2021 NFL Offseason Outlook: NFC West

2020 Recap

The NFC West stands as arguably the best division in the NFL top-to-bottom, with four teams that will come into 2021 with reasonable playoff aspirations. The Seahawks took the division last year with a 12-4 record, good for the #3 seed in the NFC, while the Rams earned a playoff berth at 10-6. Los Angeles should be incredibly dangerous again in 2021, especially with an upgrade at quarterback in the form of Matthew Stafford. The Cardinals (8-8) just missed out on the playoffs but have an exciting roster full of young talent. The 49ers will be looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued 6-10 season that came as a major disappointment following the team winning the NFC Championship. The NFC West will certainly be a fun division to watch this season.

Seattle SeahawksSeattle Seahawks

Current Cap Space: $4.4 million (as of 2/21)

Top Free Agents: RB Chris Carson, TE Greg Olsen, LB K.J. Wright, LB Bruce Irvin, CB Quinton Dunbar, TE Jacob Hollister, EDGE Benson Mayowa, RB Carlos Hyde, OG Mike Iupati, OT Cedric Ogbuehi, OG Ethan Pocic, WR David Moore, CB Shaquill Griffin, CB Ryan Neal, LB Shaquem Griffin, OG Jordan Simmons, IDL Poona Ford

Biggest Team Needs: CB, EDGE, OT, IOL, IDL, WR, RB

2021 Draft Picks: #56 (R2), #119 (R4), #150 (R5), #182 (R6)

Analysis: The Seahawks head into this offseason in an unenviable position as they have minimal cap space, no first-round pick, and several key free agents to take care of. Russell Wilson, Tyler Lockett, and D.K. Metcalf are in place as the team’s leaders in the passing game, but there are serious question marks on offense surrounding them. Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde are free agents at running back, and it doesn’t sound likely that either player will be back with the team next season. Rashaad Penny could be in line to take over as the team’s starting running back if neither Carson nor Hyde returns. After dealing with some injuries in the early portion of his career, Penny could turn things around quickly as a former first-round pick. Greg Olsen, Jacob Hollister, and David Moore are also free agents, and their departures would press the team to add another pass-catcher to the roster.

The team’s offensive line has been in need of an overhaul for years now, and this offseason is no different. Mike Iupati and Ethan Pocic are free agents after starting last year on the interior O-line, while the Seahawks could stand to upgrade over Damien Lewis and Brandon Shell on the right side. Russell Wilson expressed his displease with his offensive line’s play over the past handful of years, and Seattle would love to address it, but they have minimal resources to do so. Iupati and Pocic may not return, but Jordan Simmons and Cedric Ogbuehi, likely in-house replacements, are also free agents. Wilson likely isn’t at the point where he would request a trade, but the offensive line needs to be resolved in some way before the season.

Defensively, the Seahawks face a ton of big questions. A number of high-level contributors are free agents, including linebackers K.J. Wright and Bruce Irvin, defensive linemen Poona Ford and Benson Mayowa, and cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar. The team’s pass defense was historically bad for much of 2020, and Seattle has to find a way to invest resources in improving the secondary. Ifeatu Melifonwu, Eric Stokes, Greg Newsome II, and Shaun Wade are viable second-round pick targets at cornerback. There are a handful of free agents at cornerback who may be worth targeting, as well. Carlos Dunlap is a potential cap casualty for the Seahawks as his release would clear $14 million in cap room that can be spent on the team’s free agents. Seattle needs to add to its pass rush, especially if Dunlap is not back with the team.

Second-Round Pick Targets: CB Ifeatu Melifonwu, CB Eric Stokes, CB Greg Newsome II, CB Shaun Wade, IOL Landon Dickerson, OT Liam Eichenburg, IOL Trey Smith

Free Agency Targets: CB Gareon Conley, CB Nickell Robey-Coleman, CB Cameron Sutton, DT Ndamukong Suh, CB Troy Hill, S Malik Hooker

Los Angeles Ramslos angeles rams

Current Cap Space: -$33.9 million (as of 2/21)

Top Free Agents: EDGE Leonard Floyd, OG Austin Blythe, RB Malcolm Brown, CB Troy Hill, TE Gerald Everett, S John Johnson III, LB Samson Ebukam, CB Darious Williams (RFA)

