Brian Witt

NFL preview 2019: How 49ers' defense stacks up against NFC West rivals

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NFL preview 2019: How 49ers' defense stacks up against NFC West rivals

Does defense still win championships?

Based on the way the NFL has evolved over the last several years, with new rules emphasizing the protection of quarterbacks, one has to wonder. It's a different game now. Scoring is at an all-time high. Last season, NFL teams combined for 1,371 touchdowns, the most in a single season in the 99-year history of the league.

What realistic chance does a defense have against modern offenses, under modern rules? That depends on the contents of each respective defense, but one thing is clear: it's not a fair fight.

The NFC West likely will exemplify that fact this coming season. One could make the case that the strength of each team in the division is its offense, and if the critical players remain healthy, they're bound to put up huge numbers.

Still, though, it's not like the NFC West lacks for defensive talent. There are numerous Pro Bowlers and future Hall of Famers on the defensive side of the ball, and several promising young players making the ascent to that level.

Based on the offseason developments, here's how the NFC West defenses rank with training camp only weeks away:

1. Los Angeles Rams

When it comes to the Rams' defense, everything starts and ends with Aaron Donald.

The reigning Defensive Player of the Year is a one-man wrecking crew. He led the league with 20.5 sacks last season, and his 113 total pressures led all interior linemen by a wide margin. With all the double and triple teams he faces, it allows the other members of the defense to thrive.

Ndamukong Suh and Lamarcus Joyner are gone, but Los Angeles acquired veterans Clay Matthews and Eric Weddle in free agency. Weddle will join a defensive backfield that includes former standouts Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, rising safety John Johnson and second-round draft pick Taylor Rapp.

Matthews and Dante Fowler -- who was brought back on a one-year deal -- both have double-digit sack potential, roaming in Donald's wake.

2. San Francisco 49ers

Since 2015, the 49ers have used four first-round draft picks on defensive linemen. Additionally, they traded a second-round pick to Kansas City for Dee Ford. It's time to put up or shut up.

Based on talent alone, one could make the case San Francisco has the best defensive line in the NFL. Even if it's not the best, it certainly has the potential to be up there. Ford is coming off a season in which he recorded 13.0 sacks and seven forced fumbles and led all edge rushers in quarterback pressures. Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner made the leap last season, leading the 49ers with 12.0 sacks. Add in former first-round picks Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas, as well as 2019 No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa, and it's easy to see why opposing quarterbacks should be very, very afraid.

San Francisco will need that defensive line to live up to its potential, though, because the rest of the defense has quite a few question marks.

The 49ers' biggest defensive free-agent acquisition came in the form of linebacker Kwon Alexander, who offers lots of promise at the position, but is coming off a torn ACL. If he can stay healthy, Alexander and Fred Warner could form a near-ideal linebacking duo for the modern NFL.

[RELATED: These three players are most important to 49ers' success]

Richard Sherman has one cornerback spot locked down, but the rest of the defensive backfield seems to be in constant flux. At safety, neither Jaquiski Tartt nor Jimmie Ward has proven the ability to stay healthy, and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon took a step back in his sophomore campaign.

If the 49ers' defensive line fulfills its promise, it'll make life a lot easier on everyone else.

3. Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals' defense wasn't as bad last season as their record indicated. When you're the worst team in the league, your defense faces a lot of short fields. That's something new head coach Kliff Kingsbury and new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph hope to change this coming season.

They've got some talent to work with. Linebacker Chandler Jones has recorded more sacks (41) than any other player since 2016. The Cardinals added former Arizona State legend Terrell Suggs in free agency, and he can still get after the quarterback after totaling 7.0 sacks last year.

The defensive backfield might be the strength of the team, with future Hall of Famer Patrick Peterson holding down one cornerback spot, and 2019 second-round draft pick Byron Murphy manning the other. D.J. Swearinger and Budda Baker form a quality safety duo.

4. Seattle Seahawks

My, how times have changed.

After years after possessing arguably the top defense in the league, the Seahawks took a step backward last season, and they might take another this year.

Bobby Wagner is still one of the best linebackers in the league, but there's a significant talent dropoff after him. Seattle traded away defensive end Frank Clark, who notched 32 sacks over the last three seasons combined. L.J. Collier was drafted in the first round as an eventual replacement, but it would be wildly unfair to expect him to make the same kind of impact in his rookie season. Free-agent signee Ziggy Ansah has a bunch of talent, but health is a constant concern.

With Earl Thomas departing for Baltimore and Kam Chancellor retiring, the "Legion of Boom" era is officially dead. And, looking at their current defensive backfield, it's going to be a while before it is revived.

NFL preview 2019: How 49ers' offense stacks up against NFC West rivals

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NFL preview 2019: How 49ers' offense stacks up against NFC West rivals

Despite losing their starting quarterback before the end of Week 3, the 49ers still managed to finish last season with a league-average offense, ranking 16th out of 32 teams with an average of 360.6 yards per game.

