NFC West Preview: 2 Futures for Seahawks, Cardinals in 2023-24
Christopher Mast/Getty Images. Pictured: DK Metcalf.
Reasons for optimism: Including the playoffs, Brock Purdy went 7-1 as a starter while averaging 8.3 yards per attempt and throwing 16 TDs and four interceptions. Even if the final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft comes back down to earth, throwing to Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle while being protected by Trent Williams is enough to take a passer from irrelevant to relevant.
For what it's worth, I thought Purdy looked like the real deal — within this system, at least. Purdy can do everything Jimmy Garoppolo could, but he also adds more mobility and a better ability to throw downfield. Because Garoppolo can't move around as smoothly as Purdy, he tends to force some awkward passes into tight windows, whereas Purdy can buy an extra half-second and do something with the ball that doesn't make 49ers fans' blood boil.
San Francisco's defense led the league in points per game (16.3) and total yards per game (300.6) allowed. In defensive end Nick Bosa, linebacker Fred Warner and safety Talanoa Hufanga, the 49ers will return a first-team All-Pro on every level of the defense. They kept their defensive core intact while spending big in free agency to add interior lineman Javon Hargrave, who had 11.0 sacks with the Eagles last season.
While the 49ers lost their second defensive coordinator in three years to a head coaching job with DeMeco Ryans leaving for Houston, Steve Wilks will bring a more blitz-happy approach that should make a unit that was 20th last season in blitz rate (21.6%, per Pro Football Reference) more dangerous. Despite all of their pass-rushing talent, the 49ers were 11th in pressure rate (22.9%) and 19th in sack rate (6.9%).
Causes for concern: Bosa remains unsigned less than two weeks before the season. The defense also lost several quality pieces in safety Jimmie Ward, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, and edge rushers Samson Ebukam and Charles Omenihu.
They drafted a kicker (Jake Moody) in the third round. He proceeded to miss 1-of-2 extra points and 2-of-3 field goals from 40-plus in the preseason before sustaining a quad injury that may impact his Week 1 availability. San Francisco's backup kicker, Zane Gonzalez, is even more seriously hurt.
The interior offensive line is more fragile than it has been in the past. Williams is 35, right tackle Colton McKivitz is a 2020 fifth-round pick who has made five starts in three seasons, while left guard Aaron Banks, center Jake Brendel and right guard Spencer Burford each received below-average grades from Pro Football Focus last season.
Jimmy Garoppolo’s 40-17 career record as a starter has been replaced on the roster by Sam Darnold’s 21-34 mark. The intrigue of a former No. 3 overall pick in Trey Lance has been replaced by undrafted journeyman Brandon Allen. Purdy also has to show he's completely over his torn UCL from the NFC Championship game.
Outlook: I have the 49ers as the second-best team in the NFC behind the Eagles, but the Cowboys are close. I think this year’s team is more vulnerable to injuries than last year’s and comes back to the pack a bit, as tends to be the case with this team under Kyle Shanahan: The 49ers have not gone over their win total or won a division title in back-to-back years since Shanahan took over in 2017.
Reasons for optimism: Geno Smith enjoyed a late-career breakout, leading the NFL in completion rate (69.8%) while finishing fourth in passing touchdowns (30) and eighth in passing yards (4,282). DK Metcalf (1,048 receiving yards) and Tyler Lockett (1,033) made Seattle one of five teams with a pair of 1,000-yard receivers. Kenneth Walker finished 12th in rushing yards (1,050) and tied for 10th in rushing touchdowns (nine) as a rookie. The Seahawks did all of that with two rookie tackles in Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas, both of whom should take a step forward this season. In the offseason, Seattle added the top receiver in the draft with the 20th overall pick: Jaxon Smith-Njigba from Ohio State.
The Seahawks found a star cornerback in last year’s fifth-round pick Riq Woolen, who led the NFL with six interceptions and also recovered three fumbles. The secondary has a chance to be very good with Woolen, safety Quandre Diggs and rookie cornerback Devon Witherspoon, the No. 5 overall pick in this year’s draft. Seattle also brought back Bobby Wagner, who Pro Football Focus graded as the NFL's top linebacker last season.
Causes for concern: Smith must prove last season was no fluke and do it without former quarterback coach Dave Canales, who played a key role in Smith’s development but left to be Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator.
The pass rush could take a step back after overachieving last season with the seventh-best sack rate (7.6%) despite the 19th-best pressure rate (20.8%).
