Floors and Ceilings for the NFC West

By Lee Wakefield

The NFC West is a division with the most variety among its teams. The upside is a genuine contender and a team who have hit on a QB and are ahead of their development curve. On the downside, there is a recent Superbowl winner who is trying to rediscover themselves and an outright tank candidate. This division truly has it all and it should make for a wide range of outcomes for its teams.

San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco 49ers

One of two, possibly three Superbowl contenders from the NFC, the NFC West champion 49ers are preparing a season where they will look to go a couple of steps beyond last season’s NFC Championship game and win it all.

The way that this team has ridden out the Trey Lance debacle should be admired. It is a testament to the coaching staff and how the front office has built the rest of the roster. Despite trading three first-round picks to get 262 regular season snaps out of a third overall pick, the 49ers absorbed such a disastrous trade and still stand as one of the conference’s best teams.

Image Credit: 49ers

The Floor

Kyle Shanahan’s ability as a Head Coach far outweighs the notion that every team must “win” every trade. When you hit on Mr. Irrelevant and give your team a nitro-charged boost by acquiring Christian McCaffrey, that helps too. The floor remains very high for the 2023 season because, despite front office missteps, this roster is incredibly good!

Shanahan has proved time and time again, that all he needs is a point guard at QB. He would love a QB with better physical gifts, sure, but the scheme and coaching are about as big of a floor-raiser as we have in the NFL. With the current version of the 49ers utilising positionless skill players about as well as anyone, they’re just so tough to defend too! Especially when they are high-end players. This is Deebo Samuel, McCaffrey, and George Kittle, that they’re using, not a bunch of middling, tweener types who Shanahan is squeezing every last drop out of.

Perhaps the floor is pushing downward because year after year, the staff is gutted as they all move on to higher positions elsewhere in the league. But still, the bossman is still in situ and I’m sure the machine will keep on rolling.

In terms of strength of schedule, despite the NFC West facing the AFC North and NFC East this year, the 49ers’ schedule is the fifth easiest. With that in mind, the floor has to be 10 wins.

The Ceiling

I am a huge admirer of the 49ers and Kyle Shanahan. The ceiling really is unlimited. Or at least it would be if he had a truly elite QB to pilot his offense.

In an era where the pass is king, Shanahan dices up defenses with his rushing scheme and McCaffrey was the perfect player to plop into the mix last year. The 9ers’ offense was underperforming prior to the trade, ranking 18th in EPA/play and 25th in rushing EPA/play. However, they leaped to second and third in those particular rankings once McCaffrey landed in the Bay Area.

When you watch this offense, everything is connected, their rushing attack opens up their play-action game and their passing game in general after that.

Imagine a mobile superstar in this offense. They would be nigh on impossible to stop.

Even with Purdy, they’re going to be pretty good! With the usual health caveats, if all goes well on that front, San Francisco could be 14-3 which will bring another NFC West banner.

Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks truly were one of the feel-good storylines of the NFL season last year. Not many would have foreseen 9-8 and Geno Smith having a career season.

Smith himself was also the Cinderella story that nobody knew they needed. It finally clicked for the veteran passer, in year 9, on team number four for his career.

Seattle also had some major hits in last season’s draft haul. Abraham Lucas and Charles Cross look like a premier tackle duo in the making. Tariq Woolen looks similar at corner and Kenneth Walker at running back.

In addition to the it’s all coming up Seattle line of good luck, the Seahawks also massively benefitted from Russell Wilson being a certified disaster in Denver. This gave them a top-5 pick in the draft as well as an extra second – Which has turned into Devon Weatherspoon and Derick Hall.

The question is, can the Seahawks continue to hit on their draft picks and continue to ascend in the NFC West?

The Floor

Will Geno turn back into the Geno of old? Seattle hopes not, since they gave him a 3-year extension with $40m guaranteed. It’s tough to say but the evidence is heavily weighted on one side, looking at his career as a whole.

That said, Geno was one of the best deep-ball passers in the entire league last year with 30 big-time plays to six turnover-worthy plays on deep balls. Can he repeat that? This is set against some less-than-rosey numbers when throwing intermediate passes last year. Where the numbers were almost flipped; 15 turnover-worthy plays and only three big-time throws. Will the real Geno Smith please stand up?

Further to their QB, will the team continue to hit on their premium draft picks? Devon Weatherspoon has missed time in camp with a hamstring injury, whilst fellow first-rounder, Jaxon Smith-Njigba has sustained a preseason wrist injury.

So is Seattle already starting behind the 8-ball on that front? Maybe.

I feel like there are enough cautionary tales here to suggest regression could hit, and hit hard. A 6-11 floor is probably still good enough for second place in the NFC West.

