The NFC West is in the most turnover of any division in football. It features 3 teams that went to the Super Bowl at least once in the last decade, however for the better part of the last eight years Seattle and Arizona have reigned supreme, while St. Louis and San Francisco have watched from afar. Very far
The turnover in the division began last year when the Seahawks joined the Rams (who have won six games in the last three years) towards the bottom of the league’s standings. San Francisco finished with a .500 record for the first time since 2002 and the Arizona Cardinals, led by Kurt Warner, won the West for the second consecutive time and made it to the Divisional Playoffs.
However this turnover continued when Kurt Warner retired and sent the Cardinals into an uncertain future that they start this year. In addition to the defending champ’s new look, this year there will be a #1 draft pick on display in the division, a controversial new coach in Seattle looking to right their path and a once great franchise looking to find a bit of its old magic from its fiery coach. May the scramble begin.
Arizona Cardinals (8-8 in 2009; Division Champs)
Offense: L. Fitzgerald-WR, B. Wells-RB, M. Leinart-QB (B)
Defense: D. Dockett-DE, J. Porter-LB, D. Rodgers-Cromartie-CB, A. Wilson-S (B)
The Good: Despite everything that has been made about what they’ve lost in Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle, not enough has been made about what is still here. Joey Porter will bolster a pass rush that already has Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell in place. Adding Kerry Rhodes to Adrian Wilson at safety gives them a very physical pair of safeties. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie also is on his way to becoming a premier cover corner.
The Bad: The offense is in a very tough transition period. Matt Leinart (14 TD vs. 20 interceptions for his career) doesn’t have the ability to step in and assume the retired Kurt Warner’s impact. Anquan Boldin’s departure creates another problem as defenses will be able to focus more on the amazing Larry Fitzgerald. The assumption that they will be able to lean more on the Beanie Wells/Tim Hightower backfield is a risky one as well as they were ranked 28th in the league in rushing in ’09.
X-Factor-Beanie Wells: He was drafted for when the team shifted its focus, which was bound to happen whenever Warner walked. The time is now in just his second season. He’s a physical, 240 pound back and after he started slow he scored in three of the last four weeks and once in the playoffs. With the likely shift in volume of passes called for, he will be an intricate part of this system.
2010 Projection: @ StL (W), @ Atl (L), Oak (L), @ SD (L), NO (L), @ Sea (L), TB (W), @ Min (L), Sea (W), @ KC (W), SF (W), StL (W), Den (W), @ Car (W), Dal (L), @ SF (L)
Summary: Arizona is tough to peg, as they are undergoing a lot of changes. However, it is safe to say there will be an early adjustment period from the Air Arizona days into a more balanced club. Everything depends how well Leinart takes to the system, but expecting the prolific Cards of the last few years is overshooting this team’s potential by far. RECORD: 8-8
Seattle Seahawks (5-11 in 2009)
Offense: M. Hasselbeck-QB, J. Forsett-RB, T.J. Houshmanzadeh-WR, J. Carlson-TE (C+)
Defense: A. Curry-LB, L. Tatupu-LB, E. Thomas-S (D+)
The Good: There is talent at the skill positions still, and new coach Pete Carroll knows what to do with talent. Justin Forsett stepped up down the stretch and gave them a running and pass catching presence out the backfield, although his touches were limited when the job was given back to Julius Jones for some reason. Second round pick Golden Tate should be a boost to receiver group that needs a quick downfield threat. T.J Houshmandzadeh can can still make the in between plays and John Carlson is continually getting better at tight end.
The Bad: The offensive and defensive lines are in bad shape. Top pick OT Russell Okung was taken to fill in the two-year void Walter Jones retirement created, but an ankle injury could sideline him potentially for a couple of months. Lack of production from this line contributed to many of the offensive struggles and without Okung, there is really no change to it. On the defensive front, they have literally none one create any pass rush on the line and it shows, they were 30th vs. the pass in 2009.
X-Factor-Eric Thomas: Seattle was bad against the pass last year, to say the least. To help remedy this they brought in Thomas as a big upgrade at the free safety spot. At the University of Texas he made no shortage of big plays on the ball, and he’ll be asked to do that from day one in the lackluster Seahawks secondary. Much of their hope for any turnaround is based in keeping opposing quarterbacks honest, and Thomas inherited much of this responsibility as soon as he was selected.
