Reid Fischer's World of Rants

Looking at the sports world through orange colored glasses

NFC West Preview

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 8, 2009

Teams listed in predicted order of finish:

1. Seattle Seahawks – The Seahawks endured a very significant collapse a year ago.  They went from a perennial division championship team to a 4-12 also ran in the blink of an eye.  Definitely not what Mike Holmgren envisioned in his final season as head coach in Seattle.  It started from a get-go with a 34-10 loss in Buffalo, and before the Seahawks knew it they were out of the race.  Injuries had as much to do with this as anything, but the poor record seemed to give the team the excuse it needed to retool just a bit.  Jim Mora, Jr. takes over as head coach, and all he did his first season in Atlanta was lead the Falcons to the NFC title game in 2004.  The Seahawks are healthy, and with the additions they made are back in position to reclaim the NFC West.

Start with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.  Hasselbeck suffered a bulging disc in his back last year, and thus the Seahawks suffered perhaps the second most crippling injury blow in the league after Tom Brady.  Hasselbeck is a no brainer Pro Bowl talent, and with all due respect to Seneca Wallace, the Seahawks will be significantly upgraded this year with a healthy Hasselbeck.  I don’t believe Hasselbeck gets the due he should, for he should abosolutely be in the discussion of top QBs around the league.  His numbers speak for themselves throughout his career.  The Seahawks also made a major free agent impact with the pickup of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who escapes the jail that has been Cincinnati.  Houshmandzadeh no longer has to play in the shadow of Chad Ochocinco, and will be the clear featured receiver in Seattle.  Houshmandzadeh should be more at home in the northwest (he played college ball at Oregon State), but the fact that he is the number one guy will be a huge relief for him as well.  I believe he is in line for a huge year, and his presence will mean a big year for Hasselbeck as well.  The Seahawks also have receiving depth with veterans Nate Burleson and Deion Branch.  Tight end John Carlson also provides a good option in the passing game, plus he is a very good blocker.  The key for Seattle could well be the running game, for they will need i to be successful in order to draw attention from the passing attack.  It will be interesting to see how Mora and his staff divide carries between Julius Jones and new addition Edgerrin James, who was released by Arizona.  Jones and James are both guys who are used to being the primary back, and both are going to want their share of carries.  If they can co-exist, both are talented and capable of keeping a defense off balance.   I think with the right motivation, both will at least act like they are happy for a time, and if both are effective it will really make a difference for the Seahawks.  The offensive line features left tackle Walter Jones, who has been to multiple Pro Bowls but is also coming off knee surgery.  The Seahawks were decimated by injuries along the line last ear, so they expect improvement based on the simple fact everyone is now healthy.

The Seahawks’ defensive line was really pushed around a year ago, so they addressed that area by signing a pair of 300-pound defensive tackles in free agency, Colin Cole from Green Bay and Cory Redding from Detroit.  The Seahawks feel that if those two can tie up linemen, it will create more pass rushing and palymaking opportunities.  End Patrick Kerney was yet another Seahawk to be hit with injury last year, but now is healthy, and he is one of the more underrated pass rushers in the league.  Seattle will have a new look at linebacker, after they traded Julian Peterson, the team’s lone Pro Bowl representative, to Detroit.  To replace him, they used the fourth overall pick in the draft to tab Aaron Curry from Wake Forest.  He has looked great in preseason and should make an immediate impact.  He will be joined by the athletic Lofa Tatupu and hard hitting LeRoy Hill, who the Seahawks thought enough of to use their franchise tag on him.  The biggest question marks are in the secondary, but Seattle does have Marcus Trufant and they brought back Ken Lucas in April.

The Seahawks appear ready to turn the kicker position over to Brandon Coutu, who was on the roster all of last year even though the Seahawks had Olindo Mare.  Jon Ryan will handle the punting duties, and he has a very strong leg.  Nate Burleson and Josh Wilson should also be effective returning kicks.

I expect a big rebound year for the Seahawks.  They were so riddled with injury last year that they had very little chance of being competitive.  This year with everyone healthy they are in position to make a run.  Remember, this division was won with a 9-7 record last year.  I like the Seahawks to reassume the top position.

2. Arizona Cardinals – Arizona has accomplished something that almost no one thought possible: they have defined themselves as a threat in the NFL.  This is a team that has had potential for break out for several years, and last year they were finally able to break through, winning the division with a 9-7 record.  Then, they managed to write off everyone who said that was a fluke by running through the playoffs, beating Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia.  The Cardinals then came very close to stunning Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.  Make no mistake about it, Arizona is a real player in the NFL.  Can they get back to the Super Bowl?  History says that will be tough, but the Cardinals should be able to contend for a playoff spot once again.

