With the dawn of a new NFL season almost upon us, we're going division by division to highlight the players and storylines to watch in 2018. Jeremy Bergman tackles the NFC West below.
Most significant changes from 2017
Over the course of just two seasons, the balance of power in the NFC West has shifted from Seattle and Glendale to South Central and Santa Clara.
There are three games that can explain this rapid sea change. The first came on a Sunday night in the middle of 2016, when the Seahawks and Cardinals -- defensive powerhouses that had taken turns atop the division -- played out a brilliant but spiritually broken 6-6 tie to the delight of football nerds and the dismay of yeoman fans.
Fast-forward about one year to "Thursday Night Football" in Week 3 last season, when Sean McVay's Rams and Kyle Shanahan's 49ers exploded to combine for 80 points. It was the national TV debut for both head coaches and their potent offenses, and a sign of things to come.
The transfer of power from the poles of the Pacific coast officially took place late last season, when the eventual division-champion Rams stormed into Seattle in December and rolled over the injury-riddled Seahawks.
So in 2018, after years of predictable division champions and low-scoring affairs, the West is wild again, flipped on its axis with plenty of gunslingers to go around.
The Rams loaded up on Pro Bowl talent this offseason, leading the trade tsunami and embarking on an aggressive spending spree. Entering just the second season of the McVay era, the Rams are in win-now mode, looking to take advantage of their salary-cap situation with Jared Goff still playing on his rookie deal and to finance the new stadium they have to fill by 2020. L.A. reshaped its secondary, acquiring AFC West bad boys Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, while Trumaine Johnson departed in free agency. They said farewell to Sammy Watkins and acquired Brandin Cooks, extending the contract of the latter. New deals also came down the pipe for Todd Gurley, Rob Havenstein and Aaron Donald. L.A. still doesn't have top-tier edge rushers, but no matter. The Rams signed Ndamukong Suh, who will pair with Donald to form one of the greatest defensive tackle tandems in league history.
Up the Pacific Coast Highway is the man they'll be tasked with sacking for the foreseeable future, 49ers quarterback and Italian stallion Jimmy Garoppolo. Jimmy G is entering his first full season as San Francisco's starting quarterback. Having seen San Francisco close out 2017 on a five-game winning streak with Garoppolo at the helm, analysts and coach-potato critics alike are pegging the 49ers for an Eagles-type Super Bowl run in 2018. Further propelling the hype are rookies Mike McGlinchey and Dante Pettis, the continued development of Reuben Foster, who'll return after serving a two-game suspension to start the year. San Francisco also signed former Seahawks shutdown corner Richard Sherman to shore up its unproven secondary. The most immediate concern for the franchise is the loss of starting running back Jerick McKinnon, who suffered a torn ACL during Saturday's practice.
Down in the desert, the Cardinals are in a weird purgatory, stuck between the Carson Palmer-Bruce Arians and Josh Rosen-Steve Wilks eras and riding into the 2018 season with fragile journeyman Sam Bradford under center. Arizona lost Palmer to retirement and Tyrann Mathieu to the Texans in the spring. However, veteran leaders return on both sides of the ball in Larry Fitzgerald and Patrick Peterson. Around them, there are major question marks, but the Cards boast young building blocks. David Johnson is back (and better than ever?) after missing all but one game last season with a wrist injury. Arizona replaced the Browns (John and Jaron) with rookie receiver Christian Kirk. The identity of the Cardinals under Wilks is to be determined -- their preseason performance indicated a takeaway-tipsy defense to supplement a balanced offense. Time is running out for the likes of Fitzgerald, and unfortunately for the future Hall of Famer, 2018 looks like a rebuilding year for the Birds.
