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NFC West projected starters: Top-heavy Rams, Trey Lance-led(?) 49ers each have Super Bowl path

With the 2021 NFL Draft and most of free agency in the rearview, Gregg Rosenthal will project starting lineups for all 32 teams because that's his idea of fun. Check out the NFC West breakdowns below.

Table inside Article
QB Kyler Murray DE J.J. Watt
RB James Conner DE Zach Allen
WR DeAndre Hopkins OLB Chandler Jones
WR A.J. Green ILB Isaiah Simmons
WR Christian Kirk ILB Zaven Collins
WR Rondale Moore OLB Markus Golden
LT D.J. Humphries CB Malcolm Butler
LG Justin Pugh CB Robert Alford
C Rodney Hudson CB Byron Murphy
RG Justin Murray S Budda Baker
RT Kelvin Beachum S Jalen Thompson
  • Check out that four-wide set above, just like we dreamed about when Kliff Kingsbury took over in Arizona! Now the Cardinals finally have the personnel to pull off the Air Raid-lite look with a quartet of wideouts possessing varied skill sets.
  • Larry Fitzgerald is not listed above. He's a free agent and it wouldn't be a surprise if he announces his retirement in the coming months.
  • Kingsbury learned that he needs tight ends at times for his running game, but they no longer have a true pass catcher at the position. That's why I'd expect rookie slot receiver Rondale Moore and free-agent import A.J. Green to wind up playing more than starting tight end Maxx Williams.
  • Then again, I once slotted second-round pick Andy Isabella into a major role in this offense and it never happened.
  • Green could make or break this offense. The Cardinals need another outside threat to take attention away from DeAndre Hopkins, but Green struggled to separate in Cincinnati last year. This signing has an Ochocinco-on-the-Patriots feel to it.
  • I dig Chase Edmonds as much as the next frustrated fantasy owner and would love to see him get more than 150 touches. But the Cardinals signed James Conner for a reason, and Kingsbury said what he thinks of Edmonds with the back's usage over the last two seasons. Perhaps Edmonds gets close to 50 percent of the workload, but Conner figures to at least split time.
  • Arizona's offensive line has quietly punched above its weight the last two seasons. The run-blocking has especially worked, and Kingsbury should get some credit for that. Adding center Rodney Hudson could make this unit an even bigger asset.
  • Kingsbury admitted that he's ticketed Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins for the starting ILB jobs, calling them the "prettiest linebacker duo" in the league. They have to be the tallest, at 6-foot-4 and 6-5, respectively. Simmons didn't look comfortable for most of his rookie season, but it's a positive that he has such a defined role this time around. The Cardinals are going counter to league trends by building their defense around off-ball linebackers. Jordan Hicks, whom Collins will displace, was given permission to seek a trade.
  • This pass-rush group is getting older with J.J. Watt's arrival, and Chandler Jones coming off a major injury. There isn't necessarily a defensive tackle here who will get starter-worthy snaps either. With that said, Watt, Jones and Markus Golden are still capable of creating havoc. That said, Jones had one of the worst months of his career before getting hurt last October. Was that just a small-sample blip or a true cause for concern?
  • The cornerback group is the biggest problem on the entire team. Malcolm Butler was a smart signing, but it's wild that he's Arizona's No. 1 corner and No. 2 corner Robert Alford is a 32-year-old who hasn't taken a snap since 2018. Are the Cardinals really going into the season like this?
  • I'd feel better about the Cards' playoff chances in literally any other division. They will need another jump from Kyler Murray in Year 3 to escape the NFC West gauntlet alive.
Table inside Article
QB Matthew Stafford DT Aaron Donald
RB Cam Akers DT A'Shawn Robinson
WR Cooper Kupp DT Sebastian Joseph-Day
WR Robert Woods OLB Leonard Floyd
WR Van Jefferson ILB Micah Kiser
TE Tyler Higbee OLB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo
LT Andrew Whitworth CB Jalen Ramsey
LG David Edwards CB Darious Williams
C Austin Corbett CB David Long Jr.
RG Bobby Evans S Jordan Fuller
RT Rob Havenstein S Terrell Burgess
  • Sean McVay tried to evolve his offense, but Jared Goff didn't evolve with him. No matter how McVay continues to change, Matthew Stafford is better equipped to play from shotgun when the Rams get in long-yardage situations.
