NFC West Toughens Up
March 21, 2018 07:23 PM | Kyle Odegard
From left: 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, CB Richard Sherman and GM John Lynch
A half-decade ago, when Steve Keim took over as general manager of the Cardinals, he had to navigate an NFC West that featured the Seahawks and 49ers near their peaks.

Not much was expected of the Cardinals in 2013 under new coach Bruce Arians and new quarterback Carson Palmer. Even though that team fell short of the playoffs, it still finished 10-6 and set the tone for an impressive three-year run that was capped by an NFC Championship game appearance.

It's a bit of déjà vu in 2018. Keim has found a new coach (Steve Wilks) and a new quarterback (Sam Bradford), and while the Seahawks aren't as dominant, the division is once again stacking up among the NFL's elite.

The Rams won the NFC West last year and traded for cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. The 49ers have Jimmy Garoppolo under center and picked up cornerback Richard Sherman in free agency. Seattle is undergoing an overhaul but still has Russell Wilson leading the way and some talented pieces on defense.

Keim isn't deterred by the thought of six tough divisional games in 2018.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," Keim said. "I enjoy the challenge, to be able to have a division so competitive."

The Seahawks dominated the NFC West for a long time with Wilson and the Legion of Boom leading the way, but injuries and age forced a big shakeup this offseason. Sherman was cut, defensive end Michael Bennett was traded while safety Kam Chancellor and defensive end Cliff Avril are facing potentially career-ending injuries.

Pete Carroll will also have a bunch of new assistant coaches around him this season, but the always-upbeat Seahawks coach spoke excitedly at the NFL Scouting combine earlier this month.

"I've never wanted to stay the same," Carroll said. "I've never felt like that. I've felt that every year is a dynamic opportunity to do things in a new way, a better way. And I've always approached every aspect of all the things that we are doing in that thought. So this, maybe, seems like it's more extreme, because there have been changes that haven't happened in the past. But every year is loaded with changes, and we are forced to adapt."

The Rams are the projected top dog in the division after a stunning turnaround in 2017, finishing 11-5 under new coach Sean McVay after four wins the year prior. Peters and Talib will join a talented secondary, while defensive tackle Aaron Donald continues to be a game-wrecker up front.

The offense led the NFL in points per game last season behind quarterback Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley and a strong offensive line. Snead is making bold moves this offseason in hopes of taking another step forward.

"It's an urgency to improve," Snead said at the combine. "You have things you want to address and there's a lot of avenues to address them. And then, just like some offensive coordinators, you like to attack."

The 49ers' timeline moved up drastically after they finished 6-10 following an 0-9 start. Garoppolo was the difference, as he had a 96.2 quarterback rating and an undefeated record in five starts after being acquired from the Patriots.

"He looked phenomenal," Seahawks General Manager John Schneider said. "I was kind of bummed out they got him."

San Francisco wasted no time in signing Garoppolo to a massive extension, and with so much cap space rolled over from previous years, still had plenty of money to make other moves. Sherman, running back Jerick McKinnon and center Weston Richburg were the highest-profile additions in free agency as San Francisco aims for its first winning season since 2013.

"I learned the way to get people to feel good about 6-10 is just to start 0-9," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "Glad we didn't do it the other way around. It'd probably be a totally different feeling. But that still was our record. We've got a lot of work to do."

The Cardinals have re-tooled themselves, adding a veteran quarterback in Bradford and shoring up the offensive line. Their defense was among the best in the NFL in 2018 and returns most of its key parts.

Wilks is relocating to the division after spending 2017 in an NFC South that saw three teams - the Saints, Panthers and Falcons - make the playoffs. He sees parallels in the NFC West.

"Everybody is evolving, everybody is getting better," Wilks said. "I feel like we're right there in the mix as well."

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