How do you overcome a Super Bowl hangover in a division likely to be one of the toughest in the NFL in 2019?
That is the conundrum the Rams face as they try to put their letdown against the Patriots in February behind them.
Aiming to derail their challenge will be a Seahawks team that will remain competitive as long as Russell Wilson is under center, while the 49ers should be in the mix if their quarterback can stay healthy and return to his 2017 form.
The combination of Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury could be an explosive one for the Cardinals and should that prove the case that the NFC West may be the most fascinating division in football.
Here’s the outlook for the NFC West heading into training camp:
Team on the rise
San Francisco 49ers
Many predicted the Niners to challenge for the playoffs last year. The loss of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to injury in September put that to bed, but with Garoppolo back under center, the Niners appear better poised for a push in 2019.
The pass rush should go from a weakness to a strength after the arrivals of Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, who join DeForest Buckner on a stacked defensive front, which will hope to force considerably more turnovers than the record low of seven the 49ers produced last year.
With Kyle Shanahan calling the plays for Garoppolo, an offense featuring star tight end George Kittle and a talented cast of young skill-position players, San Francisco’s attack should be prolific enough to keep the Niners in every game.
Team on the decline
It would be easy to predict a slide for the Rams after their Super Bowl heartache. However, beyond the departures of Lamarcus Joyner, Rodger Saffold and Ndamukong Suh, they have kept largely intact the roster that fell a win short of claiming the Lombardi Trophy and found a quality replacement for Joyner in Eric Weddle.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, continue to embrace a youth movement on both sides of the ball having seen running back Doug Baldwin retire and safety Earl Thomas depart.
There will be significant pressure on D.K. Metcalf to perform as a rookie and take the pressure off top receiver Tyler Lockett, but that is a lot to ask of a wideout who displayed limited agility as a route-runner in college.
However, the bigger problem is on defense, where the trade of star pass rusher Frank Clark has left Seattle relying on first-round pick L.J. Collier, injury-prone Ziggy Ansah and retread Cassius Marsh to pressure the quarterback. The Seahawks should still compete for the playoffs, but their lack of an adequate replacement for Clark could see them on the outside looking in.
Rookies to Watch
Kyler Murray, QB, Cardinals: The story of the draft could become the story of the season if Murray lives up to the billing and sets the league afire as a rookie. To do so he will likely to have to mitigate the impact of an offensive line that was one of NFL’s worst in 2018 with his running ability. Every practice and preseason snap he takes until Week 1 will be intensely scrutinized as the Cardinals’ gamble is continually evaluated.
Nick Bosa, DE, 49ers: Bosa could have been a Cardinal had Arizona opted to stick with Josh Rosen. Instead he will be hunting down Murray twice a season and the pass-rusher, along with trade acquisition Ford, will be crucial to San Francisco’s defense reaching to a new level. If Bosa is to have an impact similar to older brother Joey, he will have to put the injury bug behind him. He missed almost all of his final year at Ohio State with a core muscle injury and a hamstring issue left him sidelined for the 49ers’ minicamp.
Though Goff does not have to prove anything in camp, he can expect to be under even greater scrutiny in 2019 after crumbling under the bright lights in Super Bowl 53.
Goff never looked comfortable with the stage or his opposition as the Patriots’ defense strangled the life out of the Rams offense in Atlanta, and his upcoming fourth year will be one in which he will have to rise to the challenge of dissecting opponents that will be out to emulate New England’s success. It’s largely on Goff to ensure that Los Angeles doesn’t suffer a Super Bowl hangover in a difficult division.
Jimmy Garoppolo, knee: The word is the Niners’ quarterback is “good to go” for training camp after tearing his ACL in Week 3 last season, but how he progresses in his return to padded practices should be closely monitored, as it his performances that are most likely to determine whether the West becomes a three-horse race in 2019.
For all the good work Nick Mullens did last year, the Niners will go as far as Garoppolo does in a crucial third year for Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch. For them to have a chance of winning the division or just reaching the postseason, they need Garoppolo firing on all cylinders as soon as possible.