Wednesday, August 8, 2012

2012 NFL Divisional Previews - NFC West

Football is almost here! Over the next four weeks I will be bringing you, my loyal readers, previews of all eight divisions in the NFL. I start with the NFC West, home to my favorite football team, the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers are looking to build off their return to glory last season, with a Super Bowl or bust mentality this season. The Seattle Seahawks are hoping that they can find the right man at quarterback and get back to the playoffs after missing out last season. The Arizona Cardinals have a pretty good team but no answer at quarterback right now. The St. Louis Rams are looking to get back on the upswing, leading to them firing Steve Spagnuolo and hiring veteran coach Jeff Fisher.

1. San Francisco 49ers

2011 Record: 13-3, NFC West champs
Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh (2nd season San Francisco, 14-4 career)
Key Additions: WR A.J. Jenkins, RB LaMichael James, RB Brandon Jacobs, WR Randy Moss, WR Mario Manningham
Key Losses: WR Josh Morgan, CB Shawntae Spencer, S Madieu Williams

2012 Outlook: It turned out that the 49ers had the talent to succeed, it was awful coaching that had held them back. Enter Jim Harbaugh, who changed all that, bringing fantastic coaching and amazing motivational capabilities, propelling the 49ers to 13 wins and a playoff victory. His single biggest achievement as coach was saving the career of QB Alex Smith. Smith finally had someone who believed in him and knowing that he didn't have to look over his shoulder, had by far the best season of his career. The 49ers did make a run at Peyton Manning in the offseason, and Smith might have had his feelings hurt but hopefully he has put that aside and realizes the Niners signed him for three years to be their guy. Smith was helped by the steady rushing attack the Niners had, led by veteran RB Frank Gore. Gore has dealt with injuries throughout his career but to his credit has been consistently reliable as a Niner. He is getting up there in age though so the Niners looked to the future and took his eventual replacement, RB LaMichael James in the 2nd round. James had a fantastic career at Oregon, and has blazing speed. Some are concerned about his smallish frame, but that hasn't stopped Darren Sproles from being successful. If you are fast enough where they can't catch you, size starts to matter less. The Niners also added a player I detest, RB Brandon Jacobs, the tip toe burglar. Chances are though that he won't even make the team, or at best be a third down back. The Niners also added pieces at WR, poaching another Giants player in Mario Manningham, drafting A.J. Jenkins out of Illinois, and bringing Randy Moss out of retirement. The most interesting story will be how much does Moss have left, and if he has anything left is Smith the one to bring it out of him? The Niners also have one of the best tight ends in the game in Vernon Davis. Davis struggled at times during the season but was awesome for the Niners in their two playoff games. The offensive line is good but not great, and Smith did get sacked quite a bit, although partially that was due to him holding the ball too long. The real story for the Niners last season was their outstanding defense, which didn't even give up a rushing touchdown until the next to last game of the season. They bring back all eleven starters and while they may not have been name guys last season, they are now. One guy that has always been known is the best LB in the league, Patrick Willis. He is complemented by Navarro Bowman. On the defensive line, rookie Aldon Smith seemed like a steal, and Justin Smith has turned out to be a fantastic free agent pick up from a few years back. Another great free agent pick up turned out to be CB Carlos Rogers. Rogers always had good cover skills as a Redskin but couldn't catch a cold. That all changed last season for San Francisco when he became a pick machine. The 49ers also have fantastic special teams, led by one of the best punters in the game, Andy Lee, and kicker, David Akers. Akers set a record for field goals in a season and showed that he has plenty of football left in him. Many people think the Niners 2011 season was a fluke, and that their is no way that Alex Smith will play as well, and that the defense will regress. They also point to a more difficult schedule. I don't expect 13 wins, winning 13 games in back to back seasons is next to impossible. However, Smith doesn't have to be great, he needs to be good, as long as the 49ers still run the ball and have that awesome defense, along with a great coach, they will be fine.

Prediction: 11-5

2. Seattle Seahawks

2011 Record: 7-9, 3rd place NFC West
Head Coach: Pete Carroll (3rd season Seattle, 49-52 career)
Key Additions: QB Russell Wilson, QB Matt Flynn, WR Terrell Owens, TE Kellen Winslow, ILB Barrett Ruud, DT Jason Jones, DE/OLB Bruce Irvin
Key Losses: RB Justin Forsett, WR Mike Williams, TE John Carlson, G Robert Gallery, QB Charlie Whitehurst, DE Raheem Brock

2012 Outlook: The Seahawks up and down season last year reflected the up and down play they got out of quarterback in Charlie Whitehurst and Tavaris Jackson. Whitehurst is gone, Jackson is back and in a three way competition at quarterback with free agent signing Matt Flynn and draftee Russell Wilson. It isn't a good sign when your number one guy isn't much better than your potential number three guy. I think this is mostly a dog and pony show and Flynn will end up winning the job since he is the guy they signed and paid all that money to. One area that they don't have questions about, at least on the field, is with RB Marshawn Lynch. Lynch ran into some trouble with the law this off-season after signing an extension so that leads to some concern but he was a major reason Seattle won seven games last season with mediocre to poor quarterback play. Seattle's wide receiving corps is a mess. Sidney Rice was injured most of last year as just about anyone who has followed Rice's career knew he would be. They cut Mike Williams, and just a couple days ago signed Terrell Owens, who didn't play last season. Owens had a great 2010 with Cincinnati, so he might have some football left in him, but he is also 38 years old. The Seahawks hope they bolstered the tight end position by trading for solider Kellen Winslow. The Seahawks hope their offensive line improves although they didn't add much to a unit that gave up 50 sacks last season. The Seahawks defense is better than some people probably think and they added a few pieces to it in Barrett Ruud, Jason Jones and their surprise early drafting of Bruce Irvin. K Steven Hauschka had a nice year last season and was more consistent than previous kicker Olindo Mare. P Jon Ryan is scary looking but serves the team well. The Seahawks get some of their tougher games at home, although homefield isn't quite what it used to be for them. I think Flynn isn't quite as good as he looked in Green Bay's offense but he will be an improvement at quarterback. I think with an easier schedule Seattle could be a playoff team but with two games against San Francisco and playing the Patriots, Packers and Jets, I think another 7-9 season is in the cards.

