2017 NFL season preview: Seahawks still dominant force in NFC West
The AFC West appears one of the most balanced divisions in the NFL, but the same cannot be said of the NFC West.
It is a division that has belonged to the Seattle Seahawks for three of the last four seasons. And, despite a shaky offensive line that has already lost tackle George Fant, Seattle should retain the division title again in 2017.
Away from the Pacific north west, the Arizona Cardinals will be looking to squeeze another deep playoff run out of an ageing core of offensive talent.
There is positive buzz surrounding the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams as new coaches Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay start their respective tenures, but they should each be at least a year from contention.
Player to watch: Carson Palmer, QB, Cardinals -- The Cardinals will only go as far as Palmer goes in 2017. He had a down year last campaign after a stunning 2015 in which he led Arizona to the NFC Championship game and at 37 with a concerning injury history, Palmer must be kept out of harm's way for the Cards to succeed. If he can recapture the superb form of two years ago, then the Cards can be a significant threat in the NFC, but their window will start to close should we see further signs of decline in his play and his durability.
Impact rookie: Reuben Foster, LB, 49ers -- The 49ers collected two defensive studs in the first round of the draft in Solomon Thomas and Foster, with the latter a strong candidate to be the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Some questioned the decision to trade back into the first round for Foster because of concerns over a shoulder injury and a lack of takeaways in college. But he has been a turnover machine in camp and has looked excellent in the preseason. Expect him to make a substantial impact against the run and the pass.
Coach on the hot seat: Bruce Arians, Cardinals -- There has been talk of 2017 being Arians' last season in charge following health concerns, and another season of mediocrity may be enough for the Cardinals to decide to change tack and find a successor to the most successful coach in the history of the franchise's time in Arizona.
Rising: 49ers -- Either the 49ers or the Rams can be seen as teams heading in the right direction in the NFC West. Both have highly rated young offensive minds at head coach and both have talent on defense, though it is the Rams who have the more established stars on that side of the ball. But on the back of criticism for his part in the Falcons' Super Bowl meltdown against the Patriots, Shanahan will have plenty of motivation to prove a point. The 49ers' schedule looks slightly softer and Shanahan may be able to get more out of his group earlier than McVay.
Falling team: Cardinals -- Yes, Palmer is still standing, yes they have David Johnson at running back and a seemingly uber-determined Tyrann Mathieu on defense, but there a lot of issues on this Cardinals team that suggest this could be another frustrating year. Larry Fitzgerald is in the twilight of his career and Arians has been dissatisfied with what he has seen from the rest of his receivers. The offensive line has a troubling injury history and on defense the Cards are relying on rookies Haason Reddick and Budda Baker to contribute early after losing nearly 5,000 snaps this offseason, with Calais Campbell and Tony Jefferson among those to leave. A lot needs to go right for the Cardinals not to disappoint again.
Circle this game on the schedule: Seahawks at Cardinals, Week 10, Nov. 9 -- Since the 49ers' three-year run of NFC Championship game appearances came to an end, the division has been a fight between the Seahawks and the Cardinals and, with their second game in Seattle coming in Week 17, it is the Week 10 meeting in Arizona that seems more likely to have a decisive impact on the destination of the division title. The Cardinals will be looking for a first home win over Seattle since 2012, whether they can achieve that feat may well provide a window into whether they can wrest the division from the Seahawks.
Predicted order of finish:
Seahawks 11-5 (No. 2 seed, NFC championship)