ESPN’s NFC West reporters Alden Gonzalez (Los Angeles Rams), Brady Henderson (Seattle Seahawks), Nick Wagoner (49ers) and Josh Weinfuss (Arizona Cardinals) answer two key questions about how the division and its teams will be set up for the immediate future. These projections are based on a three-year window because the teams are on the cusp of changes with upcoming free agency and the draft, and Garoppolo’s contract altered the 49ers’ long-term outlook more than their immediate one because it was a safe bet that the QB would stay in San Francisco.
Three years from now, which team will have the best quarterback situation?
Gonzalez: Three years from now, Jared Goff will be finished with his rookie contract. If he performs the way the Rams hope, his price tag could be exorbitant. How exorbitant? Well, in the previous three-year stretch, from 2015 to 2017, the highest average annual value went from $ 22 million (Aaron Rodgers) to $ 24.6 million (Andrew Luck) to $ 27 million (Matthew Stafford). Now, early in 2018, it’s $ 27.5 million (Garoppolo). That’s 25 percent growth (and it could be even higher after Kirk Cousins signs). If that trend continues, the highest average annual value could top $ 34 million heading into the 2021 season. A price tag such as that could belong to Goff, which is my long-winded way of saying that the 49ers will be better off with Garoppolo. He’s going to shine under coach Kyle Shanahan, so much so that he might just be a bargain by then. Russell Wilson may be the best right now, but he’ll be 30 this year, and his contract expires after only two more seasons.
Henderson: The Seahawks currently have the best quarterback situation, and there’s no reason to believe that anything short of a major injury to Wilson should change that over the next three years. Yes, another massive bill for Wilson will soon come due. He has two years left on his deal, which puts him in position next offseason for an extension that could be in excess of $ 30 million per season with the way the quarterback market is trending. That will make it difficult to retain talented players elsewhere on the roster, just like it has since Wilson signed his second contract in 2015. But that’s the cost of doing business with an elite, proven QB. The 49ers, meanwhile, just paid a fortune to Garoppolo after only seven starts, albeit seven impressive starts. Neither he nor Goff has won a playoff game. Wilson is 8-4 in the playoffs, with a pair of Super Bowl appearances and one championship. He’s also coming off another strong season in which he was in the MVP conversation until the final few weeks, so there’s plenty of good football ahead of him. Until Garoppolo or Goff shows the ability to take a team all the way, like Wilson has, the Seahawks will have the best quarterback situation, even if it’s also the most expensive one.
Wagoner: The safe bet would still have to be on Seattle and Wilson. Put simply, he’s the most accomplished quarterback in the division, and there’s an argument to be made that he is the player most valuable to his team in the NFC West. In three years, Wilson will be only 32 and should still have a lot of good football in front of him. But if you’re looking for the most upside, Garoppolo and Goff are well-positioned to be emerging superstars at the game’s most important position, especially because they both work with QB whisperers in Shanahan and Sean McVay, respectively. Given what Garoppolo did with a lacking supporting cast last season, he looks to have the most potential if the Niners can bolster what’s around him. Goff took a big step in part because the Rams did a nice job of improving what’s around him. He figures to keep improving as well. Seattle would be wise to give Wilson more help to ensure that he keeps performing at his current level. If not, Garoppolo and Goff could surpass him.
Weinfuss: This might be as tough a question as there is in the NFL. While it’s a great debate — the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers all have a great quarterback situation for the near future — there’s also an element of unknown. As of now, the 49ers are the only team in the West with a starting quarterback under contract through 2020. Goff and Wilson both will be up for extensions or new contracts after the 2019 season. While it’s likely that both will be either extended or re-signed, there’s always that sliver of a chance it doesn’t happen for whatever reason. However, with that said, as tough as it is to go against Wilson, it’s the 49ers who have the best quarterback situation over the next three seasons. Garoppolo showed during the six games he played at the end of 2017 that he’s more than capable of being a starting quarterback, as he took a team that won one game through its first 11 last season and won five straight to finish the season. If Garoppolo can continue those types of performances and the Niners can continue improving the roster, the team will be in very good shape.
Which team will win the most division titles in the next three years?
Gonzalez: I can’t say the Seahawks, even though they still have the division’s best quarterback and boast the division’s most accomplished roster. They have replaced both coordinators, might have to rebuild on defense and definitely need to reconstruct the offensive line. I can’t say the Cardinals, even though David Johnson will be back, and their defense is talented. A new head coach and no long-term solution at quarterback signal a dry spell. It comes down to the Rams and 49ers. Even though the 49ers showed so much promise down the stretch last season, I have to go with the Rams because they already have the roster in place for sustainable winning. Sure, their defense could look a little different in 2018. But they have the reigning Associated Press Coach of the Year (Sean McVay), Offensive Player of the Year (Todd Gurley) and Defensive Player of the Year (Aaron Donald). That’s a great start. They’re the reigning champs, but they’re also very young on offense and, with coordinator Wade Phillips, in good hands on defense.
Henderson: I give the Rams a slight edge over the Seahawks while acknowledging that there might be some recency bias at play here. After all, the Seahawks won the NFC West in three of the previous five seasons before the Rams claimed the division title in 2017, their first since 2003. But the Rams’ 35-point December victory in Seattle felt like a changing of the guard. The Rams are a young team that looks built to last. The Seahawks still have loads of talent, but there’s some long-term uncertainty with an aging defense coupled with the question of how much longer Pete Carroll will coach.
Wagoner: This is a tough call because after a slight drop-off, the NFC West again looks to be on its way to being one of the NFL’s toughest neighborhoods. The Rams earned the right to be the favorites heading into 2018, with their talented young core, but they have some difficult roster questions to answer and will need to continue drafting well the next few years as they presumably hand out big contracts to the likes of Donald, Gurley and Goff. The Niners are the most intriguing team in the bunch because of what they did after Garoppolo became the starter. That was without much time to work together and with a roster that still has some glaring holes. The onus now falls on general manager John Lynch to fill those holes and get the roster in place to make the Niners contenders again. Seattle still has Wilson, and as long as he’s around, it has a chance. Arizona still has a salty defense, but until it answers its quarterback question in a positive way, it’s the one team we can probably rule out. The Rams and Niners look to be the best bets, and their rivalry should continue to rekindle. I’ll give the slight edge to the Rams for now until we have a better handle on whether Lynch, who is in only his second year on the job, can build the roster around Garoppolo to help San Francisco get back to the top of the division.
Weinfuss: Even though the 49ers might be in the best shape at quarterback over the next three years, Los Angeles is the best team currently and is set up to be the best team in the future. The Rams have a young QB in Goff, a young running back in Gurley, a young coach in McVay and a young foundation on defense starring Donald. The Niners could make a run at them with Garoppolo, and the Seahawks will be contenders in the division as long as Wilson is on the field, but it’s impossible to predict how the Cardinals will fare given that they don’t have a quarterback under contract for 2018. Regardless of whom Arizona will get for the most important position, it’s hard to think the Cardinals will topple the powerhouse the Rams have built in Los Angeles.