Fans are back and most players are back and ready to roll. We are just days away from what should be one of the most exciting seasons of football in a long time. The countdown is on. Every day leading up to the NFL season I will post a preview of each division with records and breakdowns of each team. It will all culminate on opening day with my playoff predictions where I will give you my pick to hoist the Lombardi Trophy this season. Think of these as little appetizers to help pass the days.
There is no debating what is the best division in football. It is the NFC West and I don’t think it is very close. I could see all four of these teams winning the division and all four could actually make the playoffs. These four teams will beat the crap out of each other for 18 weeks. When it’s all said and done, we will have a very deserving champion. Who will that team be?
- Los Angeles Rams (2021 Prediction, 13-4)
The Rams made the biggest splash this offseason trading for Matthew Stafford to usher in a new era for the Rams. Just a few years removed from a trip to the Super Bowl, the Rams once again look like legit contenders. The roster is loaded with talent as Los Angeles looks to turn this season into a blockbuster.
As a fan of a NFC North team, I have seen a lot of Matthew Stafford over the years. He is without question the most underrated quarterback in the league and has been for a long time. He only has one season where he played 16 games and didn’t throw for over 4,000 yards. The number of interceptions has also gone down from where they were early in his career. Stafford dealt with a lot of change in Detroit. He has seen five different head coaches and the loss of one of the greatest receivers of all time in Calvin Johnson. Now he gets a little more stability with Sean McVay. McVay is very creative in his play calling which will benefit Stafford in a big way. I am happy for Matthew Stafford. After all he has been through in Detroit and with his wife Kelly battling back from a brain tumor, he deserves some good. The NFL is about to realize how good Matthew Stafford really is.
The receiving corps is also one of the better groups Stafford has ever had. Robert Woods has eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in two of his four seasons with the Rams and just fell short last season. They also like to mix in some work on the ground for him to keep defenses on their toes. Cooper Kupp is a catch machine. Kupp has caught over 90 passes each of the last two seasons. That’s with some inconsistency at quarterback as well. He is very shifty and can find success on the outside or in the slot. Tyler Higbee will be the primary tight end now with the departure of Gerald Everett. He and Everett split the targets but now it will be the Higbee show. Last season Higbee was a threat in the redzone, hauling in a career high five touchdowns. It might not be Dallas’ level, but Stafford has the weapons and coaching creativity to make some noise in the playoffs.
The ground game took a big hit during the preseason. Cam Akers tearing his ACL forced a little bit of panic in Los Angeles. The numbers don’t jump off the page at you, but you could see Akers was getting more comfortable late last season and was poised for a big year. Now it will be a combination of Darrell Henderson Jr. and the recently acquired Sony Michel. Michel saw his 2020 season hampered with Covid and injuries. The former Georgia Bulldog looked good in New England but never really took over as the starter. Henderson has done alright but they would need to see more from him if they want to make a Super Bowl run. I think Michel is the better of the two and would mesh better with Stafford. They need to see an improvement in the run game from last season if they want to take that next step.
The Rams also have a top ten offensive line. 39 year old Andrew Whitworth just won’t slow down. He continues to just be a brick wall up front for the Rams. It seems inevitable that Whitworth will start slowing down. However until he shows signs of regression, you have to think he will once again be the leader of this unit. Over at the other tackle position, Rob Havenstein had a great year in 2020 after struggling in 2019. He and Whitworth need to be solid because of the outside runs that McVay likes to utilize. Bobby Evans looks to be the weak spot on the O-Line at right guard. They need to either find a replacement or use center Brian Allen to help him out. Allen missed all of 2020 and will need some time to work his way back into game shape. Evans needs to step up to help this line achieve their true potential as a top five offensive line.
The last time we saw the Rams defense, they were being carved up by Aaron Rodgers and company in the playoffs. That was not the norm for this squad. They were the top defense in the league last season and will be towards the top once again in 2020. They have the best defensive player in football in Aaron Donald who just destroys offensive lines even when he gets doubled. Donald is a once in a generation talent and will be coming back with a vengeance after he was shut down in the playoff loss to Green Bay although he was not 100% in that one. Jalen Ramsey was lights out once again last season. After allowing seven receptions to Amari Cooper in week one, Ramsey dominated everyone the rest of the regular season. He prides himself on being the best corner and with other guys now on the same level, I expect him to be stronger than ever in 2021. Leonard Floyd is also a problem for opposing offenses. There are just too many great players on this defense for them to not be one of the best defenses in football once again.
