In many critics eyes the Arizona Cardinals won the division by default. The usual top dog of the West, the Seattle Seahawks, were struck by the injury bug and everybody else just wasn’t that good. However you look at it, the Cardinals made the most of their opportunity and found their way to the Super Bowl.
This year it won’t be so easy. The division has gotten stronger and each team will be gunning for the NFC West champions. Here’s a look at the division:
St. Louis Rams
The Rams aren’t just in rebuild mode—they are in kid mode. When you look at the roster you can count on your hand the number of players who are 30 and over. Rookie head coach Steve Spagnuolo is looking for young players to build a foundation.
First-round draft pick Jason Smith will add to an offensive line that needs to protect Marc Bulger. Bulger had his worst production as a starter last season with only 181.3 yards a game, a 57 percent completion percentage, and tied his career low TD production in ‘07 with 11.
After being sacked 38 times, a big athletic (despite his flubber frame) body should keep Bulger’s face out of the dirt.
Long time Ram Torry Holt is gone so Bulger will have a staple of unproven young receivers to throw to. The Rams second round pick in 2008, Donnie Avery, will likely be the No. 1 receiver.
After Avery, there is no receiver on the roster that has had over 40 catches in one season. Laurent Robinson and Keenan Burton are in line to be the second WR. Needless to say, experience is lacking.
Steven Jackson will be the focal point of the offense and if he stays healthy, he could have a season similar to his 2006 season. If Jackson does go down, Antonio Pittman, and Chris Ogbonnaya will have to carry the load.
Pressure is what a Spagnuolo defense is known for and he’ll be looking to tap into the potential of his young squad. After a quiet rookie season, Chris Long will have to improve on his numbers to keep the “bust” status from falling on his name.
Pass rush specialist, Leonard Little, avoided the thirty-something purging, but at 34 does he have enough in the reserves to produce?
He’s inherited a team with good overall talent, but no direction or discipline to have consistent success. Singletary has already started moving the team in the right direction, as the team has reacted favorably to his no nonsense philosophy.
Offensively, the 49ers have the potential to be an efficient team. Due to the Raiders questionable drafting, the 49ers were gift-wrapped the talents of first-round pick Michael Crabtree.
His size and catching ability will be a great asset to what was an average passing game last season. The Bay Area is learning the dance to Crank That Crabtree as we speak.
Who will be throwing the passes to Crabtree is still in the air. Singletary hasn’t leaned toward either Shaun Hill or Alex Smith as training camp will give a better view of who is picking up the system of new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye.
On defense, the 49ers need their underachieving young players to step into their own. Manny Lawson is an athlete without a defined position or role. He has played standing up and with his hand in the dirt, but hasn’t found a way to make an impact.
If the team can get Lawson playing up to the potential his combine stats would imply, the defense will be many times better. Parys Haralson is another 2006 linebacker that has a chance to make a big impact.
The Seahawks are undoubtedly the Cardinals biggest threat to another NFC West title.
After making the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, the Seahawks were riddled with injuries and didn’t come close to threatening the Cardinals, which is part of the reason the Cardinals were able to reach the levels they did. This year the ‘Hawks will return stronger on both sides of the ball.
Former Bengal, TJ Houshmandzadeh joined the Seahawks giving Matt Hasselbeck a consistent No. 1 WR to pair with Nate Burleson, Deion Branch and third-round pick Deon Butler.
Add in John Carlson and you have a passing attack that can give most teams a lot of problems. They also added versatile rookie lineman Max Unger to help the offensive line.
Defensively, the Seahawks might have the best trio of linebackers in the NFL. Lofa Tatupu is a three time Pro Bowler, LeRoy Hill has been a reliable starter when he’s healthy, and first-round draft pick Aaron Curry is one of the most athletic linebackers to come out of this years draft class.
The defensive line welcomes the return of Patrick Kerney who was lost to an elbow injury during the season. His motor should help a line that already has a deep group of pass rushing lineman such as Daryl Tapp, Lawerence Jackson, and Cory Redding.
The Cardinals will have their hands full this season. Although the NFC West is considered to be relatively weak, each team will be better this season. On paper, the Cards and Seahawks should be battling it out all season for a playoff spot and division title.
Don’t count out San Francisco, but more than likely they are still a year or so away from being genuine threats. The Rams will be looking to take some steps forward in their team development, but won’t be in the running to win the West.