|I can't wait for a full year of this!|
Continuing with our 2011 NFL Preview, let's look at the NFL's Big East equivalent, the NFC West. In case you missed them, here are the other division's I've previewed.
I really don't even know what to say about a division that produces a 7-9 champion. At least the division race was exciting? No? OK, fine, the whole season was a giant train wreck for the NFC West and I wish I could erase it from my memory. On the plus side, we did get to go through our annual "This is the year the 49ers take over the division" charade, quickly followed by their "shocking" failure. At least there's that!
1. St. Louis Rams: 9-7
Biggest Addition: WR Mike Sims-Walker - What really makes Sam Bradford's rookie campaign so impressive is not his overall numbers, it's that he produced them with such an unimpressive collection of backup quality slot receivers. Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson did a decent job last season, but they simply aren't the type of big play threat that Bradford needs to take this team somewhere. Sims-Walker isn't exactly a #1 receiver, but he's far and away the best weapon Bradford has at his disposal. He should enable St. Louis to get the ball downfield more effectively and into the end zone more efficiently.
Biggest Loss: TE Daniel Fells - Fells started 6 games at TE and caught 41 passes. He isn't exactly a huge loss for the Rams, but they didn't really lose much, and I had to pick somebody...
Biggest Question: Can Sam Bradford take the next step?
Summary: Sam Bradford is the best QB in the NFC West, pure and simple. In fact, he's the only truly good QB in the NFC West. That alone makes them the obvious pick. Last season, he showed that he was more than just a really good game manager. That's not to say he's definitely the next Aaron Rodgers or anything, but a QB who can put his team on their shoulders is an increasingly rare thing in today's NFL. The arrival of Josh McDaniels as OC can only spell good things for Bradford and for the Rams. If Sims-Walker can consistently exhibit the type of talent he intermittently showed in Jacksonville, thus making Bradford even mroe dangerous, then there's no reason to think St. Louis won't win this division.
2. Arizona Cardinals: 7-9
Biggest Addition: QB Kevin Kolb - Obviously. Kolb is a HUGE upgrade over Skelt-erson. Of course, that's like saying Dennis Quaid is a huge upgrade over Channing Tatum. It's technically true, but that doesn't mean Dennis Quaid is any good! The truth of the matter is, we don't really know how good Kevin Kolb can be. I personally don't like him as anymore than a middle of the road starter (if that), but his small sample size makes it impossible to draw concrete conclusions. Of course, the mere presence of Larry Fitzgerald is enough to make nearly any QB look like a passable starter...except for Derek Anderson of course. You'd literally have to have Jesus Christ Himself at WR in order to make him look good.
Biggest Loss: CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2nd round pick. Waaaaaaaaaaaaay too much. Should have gone with Orton...
Biggest Question: Can they do enough to keep Fitzy around for next season and beyond? Larry is a free agent after this season and another tough year might force him to look elsewhere. They aren't going to be competing for the Super Bowl, but they need to hang around in the division and be competent enough to convince Fitzy that things are turning around. After giving up the farm for Kolb, they simply can't afford to to lose all his weapons, especially after letting Steve Breaston walk this offseason.
Summary: Arizona had a combined QB rating of 60.5 and threw a grand total of 10 TD's. I can rip on Kevin Kolb and the bounty they gave up for him all I want, but there's almost no possibility that he won't be a major upgrade. Unfortunately, Arizona ranked 29th in total defense as well, so....at least they play in the NFC West!
3. San Francisco 49ers: 6-10
Biggest Addition: WR Braylon Edwards - Edwards isn't anywhere near the player he should be, but he's still an above average big play threat. For years, the 49ers have been trotting out some of the least impressive groups of WR's the NFL has ever seen. Arnaz Battle, Bryant Johnson, 'Old' Darrell Jackson, 'Five Years Before He Was Good' Brandon Lloyd...the list is endless! Between that and the never ending stream of bad head coaches/offensive coordinators that have come through San Francisco, it's no wonder Alex Smith never lived up to his potential! But now, after five years of garbage, the 49ers have finally surrounded Smith with some legitimate weapons. Assuming Michael Crabtree can stay healthy (and happy), San Fran will have one of the most underrated groups of pass catchers in the game. Crabtree, Edwards, and Vernon Davis will be a tough trio to contain...if Alex Smith can get them the ball, of course. We'll see.
