Can The Defending Super Bowl Champs Take The NFC West Two Straight Years?
The NFC West has become the strongest division in the NFC and outside of the AFC West the NFL’s strongest division. The 2022 division race shapes up as a great three-way battle for the top spot between the Rams, 49ers, and Cardinals with the Seahawks likely in the cellar as they start the post-Russell Wilson era in Seattle. Who comes out on top in this dogfight? How many teams make the playoffs? Gallery Sports tackles those questions and more.
Los Angeles Rams
2021 Record: 12-5
The defending Super Bowl champs return most of the core from their march to the championship while making some key upgrades this offseason. Matthew Stafford will once again be under center looking to build upon his 4886-yard, 41 touchdown season in 2021. Stafford has indicated that he is 100% healthy after dealing with right elbow tendinitis in training camp. Stafford has an elite group of receiving targets to toss the ball to led by Cooper Kupp. Kupp is joined by free agent acquisition Allen Robinson, Van Jefferson, and tight end Tyler Higbee. Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson will get the majority of the carries in the running game with rookie Kyren Williams and Jake Funk providing depth. The offensive line is a concern after the retirement of left tackle Andrew Whitworth and the departure of guard Austin Corbett.
All world defensive tackle Aaron Donald leads a stout defensive line. The addition of former Seahawk Bobby Wagner to a linebacker room that features Leonard Floyd makes this a formidable group. Lockdown corner Jalen Ramsey will do battle the oppositions top receiver while cornerback Troy Hill and safety Taylor Rapp will be the other key pieces of the Rams secondary.
Former Giant Riley Dixon will handle the punting chores while Matt Gay returns as the placekicker. Brandon Powell will take on both punt and kickoff return duties.
The Rams look like they might be even better in 2022 than they were last season. The wide receiver group is likely better than 2021 with Allen Robinson being an upgrade over Odell Beckham Jr. and a full season of Cam Akers as the lead back should help the running game. The concerns offensively are the condition of Matthew Stafford’s right elbow and the reshuffled offensive line. Defensively Los Angeles has studs on all three levels and looks to have the makings of a top ten unit. If the key pieces stay healthy and the reworked OL does not derail the offense, the Rams looked poised for another deep run in the playoffs.
Prediction: 12-5, 1st Place in the NFC West
San Francisco 49ers
2021 Record: 10-7
Despite a run through the playoffs that took the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game, San Francisco will demote last year’s starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and turn the reigns of the offense over to 2021 first round pick Trey Lance. Lance had a strong preseason that has folks within the 49ers organization confident that he will have a big year. The second-year signal caller has a terrific running game to lean on lead by bell-cow back Elijah Mitchell. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel will supplement Mitchell in the running game. Samuel leads an underrated group of receivers that includes emerging star Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings. Stud tight end George Kittle will be the perfect security blanket for the young quarterback. The offensive line loses guard Laken Tomlinson to the Jets but is still a topflight unit.
The San Francisco front four featuring Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw may be the NFL’s best. They can generate a pass rush without the help of the blitz and as witnessed by the 49ers 7th ranked run defense, they can clog the running lanes. MIKE backer Fred Warner leads a terrific linebacker unit. The weakness of this defense may prove to be a suspect secondary, which will be without free safety Jimmy Ward for at least the first four games of the season after he landed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.
The Niners have strong special teams with Aussie Mitch Wishnowsky handling the punting and the ageless Robbie Gould manning the kicking duties. The return game is in the capable hands of Ray-Ray McCloud.
San Francisco may be the most balanced team in the NFC and would be my choice to win any other division in the conference. They are proficient on offense in both the run game and through the air and can shut down the opposition’s run game as well as passing attack. Throw in excellent special teams and it’s hard to find many flaws in this team. A suspect secondary and an inexperienced quarterback with a world of upside are the only areas of concern. If Trey Lance doesn’t experience very severe growing pains this season the sky’s the limit for this club.
