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Way-Too-Early 2023 NFC West Preview

In the last 12 years, the NFC West has been one of the most hotly contested divisions in football. Who has the edge going into this season?
NFC West

Since 2010, the Seahawks have won the NFC West five times. The 49ers have taken the title four times, but in the last 12 years, every team has been champion at least once. In 2022, it took an unlikely winning streak to decide the title, but can San Francisco defend it? With no Jimmy G, Mike McGlinchey, and Jimmy Ward, it will be a struggle.

Look to The Western Sky

Your 2023 NFC West Champion – Seattle Seahawks 

The Seahawks 2022 rookies were one of the stories of last season. Seattle started five rookies in Week 1 and eight of the class played a part in their playoff run. Kenneth Walker III’s nine rushing touchdowns and 1,215 total yards from scrimmage propelled them to the top of the division early in the season. Charles Cross at left tackle was instrumental in Geno Smith having the season of his life.

On defense, fifth-round pick Tariq Woolen led the league with six interceptions. Alongside Woolen, Coby Bryant and Boye Mafe performed and fitted in nicely as both recorded sacks. Outside linebacker Tyreke Smith suffered an injury in the preseason, so the 2022 class could have even more impact this year. 

Looking ahead, Seattle re-signed defensive tackle Jarran Reed who was a Seahawk between 2016-2020. They’ve also brought in Dre’Mont Jones who was previously a Bronco and added former Steeler Devin Bush Jr to the defense. Those three bring 53 career sacks with them. 

Last year’s quarterback coach Dave Canales has become the Buccaneers offensive coordinator. Canales’ replacement is former Rams “senior offensive assistant”, Greg Olson. Olson was previously the Raiders offensive coordinator between 2018 and 2021. The Raiders won 29 games under Olson’s guidance and finished second in the AFC West twice. 

The Seahawks strength of schedule for the upcoming season based on 2022 results is the 12th toughest in the NFL but in the NFC West, only the 49ers will face easier opponents. After the Russell Wilson trade, the Seahawks have the Broncos first-round pick this year and their own. The Broncos pick is number five and their own is 20th, they have picks 37 and 52 in the second round, too. Pete Carroll has an excellent chance to build a young team who will be successful for a long time to come. 

Perennial NFC West challengers – San Francisco 49ers 

It’s impossible to count out Kyle Shanahan’s team. Last year, they lost two starting quarterbacks in the regular season and still won two playoff games. The weapons remain on the offense and if Trey Lance is everything they expect, they should score touchdowns at will. How long it will take Lance to adapt to life as an NFL quarterback is impossible to tell, though. How durable his body will be going forward is another question yet to be answered.  

On the other hand, their defense is in a state of flux. 2022 defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is now the Texans head coach. Ryans became the defensive coordinator when Robert Saleh was appointed as the Jets head coach, so the 49ers have done this dance before. Seven of 2022’s defensive players left in free agency, though. They have signed defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to a four-year deal and Clelin Farrell, but four of the seven players who left are defensive linemen.

With only $6.1 million in cap space and 11 draft picks, it’ll be tricky to replace the quality that left. The 49ers don’t have their first draft pick until the second day in Kansas City. They have three third-round picks and shouldn’t pick again until the fifth round. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see them trade some of their later picks for a pick in an earlier round. 

They currently only have one free safety and two outside linebackers, so they’ll need to address that. They started the 2022 season 4-4 (obviously losing Trey Lance didn’t help) and that was without the coaching upheaval they’ve suffered this offseason. If they don’t hit the ground running this season, they might not be able to string 11 wins together again. 

The Transitional Los Angeles Rams 

It looked like McVay’s Rams were poised to bounce back after their injury-filled Super Bowl hangover season. Then, they realized they needed to offload some contracts and Jalen Ramsey left to become a free safety (apparently) for the Dolphins. Linebackers Bobby Wagner and Leonard Floyd were cut loose alongside seven others. 

There’s a new offensive coordinator in L.A. after last year’s left to work at the University of Kentucky. Mike LaFleur arrives from the Jets having previously worked for the 49ers between 2017 and 2020. There isn’t a whole lot for LaFleur to work with beyond Matt Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and Tyler Higbee. Stafford is currently the only quarterback on the Rams roster and their three running backs have only made 15 starts between them.  

Their defense is a work in progress at the moment too. They only have three defensive ends and three defensive tackles on their roster. After they switched Michael Hoecht to linebacker last season, they’ll need at least one more defensive end for their 3-4 base. The Rams are currently $1.1 million under the salary cap, which is why they have been trying to trade Allen Robinson. They do have 12 picks in the draft though. But the first pick isn’t until early in the second round (and they’re not getting a first-round pick for Robinson). After buying their way to a Super Bowl, they’ll have to pay the ferryman and build a young team. Such a young roster may well struggle to make the playoffs in their first season. 

The NFC West’s “Where Did It All Go So Wrong” team – Arizona Cardinals 

34 Cardinals hit free agency and they have re-signed five of them. So, there’s a big rebuild going on in the desert. New head coach Jonathan Gannon has bought Kyzir White and Zach Pascal with him from Philadelphia. They’ve currently only got four defensive backs and two nose tackles, so they have to prioritize the defense. They only have eight picks in the draft, but they have the third pick. If they’re smart, they could convert that into a later first-round pick and an extra second or third-round pick too. 

The Cardinals offensive line was rated a lowly 27th by Football Outsiders in 2022. Despite that, they’ve re-signed two members of that unit. They added a 26-year-old Dane who has only started six games in his three years in the league. Whoever is playing on their offensive line they’ll need a competent backup quarterback. Kyler Murray’s knee injury should keep him out until at least Week 4.

Colt McCoy is still on the roster, but he only managed to win one game from four starts in 2022. He also had injury struggles last season, a calf problem early in the season followed by a neck injury and concussion issues. Michael Bidwell said in January “Colt is coming back from an injury that will limit him in the off-season”. If McCoy’s concussion issues are prolonged, he may miss the beginning of the season as well. They signed David Blough in free agency but his record as a starter is 0-7 over four seasons. If they’re pinning the start of the season on an inexperienced 27-year-old, it’ll be a bumpy few weeks. 

There’s usually a transition period when a new coach takes over, but a new coaching team, new GM, and new quarterback is a perfect storm. A new quarterback who is just a placeholder until Murray is fit is an added obstacle on the tough road ahead. 

New head coach Jonathan Gannon was the Eagles defensive coordinator in the Super Bowl. The Cardinals defense ranked 31st in the league in 2022! Gannon should fix that but after his refusal to adapt to the Chiefs changes in the Super Bowl it’s questionable exactly how much he’ll improve Arizona.  

All in all, 2023 looks like a combination of transition and learning on the job in Arizona. They should be headed for the first pick of the draft. 

Main Image: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports


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