Prediction: 7-9 

3. Arizona Cardinals

2011 Record: 8-8, 2nd place NFC West
Head Coach: Ken Whisenhunt (6th season Arizona, 44-42 career)
Key Additions: WR Michael Floyd, G Adam Snyder, DE/OLB Quintin Groves, CB William Gay, S James Sanders
Key Losses: OT Brandon Keith, G Rex Hadnot

2012 Outlook: After a 1-6 start to the season, the Cardinals got hot in the second half of the season, winning 7 of their last 9 games and almost sneaking into the playoffs. The hot streak coincided with the improved play of their defense and some effective games from backup QB John Skelton. Skelton is competing with the man that was supposed to the Cardinals quarterback for years to come, Kevin Kolb. When healthy last season, Kolb was pretty ineffective and he spent most of the year injured. It appeared not much changed in the Cardinals preseason opener against the Saints. Kolb threw an interception and was injured in limited playing time. Kolb or Skelton, neither quarterback is one that inspires a ton of confidence. RB Beanie Wells had a couple of big rushing games but also struggled mightily at times behind a pretty porous offensive line. Ryan Williams, who they drafted in 2011 will be back this season and make his debut after missing all of last year after getting hurt in preseason. Also, expected to get some carries is LaRod Stephens-Howling. If Kolb and Skelton struggle it won't be for lack of options at wide receiver, where the Cardinals drafted beast Michael Floyd to compliment the second best receiver in football, Larry Fitzgerald. At tight end Jeff King and Todd Heap will share playing team and try to provide more of a contribution than they did last season. The Cardinals defense played much better in the second half, but saw star player Darnell Dockett record just 3.5 sacks, so they have to hope for more production from him. CB Patrick Peterson played very well, especially on special teams where he immediately became a star. Jay Feely is back at kicker, with veteran Dave Zastudil at punter. I see this season playing out the opposite of last year, where a soft start to the schedule will get Arizona off to a quick beginning, but as the schedule toughens up towards the second half they will fall off the pace. It will result in a third straight season with no playoffs and would put Ken Whisenhunt squarely on the hot seat. Some people think the Cardinals have the talent to win the division but they are too poor at quarterback and don't have a good enough defense or running game to compensate for that.

Prediction: 6-10

4. St. Louis Rams

2011 Record: 2-14, last place NFC West  
Head Coach: Jeff Fisher (1st season St. Louis, 147-126 career)
Key Additions: WR Brian Quick, WR Steve Smith, C Scott Wells, DT Trevor Laws, CB Cortland Finnegan, CB Janoris Jenkins, DT Michael Brockers
Key Losses: RB Cadillac Williams, WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Mark Clayton, C Jason Brown, DT Justin Bannan, DT Fred Robbins, OLB Brady Poppinga, CB Ronald Bartell, K Josh Brown

2012 Outlook: Last season was supposed to be a breakthrough season for the Rams. They had come one win away from earning a playoff berth and division title in 2010. Instead it turned into a nightmare that saw the Rams win just 2 games, and fire coach Steve Spagnuolo. Jeff Fisher, the longtime Titans coach is now on board and thinks the Rams have the pieces to contend in the future. They received a ton of draft picks in their trade with the Redskins, that they not only got to use this year but will get to use in the next two years. Last season Sam Bradford was hurt, Steven Jackson got hurt on his first run of the season, and the wide receiving corps that was already thin was decimated by injuries. The "bust" talk has started to swirl around Bradford but he barely had anything to work with last season and was behind a terrible offensive line. Jackson was able to once again clear 1,000 yards despite battling injuries and has been the one bright spot in what has been many terrible seasons for the Rams during his career. He may be helped by the signing of C Scott Wells, who was a contributor to the Packers great teams over the last few years. The Rams are still very weak at wide receiver but are hoping the return of Danny Amendola from injury, the pick up of Steve Smith and the drafting of Brian Quick at least give Bradford some options. I would talk about tight end play but the Rams have no one you would have ever heard of. Overrated Gregg Williams was supposed to be the defensive coordinator but was suspended indefinitely following his role in the bounty scandal. The defense was great against the pass last year but atrocious against the run. Chris Long and the executive vice-president of talent relations, I mean their linebacker James Laurinaitis, continued to improve and look like they could be cornerstones of the defense for years to come. The Rams hope that drafting Michael Brockers will help them to start slowing down teams rushing attacks. The Rams cut veteran Josh Brown and are entrusting rookie Greg Zuerlein with the kicking duties. I think Fisher is overrated as a coach but he is an upgrade over Spags and could be the right guy to eventually lead the Rams to the playoffs. The Rams are in massive rebuilding mode so the results won't show up this year as far as wins but I think their confidence can improve. I expect them to be much more competitive and it will be interesting to see what Sam Bradford can show this year and whether or not he can stay healthy.

Prediction: 4-12

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