SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — One look at the quarterback situations in the NFC West tells you just about everything you need to know about the hierarchy in the division.
While Arizona, Los Angeles and San Francisco all face major questions at the position, the Seattle Seahawks have Russell Wilson.
Even though they still have a suspect offensive line and questions in the running game, the combination of Wilson and a fearsome defense makes Seattle the favorites for a fourth division title in the past five years.
Wilson has had to shoulder a bigger load of the offense of late, no longer able to take a back seat to Marshawn Lynch and the running game. He threw for a career-high 4,219 yards last season — more than 1,000 yards above what he did as a rookie — despite being pressure on more than one-third of his dropbacks, according to Football Outsiders. Only Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor faced more pressure among regular starters last season.
The biggest challenger to Seattle will be the Cardinals, who hope to bounce back from a 7-8-1 season and get back into playoff contention. Arizona hopes 37-year-old Carson Palmer can turn back the clock and help the Cardinals make a last run in a closing window of opportunity.
Palmer threw 11 fewer touchdown passes last season than he did in a career year in 2015, and had five more interceptions. He improved late in the season after being given Wednesdays off from practice to keep his aging arm fresh, and that move could pay dividends again.
While Palmer has proven capable of leading a team to success, the situations in Los Angeles and San Francisco are more precarious.
The early returns on Jared Goff weren’t good as the No. 1 overall pick last year couldn’t even beat out Case Keenum for the starting job, He then showed why he began his career as a backup when Goff finally got his chance late in the season. The Rams hired an offensive mastermind as coach and hope Sean McVay’s presence will help Goff develop into a legitimate NFL passer .
The 49ers also hired a top offensive coordinator to run the show, Kyle Shanahan. He reunited with Brian Hoyer , who played in Cleveland when Shanahan was offensive coordinator, but few believe the journeyman is more than a bridge to the arrival of a franchise quarterback, possibly as soon as next offseason.
Some things to know about the NFC West:
POROUS PROTECTION: The offensive line was a major problem last season for Seattle and could be again after starting left tackle George Fant went down with a season-ending knee injury in the preseason.
Eddie Lacy was brought in to boost the running game , but must prove he can stay in shape, or a healthy Thomas Rawls could take his carries.
The defense should be back at its elite level with safety Earl Thomas healthy after missing the final six games with a broken leg, and Richard Sherman healed from a nagging knee injury. Linebacker Bobby Wagner is among the NFL’s best.
FLYING HIGH: After dropping from 13-3 in 2015 to a losing record last season, the Cardinals believe they still have the talent to contend in the division.
Much of the offense will center on standout running back David Johnson, who has the lofty goal of 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving. But as always everything depends on Palmer’s production and the ability of a redesigned offensive line to protect him.
On defense, hybrid safety Tyrann Matthieu, beset by injuries most of his career, looked like his old Honey Badger self in the preseason and forms a formidable duo in the back end of the defense with shutdown cornerback Patrick Peterson.
GOFF’S GAME: In seven starts as a rookie last season, Goff ranked last among all QBs with at least 200 passes in rating (63.3) and yards per attempt (5.3).
The offense looks more advanced this season and the addition of receiver Sammy Watkins and a bigger season from running back Todd Gurley should ease the pressure on Goff.
The Rams have another issue hanging over them. Standout defensive tackle Aaron Donald is holding out, dealing a major blow to a defense that was supposed to be a strength under new coordinator Wade Phillips.
SEARCHING FOR STABILITY: The 49ers hope to finally be off the coaching carousel after one-year tenures by Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly followed Jim Harbaugh’s firing in 2014.
Shanahan and GM John Lynch were handed six-year contracts to rebuild a once-proud franchise that won just two games last year, when the most notable aspect of the team was Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest.
The two overhauled most of the roster, including replacing Kaepernick with Hoyer, and are trying to build around a strong front seven led by recent first-round picks DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster , along with aging star NaVorro Bowman.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Seahawks, Cardinals, Rams, 49ers.
AP Sports Writers Bob Baum, Greg Beacham and Tim Booth contributed to this report.
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