Recently, Nick Wagoner of ESPN got the party started when he delivered: New-found stability gives 49ers a leg up in changing NFC West. And now Niners Live drops our part-two version: Why the NFC West Division is there for 49ers’ taking.
Going back over the last decade, the NFC West has seen only one elite level quarterback (Colin Kaepernick never made a Pro-Bowl or won a Super Bowl and newly retired quarterback Carson Palmer of the Arizona Cardinals made one Pro-Bowl and one Super-Bowl appearance ending in a loss) with multiple Pro-Bowls under his belt (four to be exact); he’s a winner of one of two Super Bowl appearances since 2013.
And one of the most elusive quarterbacks to play the position since Michael Vick drum roll please….stands at 5’11’ and on a good day weighs 203 lbs, and his name is Russell Wilson, starting quarterback of the division rivals, the Seattle Seahawks.
There’s a new gunslinger on the NFC West Division block
Enter 49ers’ starting quarterback and pending free agent Jimmy Garoppolo (long-term deal expected in the next couple of days, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapport), who In six games (five being starts) totaled 1,560 passing yards, seven touchdowns and against five interceptions.
Garoppolo completed 67.4% of his passes with a quarterback rating of 96.2 and a total quarterback rating of 78.2. Garoppolo (snapshot sample size) ended the season with an overall Pro Football Focus grade of 85.2, which measured up to the top-10 level amongst the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.
Changing of the guard
The Seattle Seahawks who have been a nemesis and thorn in the 49ers side for years; are no longer indestructible, 49ers lost two ( week two loss 12-9, week 12 loss 24-13) highly competitive and winnable games without the services of Jimmy Garoppolo.
The Seahawks fired both offensive and defensive coordinators; Darrell Bevell and Kris Richard, respectfully. Bevell was replaced by a struggling defensive coordinator (formerly of the Oakland Raiders) in Ken Norton Jr. whose defensive units finished ( 22nd, 26th, and 23rd) over the last three years in total defense.
The Seahawks have major/career threatening injuries to key positions on the defense ( cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Kam Chancellor, edge rusher Cliff Avril), and contract disputes ( see safety Earl Thomas and Michael Bennett).
There could be a transition period in the desert
The Arizona Cardinals recently hired a defensive minded rookie head coach (formerly of the Carolina Panthers) in Steve Wilks. The Cardinals pick 15th in the 2018 NFL draft and have an offensive line that is in flux. The Cardinals are also without a franchise quarterback (as previously mentioned Palmer retired) at the moment and future Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is contemplating his NFL future. However, let’s not get things misconstrued, there’s still a lot of talent on this team ( six overall in total defense) and a 26-year-old star running back in David Johnson, who’s now 100% healthy. In 2016, Johnson posted 2,118 yards from scrimmage to go with 80 catches and 20 combined (rushing and receiving) touchdowns.
The division champs now become the hunted
The Los Angeles Rams were led by head coach Sean McVay who recently won Coach of the Year Honors and it was well deserved (No. 1 scoring offense in the NFL at 29.9 ppg). He helped revitalize the careers of starting quarterback and second-year Pro-Jarred Goff and Offensive Player of the Year running back Todd Gurley.
With that being said, the Rams will have a big target on their backs as they’ll have to prove they can put forth that same winning effort in 2018. Part of that target process is plucking your talent from your previous winning ways.
The Rams will have some key decisions to make on pending free agents; wide receiver Sammy Watkins, center John Sullivan, cornerback’s Trumaine Johnson, Nickell Robey-Coleman and free safety LaMarcus Joyner. And there could be more potential turnover from the following players; Tavon Austin, Mark Barron and Robert Quinn who’s diminishing roles no longer match their high salaries (per ESPN.com).
And based on the head-to-head matchups (week three loss 41-39, week 17 win 43-13) by both teams in 2017, the 49ers should feel very comfortable in 2018 to take down the division champs.
Why the NFC West Division is there for 49ers’ taking
Even though this division as a whole still has a wealth of talent in it, and the Cardinals have beaten the 49ers six times in a row to go along with a nine-game losing streak against the Seahawks (13th overall defense in 2017). And the Rams are loaded with a young nucleus of talent on both sides of the ball and don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.
It would seem the 49ers don’t stand a chance in this division by the above narrative, now wouldn’t, it? However, none of these teams have carried the level of momentum the 49ers did closing the season winners of five straight and the only undefeated team in the month of December in the NFL. All this was accomplished by playing the most rookies and having the most players on injured reserve in the NFL.
None of the teams mentioned have a quarterback of Jimmy Garoppolo’s elite arm talent and abilities, sorry Russell Wilson. With a full off-season under his belt to fully digest the playbook, improve red zone scoring percentage and work on timing with his plethora of underrated weapons (don’t underestimate the return of Pierre Garcon), and with reinforcements (upgrades along the interior offensive line, pass-rusher, lockdown cornerback and more outside/big body threats at receiver) coming via free agency and the NFL draft.
Base on the objective information and analytical breakdown provided in this article it’s not far-fetched to believe, or even think, that the NFC West Division is there for 49ers’ taking.
Please join us again soon on Niners Live, the home of the faithful fan and analyst from an objective/analytical lens, of course. Often imitated, but never duplicated.
All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Pro Football Focus, 49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Content Creator, player break down specialist, Co-Editor Sequoia Sims.