By Jason Hayes
Goodbye, sunny summer. Hello, rainy autumn. My sweet, beautiful damp autumn. As ever
these days, I’m filled with no sorrow at its arrival. You can have your evening strolls. Your
drying weather. Your school’s out, staycations, and 99s. I’ll take my Sunday nights. My
Monday morning lassitude. My Scott Hanson symphony. My pre-kickoff superstitions, nerves
and beers. My post-kickoff joy, anger and tears. September is upon us and that means one
thing, and one thing alone to this Irishman, the beginning of the best five month stretch of
our trip around the sun. This coming Thursday marks the end of a 214 day NFL drought. And
while I’m more eager than ever to digest a copious amount of football, I will be paying
particular attention to one division this season. A division which is consensually mentioned
as being the best in the league – the NFC West. We now have 17 games to enjoy, and likely
more for a number of the inhabitants of this division. Here are a couple of areas that I’ll be
keeping a keen eye on for each team.
At last, a promising draft?
Steve Keim’s 2021 draft haul has shown promise early on, contrary to the reputation he has
built thus far in his career as GM. First round-pick Zaven Collins has looked more like a wily
veteran than a rookie so far. His play at linebacker alongside Isaiah Simmons will (quite
literally) be central to this defence’s success. Fourth round corner Marco Wilson has also
shown promise throughout camp. His development could be a crucial addition to an
overhauled secondary which now includes a rusty Robert Alford, a still-developing Byron
Murphy, and a retired (?!?!) Malcolm Butler. This is undoubtedly the biggest question mark of
a defense that otherwise contains Chandler Jones, Budda Baker and JJ Watt.
However, the addition which excites me most of all is that of Rondale Moore. The receiver
out of Purdue captured national attention in his freshman year at college with a stellar level
of play. He will be looking to burst onto the scene in similar fashion at this level. He has a
wealth of experience to learn from, with DeAndre Hopkins and AJ Green heading the depth
chart out wide. Were it not for Larry Fitzgerald being as indecisive over his retirement
decision as I was trying to decide on my first post-lockdown pint, Moore’s brain may have
exploded from too much advice. It will be interesting to see how Kliff Kingsbury utilises the
playmaker, as he has already been used heavily in preseason.
Now or never for Kliff and Kyler
If there’s anyone on the roster more electric than Rondale Moore, it’s Kyler Murray. Entering
his third season, Murray has shown more than enough signs of being the franchise
quarterback Cardinals fans have waited for all too long to see. At the midpoint of last season
he was firmly in the MVP discussion, but that cooled as a combination of minor injuries and
opposition defenses adjusting slowed him down. The offensive line looks more stable than
ever on paper, and the weapons out wide are numerous. It is now or never for this offence to
take flight and consistently display the potential we have all seen over the past two seasons.
If not, questions will start being asked, fingers will start being pointed, and seats will start
getting hot. And it’ll be Kliff Kingsbury on the receiving end, rather than Kyler.
Los Angeles Rams
Celebrity wedding in L.A.
Who needs Brad and Angelina, we have a new power-couple in L.A. One of the biggest
moves of the off-season has been the blockbuster marriage of Matthew Stafford and Seán
McVay (fada and all). This is the move of a team with Super Bowl aspirations, as the capital
involved in the trade could set the organisation back for years if it doesn’t pay off. By all
accounts, Stafford has looked as advertised throughout the training camp. The squad has
quality at wide receiver in the form of Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. They are aided by a
young Van Jefferson as well as offseason additions DeSean Jackson and Tutu Atwell to
stretch the field. The key for me, however, is the performance on the ground. Running back
Cam Akers is out for the year, so look for Darrell Henderson to lead the charge with Sony
Michel providing some needed depth. The play of the rebuilt offensive line will be pivotal to
establishing a ground game powerful enough to let Stafford do his thing without too much
heat, and clinch that elusive first playoff victory.
The only way is… down?
Last year’s league leading defensive unit will do well to repeat the performance this season.
Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris has big shoes to fill as Brandon Staley enjoys a well-
earned shot at head coaching with neighbours L.A. Chargers. He wasn’t the only loss, as
cap realities forced the departure of Michael Brockers, Troy Hill and John Johnson. Leonard
Floyd was almost part of this group until the team managed to re-sign him after a toe-dip in
free agency. This could be a key move towards the defence remaining as one of the
league’s elite. I expect a slide to the top 5-10 range as a more realistic target from last
season, which should be more than enough for a deep playoff run if Stafford thrives. But I
wouldn’t bet against Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald.
