It's tough to fathom a more difficult division in the NFL than the NFC West. The gauntlet is one that goes down to the wire nearly every season, and the head-to-head clashes are routinely instant classics. The same will likely be the case in 2021, and with each team going all in on making sure it's a contender for the division crown and much more, it's not something you'll want to look away from in a few months. All four teams hit the ground running in free agency -- led by the Los Angeles Rams but recently headlined by the San Francisco 49ers -- and the 2021 NFL Draft will see them all square off with the same fiery demeanor as if they were on the gridiron.
There can only be one, however, and last year it was the Seattle Seahawks again taking the NFC West crown. Repeating will be difficult, as is always the case for whomever took the throne last, and that's what makes things so downright spicy. And as we rank the offseason performance of each club, keep in mind that this fight is far from over.
But it's most certainly already begun.
Biggest addition: Matthew Stafford, quarterback
It became more and more evident as the back end of the 2020 season rolled along that the Rams had mentally began moving on from Jared Goff. In the offseason, they did so physically, shipping him off to the Detroit Lions in a deal that landed them Stafford, another former top pick at quarterback. On its face, it's a win for the Rams, considering Stafford is still presumably in his prime and has never seen his talent doubted -- more often it being the Lions who were vilified for wasting his NFL years with poor personnel decisions. With the addition of Stafford comes an instant excitement within the Rams organization, with execs and players alike viewing it as an upgrade over Goff. Time will tell if he truly is, but it's difficult to fathom how he wouldn't be, be it in experience and/or arm talent.
Biggest loss: Troy Hill, cornerback
This was mostly a toss up between Hill and safety John Johnson, but the nod goes to Hill. He's a player who grabbed three interceptions last season playing in tandem with All-Pro safety Jalen Ramsey, and his production plus overall demeanor must now be replaced. Hill signed a four-year, $24 million deal to join the Cleveland Browns in 2021, adding insult to the Rams injury by following Johnson to Ohio -- himself having signed a four-year, $33.75 million deal with the Browns. There's a reason Cleveland went shopping in the Rams cupboard, but in doing so they created gaping holes in the Los Angeles secondary that must now be filled. Honorable mention in this category also goes to tight end Gerald Everett and Samson Ebukam, who were both solid producers for the Rams in their respective roles, and the decision to send Michael Brockers to Detroit behind Goff creates a bit of a need on the defensive interior as well.
Top draft priority: Cornerback
With the loss of Hill comes a need at the position, one exacerbated by the loss of Johnson at safety. Having locked Ramsey in for the foreseeable future, it's all about identifying Hill's successor to complement their premier corner, and there's no shortage of available talent heading into the draft. The problem is, because of the acquisition of Ramsey in a trade deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Rams don't have a first-round pick this year. Barring a trade, they won't go on the clock until No. 57 in the second round, but the cornerback class is deep enough to make a quality grab there -- e.g., Asante Samuel Jr. or the like. However they decide to work their haul, it can't be without a feature corner and/or safety, and especially in a division that features Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray and whomever the 49ers choose to select with the No. 3 pick.
Where Rams stand heading into 2021:
To say Sean McVay is upset is an understatement. His team is not long removed from an appearance in the Super Bowl, but it disappointed greatly in that matchup with the New England Patriots and has been uneven ever since. The refusal to be mediocre is what fueled his split from Goff, a player he once adored (at least publicly), looking to usher in the Stafford era with added weapons like wideout DeSean Jackson. Assuming Jackson can remain healthy (big if), it'll help elevate the offense around incumbent targets and keeping defensive lineman Leonard Floyd helps provide a potent one-two punch with perennial All-Pro and NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald to put the Rams in a good spot in the NFC West chase. That is if they address the secondary, because they'll otherwise find themselves in trouble when they play elite QBs on a day when Donald and Floyd might not be at their best (it happens).
Biggest addition: J.J. Watt, defensive end
Speaking of shopping in another team's cupboard, the Cardinals are perfecting how they poach talent from the Houston Texans. It began with how they fleeced the Texans to acquire All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins, and they circled back to grab J.J. Watt following his stunning release -- quietly stealing him away from other teams like the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills and Green Bay Packers in the process. The wildly unexpected move sent shockwaves throughout the NFL and, in particular, the NFC West. Watt is a future first ballot Hall of Famer who also happens to be a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and while the five-time All-Pro has dealt with durability issues in recent seasons, he played in all 16 games of the 2020 season. By the way, he's also only two seasons removed from racking up 16 sacks, so if he is even remotely close to reaching prime form one last time on the back end of his career, the Cardinals pass rush will be a sight to behold; seeing as he's playing alongside Chandler Jones, an animal in his own right who has 60 sacks in the four seasons in Arizona prior to missing the majority of 2020 with injury (having missed zero games in those four seasons).
