The NFC West may be filled with teams who have the widest range of 2023 season outcomes in the entire NFL. It's been a parity-filled division since 2015, with each of its four teams -- the San Francisco 49ers (twice), the Seattle Seahawks (twice), the Los Angeles Rams (three times), and the Arizona Cardinals (once) -- taking home the crown in that span.
Last season's race was easily won by the 13-4 49ers, who ended 2022 four games ahead of the NFC's seventh-seeded, 9-8 Seahawks. The 5-12 Rams took hold of a not-so-enjoyable NFL record, possessing the worst record for a defending Super Bowl champion in league history. A season-ending injury to Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray led them to drop all the way down from being a playoff team in 2021 to having the third-worst record in the entire league in 2022.
Even though San Francisco waltzed to a division title last year while rotating through three starting quarterbacks -- Trey Lance, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Brock Purdy -- their reign could be in jeopardy with Seattle having one of the best 2023 NFL Draft classes because of their four picks in the first and second rounds thanks to the trade of Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos. The Rams could also return to the hunt with improved health, making the NFC West one of the league's most intriguing divisions.
With that in mind, here is a look at each of the teams' burning question for 2023 that will determine the outcome of their respective seasons. Franchises are listed in the order of their finish in last season's NFC West race.
San Francisco 49ers: Who will be their starting QB?
Quarterback Brock Purdy's torn UCL in his throwing elbow casts the largest cloud over any contending teams' quarterback room in the entire NFL. He's expected to start throwing a football again next week for the first time since the injury in their 31-7 loss in the 2022 NFC Championship Game last January, according to head coach Kyle Shanahan. While the team is maintaining hope he can be ready to roll for Week 1 in September, there's a chance he could suffer a setback and not be ready for the start of the 2023 season.
If so, who would start in his place? The third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft Trey Lance, who San Francisco dumped three first-round pick in order to select, has taken every first-team snap at quarterback throughout their first two organized team activities (OTAs) sessions. Shanahan made his quarterback situation more murky by saying the first-team reps will "even out" and that the third overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Sam Darnold, will get chances with the ones as the offseason continues. They signed him to a one-year pact back in March.
The 49ers are a tailor-made Super Bowl contender with arguably the most-loaded offensive ecosystem in the NFL thanks to having Christian McCaffrey at running back, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk at wide receiver, George Kittle at tight end, Trent Williams at left tackle, and Shanahan calling plays. San Francisco also employs the NFL's top scoring defense from last season (averaged 16.3 points per game allowed), which is powered by 2022 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa, who led the NFL with 18.5 sacks.
The health of their quarterbacks will be one of the NFL's biggest storylines all year as it could heavily impact who the next Super Bowl champion will be.
Seattle Seahawks: Can Geno Smith continue to play like a top-tier QB?
Geno Smith has one of the most unique football career arcs in NFL history. He put up gaudy numbers in Dana Holgorsen's Air Raid offense at West Virginia in his last three college seasons: 97 passing touchdowns, 20 interceptions and 11,353 passing yards. That kind of production gave Smith the buzz of potentially being the first overall pick in 2013. Instead, Smith suffered a Will Levis-like green room horror story, leaving Day 1 undrafted and returning on Day 2 to be selected 39th overall, the seventh pick of the second round by the Jets, a team that passed him over with their ninth and 13th overall picks.
He struggled in 30 career starts with the rebuilding Gang Green, throwing 28 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. After one-year pit stops with the Giants as Eli Manning's backup (2017) and the Chargers as Philip Rivers' backup (2018), he settled down with the Seahawks to be Russell Wilson's backup in 2020. Through his first eight years (2013-21), Smith completed 59% of his passes for 6,917 passing yards, 34 touchdowns and 37 interceptions. That's the career of an NFL backup who has managed to stick around, nothing more.
Then, Wilson's wish to be traded to the Broncos was granted, opening the door for Smith to get a one-season audition in 2022 as an NFL starter after beating out Drew Lock in training camp. His performance in 2022 was so miraculous -- leading the NFL in completion percentage (68.8%), throwing a Seahawks-record 4,282 passing yards and ranking top five in the league in passing touchdowns (30) and passer rating (100.9) -- that he won 2022 NFL Comeback Player of the Year -- not for overcoming any injury, but rather eight years of unspectacular play on the field.
Geno Smith (2022 season)
*Seahawks' single-season record
Smith then re-signed with Seattle for life-changing money: three years and $75 million. However, there's only $1.2 million in guaranteed salary on his deal in 2023 and none baked into the final two seasons. Yes, his 2024 salary will become guaranteed if he's on the team on the fifth day of the waiver wire period, but Seattle structured the deal to make it fairly easy to move off of if he regresses. Head coach Pete Carroll openly flirted with the idea of selecting a passer fifth overall in the 2023 NFL Draft, but with Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, and Anthony Richardson all coming off the board in the draft's first four picks, Smith's job became safe for 2023.
