After finishing up the AFC West division preview, we will move ahead and look at their NFC counterpart.
San Francisco 49ers
After an injury riddled season that landed the 49ers last in the division, they hope to rebound with players returning from injury and a (possible) new quarterback at the helm. Looking to return to the Super Bowl that they were in just two years ago, are the 49ers a good bet to win the division at +190?
When Jimmy Garoppolo plays, the 49ers tend to win, but the keyword there was “when.” In Garoppolo’s four seasons with the 9ers, he has only played in 31 regular season games, less than a full two seasons. This injury history and concern with his slowed development led San Fran’s GM, John Lynch, to trade up to number three in the NFL draft to pick NDSU’s Trey Lance. While considered a bit raw and a project, he is thought to have extreme potential. With great athleticism and a rocket arm, his college tape showed reason for excitement (albeit playing against lower level competition). While Lance will get an opportunity to show why he is “the guy” in training camp, it is unlikely he is given the reins so quickly. It seems as though Garoppolo will start the season, and if he struggles or gets injured again, Lance may take over and hopes to take the league by storm.
Like seasons before, this 49ers team boasts a deep running back room. Presumed starter is Raheem Mostert, who has shown when he is healthy and given the ball, he can perform. Behind him are Trey Sermon, a high draft pick out of Ohio State (uncommon for this front office to draft running backs, so keep an eye out for Sermon), Jeff Wilson Jr (a stud when healthy), and Wayne Gallman (a free agent pickup brought over from the New York Giants). Also to factor into this position group is fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who is an important piece to Kyle Shanahan’s offense. All capable players, San Francisco’s running back room is set. The only question once again is health.
At wide receiver, the 49ers are not nearly as deep. The two mainstays returning are young and exciting players: Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. Samuel has also dealt with some injury issues, but when on the field, he has shown he can be elite at producing yards after the catch. After a phenomenal rookie season overshadowed by Justin Jefferson’s record breaking rookie year, Aiyuk looks to build on his first year campaign and become one of the better receivers in the league. Behind them though, there are questions. After losing Kendrick Bourne in free agency, the 49ers have Richie James and Mohamed Sanu as the main proven receivers. Sanu is more of a route running chain mover, while James brings more speed to the table. Behind them though, there is truly a lack of depth.
At tight end, there is none other than George Kittle. Easily a top three tight end in the league, the Iowa product has proven year in and year out that he belongs, as long as he is healthy. As is a common theme on this 49ers team, Kittle had an injury plagued 2020 campaign, and hopes to return to all-pro form this year. Behind him is Ross Dwelley, a capable, but obviously not all-pro type player like Kittle.
At left tackle, Trent Williams has not looked his age. While 33 years old is considered past the prime in the NFL, Williams has looked spry and as good as ever. After missing two seasons due to issues with Washington’s medical staff, he was traded to San Francisco and has a phenomenal year. He was then rewarded with a massive contract, tying him to the organization for six years. He will be their left tackle, and as long as his play doesn’t decline, they are set there. At left guard, there will be a battle between Laken Tomlinson and Daniel Brunskill with Tomlinson thought to have the upper hand. Center is Alex Mack, who is still producing, despite being an older veteran. Right guard is likely Aaron Banks, and right tackle will probably continue to be Mike McGlinchey. McGlinchey will need to improve, after not living up to his draft pick status a few years ago.
Defensive line has been, and will continue to be a strength for this 49ers team. On the edges, they have Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa who will look to return to his elite form after tearing his ACL last year. Behind them, they have Dee Ford, another productive pass rusher. Inside, they have last year’s first round pick, Javon Kinlaw, and DJ Jones, as well as Mo Hurst and Zach Kerr behind them. That is great depth and a very capable rotation all over the line, for both pass rush and run contain.
At linebacker, San Francisco will likely start Dre Greenlaw, Samson Ebukam, and one of the best young linebackers in the league: Fred Warner. All three are extremely talented players, but behind them depth is lacking. Former FAU linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair has loads of potential, but has dealt with injuries. Also back there is Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles and Jonas Griffith. Thus, once again, the 9ers are going to need their starters to be healthy if they hope to survive the season.
At cornerback, the 49ers have Emmanuel Moseley and Jason Verrett. While nothing special, they both boast talent and have been above average players. They are not to be picked on the boundaries, but they are not lockdown, elite talents on the outside. Behind them are K'waun Williams and Ambry Thomas. While Williams is an NFL veteran and has played for many seasons, Thomas is a developmental third round rookie who may take some more time to develop. The 49ers are hoping the veteran leadership in front of him will be able to teach him how to play NFL football, both by example and in team meetings.
