NFC West Preview
ARIZONA CARDINALS, SAN FRANCISCO 49ers, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS, ST. LOUIS RAMS
It appears the West Division in both the AFC and NFC could provide the teams that will meet in the Super Bowl in New York this year. Denver has as good a shot as any, and my pick this year for the NFC Champion goes to Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers. All they did this offseason after losing in last years Super Bowl was have a very productive draft and acquire a few key free agents as well, to strengthen their team and bolster their chances of garnering the Vince Lombardi Trophy. They will have to stay hungry, which should be easy with Coach Harbaugh’s desire to get the most out of his players and keep them focused. But they will also have to stay healthy which is generally the key to any team winning each and every year.
Already to start the season, they will be without their #1 WR Michael Crabtree, likely until November as he underwent surgery to repair a torn Achilles in May. Even despite their burning issue of who will step up at WR until Crabtree returns, the 49ers should win the division because of one of the games best and electrifying dual threat QB Colin Kaepernick and a defense that ranked #6 overall in Total Yards allowed last year.
The Seahawks will be right on their heels, battling to take the division crown. The Seahawks, one of the NFL’s youngest teams, produced the NFL’s #1 defense in total defense. They split last year with the 49ers, losing 13-6 at San Francisco, and then embarrassing San Francisco 42-13 in the next to last week of the regular season. CB Richard Sherman is one of the games top 3 DB’s as he looks to build on a career year patrolling the secondary. Offensively the Seahawks are just as dangerous with RB Marshawn Lynch carving through defenses on the ground.
St. Louis has a huge question mark at RB, after parting ways with Steven Jackson. They have to hope that QB Sam Bradford continues to show improvement and will able to quickly establish a connection with their 1st round draft choice chosen #8 overall in WR Tavon Austin (West Virginia). Head Coach Jeff Fisher has drafted speed the last 2 years at the skill positions, and with the release of Steven Jackson, he is hoping his draft choices will start to pan out and produce in a big way to get the Rams back to consistently producing playoff teams.
Arizona will be under 1st year Head Coach Bruce Arians, whom many teams coveted this offseason, as he’s produced everywhere as an Offensive Coordinator. Now he gets his shot to have his own team but will have to hope the Cardinals fans will be patient until he can get a couple of drafts and free agencies under his current regime. They did pick up QB Carson Palmer to help bolster the leagues most anemic offenses last year. Arizona did show that they were going to make an effort to win now, as they were very active in this past offseason with signing numerous key free agents.
Look for San Francisco to just edge Seattle to win the division, and secure home field throughout the playoffs with a 13-3 record, and Seattle to grab a wildcard seed with a 12-4 mark. The Rams finish 8-8 and could possibly grab another wildcard spot as well. I see the Cardinals finishing up the season at 7-9, and building momentum towards closing the gap on the NFC WEST in the offseason.
SAN FRANCISCO (13-3)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Anquan Boldin, Phil Dawson, Craig Dahl, Nnamdi Asomugha, Glenn Dorsey
KEY LOSSES: Dashon Goldson, Randy Moss
When Jim Harbaugh took over the 49ers 2 seasons ago, he was handed a ton of talent. Mike Singletary wasn’t able to do much with that talent, whereas, Coach Harbaugh has succeeded quickly. Jim Harbaugh is a winner, and comes from a family full of winners. He’s a player’s coach, and whether at Stanford, or now with the 49ers, his players will leave it all on the field for him. Combine great talent, with great coaching, and it’s not hard to see why the 49ers are where they are right now. Year one, they lost in the NFC Championship. Year 2 they lose to Jim’s brother John Harbaugh and the Ravens in the Super Bowl. Year 3, with even more depth, I have the 49ers winning it all! They went out and acquired WR Anquan Boldin (921 YDS, 9TD) from the Ravens, and still am scratching my head as to how they got that deal accomplished.
Boldin may not be spectacular in the regular season, but in the playoffs with the Ravens last year, he was on par with Flacco as their MVP during the playoffs. Every big play, every big 3rd or 4th down that they had to have, Boldin was right there making the plays for them. That’s what you get from a veteran WR. With WR Michael Crabtree (1105 YDS, 9 TD) probably not available until near November while recovering from a torn Achiles, Boldin will need to step up earlier then the playoffs for San Francisco, as the go to guy. Especially with WR Mario Manningham (449 YDS, 1 TD) currently on the PUP list as training camp starts. A.J. Jenkins, Kyle Williams, Quinton Patton, and Marlon Moore will need to step up to fill out the receiving corps. Thankfully they have a huge target in TE Vernon Davis (548 YDS, 5 TD) to take some pressure off the young receivers while they develop.
