During the month of August, the Last Word on Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article contains a position-by-position breakdown of the NFC West defenses. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each position followed by “the rest” in descending order.
2020 NFC West Breakdown by Position: Defense/Special Teams
The Best: San Francisco 49ers
Despite the loss of DeForest Buckner and the lack of a player the likes of Aaron Donald, the 49ers defensive line depth has them on top in the division. The 49ers return Arik Armstead, who had ten sacks last season, and drafted Javon Kinlaw in the first round. Kinlaw is a little bit raw coming out of South Carolina, but should be able to contribute his rookie season. Although he did not live up to the billing of a third overall pick, Solomon Thomas should be a solid player on the interior along with D.J. Jones.
Right behind the 49ers are the Rams who are led by Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers. Donald is the best defensive player in football and has been a first-team all-pro in his last five seasons and had 20 sacks in 2018. After Donald, Michael Brockers returns to Los Angeles for his ninth season with the Rams. Last season, Brockers had three tackles for loss and three sacks. Brockers is very stout against the run, just like his teammate A’Shawn Robinson who came over from the Detroit Lions.
The Cardinals made a big move in the off-season to sign Jordan Phillips who had 9.5 sacks last season with 13 tackles for loss. While Phillips provides the pass rush, Corey Peters is the run-stuffer in the middle for the Cardinals. Peters had 38 tackles last season. After that, it gets dicey for the Cardinals as they will rely on young players like Zach Allen, Leki Fotu, and Rashard Lawrence.
After a down season in 2019, Jarran Reed looks to regain his 2018 play after just two sacks last season. The Seahawks are thin at the line behind Reed as Poona Ford is the other defensive tackle. After the 53-man rosters are set the Seahawks should be in the market for help along the line.
The Best: San Francisco 49ers
The Rest: Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks
With a talented pair of edge rushers in Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, the 49ers may have the best edge duo in the league. Bosa had nine sacks last season and had 80 pressures with 18 QB hits. Entering his second season, Bosa is already a premier pass rusher in the league. In addition to Bosa, Ford had 6.5 sacks last year in just 11 games. These numbers may seem low, but with Armstead having eight sacks, and Buckner with 7.5, there were lots of members to split with.
Since being traded from New England in 2016, Chandler Jones has been a first-team all-pro twice and has had 17 plus sacks twice, including 19 last season. Last season, he also led the league with eight forced fumbles. Opposite of Jones, the Cardinals signed Devon Kennard, who had seven sacks last season with the Lions. With Jones being the focal point Kennard could have a big season in 2020.
The Rams lost Dante Fowler Jr. in free agency and are now relying on Leonard Floyd to be the lead rusher. Floyd had three sacks last year with the Bears and seven in his rookie season. There have been positive reports about Floyd in training camp. Behind Floyd, it should be Samson Ebukam. He had 4.5 sacks last season in just five starts. Another key pass-rushing piece for the Rams is Terrell Lewis, a third-round pick from Alabama. He had six sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in his last season at Alabama.
With the loss of Jadeveon Clowney, the Seahawks are thin at edge rusher with the projected starters to be Rasheem Green and Benson Mayowa. Mayowa had seven sacks with the Las Vegas Raiders last year, while Green had four in Seattle. L.J. Collier, the former first-rounder, also looks to make an impact after a disappointing rookie campaign.
The Best: Seattle Seahawks
The Rest: San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams
The Seahawks have had a premier linebacker core for almost the past decade. They have the best middle linebacker in football in Bobby Wagner, who has been a first-team all-pro the last four seasons. In addition to K.J. Wright, who is coming off of a career-high in tackles and interceptions, the Seahawks added youth to the linebacking core by selecting Jordyn Brooks in the first round of the 2020 draft. The Seahawks also brought back Bruce Irvin, who Pete Carroll called the best strongside linebacker they have had in the past decade. Although Wright and Wagner are over the age of 30, they are still excellent linebackers, who should produce at a similar level in 2020. In addition to the starters, the Seahawks also have depth in Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven.
Right behind the Seahawks, are the 49ers. The 49ers have another excellent linebacker group as Fred Warner was one of the best coverage linebackers as he had nine passes defended last season. They also return former pro-bowler Kwon Alexander, and Dre Greenlaw, who filled in well for Alexander last season. Alexander is another excellent linebacker in coverage, and Greenlaw, who is another solid piece in coverage, missed just four tackles last season.
The Cardinals also bolstered their linebacker corps in the off-season by drafting Isaiah Simmons eighth overall and signing De’Vondre Campbell. Simmons is 6’4″, 230 and ran a 4.39 40-yard dash. He should excel in coverage, and be all over the field in his rookie season. In addition to Simmons, Jordan Hicks returns to the Cardinals, who had 150 tackles last season. The Campbell signing bolsters the linebacking corps as he forced three fumbles and had five passes defended last season.
