For two straight years, the NFC West has represented the conference in the Super Bowl, so this division has produced quality teams. Last year it was San Francisco, who entered the playoffs as the top seed and tied for the best record (13-3) in the NFC. Two years ago it was the Los Angeles Rams, who tied for the best mark in the regular season (13-3). And then there's Seattle, who has been to the postseason seven of the past eight years, including two appearances on Super Sunday in that span.
To get to the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl, your team has to be good in more than one area. But for each of the NFC West's teams, there are certain areas in which each is particularly strong. Here's a breakdown of those strengths headed into the 2020 season.
Arizona's pass catchers
The Cardinals didn't make the playoffs last season, going 5-10-1 in Kliff Kingsbury's debut as head coach, but quarterback Kyler Murray showed everyone why he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft. The NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year finished his rookie season with more than 4,200 yards of total offense and 24 touchdowns.
After a strong debut, the expectations have increased for Murray, especially after Arizona acquired All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins from Houston in a trade prior to this year's draft. One of the top players in the league regardless of position, Hopkins has averaged more than 1,200 receiving yards over his seven-year career and becomes Murray's new No. 1 target. He joins a receiving corps that also features surefire Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, third-year pro Christian Kirk, and a trio of second-year wideouts (Andy Isabella, KeeSean Johnson, and Hakeem Butler) eager to break out. This is in addition to pass-catching running backs Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds, who combined for 40 catches for the Cardinals (Drake played in eight games for Arizona after being traded from Miami at midseason) in 2019. Rookie Eno Benjamin, who recorded 42 receptions for Arizona State last year, also could work his way into the rotation. And while Arizona doesn't have any standout tight ends, Maxx Williams and Dan Arnold aren't solely blockers either. Put it all together and opposing defenses have plenty of guys to account for when it comes to preparing to go up against the Cardinals offense this season.
Los Angeles' secondary
Aaron Donald remains the anchor of this defense and is arguably the top player in the entire NFL, but he can't do it alone. Fortunately, the back end of this unit should up to the task. It starts with shutdown cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who the team acquired from Jacksonville last October for a pair of first-round picks and a fourth-rounder. He also will probably sign the biggest deal for his position ever before the start of next season, as he's in the last year of his rookie contract. Opposite Ramsey is Troy Hill, who posted one of the league's lowest completions-against rates in 2019.
At safety, injuries to John Johnson III last year presented rookie Taylor Rapp with an opportunity to step up and he did just that, leading the team in tackles. Now the two will form one of the league's most physical tandems. The options behind the starters are unproven, but third-round pick Terrell Burgess offers versatility and sixth-rounder Jordan Fuller has appealing size (6-2, 203) for a safety.
San Francisco's offensive and defensive lines
It's not often that a team loses a Pro Bowl-caliber player on both sides of the line of scrimmage in the same offseason and doesn't take a step back. But that could be the case for the 49ers. Left tackle Joe Staley, a six-time Pro Bowler and the anchor of San Francisco's offensive line since he was a first-round pick in 2007, announced his retirement in late April. General manager John Lynch acted quickly, trading for former Washington left tackle Trent Williams during the draft to fill Staley's spot.
A 2010 first-round pick and seven-time Pro Bowler, Williams didn't play last season due to a cancerous growth on his head and a subsequent dispute with how the team handled it, but he has been given a clean bill of health and is expected to fit in seamlessly as Jimmy Garoppolo's blindside protector. Williams will join right tackle Mike McGlinchey, left guard Laken Tomlinson, and center Weston Richburg to from what should remain one of the top offensive lines in the NFL. Richburg is coming back from a torn patellar tendon and the starting right guard job is open but identifying replacements and filling out the depth chart shouldn't be too much of an issue, as long as injuries don't become more prevalent.
On the other side of the ball, San Francisco's defensive line was a big reason why the team finished second overall in yards allowed per game and No. 1 against the pass. AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa gets a lot of attention, but DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Dee Ford did their share of damage. Add in reserve Solomon Thomas and the 49ers' front last year boasted five first-round picks. Buckner was traded to Indianapolis in March, who then made him the second-highest-paid defensive tackle behind only Aaron Donald. But don't worry, Lynch made sure to keep the line's first-round pedigree intact by using the pick he got from the Colts (No. 14 overall) on Javon Kinlaw. An All-American at South Carolina last season, Kinlaw certainly has the size (6-5, 319) to be a factor in the middle and he is expected to replace Buckner in the starting lineup.
Williams has some rust to shake off and Kinlaw is a rookie, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that the 49ers' offensive and defensive lines are better in 2020 than last year. And considering they made it all the way to the Super Bowl, that's saying something.
Seattle's head coach/quarterback combo
In eight seasons together, Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson have produced an 86-41-1 record with three division titles and seven total playoff appearances. In the postseason, the Seahawks duo has gone 9-6, including a 1-1 record in the Super Bowl. All this pair has done since they joined forces is win a bunch of games and remain a threat come playoff time.
Contrast that to the rest of the NFC West. Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan are both entering their fourth season as head coach, with Kliff Kingsbury going into his second. Likewise, the three starting quarterbacks (Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Kyler Murray) collectively have fewer games under their belt than Wilson. The Rams and the 49ers have won the division and went on to the Super Bowl the past two seasons, but their recent success pales in comparison to the track record Carroll and Wilson have built together. As long as Wilson remains healthy and Carroll stays hungry, Seattle is going to be the hunt. And you just can't say the same about the other three head coach/QB pairings, at least not yet.
(Top photo courtesy of arizonacardinals.com)