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NFC West: Biggest Concern for Each Team Entering the 2020 Season

NFC West: Biggest Concern for Each Team Entering the 2020 Season

NFC West: Biggest Concern for Each Team Entering the 2020 Season

The NFC West has produced a Super Bowl participant each of the last two seasons, so we know this division can produce some pretty good teams. But considering there's been only one team in NFL history to finish an entire season undefeated and untied from the start through the championship game (1972 Miami Dolphins), there's no such thing as a perfect team either.

Every team has its share of weaknesses or soft spots on the roster for a variety of reasons. The difference between the teams that go on to make the playoffs and those that don't can sometimes come down to which ones mitigate these weaknesses the best. Here's a look at an area of concern for each NFC West team entering the 2020 season.

Arizona's offensive line

The Cardinals' defense finished last in the league in yards allowed per game and second to last in passing yards allowed, as well as touchdown passes and completion percentage. But even though the defense clearly has room for improvement, the key to Arizona's season lies on the other side of the ball. And it starts up front.

Kyler Murray didn't disappoint after being taken No. 1 overall last year, winning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. To help Murray take the next step, the Cardinals acquired All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins from Houston, giving the second-year quarterback an impressive collection of weapons. However, it won't mean anything if Murray doesn't have time to throw.

Last season, Murray was sacked 48 times, tied for the most in the league. While Murray's mobility (544 rushing yards) is a key part to his game, his size (5-10, 207) makes it imperative that he gets better protection so he can stay healthy and head coach Kliff Kingsbury's Air Raid offense can reach its full potential.

Arizona drafted tackle Josh Jones in the third round, and his size (6-5, 319) should help bolster the offensive line but he'll also be thrown into the fire right away. The plan was for Jones to learn behind veteran Marcus Gilbert, who was acquired in a trade from Pittsburgh last March. But the longtime Steelers starter, who missed last season with a knee injury, decided to opt out due to concerns over the coronavirus. The rest of the starting offensive line (left tackle D.J. Humphries, center Mason Cole, and guards Justin Pugh and J.R. Sweezy) returns intact, but again this was a group that struggled in pass protection and now has to help a rookie get acclimated to the pro game, and quickly.

Los Angeles' linebackers

The Rams went 9-7 last season, a disappointing showing for a team that was coming off of a Super Bowl appearance. Both sides of the ball had their issues, and a tight salary cap led to a lot of roster turnover this offseason. The team also parted ways with veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, giving the job to first-timer Brandon Staley. The 37-year-old rookie coordinator has already said he's keeping the Rams' 3-4 primary alignment, but he'll basically be starting over when it comes to his linebacker corps.

Cory Littleton, who has finished in the top 10 in tackles in the league each of the last two seasons, left in free agency and signed with Las Vegas. Likewise, Dante Fowler Jr., second on the team with 11.5 sacks as an outside linebacker/edge rusher, is now in Atlanta. And the team also cut ties with veteran Clay Matthews. Those spots are expected to be filled by a trio of unproven players. Micah Kiser was the team's fifth-round pick in 2018, but he saw very little action as a rookie and missed all of last season with a pectoral injury. Leonard Floyd, the ninth overall pick of the 2016 draft by Chicago, was signed in free agency following his release in March. After recording seven sacks as a rookie, Floyd totaled 11.5 over the next three seasons and needs to take full advantage of his new opportunity. Terrell Lewis was a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school but injuries limited his playing time at Alabama and caused him to slide to the third round of this year's draft.

There's already enough pressure on Staley, as the Rams are eager to return to the playoffs and will have to do so coming out of the rugged NFC West. But now the first-time coordinator will have to improve a defense that is relying on an inexperienced group of linebackers that haven't gotten the benefit of a normal offseason and won't get any preseason reps either.

San Francisco's wide receivers

The 49ers are the defending NFC West champs, and while a couple of key players from last year's Super Bowl team are no longer around, general manager John Lynch has done a fine job in bringing in replacements. San Francisco's offense made a healthy living running the ball, but it still needs Jimmy Garoppolo to make some plays with his arm, and that's where the concern comes.

Earlier this month, George Kittle signed a five-year contract extension making him the highest-paid tight end, so he's not going anywhere. And that's a good thing considering he finished with nearly 30 more catches than any other 49er. Next in this respect was Deebo Samuel, but he's likely to miss the start of the season after fracturing his foot during a workout in June. Emmanuel Sanders (third with 36 catches) left in free agency, so the wide receiver with the most catches for the team last season that is on track to play in Week 1 is Kendrick Bourne, who had 30.

In fact, the only other wide receivers who caught a pass for the 49ers in 2019 still on the roster are Richie James Jr. and Dante Pettis, who combined for a total of 17. San Francisco signed Travis Benjamin in free agency, but he has opted out this season, leaving first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk as the biggest addition. There are other wideouts taking part in training camp (Tavon Austin, Jauan Jennings, J.J. Nelson, Shawn Poindexter, Trent Taylor), but all of these guys probably won't make the team even with the possibility that Samuel and/or James (who broke his wrist in June and is currently on the active/non-football injury list) may not be ready by Week 1.

Even with some changes, the 49ers still have the look of a Super Bowl contender, as long as you don't stare too long at the wide receivers.

Seattle's pass rush

The Seahawks went 11-5 and earned a wild-card berth last season even though the defense looked nothing like its former dominant self. One of the biggest culprits was a pass rush that generated 28 sacks, tying Seattle for second to last in the NFL. The team wanted to bring back Jadeveon Clowney (who had three sacks), but not at his price tag, so they looked to free agency and the draft to try and beef up the pass rush.

The first step was bringing back a pair of former Seahawks — Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa — in free agency and then drafting Darrell Taylor (second round) and Alton Robinson (fifth). They will make up the defensive end rotation with the tackle spots manned by starters Poona Ford and Jarran Reed, along with backups Rasheem Green and L.J. Collier. Green's four sacks led the team last year with All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner (three), Reed, and cornerback Tre Flowers (two each) the only other returners with more than one. Seattle is really hoping for a bounce-back season from Reed, who had 10.5 sacks in 2018 but missed the first six games of this past season for a violation of the league's personal conduct policy and never got on track when he returned.

The reality is the Seahawks will go as far as Russell Wilson can carry them, but it would make his job a lot easier this season if his defense could put a little more pressure on his counterpart.