With just a couple short weeks until the opening kickoff of the 2012 NFL season, it’s finally time to make my official predictions, knowing full well they will be shot to pieces faster than Carson Palmer can throw 10 INT’s. Still, gotta fill the time somehow, right?
In case you missed them, here are the divisions we’ve already previewed:
Today, we’ll look at their NFC counterparts: NFC West
In one short season, the 49ers managed to go from “the team with the coach who pulls his pants down” to a 13 win wrecking ball. Assisting them in that transformation was the rest of the division, which threw wave after wave of Tarvaris/Kolb/Skelton/Injured Bradford/Bradford’s backup/Bradford’s third stringer – well, you get the idea. It wasn’t pretty. This year, though, there is cause for legitimate optimism out West. San Francisco worked hard to improve their receivers, Seattle brought in TWO guys better than Tarvaris, and St. Louis finally hired a real coach. So I get to say this for the first time in a long, long while; NFC West, I’m intrigued.
Here are my predictions for 2012:
1. San Francisco 49ers: 10-6
Biggest Addition: Mario Manningham – The numbers on San Francisco’s wide receiver corps were not pretty – 144 catches, 1770 yards, and 8 TD’s. I mean, I can put up those kinds of numbers with just Dez Bryant on Madden! Needless to say, it made sense that the team would go out of their way to acquire so many new WR’s. Of the trio they brought in (Moss, Jenkins, Manningham), Manningham is easily the best and most ready to contribute. Granted, he’s not a #1 type of guy, but he’s a solid downfield threat that should open up underneath patterns for Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree.
Biggest Loss: Schedule – The team suffered no major personnel losses, so I’ll get creative here. San Francisco had the third easiest schedule last year, as determined by opponent W-L record, which was obviously very helpful in reaching 13 wins. This year, the slate toughens up considerably. For starters, their own division should be stiffer given the improvements to Seattle and St. Louis. Beyond that, the ‘Niners must face the Lions, Giants, and Bears at home, while going on the road to face the Packers, Jets, Saints, and Patriots. I’m guessing there are some losses there…probably more than 3.
X-Factor: Kendall Hunter – I’m gonna go ahead and throw this one out there; Kendall Hunter will rush for more yards than Frank Gore. This one is out there, for sure, but it’s definitely in play. Gore is now 29 years old, has carried the ball 1653 times in his career, has an extensive injury history, and is coming off a season in which he touched the ball 299 times. To think he can continue that type of workload indefinitely is unrealistic. Meanwhile, the speedy, versatile Hunter is waiting in the wings and has reportedly looked fantastic in camp and preseason. I said when they drafted him that he would eventually be ‘the guy’ in San Francisco, and we’re just about there. His workload is sure to increase regardless, but I’m calling a ‘falling off the cliff’ type season for Frank Gore, and a huge breakout for Hunter.
Biggest Question: Can Alex Smith be more than a game manager? Smith doesn’t want you to think he’s a game manager, but let’s face it, that’s exactly what he is. Jim Harbaugh wisely minimized what Smith was asked to do, enabling him to limit turnovers and control the clock. Unfortunately, that also limited how effective they could be in the red zone and on third down, limitations that ultimately led to their downfall. With more downfield weapons this season, will Harbaugh loosen the reins at all? Better yet, is Alex Smith capable of being anything more than he was last year? If not, then I doubt this team, as it is currently comprised, is capable of winning a Super Bowl.
Summary: Bill Barnwell of Grantland recently wrote a column about the 49ers success last season, and how it was unsustainable from year to year. In it, he stated that San Francisco would win 9 games or fewer in 2012. I haven’t gone quite that far, especially considering how strong their defense is, but I mostly agree with his points, especially the one about turnovers. The insane turnover ratio simply can’t be repeated. Unless the offense drastically improves – something I’m not banking on since Alex Smith is still the QB – the regression of their turnover margin will undoubtedly result in fewer wins. On the bright side, they’re still in the NFC West, a division that recently featured a 7 win champion.
2. Seattle Seahawks: 9-7
Biggest Addition: Matt Flynn or Russell Wilson – Regardless of who wins this battle, the important thing to remember is that it won’t be Tarvaris Jackson. The fact is that the Seahawks were much stronger last year than their 7-9 record indicates, and the most glaring hole on the team was at the QB position. It remains to be seen whether either player is a long term solution, but the mere fact that they’re committing resources to finding that solution is a great sign. After all, the playoff fate of the team will largely rest on how well these guys play.
Biggest Loss: David Hawthorne – Why the Seahawks didn’t work harder to retain Hawthorne will never make sense to me. Versatile, ultra-productive, 27 year old stalwart LB’s don’t just fall out of the sky every day. The loss leaves Seattle with a huge void in the front seven, and has to be considered a major setback for a young, developing defense already considered one of the league’s strongest.
X-Factor: Sidney Rice – Remember this guy? You know, the former Vikings receiver who was unequivocally the best receiver in football in 2009? Rice has missed 17 games during the past two seasons, so you might have forgotten just how good he is. With a new QB coming in and expectations being raised, the Seahawks need the old Rice now more than ever. He’s a true #1 when he’s got it going, and the tandem of he and Doug Baldwin would be a huge benefit as they try to develop their new QB.
Biggest Question: Matt Flynn or Russell Wilson? I feel confident that either player is already better than Tarvaris Jackson, but that’s not necessarily the loftiest goal. The real question is whether either one of those guys is the long term solution. Until that question is answered, the franchise is stuck in neutral. For what it’s worth, I’m in love with Russell Wilson. Maybe because he’s short…I’m not totally sure. It just seems to me that he’s more talented than Flynn.
