SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Rams' aggressive pursuit of going from NFC West Division champions to Super Bowl champions in 2018 has been one of the NFL's hottest offseason topics.
The impact of the Rams' bold moves to acquire cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, receiver Brandin Cooks and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has not been lost inside the San Francisco 49ers organization. After all, the Rams sit at the top of the Niners' division, and the two teams have a longstanding rivalry that appears on the verge of being must-see once again.
"It is what it is," coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters at last week's NFL owners meetings. "They've added some firepower this offseason, and I think we have, too. I know they're trying to get better, and they have, and hopefully we are, too."
In some ways, the 49ers are now in a similar position to where the Rams were last year at this time. Like the Rams of the 2017 offseason, the Niners are coming off a losing season but are making calculated moves to round out their roster in hopes of engineering a big turnaround. Those Rams added a stabilizing piece on the offensive line in tackle Andrew Whitworth and an offensive weapon who had been underutilized in his previous stop in receiver Robert Woods. They also added some under-the-radar talents they viewed as scheme and locker-room fits, such as cornerbacks Kayvon Webster and Nickell Robey-Coleman and pass-rusher Connor Barwin.
Although some of the positions are different, the 49ers have followed a similar blueprint, making big investments in a key offensive lineman (center Weston Richburg) and giving a larger-than-expected contract to an offensive weapon they believe can do more than he has previously (running back Jerick McKinnon). They've also taken fliers on some more budget-friendly players they hope can blossom in their system in guard Jonathan Cooper and pass-rusher Jerry Attaochu. Cornerback Richard Sherman could be considered a happy medium between a big addition and a low-risk move as he recovers from a ruptured right Achilles.
As it stands, the 49ers can only hope their offseason moves help them make the leap from NFC West also-ran to division winners. The Rams, meanwhile, have turned their attention to taking the next step toward claiming a Super Bowl title. Their big-name additions have made splashy headlines, but the real story is that the Rams clearly believe their Super Bowl window is open now and intend to jump through it before having to pay top dollar for quarterback Jared Goff in a couple of years.
That's a position the 49ers haven't yet reached, and it's a big part of the reason why they aren't getting caught up in some sort of headline-driven arms race. Instead, having already paid out a massive contract for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the Niners are attempting to balance becoming genuine playoff contenders now and setting themselves up to sustain that status in the future. It's why, even with plenty of cap room, the Niners didn't throw big money at bank-breaking free agents such as Andrew Norwell and Allen Robinson.
“I think you do everything you can to win now, but you can never do it at the expense of your future,” Shanahan said. “And I’ve been in this league a long time, I think we’ve all waited a long time to have an opportunity like this. This isn’t something that you go in recklessly and just try to make yourself look good right away.”
That's also why the 49ers have wisely avoided making any reactionary moves meant as a clear response to what the Rams have done. The temptation when a division rival adds talent the way the Rams have would be to mortgage the future in an effort to counter. Such an approach might offer a quick fix at the expense of consistency.
But Shanahan is quick to remind that the Niners' goal is to compete with the Rams not only in 2018, but beyond.
“[Suh] is a good player, there’s a lot of good players in this league," Shanahan said. "I know one of the best is there, too, with [Aaron] Donald, so it’s gonna be a huge challenge. I was messing with [Rams coach] Sean [McVay] about it, but I’m sure they’re gonna draft some more good ones also. We plan on improving our team, which I think we’ve done, and I think it’s gonna be a challenge this year, and I think it's gonna be a challenge for years to come. And we look forward to it.”
Of course, before the Niners can compete with the Rams for a division crown, they must first climb out of the NFC West basement. Even after finishing last season with five consecutive wins, the 49ers still finished last in the division for the third straight year. There's plenty of optimism around the team based on that finish and on what Garoppolo could do with a full offseason to learn Shanahan's offense.
Still, the Niners' roster needs plenty of work, something general manager John Lynch and Shanahan have not lost sight of even as buzz around their team builds. Until proven otherwise, the Rams wear the crown and have earned the right to be division favorites. And while Seattle looks to rebuild around quarterback Russell Wilson and Arizona seeks a quarterback capable of taking a solid roster back into contention, Shanahan is looking forward to the challenge that awaits as the NFC West reclaims its place as one of the NFL's toughest neighborhoods.
“I think we've got four good teams in our division," Shanahan said. "I know Arizona and Seattle have been at it for a while, and I’m not gonna act like they’re not gonna be there every year also. There’s four good organizations, good coaches, good players. It’s a tough division to be in, but it makes it more fun also.”