The defense took the Rams as far as they could in 2020. Now the offense will be dangerous too. The division is absolutely loaded, but the Rams have the fewest question marks. They are good on both sides of the ball and I am more confident in them than any other team in the NFC West.
- San Francisco 49ers (2021 Prediction, 12-5)
Injuries. That word haunted the 49ers a year after they were playing in the Super Bowl. Now, they are back and healthy on defense. That is scary after seeing what this defense did in 2019. Can the offense finally keep up though?
Jimmy Garoppolo is on a short leash now. The 29 year old couldn’t stay healthy last season and didn’t look good when he was on the field. He only played in six games but threw seven touchdowns and five interceptions. That is bad. Now he was much better in 2019. That season he threw 27 touchdowns but still had 13 interceptions. Turnovers are forcing the 49ers to prepare to move on. That is why they took Trey Lance with the third overall pick. When you take a quarterback that early, it is WHEN will he take over and not will he take over. I think that answer will be either after the bye week or next season. There is a three game stretch from weeks 3 to 5 where the 49ers play Green Bay, Seattle and Arizona. Jimmy G has to either win two of those or play like he did in their 2019 thriller with New Orleans. If neither of those happen, Trey Lance will take over and the 49ers won’t look back
San Francisco made it to the Super Bowl in 2019 because of the ground game. They gashed both Minnesota and Green Bay in the playoffs on the ground and we should see a lot of that early this season. Raheem Mostert will be the top back for the 49ers this season. Mostert is extremely quick and if he gets in the open space he will be gone. Like most 49ers players, injuries plagued him in 2020. He only appeared in eight games but had over 500 yards rushing. Now back and at 100%, Mostert should have the biggest season of his career. Trey Sermon will also see some carries. The rookie out of Ohio State had a massive final collegiate season and will immediately be mixed in at running back. Sermon gives the 49ers a more physical presence in the backfield. He will be like Tevin Coleman was for Mostert in 2019 although now it is Mostert that will be the lead back.
San Francisco is pretty thin at wide receiver. They have three guys that have proven to be solid guys. Deebo Samuel is a playmaker. Samuel missed most of last season after breaking out in 2019. This season will be just his third year in the league so he is still improving. If he can stay healthy, he will take another step from his 2019 season. Brandon Aiyuk stepped up in a big way last season. The rookie had 60 catches for 748 yards and five touchdowns. At 23 years old, Aiyuk is still growing and will only get bigger and stronger. The former Sun Devil was a Pac-12 superstar in college and staying out west seems to have done him well. I think he ends up being the leading receiver in 2021. Mohamed Sanu Sr. played in only three games with the 49ers after joining them late in the season. Sanu will be that veteran leader for this young group of receivers. I don’t know if he will physically affect games very much, but he knows a lot and has seen a lot. That can help these young guys grow. The best weapon is of course George Kittle. He is coming off a down year but guess what? He dealt with a lot of injuries. Kittle is the number two tight end in the league behind only Travis Kelce. Expect Kittle to be back to his normal self in 2021. He is a monster and will remind everyone of that.
The offensive line should be a strength of this team this season. This line is built for running the football. All of them are good run blockers and can hold their own in pass protection. Trent Williams is a top tier lineman in the NFL and should dominate in the run game in 2021. Mike McGlinchey over at right tackle is also an elite run blocker. Having those two at tackle help set the edge and get Mostert out in open space. Alex Mack will join the 49ers after coming over from Atlanta. Mack is a solid veteran and should be able to slide right in without any issues. The only question mark with this unit is in pass protection. That shouldn’t worry Kyle Shanahan too much. They will come out and run the football behind this line all year long.
The defense was dismantled by injuries last year. In just a few minutes, both Nick Bosa and Soloman Thomas tore their ACLs in week 2. Dee Ford, Richard Sherman and Jaquiski Tartt all joined the injury list throughout the season. Sherman is gone, but everyone else is back and extremely hungry. Bosa was a freak of nature in his rookie season in 2019 and should be back to the same level of play. Fred Warner is one of the best linebackers in the sport and will have more help this season. Dre Greenlaw and Arik Armstead will also give headaches to offensive coordinators all season long. The secondary will be worth monitoring. Someone needs to step up as a leader back there to replace Richard Sherman. If they can find that guy, this defense once again will be in the top five at the end of the season.
