Are the San Francisco 49ers Still Kings of the NFC West?
Trent Baalke vs. John Schneider. Jim Harbaugh vs. Pete Carroll. Colin Kaepernick vs. Russell Wilson. Frank Gore vs. Marshawn Lynch.
This rivalry will pit two of the league's most efficient, new-age offenses and suffocating defenses against each other twice a year in what has become an NFC West division no team wants to play.
As it currently stands, the two-time defending division champion and Super Bowl runner-up 49ers are the kings of the four-team grouping, which was known as the NFC Worst just a few years ago.
Even with a cost-effective offseason, there's no way the Seahawks wear the NFC West crown, right?
Or do they?
The trade to acquire open-field dynamo Percy Harvin was Schneider and Carroll's way of sending a strong message to Baalke and Harbaugh that the Seahawks planned to take an aggressive approach to improve an offensive attack that averaged more yards and points per drive than the 49ers in 2012 (h/t FootballOutsiders).
Traditional, power running football with plenty of play action was as much of a staple in Seattle as it was in San Francisco last year, and Harvin's addition should result in more creativity and read-option wrinkles.
With Russell Wilson's quarterbacking savvy and escapability from the pocket, Harvin's presence will frighten even the most vaunted defenses.
Soon after the Harvin trade, the 49ers countered by making a trade of their own.
Seattle moved three picks, including a 2013 first-rounder for Harvin, but San Francisco sent a mere sixth-rounder for the guy they couldn't stop in the Super Bowl, Anquan Boldin.
While he's not the outside speedster that many believe would be the ideal complement to Kaepernick's rifle arm and perfect supplement to the chain-moving Michael Crabtree, Boldin excels on jump balls down the field and, in his own way, will stretch the field, something that will make the 49ers' devastating running game even more effective.
To combat the 49ers' dominance in the trenches—ProFootballFocus (subscription required) rated San Francisco's offensive line as the best run-blocking and seventh-best pass-blocking unit in 2012—the Seahawks added edge-rushing specialist Cliff Avril and versatile defensive lineman Michael Bennett as the initial free-agent hysteria calmed.
Avril is desperately needed, with Chris Clemons recovering from an ACL tear he suffered in the playoff win over the Washington Redskins in January.
Clearly, each team made logical provisions to accentuate their already loaded rosters but intelligently didn't go nuts in free agency.
Baalke and Schneider, the respective general managers, understand the importance of discovering quality players at all stages of the draft, something both organizations have undoubtedly done in recent years.
Kaepernick and Wilson, two of the poster boys for the league's futuristic quarterback youth movement, have strikingly similar skill sets and played well beyond their years in 2012.
The tie-breaker lies in which specific attribute you value in a quarterback.
Wilson is much better at evading defenders behind the line of scrimmage to extend plays, which allows him to make throws down the field from outside the pocket when initial routes are covered.
Kaepernick isn't as Roethlisbergerian as Wilson when protection breaks down, but he is more of a pure running threat with his long-striding speed and vision in the open field.
Picking sides here isn't easy, but Wilson's slightly more refined at this stage, giving the Seahawks a modest advantage at the game's most vital position.
The running attacks are equally as productive, but the 49ers offensive line is the more punishing and fundamentally sound squadron.
Seattle's pass-catching contingent, from top to bottom, is more impressive than San Francisco's, but the trio of Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Boldin certainly doesn't lack an intimidation factor.
Who are the kings of the NFC West right now?
The defenses are essentially a toss-up. The 49ers linebacking corps is the best in the NFL, but the Seahawks' Bobby Wagner is coming off an under-appreciated rookie season.
By adding Avril and Bennett to the likes of Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant and Bruce Irvin, Seattle's defensive front has the chance to be more disruptive from nose tackle to edge-rusher, especially with San Francisco losing role players like Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois.
Not to mention, Justin Smith turns 34 in September.
The Seahawks boast the most physically imposing secondary in football, one that's much further along than the 49ers' group, especially after Dashon Goldson was lost on the open market.
The 49ers and Seahawks will be among the NFL's elite in 2013 and beyond, but right now, notwithstanding San Francisco's 2012 division title and berth in the Super Bowl, the Seahawks are the kings of the NFC West heading into the always-crucial NFL draft.
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