Wild NFC West Preview: Who Will Be This Year's Cinderella?

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Wild NFC West Preview:  Who Will Be This Year's Cinderella?
Forget what you heard about the NFC West, this division has got it all.

There's mystery, intrigue, drama and passionand the St. Louis Rams. Will Michael Vick join Jim Mora in Seattle? Will Mike Singletary take off his pants again? 

Before the “experts” decide to gloss over this stepchild division in their next pigskin preview special, here are a few reasons why people should pay attention to the NFC West.

Although this division is widely regarded as the weakest in the NFL, it was the West’s Arizona Cardinals that represented the conference in last year’s Super Bowl. Who will be this season’s Cinderella story? 

If you still think that there’s a lack of talent in the division, consider the fact that NFC West teams received three of the top ten picks in this year’s draft. Which of these top ten picks will impact their teams the most?

Has the “wild west” ever been more wild? This year’s NFC West is a division of virtual unknowns, as three teams begin the season with new head coaches, and all four teams have new offensive coordinators. 

What changes will new coaches bring to each team in the division? What style of play will we see? 

Throw out the old game films, because each team in the NFC West is out to reinvent themselves in 2009. 

So who will come out on top? I’ve previewed each team in the division, evaluated personnel and coaching changes, the 2009 schedule, and came up with some predictions for the upcoming season. 

Feel free to weigh in with your opinions: Are my predictions on the mark, or do you see it differently? How do you see the division shaping up in 2009? 

 

1st Place:  San Francisco 49ers

  1. 2008 record-  7-9
  2. Key Departures- Jonas Jennings (OT), Bryan Johnson (WR), Tully Banta-Cain (OLB)
  3. Key Additions-  Dre Bly (CB), Marvell Smith (OT), Demetric Evans (DE), Brandon Jones (WR)
  4. Key Draftees-  Michael Crabtree (WR), Glen Coffee (RB), Nate Davis (QB)
  5. 2009 Season Outlook

 

Coaching

The 49ers begin their first full season under the direction of Mike Singletary, who was initially named interim head coach during week 7 of the 2008 campaign. Jimmy Raye is the new offensive coordinator. Look for him to employ a run-first, smash-mouth style offense.

 

Offense

The 49ers entered the 2009 offseason without a clear cut starter at quarterback. 2005's No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith hasn’t seen the field since 2007, and will be working under his fifth offensive coordinator in as many years. 

He will challenge Shaun Hill, the undrafted overachiever who has led the 49ers to a 7-3 record as a starter during the past two seasons.  Consistency at the quarterback position will be key to the 49ers success in 2009.

San Francisco has added some key weapons through the draft, selecting wide receiver Michael Crabtree with the 10th overall pick, and running back Glen Coffee in the third round. 

Crabtree is widely regarded as the best receiver in this year’s draft class, and may have the largest impact of any rookie this season. His presence gives the 49ers' receiving corps their first legitimate number one option since the departure of Terrell Owens.

Coffee is a hard charging, one cut back who runs with power and speed. He will spell Frank Gore this season, and will give the 49ers an opportunity to employ the type of two-back system that has generated recent success for other teams in the NFL.

 

Defense

The division’s leading defense for 2008 returns intact.

While the recent knee injury to Pro Bowl cornerback Walt Harris was a setback, the 49ers responded quickly with the signing of Dre Bly, an all pro cornerback in his own right. 

Matched opposite Nate Clements, the 49ers have a formidable corner tandem to defend the pass in a division that boasts three of the top 10 receivers in the league. Demetric Evans was added to bolster the defensive line.

Coach Singletary has pledged to simplify the defense in 2009, allowing Manny Lawson to settle into an outside linebacker position in the base 3-4 defensive scheme. 

Because the 49ers did not address the pass rush in free agency or the draft, they must hope that the simplified scheme allows Lawson to emerge as the pass rushing superstar they envisioned him to be when they selected him in the first round of the 2006 draft.

 

Analysis

Although the 49ers are under the direction of a new head coach, they are advantaged by Singletary’s experience as interim head coach for more than half of last season. 

During that time, Singletary was able to clarify his vision to the team, and all indications are that the players are responding. 

If last season was any indication, the 49ers appear to have enough talent to challenge for the division title. The clear cut star of their offense is running back Frank Gore. 

Former 49er offensive coordinator Norv Turner made Gore the focal point of his offense in 2006, and Gore ran for 1,695 yards and made the Pro Bowl. Word out of 49ers mini camp has been that Raye’s offense is similar to the one employed by Turner. That’s good news for 49ers fans. 

A key to the 49ers’ success in 2009 will be effective quarterback play. For several seasons, the position has been a revolving door. No continuity has been established as eight players have started at the position since 2003. 

