The NFC West was a bad type of record setting last year. It was the first division in NFL history to not produce a winning record. It also was a division that nearly flipped it’s standings in the course of one year, and continues into this year as a division that is changing its face still.
The Seahawks, the owner’s of the dubious record, will try to defend the division, albeit with a roster still in need of a lot of aid. Arizona is looking for a renaissance at quarterback, to rediscover the passing attack that won them back-to-back division titles in ’08 and ’09. Jim Harbaugh takes control of a ship in San Francisco that sank like the Titantic a year ago. In St. Louis, one of the NFL’s most improved teams from a year ago will look to turn its potential into a snatching the most available wide open playoff ticket in the NFL.
The hangover from last year will remain though. It’s still a division in flux that could easily host three teams with losing records and is nearly guaranteed to see two with double digit loses. But if any team gets on a solid winning streak, no division could be easier to hijack a surprise trip out of the regular season from.
QB: Sam Bradford RB: Steven Jackson, Frank Gore FB: Moran Norris WR: Larry Fitzgerald, Braylon Edwards, Sidney Rice TE: Vernon Davis OT: Russell Okung, Rodger Saffold OG: Mike Iupati, Harvey Dahl C: Jason Brown
Jackson ran for over 1,000 yards for the sixth consecutive season in 2010.
DE: Darnell Dockett, Justin Smith DT: Brandon Mebrane, Isaac Sopoana OLB: LeRoy Hill, Aaron Curry MLB: Patrick Willis, James Laurinaitis CB: Marcus Trufant, Patrick Peterson S: Quinton Mikell, Adrian Wilson
K: Josh Brown P: Donnie Jones Returner: Leon Washington
ARIZONA CARDINALS (5-11 in 2010)
Offense: L. Fitzgerald-WR, K. Kolb-QB, B. Wells-RB, J. Feely-K (C-)
Defense: D. Dockett-DE, A. Wilson-S, C. Campbell-DE, P. Peterson-CB (C)
The Good: Say what you will about Kevin Kolb’s price tag or what was given up to get him, but he gives the Cardinals identity and consistency in the pocket. Last season’s shuffle through Derek Anderson, John Skelton and Max Hall produced 10 touchdowns against 19 interceptions. Even if he doesn’t become an elite QB, Kolb will be better than this and when Larry Fitzgerald is on the other end of the pass, it doesn’t take an All-Pro QB to change this team’s prospects.
The Bad: The defense isn’t any better. There’s an aging linebacker group in front of a young secondary that doesn’t get much support at safety in coverage. On the offensive side, they are a mixture of injury prone and underachieving at running back, with Beanie Wells being relied on to carry a big load. The offensive line was not changed at all after being one of the worst units in the league a year ago.
Peterson will shoulder much responsibility for salvaging the Cardinals' defense immediately in his debut.
X-Factor-Patrick Peterson: On some accounts, he was the best player available in April’s draft, and the Cardinals have invested in him as such. The trade of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to land Kolb was made with much more confidence with Peterson stepping in a corner. He’ll be eased into the mix, but by year’s end he could find himself with a Defensive Rookie of the Year nod, as well as some highlights in the return game.
Fearless Prediction: CAR (W), @WSH (L), @SEA (L), NYG (L), @MIN (W), PIT (L), @BAL (L), STL (L), @PHI (L), @SF (W), @STL (L), @DAL (L), SF (W), CLE (W), @CIN (W), SEA
In The End: The Cardinals have some talent on defense, but it’s still very prone to being ravaged for some big weeks against the wrong offense. However, unlike last season, they’ll be able to score easier this season and answer back more. They’ll be better, but until they get faster on both sides of the ball and add a lot more protection for Kolb, they won’t talk the crown. Record: 7-9
SAN FRANCISCO 49ers (6-10 in 2010)
Offense: F. Gore-RB, V. Davis-TE, B. Edwards-WR, M. Crabtree-WR (C)
Defense: P. Willis-MLB, J. Smith-DE, D. Whitner-S, C. Rogers-CB (C+)
The Good: Braylon Edwards represents a major step forward as a legit downfield option with some size. He’ll join a receivers group with Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn, which would be great as a relay team, but has struggled to turn that into football productivity. Also, Edwards will loosen coverage over the middle on Vernon Davis, as well as give Michael Crabtree the chance to become a high quality #2 option, which is what he seems to be best tailored for.
The Bad: Alex Smith will start at the helm, but still doesn’t have the assurance that the team is his for even the full season. The plan is to keep rookie Colin Kaepernick in the wings for as long as possible, but any prolonged struggle by Smith will make cries for his assent to starter to get louder and louder. It’s hard for Smith to have the confidence to look forward to running a team while looking over his shoulder.
Smith will take the controls to begin the Harbaugh era, but how much of a leash he truly has remains to be seen.
X-Factor-Frank Gore: Although he had yet another season ended early by injury last fall, Gore dug his feet in and demanded a new contract before taking the field this year. He was rewarded with a $21 million dollar deal, and will now have to deliver on it for a full season. A consistent and heavy run attack will loosen up defenses and give Smith a much easier scenario to work with. Gore has the talent, but now has to put it on display for a full go around.
