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NFC West burning questions for 2024 season: Will 49ers trade Brandon Aiyuk? Big year coming for Kyler Murray?

While there are several good divisions in the NFL, the NFC West might be the league’s most interesting division in 2024. The NFC West, after all, includes the last NFC squad to win the Super Bowl, the reigning conference champions as well as the highest skill position player selected in this year’s draft. 

The division has several other juicy storylines to follow as well. One ongoing storyline involves the 49ers and whether or not they will trade either receiver Brandon Aiyuk or fellow wideout Deebo Samuel. Another chapter was recently added to this story after Aiyuk decided to skip the 49ers’ mandatory minicamp. 

With training camp just around the corner, he’s a look at each NFC West team’s burning question, starting with the possible future of San Francisco’s top receivers. 

San Francisco 49ers

Will the team trade Brandon Aiyuk before the start of the 2024 season? 

My guess is that Aiyuk will remain in San Francisco, despite his recent minicamp holdout along with the fact that the 49ers have recently extended the contracts of fellow wideout Jauan Jennings and running back Christian McCaffrey. There’s still time for the 49ers to extend Aiyuk’s contract this offseason, but it may come at the expense of one of his teammates. 

That teammate is Samuel, who recently acknowledged that the team was engaged in talks about possibly trading him earlier this offseason. Samuel has two years left on a three-year, $71.55 million extension that he signed back in 2022. The 49ers, though, have the option to release him after the 2024 season. 

San Francisco is hoping that they can keep the band together for at least another year, so don’t be surprised if the 49ers keep both wideouts in 2024 for another Super Bowl run. Things should get interesting after this season, though. 

The 49ers are not going to have three wideouts under substantial contracts for the long run, which means that someone has to be heading out the door. That someone appears to be Samuel, given that the 49ers entertained trading him this offseason, extended Jennings’ contract and spent their 2024 first-round pick on former Florida receiver Ricky Pearsall

At this point, all signs are pointing toward the 49ers having both Aiyuk and Samuel for one last hurrah. 

Can the Rams make another Super Bowl run? 

The Rams have several things going for them. They play in the considerably easier NFC conference. They have a likely future Hall of Fame quarterback under center in Matthew Stafford, who is armed with one of the NFL’s best receiving duos in Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua. They are led by one of the NFL’s best coaches in Sean McVay, who already has two trips to the Super Bowl under his belt. 

Those are the main reasons why I believe that the Rams are capable of making another Super Bowl run in 2024. But there are a few more reasons why I like their chances. 

Los Angeles’ offense is led by its passing game, but the team got some much-needed balance last year in the form of running back Kyren Williams. After getting limited work as a rookie, Williams took over the starting role and was named to the Pro Bowl after rushing for 12 touchdowns and leading the NFL with an average of 95.3 rushing yards per game. 

The Rams’ top-two draft picks should make a significant impact this year on a defense that lost Aaron Donald to retirement. While there’s no one who can replace Donald, rookie outside linebacker Jared Verse and defensive end Braden Fiske will add some bite to a defense that was a pedestrian 19th in the NFL In points allowed in 2024. 

Will Kyler Murray regain his superstar status? 

It’s been weird watching Murray hover under the radar the last two years. A Pro Bowler in 2020 and 2021, Murray’s ACL injury late in the 2022 season (which sidelined him for more than half of the 2023 season) and the Cardinals’ demise are the two biggest reasons why he has fallen out of the national spotlight. 

The crazy part is that Murray — unbeknownst to most — played at his usual high level upon returning from injury last year. In eight starts, Murray led the Cardinals to three of the team’s four wins that included upset wins in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. He nearly led Arizona to an upset win over eventual AFC South champion Houston in his second game back from injury. 

Given how well he played last year, I’d be surprised if Murray doesn’t reclaim his place as one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks in 2024. Adding to my confidence is the addition of Marvin Harrison Jr., the top receiver prospect in this year’s draft. 

Murray has high hopes regarding what the Cardinals can do in 2024. Along with Harrison, the Cardinals’ offseason additions include wideout Zay Jones, offensive tackle and former Bengals first-round pick Jonah Williams, rookie defensive end Darius Robinson and cornerback and fellow rookie Max Melton.

“Win the Super Bowl,” Murray recently said, via the Arizona Republic. “That’s my goal. That’s my expectation.”

Is Geno Smith’s job in jeopardy? 

Seattle quickly stated that Smith is the still its starting quarterback shortly after it traded for Sam Howell, who led the NFL in pass attempts last year as the Commanders‘ starting quarterback. Smith is still the starter, but don’t think for a second that his job is completely safe. 

Smith’s job status isn’t in jeopardy now, though. The 33-year-old is coming off consecutive Pro Bowl campaigns and is two years removed from leading the NFL in completion percentage. The job is Smith’s to lose, but Howell’s arrival makes things interesting. 

Howell’s presence puts added emphasis on Smith and Seattle getting off to a fast start. But if the Seahawks struggle early, new head coach Mike Macdonald may decide to turn to Howell to help right the ship. 

Barring either a slow start or an injury to Smith, I don’t see Howell taking over this season unless the Seahawks are out of the playoff picture come December or early January. I don’t see that happening, as the Seahawks have the talent in place to corral one of the conference’s seven playoff spots. 

Smith’s ability to take care of the football gives him a major advantage over his 23-year-old teammate. Howell’s 21 interceptions last season is one more pick than Smith’s total number of interceptions thrown over the past two seasons. Until Howell cleans up that aspect of his game, he won’t be starting ahead of Smith or anyone else. 

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Author: Bryan DeArdo
June 8, 2024 | 11:20 am

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