2010 Projection: SF (L), @ Den (L), SD (L), @ StL (W), @ Chi (L), Ari (W), @ Oak (L), NYG (L), @ Ari (L), @ NO (L), KC (W), Car (W), @ SF (L), @ TB (L), StL
Summary: Seattle has tumbled from dominance in the West quickly, and while they had a great draft and brought in some necessary pieces. However there is a long way to go and there isn’t enough change on the front lines to either stop anybody or let Matt Hasselbeck or the running game truly get started. Progress is still a ways off. RECORD: 5-11
St. Louis Rams (1-15 in 2009)
Offense: S. Jackson-RB, S. Bradford-QB, D. Avery-WR (D+)
Defense: J. Laurinaitis-LB, O. Atogwe-FS, R. Bartell (C-)
The Good: Slowly but surely, the tides are changing some. Landing the top pick in April’s draft gave them a chance to reboot and they used it to bring in a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford. While there will be plenty impatient waiting for Bradford’s impact, he will be aided by Steven Jackson’s presence, which is more than most QBs can count on. Jackson finished second in rushing last season, and was nearly all of the Ram offense. James Laurinaitis was one of the most active linebackers in the league as a rookie and is a much needed spark in the middle of the defense.
The Bad: Virtually everything not named Jackson or Bradford. They are severely undermanned at wide receiver, which could stunt Bradford’s growth until approved. They are very inexperienced at offensive tackle, with rookie Roger Saffold and second year guy Jason Smith. There was little significant change to a defense that finished 25th versus the pass and 27th against the rush in 2009, but this isn’t going to be a quick fix and it may take a few more Bradford level picks to really get the ship back on course.
X-Factor-Jason Smith: In a last ditch effort to support QB Marc Bulger, the Rams selected Smith second overall in 2009 and gave him a $33 million contract. Smith only managed to play in 8 games, due to a mixture of injuries and was underwhelming when active. Now Bulger is gone and the stakes have risen in year two, as he is now charged with protecting Bradford, their $76 million investment. He has to find quick success, because the Rams desperately need him to be able to protect Bradford (who carries injury red flags himself) and give Saffold time to develop at right tackle, instead of being charged with left tackle from day one.
2010 Projection: Ari (L), @ Oak (L), Was (L), Sea (L), @ Det (L), SD (L), @ TB (W), Car (L), @ SF (L), Atl (L), @ Den (L), Ari (L), @ NO (L), KC (W), SF (L), @ Sea (L)
Summary: The hope and attention on Bradford’s rookie campaign could be quickly refocused on the continual dismissal results of the team at large. They play hard, but the talent still isn’t up to par on either side of the ball and the Rams will compete this year though….just for the top overall pick in 2011’s draft, which may actually help more than a few more immediate wins would in the long term. RECORD: 2-14
San Francisco 49ers (8-8 in 2009)
Offense: F. Gore-RB, V. Davis-TE, M. Crabtree-WR, A. Smith-QB (B)
Defense: P. Willis-LB, M. Lawson-LB, N. Clements-CB, A. Franklin-NT (A)
The Good: Coach Mike Singletary has constructed one of the quickest defensive units in football, led by the league’s best linebacker Patrick Willis. Along with Manny Lawson, Justin Smith and Aubrayo Franklin they had the league’s 6th best run defense. On offense, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree provide a big play spark in the passing game that has long been lacking, and may reduce the wear and tear on franchise back Frank Gore, by balancing out the offense attack.
The Bad: The Niners had a choice to focus on upgrading their offensive line or their secondary during the offseason. In the end they choose to focus on the line, but largely left their secondary intact, which could come back to haunt them. It was night and day on the San Fran defense in ’09. While the front line was brutal on the run, the secondary was like a swinging door, allowing for 229 yards per game, 21st in the league. While that may hold up against weak NFC West passing games, it will be exploited by more talented foes.
X-Factor-Alex Smith: The struggles of the 2005 first pick have been frequent in years past, but he showed clear signs of becoming a solid NFL QB after taking over in week 7 last year. His continued improvement will play a big role in how far the Niners can go. While he will not be asked to win games on his own, how responsible he is with the ball is critical to how many games this defense can win this fall. The key to his continued success is maintaining solid accuracy, his greatest challenge thus far.
2010 Projection: @ Sea (W), NO (L), @ KC (L), @ Atl (W), Phi (W), Oak (W), @ Car (W), Den (L), Stl (W), TB (W), @ Ari (L), @ GB (L), Sea (W), @ SD (L), @ StL (W), Ari
Summary: The defense will drive the fortunes of the 49ers, especially with four games versus the lowly Seahawks and Rams. If the offense can stay consistent over the course of the season, they should easily take advantage of their status as the only team in the division who is not in a major transition period to walk away with the title. RECORD: 10-6