NFC West Preview: A Division Up For Grabs
The NFC West as a whole has been mired in mediocrity for several seasons. However, the division has still managed to produce two Super Bowl representatives in the last five years.
Last year, the Arizona Cardinals won the division behind Kurt Warner and an imposing offense. But with Warner’s recent retirement and several key free agent losses, the division appears to be up for grabs in 2010.
Is San Francisco, Seattle or St. Louis poised to cease control?
2009 Record: 10-6
The Arizona Cardinals went through more awkward changes this offseason than Macaulay Culkin after Home Alone 3.
After announcing his retirement in late January, the only thing Kurt Warner will be throwing back this season is a six-pack of beer while reclining in his Lay-Z-Boy. Former Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin also chose to fly with birds of a different feather as he was traded to the Baltimore Ravens in the offseason.
The latest Jenga block to be pulled out of the Cardinals’ shaky offensive foundation was Matt Leinart, who received his walking papers after the team’s final preseason game. The move leaves Derek Anderson as the de facto quarterback for the Redbirds.
The proud owner of a 69.7 quarterback rating, Anderson is about as equipped to lead a critical drive as Lindsay Lohan. One consolation, however, is the signing of guard Alan Faneca, who offers the maligned signal caller some protection.
Ultimately, the team will rely on second-year running back Beanie Wells and veteran Tim Hightower to take some pressure off the passing game. All-world receiver Larry Fitzgerald will also serve as a security blanket for Anderson and the offense.
After much wheeling and dealing, the Cardinals defense will also have a new look. The spaces vacated by linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Antrelle Rolle will be filled by Joey Porter and Kerry Rhodes. Second round draft pick Daryl Washington will also have a significant impact at inside linebacker.
Bottom Line: It’s hard to see Arizona improving on its 10-6 record after suffering several significant free agent casualties. Head coach Ken Wisenhunt will need to change his offensive approach after essentially swapping a Ferrari Enzo for a Dodge Stratus. With questions on both sides of the ball, last year’s division champions will have difficulty repeating their 2009 success.
Key Additions: QB Derek Anderson, OG Rex Hadnot, OG Alan Faneca, OLB Joey Porter, LB Paris Lenon, CB/KR Justin Miller, FS Kerry Rhodes, K Jay Feely, DT Dan Williams, LB Daryl Washington
Key Losses: QB Kurt Warner, WR Anquan Boldin, WR Jerheme Urban, OT Mike Gandy, LB Karlos Dansby, CB Bryant McFadden, FS Antrelle Rolle, K Neil Rackers, QB Matt Leinart
San Francisco 49ers
2009 Record: 8-8
Upon becoming the head coach in San Francisco, Mike Singletary declared that he wanted winners but the team has yet to put together a winning season under his command.
The Alex Smith reclamation project has seemingly had more sequels than the Lethal Weapon franchise. But the former first overall pick did enough last season to earn another shot at the starting gig in San Francisco.
Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree represent two great targets for Smith and have the potential to be one of the best receiving combinations in the league. The second receiver position, however, remains a question mark with Josh Morgan leading a pack of unproven pass catchers.
The biggest offensive change from 2009 to 2010 will be along the front line. The 49ers opted to draft two offensive linemen – Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati – in the first round this year. The two will be counted on to help create holes for a backfield that ranked 25th in yards from scrimmage last season.
A defense that ranked top 5 in points allowed last season remains almost entirely intact. Linebacker Patrick Willis will once again be the heart of a stingy unit that closes off running lanes as if they are Young Buck’s bank account.
The 49ers will also receive a shot in the arm on special teams with the arrival of Ted Ginn Jr., who washed out as a starting receiver in Miami but is still a dangerous return threat. He will now assume primary kick and punt return duties in San Francisco.
Bottom Line: After not making any major offseason moves, the 49ers are relying on their young players to take another step forward this year. Once again, any hopes of ending the playoff drought in San Francisco will hinge on the quarterback position. With the talent surrounding him, Smith only needs to be above average to give the 49ers a shot.
Key Additions: QB David Carr, RB Brian Westbrook, WR Ted Ginn Jr., LB Travis LaBoy, CB Will James, CB Karl Paymah, OT Anthony Davis, G Mike Iupati, SS Taylor Mays, RB Anthony Dixon
Key Losses: QB Shaun Hill, RB Glen Coffee, OT Tony Pashos, DT Kentwan Balmer, CB Marcus Hudson
2009 Record: 5-11
Pete Carroll fled the University of Southern California for Seattle like he was a being offered a lifeboat on the Titanic. But by changing zip codes from Los Angeles to Seattle, Carroll may have gone from a sinking ship to a crumbling skyscraper.