If the winner of the 49ers’ most important position battle can provide consistent and competent play, San Francisco’s offense should be much improved in 2009.

The 49ers' passing attack, although much maligned last season, actually ranked a respectable 13th in the NFL in 2008. This year’s focus on the run should open things up for the passing game, when teams stack the box to try and slow down Frank Gore and company.

This should provide opportunities for tight end Vernon Davis and rookie Michael Crabtree to use their superior athleticism in exposing defensive mismatches.

One area of concern for San Francisco is the right tackle position, where the team replaces one high priced, injury plagued veteran with another. After releasing Jonas Jennings this winter, the 49ers turn to Marvel Smith, a talented yet often injured tackle from the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

The 49ers will need Smith to stay healthy and on the field if they hope to solidify their offensive line, a crucial goal considering their desire to compete at the line of scrimmage as a power rushing offense.

 

Prediction

Singletary seems to have earned his players’ respect, and fans can put a bit more on that considering he’s probably past the honeymoon stage that most new coaches enjoy. 

With the addition of an impact receiver in Crabtree, a focus on maximizing Pro Bowler Frank Gore’s talents, and the return of the division’s best defense, it looks like the 49ers might be the team to beat in 2009. 

Of course, they’ll have to get consistency from the quarterback position, and this has proved difficult in the past. They’ll also need to stay healthy on the offensive line. 

However, all teams need to stay healthy to win, and focusing on the run will alleviate some of the pressure on the quarterback position. They say that defense wins championships, and in the 49ers’ case, it wins division titles. 

 

2nd Place:  Arizona Cardinals

1.      2008 Record-  9-7

2.      Key Departures-  Antonio Smith (DE), Travis Laboy, Edgerine James (RB), Rod Hood (CB)

3.      Key Additions-  Bertrand Berry (DE), Wilroy Fontenot (CB), Anthony Becht (TE)

4.      Key Draftees-  Beanie Wells (RB), Cody Brown (OLB), Rashad Johnson (S),

5.      2009 Season Outlook

 

Coaching

Although talented head coach Ken Whisenhunt returns for his third year with the team, the Cards have had their coaching roster pillaged, as offensive coordinator Todd Haley and defensive coordinator Chancy Pendergast have gone to Kansas City. 

As a result, Whisenhunt will assume offensive play calling duties this season.  Whisenhunt is no stranger to play calling. He worked as offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers prior to his move to the desert.

 

Offense

Arizona’s passing offense ranked second in the league in 2008, led by the resilient Kurt Warner, and prolific wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. Look for this trend to continue, as Warner returns from offseason hip surgery. Up and coming wide receiver Steve Breaston should continue to make an impact as well.

The running game struggled last year, ranking dead last in the NFL. 2008 starter Edgerine James is out; the team has drafted Chris “Beanie” Wells from Ohio State to take his place. 

Tim Hightower remains as the short yardage back, despite last year’s disappointing 2.8 yard per carry average. Look for the Cards to try and improve their rush attack with the emergence of Wells, an explosive back with breakaway speed. 

Also, the team added Anthony Becht, known as one of the best blocking tight ends around. With Whisenhunt calling the plays, the team will likely focus more on the run; Whisenhunt offenses were ranked top 10 in rushing three times during his time in Pittsburgh.

 

Defense

The Cardinals suffered a big blow when they lost pro bowl defensive end Antonio Smith to free agency.  His replacement will be Bertrand Berry, a definite downgrade at the position.  Wilrey Fontenot was brought in to shore up the defensive backfield. 

Arizona was able to retain linebacker Karlos Dansby, who was slapped with the franchise tag while the team struggles to sign him to a long-term contract extension.  Overall, the Cards didn’t do much to improve their defense, which ranked 16th against the rush and 22nd against the pass in 2008.

 

Analysis-  While the Cardinals return as perhaps the most talented roster in the division for 2009, their unexpected success in 2008 has come at a price. 

They’ll miss prized offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who left for Kansas City.  They’ve lost standout defensive end Antonio Smith to free agency.  They have ongoing contract disputes with pro bowl wide out Anquan Boldin and defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, who both skipped a recent mini-camp with alleged hamstring injuries.  Safety Adrian Wilson is unhappy.  They have yet to resign linebacker Karlos Dansby. 

All this drama can be a major distraction.  Coach Whisenhunt admitted as much when he told reporters that his team has faced a lot more turmoil this offseason than it has in past years. 

How well the organization deals with these conflicts will largely determine their success in 2009.

Another issue facing this team is the durability of 37 year old quarterback Kurt Warner, who is recovering from recent hip surgery to repair a torn labrum. 

While Warner enjoyed a resurgence in 2008, the team must hope that he can repeat his inspiring performance this season, as back up Matt Leinart has failed to establish himself as a capable quarterback in the NFL.  

