Overview: A division ruled by the second-seeded San Francisco 49ers last season, we look for some challengers in the Seattle Seahawks, St Louis Rams, and Arizona Cardinals. Can anyone in this division stop the Niners, their relentless defense and their pursuit of a Super Bowl?
St. Louis Rams (4th in 2011, Predicted Record in 2012: 5-11)
In 2011, the Rams were absolutely brutal. They couldn’t defend the run, giving up a very porous 152 rush yards a game. They couldn’t score either, and put up just 12.1 points per game. Quarterback Sam Bradford looked rushed in the pocket and he didn’t have much help outside of Steven Jackson.
Can Brian Quick develop into that No.1 wideout Bradford badly needs to succeed? Can Isaiah Pead be the understudy that Jackson needs to push him for time and keep him fresh? Because of these questions, I’m not sold that they can improve enough on offense.
On the other hand, I actually like St. Louis’ defensive crew to bounce back. Jeff Fisher is a defensive-minded coach, particularly on the defensive line. Cortland Finnegan follows him from Tennessee and brings some great leadership. Janoris Jenkins had more talent at the corner position than perhaps anyone in the 2012 draft; he just needs to sort out his maturity issues and the Rams will look very smart picking him. Trumaine Johnson will be a fine No. 2 opposite him.
Arizona Cardinals (2nd in 2011, Predicted Record in 2012: 7-9)
I can’t see much out of the Cards except for more mediocrity until they solve their quarterback problem. Kevin Kolb looked like the worst investment ever last season, and their flirtation with Peyton Manning tells me that they weren’t sold on him being their long-term starter.
Yet they go into camp with a Kolb and John Skelton battle at quarterback. Is there a more tortured soul in professional sports than Larry Fitzgerald? He deserves much better than this. They have some talent on defense with recently resigned defensive tackle Calais Campbell, safety Adrian Wilson and the young sensation at corner in Patrick Peterson. Peterson will need to continue to make plays on punt returns to get his team decent field position, because this offense isn’t good enough to work against a long field. I’m intrigued to see what they’ve got in Ryan Williams, the back they drafted in 2011 that missed all of last season. Beanie Wells has knee, fumbling and blitz protection issues, and Williams needs to fill those roles at the running back spot.
Seattle Seahawks (3rd in 2011, Predicted Record in 2012: 10-6)
Am I nuts for choosing the Seahawks for ten wins in 2012? In this division and with their above-average schedule, I like them. They have a really good and criminally underrated defense, especially in the secondary with elite safety Earl Thomas.
Many derided them for reaching for Bruce Irvin at No.15 in the draft, but I actually think he’ll be good. Maybe still a reach, but they play a system that is designed for a talented situational pass-rusher to get double digit sacks. I’m not saying he’ll definitely be an Aldon Smith, but he actually has a chance to be.
My slight worries lie with their offense. They have a quarterback controversy with Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson. I ultimately believe Flynn deserves the job. He won’t be the 480-yard, six-touchdown monster we saw in Week 17 last season, but he’s better than the other two. Can Marshawn Lynch keep it up after he got paid? If he can, putting everything together, I think we have a wild-card team here.
San Francisco 49ers (1st in 2011, Predicted Record in 2012: 13-3)
Justin Smith on the defensive line was an All-Pro at two positions, and is absolutely relentless getting after the passer. Aldon Smith can only improve after his 14-sack rookie season. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are both monsters, and Willis has proven he might be one of the only ‘backers around that can keep up with these athletic tight ends that are so popular these days. And their secondary played disciplined and did enough to complement their front seven. This defense does not miss tackles, and will make you earn everything.
The elephant in the room might be Alex Smith. He was a game-manager last season, but may be asked to do more this year. They didn’t take a risk on Randy Moss, or get Mario Manningham, AJ Jenkins, Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James for nothing. If Smith and Michael Crabtree can take another step forward this season, and Vernon Davis is still the stud he always is, this team is Super Bowl material.