Arizona dominated the NFC West last season due to the stellar play of their quarterback Kurt Warner. However, Warner has since retired, leaving the Cardinals scrambling to find a new answer at that position. The 49ers are really the only other team capable of taking advantage of this situation, as the Seahawks and Rams are both ready to start new eras in their respective histories.
Arizona Cardinals [Last season: 10-6, 1st; lost to NO in DIV RD]
The kings of the NFC West the past couple of years, perhaps by default, have not had a particularly good offseason. Between Kurt Warner’s retirement, Anquan Boldin’s trade to Baltimore and their front seven being weakened just a bit, there’s hardly been any good news for the Cardinals other than the reminder that they do play in the NFC West and that once its won, anything can happen in the playoffs.
The biggest hole the Cardinals have to fill is the one left after Warner’s departure at Quarterback. Matt Leinart has not been in good graces with coach Ken Whisenhunt; Leinart was benched in favor of Warner and now its speculated that Leinart will be benched in favor of newcomer Derek Anderson, who probably looks forward to playing with a team that isn’t the Browns. Really, though, it shouldn’t be too hard to play Cardinals QB: just throw it to all-pro Larry Fitzgerald and let him do the rest. Though the loss of Boldin does hurt, Steve Breaston has shown some skill in his time with Arizona and will be crucial to Arizona’s continued success. The same is true for the run game, Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells will both have to do better as being ranked 28th in rushing in 2009 just won’t cut it without Warner to bail them out.
Arizona’s defense wasn’t exactly great last year but its a defense that nevertheless can’t be underestimated. New to the fold is Joey Porter at linebacker, and their secondary led by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can make big plays, albeit they can give up big plays as well.
If the Cardinals can find the answer at Quarterback, whether it be from Leinart or Anderson, look for Arizona to be a contender not just for the NFC West, but for the conference as well, as like in 2008, anything can happen once you get in.
St. Louis Rams [Last season: 1-15; 4th]
Much like Matthew Stafford had to deal with last year in Detroit, Sam Bradford pretty much has a pretty bad deck to work with this year in his rookie season with the Rams. The Rams have one established player on offense, the workhorse running back Steven Jackson. However, their offense line gave up 44 sacks last year and doesn’t seem to of improved by much, and their receiving corps took a huge loss with the season-ending injury to Donnie Avery. Things aren’t looking too great for Bradford, as Brandon Gibson and Laurent Robinson aren’t a Calvin Johnson after all. For now, however, it will be A.J. Feeley who will be taking snaps, sacks, and dropped passes for at least a few games. If the Rams are wise, they’ll keep Bradford out for as long as possible, especially given the situation regarding the shoulder he busted last year with Oklahoma.
The Rams defense, a young defense, will try and continue improving this year, still anchored by #2 pick Chris Long from 2008 as well as James Laurinaitis at linebacker. St. Louis was tied for last in interceptions, near last in sacks, and 2nd only to abysmal Detroit in opponent’s QB rating. It is perhaps too much to expect a defense like that to improve drastically in just a season’s time but for 2nd year coach Steve Spagnuolo, any improvement is a must as the Rams hope to make a move towards the 2011 season.
As such, don’t expect much out of the Rams this year. Expect the defense to give up a lot of big plays while Steven Jackson remains the only man on the offense able to do anything. If the Rams feel bold enough to bring Sam Bradford out into the fold, they need only look at another recent #1 pick in baseball’s Stephen Strasburg to remember that all it takes is one injury for the Rams to go QB searching in just another couple of years (though I’m not implying Strasburg is done, there is a lot more patience in baseball than in football).
San Francisco 49ers [Last season: 8-8; 2nd]
If this year isn’t the year the 49ers overtake Arizona for the division title, then when? No year is better than this year for San Francisco to finally take years of stockpiliing, years of talent development and years of growth and put it all together to finally make a very strong team capable of not just winning the division but also the NFC altogether.
That growth is dependent on one Alex Smith. Smith, who returned as 49ers starter last season replacing an injured Shaun Hill, was 5-5 in his starts and played well enough to where the team felt comfortable of letting Hill go over the offseason. Smith does have a lot to work with, from steady workhorse Frank Gore to the young Michael Crabtree at WR and Vernon Davis at Tight End. The offensive line, which gave up a lot of sacks last year, has also been revamped with not one, but two first round rookies fillings holes in the line. If Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis can provide Smith the protection he needs, the 49er offense should be stellar.
San Francisco’s defense was one of the better defenses last season. Finishing 4th in scoring defense, their front seven leads the way, recording 44 sacks and being near the top of the league in forced fumbles as well. The secondary is an opportunistic one, catching 18 passes from opposing quarterbacks but at the same time were in the bottom half of the league in pass defense. All things said, however, the 49ers have a strong defense that only needs to be complemented by a functional offense for this team to really be one to watch out for this season.
Seattle Seahawks [Last season: 5-11; 3rd]
Since appearing in the Super Bowl five years ago, the Seahawks have done nothing but fade. Shaun Alexander was a premier running back for a couple of years, but injuries decimated his career. Matt Hasselbeck was a solid starting quarterback, but injuries have held him back as well. Mike Holmgren was a solid coach for the team but upon retiring his replacement Jim Mora Jr. could barely last a season before getting fired for Seattle’s continued fade in obscurity.
The Seahawks are making efforts to remain in the spotlight, however. Their most notable move this offseason was the hiring of new coach Pete Carroll, who seemed to leave USC at just the right moment. Carroll, whose previous NFL experience in New England wasn’t so great, will try and overcome that stigma with a team that is still in a sort of flux. Their offense isn’t exactly young. Hasselbeck will be trying to have his first fully healthy season since 2007, Julius Jones remains their top runningback as ineffective as he has been, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh continues to hope that leaving Cincinnati for Seattle wasn’t a big mistake. Russell Okung was drafted to bolster a line that hasn’t been the same since trading away Steve Hutchinson, however a busted ankle has put his status into question.
Seattle’s defense, once a solid group that led the team to division titles, have since fallen off considerably. Their pass defense in particular has been awful, giving up tons of yards while not being able to force many turnovers or sacks. Earl Thomas, out of Texas, is someone Seattle hopes will remedy this problem but Thomas can’t do it alone.
Its hard to gauge how the Seahawks will fare this season. The team fell apart under Jim Mora Jr., and Pete carroll has only had success at the collegiate level. The Seahawks need a stronger running game and a much better defense if they want to compete for even just the NFC West, and unless Carroll has tricks up his sleeve that he has let nobody become aware of, it doesn’t seem like Seattle will compete for the division this year.
Division Prediction: I do think the 49ers will overtake the Cardinals for the division. Arizona won’t become awful like they were in the pre-Warner era but I don’t think they can get a Wild Card spot either. The Seahawks will do a little better, while the Rams will continue to struggle.
1. San Francisco
4. St. Louis