Another crucial element to the Cardinals’ success this season will be the play of rookie running back Beanie Wells.  With a rushing offense that was worst in the NFL for 2008, Beanie comes in as the starter, and will shoulder a lion’s share of the load in his first season. 

If he can give the Cardinals another dimension to their offense, Arizona could be even more dangerous in 2009.  However if Wells fails to step up, the Cards will once again rely heavily on Kurt Warner and company to pass their way to victory.  With a defense that will be average at best, that’s a lot of weight to put on 37 year old shoulder pads.

 

Prediction-  The Cardinals are the defending champs, and this year’s division title is theirs to lose.  They certainly have enough talent to repeat as NFC West champions. 

However, this year Arizona won’t be sneaking up on anyone.  As defending NFC champions, they’ll have a bulls-eye fixed on their backs all season long.  Also, the loss of Antonio Smith weakens a defense that was already quite average.  Add in the turmoil caused by several ongoing contract disputes, Anquan Boldin’s trade demands, players missing mini-camps, and the loss of both coordinators, and all of a sudden, things aren’t so rosy in Arizona. 

Although Arizona’s talent makes them legitimate contenders in 2009, a division title is not in the cards for the Cards. 

 

3rd Place: Seattle Seahawks

 

1.      2008 Record-  4-12

2.      Key Departures-  Julian Peterson (OLB),  Rocky Bernard (DT), Bobby Engram (WR), Maurice Morris (RB)

3.      Key Additions-  T.J. Houshmandzadeh (WR), Cory Redding (DT) Colin Cole (DT), Ken Lucas (CB)

4.      Key Draftees-  Aaron Curry (OLB), Max Unger (OL), Deon Butler (WR), Mike Teel (QB)

5.      2009 Season Outlook

 

Coaching

After years of relative success under Mike Holmgren, Seattle welcomes native son Jim Mora as the new head coach for 2009. Mora is a defensive minded coach with previous experience as the Atlanta Falcons' head coach from 2004 to 2006.

Mora brings his trusty sidekick and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp to Seattle.  The two worked together as assistant coaches in San Francisco, and Knapp handled the offense for Mora in Atlanta. 

Knapp is a clever play caller, who has guided his teams to top 10 rushing finishes in each of his eight years as an offensive coordinator in the NFL.

 

Offense

The Seahawks were plagued by injuries and underachieving play on offense in 2008. 

Wide receivers Nate Burleson and Deion Branch couldn’t seem to stay on the field, and Julius Jones was a disappointment during his first season in the Pacific Northwest. Factor in the loss of Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck for nine games last season, and its easy to see why the offense struggled.

Hasselbeck returns healthy to start the new season, and will be boosted by the acquisition of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a durable, proven receiver who should stabilize their receiving corps. Nate Burleson and Deion Branch return, giving the team considerable talent at the position. 

Although the Seahawks do not have an elite talent at running back, they hope that new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and his zone blocking schemes will help open up some holes for Julius Jones to run through. 

Knapp has a knack for racking up offensive yards on the ground, and he hopes that a prolific passing attack will mean more nickel packages, and less men in the box to stop the run. 

Overall, the Hawks are pretty thin at running back. Other than Jones, the roster includes T.J. Duckett and Justin Forsett. This lack of depth and talent could present problems for Seattle, especially if Jones were to be sidelined by injury.

 

Defense

The Seahawks' defense in 2008 was adequate against the run, and horrible versus the pass. This offseason, Seattle has worked hard to improve their defense, drafting elite outside linebacker Aaron Curry with the fourth overall pick. 

He will take over for Julian Peterson, the Pro Bowl linebacker recently traded to the Detroit Lions. Curry should contribute right away, and despite his rookie status, should not be too much of a downgrade from Peterson. 

The Hawks beefed up their defensive line by adding Cory Redding and Colin Cole to the mix. A healthy Patrick Kerney should solidify a very talented defensive front.

The Seattle secondary was an area of particular weakness in 2008, as the team ranked 32nd in pass defensedead last in the NFL. 

To address this problem, the team brought back corner Ken Lucas, who began his career with the Seahawks before going to Carolina in free agency. You may remember Lucas as the player who had his nose broken when teammate Steve Smith sucker punched him during training camp in 2008. 

Seattle hopes the six-foot tall Lucas provides a significant upgrade over the platoon of much shorter corners who played opposite Pro Bowler Marcus Trufant in 2008. 

Last year, teams routinely threw away from Trufant and exposed the weaknesses in Seattle’s secondary. This year, Lucas should improve the Seahawk’s ability to defend the pass.

 

Analysis

Although the Seahawks' 4-12 record last year was not an accurate measure of their talent, it did reveal one of this team’s most glaring weaknessesthey’re old. 

