The days of the West being the laughing stock of the NFC have been turned in for what it represents now; perhaps the most talented division in the NFL with two legit Super Bowl contenders. Yet outside of those two popular contenders in San Francisco and Seattle, there are two teams on the other half of the division that are growing as well.
The Rams beat the Niners and Seahawks last season, and have undergone an aggressive expansion to their offensive capabilities. In Arizona, they had added a signal caller with some experience for the first time since they last made their Super Bowl appearance, and the osmosis of that should change the ceiling of their capabilities.
Yet, it is tough to grow as team when the two most complete teams in football are scraping it out atop the league. With two of the most exciting young signal callers in the game, coupled by the two best defensive units in the game, the Niner-Seahawk showdown this season is one that will meet twice in the first 16 games of the year….and could ultimately meet a third time to see who heads to New York in February for the NFC.
QB: Colin Kaepernick RB: Marshawn Lynch, Frank Gore WR: Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Golden Tate TE: Vernon Davis OT: Jake Long, Russell Okung OG: Mike Iupati, Paul McQuistan C: Max Unger
DE: Chris Clemons, Chris Long DT/NT: Justin Smith, Brandon Mebrane OLB: Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks MLB: Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman CB: Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson FS: Earl Thomas, SS: Donte Whitner
K: Phil Dawson, P: Andy Lee, KR: Tavon Austin PR: Patrick Peterson
After five consecutive years of at least 80 catches and 1,000 yards, Fitzgerald was held to career-lows across the board in 2012 due to lame duck QB play. A major bounce back could be in store with his new QB on hand.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (5-11 in 2012)
The Good: There are some exciting elements to the defense. Between Calais Campbell, Dan Williams and Darnell Docket, there’s plenty of push up front and Darryl Washington proved to be one of the emerging young linebackers in the game a year ago. The secondary is headlined by one the best playmakers in the league in Patrick Peterson, and the addition of Tyrann Mathieu could provide one of the most unique sparks on any unit in the West.
The Bad: There still is no dependable option out the backfield. Ryan Williams’ health still is not clear, nor is how much he can offer. The reach to see what Rashard Mendenhall has left in the tank hasn’t been encouraging either, as he has been sidelined through much of the preseason with continuing knee issues. Add in the fact that first round pick, offensive guard, Jonathan Cooper is out for the the season already as well with a broken leg, and the offense as a whole is still missing crucial parts of the balance that is needed to compete.
X-Factor—Carson Palmer: Smartly, instead of prolonging the development of the offense via another leap for a backup or waiting for a rookie to develop, Palmer was brought in to be an instant fix. He’s steady, with the type of downfield arm that can find Larry Fitzgerald consistently, as well as help 2012 first round pick Michael Floyd round into form.
Record: @STL (L), DET (W), @NO (L), @TB (L), CAR (W), @SF (L), SEA (L), ATL (L), HOU (L), @JAX (W), IND (W), @PHI (L), STL (W), @TEN (W), @SEA (L), SF (L)
Prediction: Wrong place at the wrong time for the Cards. While they have a talented defense, as well as some producers on O, they are in the toughest division in the league, and they aren’t better on either side of the ball than any of their division mates. They won’t be an easy date on the schedule by any means, and are a prime pick to spring an upset victory that shakes up the standings. But until they get an answer in the backfield and some more experience for the defense, they’ll be relegated to the bottom of the West. Record: 6-10
With Richard Sherman and company looming over the top, the Seahawks allowed the fewest points per game in 2012…(and led the league in most trashed talked per QB as well).
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (11-5 in 2012)
The Good: The most unpredictable offense in the league has had a full offseason to develop together, and it has no shortage of ways to get the job done. There’s the vertigo that Russell Wilson can put a defense into, while trying to see where he comes out of the pistol, whether its downfield 25 yards himself, or to Golden Tate or Sidney Rice, there’s no easy way to call it. Oh, and then there’s the issue of the league’s most brutal back as well, Marshawn Lynch. Pick your poison.
The Bad: Like many quickly emergent teams, they are an injury away at a few positions from being in trouble. Russell Okung has to stay healthy, as does Lynch. The team’s biggest addition, Percy Harvin, is already out for the majority of the season and if Wilson goes down, the season could very well do the same thing, as Tavaris Jackson is his support. Chris Clemons rebound is also crucial to the balance and depth of the defense.
