With the unified start to training camp right around the corner on Tuesday, July 27, it's time to get up to speed on all 32 NFL teams. Below, Adam Maya has the lowdown on position battles, key players and notable subplots across the NFC West.
Location: State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Arizona
Most important position battle: Wide receiver. The pecking order is pretty wide open after DeAndre Hopkins, who was his usual Pro Bowl self (115 catches, 1,407 yards) in his first season in Arizona. Two of the team's top six pass catchers from last year have moved on, and Larry Fitzgerald, who was second in receptions, still might. Adding veteran A.J. Green and rookie Rondale Moore to a cast that already includes Christian Kirk, Andy Isabella and KeeSean Johnson gives the Cardinals competitive depth. It's probably a make-or-break year for Kirk and Isabella, both of whom were drafted in the second round (Kirk in 2018, Isabella in 2019) and have had two seasons to get on the same page with Kyler Murray. Without an elite pass catcher at tight end or running back, the Cards need to get more out of their wideouts in 2021. There's reason to believe they will. It's just not clear how the pie will be cut.
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: J.J. Watt, defensive end. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is still an impact player. His 14 tackles for loss and the fact he was the league's most double-teamed edge rusher in 2020 can attest to that. Watt might prove to be even more valuable for an Arizona defensive line that never really recovered from losing Calais Campbell four years ago. Campbell went on to make four consecutive Pro Bowls, while the Cardinals failed to find an interior disruptor to pair with outside linebacker Chandler Jones. Cycling through three different defensive coordinators and multiple schemes probably hasn't helped the Cards' D, either. Vance Joseph deserves a ton of credit for devising a defense that pressured and sacked QBs at a high rate last year without an above-average lineman at his disposal. Don't be surprised to see a rejuvenated Watt flash his vintage form -- if he stays healthy.
Other subplots to track:
- Two years of the Kliff Kingsbury-Kyler Murray era have revealed the young head coach isn't bad and the young QB is good. But is Kingsbury good, and is Murray great? The Cardinals' offense ranked just 19th last year in DVOA by Football Outsiders, shedding light on their 8-8 record and fifth straight absence from the playoffs. Murray is obviously the face of the franchise, but Kingsbury will be feeling additional heat in the desert if Arizona doesn't start winning more.
- The most improved unit on offense might be the offensive line. Or so the Cardinals hope. Trading for Rodney Hudson not only fortifies the center position but possibly elevates the play of guards Justin Pugh and Brian Winters. A repeat performance from left tackle D.J. Humphries, who's coming off a career year, and right tackle Kelvin Beachum, who arguably played his best ball since 2014, could make this a position of strength.
- The Cardinals invested heavily on defense in the 2021 NFL Draft. Will they be better against the run? It was the biggest issue last year for an otherwise stellar unit (10th in DVOA). First-rounder Zaven Collins joins Isaiah Simmons as a rangy, athletic linebacker who could amplify Joseph's aggressive, man-heavy attack. While Patrick Peterson was no longer an ideal fit in this system, corners Malcolm Butler, Robert Alford and Byron Murphy each have something to prove.
Most important position battle: Safety. The real challenge here is replacing John Johnson, who's now with the Browns after producing like a Pro Bowler the past few years. He lined up everywhere and carried out a host of post-snap responsibilities, proving adept versus the run and pass. No one in the Rams' secondary was forced to make as many real-time decisions. Johnson plugged so many holes that it freed up defenders on the perimeter, playing right into the tenets of L.A.'s scheme. Consider him a linchpin of the league's top defense last year. Is Jordan Fuller, Taylor Rapp or JuJu Hughes prepared to take that baton? It's a tough ask for a trio that will all be 23 when the season begins.
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Matthew Stafford, quarterback. There might not be a more anticipated acquisition from this offseason. After years of toiling in Detroit while saddled with poor defenses (and unfairly maligned for a lack of team success), the former No. 1 overall pick finally gets to play for a certified winner. The Rams are considered as such precisely because they upgraded from Jared Goff to Stafford. The best of Goff (64.9 comp. percentage, 4,688 yards, 32 TDs and 12 INTs in 2018) was enough to guide L.A. to the Super Bowl. Stafford has done more with less in the past. But he's never gone into a season facing greater expectations. It's rare that a QB's arrival instantly makes his new team a preseason title contender. Brett Favre (Vikings), Peyton Manning (Broncos) and Tom Brady (Buccaneers) come to mind, only they'd dealt with the pressure to win big for most of their careers. This is a significant step for Stafford. Will it be one for the Rams?
Other subplots to track:
- Raheem Morris was a natural DC hire for Sean McVay after an impressive showing as the Falcons' interim coach and after their time together in Washington. What's surprising is the Rams' stated intention to preserve Brandon Staley's scheme. Morris' history is in the famed Tampa 2, whereas L.A. runs a more complicated system, akin to Vic Fangio's, that puts great onus on safeties and outside linebackers to disguise coverages. It's something to keep in mind.
- Beyond Goff's inconsistency and plateauing, the offensive line has undermined the Rams' offense quite a bit since their Super Bowl run. They were a different unit while Andrew Whitworth was sidelined for the second half of last season. Betting on him to make it through an entire season at 40 years old seems risky, particularly when he remains their best lineman.
