Sunday, March 4, 2012

NFL Off-Season Preview: NFC West Edition

It is Part 4 of my NFL Off-Season Preview, and this time we will look at the NFC West. The West was a division that went the complete opposite way most people saw it going this year. Almost everyone saw the Rams as the favorites to win the division. They were a team on the rise. But a brutal early schedule and injuries put an end to that. The Seahawks struggled early, as did the Cardinals, and both teams' late season runs weren't enough to get them in the Playoffs. Then there was the San Francisco 49ers, a team that I am pretty sure no one saw coming. But first year coach Jim Harbaugh completely changed the culture of the team, and he lead the 49ers to the NFC West Title and the NFC Championship Game. All of this was done with pretty much the same roster that didn't make the Playoffs the year before. What once was considered the weakest division in the NFL is now a decent one that is no longer a laughing stock.

San Francisco 49ers
2011 Record: 13-3

Okay, raise your hand if you saw the San Francisco 49ers coming last year. I could probably count the number of people who picked the 49ers to win the NFC West last year on my fingers and toes. What Jim Harbaugh did with last year's team was truly phenomenal. Harbaugh built a great defense and resurrected the career of QB Alex Smith. Harbaugh's fiery personality inspired his players. It was part of the reason I wanted Harbaugh as Bills coach when they were looking for one two years ago. The 49ers had the NFC Title Game in their hands if it wasn't for two costly punt return fumbles. Throughout the course of the regular season, the 49ers beat the Steelers, Eagles, Lions and Giants. They took out the Saints in the Playoffs with a great offensive outing. The 49ers had the 4th ranked total defense in all of the NFL last year. They were number one against the run, giving up 246 less yards than the second ranked Ravens and only surrendering 3 rushing TDs all year. It looks like the 49ers may be back to their old winning ways under Harbaugh.

Biggest Question: Can the 49ers Do It Two Years In A Row?
Now while it looks like they may be back to their winning ways, it doesn't mean the 49ers can't regress this year. They will have a tougher schedule this year. They will have to play the Saints, Packers and Giants. While Alex Smith had somewhat of a resurgence under Harbaugh, his numbers still didn't stand out or make it seem like he is going to improve. While Smith had a great Divisional Round game against the Saints, he struggled against the Giants in the NFC Championship. Smith needs more weapons other than TE Vernon Davis. Teams will begin to double team Davis if the 49ers can't improve their WR situation. The defense, however, shows no signs of going away as all of its key components will be back. The 49ers have already re-signed OLB Ahmad Brooks and put the franchise tag on Safety Dashon Goldson. Brooks had 7 sacks last year and Goldosn tied for the team lead with 6 interceptions. In a still sub-par but improving NFC West, the 49ers Defense is far superior to any other defense in the division, and it keeps them as the favorites in the NFC West for this year.

Top 3 Free Agents
1. Carlos Rogers: Cornerback
Rogers was the teams best cover corner last year. He tied with Goldson with 6 interceptions and teams barely completed over 50% of the passes thrown Rogers way. Rogers will be 31 come the start of the 2012 season, but his skills clearly haven't gone anywhere and won't be anytime soon. Rogers should be re-signed so this 49ers defense continues to gel as a cohesive and dominant unit.

2. Alex Smith: Quarterback
Smith's numbers improved under Harbaugh. Smith had 17 TDs and 5 interceptions. Those numbers aren't wowing, but with a defense that held opponents to an average of 14 points a game, they don't have to be. Smith will likely be retained and serve as the teams QB. But the 49ers may look to add a veteran backup for Smith. They also have Colin Kapernick, a 2010 draft choice, behind Smith.

3. Ted Ginn: Wide Receiver/Punt Returner
Ginn isn't much of a receiver, but his value to the team was shown during the NFC Championship Game. I doubt there are two punt return fumbles if Ginn is back there instead of Kyle Williams. Ginn is an excellent return man and after the NFC Title Game debacle, he will most likely be returning.