Biggest loss: Patrick Peterson, cornerback
The loss of Haason Reddick stings, after having seen him come on strong the past two seasons and completely break out in 2020 -- becoming the team's best pass rusher in the wake of losing Jones. But with the addition of Watt, the loss of Reddick is lessened, and the same can't be said for the cornerback position. The Cardinals were hoping to convince Peterson to stay put in the desert, and for a couple reasons. The first being he's still in his prime and the second being, well, he's still in his prime. The two sides couldn't come to terms in the end, even when it began to feel like there was no way he'd actually part ways with his longtime and beloved team, but the NFL is a business, and Peterson took his business to the Minnesota Vikings. Without him in the mix, and while the Cardinals need to tweak some things at other positions, they'll have a hell of a time trying to replace Peterson. An eight-time Pro Bowler and , he's still as dangerous in 2021 as he's ever been. Also, as far as losses go, they still don't know what Larry Fitzgerald plans to do.
Top draft priority: Cornerback
So, yeah, pick a cornerback in the draft, Mr. Kingsbury. If face value holds true in the division, the Cardinals will be up against stiff QB competition dying to exploit the absence of Peterson. The red birds like what they have in Dre Kirkpatrick and adore do-it-all talent Budda Baker, but help will be needed. Peterson reeled in three interceptions in 2020, tying the team high with Kirkpatrick, but the two of them combined for 55 percent of the Cardinals interceptions last season; and one of them is gone. That's quite the chunk being carved out of the takeaways category in the secondary. Like the Rams, they're walking into a draft that boasts great depth at the position. Unlike the Rams, however, they're sitting in the middle of the first round and have a much, much better chance at landing a primo CB -- be it then or when they go on the clock at No. 49 (a name like Syracuse's Ifeatu Melifonwu comes to mind here).
Where Cardinals stand heading into 2021:
In what could easily be viewed as the most competitive division in football, the Cardinals weren't far from taking the crown. Close battles with the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers simply broke the opposite way more often than not, with the team finishing at 8-8 largely due to a 2-4 division record. That paints a clear and definitive bullseye on what the Cardinals need to aim for in 2021, because while they proved they can win outside the NFC West, they have to get better at closing out games against their most bitter rivals. All told, Murray and the offense is expected to again be dynamic, even if future first ballot Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald decides to call it a career. You'd like to see them take aim at the tight end position there, but it feels like their secondary needs to be addressed with more urgency. Expect the Cardinals to be more than a handful in 2021, and to make a very real run at the division throne, because until the clock hits all zeros, they're never out of it -- Hail Murray.
3. Seattle Seahawks
Biggest addition: Gabe Jackson, offensive lineman
Russell Wilson was fed up this offseason, and might still be, even if less so after seeing the Seahawks trade with the Las Vegas Raiders to secure Jackson, followed by signing him to a multiyear deal. This is the type of move Wilson wants to see, being he's the been the most sacked quarterback in the league for longer than he'd care to be. It was the mostly wanton disregard for upgrading the offensive line that had Wilson putting one foot out the door in Seattle, but things seem more smoothed over as of late with the addition of Jackson and the re-signing of wideout Tyler Lockett to another big money deal. You could make the argument Jackson is now the best offensive lineman on the team, and should instantly help keep Wilson upright more often, as well as being able to clear lanes for re-signed running back Chris Carson. It's a free agency move that indicates a change in thought by the team's front office, and while it shouldn't have had to devolve to the future Hall of Fame quarterback threatening to leave, desperate times called for desperate measures -- Wilson having now reportedly told Carson and Carlos Dunlap (a key re-signing as well) he plans to stick around.
Biggest loss: Shaquill Griffin, cornerback
The team won't much feel a burn from losing running back Carlos Hyde in free agency, but it might genuinely need a salve to overcome the loss of Griffin. Granted, he's no world-beater at cornerback, but Griffin has been one of the most productive in the unit and that's why the Seahawks were trying to get him to stay put. It went down to the wire, but when it most appeared Griffin would stick with Seattle, he did an about face and took his talents to the Jacksonville Jaguars -- returning home to Florida. Griffin leaves the Seahawks having grabbed three interceptions in 2020, second most on the team behind only safety Quandre Diggs, along with 63 combined tackles (53 solo). No one will treat the loss as if he's Richard Sherman, but he's earned respect in the Pacific Northwest and around the league, which is why the Jaguars awarded him a three-year, $44.5 million deal to help them build a new era in North Florida.
Top draft priority: Cornerback
Diggs looks great at safety, and then there's that other guy, what's his name? Oh yea, Jamal Adams, the All-Pro safety the team traded for last year. And with that very wise trade in the books, the safety unit is in great hands, but the cornerback position should cause very real concern. Even if Griffin stayed, the position would've needed to be addressed. With him gone, the problem is exacerbated. Kudos to D.J. Reed for grabbing two interceptions in 2020, but more will be asked of the 24-year-old going forward. The same goes for Ryan Neal, who himself logged two INTs but that's a total of 12 starts last season between the two. The re-signing of Carlos Dunlap helps the needy pass rush, along with Maliek Collins and stealing away Kerry Hyder Jr. from the San Francisco 49ers, while Bobby Wagner continues to patrol the middle for the linebackers. Let's put a pin in Aldon Smith for now -- -- and the Seahawks have done mostly well in free agency on defense, even if they split from Jarran Reed. So put a bullseye on cornerback in the draft, but good luck trying to fix the remaining holes (including O-line) with only three picks.
