NFC West Overview
On paper, this is the best division in the NFC with Super Bowl Losers San Francisco 49ers and the biggest surprise from last year the Seattle Seahawks. The division also has the ascending St Louis Rams. And then there is the train wreck that is the Arizona Cardinals.
1. San Francisco 11-4-1 Last year the Niners made it to the Super Bowl but lost to the Ray Lewis-led Ravens. To make a return trip and get over that final hurdle, they added the Ravens WR Anquan Boldin but lost Alex Smith in trade & Dashon Goldson to free agency. All eyes will be on QB Colin Kaepernick and if he is a one year wonder or the future of the NFL at QB.
2. Seattle 11-5 Last year's biggest surprise QB Russell Wilson burst on the scene last year and also faces answers of real or wonder. The Hawks helped their young phenom by adding WR Percy Harvin on offense and signing DE Cliff Avril and CB Antoine Winfield on defense.
3. St Louis Rams 7-8-1 The Rams went 4-1-1 in this rugged division last year, but they just could not win outside it. Additions on offense including OT Jake Long, TE Jared Cook and first round pick WR Tavon Austin put the focus and pressure squarely on QB Sam Bradford to finally live up to the hype.
4. Arizona Cardinals 5-11 The Cards started 4-0 last year, then finished a woeful 1-11. Gone is failed bit QB Kevin Kolb, replaced by old man QB Carson Palmer. A new coaching staff and a healthy O-Line has hopes high in the desert.
After bringing in Matt Flynn to be the starter last offseason, Seattle quickly realized Russell Wilson was the answer at QB. Wilson threw 26 TDs last year and ran for another 4. The Seahawks appeared to have struck gold with this 3rd round pick. What do you do when you have a young Franchise QB? You surround him with talent! Seattle traded its late first round pick this year to the Vikings for WR Percy Harvin. They also still have "Beast-Mode" RB Marshawn Lynch who ran for 1590 yards and 11 TDs last year. Lynch has a trial date coming up in December for a 2012 DUI arrest but it looks like he will not face a suspension this season.
The Seahawks Defense was phenomenal last year. Only allowed 15 points per game, an NFL best. They were middle of the pack in getting to the QB with only 36 sacks last year. Pass rush specialist Bruce Irvin had 8 sacks which lead the NFL rookie class last year and will counted on even more this year. In addition, free agent additions DE Cliff Avril and DT Michael Bennett also will try to bolster their sack numbers. The Seahawks secondary is the strength of the team. They forced 18 INT's last year. They have 2 huge CB's in Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner both over 6'3 plus the best free safety in the game Earl Thomas. The big issue seems to be staying off the Adderall. Seattle added the crafty veteran Antonie Winfield as the nickel CB.
I don't understand the Seahawks draft, of course I did not understand it last year either so what do I know. RB Christine Michael out of TX A&M was a reach in round 2 and a knucklehead. I did like NT Jesse Williams out of Alabama pick in the 5th Round if he gets healthy. The rest of the 9 picks they had, at least on paper, was a Meh. Vegas loves them though with a over under win total at 11 and 7-1 odds for the Super Bowl.
San Francisco 49ers
Colin Kaepernick took over in November at QB and lead this team to the Super Bowl. Kaepernick used the Pistol offense to great success and proved he can beat you with his arm or his legs. NFL defenses did not have an answer to it last year, it will be interesting to see how defenses will react to it this year with a whole off season to dissect it. The Wildcat was a one year wonder and the next season it was stuffed. I still say its suicidal to ask your QB to run that many times in a game. They can't take the pounding over time. Michael Crabtree who had his best season as a pro last year, 85 catches 1105 yards & 9 TDs, tore his Achilles heel in OTAs and is out for most if not all of the season. The addition of WR Boldin is huge for the receiving corp as Mario Manningham is coming back from ACL tear. They still have RB Frank Gore and spent a 4th Round pick on Marcus Lattimore and his destroyed knee, who will red shirt this season but could be the starter in the future.