It’s hard to believe that Kurt Warner is 38, but he is still one of the most effective quarterbacks in the NFL.  Warner has had a renaissance in Arizona, after he struggled with the Giants and then was a backup to Matt Leinart with the Cardinals.  Leinart is still viewed as the quarterback of the future, but this is definitely Warner’s team.  The Cardinals told him as much when they signed him to an extension in the offseason.  Warner is extremely accurate and probably reads defenses better than anyone else in the league. Even though he is not mobile, he is surprisingly adept at avoiding the sack because of his ability to find the open receiver so quickly.  Not only that but he might have the best set of wideouts in all of football at his disposal.  Larry Fitzgerald has an ability to catch any ball at any time, open or not.  Sometimes he can outleap anyone and snag a ball even when double covered.  Anquan Boldin is also an outstanding route running and deep threat.  He has expressed unahappiness about his contract, so it will be interesting to see how that affects his performance.  Steve Breaston is also a very good option at third receiver.  He would be a sure starter on most teams, but his ability to play the slot alongside Fitzgerald and Boldin makes the Cardinals’ offense very difficult to slow down for any secondary.  The Cardinals took a risk in the running game by allowing Edgerrin James to leave for Seattle.  This is largely because they spent their first round pick on Ohio State running back Beanie Wells.  Wells has an intriguing combination of size and speed, and the Cardinals are hoping he can be the starter from the word go.  Otherwise, the ground attack will be in the hands of Tim Hightower, who is good but not spectacular.  The offensive line is a cohesive unit that plays well together, and returns intact from a year ago.

The defensive line is an enigma at this point, for the group did a great job stuffing the run in the playoffs, but played poorly down the stretch of the regular season.  They also were unable to generate a pass rush on Ben Roethlisberger when it mattered in the Super Bowl.  Darnell Dockett is their best pass rusher, and Arizona will be highly dependent on him to lead the charge to the quarterback.  Bertrand Berry is very capable as well on the other side when he is on his game.  The linebackers are very average and aging, led by Karlos Dansby and Chike Okeafor.  The strength of the team lies in the secondary, which is one of the best in the NFL.  Cornerback Bryant McFadden comes over from the Steelers, and joins Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to form an effective unit.  Safeties Adrian Wilson and Antrel Rolle are hard hitting and would each start for any team easy.

Kicker Neil Rackers is extremely effective and accurate in the clutch, plus punter Ben Graham is solid so there are no worries there.  The return game is a question mark with the loss of J.J. Arrington, but Breaston might be able to get a shot if the Cardinals are willing to risk minimizing his effectiveness at receiver.

Arizona is battling history in the sense that losers of the Super Bowl tend to have down seasons the next year.  The Cardinals appear to have the talent to buck that trend, but they still need to show they can consistently win on the road.  A hunch says they lose a close division race to Seattle but that they will find themselves in the wild card hunt.

3. San Francisco 49ers – It has been a long time since the 49ers have resembled anything close to the glory days of the 80s.  Last year was more of the same as the team stumbled to seven losses in their first nine games, resulting in the firing of Coach Mike Nolan.  The good news for Niners fans is the team seemed to show some life under Mike Singletary when he took over.  Singletary brought a fiery new attitude to the team and the coaching staff, and San Francisco managed five wins in its last seven contests.  There is hope in San Francisco, but there is also turmoil and distraction looming over like a dark cloud.

The 49ers saw what they thought was good fortune on draft day, as the top receiver on the board fell to them at number ten.  The Niners grabbed Michael Crabtree of Texas Tech, thinking he would give them the deep threat they had been missing offensively.  Turns out they got more than the bargained for, because Crabtree remains the only unsigned draft pick as we head into week one.  Seems Mr. Crabtree thinks he should have been selected higher in the draft, and thus he wants top pick money.  He says he is prepared to sit out the season and reenter the draft next year if necessary.  The 49ers are just as stringent in their stance that Crabtree should be paid based on where he was actually selected, so we have a stalemate that’s going to continue for awhile, with San Francisco potentially in danger of losing the rights to Crabtree altogether if he follows through with his threat to sit out the year.  The absence of Crabtree would mean the 49ers would be stuck with essentially the same group of wideouts as last year.  Isaac Bruce is entering his 16th season in the NFL, and he briefly contemplated retirement in the offseason.  He can still get open, but is not near as explosive as his days with the Rams.  Josh Morgan did start to emerge in the second half of the season last year, and the second year wideout will be expected to step up in a big way if Crabtree doesn’t show.  The 49ers also signed veteran Brandon Jones from Tennessee, who will also be counted on heavily.  Tight end Vernon Davis will be asked to start living up to the potential he showed as a sixth overall pick in 2006.  Davis has been more valuable as a blocker so far, but now he will be needed in the receiving game as well.  Regardless of who is catching the ball, the 49ers know, at least at the start of the season, that Shaun Hill will be one throwing to them.  Hill is actually 7-3 as a starter, and the 49ers have tremendous confidence in him.  One reason for their second half surge last year was that Hill stepped in for J.T. O’Sullivan and seemed to inject some life into the team.  Hill is very much a journeyman, but if he continues to play well, the job will remain his.  Alex Smith has been the ultimate bust since being the top overall pick in 2005, and while the coaches desperately want to make him the starter, Hill has flat outperformed him.  Hill will have a luxury of an excellent running game with Frank Gore leading the way.  Gore has been the team’s workhorse the past few years, and there is no question he is the key to what they do.  He can run, he can catch, and he can block.  Gore has averaged well over 20 carries a game for the past three seasons, so it is scary to think where they would be without him.  The 49ers are making an effort to keep Gore fresher, so they tabbed Alabama’s Glen Coffee with their third round pick.  The idea is that Coffee can spell Gore for a few carries a game, and that way Gore should be fresher for the end of the year.  The offensive line has been horrible, allowing a staggering number of sacks the last two years, but the 49ers did sign free agent tackle Marvel Smith from the Steelers.  Smith has battled back problems, but the Niners are hopeful he can inject some stability into the group.

