NFC West

The NFC West is almost certainly the toughest division to predict in the conference. It is a division that boasts two of the last three Superbowl runners-up, perennial contenders, and a hungry upstart team. 2021 promises another brutal battle for divisional supremacy. With the four teams starting to report for training camp, the hard work begins now for LA, San Francisco, Seattle, and Arizona. We’ve already previewed the NFC North and East; we should gaze to the left-coast to analyze the intriguing training camp battles that await this preseason in the NFC West.

Arizona Crdinals – Malcolm Butler vs Tay Gowan

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In a division with Matthew Stafford and Russell Wilson, pass defense is a vital ingredient for success in the NFC West. After letting franchise heartbeat Patrick Peterson walk in free agency, mystery surrounds the second cornerback job. Therefore, Robert Alford should start as CB1, the in-house fight between former Superbowl hero Malcolm Butler and sixth-round draft pick Tay Gowan is worth watching.

Since getting benched for Superbowl 52, Butler’s career has gotten very strange. After that fall-out with Bill Belichick, Butler joined the Tennessee Titans. After a fruitful 2018 season, Butler endured some injury issues in 2019, which halted his momentum in Nashville. 2020 saw Butler struggle on a slumping Titans secondary.

However, some football players are just playmakers; Malcolm Butler is a certified playmaker. Despite all his inconsistencies and indiscipline, Butler smells plays before others. Football IQ is an underrated trait; Butler owns it in abundance. The ability to make game-changing plays is invaluable; that is Malcolm Butler in a nutshell.

Butler’s rival is UCF alum, Tay Gowan. The rookie cornerback sat out the 2020 season; subsequently, he flew under the radar at the draft. He shouldn’t have because Tay Gowan might become one of the steals from the 2021 NFL Draft. Gowan is smooth; his footwork and tracking skills are silky, while he moves fluidly. That is such a vital trait to own when defending wideouts on in-breaking routes or double moves. The other strength of Gowan’s game is the ability to defend an island. He excelled when playing in single coverage; Gowan demonstrated the talent of a lockdown corner.

Gowan vs. Butler is a brilliant training camp battle. The veteran former Superbowl-hero is trying to recapture his glory days against a rookie ready to show everyone that he is the real deal.

Los Angeles Rams – Running Back Room

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After the news of Cam Akers’ Achilles injury, the running back room in Los Angeles got thrown into chaos. Everyone expected Akers to take a step forward in his second year with the Rams. Sadly for him, that is no longer going to happen. The positive to a season-ending injury is that it provides other players with a chance to shine.

Darrell Henderson is the likely beneficiary of Akers’ demise. The 23-year-old runner is a heavy runner who excels running in between tackles and shaking off players. In 2020, LA almost exclusively played out of 11 and 12 personnel; despite using passing formations so much, LA ran the ball 63% of the time when they lined up in 12 personnel. Henderson’s power and gritty running style make him an ideal North-South runner. Last season his big running success came on runs behind the Center, Left Guard, and Right Guard. That is critical for the Rams; McVay loves to run the ball without using run-heavy packages.

So Henderson sounds like the shoo-in, right? Don’t pencil him in just yet. Because Sean McVay utilizes a selection of backs in his offensive game plan. Malcolm Brown is also gone; therefore, the spotlight gets shone on Xavier Jones, Raymond Calais, and Jake Funk. Xavier Jones is an enormous back on the roster; moreover, he can sniff out opportunities in the red zone. He could also see action as a blocking back on third-downs. Jake Funk’s story is one of perseverance and determination. After two ACL injuries, the Maryland product is the underdog, but he is immensely fast. His speed makes him a home-run threat, although his limited size may hold him back.

There is everything to play for in the running back battle in training camp. There’s a headline job up for grabs; someone must grab the Ram by the horns. It could help drive the Rams to the NFC West title.

Seattle Seahawks – Marquise Blair vs Quandre Diggs

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Marquise Blair’s 2020 season got rocked due to a season-ending injury he suffered against the Patriots in Week 2. Blair got drafted in the second round, and he instantly starred as the Seahawks’ fifth defensive back. 2021 is a chance for Blair to kickstart his career in Seattle; listed as a Free Safety, Blair’s main competition comes from veteran Quandre Diggs.

Diggs has started throughout his career; he is the incumbent, and it’s his position to lose. Diggs is a hard-hitting, powerful presence who marshals the middle of the field. One of the tricky things about playing Free Safety for Seattle is working with Jamal Adams. The former Jet lines up all over the field; it often forces the other Safety to defend larger areas. Therefore, Safety must be confident in pass-defense, play on an island, and be strong in run-support. In 2020 Diggs, allowed a 92.7 passer rating. It was one of the factors in Seattle’s secondary woes in the first half of last year. Blair is a better pass defender; he tracks the ball well, is disciplined, and understands the zone concepts that Seattle employs.

The caveat is that Blair may not tackle as well, hit as hard, or be as powerful as Diggs. Jamal Adams’ unique skills pose a problem for Seattle, could they lineup with five defensive backs on base downs? Blair is a new-school hybrid defensive back; how he matches up against Diggs in the preseason will be something that Pete Carroll keeps his eye on. For Seattle to compete in the NFC West, they must get stingy in the secondary.

San Francisco 49ers – Jimmy Garoppolo vs Trey Lance

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You know, when you go to the store to get bread, there’s always an expiration date slapped on the packaging; that’s what John Lynch did to Jimmy Garoppolo in the offseason. The 49ers brass traded up into the top three to draft NDSU quarterback Trey Lance. Whenever a team trades up to draft a quarterback, they’re saying that they’re not happy with the current quarterback.

Injury has plagued Garoppolo’s San Francisco career; he’s hardly played an entire season of games. The one time he did, the 49ers made the Superbowl. So it is understandable that Garoppolo might feel aggrieved. The former Patriot is a system quarterback; he plays like an automated robot. When the offensive structure around him is in sync, Garoppolo plays well.

Conversely, Garoppolo is not a magical playmaker; he can’t win games on his own. That is why the 49ers drafted Lance. The rookie is a brilliant athlete with all the skills to become an elite dual-threat quarterback. His ceiling is much higher than Garoppolos; consequently, the floor is also lower. Jimmy G is vanilla ice cream; Lance is Jim Beam Whisky flavored ice cream. The quarterback position will fill many column inches during the preseason and regular season in the Bay. Can Garoppolo destroy Lynch’s best-laid plans, or is Trey Lance ready for the NFL lights on the left coast. The NFC will experience quarterback drama.

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