last year, and it was more competitive than you probably remember. The 38 combined wins between the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals were four more than the next-closest divisions. At times throughout the season, San Francisco, the NFC's top seed, eked by the West's three other teams with one-possession wins. Seattle, which came an inch from winning the division, was blown out by L.A. and Arizona once apiece. The Rams went 6-4 outside the division, while the Cardinals went 4-5-1.
It will be a surprise if the 49ers aren't contenders again. It will be less of one if they don't repeat as division champs, as free agency appeared to close the gap within the NFC West. With little money to spend, San Francisco wasn't able to improve its roster or even hold serve, like its Super Bowl counterparts. The Niners are a bit lesser than they were two months ago, given the departures of defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Sheldon Day, and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Their most notable pickup was a former Jets guard (Tom Compton). More important was the retention of DL Arik Armstead, DB Jimmie Ward and WR Kendrick Bourne. It means there still aren't any glaring weaknesses on a team that came eight minutes away from winning it all.
The Seahawks ran their luck as far as they could in 2019. Losing in the Divisional Round after being division runner-ups and winning 10 games by a single possession seems about right. After all, their point differential was plus-seven for the season. But they remain a team you generally don't want to play. They haven't finished .500 or below since Russell Wilson arrived in 2012 and have been trending upward the past two seasons following the dismantling of the Legion of Boom. Free agency was a wash, with OLB Jadeveon Clowney unlikely to return, LB Mychal Kendricks and DEs Ezekiel Ansah and Quinton Jefferson out, and TE Greg Olsen, OLB Bruce Irvin, CB Quinton Dunbar and a pair of offensive linemen in. They don't have the most talented roster in the division, but that hasn't stopped them before.
For what's seemed like every year in the Sean McVay era, the Rams will trot out a very different team in 2020. After falling a game short of the postseason, Los Angeles cut ties (and a massive salary) with RB Todd Gurley, WR Brandin Cooks, DL Dante Fowler and LBs Clay Matthews and Cory Littleton. Even kicker Greg Zuerlein, once teammates with Steven Jackson in St. Louis, is gone. Nothing is truly automatic in the NFL. That also goes for the Rams' demise just 14 months after playing in the Super Bowl. After all, they held onto OL Andrew Whitworth and DL Michael Brockers and signed DL A'Shawn Robinson. And they'll presumably lock up CB Jalen Ramsey. This all feels more like a reboot than a rebuild.
It was only three years ago that the Cardinals were 8-8. Remember, they had to trade up to No. 10 in the 2018 draft to nab QB Josh Rosen. Consecutive fourth-place finishes in the division have made Arizona look lost in the desert a lot longer than is actually the case. Moreover, the Cardinals are steadily climbing out of the abyss. Trading for All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins was masterful, and they followed it up with two underrated acquisitions (DT Jordan Phillips and OLB Devon Kennard). That they're running it back with WR Larry Fitzgerald, RB Kenyan Drake and OT D.J. Humphries suggests an internal belief that they're contenders. Maybe they are.
FREE AGENCY NOTABLES
He's in the short conversation for best wide receiver in the game -- it was just last summer that he entered the hallowed Madden 99 Club. Where he falls in such debates matters much less than the fact he belongs, and that he has a new team. The three-time All-Pro was purportedly seeking a new contract from the Texans. With three years remaining on the 27-year-old's current deal, the Cardinals have plenty of time to figure that out. For now, they can pencil in 100 catches, 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns -- his averages over the past five seasons. Of course, that wasn't even in the Air Raid. Adding Nuk while unloading David Johnson and his albatross contract almost seems too good to be true.