Defensively, the 49ers are a quietly improving group with talent.  The defensive line is anchored by pass rusher Justin Smith, who proved to be worth the money spent in free agency last season.  The 3-4 alignment the team plans to use this season should prove to be very beneficial to Smith, who will line up exclusively at right end, which plays to his pass rushing strength.  The linebackers are very talented, led by Patrick Willis, who is quietly becoming one of the game’s best players, making the Pro Bowl in each of his first two years.  He is joined by Takeo Spikes, who has been multiple Pro Bowls himself in his career.  The 49ers hope the 3-4 will prove to be better suited to both players.  The secondary is a mix of veterans (cornerbacks Nate Clements and Walt Harris) and youth (safeties Michael Lewis and Dashon Goldson).

The special teams is in good hands with reliable kicker Joe Nedney and punter Andy Lee.  The return game is also in very solid hands with Allen Rossum, who continues to be one of the most consistent kick returners in football.

While the 49ers do have some talent in place and a world of potential, I would feel better about them if they didn’t have the Crabtree distraction hanging over their head.  I also want to see improved play from the offensive line and secondary before I anoint them a playoff team.  Right now they are still a year away,

4. St. Louis Rams – It seems hard to believe it was 10 years ago that the Rams won the Super Bowl thanks to Kurt Warner Marshall Faulk, and the Greatest Show on Turf.  What was once one of the most feared offenses in NFL history is now arguably the worst team in the NFL.  Last year the Rams were a disaster in virtually every area, finishing 2-14.  Not surprisingly, there is a new sheriff in town in first year coach Steve Spagnuolo, who comes over from the Giants and brings a tough attitude to a team that certainly needs a little discipline.  The rebuilding is well underway, and things will be painful for another year in St. Louis.

Marc Bulger does remain the starting quarterback, and the Rams are hoping he can return to levels from a few years ago, especially his 4,000 yard season of 2006.  Bulger has not been able to stay healthy consistently, and he tends to linger in the pocket too long, leading to sacks.  He does have a good arm, and the Rams will be counting on his stability at the position.  The Rams also hope that his declining production the past few years is an aberration, not a trend.  What will make things a little tougher for Bulger is that he will throwing to a very average group of receivers.  Longtime veteran Torry Holt was let go in a cost cutting move, so the Rams will go with Donnie Avery and Laurent Robinson, who comes over from Atlanta.  Tight end Randy McMichael does put up decent numbers and is a good blocker.  The key for the Rams is they are going to have to rely very heavily on their running game.  Steven Jackson is by far the best player on the team, for he has ability to run between the tackles, catch out of the backfield, and really make people miss.  The Rams did sign fullback Mike Karney from the Saints, so that is a clear indication that the running game may actually be a priority in St. Louis.  Jackson should post big numbers, and he might be able to get them into the end zone enough to help improve on the total of 2 wins from a year ago.  The offensive line is also a major bright spot for now and the future, for the Rams spent their first round pick on Baylor tackle Jason Smith.  They also signed center Jason Brown from Baltimore.  Veteran Orlando Pace was let go in another cost cutting move, but the new coaches felt that Pace’s production had dropped significantly anyway.

Despite major efforts to upgrade the defensive line the past few years, the Rams have remained bad against the run and have been equally unable to generate a pass rush.  Rookie Chris Long did have four sacks last year, but now the Rams will be counting on him to start showing his potential and justify his second overall selection a year ago.  The Rams will also need production out of Leonard Little, who had six sacks last year.  The linebackers are in the process of being retooled, but I like the second round selection of Ohio State’s James Laurinaitis in the draft.  The Rams hope that he will eventually become the leader of the defense the way he was at Ohio State.  The rest of the group is very young and there are expected to be growing pains.  The Rams have decided to basically retain the same secondary as last year, highlighted by cornerback Ron Bartell and safety Oshiomogho Atogwe.

The kicking game is actually in decent hands with kicker Josh Brown and punter Donnie Jones.  Both have strong legs and are accurate.  Derek Stanley is expected to get the first crack at returning kicks and punts, but he has yet to show any consistency in that area.

The Rams are undertaking a major rebuilding effort, and the immediate future does not look good.  Many home games are not expected to sell out, resulting in local television blackouts.  I think Spagnuolo and his staff will have success eventually, but this has the look of a very rough year for the Rams.

Coming later this week: playoff and week one picks

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