Biggest Team Needs: OT, EDGE, LB, IOL, CB, WR, RB, S

2021 Draft Picks: #57 (R2), #183 (R6), #215 (R7)

Analysis: The Rams are no stranger to headline-stealing offseason moves, and they started off this offseason with a blockbuster trade sending two first-round picks, a third-round pick, and Jared Goff to the Lions in exchange for Matthew Stafford. The upgrade at the position this now provides cannot be overstated. However, Los Angeles now has just under $100 million in cap space tied up between Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Stafford, and with several key free agents on deck, the Rams are not in a great spot. They’ve been able to maneuver out of tricky situations before, but the sudden drop in the salary cap due to COVID-19 hurt this team arguably more than anyone else. Stafford’s arrival still comes as a huge improvement to the Rams’ offense, and the defense should still be stout even after losing defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. The Rams had the #1 scoring defense in the NFL last season, and their offense should leap back into the elite tier with Stafford teaming up with Sean McVay.

Los Angeles has some key decisions to make on defense where several starters become free agents. Darious Williams is coming off a breakthrough season at cornerback, while safety John Johnson, cornerback Troy Hill, and linebackers Leonard Floyd and Samson Ebukam have been important contributors to the defense. Austin Blythe is also a free agent after starting on the interior of the offensive line last season. Rob Havenstein is a potential cap casualty candidate who would save the team $5.2 million against the cap. Sebastian Joseph ($2.2M), Kenny Young ($2.2M), and Austin Corbett ($1.5M) are cap casualty candidates as well. The Rams may be forced to look to trade players like Andrew Whitworth or Michael Brockers in order to get under the salary cap this season. Alternatively, the Rams could take a hit in terms of future draft assets, but they already only have three picks this season.

The Rams have no money to spare, and virtually no draft picks, so this will likely be a fairly top-heavy roster in 2020. Matthew Stafford comes in with two top receivers in Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, while Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey are arguably the best defensive duo in football. Los Angeles could also attempt to restructure contracts with any of these players in order to maintain salary cap flexibility this year. General manager Les Snead has his work cut out for him this offseason.

Second-Round Pick Targets: IOL Trey Smith, LB Dylan Moses, IOL Landon Dickerson, OT Dillon Radunz, S Jevon Holland

Free Agency Targets: WR John Ross, LB Avery Williamson, OG Lane Taylor, OG Jon Feliciano

Arizona CardinalsArizona Cardinals

Current Cap Space: $11.8 million (as of 2/21)

Top Free Agents: CB Patrick Peterson, WR Larry Fitzgerald, RB Kenyan Drake, LB De’Vondre Campbell, OG J.R. Sweezy, IDL Corey Peters, LB Markus Golden, LB Haason Reddick, S Chris Banjo, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, TE Dan Arnold

Biggest Team Needs: CB, RB, EDGE, TE, IOL, LB, IDL, WR, S

2021 Draft Picks: #16 (R1), #49 (R2), #79 (R3), #143 (R5), #206 (R7)

Analysis: The Cardinals had a breakthrough season of sorts in 2020 as they went 8-8 and nearly pushed for a playoff spot in the NFC. Kyler Murray put together an excellent sophomore campaign while DeAndre Hopkins racked up a whopping 115 catches for 1,407 yards and 6 touchdowns. Still, this team has plenty of work to do this offseason. Kenyan Drake was the team’s leading rusher last season with 955 yards and 10 touchdowns on 239 carries, but he becomes a free agent. Veteran wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is also a free agent, but he’s a bit more expendable as he’s now 37 years old and clearly well past his prime. Dan Arnold could be resigned, but the Cardinals don’t consistently use the tight end position in the passing game, so he may be deemed replaceable. All five offensive line starters return from last season, save for J.R. Sweezy, who was the worst starter in the group. The Cardinals could look to improve the interior of their offensive line in free agency.

Defensively, there are some bigger decisions to be made. Haason Reddick led the team’s pass rush after Chandler Jones’s season-ending injury in 2020, and he registered 12.5 sacks which will make him a high-value free agent. De’Vondre Campbell, Markus Golden, and Corey Peters have all been key contributors in the front seven, as well. Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick become free agents, but neither player was stellar in 2020, and the Cardinals do have a major need in terms of capable pass coverage corners moving forward. They could look to use their first-round pick on one of Patrick Surtain II, Caleb Farley, or Jaycee Horn to address this need. The Cardinals could also use their first-round pick on an edge defender in Kwity Paye, Gregory Rousseau, or Jayson Oweh if they are unable to resign Haason Reddick.