Jimmy Garoppolo says he's "good to go" and has zero restrictions. Head coach Kyle Shanahan remains one of the brightest offensive minds in the league, and he has several new weapons at his disposal in the form of running back Tevin Coleman and receivers Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd, among others.

All of this is to say that if -- and that's a big 'if' -- the 49ers manage to stay relatively healthy next season, the offense should take one or more steps forward, into the upper echelon of the NFL.

But will it be enough to vault them to the top offensive attack in the NFC West? There are three other teams banking on their own offensive progressions, including the reigning Super Bowl runner-up.

Based on the changes the teams have made since last season, here's how the NFC West offenses rank as training camp nears:

1. Los Angeles Rams

As good as Shanahan is, he might not be the best play-caller in the division.

If he isn't, that honor falls on Sean McVay, who in two seasons as the Rams' head coach has won 24 of 32 regular-season games and has led a top-two ranked scoring offense each time. It doesn't hurt that he has quite the offensive arsenal to utilize.

Behind center, Jared Goff has taken several steps forward in his development as an NFL quarterback under McVay, throwing 60 touchdowns to 19 interceptions over the last two seasons combined. At running back, no one has been more prolific in recent seasons than Todd Gurley, although the reports of arthritis in his knee give cause for concern. The Rams used a third-round draft pick on Darrell Henderson, a change-of-pace back that averaged 8.2 yards per carry over three years at Memphis, who should provide Los Angeles with some insurance and Gurley with the occasional breather.

The Rams lack a bonafide playmaker at the tight end position, but they more than make up for it with their talented receiving corps. Between Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, it might be the best receiver group in the entire league.

2. San Francisco 49ers

Again, health will be a determining factor, but the 49ers' offense is set up to leap forward this coming season.

Yes, Garoppolo is coming off a torn ACL, and yes, he's started only 10 games in his career, but there's a reason Shanahan identified him as his guy. He's a great intermediate passer who has shown an ability to make plays while improvising. His deep ball still needs work, but with the weapons at his disposal, he should be able to spread the ball around a ton.

At running back, the 49ers have the fastest group in the league. Coleman, Matt Breida and Jerrick McKinnon are all blurs in human form, and all have the ability to split out wide.

San Francisco used two draft picks to beef up its receiving corps, using second and third-round selections on Samuel and Hurd, respectively. They'll join Marquise Goodwin, Dante Pettis and others to present opposing defenses with nightmarish matchup problems.

[RELATED: Jimmy G has high praise for 'tremendous talent' Pettis]

Oh, and then there's George Kittle, who just set the NFL's single-season yardage record by a tight end. He might not reach 88 receptions and 1,377 receiving yards again, but given the improved options around him, it's going to be difficult for opposing defenses to throw any extra attention his way.

3. Seattle Seahawks

Outside of Russell Wilson, there's not a whole lot on Seattle's offense that is bound to keep defensive coordinators up at night. That said, Wilson is obviously quite good.

Entering next season, Wilson will have the second-highest career passer rating (100.3) in NFL history, behind only Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (103.1). He led the Seahawks to a 10-6 record in 2018, throwing a career-high 35 touchdowns to a career-low seven interceptions.

Unfortunately for Wilson, he's losing his most dependable target. Doug Baldwin has retired, leaving Tyler Lockett to lead an otherwise unproven receiving corps, featuring the likes of David Moore, Jaron Brown, Amara Darboh and second-round draft pick DK Metcalf.

At running back, Chris Carson was a pleasant surprise last season, but he overshadowed Rashaad Penny, who Seattle selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Only the Ravens ran the ball more times than the Seahawks last season, and with several straight-line deep threats at receiver, expect more of the same to set up play-action.

4. Arizona Cardinals

Out of all the offenses in the division, the Cardinals' is the most difficult to predict, simply due to the number of unknowns at critical positions.

At head coach, Arizona brought in Kliff Kingsbury, he of the 35-40 career coaching record at the collegiate level. Still, Kingsbury is widely regarded as an offensive savant, and the Cardinals are counting on him to develop No. 1 overall draft pick Kyler Murray into one of the most dynamic offensive threats in the league.

Speaking of Murray, he's the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, but while he was playing behind an NFL-level offensive line at Oklahoma -- seriously, go look at the roster -- he wasn't consistently going up against NFL-caliber defenses. That will change, obviously.

He's not entirely without help, though. He's got one of the most dependable receivers in NFL history in Larry Fitzgerald. Christian Kirk looks to build off a productive rookie season, and the Cardinals selected three promising receivers in the draft. One could make the case, however, they should have invested more in the offensive line, which allowed 52 sacks and 109 quarterback hits last season.