Where Seahawks stand heading into 2021:
Because of the toxic headlines surrounding the Seahawks and Wilson, you'd almost forgotten they finished 12-4 last season and won the division. It's how they finished the year that was disappointing -- being roundly thumped by Floyd, Donald and the Rams in the first round of the playoffs. Such an unceremonious dismissal led to a fiery back and forth behind closed doors that spilled over into the public square, but they're still the team to beat in the NFC West until further notice. This is the team the other three in the division are chasing, whether they admit it or not, and have been trying to best every year of the Pete Carroll and Wilson era. So unless Wilson is sent to the Chicago Bears in a blockbuster draft day trade, or unless the Seahawks suddenly forget how to win games, they're the front runner to again take their division throne, even if their offseason hasn't been the prettiest of the bunch.
4. San Francisco 49ers
Biggest addition: Trent Williams, offensive tackle
That sound you heard in late March was the 49ers planting dynamite beneath the first round of this year's NFL draft and blowing it sky high, striking a trade that sent them to No. 3 overall and rippling down to the Philadelphia Eagles moving back in a subsequent trade with the Miami Dolphins. This means they'll presumably select a quarterback, but having a dynamic QB is mostly irrelevant if you can't protect him -- ask Wilson in Seattle. To that point, the Niners went and pried Trent Williams away from the Washington Football Team and he was still every bit as advertised and one of the best offensive tackles in football in 2020. So when he hit unrestricted free agency this offseason, while there was interest from other teams, Williams wanted to remain in the Bay Area and the 49ers concurred in a big way. In the end, talks were smooth and landed on a gargantuan six-year, $138 million deal, making him their cornerstone tackle in what will likely become the post-Jimmy Garoppolo era.
Biggest loss: Kerry Hyder, defensive end
Losing Hyder is a bigger deal than most would probably admit, and even more of a problem when considering where he signed this offseason. Hyder is heading to the Seahawks, as noted above, after having given the 49ers a total of 8.5 sacks in 2020. He stepped up in a big way following a ravage of injuries on the team's defensive line, but while that unit is expected to recover fully from injury and get back to its dominant ways, having Hyder around would've been sprinkles on the ice cream for what is arguably already the best defensive line in the NFL. Hyder led the team in sacks last year, and by a hefty margin, with second-place Arik Armstead delivering only 3.5 in 16 starts. Having clawed his way from the Texans to the Cowboys to a return to notoriety with the 49ers and now his new home in Seattle, Hyder is poised to not only cause a problem by leaving San Francisco, but also in going to a team that guarantees it will have to try to stop him at least twice a year for the next three seasons.
Top draft priority: Quarterback
Sorry Jimmy G, but it's time to pass the sticks. It's reported head coach Kyle Shanahan never mentally recovered from watching Garoppolo falter in the Super Bowl against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, and the relationship has apparently now met its end. With the aforementioned draft trade in the books, the future for Garoppolo in San Francisco is either nonexistent or extends through 2021 only -- depending on who you ask. If you ask Shanahan, who openly admits the trade with the Dolphins likely angered his starting quarterback, the team isn't willing to part ways with Garoppolo in 2021 but instead to keep him around for a lame duck season as they bring their new draftee up to speed (this is quite literally his stance). Knowing this, there can be no debate on what position the 49ers are aiming for at No. 3, after a serviceable Garoppolo never became much more than that after being [prematurely] awarded a $137.5 million contract in 2018. Only three years later, the team is ready to usher in someone new at QB, be it Justin Fields, Mac Jones or another top prospect.
Where 49ers stand heading into 2021:
Of the four on this list, the 49ers have the tallest hill to climb. Facts are facts, and the fact is they're the only club with uncertainty at the most important position in football -- Wilson's issues with the Seahawks having a pin in them for now. The Rams grabbed Stafford and the Cardinals are all set with Murray, but no one knows who the 49ers will select and what that player will or will not become at the NFL level. So for as dominant as their defense will likely again be in 2021, the verdict is out on if Shanahan's prolific offensive mind will have the personnel to help pull it off. That said, as long as you have George Kittle on the team, you have a chance to put up points, and it certainly helps to see what Deebo Samuel has become. Still, if you're trying to figure out which NFC West team has the lowest odds of winning the division in 2021, it's the 49ers, who might have to take an intentional step back in order to take two steps forward in 2022 and beyond. They'd truly need to pull a rabbit out of their hat this season to return to the Super Bowl, and while it's not impossible, it's also not something you should bet on.