The Cardinals ultimately won’t have enough cap space to resign all of their contributing free agents, and it will be interesting to see how they prioritize with this roster. Haason Reddick should be the highest-priority resigning as a key edge defender, despite Arizona’s clear need at cornerback – this can be addressed in the draft. Arizona isn’t too far away from being a real playoff threat, but this is the toughest division in football, and every decision matters in terms of keeping pace with the elite teams in the NFC West.

First-Round Pick Targets: EDGE Kwity Paye, EDGE Gregory Rousseau, EDGE Jayson Oweh, CB Patrick Surtain II, CB Caleb Farley, CB Jaycee Horn, IOL Alijah Vera-Tucker

Free Agency Targets: CB Nickell Robey-Coleman, CB Cameron Sutton, CB Troy Hill, OT Matt Feiler, EDGE Aldon Smith, WR Breshad Perriman, WR Rashard Higgins

San Francisco 49ersSan Francisco 49ers

Current Cap Space: $13.4 million (as of 2/21)

Top Free Agents: OT Trent Williams, CB Richard Sherman, IDL Solomon Thomas, S Jaquiski Tartt, WR Kendrick Bourne, CB K’Waun Williams, RB Jerick McKinnon, CIOL Ben Garland, TE Jordan Reed, CB Jason Verrett, CB Akhello Witherspoon, CB Dontae Johnson, CB Emmanuel Moseley, RB Tevin Coleman

Biggest Team Needs: CB, IOL, QB, OT, S, EDGE, IDL, WR

2021 Draft Picks: #12 (R1), #43 (R2), #107 (R4), #138 (R5), #155 (R5), #169 (R6), #202 (R7)

Analysis: The 49ers have one of the most important free agents in the NFL this offseason in Trent Williams, a stellar lockdown left tackle who the Niners sent a couple of mid-round picks to acquire last year. PFF projected Williams to earn a massive 4-year, $80 million contract, and San Francisco would need some creative cap maneuvering to afford that number. Trading away quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo remains an attractive option with a $26.4 million cap hit this season, but it’s unclear if there’s a strong market for him right now. RB Raheem Mostert ($3.3M), LB Mark Nzeocha ($1.5M), and WR Travis Benjamin ($1.1M) are likely cap casualty candidates who can provide some relief. Williams is going to have plenty of suitors in free agency, most notably the Colts and Dolphins, who have plenty of cap space to spare. San Francisco would almost be forced to draft an offensive tackle in the first round if they lose Williams.

One thing you likely immediately noticed about the Niners’ free agents is the presence of six cornerbacks in a list of thirteen players. Richard Sherman, K’Wuan Williams, Jason Verrett, Akhello Witherspoon, Dontae Johnson, and Emmanuel Moseley were the five leaders in snaps at cornerback for the 49ers last season, and all become free agents. It will be interesting to see where the team’s priorities lie as Sherman is 32 years old, Verrett has dealt with major injuries for seemingly his whole career, and none of the other four corners played more than 33% of the team’s snaps last season (except for Moseley). There are plenty of decent options at cornerbacks in free agency, and the Niners could also utilize its first-round pick on a cornerback (assuming they resign Trent Williams). San Francisco’s defense is among the best in the league thanks to a stout front seven, but getting the secondary mix right is crucial to maintaining a high-level pass defense.

In a normal offseason, Raheem Mostert may be seen as a cap casualty candidate in order to save money for the team’s other free agents. However, with Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman, both free agents, it would be surprising to see Mostert not on the roster next year. Interior offensive lineman Ben Garland and wide receiver Kendrick Bourne have also been offensive contributors, and the Niners should try to bring them both back on lower-value deals. The Niners have a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, and their offseason hinges on resigning Trent Williams above all else. If they can resolve their cornerback group at the same time, this offseason will have been a success.

First-Round Pick Targets: CB Patrick Surtain II, CB Caleb Farley, CB Jaycee Horn, OT Rashawn Slater, OT Christian Darrisaw, WR Jaylen Waddle, OT Teven Jenkins

Free Agency Targets: CB Rasul Douglas, CB Mackensie Alexander, WR A.J. Green, WR Rashard Higgins, CB Mike Hilton

  
I've been writing about sports for Lineups since the beginning of 2020 and on my own website since 2018. In May 2021, I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in sport management. With my educational background in the sports business and a strong knowledge of the inner workings of professional and collegiate sports, I hope to tell enthralling stories about the world of sports as it unfolds around me.

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