Top 3 Needs
1. Wide Receiver
No Receiver had more than 4 TDs on the team last year. Tight End Vernon Davis lead the team with 6. The 49ers need bigger and better weapons for Smith to throw to on the outside. There are some decent options in the Draft, or they could go after Mike Wallace and surrender there late first round pick. For a team like the 49ers, that type of move won't affect them.

2. Offensive Tackle
Alex Smith was sacked a surprising 44 times last year. The right side of the line is what needs the most work. Right Guard Adam Snyder is a free agent and probably won't be back. Anthony Davis isn't great at right tackle and could get moved to guard. The 49ers need better protection for Smith.

3. Cornerback
The 49ers aren't really a team with too many glaring needs. But if Carlos Rogers isn't re-signed then cornerback becomes what might be the only need on defense.

The 49ers don't appear to be going away. They may not repeat last year's success, but with pretty much everyone coming back on defense they will be a tough team to score on again this year. The schedule will get tougher, as will the NFC West, but the 49ers defense will be up to the challenge. The 49ers need to get some more weapons for Smith if they don't want him to regress this season. San Francisco will be the favorites in the NFC West and I don't know if any team will be able to challenge them for the top spot, barring a couple big moves from one of their divisional rivals.

Arizona Cardinals
2011 Record: 8-8

The Arizona Cardinals had two very different halves to their season last year. The Cardinals started the season 1-6, losing six in a row after winning in Week 1. The Cardinals finished the season strong, going 7-2 which included wins over Philadelphia, Dallas and San Francisco. Kevin Kolb was a disappointment this year for the Cardinals. He only played in nine games last year and went 3-6, throwing 9 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. John Skelton played better despite throwing more interceptions (14) then touchdowns (11). Bu Skelton had a knack for winning, going 5-2 and coming up clutch late in games. The Cardinals defense didn't help matters either, severely under-performing after a couple key free agent signings. You have to figure Ken Wisenhunt will be on the hot seat this year and if the team under performs again he may find himself out of a job in 2013.

Biggest Question: Who is the Cardinals Starting QB Week 1?
This will be a big talking point during free agency and training camp. The Cardinals gave away a lot to get Kolb. They traded away cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second round pick. But Kolb under-performed last year and John Skelton was much better. But is Skelton the actual answer in Arizona? I don't think so. He has a knack for winning in the clutch but still hasn't proven he can do it for a full 16 game schedule. The Cardinals have been one of the teams mentioned as possible suitors for Peyton Manning. Peyton had dinner with Larry Fitzgerald during Super Bowl week, and you can bet Fitzgerald was talking up Arizona to him. If the Cardinals landed Manning, they would become a dangerous team on offense with a Peyton to Fitz connection. They'd be even better if they landed Reggie Wayne too. I don't know if the Cardinals would want to give up on Kolb so quickly, but if you have the opportunity to land Peyton Manning you don't pass it up.

Top 3 Free Agents
1. Calais Campbell: Defensive End/Tackle
Campbell was just franchised by the Cardinals, so he is more than likely going nowhere. Campbell is one of the better, if not the best, defensive ends in the 3-4 scheme in the NFL. He lead the Cardinals with 8 sacks and is a force on the outside. Expect the Cardinals to work out a long term deal with him. He will only be 25 as well, which means there is a bright future ahead.

2. Richard Marshall: Cornerback
Marshall improved as the year went on. He lead the team on the year with 3 interceptions. In addition to playing corner, he also filled in at safety at times. Marshall should look to build on his 2011 campaign.

3. LaRod Stephens-Howling
Howling is a good kick returner and has some lightning speed. He may never be a feature back, but he is a decent change of pace back. He could fill in well when Beanie Wells inevitably gets injured this year.

Top 3 Needs
1. Wide Receiver
Eventually, teams might just start triple covering Larry Fitzgerald. The Cardinals need to get someone to help take the pressure off Fitzgerald. Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd might be available when the Cardinals pick in the Draft, or Reggie Wayne might come as a package deal if the Cardinals land Peyton Manning.

2. Linebacker
Stewart Bradley was signed this past off-season, but he turned out to be a major bust last season. You need some strong inside linebackers to be the leaders of your 3-4 defense, and the Cardinals are lacking that right now. The Cardinals could also use an outside linebacker too.

