By Rodney Stokes for

The NFC West was one of the most dominant divisions in football from about 2012 until around 2015. During many of these years the top two teams were the Seahawks and the 49ers, a classic battle between two high tech cities. The Cardinals were always right on the outside and the Rams may have been the best team in a different division thanks to their defense.

All four teams have gone through their struggles during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Arizona had one of their best seasons in 2015 and fell completely off the map in 2016. Seattle went to two straight Super Bowls in 2013 and 2014 but struggled to get over the hump in 2015 and 2016. San Francisco completely imploded after the 2014 season and have been rebuilding for the last two years. The Rams have always been competitive with their NFC West counterparts but never seem to bring that intensity to the rest of the NFL. Each team has endured its struggle and last year was arguably a down year for the division as a whole. This year looks like a year that could be promising for the future of the division.

The Seahawks and Cardinals will have two of the best defenses in the NFL. The Seahawks were able to bring in Sheldon Richardson last week and for the first time in a long time, the Legion of Boom is finally healthy again. On the offensive side of the ball Russell Wilson is also healthy and has a number of backs to help keep the pressure off of him. While the Seahawks haven’t improved dramatically on paper, they’re healthy, and that alone could push them deep into the playoffs. The Cardinals should also benefit from being healthy again and from the leadership skills of Larry Fitzgerald, Carson Palmer and Karlos Dansby. While all three are closer to retirement than they are their prime, their presence on the field and throughout the locker room is more than any coach could ask for. Speaking of coach, Bruce Arians is one of the best around and he’ll utilize the young talent around those three to get maximum output. That or he can call up the one man wrecking crew in David Johnson and watch him work.

The 49ers and Rams are in a developmental phase but they’re not to be scoffed at. The Rams are young, and in a tough division such as the NFC West it may be the best thing going for them. Jared Goff is in his second year and the Rams did an excellent job in giving him more receiving options. The additions of Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp will provide more options down the field for Goff as well as Tavon Austin underneath. The wide receiver room should be enough for defenses to not stack eight in the box which should allow Todd Gurley to once again run free after a difficult sophomore campaign. The defense is coached by Wade Phillips who without a doubt will have this unit in the top half of the league. Aaron Donald, Alec Ogletree and Trumaine Johnson are the leaders of each level on the defense. Donald is currently holding out but once he returns this defense will be as good if not better than the next. The 49ers have one of the best, young, front sevens in the NFL. Solomon Thomas, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Aaron Lynch, Navarro Bowman and Reuben Foster are all Pro Bowl caliber players. The trick is to keep them all on the field at the same time as injuries have nicked and bruised most of that list. The offense will be where the 49ers struggle but somehow Brian Hoyer always seems to shine bright in the big games. Fortunately for him, playing against the Seahawks and Cardinals twice a year may be enough motivation to pull out a surprise win in one or two of those match-ups. The 49ers still have the longest path to go as they’re in search of long term answers at QB, RB and WR but their young defense brings promise to be something similar to what the Seahawks have developed over the years.

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