- The saying "Super Bowl or bust" has been thrown around a bunch with L.A. this offseason, though it feels a bit dramatic. The Rams figure to have their core intact for at least a few years. But it's fair to be skeptical of their depth heading into this season. They're more reliant than most playoff squads on their starters to excel and on their stars, especially Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, to dominate.
Position battle: Running back. The 49ers have yet to employ a feature back on a regular basis in four years under Kyle Shanahan. Perhaps they never will. His system, as often demonstrated with his father's post-Terrell Davis teams in Denver, is the star. But there's still a need for a primary ball-carrier. That role in San Francisco seems wide open. Rookie Trey Sermon's bruising style complements those of speedsters Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson, who narrowly led last year's subdued rushing attack. Durability concerns with Mostert and Wilson surely prompted Sermon's selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. That the Niners took Sermon in the third round -- fellow third-rounder Tevin Coleman is the only RB to be drafted higher by a team on which Shanahan served as HC or OC -- speaks to their conviction about him.
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Nick Bosa, defensive end. The 49ers have too many candidates for this category to list here, which could be as good for the 2021 squad as it was bad for last year's. Bosa's absence, in particular, impacted all three levels of a defense that took incremental steps backward against the run and pass, and which generated dramatically less pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Following Bosa's Week 2 ACL tear, San Francisco's biggest strength from its Super Bowl run instantly became its biggest weakness. That can change just as quickly with Bosa's return. The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year is expected to be healthy for training camp, where he'll join a deeper group on the D-line. Bosa's the only one among them, though, with the ability to regularly absorb double teams and win against them. It's what already places him among the game's elite edge rushers. New DC DeMeco Ryans couldn't ask for more.
Other subplots to track:
- The 49ers drafted QB Trey Lance to be their future starter. The only question is how soon that era begins. Conventional wisdom suggests it will happen once Jimmy Garoppolo is either injured or becomes ineffective. But NFL Network's Mike Garafolo has maintained that Shanahan will turn to Lance once the rookie shows he's ready. He might have a utility role before stepping in as QB1, but this offense can really expand once Lance's diverse, physical gifts are being utilized.
- George Kittle was the Niners' best offensive player for two-plus seasons before multiple injuries claimed half of his 2020 campaign. He's also, of course, the most complete tight end in the NFL. His return is as important to the offense as Bosa's is to the defense. Look no further than San Francisco falling to the middle of the pack in rushing offense last year for what should improve most with a healthy Kittle.
- After being hit by a tsunami of injuries in 2020, expectations are again high for the 2019 NFC champs. The pressure to win is even higher. Shanahan has now had four years to fashion the roster to his liking, including mortgaging the future for Lance only three years after making Jimmy G the highest-paid player in football. Missing the playoffs a fourth time in five years could put Shanahan on the hot seat in 2022.
Most important position battle: Cornerback. This position has been an issue since the "Legion of Boom" dissolved, even with Shaquill Griffin holding down one side. With Griffin now in Jacksonville, all three jobs are effectually up for grabs. Former 49ers starter Ahkello Witherspoon and rookie Tre Brown figure to get their looks, as Tre Flowers tries to replicate his 2019 form. The defensive staff also has familiarity with D.J. Reed, Marquise Blair and Pierre Desir, a one-time practice-squad member. While there isn't a clear-cut leader here, the more important matter is identifying multiple guys who can play. The Seahawks' pass defense nearly cost them a division title last year and will have to be better if the team has any chance of advancing further.
Newcomer to watch: Gabe Jackson, guard. The Seahawks' problematic offensive line play seemed to alienate their superstar quarterback. Russell Wilson is ultimately staying in Seattle, at least for now, but frustration regarding his protection was valid. He was getting hit too much, even if a thorough film review will show he's responsible for a fair share of his sacks, as well -- of his 47 sacks, Pro Football Focus pinned just 17 to Seattle's offensive linemen. Jackson is a plus pass blocker, a trait made even more important by the myriad rushers roaming in the NFC West. It's probably not a coincidence that Wilson broke his social media silence regarding all things Seahawks just after Jackson was acquired in March. The front office had rightfully responded to the QB's critique. That the team didn't look to upgrade the O-line a bit more is questionable.
Other subplots to track:
- New offensive coordinator Shane Waldron has drawn praise from his players, and he could prove to be a great pairing for Wilson. The perennial Pro Bowler is a wonderful play-action passer. Waldron, of course, is a disciple of Sean McVay and thus well-equipped to utilize such plays. The elephant in the room is the potential tug-o-war with Pete Carroll, who said earlier this year he wants to run the ball more, despite recent such shifts leading to underwhelming results.
- Should Seattle reunite with Richard Sherman? He could be a nice add at the right price. There's certainly room for him on the CB depth chart, and Sherman was still effective when healthy during an injury-riddled 2020 campaign. Returning to where he laid the most bricks in his Hall of Fame career would be poetic. It'd also give the Seahawks invaluable leadership in what has been a leaky secondary since he left three-plus years ago. (UPDATE: Sherman was arrested near Seattle on Wednesday morning and booked on charges of burglary domestic violence, resisting arrest and malicious mischief.)
- The Seahawks are in too deep with Jamal Adams to not extend him. After all, acquiring him cost them their 2021 and 2022 first-round picks. Given their track record with the opening round, paying the price for Adams was clearly a safer bet. But he's also coming off a polarizing season in which he set the single-season sack record for a defensive back yet was given a coverage grade of 53.1 by PFF. Awarding Adams a new deal that resets the safety market could prove more risky than rewarding.