3. Offensive Line
Similar to the 49ers, the Cardinals right side of the line could use an upgrade. Right Tackle Levi Brown could be replaced, and right guard Rex Hadnot also did not play well. There will be options when the Cardinals pick in the first round.

If the Cardinals are able to land Peyton Manning then they become the favorites in the NFC West, even with the 49ers strong defense. Manning most likely means Reggie Wayne will come too, and that makes the Cardinals offense very dangerous. But the Cardinals will also need improved play from their defense, especially in the secondary. I think the Cardinals are a few pieces away from getting back to a Playoff contender, but landing Peyton Manning would make them an instant Playoff contender in the NFC.

Seattle Seahawks
2011 Record: 7-9

Seattle had a very mediocre season last year. The only thing that stood out the entire year was the performance of RB Marshawn Lynch. Lynch was a beast last year, scoring a touchdown in every game but two from Week 4 until the end of the season. Lynch had career highs in every category last year. But Seattle couldn't do much otherwise on offense. Tavaris Jackson doesn't appear to be the answer at QB. But the Seahawks might not be able to get a suitable replacement. The Seahawks defense played surprisingly well last year, finishing 9th overall in total defense. But they have a few key pieces that need to be re-signed on that unit. Seattle surprised people by upsetting the Saints in the Playoffs two seasons ago, but if they want to surprise people again they will need to find a leader on offense and more consistent play throughout the year.

Biggest Question: Who Is Seattle's Quarterback Week 1?
Yes I just asked this question about the Cardinals, but Seattle faces just as bad a situation at QB as the Cardinals, maybe even worse. Actually not maybe, definitely worse. Tavaris Jackson will not take this team anywhere. He didn't play terrible last year, but he just isn't the type of QB that will take you far. He doesn't have the mechanics or the instincts to be a Playoff caliber QB. Neither does Charlie Whitehurst. Seattle isn't a suitor for Peyton Manning. They might make a play for Matt Flynn. I don't know if they'll trade up for Robert Griffin. If anything, they might hope Texas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill falls to them at their pick in the 1st round. Or if they can't land a QB, maybe they will tank the season and try to land former Pete Carroll recruit Matt Barkley. Things don't look too bright at the QB spot for Seattle. Unless they make a move, it will be another year of Tavaris Jackson.

Top 3 Free Agents
1. David Hawthorne: Linebacker
Hawthorne is a very good inside linebacker and the leader of the Seahawks defense. He lead the team with 115 tackles and at the age of 27 still has a bright future ahead of him. He should be a top priority for Seattle.

2. Marshawn Lynch: Running Back
Lynch had a career year last year and will be rewarded with a big contract, but if you are Seattle you have to worry about that. Could a big contract cause Lynch's work ethic to decline and his production on the field to drop? Lynch has had character issues and off field problems before, so it could be a problem. But if Seattle wants a good running game to take pressure off of Tavaris Jackson, they will re-sign Lynch.

3. Red Bryant: Defensive End/Tackle
Bryant is a big run stuffer for Seattle and is capable of playing in both a 3-4 and a 4-3 look.

Top 3 Needs
1. Quarterback
I talked about it at length already, but the situation is bad in Seattle. Tavaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst are not the future in Seattle.

2. Defensive End
Charlie Clemons had 11 sacks, but no one else on Seattle was able to put constant pressure on the quarterback. Seattle needs a second pass rusher, and those will be available plenty in the Draft.

3. Linebacker
If Seattle can't re-sign Hawthorne or Leroy Hill, they will have a major hole to fill at linebacker.

Things don't look too bright in Seattle. San Francisco is the top dog, St. Louis could be turning things around, and Arizona is a Peyton Manning move away from being contenders again. Seattle doesn't really have too much going for it. This could be a down year for Seattle coming up. Last place in the NFC West is a strong possibility barring some improvements at offense, specifically at QB. I don't like Seattle's chances to contend for a Playoff spot this year.