Fearless Prediction: SEA (W), DAL (L), @CIN (W), @PHI (L), TB (L), @DET (L), CLE (W), @WSH (W), NYG (L), ARI (L), @BAL (L), STL (W), @ARI (L), PIT (L), @SEA (L), @STL (L)
In The End: All of the same issues remain from the last few years. It is relying on an injury prone star running back and worn down QB to lead the offense. The defense still has an elite asset in Patrick Willis, but he can’t be everywhere at once. The secondary is still very vulnerable and the pass rush looks shaky. Year one of the Jim Harbaugh era will show how much work he has ahead of him still. Record: 5-11
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (7-9 in 2010; Division Champs)
Offense: S. Rice-WR, Z. Miller-TE, M. Lynch-RB, M. Williams-WR (C+)
Defense: C. Clemons-DE, B. Mebrane-DT, M. Trufant-CB, E. Thomas-S (C)
The Good: They’ve got the weapons to make it happen on offense. The offensive line is solid on both ends and Robert Gallery is a step forward inside. Sidney Rice, Mike Williams and Zack Miller are the best starting receiver/tight end combo in the division. If Marshawn Lynch has any of the beast mode left he unleashed on the Saints last year, the running game will be solid as well.
The Bad: It’s also a woefully young team at some critical places. Starting a second year guy in Russell Okung and a rookie (James Carpenter) at offensive tackle is a risky proposition. Lofa Tatupu was the best tackler on the team and was released, weakening an already shaky group. The offense isn’t deep, and any injury could prevent them from reaching their potential as a group.
The Seahawks are unsettled in a lot of departments. Okung needs to be consistent & healthy in year two.
X-Factor-Tavaris Jackson: He’s getting what he wanted in Minnesota: a chance to be the unchallenged starter from day one. They will be careful to not put too much of the team’s fate on him to win, but that’s a bad sign in itself. He won’t be asked to win games, however an overly reserved approach is just as bad. Letting him roll the dice and going with the outcome would be a much smarter approach.
Fearless Prediction: @SF (L), @PIT (L), ARI (W), ATL (L), @NYG (L), @CLE (W), CIN (W), @DAL (L), BAL (L), @STL (L), WSH (W), PHI (L), STL (L), @CHI (L), SF (W), @ARI (L)
In The End: While they are far from the “accidental” playoff team they were made out to be a year ago, it is still a team that had a losing record a year ago and got worse at the most important position. A mixture of a defense with no playmakers and an offense without a leader will keep the Hawks with a similar record from last year, but with a more appropriate result. Record: 5-11
ST. LOUIS RAMS (7-9 in 2010)
Offense: S. Bradford-QB, S. Jackson-RB, M. Sims-Walker-WR, D. Amendola-WR (B)
Defense: C. Long-DE, J. Laurinaitis-MLB, Q. Mikell-S, J. Hall-DE (C+)
The Good: They’ve got Sam Bradford, and that’s an advantage nobody else in the division has. As a rookie, he threw for over 3,500 yards with a makeshift receiver group and one-dimensional running game. The team took an aggressive approach in putting new and diverse options everywhere on the offense to accent new offense coordinator Josh McDaniel’s scheme, and with a more experienced Bradford at the helm, the unit will flow much easier. Mike Sims-Walker provides them with a big, every down target and Jerious Norwood and Cadillac Williams offer more options out the backfield to get a fresher Steven Jackson than in many years.
The Bad: The defense needed to get faster, but didn’t. Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher is a solid, but not exciting cornerback tandem. It’s also a thin coverage group, that would be in bad shape if anymore injury finds it (Jerome Murphy is already gone). They don’t match up well against the big, physical receivers that line nearly every week of the Rams schedule. The linebacker group struggled a year ago to stop runners from turning the corner, and that it still is among the least athletic groups in the league.
With a new scheme and arsenal, Bradford stands to take the Rams, and himself, to new levels.
X-Factor-Lance Kendricks: The scheme that new coordinator Josh McDaniels employs makes good use of the tight end spot, and the Rams wisely picked up an athlete capable of maximizing the position in Kendricks. The former wide receiver at Wisconsin gets up the field as well as any wide receiver he’ll line up with and has already proven to be a redzone favorite of Bradford’s in the preseason.
Fearless Predictions: PHI (L), @NYG (L), BAL (W), WSH (W), @GB (L), @DAL (L), NO (L), @ARI (W), @CLE (W), SEA (W), ARI (W), @SF (L), @SEA (W), CIN (W), @PIT (L), SF
In The End: They came up short by just a game in their quest to go from worst in the league to the playoffs a year ago. This season they’ll finish the move to the top of the division, due to an expanded offensive approach and Bradford’s rise continuing to take him up the QB hierarchy league wide. The schedule will open up brutally for the first seven weeks, but it ends with matchups with divisional foes that they can easily outmatch. Record: 9-7
To see how right, wrong or in-between this all works out, and me living with it, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan and @STLSport360.