NFC West Divisional Preview

by Eric Eager|July 24, 2023
Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

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The NFL offseason is a long and arduous one. While hope is on the horizon with the first game of the season coming soon in early September, there is still plenty of time to prepare for your fantasy team and your futures betting. Enter SumerSports.

In this series we will do a weekly preview of each division using our simulation, which iterates through the 272-game NFL schedule 10,000 times to produce each team’s estimated number of wins, likelihood of winning the division, conference, Super Bowl, and earn the number one overall pick. The team ratings that power the simulation are derived from a combination of market odds, previous results, roster changes, and other factors. Such power ratings will be available through SumerSports.com over the next few months.

Individual games are also handicapped using rest differential, travel, and familiarity. Team strengths are updated sequentially based on simulated game outcomes. That way, in simulations where a weaker team exceeds expectations or a solid one fails to meet theirs, they carry a commensurate form with them to their late-season games.

After starting with the AFC South and the NFC North the last two weeks, we move onto the division with the third-fewest projected wins in the league, the NFC West. The NFC West is projected to win 32 games between the 49ers, Seahawks, Rams, and Cardinals. The former two are poised to repeat as playoff teams in 2023 and the latter two are rebuilding after injury-plagued 2022 campaigns.

The 49ers are the class of the division after finishing the 2022 season with a 13-4 record. They were also fourth in EPA per play generated on offense and first in EPA per play allowed on defense.

Seattle, in a season many thought they were playing for future years, saw a huge improvement from quarterback Geno Smith on their way to a 9-8 record and a Wild Card spot in the playoffs. The Seahawks followed up a great draft (tops in Pro Football Reference’s AV a season ago) in 2022 with an impressive April this year, getting Devon Witherspoon, Jaxson Smith-Njigba, and Zach Charbonnet.

The Rams are ostensibly still competing for a spot in the NFC playoffs with one of the league’s best coaches in Sean McVay guiding a team that has star power in Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp, and Matthew Stafford. The markets do not believe they will be able to stay healthy and/or elevate the play of those around them in ways they have done before, though.

The Cardinals are likely set for a hard rebuild after an injury to Kyler Murray, the release of DeAndre Hopkins, and a front office/head coach reshuffle.

All odds are sourced from FanDuel and are subject to change, as are the results of our simulation.

San Franscisco 49ers

2022 Record: 13-4

Along with the Eagles, the 49ers lead the way in the NFC. San Francisco sputtered a bit out of the gate in 2022 with losses to Chicago, Denver, and Atlanta. They then won their last 10 regular season games and first two playoff games before falling to the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.

Since 2011, the 49ers have either reached the conference title game or lost 10 or more games, except for the 2014 season. The characteristic of recent 10 loss seasons showed up again in 2022 with injuries to both Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo. Luckily, Brock Purdy had success when stepping in, winning his first seven starts and finishing fourth in the EPA+CPOE composite by season’s end (minimum 200 drop backs, postseason included).

The biggest question mark for San Francisco coming into the 2023 is how Purdy will recover from an elbow injury that sunk their chances to make the Super Bowl for the first time since 2019. Signs point towards Purdy being able to start week one, but as insurance they brought in former first-round pick Sam Darnold to compete with 2021 first-round pick Trey Lance should Purdy take longer than anticipated to recover.

The defense, the league’s best a season ago in most important metrics, had some major defections – the most notable of the bunch being defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans – but also acquired Javon Hargrave to supplement a defensive front that terrorizes opposing offenses. Ryans replaced Robert Saleh and the unit largely did not skip a beat, so there is precedent for Steve Wilks to have success in his stead.

Having Nick Bosa, second in the NFL a season ago with 98 total pressures (per PFF), as a premiere pass rusher helps make life easier on a secondary that continues to churn through players season by season. Charvarius Ward, a newcomer from Kansas City, blossomed a season ago, as did 2021 fifth-rounder Talanoa Hufanga. Hufanga generated nine pressures, two sacks, 32 stops, seven pass breakups, and four interceptions in 2022. With Jimmy Ward and Emmanuel Mosely leaving via free agency, their depth will be challenged again, so they will need additional players on the back end to step up.

