Power ranking 49ers opponents: Nos. 10-7
Another team with a uncertain quarterback situation, but for very different reasons than the Panthers or Falcons is the artist formerly known as the Washington Football Team.
Pretty much everything else about this team makes sense.
The defense remains stout, featuring a strong defensive line, led by EDGE Chase Young and defensive tackle Daron Payne, that exists to get after the passer and set up the secondary that is solid if unspectacular.
And the skill position players on offense are quite good, especially wide receiver Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel, whom the Commanders are hoping can return from an injury-plagued 2021 and be a dynamic piece for the offense.
But then you take into account the volatility of their new quarterback: former Eagles and Colts signal-caller Carson Wentz, who was traded to Washington this offseason, with his new team taking on his contract.
Wentz has shown himself to be a good quarterback when he’s at his best (this will be the third time the 49ers have faced him in three years with his third team; Wentz’s team is 2-0 so far), but is also prone to bizarre decision making and falling apart at the wrong team, like he did in the Colts’ last two games of the 2021 season, where Indianapolis went from playoff hopefuls to the outside, looking in.
If Wentz is the best version of himself, he’s already shown he can be a problem for this 49ers’ defense, but if not, his predilection for self-implosion could lead to a rough year for the Commanders.
Another team losing the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes but with plenty of questions outside of that area anyway.
Like the Seahawks, the Saints still have quality offensive playmakers on their team, mostly in the form of wideout Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara, but they have an even worse quarterback situation than Seattle does, currently featuring just Taysom Hill and Ian Book at the position at this point in the offseason.
As the quarterback carousel continues to spin, maybe this is an eventual landing point for Jimmy Garoppolo, but until then, the Saints are going to be heavily dependent on their defense in a way they haven’t been in years.
All of this comes in the wake of longtime head coach Sean Payton opting not to return to the team in 2022 and beyond, meaning they’ll be counting on new head man Dennis Allen, who has been with the Saints for 12 seasons, to provide some continuity on defense.
It’s a new era in New Orleans in more ways than one.
The likeliest scenario is Jameis Winston comes back after looking good in seven games before tearing his ACL in November, but he’s also had conversations with Indianapolis to take over as its starter next year.
The Saints as a defense-first team is odd, but it may be the road to any success in a poor NFC South in 2022, which appears to be left with one good team.
The 49ers will have a lot of opportunities to reunite with old friends in 2022, and perhaps one of the most notable of those is former offensive coordinator and now-Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel returning to Levi’s Stadium.
Miami is certainly looking to build a Kyle Shanahan-inspired offense with McDaniel at the helm, no surprise given how instrumental Shanahan’s former assistant has been during his tenure in San Francisco in helping build the 49ers offense, especially in the running game.
And the Dolphins have started to make themselves into a literal facsimile of the 49ers in many ways, bringing in former Niners aplenty so far in free agency: wide receivers Trent Sherfield and River Cracraft, and running back Raheem Mostert.
Granted, outside of Mostert, these aren’t the heaviest hitters for the Niners to lose, but these signings, along with the additions of former Cardinals running back Chase Edmonds and fullback Alec Ingold certainly give off the sure signs of what McDaniel is trying to build in Miami.
Add to that what the Dolphins already had in place, particularly wide receivers Jaylen Waddle and DeVante Parker, tight end Mike Gesicki, and running backs Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed, and Miami looks to be set on offense.
But then, as it always does, we come to the quarterback question.
Presumed incumbent Tua Tagovailoa hasn’t exactly set the world on fire during his tenure thus far. He’s played in 23 of 33 possible games, completing 66 percent of his passes for 4,467 yards with 27 touchdowns against 15 picks. He’s won 13 of his 21 starts, which is good news, but the question is whether all these pieces around him can help Tua to take the next step.
And, of course, whether he can play the whole 17-game slate.
If he can do both of those things, the Dolphins will be in pretty good shape. If not, they find themselves in third place in an increasingly difficult AFC East.
What a wild offseason it has been for the Cardinals already, who appear to be in a stalemate with their starting quarterback, Kyler Murray, over his contract while also having to face the fact that he’s been the face, along with head coach Kliff Kingsbury, of two straight season-ending collapses.
In 2020, they started off 5-2 before finishing the season with a 3-6 record to close out the campaign at 8-8.
2021 started off even better, with the team jumping out to a 7-0 start and getting to its Week 12 bye with a 9-2 record. The Cardinals only won two more games on the season, somehow losing the NFC West crown to the Rams and sputtered out with an awful performance at SoFi against their division opponents in the Wild Card round.
The ultimate question of who is at fault for these late-season debacles remains to be seen, but thus far the franchise appears to have a wait-and-see approach to Murray’s contract extension, meaning the 2022 season could be a make-or-break year for Murray and his head coach in what could be a bit of a down year for the NFC West.
Many of the key players are still around, including All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, tight end Zach Ertz, and touchdown machine/running back James Conner. Defensively, they’ll still have defensive tackle J.J. Watt, second-year linebacker Isaiah Simmons, and safety Budda Baker, but losing pass-rusher Chandler Jones will hurt.
The broken record response is pretty clear here, however: if Murray continues to improve and he and Kingsbury can figure out how to manage the end of the season without falling apart, they should be competitive in the NFC West.
If Murray and Kingsbury fail, the Cardinals may be looking for a new QB/head coach tandem to start 2023.