The return to health of Rams RB Todd Gurley (left), Seahawks S Earl Thomas (middle) and 49ers LB NaVorro Bowman (right) could impact the NFC West in 2015
As the Cardinals prepare for the start of training camp at the end of this week, so too do their NFC West brethren. The main questions surrounding Bruce Arians' squad have been addressed. Here is a look at what the Seahawks, 49ers and Rams face as the 2015 season draws near.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Reason for optimism: While the defense only finished in the middle of the pack in most categories last season, back-to-back shutouts and an impressive performance against Peyton Manning within a four-week stretch showed its upside. Everyone of consequence from the team's ferocious defensive line returns, and it got even deeper with the addition of Nick Fairley. Safety T.J. McDonald leads the back end, and St. Louis' personnel on that side of the ball should keep it in most games.
Reason for concern: The defense will need to play very well, because the offense still lacks punch. The receiving group is short on impact players, while the offensive line has several question marks. The Rams traded Sam Bradford for Nick Foles in the offseason, and if the former Eagles' quarterback can be close to an average performer, it would represent a healthy gain at the position for the Rams, who've dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness at quarterback for several seasons.
What's in flux: The Rams drafted Todd Gurley with the tenth overall pick and believe he can be a franchise-altering running back like Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch. However, he tore his ACL last year in college and is still on the road to recovery. A good sign for St. Louis is that Gurley is on the active roster to begin training camp, which may mean he's not far from full participation in drills. Gurley's return to full speed and his subsequent effectiveness could play a big role in the team's fortunes in 2015.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Reason for optimism: There has been plenty of talk about the 49ers' potential demise, but there is still talent on the roster. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been an elusive dual threat at times, although he's been inconsistent recently. The additions of wide receiver Torrey Smith, running back Reggie Bush and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett could help ease the concern of all the departures.
Reason for concern: While the 49ers have infused new talent, there's no question the mass departures will result in a new look. Former coach Jim Harbaugh is now at the University of Michigan, replaced by former defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. The 49ers were up against the cap, so it wasn't a surprise when standouts like guard Mike Iupati, running back Frank Gore and cornerback Chris Culliver left for other teams, but a rash of unexpected retirements also sapped the roster. The 49ers are a shell of the team which made three consecutive NFC championship games from 2011-2013.
What's in flux: The 49ers' fortunes may be tied to their linebacking corps. Two years ago it was a dominant unit, with Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis playing at elite levels. Willis retired in the offseason, but that seemed to be OK since rookie wunderkind Chris Borland stepped up masterfully in 2014. However, Borland unexpectedly retired as well, leaving the team thinner at the position. Bowman is returning from a knee injury which kept him out all of last year. If he can again become a star, and if Smith can avoid off-field troubles and play an entire 16-game slate, this group could lead the defense. If Bowman slips and/or Smith finds more controversy, the 49ers' defense will take a big hit.
Reason for optimism: The core of a team which has two Super Bowl appearances and a title the past two years is back. Running back Marshawn Lynch and quarterback Russell Wilson again will lead the offense, and the addition of tight end Jimmy Graham gives Seattle a badly-needed aerial option. The defense will again begin the season looking like the NFL's finest, with cornerback Richard Sherman and linebacker Bobby Wagner among the standouts.
Reason for concern: Lynch was otherworldly again in 2014, rushing for 1,306 yards and 13 touchdowns while averaging 4.7 yards-per-carry. The combination of an elite running game and defense has made the Seahawks one of the best teams in football the past two years, and that looks like the formula again. However, Lynch will be 29 years old this year and has 2,220 professional rushing attempts, and running backs have historically slowed down near this point in their careers. Additionally, the offensive line lost Pro Bowl center Max Unger – traded to the Saints for Graham – and guard James Carpenter, and Seattle will rely on inexpensive options to replace them. If Lynch slows down or if the offensive line cannot adequately create holes, it could be enough to drop the Seahawks from NFC favorites.
What's in flux: The safety position. All-Pro Earl Thomas played in the Super Bowl with a separated shoulder and torn labrum he suffered in the NFC title game. He's currently rehabilitating, but there's concern he may miss at least the first game of the season. If he is out for any extended period, it will shift the way the Seahawks defend opponents. Fellow Pro Bowler Kam Chancellor is healthy, but he is reportedly unhappy with his contract and could choose to hold out at the start of training camp.