The quarterback question is a little worrisome in San Francisco. I think that either the run game will carry Garoppolo or Trey Lance will have some rookie magic if he gets the opportunity. Either way if the defense remains healthy, this team will win games and get back to the playoffs.
- Seattle Seahawks (2021 Prediction, 11-6)
Now I know that a lot of Seahawk fans will be reading this and already calling me an idiot. Stay with me though. They are a playoff team and have a good record. The division is just stacked. So let’s look at what I love and hate about Seattle this season.
One thing that I am not worried about is Russell Wilson. He looked like the MVP through the first half of 2020 before falling off a cliff. The second half of the season was the worst we have ever seen Wilson play. Then there was some drama this offseason between him and the team. The fact he was communicating with the team on how they could improve is a great sign. I think Wilson will come in hungry this season. The perception of him across the league was tarnished this offseason. He will go out there to prove he’s an elite quarterback. Is his time running out in Seattle? Maybe. But until he is officially gone, Seattle won’t have to worry about their quarterback.
The receiving corps is top heavy in Seattle. DK Metcalf is just getting his career started and has already taken the league by storm. He is still learning and getting better. Remember, he is only 23 years old. Metcalf had his best year in 2020 with 83 catches for 1,303 yards and 10 touchdowns. He tied for 9th in receiving touchdowns. The man he was tied with? Teammate Tyler Lockett. Lockett had his second straight thousand year season last season. Although the numbers looked good, most of the damage came in a few games. In his best three games in 2020, Lockett had 390 yards and eight touchdowns. Teams were able to hold him in check for the other 13 games. Now Lockett isn’t the top guy in Seattle anymore. That means more opportunities. Expect a more balanced season again from Lockett and his third straight 1,000 yard season. Then there are Freddie Swain at receiver and Gerald Everett at tight end. Swain has 13 career catches entering his second season so there is still a lot unknown about him. Everett will be in his first year in Seattle and hasn’t looked like anything more than an average tight end. Metcalf and Lockett are the key players for Seattle. If they both stay healthy then all will be well.
If you ask Seahawk fans who should be the starting running back, you will get four different answers. The starter should and will be Chris Carson. Carson only played in 12 games last season and as a result was short of 1,000 yards for the first time since his rookie season in 2017 when he only played in four games. Carson is the best all-around running back that the Seahawks have. His biggest problem has been the fumbles. In 2019, Carson fumbled seven times on 315 touches. Those numbers improved a lot in 2020 as he fumbled only once on 178 touches. The fumbles were the only reason he was losing snaps, and if that problem has been figured out he will have his best season in 2021. Rashaad Penny is another guy we should see for Seattle. Penny has not been able to stay healthy so far as a professional. He was highly touted coming out of San Diego State but just can’t catch a break health wise. Appearing in only 27 games in three seasons, this could be his last season in Seattle. His contract is up after this season which is exactly why I see this being his best year. It will be interesting to see if Seattle relies more on Wilson or the running game after so much debate over the last year.
The Duane Brown situation has been resolved which is incredible news for this offensive line. Despite the line being a major issue for years with Seattle, they were actually average last season. The bad news is, that is all I see them being. Now with an elite quarterback that should be good enough. Brandon Shell had his best year at right tackle. Him duplicating that success will be a major factor in this team’s success. Another big factor is their new center. Ethan Pocic has been hit or miss game by game. They need consistency from him. Seattle wants to run the ball up the middle and they can’t do that if he isn’t doing his job up front. The line looks decent on paper. They don’t compete with the great lines, but they can be good enough if Pocic and Shell do their part.
I don’t think this defense got better. I don’t think the defense got worse. We saw two different defenses between the first and second half of the season for Seattle. The pass rush improved a ton with the acquisition of Carlos Dunlap. They need a similar pass rush this season. Bobby Wagner is the best middle linebacker in the sport. Seattle doesn’t have to ask questions about their leader on defense. Wagner is able to direct traffic and make about any play you need him to make. The issue I have in Seattle is that secondary. They allowed the second most yards through the air last season. I don’t think they are that bad, but they can’t compete with the better secondaries in the league. The pass rush has to be good to help out the secondary. The longer they have to cover, the worse it is for the team as a whole. They either both work, or the defense will end up towards the bottom of the league.
Seattle has a lot going on but there is a lot of optimism. They have a lot of the same guys back from last season but the division just got so much better. They are a good team. But I need to see improvement on defense for them to compete with the top teams in the NFC.