At safety, San Fran has Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward, a tandem that has played together for a bit. Just as the cornerback tandem, the duo will not blow your socks off with their ball hawking skills or their lockdown coverage, but they both know how to do their job and play within the defense. They will not often get manipulated or lost in the defensive backfield, and should hold up. Behind them are Tavon Wilson and Tony Jefferson, both capable backups.
While the defense is the strong side on this San Francisco team, I am not sure that the mediocre quarterback play will be able to prop up the team. Despite having strong players at most positions, depth is lacking, and if history tells us anything, the injury plague may hit this team again. At +190, the 49ers have the talent to win the division, but 3 other strong teams, that may be a tough bet to take.
Los Angeles Rams
After a 10-6 2020 campaign, the Los Angeles Rams made a big swing for the fences by trading for Matthew Stafford. Will Stafford, paired with other additions and development be able to swing the Rams back into Super Bowl contention? Tied with the 49ers at +190, which bet is a better one to take?
As previously mentioned, the Rams swung a huge trade this offseason, pairing Jared Goff and picks to land Matthew Stafford to be the quarterback for the foreseeable future. With a new home for the first time in the former first overall pick’s career, will the change of scenery bring better luck? While on the Lions, Stafford was given poor teams, as well as being injured recently. It seems like the former pro bowler will have a much better setup in Los Angeles. For the past few seasons, he has been a top ten quarterback in the league, and it doesn’t appear like it will be much different here. Stafford is a clear upgrade for this Rams squad, and will elevate them above where Jared Goff had them.
Today (as of the writing of this article), running back Cam Akers tore his achilles while training and will miss the entire 2021 season. That leaves Darrell Henderson Jr, undrafted Xavier Jones, and seventh rounder Jake Funk as the running backs left on the roster. While reports have already come out saying that the Rams trust these three players, it would not be smart to not at least look around and do their due diligence on veteran running backs available around the league (there are plenty). With the wear and tear that running backs put on their body throughout an NFL season, it is unlikely that the Rams are able to make it without adding at least one more running back. This is not a strong spot on the Rams roster after Akers’ injury today.
At receiver, Los Angeles once again brings back Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, as well as Van Jefferson. All productive players for the Rams, Sean Mcvay and GM Les Snead did not stop there. They added veteran Desean Jackson in free agency and rookie Tutu Atwell in the draft. Both speedsters, Jackson and Atwell will give the Rams an element they haven’t really had in years past. They will also pair well with Matt Stafford’s rocket arm, hoping to take the top off the defense. This position group is set with talent and depth.
After losing Gerald Everett, the Rams are now just left with Tyler Higbee. While an above average tight end, he is nothing special. However, capable of blocking and catching the ball, he is what you would want in a tight end. Behind him, there is not much depth, and he will have to stay healthy to have the tight end group be productive for Mcvay’s offense.
At the tackle spots, the Rams once again bring back Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein. At 40 years old, Whitworth is defying the NFL odds by continuing to be a plus player at such an old age. Approaching 30, Havenstein is also beginning to push the upper limits of what is thought to be prime years in the NFL. They are good for this season, but the Rams will definitely need to add talent at the tackle spots in the future. Inside, the Rams have David Edwards, Austin Corbett, and Brian Allen. With the smallest player on the line being 6 foot 4 and 306 pounds, one thing is clear, they are a massive bunch. If one thing is clear, you will not be bull rushing this line very often. While athleticism may be another thing, size pays in the NFL, so this line is hoping to continue what they have done in the past and maul the opposing team’s defense week in and week out.
This defense can once again be top 5 in the league, and that starts with no other than the best defensive player in the league: Aaron Donald. After being named Defensive Player of the Year three times in just seven seasons in the league, he can ruin an opposing team’s gameplan all by himself. Watching him work is truly a marvel, as even double teams on the offensive line don’t stop him. Add to that double team a chip and an extra running back to help with the protection, and you still might not stop him. When all of that protection is said and done, it allows the other pass rushers to have one on ones or even get to the quarterback untouched. Leonard Floyd, Sebastian Joseph-Day, and A’Shawn Robinson are not only supremely talented by themselves, but they all look so much better due to all the attention that Donald garners. Not to take anything away from them, but it is so hard to look away at the art of Aaron Donald’s technique when watching this Rams defense. Behind them though, are Micah Kiser and Kenny Young, two extremely talented and quick linebackers that can plug holes and pass cover. This front seven also allows the Rams’ supremely talented secondary to go to work, making life extremely difficult on the opposing team’s offensive coordinator and quarterback.
For as good as Aaron Donald is, the Rams did something unimaginable, pairing him up with the best cornerback in the league: Jalen Ramsey. While they paid a premium for his contract and trade, it ended up being a great decision by the front office, as he has helped give them one of the best defenses in the league since being there. Ramsey can shadow and lock down any teams’ best wide receiver, but he doesn’t have to. On the opposite side of him is Darious Williams, a corner who broke out last season. While Williams is not Ramsey (no one is), he is arguably one of the top 10-20 cornerbacks in the league.