He has all the tools to succeed once again this season after the Seahawks made Ohio State wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba the first wide receiver taken in the most recent draft, providing a potent trio of DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and JSN out wide. In the run game, 2022 rookie rushing leader Kenneth Walker III returns along with two new rookies: UCLA's Zach Charbonnet, a second-round pick like Walker, and Georgia's Kenny McIntosh, their last pick in Round 7. Once again, Smith will undergo a make-or-break season as an NFL starting quarterback.
Los Angeles Rams: Will they be a playoff contender or in the Caleb Williams sweepstakes?
Matthew Stafford is now 35 years old and coming off an injury-plagued 2022 in which he dealt with neck and head injuries, causing him to miss eight games. Cooper Kupp, the 2021 NFL Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl LVI MVP, turns 30 on June 15 and also struggled with injuries, missing the 2022 season's final eight games after undergoing ankle surgery. All-world defensive tackle Aaron Donald missed the final six games of last season while dealing with an ankle injury.
The question that begs to be answered with the Rams in 2023 is simple: can they stay healthy? If so, they have the stars to fight for a spot in the postseason thanks to the watered-down NFC. However, should things go sideways again in terms of their big three's health, general manager Les Snead and head coach Sean McVay could have a tough decision on their hands. The Rams, the NFL poster child for discarding the value of early-round draft picks, will finally have their first-round draft selection again in 2024.
The last time the franchise used a first-round pick was all the way back in 2016 when they traded up 14 spots from 15th to first overall in order to select quarterback Jared Goff. The 2024 NFL Draft will almost certainly have 2022 Heisman Trophy winner and USC quarterback Caleb Williams in it, and he has been receiving comparisons to 2022 NFL MVP and Super LVII MVP Patrick Mahomessince last December. If the Rams' current stars of today struggle again with their on-field availability in 2023, could team management tell them to take their time with their recovery like they did in 2022? Los Angeles isn't a deep, well-stocked outfit in the depth department, especially on defense after trading away Jalen Ramsey to the Miami Dolphins. Telling Stafford, Kupp, or Donald to take their time with injury management once again could put them in position to land the best quarterback prospect since Trevor Lawrence or Andrew Luck.
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Arizona Cardinals: Will they tear it down and lean into a full re-build?
The Arizona Cardinals are in the first phase of a rebuild this offseason. They parted ways with both head coach Kliff Kingsbury and general manager Steve Keim in the wake of a 4-13 finish, replacing them with former Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon and former Tennessee Titans Director of Player Personnel Monti Ossenfort, respectively.
Safety and top defensive leader Budda Baker is demanding a trade in the event the Cardinals don't make him the highest-paid player at his position. Then on Monday, All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, a player who was reportedly granted permission to seek trades and was reportedly almost dealt during the 2023 NFL Draft, went on the "I AM ATHLETE" podcast and listed some qualities he's looking for wherever he ends up next. The attributes aligned with what contending teams in the NFL possess, not a team like the Cardinals.
"What I want is stable management upstairs," Hopkins said. "I think that's something I haven't really had the past couple years of my career coming from Houston and then to Arizona. I've been through three or four GMs in my career, so a stable management. A QB who loves the game, a QB who brings everybody on board with him and pushes not just himself but everybody around him. ... And a great defense. A great defense wins championships."
The Cardinals were the opposite of great defense in 2022, allowing 26.4 points per game, the second-most in the entire NFL. Face-of-the-franchise quarterback Kyler Murray is likely missing a good chunk of the first half of the 2023 season while recovering from a torn ACL. The next man up in Arizona is journeyman Colt McCoy, who turns 37 on Sept. 5. Arizona has the Houston Texans' 2024 first-round pick after trading out of the third overall pick in 2023, allowing the Texans to select Alabama pass rusher Will Anderson Jr. That gives them two shots at ending up with the first overall pick, controlling the first-rounder of two rebuilding teams that were bottom-three franchises in the NFL in 2022.
The Cardinals' treasure trove of picks entering the 2024 NFL Draft makes them the most likely team to end up with the first overall selection, giving them the best shot at ending up with Caleb Williams. If ownership is cool with not having Murray rush back to play, it's very much in play for Arizona to hit the reset button with gusto and trade their top two non-Murray players. The Cardinals once discarded top-ten pick quarterback Josh Rosen in order to select Murray first overall in the 2019 NFL Draft.
They could easily go down the same road once again by flipping Hopkins and Baker in-season, setting up a trade for Murray after he demonstrates he can play again in 2023 either during or after the upcoming season. Those decisions would rapidly accelerate their rebuild as Arizona would then be in possession of some of the most high-level draft capital of any team entering a draft. The Cardinals already have six picks in the first three rounds -- two in the first (one via the Texans), one in the second, and three in the third (one via the Texans and one via the Tennessee Titans). The question is, will they be bold enough to take the plunge?