OK, so the 49ers didn't have to unload Buckner. Longtime teammate Arik Armsteaddeemed the deal shocking and confusing, as it came moments after he signed a new one with the 49ers. He had no idea the team was choosing between the two. San Francisco could have extended Buckner and tagged Armstead. Many of the 49ers faithful might have preferred that, especially since Buckner has been the better player over the course of his career. It's what made him the bigger asset. He netted another first-round selection in the upcoming draft, though, giving the 49erstwo picks in the first four rounds. Along with fiscal responsibility is a bet that Armstead's 2019 breakout was the beginning of his prime, and that he and the No. 13 pick are more valuable long-term than Buckner alone. It's sound logic, if not still a loud gamble.
The Seahawks have been trending in the wrong direction on defense for the past four seasons. Their secondary, once flush with All-Pros, has been the biggest culprit, culminating in last year's performance when the pass defense ranked 27th in the NFL. Only two teams allowed more first downs through the air. Enter Dunbar, who not only looks the part of a prototypical Pete Carroll corner (6-foot-2, 202 pounds) but covered like one last year in what was his first full season as a starter. He was graded as the second-best CB in coverage and overall by Pro Football Focus (minimum 100 snaps). Dunbar also recorded a career-high four interceptions while appearing in just 11 games. It makes you wonder why it only cost Seattle a fifth-round pick to get him.
Arizona Cardinals: In less than a year, Kliff Kingsbury has effectually cleaned out his toy chest for a new one. This offense figures to be even better in Year 2. Consider that Kyler Murray won Offensive Rookie of the Year for what he did in the back half of the 2019 season. That it happened with such an inexperienced and inconsistent receiving corps is even more encouraging. The Cardinals are desperate for difference-makers on the offensive line and their defensive front seven, either of which they could target with the No. 8 pick. That's their only selection in the first two rounds, however. Trading down for an additional pick might be the move. They also need to land another quality receiver and linebacker in this draft. Then they might really make some noise.
Los Angeles Rams: Stop me if you've heard this before: The Rams don't own a selection in the first round. With two picks late in the second round, it's doubtful they'll try to move up to Day 1. This is an important draft for the Rams, nonetheless. They'll likely look to replenish all three levels of the defense and an aging offensive line. Can L.A. address all that with just seven picks? And while neither Cooks nor Gurley was all that effective last year, it remains to be seen whether their replacements are on the roster. Those defections mean more eyes than ever will be on QB Jared Goff. That pressure applies to the whole franchise as it moves into SoFi Stadium. The sight might not be much different than last year's 9-7 mark, though. And with no cap space to speak of, the Rams could end up stuck in the middle of the pack for a bit.
San Francisco 49ers: The window should still be open. The 49ers were built to last more than one season. History just hasn't been kind to teams in their position. Over the last 25 seasons, only the 2018 Patriots have returned to the Super Bowl the year after losing it. The past five NFC champions failed to take their division the following season, including the Eagles after they won Super Bowl LII. San Francisco can help itself next week by making the most of its two first-round picks, which could be used to trade back for more selections. The Niners badly need reinforcements at wide receiver, offensive line, defensive tackle and in the secondary, all of which can be found in this draft. Even if they hit on their defensive picks, some regression to the mean is expected for a unit that ranked among the very best last year. That's why it's paramount to upgrade some of the personnel alongside QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who looks to be more facilitator than playmaker. How well everyone performs around him might determine whether the 49ers buck history.
Seattle Seahawks: Despite all of Wilson's improvement in recent years, the Seahawks simply haven't been the same beast since they perennially boasted the league's best defense and rushing attack. Seattle, in fact, hasn't made it out of the Divisional Round since abandoning Marshawn Lynch at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. Its past few draft hauls haven't exactly helped on those fronts, making this next one that much more crucial. Assuming a deal with Clowney isn't in the works, the Seahawks' top priority is at edge rusher. They'll be looking for offensive linemen, as well. The question remains whether Seattle balances passing and running too much, perhaps stifling one of the league's top playmakers at QB. Only the Ravens have run the ball more often in the past two seasons. Maybe this is the year Wilson is allowed to let it loose. The Seahawks have yet to find out how far that will take them.