Biggest Loss: DT Aubrayo Franklin - San Francisco's run defense was easily their biggest strength, ranking 6th with only 96.7 ypg/allowed. Actually, now that I think of it, that was probably their only strength! That type of dominance starts up front with guys like Franklin. He doesn't rack up gaudy stats or make many highlight reel plays, but he controls the middle, eats up space, and occupies blockers. Since those are all common examples of completely abstract football speak, let's allow Football Outsiders do the talking. In 2009, Franklin had a 93% stop rate against the run, good for 3rd at his position. He regressed a bit last season, ranking only 5th with an 89% stop rate. So yeah, he's really good. Unfortunately, I don't think they have a stat for "occupying all kinds of blockers up front so Patrick Willis has complete and utter freedom to roam the field and make tons of plays." If you don't think the loss of Aubrayo Franklin is huge, then you've got another thing coming. It really could be one of the toughest losses for any team this offseason.
Biggest Question: Can they avoid their typical slow start? They have an incredibly manageable start to the season, and they need to get off to a hot start. Seattle (Wk 1), @Cincinnati (Wk 3), @Detroit (Wk 6), Cleveland (Wk 8), and @Washington (Wk 9) gives them an excellent chance to get a jump on the division. With two games against Arizona and one more against Seattle to close the season, San Francisco could very well have one of the easiest schedules in the league. Of course, they had an easy schedule last season too...remember the Panthers game?
Summary: One of these days, the 49ers are going to stop underachieving and finally win the division. One of these days. Once Jed York is dead...which will be about fifty years from now. In all seriousness, it's kind of ridiculous that people annually predict the 'Niners as a 'breakout' team. They have major issues at QB, their line is constantly in shambles, their playmakers are always on IR, and their secondary is the worst in the league. The emergence of Sam Bradford has finally pushed San Francisco into the background, and perhaps that's exactly what they need. No expectations to leave unfulfilled. Will that help them this year? Probably not. Longterm, the hiring of Jim Harbaugh could be great. Short term, they dropped the ball big time on Aubrayo Franklin, and they will pay dearly for it this season. Even if the passing game takes off, the defense is just too horrible to expect any kind of drastic turnaround. Sorry Casey, back to the top of the draft for you!
4. Seattle Seahawks: 4-12
Biggest Addition: TE Zach Miller - Yeah, Sidney Rice is far more high profile, but I think Miller has the bigger impact. With Tarvaris Jackson at QB, I have to question their ability to accurately get the ball downfield. In his one season of starting, Jackson had a very difficult time consistently getting the ball out to his receivers. Of course, he had a difficult time getting it out to anyone other than the other team's cornerbacks, so I guess I'm not sure what my point is. Overall, I have questions about Rice and his health. We've seen far too many high profile free agent WR's bomb with their new teams, especially in Seattle. I'm more optimistic about Zach Miller's immediate and long term contributions to this "offense."
Biggest Loss: QB Tarvaris Jackson - When I say Tarvaris Jackson is their biggest loss, what I really mean is that Seattle's biggest loss is their sanity.
Biggest Question: How many college openings will Pete Carroll pursue before the season ends?
Summary: I honestly could have predicted them to win 2 games and not felt bad about it. They finished 28th in total offense...and downgraded at the most important position. They finished 27th in total defense...and cut their best LB. The additions of Sidney Rice and Zach Miller are nice, but they're simply window dressings until they finally get someone to play QB. And no, Charlie Whitehurst and his beard doesn't count! Seattle's homefield is probably worth a few extra wins, but don't be surprised if they end up in the poll position for the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. Maybe that was their plan all along.