  • Don't sleep on Darrell Henderson as an explosive backup to second-year pro Cam Akers. The Rams quietly finished fourth in Football Outsiders' rushing DVOA last season without any help from their quarterback. Henderson finished fourth individually. While his wild style may not hold up well as a starter, he's a perfect change-of-pace back if the Rams want to change their pace to breakneck.
  • Rams hype starts with the passing game. Stafford has never had an offensive coach this good or a receiver group this deep. Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods figure to play nearly every snap, with second-year big slot Van Jefferson, DeSean Jackson and mighty mite Tutu Atwell divvying up the rest.
  • I'm hopeful Jackson finishes his career in style in his hometown. Even in a best-case scenario, his snaps will likely be limited to a fourth-receiver role in an effort to keep him healthy.
  • A wideout group this deep and the departure of tight end Gerald Everett figures to help Tyler Higbee's numbers. It should also reduce McVay's heavy reliance on two-TE sets during the 2020 season.
  • From the outside looking in, the offensive line was one of the biggest areas of need for the Rams over the last two offseasons. They've barely touched it. This group performed far better than anyone expected a year ago, so I tend to trust their self-scouting.
  • Los Angeles had the second-fewest adjusted games lost of any team in the NFL last year, according to Football Outsiders. The Rams may need similar luck again because this is one of the most top-heavy rosters in football. The approach has largely worked -- they are fourth in wins since McVay has taken over as coach -- but they are counting on a lot of development from inexperienced players.
  • The Rams feel like a grand experiment in how far two players can carry an entire defense. Scheming a unit around an all-time great in his prime like Aaron Donald and one of the league's best corners in Jalen Ramsey should be a lot of fun.
  • I'm not that worried about the Rams losing safety John Johnson and cornerback Troy Hill in free agency. I'm more worried about the talent drain on the sidelines, where Raheem Morris replaces Brandon Staley at coordinator with key assistants Aubrey Pleasant and Joe Barry also moving on to greener pastures. With that said, the team's cornerbacks get thin after Ramsey and Darious Williams. L.A. needs third-year pro David Long Jr. to step up and a veteran addition would make sense.
  • It was hard to know how to line up this defense on paper. The outside linebacker spot opposite Leonard Floyd has at least three people competing. Inside linebacker has five to six guys, including third-round pick Ernest Jones, with a chance for playing time. Backup safety Taylor Rapp could wind up playing more than the team's third corner.
  • I was stunned that an early survey of ESPN analysts had more picks for the Rams to make the Super Bowl than the Bucs or any other NFC Team. There is certainly a path. But defensive regression has to be expected, and it will be an enormous challenge to win the best division in football, much less the conference.
Table inside Article
QB Trey Lance DE Nick Bosa
RB Raheem Mostert DT Javon Kinlaw
FB Kyle Juszczyk DT D.J. Jones
WR Deebo Samuel DE Arik Armstead
WR Brandon Aiyuk MLB Fred Warner
TE George Kittle LB Dre Greenlaw
LT Trent Williams CB Jason Verrett
LG Laken Tomlinson CB Emmanuel Moseley
C Alex Mack CB K'Waun Williams
RG Aaron Banks S Jimmie Ward
RT Mike McGlinchey S Jaquiski Tartt
  • Whether Trey Lance makes the above projection correct in Week 1, Week 8 or never at all depends on the rookie's preparedness. If the No. 3 overall pick looks close to ready in training camp, Jimmy Garoppolo figures to become available in a trade. Kyle Shanahan helped Robert Griffin III win Offensive Rookie of the Year and the NFC East in 2012. This 49ers roster is ready to win now and there's no reason they can't win with a first-year quarterback.
  • The 49ers are thin in a few surprising places: wideout and cornerback. Brandon Aiyuk is a true No. 1 waiting to happen and Deebo Samuel is a force of nature. But their third receiver is ... Mo Sanu or Richie James? General manager John Lynch should be on the lookout for a veteran wideout during training camp, especially considering Samuel's injury history.
  • The 49ers may not be as worried about their receiver depth because they have a solid second tight end (Ross Dwelley), they are deep at running back, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk remains a valuable part of the offense. They are way below league average in three-wide sets.
  • Raheem Mostert will start training camp as the top running back, but his job isn't secure. The 49ers will want to get third-round pick Trey Sermon into the mix once he's ready.
  • Trent Williams and Mike McGlinchey were Pro Football Focus' top two run-blocking tackles last year. Outside of Williams, every Niners O-lineman profiles as a better run blocker than pass protector, which is all the more reason to start Lance.