Any discussion of the 49ers defense is incomplete without mentioning Fred Warner, who has emerged as the league’s best linebacker. Some of the new metrics we are developing behind the scenes at Sumer – things that measure biting on play action and flowing against the run – reinforce this truth, which allows the 49ers to do so much defensively.

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Ultimately, though, the degree of success that the 49ers achieve is going to hinge on the performance of Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan has been able to consistently get more out of his raw materials than any other play caller in football, perhaps save Andy Reid.

Combining scheme uniqueness with elite space manipulation, no one in football puts opposing defenses in more conflict than the 49ers head coach does. With George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, and Christian McCaffrey, Kyle Juszczyk and an offseason to prepare for (hopefully) a full season of Brock Purdy, we are going to get a glimpse into the degree to which Shanahan can engineer a championship offense in 2023.

Shanahan Schemes | SumerSports

Seattle Seahawks

2022 Record: 9-8

Last season’s Seattle Seahawks were one of the league’s biggest surprises. Going into the year, they had a season win total of 5.5 wins and were 170/1 to win the Super Bowl. In order to get simulations that were close to the market a season ago, many modelers (myself included) had to adjust priors to reflect a team that was at least open to tanking only to update this early in the season.

The biggest reason for the surprise was Geno Smith, who was first in the NFL in Completion Percentage over Expected (+6.0%, including playoffs). He struggled somewhat to start the season and finished slowly, but from weeks 4-12 of the 2022 season, Smith was a top-five player in the EPA-CPOE composite bested only by Tua Tagovailoa, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, and Jimmy Garoppolo.

The fade down the stretch was real where he fell to 12th in that metric, but the maturation of two 2022 rookies at tackle, the return of Tyler Lockett (1.89 yards per route run in 2022) and DK Metcalf (1.93), and the drafting of Jaxon Smith-Njigba should work to help Smith make good on at least the first year of his new contract.

The Seattle defense is still a work in progress but landed a huge score in the draft with the selection of Devon Witherspoon. Teams that threw at Witherspoon last year completed just 22 of 62 passes for 206 yards with zero touchdowns and three interceptions (25.3 passer rating). He also got his hands on 14 of those passes.

He joins a secondary that drafted Tariq Woolen in round five a season ago. All Woolen did was defend 10 of the 76 passes into his coverage while intercepting six of them and allowing just a 55.3 percent completion percentage (72.1 passer rating). If Jamaal Adams can get back to his New York Jets form and join a talented and productive Quandre Diggs, Seahawks fans may hope this is the second coming of the Legion of Boom.

The one concern for the Seattle defense, which gets Bobby Wagner back after a season in LA, is the pass rush. Former Charger Uchenna Nwosu was competent a season ago, generating 62 pressures and 9.5 sacks. Darrell Taylor also had 9.5 sacks, but did so on just 27 pressures, which would suggest some regression is coming.

Quinton Jefferson was second on the team in pressures, but he is off to New York to play for the Jets and leaves the Seahawks without much in the way of proven interior push. They will need improvement from Taylor and some added punch from Adams on blitzes to generate the heat to be a great defense in 2023.

Los Angeles Rams

2022 Record: 5-12

The Rams, fresh off a Super Bowl championship in 2021, went into 2022 with a win total of 10.5 and were 12/1 to repeat as champions.

Things went poorly almost immediately.

From a blowout loss at home Week 1 to the Bills, to injuries to Stafford, Kupp, and Donald, the Rams tallied 12 losses and an April where they watched the Detroit Lions own a top-10 pick in their honor. Long a team that bucked the trend in terms of injury avoidance, Los Angeles was struck with a ton of variance in this department and their notoriously strong-link preferences were exposed.

The Weak-Link Nature of Football | SumerSports

Sean McVay, after flirting with the idea of retirement, returns as one of the league’s best head coaches. The numbers suggest he struggles with in-game decision making but gets more out of the offensive talent he has than the average coach would. With Matthew Stafford’s long-term health in question (there are reports that they have explored trading him), the margins are thin if the goal is to compete for a playoff spot in 2023. Still, McVay gives the Rams a solid chance.

