Could Cardinals challenge 49ers for best defense in NFC West?

Chandler Jones #55 of the Arizona Cardinals (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Chandler Jones #55 of the Arizona Cardinals (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) /

The 49ers top-ranked defense could be challenged by an upstart Cardinals team in the NFC West this season.

One of the pleasant surprises the San Francisco 49ers enjoyed last season was just how potent their defense was.

A year after the Niners posted an underwhelming and unimpressive defense in 2018, the 2019 crop ended up finishing the year with the league’s eighth best scoring defense and second best unit in yards allowed (4,509).

The Arizona Cardinals, meanwhile, allowed more yards than anyone else in the NFL (6,432).

So, is there actually a chance the Cardinals defense could challenge San Francisco for the NFC West’s best in 2020?

Defensive turnarounds typically don’t take a lot. Case in point for the 49ers, three notable additions entirely changed the outlook of that side of the ball: pass-rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, along with linebacker Kwon Alexander. Those three were big reasons why the Niners went from a team allowing an average of 27.2 points per game to allowing 19.4 a year ago.

San Francisco lost a key part to its defense during the offseason, trading away Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts. The hope will be the 49ers’ top pick from the 2020 NFL Draft, South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, will fill the void adequately enough his rookie year. Outside of that transaction, the Niners defense mostly remains intact.

Because of this, there’s little reason to assume San Francisco’s defense suffers a serious setback this season.

But what about the Cardinals and the rest of the NFC West?

49ers challenged by Cardinals defense, others in the NFC West?

The Los Angeles Rams took a step in the wrong direction last year after their tough loss in Super Bowl LIII. And while they’re looking at replacing EDGE Dante Fowler with another pass-rusher, Leonard Floyd, the Rams defense still revolves around All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

That’s not a bad formula, and neither is having cornerback Jalen Ramsey. But it’s hard to suggest L.A.’s defense saw a significant improvement this offseason.

Same with the Seattle Seahawks, whose already questionable pass rush from a year ago didn’t improve much at all in free agency or the draft.

If anything, only the Cardinals made significant improvements on the defensive side of the ball during the offseason. One of the key moves was to land one of the draft’s best players, Clemson linebacker-safety hybrid Isaiah Simmons, who is a solid candidate for the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

Simmons will be joined by first-year Cardinals like veteran defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and linebacker Devon Kennard during the offseason. While the latter two names aren’t high-profile signings, they’re still upgrades.

Plus, having multiyear All-Pros in cornerback Patrick Peterson and EDGE Chandler Jones won’t hurt matters either.

The simple synopsis is this: Arizona might not have the NFC West’s best defense, as that accolade still belongs to the 49ers. And it’s still hard to argue the NFC West is anything but the best and toughest division in the NFL right now. Yet neither the Rams nor Seahawks improved their defenses significantly enough. The Niners defense took a slight step backwards with the loss of Buckner.

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The Cardinals, meanwhile, improved significantly. And they could be a potential dark-horse threat to San Francisco this season.