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Post-free agency NFC West outlook

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How do the four teams in the division seem to rank after the first couple waves of free agency?

Celebrities At The Los Angeles Clippers Game Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

There’s an interesting set of free agents available right now, including three former first overall picks: Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, and Jadeveon Clowney. It’s still possible that the Seattle Seahawks will sign Clowney but as of now, it doesn’t seem likely that any team in the NFC West will add any of these players outside of that potential transaction.

According to OvertheCap.com, right now this is the 2020 cap space of those teams:

San Francisco 49ers, $15,308,790

Seattle Seahawks, $11,329,997

Arizona Cardinals, $8,836,852

Los Angeles Rams, $6,915,418

Any team could move some money around if necessary, but there aren’t many big free agent moves these clubs could make and if a big move does happen between now and the start of the season, predicting those transactions now is a bit of a useless art. These teams also still have to allocate a good chunk of that remaining space on rookies, practice squad, and injured reserve. There’s not a lot of money left at this juncture and we can assume not much else is happening.

When more things happen, more outlooks will be had. Despite it being an exercise that will bear no fruit because it is late March and nobody can predict the outcome of next season within even 500 miles of notable accuracy even if it was early September, what are some thoughts about how the four NFC West teams seem to rank against each other thus far?

What we know

2019 standings (DVOA Ranking: total - offense - defense - special teams)

San Francisco 49ers, 13-3 (5 - 7 - 2 - 12)

Seattle Seahawks, 11-5 (8 - 5 - 18 - 20)

Los Angeles Rams, 9-7 (12 - 17 - 9 - 23)

Arizona Cardinals, 5-10-1 (20 - 13 - 23 - 26)

The NFC West was the only division with all four teams in the top 20 of DVOA.

Going back another season to the 2018 standings:

Los Angeles Rams, 13-3 (2 - 2 - 17 - 17)

Seattle Seahawks, 10-6 (12 - 9 - 14 - 24)

San Francisco 49ers 4-12 (30 - 27 - 23 - 14)

Arizona Cardinals, 3-13 (32 - 32 - 18 - 11)

Over the previous two seasons, the Rams are 22-10 under Sean McVay, the Seahawks are 21-11 under Pete Carroll, the 49ers are 17-15 under Kyle Shanahan, and the Cardinals are 8-23-1 under Steve Wilks and Kliff Kingsbury.

Most notable Rams 2020 free agent/other losses:

Todd Gurley, Cory Littleton, Dante Fowler, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Greg Zuerlein, Eric Weddle and Clay Matthews.

Most notable Rams 2020 acquisitions:

Leonard Floyd, A’Shawn Robinson

Most notable Seahawks 2020 free agent/other losses:

Jadeveon Clowney (presumed), George Fant, Germain Ifedi, Ziggy Ansah (presumed), Mychal Kendricks (presumed), Marshawn Lynch (presumed), Mike Iupati (presumed), Quinton Jefferson, Josh Gordon (presumed)

Most notable Seahawks 2020 acquisitions:

Greg Olsen, Quinton Dunbar, Bruce Irvin, B.J. Finney, Cedric Ogbuehi, Brandon Shell, Phillip Dorsett, Chance Warmack

Most notable 49ers 2020 free agent/other losses:

DeForest Buckner, Emmanuel Sanders, Sheldon Day

Most notable 49ers 2020 acquisitions:

Travis Benjamin, Tom Compton, Joe Walker, Kerry Hyder

Most notable Cardinals 2020 free agent/other losses:

Rodney Gunter, Damiere Byrd, Pharoh Cooper, Joe Walker, Cassius Marsh

Most notable Cardinals 2020 acquisitions:

DeAndre Hopkins, Jordan Phillips, Devon Kennard, De’Vondre Campbell

What I think

The Cardinals improved the most

I already wrote out my thoughts about Arizona, but looking just at transactions is interesting. It’s not nearly as simple as this but I’m going to do it anyway: I’d rather have Hopkins taking a WR spot than Byrd, I’d rather have Phillips taking a DT spot than Gunter, I’d rather have Kennard taking a pass rushing spot than Marsh, and I’d rather have Campbell taking a LB spot than Walker.

So from that simplistic view of the roster, I think the Cardinals have improved the most especially considering that no other team in the division seems to have improved at all. The Seahawks have experienced a mass exodus of talent in the last few years, highlighted this year by Clowney’s likely departure. The Rams are feeling a similar type of way after losing Fowler, Littleton, and Gurley. The Niners may be up a first round pick but as of today, they’re down a 26-year-old beast in the middle of their defensive line.