X-Factor—Bruce Irvin: Irvin never quite picked up the nuances of defenses outside of what he was drafted to do: bum rush the passer. If he can begin to be more of a factor in coverage and run support, he’ll be able to stay on the field more, which means the Hawks could have a 15 sack-potential player in waiting.
Record: @CAR (W), SF (W), JAX (W), @HOU (L), @IND (W), TEN (W), @ARI (W), @STL (L), TB (W), @ATL (L), MIN (W), NO (L), @SF (L), @NYG (W), @ARI (W), STL
Prediction: This is one of the most complete teams in football, if not the most complete. The experience of playing, and winning, together last season will do wonders for them. They have the best secondary in football in Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, as well as a brutal front line on both sides of the ball. They may not have an amazing record in the regular season, but this is a team to build to go a long way. 11-5
With their longtime franchise runner gone, the responsibility for the Rams leap forward year falls squarely on the shoulders of Bradford, who will have more assistance than ever.
ST. LOUIS RAMS (7-8-1 in 2012)
The Good: There are finally both options and time to utilize them for Sam Bradford. The additions of Jared Cook and Tavon Austin put wrinkles into the St. Louis attack that have been gone for nearly a decade. The team went all in to land All-Pro tackle Jake Long and succeeded, which should provide Bradford with the breathing room to finally be able to stretch the field some.
The Bad: Will they be able to move the ball on the ground consistently enough? When Steven Jackson moved this winter, the club decided to stay young, with second year backs Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead. The addition of Zac Stacy will give them a third leg in the young backfield, but it remains to be seen if they add enough to both relieve pressure on Bradford or keep defenses honest.
X-Factor—Alec Ogletree: For a long time, the Rams have not had an athlete at outside linebacker that can both cover and be released on blitz as well, but Ogletree has shown the potential to do that and more thus far. With the PED-related release of Jo-Lonn Dunbar, the rookie will be counted on to expand the defense in a similar fashion as the offense.
Record: ARI (W), @ATL (L), @DAL (L), SF (W), JAX (W), @HOU (L), @CAR (W), SEA (W), TEN (W), @IND (L), CHI (L), @SF (L), @ARI (L), NO (L), TB (W), @SEA (L)
Prediction: Much has changed for the Rams in the year that Jeff Fisher has been in control, and the roster that comes into the season is much more talented one than they have fielded in some time. There is reasonable excitement for their potential, and they should show more than just flashes of their potential by hanging with the Seahawks and 49ers. But the young team will need to mold together some still, and they are likely a year away from a breakthrough. 7-9
Kaepernick went 7-3 as a starter in his breakout season, and now returns with a chance to be the most diverse offensive threat at QB since Michael Vick’s prime.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ers (11-4-1 in 2012)
The Good: The gang has gotten even deeper on defense. While the mainstays of Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Justin Smith and Aldon Smith are back to hold the fort down in their particular fashions, the team took a gamble on former Pro Bowl corner Nnamdi Asomugha to tighten up the club’s slot coverage. Add in the presence of Eric Reid, who was an All-SEC safety a year ago and this year’s unit has the ability to be even better than than 2012’s, which finished third in fewest yards yielded.
The Bad: How will the receiving group rally without Michael Crabtree. After the emergence of Colin Kaerpernick, Crabtree played the best football of his career, averaging seven catches per game in route to his first 1,000 yard season. Kaepernick had a bad habit of locking on his first read a year ago, which often was Crab. How he progress both through his reads and in comfort with other options is important.
X-Factor—Anquan Boldin: After defeating the Niners in the Super Bowl, where he had 104 yards and a touchdown, he crossed over to join them this year. An offense that highlights quick reads and short passes could bring out the best in the physical first down machine.
Record: GB (W), @SEA (L), IND (W), @STL (L), HOU (W), ARI (W), @TEN (W), @JAX (W), CAR (W), @NO (W), @WSH (L), STL (W), SEA (W), @TB (W), ATL (L), @ARI
Prediction: Kaerpernick has been one of the most visible players in the NFL during the offseason, and now gets a full season to prove why. The defense will be stout and they have the tools between Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Kaepernick to lead the NFL in rushing. They’ll have to emerge from a tough NFC West slate, as well as matchups with the three other division champions from 2012, but they as talent as it gets and are in line to return back to where their year ended last. 12-4
I am 100% sure there will be a Festivus-style air of grievances over this one (as there always is). All I ask is that you direct them to the comments section….or to me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.