Smith-Njigba (wrist) and Witherspoon (hamstring) will both enter the season hurt.
Outlook: The Seahawks were a slightly above-average team last season and got better this offseason by adding Wagner and top-20 picks on both sides of the ball. They also have several young players who have not yet hit their ceiling, giving them more upside than downside entering 2023. I expect the Seahawks to be among the top 5-7 teams in the NFC.
Future: Seahawks To Win NFC West (+230)
This is one of the first bets I made after the draft, and I still like it. The division sets up as a two-team race, and while the 49ers are the rightful favorite, they have more downside than upside while the Seahawks have more upside than downside.
Bet to: +200
Reasons for optimism: Aaron Donald is the best defensive lineman in football. Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp should each play more than nine games this season. Sean McVay has had only one losing season in six years.
Causes for concern: Two words: cap hell. Save for Donald, pretty much the entire defense was let go. Seriously, every player who finished top-six in snaps – Bobby Wagner, Jalen Ramsey, Nick Scott, Taylor Rapp, Leonard Floyd, and Greg Gaines – is gone, as are Troy Hill (eighth) and A’Shawn Robinson (12th). Ramsey is obviously one of the game’s best corners. Wagner is still an elite linebacker, and he and Floyd led the team in sacks and combined for 39.5% of the team’s sack total. Add in Gaines’ 4.0 sacks, and 50% of their sacks from 2022 are gone. Even Rapp will be difficult to replace after grading out 13th-best of 78 qualified safeties at PFF.
The team even had to move on from kicker Matt Gay and punter Riley Dixon, replacing them with rookie undrafted free agent Tanner Brown and rookie seventh-round pick Ethan Evans, respectively.
Save for Donald, Kupp, and Stafford, there is arguably nobody on this team who could be considered a difference-maker entering the season. It speaks to the lack of depth on the roster that the team went 0-3 in the preseason while getting outscored 109-34.
Outlook: The offense should be solid if Stafford and Kupp are healthy – a big “if” considering they’ve each missed half of a season twice in the last five years – but the defense will be an issue that Donald alone cannot fix. McVay will keep this team competitive most weeks and the Stafford-to-Kupp connection will likely backdoor some covers, but McVay can do only so much with this roster. I have the Rams favored in just three games, and per our Action Labs data, McVay is 9-17 (.346) straight-up as an underdog, including 2-9 (.181) last season.
Reasons for optimism: Buddha Baker is still here. Jonathan Gannon is not Kliff Kingsbury.
Causes for concern: Kyler Murray will start the season on PUP. Some combination of Josh Dobbs and Clayton Tune will start in Murray’s absence. Murray regressed in Year 4, posting career-worst marks in yards per attempt (6.1), passer rating (87.2), and QBR (51.5). Murray not only has to rehab his ACL, he also must learn new offensive coordinator Drew Petzing’s offense – though “must” may be too strong a word given that the study clause was removed from his contract.
Both Petzing and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis are first-year coordinators. Gannon’s staff generally lacks experience and big names you’d like to see supporting a first-time head coaching hire.
DeAndre Hopkins, Zach Allen, and Byron Murphy Jr. were let go and not replaced.
Outlook: The fact that this team didn’t make an effort to increase its talent level, signed off on a first-time head coach and coordinators supported by an inexperienced staff, and is yet to provide any concrete timeline on Murray signals an all-out tank job. It would not be surprising to see them announce they’re shutting down Murray at some point, possibly before he even plays a game. If Murray were to miss the entire season, I’d have this team as the underdog in every single game. If he were to return in Week 5 and play the rest of the season, I still wouldn’t have them favored in more than 2-3 games.
Future: Cardinals To Be Last Winless Team (+400, DraftKings)
The Cardinals are a decent bet to start 0-4 with Dobbs or Tune starting at Washington, vs. N.Y Giants, vs. Dallas, and at San Francisco in Weeks 1-4. Even if Murray were to return in Week 5, the only game in Weeks 5-9 they’d come close to being favored would be at the Rams in Week 6, while they would be underdogs vs. Cincinnati in Week 5, at Seattle in Week 7, vs. Baltimore in Week 8, and at Cleveland in Week 9. Their best chance for a win before their Week 14 bye may not come until Week 10 vs. Atlanta, Week 11 at Houston, or Week 12 vs. the Rams. And the longer Murray sits, the better the odds that the Cardinals go winless deeper into the season. Meanwhile, the Texans and Colts play each other in Week 2, which knocks out one of the other top contenders.
Bet to: +300