- Arizona Cardinals (2021 Prediction, 9-8)
The Cardinals are throwing everything they have at free agents as they look to finally win a Super Bowl. They brought AJ Green and JJ Watt, two massive additions. They added a lot but is it enough to survive this division?
At quarterback the Cardinals will once again have Kyler Murray. Murray is a dangerous and quick quarterback, but is still developing the NFL mindset. He also faded down the stretch last season. Russell Wilson displaced the short guys can’t be successful at quarterback myth. However, when the smaller guys take a beating, it will wear them down as the season goes on. Kyler has the ability to win games and beat good teams. Can his body take the wear and tear of a 17 game season? That is my biggest concern for the young quarterback. If he can have a high level of play for an entire season, he will be a superstar in no time.
Murray has one of the best receivers in the league to throw the ball to in DeAndre Hopkins. They seemed to have not much issue building a connection in 2020. Hopkins tied his career high with 115 catches and 1,407 yards. He didn’t do a ton downfield or in the end zone but he didn’t have to. Hopkins draws so much attention that other guys get opportunities and cash in. Christian Kirk cashed in with a career high six touchdowns. He can be a very dangerous weapon in this offense. More so now that AJ Green takes over as the number two receiver. If he can stay healthy, Green should be able to produce and keep this offense putting points on the board. Of course they will miss one of the greatest and consistent receivers of all time in Larry Fitzgerald. Those are going to be the guys that see most of the opportunities. Arizona doesn’t use the tight end position much, but Maxx Williams will pop up every now and again. The weapons are there for Arizona to have a massive year on offense if Kyler Murray can stay healthy.
The running back position is a little bit deeper in Arizona in 2021. Chase Edmonds will remain the starter, but James Conner now joins the group. Edmonds only has four career starts, but has shown big time potential. He averages four yards per carry through his three years thus far. On pass plays, he is lethal. Edmonds had four receiving touchdowns last season in very limited play. James Conner takes quite a bit of pressure off of Edmonds. Conner was very good for a few years in Pittsburgh and will look to get back to that form this season. It wouldn’t surprise me if we see Conner end up getting more carries when all is said and done. But that is what makes this backfield so tricky. Both guys are complete backs and can run and catch. If Arizona can keep them both fresh and involved, I really think they could put Arizona over the top.
The O-Line is great for Arizona…in pass protection. They struggle at run blocking. Kliff Kingsbury likes to use a pass heavy attack however, so this line ends up looking much better. You see more of the good than the bad. Everyone on this line is good in pass protection. Left tackle D.J. Humphries was great at both in 2020. Left tackle is the most important position in pass protection and Humphries is one of the top guys out there. Rodney Hudson will see his first season in Arizona. The center is, like the rest of this line, good in pass protection but average in the run game. He does add a veteran presence to help the communication up front. As long as the Cardinals remain pass heavy, this line will be fine. They do need to improve the run game though otherwise they will become too one dimensional.
There are a ton of questions on defense. One area that will be fine is the pass rush. Chandler Jones and JJ Watt are going to end up being one of the better duos in the league. Both are experienced and still have plenty left in them for a few great seasons. Everywhere else however I have some concerns. Zaven Collins and Isaiah Simmons just haven’t shown very much at middle linebacker. Granted, a breakout season for one or both could vastly change everything. Until I see it though, I can’t put much faith into it. In the secondary things aren’t much better. At safety they have a good tandem of former college rivals. Washington State’s Jalen Thompson and the University of Washington’s Budda Baker seemed to be able to be on the same page and were a solid combination. Byron Murphy Jr. as the top cornerback worries me. Murphy definitely has potential. He is very quick in coverage but he hasn’t ever had to face the top receivers. Plus, for the first time he will face guys like Davante Adams, DK Metcalf, and Amari Cooper. He doesn’t have time to find his footing. A.J. Brown and Julio Jones await week 1. The pass rush has to be great because the secondary can’t be relied upon to stop aerial assaults.
Arizona will have a good year offensively. But like with Seattle, you have to be good on both sides in the NFC and even more so in the NFC West. The Cardinals have a great base for the future. Now it will just take some time.
Matthew graduated in 2019 from Washington State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication with a specialization in Media and Journalism Production. He currently is a broadcaster and writer at Eli Sports Network. Baseball and football are his specialties but Matt covers anything he can. Follow him on Twitter @matt_king19