Prediction: 11-6, 2nd Place in the NFC West and a Wild Card berth
2021 Record: 11-6
After a 1-4 finish to the regular season and a drubbing at the hands of the Rams in the wild card round of the playoffs, the Cardinals inked franchise quarterback Kyler Murray to huge contract with the hopes that he can lead a more consistent offensive attack in 2022. Quite a few changes were made this offseason with designs on stabilizing this offense. James Conner will still be the starting running back but former Chief Darrel Williams will replace Chase Edmonds behind Conner on the depth chart. Marquis Brown was acquired from the Ravens to add a jolt to the wide receiver corps. Brown will have to be the unit’s top dog while DeAndre Hopkins sits out his six-game suspension for a violation of the league’s PED policy. Arizona is hoping to squeeze one more year of production out of the aging A.J. Green and that 2nd year man Rondale Moore takes the next step after an uneven rookie season. Zach Ertz adds another receiving threat from the tight end spot. The offensive line is an ordinary group that won’t elevate this offense but hopefully won’t curtail its success.
This group loses Chandler Jones but gets back J.J. Watt from injury. They are a strong group against the pass due in large part to their ability to rush the passer. Even without Jones, Watt, Marcus Golden and company should be able to heat up the quarterback. The run defense is a concern, ranking 20th in 2021 and without any major improvements to the front seven, they probably will not improve on that ranking this season. Safety Budda Baker and cornerback Byron Murphy are the standouts in a talented secondary.
No major worries here with Andy Lee taking care of the punting and Matt Prater handling the kicking chores. Greg Dortch is going to be entrusted with both punt and kickoff returns.
The pressure is now firmly on Kyler Murray to take the next step in his evolution as the Cardinals quarterback after a tumultuous offseason that netted him a huge contract extension. General Manager Steve Keim didn’t do much to upgrade the talent on this roster beyond the addition of “Hollywood” Brown. Both the Rams and 49ers finished last season with better personnel and that has not changed for 2022. Barring major injuries to both those clubs or a complete implosion by Trey Lance in his first year as a full-time starter, Arizona looks hard pressed to pass either Los Angeles or San Francisco in the standings but should still be in position to complete for one of the last two Wild Card spots in the NFC.
Prediction: 10-7, 3rd Place in the NFC West and a Wild Card berth
2021 Record: 7-10
With Russell Wilson now in Denver, the Seahawks will have a new full-time starting quarterback for the first time in a decade. That quarterback is journeyman Geno Smith. Smith has not been a full-time starter since 2014 and the results that season with the Jets were disastrous. Should Smith falter, former Bronco Drew Lock is next in line. The running back room is deep and talented lead by Rashaad Penny and 2022 2nd round pick Kenneth Walker III. It’s a good group of receivers as well with Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf as the standouts. Tight End Noah Fant, acquired from the Broncos in the Russell Wilson trade, will also be a top target for Smith. The offensive line, long a sore spot for the Seahawks, should continue to struggle against some fearsome defenses in 2022.
The Legion of Boom is long gone in Seattle, and so is the pass rush. The Seahawks ranked 24th in the NFL in sacks last season and even the addition of Shelby Harris in the Russell Wilson trade won’t be enough to change this pass rush very much. Run defense is also an issue, with this unit ranking 17th in rushing yards allowed last season. The release of longtime middle linebacker Bobby Wagner in the offseason will be felt, with the run defense likely regressing from last season’s performance.
This unit is the least of the Seahawks concerns with punter Michael Dickson and placekicker Jason Myers returning for 2022. D’Wayne Eskridge will oversee punt returns with Dee-Jay Dallas manning kickoff return duties.
The Seattle roster is not completely devoid of talent, but they are lightyears behind the other three teams in this very tough division. With their issues at quarterback and along the offensive line they will be the worst offense in the division by a wide margin. Without a pass rush or much of a secondary, the very capable passing attacks in this division will have their way with the Seahawks defense. Seattle is at the start of a rebuild and has 11th most difficult schedule in the NFL this season. The result, not many wins for the Seahawks.
Prediction: 5-12, 4th Place in the NFC West