Then there's Seattle, where the once-lauded Legion of Boom has been whittled down to the Legion of Whom (get it? GET IT?!). Sherman is with the aforementioned 49ers. Cliff Avril was released and Kam Chancellor believes he's played his last game. Michael Bennett was jettisoned to the defending Super Bowl champs in Philly. Bobby Wagner is still in the building and Earl Thomas is still under contract, but Thomas, by all indications, wants out if the Seahawks can't pony up a new deal. It's not all doom and gloom in the Emerald City, though. Seattle boasts its deepest RB room in years, led by Chris Carson. The Griffin brothers look like much more than just a feel-good story. Oh, and Russell Wilson, the game's greatest escape artist and recovery mattress salesman, is still under center.
One player to watch on each team
ARIZONA CARDINALS: David Johnson, running back. If you weren't already watching Johnson, then you're either legally blind or unlawfully ignorant. Last we saw the thrilling dual-threat back for a full season, he eclipsed 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Now, after returning from last year's wrist injury, the finish line has been extended: 1,000 yards rushing, 1,000 yards receiving. Johnson is expected to be the centerpiece of Arizona's offense, a workhorse with Offensive Player of the Year potential, while Bradford establishes a rapport with a questionable receiving corps. Now, if only the Cards' offensive line sans A.Q. Shipley can hold up its end of the bargain.
LOS ANGELES RAMS: Brandin Cooks, wide receiver. The lone massive offensive addition during the Rams' offseason shopping spree, Cooks gives third-year quarterback Goff something he hasn't had in the NFL so far: a consistent field-stretching threat. Cooks has amassed 1,794 yards from passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air since entering the league in 2014, a mark second only to Julio Jones in that span, according to Pro Football Focus. His presence in New England prompted Tom Brady to take more chances vertically. Watkins was supposed to be that guy when the Rams acquired him from Buffalo before the 2017 season, but the former fourth overall pick ended up being Goff's fourth-favorite target and left for Kansas City. Expect Cooks to play a similar role to that of Watkins last season, except with way more production.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Reuben Foster, linebacker. A turbulent offseason for Foster ended without massive repercussions. After he serves a two-game suspension for violating the NFL's Conduct and Substances of Abuse polices, it will be back to football for the second-year star. All the talk around Santa Clara is fixated on Garoppolo, Shanahan and a Niners offense built to break out. But the 49ers' defense shouldn't be overlooked. San Francisco's front seven is stacked with early-round talent, none more promising than Foster, a sideline-to-sideline force in the middle of Robert Saleh's defense. Primed to be the Patrick Willis of this burgeoning 49ers dynasty, Foster can take a major leap if he stays healthy and out of trouble and helps the defense keep pace with the potential juggernaut on the other side of the ball.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Chris Carson, running back. Missing from Seattle's attack the last two seasons, ever since Beast Mode's brief retirement, has been a feared threat on the ground. Whether due to injury, poor offensive line play or what have you, the Seahawks weren't able to muster even 300-yard seasons from the likes of Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls, J.D. McKissic, C.J. Prosise and Mike Davis. (Shocking.) In comes Carson, who flashed last September before going down with a leg injury. The second-year seventh-rounder is back in 2018, and it looks like he's beaten out first-round rookie Rashaad Penny for the starting job. He's the most athletic, well-rounded back Seattle has employed since Lynch skipped town, and a steady season from Carson could help balance an offense that has relied on Wilson far too heavily over the past few years.
What we'll be talking about at season's end
This division is and will be the Rams' to lose -- their roster is superior at nearly every position aside from quarterback and pass rusher -- but the West won't be easily won. The Rams will split their division games en route to the West title and will fail to secure a first-round bye, thanks to late-season losses to late-charging rivals Arizona and San Francisco. Speaking of ... Garoppolo will rack up his first 4,000-yard passing season, but will be undone by untimely turnovers, a byproduct of pretty-boy overconfidence, and the 49ers will miss the postseason by two games in a stacked NFC. Injury or underperformance (but most likely injury) will sideline Bradford by Thanksgiving, making way for Rosen in Arizona, who will end 2018 looking like the cream of the rookie QB crop. In Seattle, the 12s will be calling for offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's head by Halloween -- and head coach Pete Carroll's by Christmas. Happy holidays?
Follow Jeremy Bergman on Twitter @JABergman.