Once a perennial NFC West favorite, the Seahawks are 9-23 over the last two seasons. The team began a youth movement this past offseason by drafting tackle Russell Okung and safety Earl Thomas while saying goodbye to former franchise faces like Walter Jones and Patrick Kerney.
The team also let go of veteran receivers Nate Burleson, and, more recently, T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The departures leave former USC receiver and Detroit Lions bust Mike Williams as the number two wideout for the Seahawks.
It’s possible that Carroll knows something that other NFL coaches don’t after tutoring Williams during his limited college career. But unless Carroll knows how to shave several seconds off Williams’ 40 time, Seattle’s receiving corps looks questionable at best.
Former Golden Bear Justin Forsett gives Seattle a dual running and receiving threat out the of the backfield. Newly acquired Leon Washington boasts a similar skill set and will be a welcome addition on special teams.
Defensively, the Seahawks look to mend their wings after giving up the third most passing yards in the league last season. The addition of defensive end Chris Clemons and the continued development of second-year linebacker Aaron Curry will help the pass rush. The defensive backfield, however, still looks barren outside of cornerback Marcus Trufant.
Bottom Line: Seattle is a team in transition. At this stage in his career, Matt Hasselbeck is starting to look like Tiny Tim from “A Christmas Carol” after a laundry list of injuries. Meanwhile, the rest of the Seahawks roster is largely a mix of decaying veterans and unproven youngsters. Coach Carroll will give it the old college try for the Seahawks but the team will need to mesh fast if it hopes to finish with a winning record.
Key Additions: HC Pete Carroll, QB Charlie Whitehurst, RB Leon Washington, RB Quinton Ganther, WR Mike Williams, WR Ruvell Martin, TE Chris Baker, OG Chester Pitts, OG Ben Hamilton, DE Chris Clemons, DT Kentwan Blamer, LB Matt McCoy, SS Kevin Ellison, OT Russell Okung, FS Earl Thomas, WR Golden Tate
Key Losses: QB Seneca Wallace, RB LenDale White, WR Nate Burleson, OT Walter Jones, OT Brandon Frye, OG Rob Sims, DE Patrick Kerney, DE Darryl Tapp, DT Cory Redding, LB Lance Laury, CB Ken Lucas, S Deon Grant, WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh
St. Louis Rams
2009 Record: 1-15
Billy Mays had a better 2009 than the St. Louis Rams.
How bad was last season for St. Louis? Former starting quarterback Marc Bulger only threw four more touchdown passes than kicker Josh Brown. Enough said.
After earning the first overall pick in the 2010 draft convincingly, the Rams tabbed Sooner sensation Sam Bradford as their quarterback of the future. The team has already custom molded the turf in the Edward Jones Dome to uniquely contour to Bradford’s body when he is pummeled into it by opposing defenses.
Few upgrades have been made to an offensive line that is about as stable as Glenn Beck in front of a television camera. Rookie tackle Rodger Saffold offers some hope but this is a unit that will be picking their quarterback up from the ground many times this season.
Steven Jackson continues to be one of the most productive running backs in the league despite his surrounding cast. He will be counted on once again to generate most of the team’s offense in both the passing and running game.
After giving up the second most points in the league last year, St. Louis made several significant upgrades. Adding veterans Fred Robbins, Na’il Diggs and Kevin Dockery to the fold should help keep games respectable.
Defensive end Chris Long showed great promise last season and will continue to anchor the front line. Overall, however, this is a unit that blew enough to earn a Kleenex sponsorship last season.
Bottom Line: The Rams will not relinquish their status as an NFL punch line easily this season. They don’t have much going for them but at least they will have Oshiomogho Atogwe around to cheer everyone up by making funny faces.
Key Additions: QB A.J. Feeley, C Hank Fraley, DT Chris Hovan, DT Fred Robbins, LB Na’il Diggs, LB Bobby Carpenter, CB Kevin Dockery, S Kevin Payne, QB Sam Bradford, OT Rodger Saffold, CB Jerome Murphy, WR Mardy Gilyard
Key Losses: QB Marc Bulger, QB Kyle Boller, TE Randy McMichael, OT Alex Barron, DE Leonard Little, DT Adam Carriker, LB Paris Lenon, CB Jonathan Wade
Predicted Division Winner: San Francisco 49ers
To reach staff writer Michael Green, click here.
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