RB Frank Gore (1214 YDS, 8 TD) is hungry and feels the 49ers are even better in 2013. He is an every down back, who poses a threat in both the rushing as well as passing game. Will the 49ers find a way to get speedster RB LaMichael James more touches this coming season, getting him the ball in space? Let’s not forget about duel threat QB Colin Kaepernick (1814 YDS Passing, 10 TD, 3 INT, 415 YDS Rushing) as Coach Harbaugh has gone “all-in” on him. He has a huge arm, but needs to develop a little more touch to become an elite QB, and will he be able to keep his head as he leads the NFL in jersey sales, and markets his own TD celebration. Will he be a “TEAM FIRST”, or “ME FIRST” franchise QB? For me the jury is still out on that.
Defensively, the 49ers are just as talented as the offensive side of the ball. They were +9 in turnover margin. With perhaps the best linebacking corps in NFL, LB NaVorro Bowman (148 T), LB Aldon Smith 66 T, 19.5 SCK, 3 F), and LB Patrick Willis (120 T, 2 INT, 2 FF), they make it hard to move the ball. Signing free agent CB Nnamdi Asomugha (PHI) gives them a shutdown corner opposite CB Carlos Rogers (56 T, 7 PDEF, 1 INT, 3 FR). With S Donte Whitner (83 T, 5 PDEF, 1 INT, 2 FF, 1FR) controlling the deep third, the 49ers present an intimidating, fast, hard-hitting defense. Not to be overlooked either, is the signing of one of the games best kickers Phil Dawson ( 29 of 31) who left Cleveland and may finally get his chance at a Super Bowl ring.
It’s hard to find many flaws with this 49ers team. If Kaepernick can keep a level head and grow and mature and lead this team and avoid injury, they go 13-3 and secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (12-4)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Percy Harvin, Michael Bennett, Antoine Winfield, Cliff Avril
KEY LOSSES: Jason Jones, Marcus Trufant
Head Coach Pete Carroll is putting a lot of pressure on their NFC WEST rivals San Francisco. Last year, the Seahawks boasted the best defense in the NFL in Total Defense, giving up just 310 yds per game, was 2nd against the pass, and 5th against the run. They are FAST on defense, and their front 4 is tenacious! CB Richard Sherman, put up monster numbers in the secondary, and is known as one of the leagues heavy hitting ball hawks! They were just as impressive on offense, ranking 4th in total offense, 2nd in rushing, and 7th in passing. QB Russell Wilson was as good as any QB in the league last year, applying pressure with both his arm and legs. He is very mature, and a great leader that I don’t think has a sophomore slump this season. Whether or not defenses around the NFL start to defend the spread or option read better with there being more then a handful of read option type offenses remains to be seen. I think Wilson would succeed regardless of what type of offense they run, as he is gifted mentally, and provides tremendous leadership qualities. The Seahawks improved through free agency, signing numerous big name free agents.
Offensively QB Russell Wilson (3118 YDS, 489 Rushing, 26 TD, 10 INT) will put up even bigger numbers in his sophomore season. He gets tremendous help with the running game finishing 2nd in the league last season at 173 YPG, thanks largely to RB Marshawn Lynch (1590 YDS, 11 TD). With a consistent rushing attack, it allows Wilson to be effective in play action pass, and he has good weapons at WR to distribute the ball around to. Seattle is hoping that the signing of all purpose Percy Harvin will provide another threat for opposing teams to be concerned with. WR’s Sydney Rice (748 YDS, 7 TD), Golden Tate (688 YDS, 7 TD), and TE Zach Miller (396 YDS, 3 TD) are Wilson’s main targets.
With the addition of CB Antoine Winfield ( 101 T, 12 PDEF, 3 INT) to go opposite of CB Richard Sherman (24 PDEF, 8 INT, 3 FF) you will be hard pressed to find a better corner combination in all the NFL. Talent was added to the DL with the signing of DE Michael Bennett (9 SCK) from Tampa Bay, and DE Cliff Avril (5 SCK) from Detroit, which provides quality depth to their defensive line.
