2011 NFC West Preview: St. Louis Rams Its Way To Division Title
1. St. Louis Rams (Prediction: 9-7)
The Rams were a pleasant surprise to the NFL last season. Coming off a tumultuous 1-15 season, the Rams' seven wins were fairly shocking.
Offense: Sam Bradford, the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, started immediately and showed signs of future greatness during his rookie campaign with 3,500+ yards and 18 scores without one consistent, great receiver. Last season, he was already the best quarterback in the division.
Running back Steven Jackson is still around, and is still good for 1,200 yards and a couple scores to help the young Bradford.
The story to follow will be Bradford's development under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
McDaniels, the former "boy wonder" head coach of Denver, is the top offensive coordinator in the league. If that statement seems outlandish, check how Tom Brady, Matt Cassel and Kyle Orton performed before and after McDaniels' aid. Look at team offenses before and after. This pairing could be great for the future of St. Louis.
Defense: This is where the Rams really shined. Filled with youth, the young St. Louis defense allowed the 12th-least points (31st in 2009) and the 19th-least yards (29th in ’09), as well as recording the seventh most sacks. Linebacker James Laurinaitis, defensive ends Chris Long and James Hall, and safety O.J. Atogwe led the defense that provided quality offensive production away, but not enough to win the division.
Offseason: But never fear Rams fans, this year is the year. St. Louis did one of the better jobs in free agency in acquiring talent, signing safety Quintin Mikell and guard Harvey Dahl to make an immediate contribution. They also signed wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker, who has shown the capacity to be a legitimate receiver.
Their first two picks in the draft were tight end Lance Kendricks – possibly the top TE in the entire draft class – and defensive end Robert Quinn, who missed his 2010 playing season due to NCAA infractions, but was considered a top-ten talent. Quinn could end up being a steal. The Rams also drafted the quick Austin Pettis, one of Boise State's top receivers. [Editor's Note: A previous version of this article stated that St. Louis had drafted Titus Young, another Boise State receiver.]
Conclusion: In case the constant gushing didn't make our NFC West pick obvious, the Rams will definitively make the post-season. They have a very rocky start to the year (Philadelphia, N.Y. Giants, Baltimore, Green Bay and New Orleans in the first 8 weeks), but with four to five wins from games with their division opponents, another five wins in ten games is doable. The Rams will finish with nine wins and will host their first playoff game since 2003.
T2. Arizona Cardinals (Prediction: 6-10)
We're still not sure how Arizona won five games in 2010. By virtually any metric, Arizona was dead last. Except wins.
Offense: You have to feel bad for Fitzgerald, one of the best receivers in the game, because he had to have Derek Anderson (even though he does take things serious. Real serious.) and rookies John Skelton and Max Hall as his quarterbacks. It was a crime for one of the best receivers in the game to have nobodies try to throw him the ball.
Clearly, one of the biggest stories in the NFL offseason was the Cardinals acquiring quarterback Kevin Kolb from the Eagles for Rodgers-Cromartie and a future second round draft pick – quite the price for a player who has seven career starts. But there is a very low chance he could be worse than any of the aforementioned QBs.
The running back situation looked to be a Beanie Wells-Ryan Williams split after Tim Hightower was traded to Washington, but Williams is out for the season. One would think this is Wells' last chance to show what he can do, because he has not done much to prove he was worthy of a first-round selection.
Conclusion: Though the Cardinals have not done much to their roster besides drafting corner Patrick Peterson from LSU and acquiring Kolb, they still have a shot to win their division. Why? Once again: It's the NFC West. But it will still be tough to compete with the others because their overall talent is probably the third-best in the West, ahead of Seattle.
T2. San Francisco 49ers (Prediction: 6-10)
One of the "hot" teams entering 2010 was the San Francisco 49ers. They were in such a weak division; their talent seemingly exceeded every other team; and their only question mark was at quarterback. But with all the other things going for them, what could go wrong? Oh. Just about everything.
Hopefully Smith won't be around long. New head coach Jim Harbaugh decided it would be a fantastic idea to keep the veteran Smith around to show rookie QB Colin Kaepernick the ropes – who could be better? There's no way anyone would keep Smith around unless they were trying to tank. Could it be that Harbaugh is trying to tank to draft his former signal caller Andrew Luck? Well, not really, but you never know...
Defense: The other main problem with the 2010 Niners was their secondary, namely Nate Clements. Clements was their top corner, and yet he was constantly beat by average wideouts. It was a marvel watching Clements week-to-week and thinking, "Who would beat him this week?" Probably not good to think that way about a starting corner earning top dollar.
Linebacker Patrick Willis was a very bright spot on the defense, as Willis secured the middle of the field with another All-Pro season (that's four AP seasons in four years. Wow). Fortunately for San Francisco fans, he's locked up for another three years.
Offseason: San Francisco added wide receiver Braylon Edwards, cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Donte Whitner to their team – not great at their respective positions, but upgrades – and lost Clements, center David Baas and defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin. Running back Frank Gore, San Francisco's chief offensive weapon, is healthy after fracturing his hip and will be the sole back. He'll get a lot of work with the novice quarterbacks on staff.
Conclusion: Absolutely nothing went right for the red and gold last year. While they have a talented roster, they still have some major holes, plus new-coach growing pains. It looks like they will repeat their six-win effort from last year.
4. Seattle Seahawks (Prediction: 4-12)
Former USC head coach went up north right before things got ugly in Los Angeles and took the head coaching position with the Seattle Seahawks – his first NFL coaching job since 1999.
Surprise in 2010: Though Seattle's roster looked (read: was) thrown together and it appeared as though they would be the bottom feeders of the bottom feedingest division, Seattle became the first NFL team to win a division and make the playoffs with a sub-.500 record.
This team was very fortunate to win seven games. Week in and week out, they either won a close game (they blew out San Francisco, Arizona and Carolina, but the others were wins by two touchdowns or fewer) or were blown out (in their 9 losses, Seattle lost by an average of 21 points. Ouch). We're still confused how someone from the league didn't prohibit them from entering the post-season with seven wins.
And yet, they shut everybody up as they surprisingly beat the defending world champion New Orleans Saints in the opening round of the playoffs, 41-35. The game featured big plays from a typically quiet Seattle offense, including Marshawn Lynch's all-time great 67-yard touchdown run. The fan reaction even caused a small earthquake in Seattle. At that point, it didn't matter if the Seahawks were destroyed the following week: the season was a success.
Ch-ch-ch-changes: Now, Carroll and company have made many scratch their heads. They expectedly cut quarterback Matthew Hasselbeck, but their idea of a replacement was Tarvaris Jackson? Really? Jackson showed enough during his tenure in Minnesota to warrant bringing him in to start?
None of Seattle's roster moves really made sense. Sure, they've collected some quality players (tight end Zach Miller, guard Robert Gallery, wide receiver Sidney Rice), but how each player will fit remains to be seen.
Defense: Their D is also a cause for concern. Second year safety Earl Thomas (pictured left) heads up a weakened defensive squad, which lost safety Jordan Babineaux and linebacker Lofa Tatupu – not great players, but starters – without adding sufficient replacements.
Conclusion: Seattle will fall back to Earth this year, which is too bad for their great fans. The Seahawks will not be close to winning the division in 2011.
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