At safety, the Rams have ball hawk Taylor Rapp, Jordan Fuller, and Terrel Burgess. While Rapp is considered the star in this group, do not discount Fuller or Burgess, as they are extremely capable of making plays, especially while being elevated by the rest of this elite defense.
To make a long story short, this defense is elite and can win games by themselves, just imagine what they will do with an improved offense in 2021.
As said before, with an elite defense, an upgraded quarterback, and talent all over the offensive side of the field. It is hard to see this team not improving. While they will certainly be in contention for the division, as well as the playoffs, it could really shake out in any way in terms of the division winner. With the NFC west being arguably the strongest division in the league, +190 is not very favorable for Los Angeles.
With a possible future hall of famer in Russell Wilson, as well as Pete Carroll, are +275 odds good enough value to take the Seahawks to win the division with such elite competition to face?
Honestly, this section will be quick. There is not much to be said about Russell Wilson. He has been a perennial MVP candidate, and it does not look like it will be much different for a while. With elite playmakers on the outside, WIlson should continue his dominance.
At running back, the Seahawks are somewhat similar to the 49ers, pieced above. While having good depth, health has been an issue for them in the past. Chris Carson looks every bit ready to be one of the best running backs in the league (if you have not seen videos and pictures of his offseason workouts, I recommend you go take a look). If he can get past his fumbling issue, this should come true as well. Behind him is former (surprising) first round draft pick, Rashaad Penny. He had a torn ACL, but hopes to come back strong. And behind them is the pair of former University of Miami standouts: Travis Homer and Deejay Dallas. While both are good runners, they also excel in the pass game, much better than Carson or Penny.
At wide receiver, the Seahawks are extremely top heavy. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as their top two receivers, DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett are elite. Metcalf has proven over the last two seasons that the 31 other teams that passed on him made a huge mistake, and Lockett has proven year in and year out that he is consistently a valuable target for Wilson. Behind them is Freddie Swain. He has played in Seattle, but not consistently enough to be largely trusted. Seattle also picked up draft-season darling D’Wayne Eskridge. He brings a speed element and can also be used in gadget plays. Russell Wilson should also be able to elevate this group even higher.
At tight end, they picked up Gerald Everett from the Rams in free agency and have Will Dissly behind him. Nothing extremely special, but both well above average tight ends in this league will be invaluable to Russell Wilson and the other players on this team as the season progresses.
The offensive line has been the biggest point of contention for Wilson and the Seahawks for quite some time. This was even part of the reason there were rumors swirling about Wilson wanting a trade this offseason. They have worked to shore up the line the past few seasons, and are beginning to build a formidable group. They picked up Duane Brown in a trade with the Texans a few seasons ago, got Damien Lewis from LSU in the draft last year, and got Gabe Jackson in free agency this year. They also picked up Brandon Shell, as well as Ethan Pocic. While not elite, this line should be better than year’s past, largely due to the addition of Gabe Jackson and the hope of development from Damien Lewis. If Wilson doesn’t have to scramble so quickly like he has in years past, watch out.
On the edges, Seattle has Carlos Dunlap and Kerry Hyder, a formidable pass rushing duo. While not great against the run, they excel rushing the quarterback, and hope to prove their worth there. They also have Aldon Smith and LJ Collier, two more edges that can rush the QB with ferocity. Inside, they have Poona Ford, Brian Mone, and Al Woods. While none of them are special, they are all big bodies that can plug up holes in the middle, making up for the lack of edge setting by the defensive ends. All the players on the line have strengths, but they have weaknesses too.
At linebacker, the Seahawks have former first round pick Jordyn Brooks, Ben Burr-Kirven, and the best linebacker in the NFL, Bobby Wagner. This group is a bit better than the line, but it is largely elevated by the play of Wagner, who is the last standing member of the defense that had the “Legion of Boom.”
On the outside Seattle boasts Ahkello Witherspoon, DJ Reed, Pierre Desir, and Tre Flowers. Nothing special, but they can hold their own. They had a great corner in Shaquill Griffin, but they lost him in free agency to the Jacksonville Jaguars on a large contract. At safety, the Seahawks have Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams. After giving up a first round pick to secure Adams, the question has been about a contract extension for a while now. While not having elite ball skills, he is elite in the box, and one of the hardest hitting safeties in the league.
The length of the offensive section versus the defensive section was purposeful - the offense is going to be the reason they win, not the defense. If this team wants to stay atop the division, Russell Wilson will need to have another MVP-like season again. With such an elite quarterback, +275 are not bad odds, but the defense may be an achilles heel for what this Seahawks team wants to accomplish.
