NFC West 2021 NFL Preview: Four-team race for league’s tightest division

One of the most interesting divisions in football, the NFC West have four legitimate playoff teams in the running. All four teams in the division had off-season's that could push their teams higher, so who will come out on top?

The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams in the lead-up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 9.

Today, we look at the NFC West. (Teams are listed in the order in which we believe they’ll finish in the 2021 standings.)


2020 record: 6-10, fourth in NFC West; missed playoffs

Roster additions: C Alex Mack, OLB Samson Ebukam, WR Mohamed Sanu, QB Trey Lance (drafted third overall), G Aaron Banks (48th overall)

Roster subtractions: WR Kendrick Bourne, DE Kerry Hyder, CB Ahkello Witherspoon, DE Solomon Thomas, WR Marquise Goodwin, CB Richard Sherman

The good news: They aren’t all injured anymore. The story of the 2020 49ers could be told in a single hospital emoji. Jimmy Garoppolo played six games. Nick Bosa played two. Deebo Samuel, Dee Ford, Raheem Mostert, George Kittle — name a significant player on this roster, and chances are he spent a significant amount of time on the IR in 2020. Now, all those players are back and ready to play, and San Fran is set to bounce back in a big way. What’s more, they drafted QB of the future Trey Lance, who according to his head coach and judging by how he was used in the pre-season, should see early action in a two-QB system … once he returns from a finger injury that seems like it’ll sideline him for Week 1 (uh oh).

The bad news: It’s basically just Lance’s finger at this point. That said, there’s a lot of pressure on the young QB to pan out, largely because the 49ers gave up so much to trade up for him — a move that was panned at the time because he might have still been there when they picked in their original spot at No. 12. That said, that’s not really bad news — just reality. Bad news will be if their whole team hits the IR like last season, but we’ve seen no sign of that yet. Relatively? Things are rosy, and everyone’s smiling.

2021 prediction: 12-5, lose in the Divisional Round


2020 record: 10-6, second in NFC West; lost to Packers in the Divisional Round

Roster additions: QB Matthew Stafford, WR DeSean Jackson, RB Sony Michel, WR Tutu Atwell (drafted 57th overall)

Roster subtractions: QB Jared Goff, S John Johnson, S Troy Hill, DT Michael Brockers, OLB Samson Ebukam, DE Morgan Fox, TE Gerald Everett, RB Malcolm Brown

The good news: Matthew Stafford. This is a player who has accumulated the 16th-most passing yards all-time while playing for multiple coaches on a Detroit Lions team that has struggled to put pieces around him. Now he gets to play in a QB-friendly system under forward-thinking coach Sean McVay, and throw to Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. He also gets the support of a defence led by Aaron Donald. By season’s end, it would be zero surprise if Stafford climbs to 12th on that all-time list, leapfrogging the legendary likes of Warren Moon and Frank Tarkenton.

The bad news: The high price in the Stafford trade limited the Rams' ability to make other improvements, and they lost some key defensive free agents. Running back Cam Akers also might as well be in the roster subtractions list above, as he will miss the season with a torn Achilles, but solid 2020 performer Darrell Henderson Jr. and newcomer Sony Michel will do their best to fill the void.

2021 prediction: 11-6, lose in the Divisional Round


2020 record: 12-4, first in NFC West; lost to Rams in Wild Card Round

Roster additions: CB Ahkello Witherspoon, G Gabe Jackson, DE Aldon Smith, DE Kerry Hyder, TE Gerald Everett, WR D’Wayne Eskridge (drafted 56th overall)

Roster subtractions: CB Shaquill Griffin, CB Quinton Dunbar, WR David Moore, RB Carlos Hyde

The good news: Simple: This team has finished second in the division or better in each of Russell Wilson’s seasons in Seattle, and Russell Wilson is still there. After a turbulent off-season that could’ve ended with the QB in another uniform (and his former team in the earliest days of what would’ve been a long rebuild), things are as they should be in Seattle. The offensive line in front of him — which he controversially indirectly criticized back in February — gets the addition of Gabe Jackson, and Wilson also has a tight end to throw to after his team went out and acquired Gerald Everett.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, former Rams coach and Sean McVay disciple Shane Waldron has been brought in as the new offensive coordinator. It’s early days, but Wilson likes what he sees of the new system. If Waldron can inject some new life into the Seattle attack, the lack of other major off-season additions could be a non-issue.

The bad news: There’s a healthy amount of controversy swirling around this team, from speculation on Wilson’s interest in sticking around (for his part, he denied the rumours he requested a trade) to left tackle Duane Brown, a key part of the offensive line, holding out (exacerbating one of the reasons Wilson was critical of this team in the first place). Now Wilson is going to bat for Brown for his new contract and his swift return to the lineup, but is it too little, too late? The offensive line was said to be upset by the indirect criticism mentioned above.

This team has talent and bonafides and a great recent track record, especially in the regular season. But a team with questionable chemistry in Week 1 doesn’t feel like a team you should make big bets on.

2021 prediction: 11-6, lose in the Wild Card Round


2020 record: 8-8, third in NFC West; missed playoffs

Roster additions: DE J.J. Watt, CB Darqueze Dennard, CB Malcolm Butler, K Matt Prater, WR A.J. Green, RB James Conner, C Rodney Hudson, LB Zaven Collins (drafted 16th overall), WR Rondale Moore (49th overall)

Roster subtractions: DE Haason Reddick, CB Patrick Peterson, DE Angelo Blackson, C Mason Cole

The good news: The time is now. The Cardinals aren’t just hanging around the middle of the pack any longer, an interesting sleeper pick maybe a year or two away from really competing. They hit the NOS button in the off-season, getting J.J. Watt to add to once-again-healthy star Chandler Jones on a very strong looking defence, and bringing in both a veteran with something to prove (A.J. Green) and a young speedster (Rondale Moore) to play with DeAndre Hopkins and give Kyler Murray more offensive weapons. Look up and down this roster, and there’s star talent all over the place.

The bad news: They’ve gone all in with splashy moves, but the jury’s out on whether they made the right ones. Yes, Watt and Green are stars with big profiles, but how much exactly do they have left?

Both guys played a full 16 games last year after struggling with injuries in prior seasons, and both put up the worst full-season numbers of their careers. Granted, they were playing on basement-dwelling teams with issues galore. If Watt and Green can bounce back to their All-Pro selves, this team could be scary. But at 32 and 33 years of age respectively, that’s an incredibly big if. What’s more, this division will offer exactly zero gimme games.

2021 prediction: 9-8, miss the playoffs

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