By JOSH DUBOW AP Pro Football Writer
SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Geno Smith came into last season a bit of a mystery, eight years removed from his last chance at being a full-time starter.
Brock Purdy was a complete unknown as the final pick in the draft fortunate to just solidify a roster spot as a rookie.
The two untested quarterbacks played a big part in helping their teams make the playoffs in 2022 with Smith earning Pro Bowl honors after lifting Seattle into the postseason and Purdy winning his first seven starts to get San Francisco to the NFC championship game.
How those two quarterbacks follow up those seasons will go a long way in determining whether the Seahawks or 49ers get top billing in the NFC West.
“We’re not worried about Brock,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Brock’s the real deal. He knows how to play and we just have to have our team keep getting better and we’ll keep getting better as we go.”
With the Los Angeles Rams undergoing a youth movement as they re-set the roster following years of going all-in and the Arizona Cardinals appear to be in the midst of a full rebuild under a new regime of GM Monti Ossenfort and coach Jonathan Gannon, the 49ers and Seahawks appear to be the class of the NFC West for a second straight season.
The Niners won the division and knocked out their rivals in the wild-card round last season with Purdy outplaying Smith and getting much more help.
Purdy was outstanding as a rookie after being drafted last overall in 2022. He stepped into the lineup after Jimmy Garoppolo got hurt in December. He led the Niners to a win in relief in his first outing and then seven more in a row before hurting his elbow in the NFC title game loss at Philadelphia.
Purdy underwent offseason surgery, but is back at full strength with one of the league’s most talented rosters in support.
But if he can’t come close to matching his performance from last season, the Niners could fall short in the regular-season race against an improved Seahawks squad.
Seattle fortified the defensive line, brought back star linebacker Bobby Wagner for a second stint and should be better in the secondary with a healthy Jamal Adams and rookie Devon Witherspoon. The offense added a key piece in rookie slot receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
But the key will be if Smith can build on last year’s performance when he threw 30 TD passes after starting just five games the nine previous seasons.
“We’ve got to put the work in,” Smith said. “We got a lot of great guys. We’ve got a lot of great players. But we have to prove it.”
The Seahawks went into the offseason needing to improve a defense that was the team’s weak spot last season and went into their past to do just that.
Wagner, a key part of the Super Bowl-winning defense a decade ago, returned to Seattle following a one-year stint with the Rams and should provide a needed boost at middle linebacker.
With cornerback Riq Woolen looking to build on a strong rookie campaign, Adams returning after going down with a season-ending injury in the opener last year and a few key additions on the defensive line, Seattle should be in a better spot to slow down San Francisco after allowing 41 points in the playoff loss to the Niners.
While the biggest question about the 49ers maybe whether Purdy can back up his remarkable rookie season, there are a few questions about a defense that was the stingiest in the league last season.
Coordinator DeMeco Ryans parlayed that success into a head coaching job in Houston and San Francisco hired Steve Wilks to take his spot. Wilks is keeping the structure of the defense in place, but whether he will be able to match the success of Ryans remains to be seen.
San Francisco fortified the interior of the defensive line with free agent Javon Hargrave, but is thinner on the edge and still dealing with a holdout from Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa.
The Rams still have some of the key pieces that helped them win the Super Bowl just over 18 months ago with quarterback Matthew Stafford, defensive star Aaron Donald, receiver Cooper Kupp and coach Sean McVay looking to bounce back from last season’s injury-plagued 5-12 campaign.
Most of the rest of the roster is filled with rookies and other unproven players in what GM Les Snead has called a remodel instead of a rebuild, making it difficult for Los Angeles to be able to contend even in a watered-down conference.
WAITING FOR KYLER
The Cardinals are in a tough spot entering their first season under coach Jonathan Gannon with a depleted roster that will be missing star QB Kyler Murray for at least the start of the season.
Murray went down with a season-ending knee injury late last season and the timing of his return remains uncertain. Arizona also traded away star receiver DeAndre Hopkins and defensive lineman J.J. Watt retired and is in rebuild mode under a new regime.
With an extra first-round draft pick next season, Arizona could be in good shape down the line, but should be in for a difficult 2023 season.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
Seahawks, 49ers, Rams, Cardinals.