San Francisco 49ers
Matter of time for Trey Lance
Y.A. Little, Joe Montana, Steve Young and… Trey Lance? Some 49ers fans have already
broken out the chisel for their Mount Rushmore of franchise quarterbacks, as the third
overall pick from North Dakota State has shown promise thus far. But “not so fast”, says
Jimmy Garoppolo, who isn’t quite ready to relinquish his position as QB1. Both quarterbacks
have had their moments in preseason, but it’s Garoppolo who will start week one in Detroit.
That’s not a new piece of NFL equipment you’ll see him sporting however, rather a short
leash around his neck. Trey Lance better show up ready to roll, as you have to suspect Kyle
Shanahan will be itching to see what his young quarterback can do at the first opportunity.
With the pre-draft rumours initially linking Mac Jones to the Golden State, his comparative
performance will be an intriguing side story to monitor. For now, its 1-0 Mac Jones, whose
talent has been enough to exorcise his competition from the team before the season even
started, as the Patriots released Cam Newton.
Reinvigorated pass rush
There will be a horde of 49ers returning from injury this year. I’d list them all, but I value your
time more than that. The two players I’m most eager to see returning are Dee Ford and Nick
Bosa. This formidable pass rush duo was sorely missed in 2020, and will be vital in a
division which contains the elusive Russel Wilson, and even more elusive Kyler Murray.
They are just two of the names on a stellar defensive-line. Opponents will do well to breach
this wall, but if they do they’ll be met by All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner. It’s clear that if
there’s an area to be exploited on this unit, it’s the secondary. Efforts were made in the draft
to address the issue, as three DBs were added in Ambry Thomas, Deommodore Lenoir and
Talanoa Hufanga, but this Sherman-less DB room will now need to be led by Verrett and
Mosely, two cornerbacks who have injury histories tied to their names. I get the feeling the
pass rush will be enough to overcome any potential weaknesses, but as can be said for any
team: Health will be key.
The last dance, or the last chance, for Carroll and Wilson
Seahawks fans were left panicked to begin the offseason, as a rough playoff loss to a John
Wolford-led Rams sparked rumours that Russell Wilson wanted out of Seattle. There must
have been some truth to the threats, as the team made moves to rectify the situation with the
addition of Shane Waldron at offensive coordinator in place of Brian Schottenheimer. Guard
Gabe Jackson was brought in to bolster a consistently neglected offensive line, as well as
tight end Gerald Everett to offer Wilson another target. Wide receiver remains a strength of
the team, as the exciting duo of Metcalf and Lockett are sure to cause head-aches for
opposing coaches yet again. The team also dedicated one of their three draft picks to the
position, as they selected speedy receiver D’Wayne Eskridge in the second round. The
ingredients are there to ‘Let Russ Cook’ once again, it now falls on Waldron to scheme the
most from the group. The Superbowl season of 2013 must seem like a lifetime ago for
Wilson and almost-70-year-old Pete Carroll. One must question how many more chances
they’ll get to recapture such past glories.
Question marks on defence
As exciting as the offence is on paper, the defence isn’t. Ken Norton Jr. will have his work
cut out for him as he deals with the precarious combo of a weak cornerback group and a
pass rush which leaves a lot to be desired. GM John Schneider replaced cornerbacks
Shaquill Griffon and Quinton Dunbar with Ahkello Witherspoon and Pierre Desir, a
downgrade by all accounts. Safeties Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs are a bright spot on a
defence that otherwise looks like a bottom-half unit. Not forgetting the elite Bobby Wagner,
of course. A point of optimism should be their performance in the latter half of last season,
after a historically bad beginning. This upward trend will need to continue to save Wilson
another back-breaking effort of carrying the team.
Time to sit back and enjoy
There is an abundance of intriguing storylines in the NFC West. Despite being the league’s
best division, the teams are clearly not without their weaknesses. Save for Jalen Ramsey,
there seems to be a cornerback shortage for each franchise. But another thing they have in
common is a presence of elite players at pivotal positions. Thankfully for this fiery division,
there are now seven playoff spots up for grabs. How about a full house? Regardless, I can’t
wait to watch.