Summary: Without a question, the Seahawks are one of the hardest teams to project this season. If either Flynn or Wilson is good, and if Lynch stays motivated, and if Rice can stay on the field, and if the offensive line stays healthy…well, they’d be a complete team, and I don’t see why they couldn’t overtake San Francisco and win the division. Of course, that’s an awful lot of ‘ifs,’ and ‘ifs’ often times go both ways. Basically, they could win 5 games, and I wouldn’t be shocked, or they could win 12 games, and I wouldn’t be shocked. The more realistic scenario is that the upgrade at QB is enough to win them a few more games, but not enough to thrust them into contention. (At least, until Russell Wilson morphs into an athletic Drew Brees and guides them to glory…at least, that’s how it happens in my world. And then he signs with Dallas and wins 10 straight Super Bowls.)
3. St. Louis Rams: 5-11
Biggest Addition: Jeff Fisher – St. Louis had, in my opinion, one of the best offseasons in football. Scott Wells, Cortland Finnegan, Steve Smith, and others were fantastic additions, but without a doubt, the most important addition was Jeff Fisher. As good a coordinator as Steve Spagnuolo was, he just wasn’t cut out to be a head coach, and what really hurt this franchise was his inability to get the most out of his players. Fisher excels at that, and it will drastically change this franchise.
Biggest Loss: Brandon Lloyd – It’s almost as if management is on a mission to deprive Sam Bradford of any legit receivers. Do they hate him? Do they wish ill will on him? Are they punishing him for something? We may never know, but what we do know is that Lloyd was far and away the best receiver on the team…in fact, he was the only good receiver. Now he’s gone.
X-Factor: Lance Kendricks – Kendricks was a huge disappointment last year, to say the least. As a second round pick, the Rams expected him to be the type of matchup nightmare that Rob Gronkowski and so many other TE’s have become in recent years. Instead, he was a total train wreck, catching just 28 passes, scoring 0 TD’s, and looking utterly overwhelmed as a blocker. Now in his second year, it’s time for Kendricks to start delivering on his considerable talent. Fisher has a long history of utilizing versatile TE’s to their fullest (Frank Wycheck!), so it wouldn’t be a shock if Kendricks took a big leap forward this season.
Biggest Question: Can they protect Sam Bradford? Bradford was sacked 36 times in 10 games, a whopping 9.2% sack rate which ranked fifth worst in the NFL. Unlike the four guys ranked lower, Bradford has very little culpability in that sack rate. Basically, as soon as the ball was snapped, multiple defenders were immediately in the backfield. No wonder Bradford regressed last season, struggling with injuries and inefficiency. The addition of Scott Wells will help, but the key will be developing the untapped talent of Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith. If they can keep Bradford upright, this team will have a chance to be competitive and Bradford will have a chance to take the next step in his development.
Summary: Whereas 2011 was a train wreck of epic proportions, 2012 promises to be a year of progress. That’s just what happens when you go out and get a real coach like Jeff Fisher. Under him, Rams fans can expect drastically improved play up front, real progress from the young talent, considerably more toughness, and, most importantly, an environment that allows Sam Bradford to become what we all thought he would be. Winning likely won’t happen right away – the talent is simply not there, yet – but it would shock me if the team wasn’t infinitely more competitive.
4. Arizona Cardinals: 4-12
Biggest Addition: Adam Snyder – Snyder’s not all that great, so the fact that he’s the ‘biggest addition’ tells you how bad the offensive line was last year. Still, as unspectacular as he is, Snyder is a solid player who will be a huge upgrade at RG over Rex Hadnot. This will allow Beanie Wells to get hurt a few more yards downfield, and will also give John Skelton a bit more time to find a defender to throw the ball to.
Biggest Loss: Luck – Everyone seems so high on Arizona after their 7-2 finish to last year. My question is, why? They didn’t win a single game by more than 6 points, beat mostly non-playoff teams, and went a miraculous 4-0 in overtime games. Seriously, there’s nothing to be excited about in all of that! That’s not just me speaking, that’s a lot of knowledgeable football people who see right through Arizona’s charade. In fact, Football Outsiders had Arizona with the league’s fifth worst DVOA last year (-19.7%). Worse than Jacksonville, worse than Cleveland…very bad. The schedule will be tougher for them this year, teams will know not to kick to Patrick Peterson, and they won’t pull so many games out of their butts.
X-Factor: Ryan Williams – Let’s just go ahead and assume Beanie Wells is hurt, OK? I know he’s ‘technically’ not hurt yet, but hey, my city tax bill hasn’t come yet either, but I know for a fact it eventually will. Some things just can’t be avoided. That leaves Ryan Williams with a huge opportunity to make his mark. If you remember, Williams, last year’s second round pick, was in a heated battle with Wells for the starting job when he blew out his knee in preseason. He’s back now, and he gives Arizona a much more versatile, explosive option at RB. Truthfully, he’s probably better than the perpetually overrated Wells anyways. Also, considering the QB is probably going to be John Skelton, whoever plays RB is going to be REALLY important. As in, the only legitimate way to gain positive yards.
Biggest Question: Do they have a QB? Technically, they have two, but are either Skelton or Kolb worth calling a QB? Based on last year, that’s a big no.
Summary: I just look around their roster and I don’t see a whole lot to like. Two bad QB’s, a terrible offensive line that’s even worse without Levi Brown, a couple injury prone RB’s, an aging defense without many difference makers – all that adding up to a lot of losses. The offense, in particular, is going to be bad. Skelton and Kolb both proved they weren’t NFL starters last year, but for whatever reason, Arizona is insistent on going a second round with those guys. Quite a shame considering the insane WR corps they have. Unless one of those guys magically transforms into a real life QB, the Cardinals are likely staring straight at the bottom of the division, because there is just no way they repeat last year’s fluky success.