It remains to be seen if running back David Johnson can regain his 2016 form. But if the offensive line doesn't take a big step forward, it won't matter what he, Murray or Kingsbury does.

Sharks prospects to watch: Mario Ferraro has future as NHL defenseman

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Sharks prospects to watch: Mario Ferraro has future as NHL defenseman

Editor's note: This week, NBC Sports California will highlight five different Sharks prospects to watch heading into the 2019-20 season. Some have a chance to make the NHL roster as soon as this year, while others face critical years in their development. We continue with defenseman Mario Ferraro. 

Colorado rookie phenom Cale Makar burst on the scene in the playoffs for the Avalanche last season, looking every bit like an NHL player at the ripe age of 20 years old. Makar scored a goal in his first career game, and then added four assists in the seven-game second-round series against the Sharks.

Before Makar arrived in Denver, he was playing at UMass-Amherst with San Jose defensive prospect Mario Ferraro. While Makar made the jump to the NHL first, he seemed to believe Ferraro would be able to do the same eventually.

"Hardest-working guy I've ever met and played with my entire life," Makar said of Ferraro to the Mercury News' Curtis Pashelka, shortly after the Sharks signed Ferraro to an entry-level contract in April.

Fast-forward a few months, and Ferraro is ever closer to joining Makar at the NHL level. He was very impressive in San Jose's recently completed prospect development camp, and -- given the offseason developments with the Sharks' roster -- he could arrive sooner rather than later.

Mario Ferraro

Draft year, position: 2017, second round (No. 49 overall)
Position: Defenseman
Shoots: Left
Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 185 pounds
2018-19 team: UMass-Amherst (NCAA)

Skill set

Ferraro's best skill likely is his motor. He's the energizer bunny out on the ice.

"One of the most high-energy guys you've ever seen, he does not have a bad day," Sharks director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr. said of Ferraro during the development camp.

"Early in the scrimmage, I thought he kind of carried the play," said Barracuda coach Roy Sommer. "Kind of a hard guy to play against."

Ferraro is a smooth skater with near top-end speed. His shot is solid, but not spectacular. He's an adept passer, and has advanced hockey IQ for a player his age. At 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, he isn't the biggest defensemen, but he doesn't shy away from physical play. 

Training-camp proving ground

As things currently stand, the Sharks' top-six group of defensemen appears to be set. On the right side, San Jose has former Norris Trophy winners Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns, as well as Tim Heed. On the left, the Sharks have Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Brenden Dillon and Radim Simek. Jacob Middleton could be a factor, too.

That doesn't appear to leave much room at the moment for Ferraro, who shoots left. However, there's reason to believe things could change in the relatively near future.

Dillon -- who also shoots left -- is due to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason, and given the financial constraints San Jose is likely to face over the next several years, it's reasonable to assume the Sharks won't be able to re-sign him, given what he could command on the open market. Additionally, if the Sharks are going to make a trade for salary relief any time soon, Dillon seems like one of the obvious candidates to be included.

Ferraro is unlikely to unseat any of the current top-six in training camp, but if he can show the Sharks' brass that he is ahead of schedule and capable of competing at the NHL level, it could open up some options for San Jose moving forward.

Best-case scenario

Ferraro builds off the momentum he generated at the development camp and carries it through training camp, leaving the Sharks no decision but to push him straight from college to the NHL, just like his former UMass-Amherst teammate Makar.

Ferraro dazzles during training camp and claims one of the spots on the Sharks' third defensive pairing. With so much attention focused on the likes of Karlsson and Burns, Ferraro is permitted the time and space to properly learn on the job while being tutored by some of the best players at his position in the entire world.

While he doesn't garner any Calder Trophy votes, Ferraro gains valuable experience in a lengthy Sharks' playoff run and proves to be a logical and obvious eventual replacement for Vlasic.

Worst-case scenario

Ferraro's strong performance at the development camp goes to his head, and the motor that has been his calling card suddenly stalls.

He underwhelms at training camp, and gets dismissed early on, sent down to the AHL with the Barracuda. He remains there all season, and never recaptures the promise that had Sharks coaches so excited.

San Jose then is forced to go further into salary cap treachery, understanding they don't have a realistic internal option to fill Dillon's resulting void.

[RELATED: How Gambrell can earn full-time role with Sharks this year]

Realistic expectations

He's 20 years old!

Expecting Ferraro to go straight from the Frozen Four to the NHL is unfair, to say the least. That just doesn't happen very often, Makar being an obvious exception.

Ferraro continues along his current trajectory, impressing Sharks coaches in training camp, but not enough to expedite his promotion. He spends the majority of the season with the Barracuda, where he solidifies his status as the Sharks' top defensive prospect (Ryan Merkley will also have a say).

He makes his NHL debut as a temporary injury replacement late in the regular season, and enters the following season's training camp earmarked for a spot in San Jose's top-six.