In a disappointing end to the season where they lost 5 of their last 7 games, the Cardinals have retooled and reloaded, hoping to build on Kyler’s Murray’s quick development. Is +575 favorable enough to take them?
Kyler Murray started the 2020 season hot. He stumbled towards the finish line where he ended with a touchdown to interception ratio of just above 2:1. Don’t get me wrong though, Kyler Murray is elite, and one of the most exciting young players in the league. He puts so much stress on the opposing team’s defense with his accurate and strong arm, as well as his lightning quick legs (all the questions about his height haven’t had an effect in that department). With even more weaponry around him and another season of development under his belt, it is possible Murray takes the next step when talking about the great quarterbacks this league has to offer.
At running back, the Cardinals lost Kenyan Drake in free agency (somewhat of a disappointment after his quick start on the team), but they added James Conner afterwards. In front of James Conner, the team’s starter projects to be Chase Edmonds. While he has not been a full time starter for more than a few games, Arizona’s coaches and players sound confident in Edmonds’ ability to handle the ball. His stature may prove to hinder this ability. At just 5’9”, Edmonds may not be able to handle a full season’s worth of being a bellcow, but they have a proven starter in Conner behind him.
At receiver, the Cardinals are deep, and filled with talent. Returning is Deandre Hopkins (arguably the top receiver in the league), Christian Kirk, and Andy Isabella. Arizona also added AJ Green in free agency and Rondale Moore in the draft. They also have NFL legend, Larry Fitzgerald, pondering whether or not to retire, or return to the team to give it one more shot at a super bowl. While they don’t necessarily need him due to the sheer amount of talent and bodies they have in the receiver room, they will never say no to a first ballot hall of famer. This room will be elevated by Kyler Murray’s play, and Kyler Murray’s play will be elevated by this group.
When you invest so much in one area (the receiver room), you have to downgrade in other areas. This is especially apparent in the tight end room. While Maxx Williams is capable, he is nothing above average. While he will make a play here and there, the majority of the passing game will flow through the receivers. There is not much to write home about in the tight end room.
On the line, the projected starters are DJ Humphries, Justin Pugh, Rodney Hudson, Justin Murray, and Kelvin Beachum. This group should be above average, around the top 15 in the league or so. Hudson, written about in the AFC West preview, is one of the best centers in the NFL brought over from Las Vegas. Humphries enjoyed a breakout season last year, Pugh and Murray were above average last year, and Beachum was about average. Brian Winters is behind them as a swing guard for depth as well. With Murray’s athleticism behind them, they do not need to be anything better than above average, and that is what they seem to be.
The defense is where the Cardinals focused a large portion of their offseason. On the defensive line, Arizona has two elite rushers in Chandler Jones and JJ Watt. They can each turn a game upside down by themselves. Now, they will not be double teamed, as they are on the same team. They are sure to both have large sack numbers this year. They also have Markus Golden next to them, another elite pass rusher. Inside, the Cardinals have Rashard Lawrence and former third round pick Zach Allen. With most of the attention on Watt, Jones, and Golden, these two should get opportunities to shine as well.
At linebacker, the Cardinals have spent back to back first round picks on Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins. Last year, Simmons rarely played in the early part of the year, and then came on quickly at the end. The end of the season gave Cardinals fans a lot of hope for Simmons’ future. Zaven Collins rose up draft boards and has the talent to be elite. He has also been seen working out with JJ Watt, giving the front office clear signs he is already a hard worker so early in his career. This front seven should be able to shine if they play in unison.
On the outside, the Cardinals have Malcolm Butler, Byron Murphy Jr, Robert Alford, and Darqueze Dennard. Murphy is up and coming, and had a great year last year, Butler was just recently signed to a massive contract with the Titans, due to being a lockdown corner, and Dennard and Alford are both above average veterans. This group is deep and should be able to make plays due to quick pass rushing up front. In the defensive backfield, Arizona has one of the best safeties in the league in Budda Baker, as well as Supplemental Draft pick, Jalen Thompson. The focus here is on Baker. He is a big hitter who can also find the ball. He also excels in the run game, as he misses very few tackles. Last season, he was tied for the 16th most tackles in the league, second among secondary players, only to Jordan Poyer who had 6 more than Baker, at 124.
Overall, this Cardinals team certainly improved, especially on the defensive side of the ball. That, paired with more development from Murray (and improved weapons around him), should lead to an increase in wins in 2021. A consensus of +575 odds seems a bit low for Arizona, even if they are in a strong division.
I foresee the NFC West as being the strongest and most competitive division in the league this year. With four teams that are all playoff contenders, this division could go any way. In 2021, I believe the Rams will win the division, followed by the Cardinals in second, the Seahawks in third, and then the San Francisco 49ers in fourth place. I am not extremely confident in this prediction, but I certainly do not agree with the betting books having the 49ers tied for the best odds.