For the last two seasons, the NFC West has become the property of the Seattle Seahawks. Not only have the Seahawks won the division crown both seasons, but they used it as a springboard to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, winning one. While the rest of the division has proven itself capable -- the San Francisco 49ers qualified for the playoffs twice since the start of 2012 and the Arizona Cardinals have won 21 games during the past two years -- the battle hardened Seahawks have elevated themselves above the fray.
So much of Seattle's success is predicated on their hot streak of great draft classes as well as the miniscule sum the team has paid star quarterback Russell Wilson. Those advantages have allowed the Seahawks to round out their roster in ways most teams can't. While that ability will dissipate once Wilson receives his next contract, they should remain a viable title contender for the foreseeable future.
That doesn't necessarily preclude another team in the division from overtaking Seattle. Here's how the NFC West looks at this point in the offseason.
The biggest move Seahawks general manager John Schneider made this offseason wasn't a free agent signing. Rather, he traded away Max Unger, his starting center and best player on the offensive line, and the 31st overall pick in this year's draft for All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham and a fourth-round pick. Graham provides exactly what the team sorely needed during the Super Bowl -- a big-bodied pass catcher who can outduel defensive backs and linebackers for jump balls.
While Graham adds an important dynamic to the offense, the loss of Unger could prove significant. Seattle's ground game functioned at a much higher level with Unger opening up holes than when he missed 10 games this past year. While he isn't irreplaceable, the team will have to find some better than Patrick Lewis to shore up the middle of the offensive line next season.
Besides injuries, the Cardinals spent most of 2014 struggling to produce points behind a porous offensive line. GM Steve Keim addressed that concern by adding All-Pro guard Mike Iupati from division rival San Francisco and A.Q. Shipley from Baltimore. The team also signed Cory Redding, Corey Peters and Sean Weatherspoon to shore up the defensive front seven.
Rather, the biggest change for the Cardinals this offseason was the loss of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. There is perhaps no more aggressive assistant in the league than Bowles, who managed to manufacture a pass rush out of the spare parts left over from the numerous defensive injuries Arizona enduring before the season began and early in the year. While the Cardinals are healthy again, it's unlikely they'll operate as effectively without Bowles at the helm.
San Francisco 49ers
No team in the NFL has seen more significant pieces leave than the 49ers. Head coach Jim Harbaugh, one of the best coaches in football, was ushered out after four largely successful seasons. The team waived goodbye to Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Chris Borland, all starters who retired. Meanwhile, the team lost both of its starting cornerbacks to free agency as well as its longtime lead tailback Frank Gore.
But not all hope is lost in San Francisco. The club locked up wide receiver Torrey Smith to a long-term deal while also signing Darnell Dockett away from Arizona for a very reasonable contract. Though the hiring of new head coach Jim Tomsula has raised eyebrows, the 49ers could compete this season.
St. Louis Rams
This season is a do-or-die year for the Rams. General manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher have failed to produce a single playoff berth in their three years together. While the defense has ascended to a championship level behind its stellar defensive line of Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald and Chris Long, the offense has been a train wreck. Accordingly, the team unofficially booted offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and traded away oft-injured starting quarterback Sam Bradford. Now, Frank Cignetti and Nick Foles take over their respective places.
To augment the defense, St. Louis added Nick Fairley. While his career in Detroit was uneven, the talented and newly slim Fairley could resurrect his career working alongside the team's talented defensive line trio. The Rams also added Akeem Ayers to upgrade the linebackers. The pieces are now in place for a postseason run. If Snead and Fisher can't do it this year, they'll find themselves replaced before 2016.