After Cory Littleton signed with the Oakland Raiders and Travin Howard tore his meniscus, the Rams are thin at the linebacker position. The presumptive starters are Micah Kiser and Kenny Young. Kiser did not play a snap last season and Young had just four tackles in nine games with the Rams last season.
The Best: Seattle Seahawks,
The Rest: Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals,
This may be one of the best divisions at the cornerback position as each team has talent. Despite not having the top-end talent of some other teams, the Seahawks added another solid cornerback in Quinton Dunbar. Dunbar adds on to a talented cornerback group with pro-bowler Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers. Griffin has the first corner spot, but Flowers and Dunbar are battling for the second, after a tumultuous offseason for Dunbar. Dunbar, a former wide receiver, broke out last season despite battling injuries. He had four interceptions and eight passes defended in just 11 games. In the playoffs, Flowers struggled, but he offers versatility to the Seahawks.
The Rams have a premier cornerback in Jalen Ramsey. Despite losing Nickell Robey-Coleman, the Rams still have Troy Hill, who emerged as a reliable corner in nine starts last season with two interceptions. In addition to Hill, the Rams have a talented young corner in Darious Williams, who should get significant playing time in 2020. The Rams have plenty of talent in the defensive backfield, but need some more depth near the bottom.
The 49ers – the number one pass defense from a year ago – bring back pro-bowler Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams. Despite a rough Super Bowl, Sherman had an excellent season last year with 11 passes defended and a 52.9% completion percentage against. Williams is excellent in the slot, and plays well at his 5’9″ frame. Opposite of Sherman, there is a competition between Emmanuel Moseley, Jason Verrett, and Ahkello Witherspoon. The only issue with the 49ers corner group is their reliance on zone coverage. They are one of the best zone teams in the league, but must improve in man coverage as the Super Bowl made evident.
Patrick Peterson may be the best cornerback of the past decade. However, with the injury to Robert Alford, there is a hole at the second cornerback position. Byron Murphy should be in the slot after an up-and-down rookie campaign and Kevin Peterson should compete for a starting job. The Cardinals signed Dre Kirkpatrick and Ken Crawley, but they need someone to step up in Alford’s absence.
The Best: Seattle Seahawks
The Rest: Los Angeles Rams, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers
In a blockbuster trade, the Seahawks acquired star safety Jamal Adams to pair with Quandre Diggs at the backend of the defense. With an already solid safety duo, the Seahawks have a safety pair akin to the “Legion of Boom” with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Adams was a first-team all-pro last season with 6.5 sacks and seven passes defended. Diggs had three interceptions in just five games last year in Seattle. This allows Seattle to move around Jamal Adams all around the defense, and allow Diggs to play “center field.”
The Rams and Cardinals are in a similar spot at the safety positions. Despite only playing six games last season, John Johnson has been excellent thus far with 119 tackles and 22 passes defended in his first two seasons. With Johnson’s injuries, Taylor Rapp burst onto the scene with eight passes defended and two interceptions. Another young safety for the Rams is Terrell Burgess, who was drafted in the third round in the 2020 draft.
The Cardinals have a talented safety tandem of their own. After signing a $59 million extension, Budda Baker hopes to continue his excellent play into 2020. Last season, Baker had 104 solo tackles, and seven tackles for loss last season in a pro bowl season. Paired with Baker, Jalen Thompson played well last season after being selected in the fifth round of the supplemental draft. Vance Joseph had great things to say about Thompson. Thompson passed Deionte Thompson last year, who should be the third safety on the roster. The Cardinals could move up on the list with more experience from Thompson.
Placing the 49ers this low may be rough, but they don’t have the same upside as the other groups. The 49ers are solid at the safety position. Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt are veteran safety who won’t make a splashy play, but are dependable starters. They both have combined for just five interceptions in their careers. However, Ward’s range is excellent in the defensive backfield and Tartt is reliable all around.
The Best: Arizona Cardinals
The Rest: Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers
At the punting position, the NFC West is one of the best in the league. Zane Gonzalez had an excellent 2019 season for the Cardinals. He had an 88.6 percent accuracy and made both of his kicks from 50 plus yards. At the punter spot, the Cardinals are excellent as well as Andy Lee was second in yards per punt last season. Next, is the Los Angeles Rams, who have one of the better punters in the NFL in Johnny Hekker. Hekker had 47.4 yards per punt last season, and has averaged 47.0 yards per punt over his career. The Rams added Samuel Sloman in the seventh round, and he should be their kicker after making 86.7 percent of his attempts in his senior year.
After a pro bowl season in 2019, Jason Myers came down a bit last season as he made 82.1 percent of his kicks for the Seahawks. Michael Dickson also came down after an all-pro 2018, with only 45.2 yards per punt. The 49ers could easily be in the top spot in the division with Richie James Jr. as a returner, and Robbie Gould at kicker. Gould struggled last season, only making 74.2 percent of his kicks.