With the 2020 NFL Draft in the books, the attention has now turned to the offseason. As coaches slowly return to their offices, every team will have a storyline that could make or break their new season. In our last article, we looked at the top 2020 storylines for the NFC North, with our attention now turning to the NFC West.
The NFC West is now the toughest division in the NFL. Fresh off representing the NFC in Super Bowl LIV, the 49ers will be back, hoping their newest pieces are enough to send them back to Florida this February. However, a busy offseason by Arizona has turned the Cardinals into sleepers, while both Seattle and Los Angeles are consistent playoff-bound rosters. One divisional loss could be the difference between a team making the playoffs to sitting at home in January.
In our new series for PFN, Lead NFL writer Cole Thompson and NFL columnist Tommy Call III will be breaking down each team’s top offseason storyline. Here’s what fans of the NFC West should be looking towards in the coming months.
Top storylines in the NFC West
Kyler Murray’s sophomore slump
For the past three seasons, a sophomore quarterback has taken the world by storm. This season, Kyler Murray is expected to be the next name to make the jump from polished rookie to NFL superstar. For that reason alone, he makes the list as a more significant concern.
It’s not uncommon for pocket-passers to have a second-year slump, take, for instance, Murray’s former teammate Baker Mayfield. The 2018 first overall pick set a rookie record for passing touchdowns before stumbling for most of 2019. Even with a top wideout in Odell Beckham Jr., Mayfield still couldn’t piece the puzzle together.
The Cardinals went big by trading for DeAndre Hopkins this offseason. If Murray struggles, the Kliff Kingsbury experience could be put on watch entering 2021. Quarterbacks will regress over time, but with the verdict still out on Murray, he can’t afford to slump that much.
Los Angeles Rams
Salary cap concerns
Sean McVay is about to prove whether or not he can live up to expectations as a head coach. The Rams will enter 2020 as perhaps the most stricken salary cap team in the league, making fans believe they could be on the downside of their peak.
Los Angeles was forced to release running back Todd Gurley this offseason after failing to find a suitable trade partner. The team also traded away the inconsistent Brandin Cooks and could be forced to part ways with right tackle Rob Havenstein due to the continued concerns around the salary structure.
The Rams went cheap this offseason, but will it be enough to contend in the NFL’s toughest division. Cam Akers, Van Jefferson, and Terrell Lewis are budding prospects, but can they replace the production of Gurley, Cooks, and Dante Fowler? The same goes for Bobby Evans, who, despite showing promise on the offensive line, still has concerns overall.
With so many players gone, Los Angeles will rely on Jared Goff to live up to his $145 million deal more than ever this season. If he fails, this could be the start of mediocrity in a new stadium for years to come.
San Francisco 49ers
New replacements immediate impact
The Super Bowl hangover is real, but we discussed that earlier. The bigger concern for San Francisco is the loss of two key players from last season in DeForest Bucker and Emmanuel Sanders. While they replaced them early in April’s draft, those new pieces must now shine.
Javon Kinlaw battled through injuries this offseason but has all the potential to be a standout interior pass rusher. Still, when injuries are problems in the pre-draft stage, they could linger over to the next level. Coming from the dreaded SEC, Kinlaw could have lost the tread on his tires from facing fierce competitions week-in and week-out, meaning he may never live up to the expectations.
The same goes for Brandon Aiyuk, who rose up draft boards this offseason. The former Sun Devil compiled 1,666 career yards and 11 touchdowns, and also made a significant impact in the return game. However, players with one season of top-level performance could be hiding the flaws they possess when it comes to being a well-rounded player.
San Francisco needs both players to hit immediately if they hope to remain a contender. Kinlaw’s presence on the defensive line will only improve the front seven, while Aiyuk’s overall game could help Jimmy Garoppolo thrive. If they both fail to live up to the hype, expect a down year in the bay after the surprise success of 2019.
With the rumors surrounding Russell Wilson and potential trades, this could be the start of the end of No. 3 in Seattle. The Seahawks have never finished with a losing record since the Super Bowl-winning quarterback took over, but they’ve also only hoisted one Lombardi Trophy.
Teetering on the edge of good to great, Seattle must make the jump to legitimate Super Bowl contender this season. If not, the team could be parting ways with many of the veteran talents that helped build the franchise up.
Wilson is playing on a four-year, $140 million deal. He certainly deserves to be one of the game’s highest-paid quarterbacks, but that sort of contract isn’t going to help the team when it comes to extending others. Since the end of Wilson’s rookie deal, Seattle has made it past the divisional round of the playoffs just once.
The Seahawks have young stars in the making with D.K. Metcalf, Chris Carson, Shaquill Griffin, and Poona Ford. They could be the base for building a newer and younger roster while taking team-friendly deals come 2022. If the Seahawks are going to justify their lucrative deals, they better be representing the NFC in Tampa Bay this February.
Cole Thompson and Tommy Call III serve as the lead NFL writer and NFL columnist, respectively, for Pro Football Network. Follow them on Twitter at @MrColeThompson, @Tommy_III, and @PFN365 for all up to date NFL content.