  • If you are looking for a weakness on offense, the interior line could be an issue. Veteran Alex Mack brings value that PFF can't measure, but he's now 35 years old.
  • I'm assuming Dee Ford won't be a big part of this defense. His future is uncertain because of neck and back injuries; really, he is only still on the roster because his contract was guaranteed for injury. If the 49ers could get 25 snaps a game out of him as a situational pass rusher, that would be a huge win for everyone.
  • San Francisco's defensive line is still very good with Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead leading the way. But the group isn't as deep as it was during its Super Bowl, especially on the interior.
  • Raiders castoffs Maurice Hurst and Arden Key could help this team. If they do, it'd be a show of how much better this organization is at developing talent than its old Bay Area counterpart.
  • Fred Warner has gone from a third-round pick to a first-team All-Pro. If Dre Greenlaw can improve his coverage skills, San Francisco's linebackers can rival any duo in football.
  • No team lost more starts to injury than the 49ers last season. That's mostly bad luck, but their front office also shows a penchant for taking calculated risks on injury-prone players. This secondary is a good example. I love Jason Verrett. I love K'Waun Williams. But Verrett has one healthy season in his last five and is the team's No. 1 corner. Williams is the Niners' next-best player at the position and missed eight games last year. Emmanuel Moseley missed four games. Safety Jaquiski Tartt has played more than nine games in a season once in the last four years. Injuries should be baked into the expectations of this group.
  • The injuries and the rookie quarterback help give the 49ers a larger range of outcomes than most teams. One of those outcomes is another run to the Super Bowl in Year 5 of the Shanahan/Lynch experience.
Table inside Article
QB Russell Wilson DE Carlos Dunlap
RB Chris Carson DT Poona Ford
WR DK Metcalf DT Al Woods
WR Tyler Lockett DE L.J. Collier
WR D'Wayne Eskridge LB Bobby Wagner
TE Gerald Everett LB Jordyn Brooks
LT Duane Brown CB D.J. Reed
LG Damien Lewis CB Ahkello Witherspoon
C Ethan Pocic CB Ugo Amadi
RG Gabe Jackson S Jamal Adams
RT Brandon Shell S Quandre Diggs
  • Seattle's O-line struggles have been overstated. They were middle of the pack last season, led by a premier left tackle in Duane Brown. Trade acquisition Gabe Jackson is a league-average starter the Raiders believed was in decline, but another league-average starter is still good news for Russell Wilson.
  • Wilson's poor play down the stretch was a bigger problem than his line -- and one of the most mystifying subplots of the 2020 NFL season. His subsequent push to get traded almost felt like a way to distract America from a public MVP campaign that crashed after 10 weeks of bad decisions. Wilson's slump was such a small sample size in such a great career that it shouldn't be a huge concern moving forward.
  • That previous sentence is especially true because the Seahawks' offense will look so different with former Rams assistant Shane Waldron taking over as coordinator. In short: It's going to look more like the rest of the division.
  • Rookie D'Wayne Eskridge will have a chance to make a big impact right away because the next receiver on the depth chart is probably Freddie Swain.
  • Seattle's thin wideout group can be buttressed by the frisky tight end duo of Gerald Everett and Will Dissly. Already among the top eight teams in using two-TE sets, the Seahawks figure to do it even more this year.
  • I struggled to find a true 11th starter on defense, settling on Al Woods. That's partly because the Seahawks don't have a traditional three-technique DT on the roster. I could have just listed three defensive ends because the Seahawks have a raft of those. Beyond Carlos Dunlap locking down one starting job, the Seahawks have Kerry Hyder, Benson Mayowa, L.J. Collier, Alton Robinson and possibly Aldon Smith. The lack of star power is easily made up for in professional depth. The Seahawks can come at offenses in waves, a big improvement from the last two rosters.
  • The depth at defensive end stands out on a team lacking it nearly everywhere else. Every team wants more depth, but so many of these position groups -- like wideout, running back, defensive tackle, safety and cornerback -- appear to fall off a cliff fast.
  • To that end, Bobby Wagner needs to stay Bobby Wagner to keep this entire defense in line.
  • Linebacker Jordyn Brooks wasn't a popular first-round pick in 2020. Now he has to take over for franchise cornerstone K.J. Wright, who remains a free agent. Brooks made some big plays and was popular with Seahawks fans, but was also one of the lowest-graded linebackers in football, according to PFF.
  • Also popular with Seahawks fans: Any shoutout to their status as a special breed of humanity, more knowledgeable and inexplicable than any other collection of people on Earth.

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