The 49ers had a Top 3 Defense last year. They only allowed 17 points a game which was 2nd in the NFL. The linebackers are the strength of this team. Led by Aldon Smith, who had 19.5 sacks last year and Bowman who led the team in tackles, they run an aggressive 3-4 defense. Their secondary lost S Dashon Goldson to free agency but replaced him with first round pick Eric Reid out of LSU, whom they traded up for with the 18th pick in the draft. This team was middle of the pack with 14 INTs last year.
I loved their draft last April. Out of their 11 picks, I think they netted 4 starters or starters in 2014 in their haul. Vance McDonald should also receive a lot of snaps this year in replacing Delaine Walker at Tight End. The 49ers are also the Vegas darlings of the NFC. They have a 11.5 over/under line on game and 6-1 odds of returning to the Super Bowl. But a really tough schedule and a big target on their back could make this season a tough one.
St Louis Rams
The Rams had a good increase in the win total last year, going from 2-14 to 7-8-1. The Stephen Jackson era is officially over as he signed with the Falcons. Cowboy Fans still cry every day after passing on him for Julius Jones. Jackson will be tough to replace. This is a huge year for Sam Bradford. He must show he is a Franchise QB this season or St Louis will go in another direction. Who will run the ball this year? Good question. 2nd Round pick Issah Pead offered nothing last year. Looks like a Running Back by committee with Richardson, Pead, and 5th round pick Zac Stacy. The Offensive line is depending on oft injured huge Free Agent signing Jake Long. How will Rodger Saffold adjust to moving to Right Tackle. The Rams let the always injured Danny Amendola leave for the Pats and replaced him with one of my favorite playmakers Tavon Austin, their 1st round pick out of West Virginia. They also let their 2nd leading receiver walk to Miami, Brandon Gibson. Last year's 2nd round WR Brian Quick will have to step up his game greatly. The Rams spent a lot of money on tight end Jared Cook from the Titans to upgrade that position.
On Defense, they led the NFL with 52 sacks last year but they are middle of the pack on Run Defense and stopping the Pass at 15th in both categories. Chris Long has lived up to his draft status and pedigree as he can get after the QB and stop the run. A player no one talks about is Robert Quinn out of UNC who had 10.5 sacks last year. They have a very solid Linebacker Corp. Their secondary worries me as they are replacing both Safeties.
I liked their draft a lot. The netted 5 starters or future starters in WR Tavon Austin, OLB Alec Ogletree, Safety TJ McDonald, WR Stedman Bailey and versatile O-Line Barret Jones out of Alabama. I feel they are another year away from double digit wins. Vegas has them at 8 wins for the over under and 60-1 long shots for a Super Bowl appearance.
They started off as the hottest team in the NFL at 4-0. Unfortunately they went 1-11 the rest of the way. They cleaned house and brought in Bruce Arians as the new head coach off his amazing stint filling in in Indy. One of the Cardinals biggest moves was to bring in the Raiders outcast Carson Palmer, who upgrades their QB position. I still feel he has something left in the tank as he threw for over 4000 yards last year on a awful Raiders team. Their running game needs improvement so they jettisoned oft injured Beanie Wells for oft injured Rashard Mendenhall of the Steelers. They also took 2 late round RB in Stephan Taylor of Stanford and Andre Ellington of Clemson. Their O-Line allowed 58 sacks last year. Think about it 58 sacks!!! worst in the NFL. But injuries destroyed this unit last year and the hope is that this season will be different.
They do have a solid defense. Too bad LB Daryl Washington will miss the first 4 games after failing a drug test. He led the team with 9 sacks. They had the 2nd best secondary last year with 22 INTs but released both starters at safety. They drafted the Honey Badger in the 3rd Round to be a starting safety. Yeremiah Bell at age 35 will be the other safety. Hmmmm
They appear to have had a good draft. Outside of WR Ryan Swope, who still has concussion issues from college, they should have 6 players starting and or contributing right away. Since they had the 32 ranked offense last year, Vegas has little hope for them this year. 5.5 over under on wins and 150-1 odds to make it to the Super Bowl. They still miss Kurt Warner and hope Carson can recapture that kind of magic and get WR Larry Fitzgerald back to dominating on the outside.
The Cardinals should be remarkably better this year, but a ridiculously tough schedule is likely to not allow that to show up in the win/loss column.