Image Credit: MyNorthWest.com

The Ceiling

Did the Seahawks max out last year? As much as they appear to have hit on a bunch of young players last year, and could do so again, how much further can this group go?

Further star power has to be added in order to push the ceiling. Especially in key positions.

Weatherspoon and Tariq Woolen could be a fantastic, young cornerback tandem for years to come. I’ve also mentioned their tackle situation as well. But outside of that?

The QB situation probably peaked last year. On the Edges, they’ve got a bunch of good-not-great guys, and as much as JSN is a nice add, how much further does that push them in the NFC West? Not too much.

They probably overachieved last season and hitting 9-8 again would be great.

Los Angeles Rams

The F-them picks era is well and truly over for Les Snead and Sean McVay. If you want proof, check out the Rams’ depth chart and see just how many rookies are on it.

This team really is building it back up from the studs.

Aside from Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and Aaron Donald, this team is pretty unrecognisable from the squad that lifted the Lombardi a couple of years ago.

Stafford and Donald are in their 30s too, so the churn could continue, especially since Donald has mulled retirement more than once in his time with the team.

Sean McVay has talked about finding a better work-life balance recently. He’s talked about how the game has the power to consume him but rebuilding the Rams over the next few years will likely to a long road and a labour of love.

The Floor

Would it be a bad thing to suffer a poor season and continue the rebuild with a bunch of high-value draft picks? Probably not.

To that end, would it be possible to see the Rams trade away mid-level assets at the trade deadline for further draft selections in 2024? Again, probably not.

However, will Sean McVay scheme and will his team to wins almost on his own, alongside his three star players? Probably. He’s that good of a coach and play-caller.

With a lesser coach, I would be even lower on this team moving into the season but as we know from watching his previous seasons, McVay just has it. Much in the way that Kyle Shanahan does. He is worth several wins alone. For that reason, I can’t bring myself to predict anything worse than the 5 wins they achieved last year. Only the hapless Cardinals keep them off the NFC West’s ground floor.

The Ceiling

Even with the above, McVay can only do so much himself. And whilst there are more good players on this team than just the three stars I’ve mentioned, there are just a lot of unknowns too. This is simply because of the amount of youth that will be heavily involved, and that comes with its own in-built ups and downs.

Of course, Los Angeles will be excited about some of its young guys. Wide receiver Puka Nacua has been name-dropped by McVay several times since he arrived and others will ascend too. However, there are not a lot of tangible factors to base any ceiling off, right now it’s all projection.

With that in mind, I’m putting a 7-10 ceiling on the Rams this year.

Image Credit: Turfshow Times

Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals are going to suck in 2023. They know it, too, so in this situation with the franchise rebuilding, their self-awareness is a positive.

I actually loved the way the Cardinals handled their draft, I thought Monti Osenfort did a great job of acclimating picks for the present and the future.

Paris Johnson is a culture setter, which goes hand-in-hand with the modus operandi of Head Coach, Jonathan Gannon.

Gannon was chided by Eagles fans for the way he called their defense last year, but he’s been brought in for his people skills and leadership as much as his football acumen. Which is going to be important.

This is a team in need of a total reset. A new franchise culture and mindset needs to be established. They know that they are at square one of a multi-year rebuild.

The trade of Isaiah Simmons to the Giants proves that they are taking a long-term view of things.

The Floor

I’ll just say it. The floor is zero wins.

This team is bad but if it nets them the first overall pick and things fall right for them and they end up with two, top-5 picks in 2024, will it sort of be worth it?

It’s a tough sell to season ticket holders but this is where we are. The Cardinals have begun to behave like a grown-up, NFL franchise again, but it’s only been a matter of months. It’s going to be a long road back. The NFC West basement will likely be their home again in 2023.

The Ceiling

Given that Kyler Murray is on the PUP list, how high can the ceiling go?

The Cardinals recently traded for Joshua Dobbs. He is currently listed as their primary backup and therefore likely starter when they travel to Washington in week 1. Although, Clayton Tune could have something to say about that.

However, doesn’t that paragraph kind of say it all?

We’re talking about Josh Dobbs or Clayton Tune starting for a team in 2023. Caleb Williams should probably decide whether he’s declaring now – He’s either staying at USC for his Senior year or heading to Arizona in 2024.

It will be shocking if this team even matches their four wins from last year. The ceiling is 3 wins for this team. Cardinals fans might have a better time rooting for whoever the Texans are facing each week, rather than supporting their own team this year.

Feature Image Credit: Sports Illustrated

Lee Wakefield

NFL, CFB & NFL Draft

Lee Wakefield IS A defensive line enthusiast, Chargers Sufferer, and LONG-TIME writer and podcaster with a number of publications. Find his Chargers content over at Bolt Beat. @Wakefield90 on twitter