St. Louis Rams
2011 Record: 2-14

The Rams had high hopes heading into the 2011 season. They had a good young QB in Sam Bradford, a workhorse running back in Steven Jackson and a young defensive unit that could only get better. Well, the Rams were smacked with a big dose of reality last year. They started the season 0-6, but with teams like the Giants, Philadelphia, Green Bay and Baltimore on the schedule it wasn't surprising. They somehow upset New Orleans in Week 8 for their first win, but the Rams would only win one more game after that. The Rams also had a large number of injuries last year that affected their play. I think by the end of the year they were signing people to play cornerback that they saw playing a pick up game in the streets. Sam Bradford missed some time because of injury, a result of having almost no decent starting offensive lineman. All of this cost coach Steve Spagnuolo his job, and the team brought in Jeff Fisher. Fisher doesn't have a great Playoff track record, but he is one of the most well respected coaches in the league and will change the culture in St. Louis. The Rams can only get better, and they should with Fisher on board.

Biggest Question: What Will the Rams Do With the #2 Pick?
Once the Draft order became official, everyone thought it was a possibility that the Rams would trade out of that pick and someone would trade up for Baylor QB Robert Griffin. Reports started coming out last week that the Rams were shopping the pick, then Robert Griffin blew up at the Combine and then it became a certainty that Griffin would go #2 overall and that the Rams would trade out of the pick. The Rams have a variety of holes to fill and more picks would be helpful. The Rams are apparently looking for what the Chargers got when they traded down in the Eli Manning/Philip Rivers swap: a 1st this year and next, a 3rd round pick and a 5th round pick. The Browns probably have the most ammunition. They have two first rounders this year. Mike Shanahan needs to make a statement in Washington this year, so he may trade the farm for Griffin. Miami is a possibility, but I think Matt Flynn might join up with his former offensive coordinator in Miami. I'm sure the Rams will trade this pick. They have too many holes and the more picks, the better.

Top 3 Free Agents
1. Brandon Lloyd: Wide Receiver
Lloyd helped out Bradford last year and is possible of being a #1 wideout. The only problem is that Lloyd said he would like to follow Josh McDaniels wherever he goes, and McDaniels just happens to be in New England. Lloyd thrives with McDaniels, so I expect him to end up with the Pats.

2. Danny Amendola: Wide Receiver
Amendola tore his triceps in 2011 and missed mot of the season, but when healthy he is clearly Sam Bradford's favorite receiver. Amendola is only a restricted free agent, so I expect him to be re-signed.

3. Donnie Jones: Punter
The Rams don't have too many big free agents. I hate adding punters, but Jones was a valuable asset to the Rams last year. He was in the Top 10 in total punt yards and punts inside the 20. That's important in the field position game.

Top 3 Needs
1. Offensive Tackle
If the Rams want Sam Bradford to make it through the season healthy, they need to get him better protection on the ends. Jason Smith has been a colossal bust and Roger Saffold isn't the man you want protecting Bradford's blind side. If they stay at #2, they will take USC Tackle Matt Kalil. If they trade out they have to add a tackle late in the first or early second, or in free agency.

2. Wide Receiver
Assuming the Rams lose Brandon Lloyd in free agency, this becomes another need. The good news is if the Rams make a trade with Cleveland, they can still get Kalil or Oklahoma St. WR Justin Blackmon at #4. That may be the best option to upgrade this position for the Rams.

3. Cornerback
The Rams had 10 cornerbacks put on injured reserve last year. Many people expect Titans CB Cortland Finnegan to end up with his old coach Jeff Fisher here. That would be an instant upgrade for the Rams. They need stability at this position.

I expect the Rams to improve and get back to where they were in 2010. This team, when healthy, isn't a 2-14 team. They are about a .500 team that could be better if they improve in their areas of weakness. They had a string of bad luck this year with injuries and a brutal early season schedule. Of course, the Rams are now facing off field questions with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and his supposed bounty system he had in all of his stops as head coach. But that should get resolved before the season, and the Rams should be a better team. Fisher should bring in some veteran help to this team, and the Rams will find their way back to being a respectable team in 2012.

I'm going to try and start to get these out sooner with Free Agency less than 10 days away. I expect my next two to be done on Monday and Tuesday.

Until Next Time,
Justin C
Follow Me On Twitter @JCWonka

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