Why the San Francisco 49ers Are Legitimate Contenders for the NFC West Title

Why Kyle Shanahan's squad could be an enticing playoff sleeper

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

So we can all agree on one thing: The Los Angeles Rams are winning the NFC West, right?

Maybe not.

The horned helmets certainly won the offseason. On the heels of an 11-5 season under upstart coaching prodigy Sean McVay, the Rams restocked their playoff roster, trading for the likes of Marcus Peters, Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib, and Brandin Cooks.

The haul is impressive enough, but when you take into account the talent that was already on the roster, the Super Bowl aspirations naturally reveal themselves. An offense predicated on the genius of Sean McVay, the reliability of the re-emergent Jared Goff, and rested on the hardy shoulders of do-it-all running back Todd Gurley. And on defense, a front headed by one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the modern era in Aaron Donald, an underrated, overwhelming force in Michael Brockers, reassured in the secondary by an ascending safety duo consisting of Lamarcus Joyner and John Johnson.

The Rams are all in on 2018. After a stunning 11-5 season in 2017, many media outlets have them taking yet another step, going 12-4 for the first time since 2003. Others are even more optimistic, pinning McVay’s Rams as the impending world champions. The hype isn’t building. It’s already here.

But there’s one problem for the Rams. The San Francisco 49ers.

While the Rams’ rebuild has been well-documented, with bright lights and big names flashing across the headlines, the 49ers have taken a quieter approach toward their ascension. The players on their roster match the organization’s sneaky nature; The team paid Jerick McKinnon to be their jack-of-all-trades on offense. The receiving core is stocked with a versatile cast of pass catchers, from reliable receivers Pierre Garcon and Trent Taylor to quick, electric playmakers such as Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis. Add in George Kittle at tight end, and you have an offense geared for a breakout.

All of the team’s offense take place behind a sturdy offensive line, directed by Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan, a creative offensive mind in his own right. Garoppolo changed the 49ers overnight last season. Upon the acquisition of Garoppolo and his substituting of C.J. Beathard, the offense, which had been painful to watch beforehand, suddenly gained an affinity for moving the football and churning the clock. It was none other than Jimmy G who facilitated this quick progress, using a “cool under pressure” mentality and immaculate field vision to his advantage. With an offseason working with Shanahan and delving into the schemes, Garoppolo can flourish and lead a contender with the weapons he has.

The 49ers’ defense gets even less respect, but the unit is solid on all three levels. The defensive line is deep, with two first-round picks at the center in Solomon Thomas and DeForest Buckner, the latter of whom has silently solidified his reputation as one of the better interior linemen in the nation.

In the linebacking core and the secondary, the 49ers have similar levels of talent, with players such as Reuben Foster, Fred Warner, Richard Sherman, Akiello Witherspoon, Jaquiski Tartt, and Adrian Colbert. The team is flush with young, ascending, homegrown talent. While the Rams turned to the market to build a giant, John Lynch and the 49ers have stuck to their own plans. And now, in 2018, they have all the requisite pieces to compete.

The Rams are still the favorite to win the NFC West. But let’s not count the 49ers out just yet. Kyle Shanahan has a well-rounded team with very few holes and a reliable field general at his disposal. Built in different ways, with different philosophies, the Rams and 49ers are headed for a head-on collision in 2018. The Rams aim to capitalize on their artificial championship window. But the 49ers, a more traditionally-built squad, will not make it easy for them.