SumerSports In-Game Coaching Model: An Introduction | SumerSports

Returning from injury is Cooper Kupp, who was the league’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2021. Kupp combines versatility (running 55.6% of his routes from the slot and 43.3% outside in 2022) with efficiency (he has averaged more than 1.95 yards per route run each year of his career, including 2.4 a season ago and a whopping 3.12 in 2021).

While pumping targets to Kupp could be the tried-and-true strategy for competing in 2023, the Rams would like Van Jefferson to finally emerge as a top-flight number two option. Jefferson was only able to generate 369 yards receiving in an injury-plagued 2022 but has been efficient on a per-target basis the last two years when given an opportunity.

On defense, success starts and stops with Aaron Donald. Jalen Ramsey, in a rare case of a non-quarterback living up to a mega trade for a veteran, is gone to Miami in a cost-cutting move joining the departures of Leonard Floyd and Bobby Wagner. These losses, coupled with years of surrendering high-end draft capital, put a lot of pressure on Donald and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, who is very good at pressing the right buttons (disguising coverages, stunts, and blitzes). Unfortunately for Morris and the Rams, these tactics are nonlinearly more effective with the kind of talent that the 2021 Rams had relative to their projected 2023 levels.

In the markets, the Rams will be an enigmatic entity in 2023. They will likely have value early in the season relative to their season-long futures, so instead of looking into the latter for +EV opportunities, playing them week-to-week is likely going to offer more utility.

Arizona Cardinals

2022 Record: 4-13

As recently as halfway through the 2021 season, the Cardinals were leading the way in the NFC West. In 2022, their early-season schedule and a DeAndre Hopkins suspension failed to provide the early-season cushion they had in previous seasons. The second-half swoon remained as they lost nine of their last 10 games after a 3-4 start. Gone are Kliff Kingsbury and Steve Keim, in are Jonathan Gannon and Monti Ossenfort.

The return of Kyler Murray, or whether it happens in the first place, is the biggest question for the 2023 Arizona Cardinals. Murray’s production fell significantly last year from 7.9 yards per pass attempt to 6.1, a career low. He was still effective as a runner on a career-low 67 carries, generating 418 yards and three touchdowns. His injury came at a particularly inopportune time as his 2023 cap charge is very modest relative to subsequent seasons as shown by our friends at Over the Cap here:

Murray’s ability as a runner has made life a lot easier for players like James Conner, who has scored 26 touchdowns the last two years aided by the gravity of Murray’s legs. Murray’s movement skills also can make the job easier on the Cardinals offensive line, which loses Rodney Hudson this offseason after an injury-plagued 2022 season.

Even with the acquisition of Paris Johnson in the draft, they remain one of the weaker units in the league and could be exposed further if pass rushers and run defenders do not have to pay any mind to a quarterback with plus running ability.

The defense has little in the way of top-end talent, especially with Budda Baker unhappy with his current contract situation. They have not quite figured out how to use 2020 top pick Isaiah Simmons, having started him out at linebacker before now considering him a nickel back.

Zaven Collins, another off-ball linebacker selected the following year, has been moderately productive with 16 pressures, 37 stops, and three pass break ups (one interception) last year. Collins will need to improve even more next to free agent acquisition Kyzir White to be worth a second contract for the birds.

In summary, the Cardinals are likely in for a reset year. They have the highest odds in our simulation to earn the first-overall pick, and it is not particularly close. They also own the first pick of the Houston Texans, which means they are a couple of breaks away from being the first team since the 1992 Colts to pick first and second in the same draft.

Interestingly, that Colts team went 9-7 and was in the AFC Championship Game just three years later, so there is hope for a quick turnaround. Murray’s contract is not untradeable, and the top two options at quarterback in 2024 look like franchise players in Caleb Williams and Drake Maye. A situation where the Cardinals trade Murray, select a quarterback, and trade Houston’s pick for additional assets for the rebuild is absolutely in play.

Next up, NFC South.

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