What holds Arizona back from rising up to the top of the division? The uncertainty around Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray’s abilities to belong at this level. I have personally felt for awhile that Murray could be 2020’s breakout quarterback (2019: Lamar Jackson, 2018: Patrick Mahomes, 2017: Jared Goff) but who knows? Let’s check back to last summer and see how many predicted that Lamar would be much better than Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold.

My belief is that Kyler is better than Lamar, to use the most recent example, but all of those quarterbacks excelled with the guidance of a great coach. In the cases of Goff and Lamar, perhaps especially because of great coaching. Kliff worked with both Baker and Mahomes at Texas Tech but found little in the way of team success.

So I see Arizona has having made the most improvements in free agency but their ceiling — which could be 5-10-1 — depends a lot on if Kliff can elevate Kyler and/or if Kyler can elevate everyone around him. I tend to lean more on the latter being more likely than the former and again, I do like Kyler quite a bit.

The Seahawks and Rams both lost a lot

Seattle may have the room to sign Clowney, especially given that he’s still a free agent and so his price is obviously not where he thought it would be. There are also uncertainties around his health and now complications with teams conducting physicals and an inability to travel that could give the Seahawks an advantage over other clubs. That being said, I felt Clowney was significantly underwhelming in 2019 and regardless of his presence, Seattle had one of the worst defenses in the league when it came to applying pressure on the quarterback.

With or without Clowney, I don’t yet see how they’ve addressed that issue. The Seahawks are also once again rebuilding the offensive line, have injury issues at running back, and are relying on players past their prime such as Duane Brown, Greg Olsen, and potentially Bobby Wagner.

You could almost consider Gurley a 2019 loss given his lack of being “Todd Gurley” last season and that remains an issue for McVay to address. The Rams also lost two of their best starters on defense, plus several other starters, and are also retooling the offensive line. I think both of these teams remain consistent threats for various reasons that include coaching, and in the case of Seattle, often being carried by their elite quarterback.

What I believe

For the 49ers, regression is real

Which team in the division is most likely to lose more games than they lost last season? There’s no debate among the reasonable, it’s the 49ers. They went 13-3 and they are unlikely to repeat or raise that total. It’s also very hard to win 12 games, especially in back-to-back years, unless you’re the New England Patriots and you’re playing in the AFC East.

San Francisco is not playing in a division anything like the AFC East.

The New Orleans Saints have gone 13-3 in consecutive years, but prior to that hadn’t won 12 games — even with Drew Brees at the helm — since 2011. The Green Bay Packers went 13-3 last season after going 13-18-1 over the previous two seasons combined. Aaron Rodgers hadn’t won 12 games in a year since 2014. The Baltimore Ravens went 14-2, their first 12-win season since 2011. The Kansas City Chiefs have won 12 games in three of the last four years but Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t Patrick Mahomes (two of those years) and again, the competition isn’t as difficult.

Every team in the NFC West has ruled at some point recently.

The Seahawks went 13-3 in 2013, 12-4 in 2014, then 10-6, 10-5-1, 9-7, 10-6, and 11-5.

The Rams have gone from 11-5 to 13-3 to 9-7.

The Cardinals went 10-6 in 2013, then 11-5 in 2014, then 13-3 in 2015, to 7-8-1 in 2016.

Back in 2018, the LA Chargers and Chicago Bears both went 12-4.

In 2017, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Minnesota Vikings, and Philadelphia Eagles all went 13-3.

None of those five examples won more than nine games in the following season. The Patriots and Saints could repeat for various reasons, but repeating is even more difficult than getting it done in the first place which for San Francisco took several painful years of bad football. How far removed are they really from bad football?

The 2019 49ers were a great team led by their pass defense and an efficient offense. The 2020 49ers? Yeah, lots of the same pieces are there, including some of the best young players in the NFL like George Kittle, Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, Mike McGlinchey, and so on. But I believe at this point that San Francisco will be stuck in the moshpit with everyone else, not safely up on stage.

My beliefs don’t matter

But this is where I would stand on the standings based on these early moves. Keep in mind, I find predictable predictions to not just be blatantly boring but inaccurate for no good reason other than empty risk aversion. You’re avoiding taking a risk without any benefit to being right or any punishment to being wrong. But we know that every single season a bunch of teams are a lot better than we thought and a bunch of teams go in the opposite direction. Every year. We humans are horrible at predicting things and the last thing I care about is putting my foot down and saying, “This is what will happen! Don’t doubt me!”

Doubt me. But this is what will happen.

LA Rams, 11-5

San Francisco 49ers, 9-7

Arizona Cardinals, 8-8

Seattle Seahawks, 6-10