If the Seahawks can play to their potential, the NFC WEST crown is within their reach. They need to be more consistent from week to week, and see them securing the top wildcard seed finishing just behind the 49ers at 12-4.
SAINT LOUIS RAMS (8-8)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Jake Long, Jared Cook, Will Witherspoon
KEY LOSSES: Danny Amendola, Steven Jackson, Bradley Fletcher
I don’t think the Rams have arrived yet, but their getting closer. They have a foundation laid, with a bright young QB Sam Bradford, but Head Coach Jeff Fisher is leaning to heavy on either rookies this year, or 2nd year players to step up and produce. Fisher was a consistent winner with the Titans, and already garnered respect with his team last year in his first year. But with parting ways with their franchise RB Steven Jackson (ATL), Coach Fisher is counting on some unproven players to fill the void. Both offensively and defensively, Saint Louis was average last year in nearly every category. There just isn’t enough depth yet on either side of the ball to get the Rams over the .500 mark and be a contender in this division.
Losing WR Danny Amendola (NE) will definitely hurt QB Sam Bradford (3702 YDS, 21 TD, 13 INT) as he was a favorite target. But that’s why they drafted WR Tavon Austin (West Virginia) with the 8th overall pick in the draft. So there’s pressure on Austin to produce quickly and stretch the field with his speed vertically. Bradford will also look to WR’s Brandon Gibson (691 YDS, 5 TD), and Chris Givens (698 YDS 3 TD) to improve and should be more comfortable in this offense. Looking to fill the void left by Jackson at RB is Daryl Richardson (475 YDS) who showed signs of being that guy as he was primarily used behind Jackson last year, but also averaged 4.8 yds a carry.
Defensively, the Rams are a little ahead of the offense, which will always help you to stay in games longer. They are led by LB James Laurinaitis (142 T, 2 INT, 1 FR) and DE Chris Long (11.5 SCK). They were able to re-sign DT William Hayes (7 SCK) to help up the middle.
Just don’t see anything that happened in the offseason that would make you excited about the Rams chances this year of securing a playoff spot or competing with San Francisco or Seattle. Rams finish 8-8, and look to 2014 as a year to fully arrive.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (7-9)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Rashard Mendenhal, Carson Palmer, Javier Arenas
KEY LOSSES: Greg Toler, Adrian Wilson, Beanie Wells, Kevin Kolb
First year Head Coach Bruce Arians will be looking to change the culture in Arizona right away. He is highly regarded throughout the NFL, and was probably the most sought after coach amongst coordinators this offseason. Filling in as Interm Head Coach for Indianapolis last year while Chuck Pagano battled his illness, he guided the Colts to a 9-3 mark with a rookie QB. The Cardinals turned over a large percentage of their roster from last season, and will be better than their 5-11 season. One thing Arians has done is eliminated the fullback and hopes to stretch the field more vertically this season with his passing game.
WR Larry Fitzgerald (798 YDS, 4 TD) had a very sub par year last year, but that was in large part do to the ineffectiveness of the departed QB Kevin Kolb. The Cardinals were dead last in Total Offense last year with an anemic 263 yards per game. Bring in QB Carson Palmer (4018 YDS, 22 TD, 14 INT) from Oakland, and things will be much different for Larry Fitzgerald this year, as he should return to putting up big numbers. WR Andre Roberts ( 759, 5 TD) will be the #2 target for Palmer through the air. The Cardinals were also dead last in rushing, with just 73 yards per game, and are hoping that the signing of free agent Rashard Mendenhal from Pittsburgh will give them a better ground game. Mendenhal has to come in healthy and stay healthy though, as he only played in 6 games with the Steelers last year.
Taking a gamble in the draft the Cardinals decided to pick up S Tyrann Mathieu (LSU) aka “Honey Badger”, and hope his off the field issues are over as he sat out the entire season at LSU last year for disciplinary reasons. The Cardinals will also be starting the season without their leader on defense LB Daryl Washington (134 T, 9 SCK, 1 INT, 2 FF, 1FR) as he was suspended by the NFL for violating it’s substance abuse policy.
The Cardinals have to win at home and if fans look for them to make the playoffs this year, sorry, that won’t be happening despite having a pretty good hire in Bruce Arians. Cardinals finish at 7-9.
Check out our 2013 AFC West Preview
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