This team has several aging stars, and old football players are often injured football players. Matt Hasselbeck is 33, and missed nine games in 2008. Patrick Kerney, their outstanding defensive end, is 32, and was out for nine games as well. 

Walter Jones, their Hall of Fame left tackle, is 35. The oft-injured Deion Branch is 29, and missed nine games last year. Nate Burleson, 28, had season ending knee surgery and missed all but one game in 2008. 

These players could easily fill a Pro Bowl roster, however, injured players sitting on the sidelines can’t help their team win games. The injuries that ruined the Seahawks’ season in 2008 could very well haunt the team again in 2009.

Another problem with this team is depth at the running back position. Julius Jones is certainly a capable player, and if healthy, he could have a productive season for the Hawks. 

However, with the departure of Maurice Morris, the Hawks are left without a solid backup option should Jones go down for any reason. T.J. Duckett is a short yardage specialist, and Justin Forsett is a small scat back and return specialist who may not be durable enough to handle the full workload as an every down option in the backfield.

 

Prediction

Overall, a lot of things will need to go right for the Seahawks to challenge in the NFC West. In order for them to have any chance, they must stay healthy. Unfortunately, the advanced age of the team stacks the odds against them.

Despite their age and lack of depth, the Hawks do have some talent, particularly in the passing game, and along the defensive line. They should be tough against the run, and their formidable aerial attack should allow them to recover when they fall behind on the scoreboard.

The Seahawks will likely be a dangerous team in 2009, and good enough for a third place finish in an improving NFC West.

 

4th Place:  St. Louis Rams

  1. 2008 Record-  2-14
  2. Key Departures-  Tory Holt (WR), Orlando Pace (OT), Bryan Leonard (RB)
  3. Key Additions-  Kyle Boller (QB),  Jason Brown (OC), Mike Kearney (FB), Billy Bajema (TE)
  4. Key Draftees-  Jason Smith (OT), James Laurinaitis (ILB)
  5. 2009 Season Outlook


Coaching

The Rams welcome new head coach Steve Spagnuolo, former defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. After helping to lead the Giants to victory in Super Bowl XLII, the Rams are hopeful Spagnuolo can help turn things around in St. Louis.

Spags has selected Pat Shurmer as his offensive coordinator, who will install a west coast offense. 

Shurmer will be asked to reinvent the Rams’ offense as a powerful, smash-mouth ground attack. This will be quite a departure from the air it out Rams we’ve become accustomed to seeing over the past several seasons.

 

Offense

The first order of business for Spagnuolo has been to build a younger, more athletic offensive line. This offseason, the Rams signed premier free agent center Jason Brown to anchor them in the trenches. 

Brown played in Baltimore last year, and helped Raven running backs earn 2,376 yards on the ground; fourth best in the league. The team drafted elite offensive tackle prospect Jason Taylor with the number two pick in this year’s draft. They said goodbye to future hall of fame tackle Orlando Pace, who’s been the cornerstone of the Rams’ O-line for the past 12 seasons. 

Spagnuolo appears committed to youth, as the Rams released several veteran players including wide receivers Tory Holt, Dante Hall and Drew Bennett, quarterback Trent Green and running back Bryan Leonard.

To provide additional support for the run, the Rams signed fullback Mike Kearney and former 49er tight end Billy Bajema, who played tight end and H-back for the 49ers, serving mostly as a blocker. 

The Rams will focus most of their offensive attention on star running back Stephen Jackson, who’s more than capable of shouldering the offensive load. Look for Steven Jackson to have a big season in 2009, so long as he stays healthy, which has proved to be a challenge for him the past couple of years.

With the release of Tory Holt, the Rams have wiped the wide receiver slate clean. A pair of second year players are penciled in to start next season, as Doney Avery and Keenan Burton are at the top of the team’s depth chart. 

Although these relative unknowns are a far cry from the Tory Holt and Isaac Bruce tandem that led St. Louis for years, the Rams have high hopes that these young men will blossom into top-flight receivers in the coming seasons.

 

Defense

Coach Spagnuola is reportedly very high on second year player Chris Long, who will anchor his defensive line in 2009.

Spagnuola should be considered a good judge of talent, considering the defensive lines he coached during his time in New York. However, other than Long, the Rams defense is short on star power, and talent is lacking. 34 year-old defensive end Leonard Little is recovering from offseason surgery, and is expected to return. 

The Rams did draft inside linebacker James Laurinaitis in the second round, and Coach Spags has been encouraged by his play during recent team mini camps. 

He’ll have to be ready when the season begins, because the team curiously released 2008 leading tackler Pisa Tinoisamoa, despite a solid performance last season.  In all, the Rams defense has many holes, and Coach Spagnuola must contend with a season long shortage of talent on the defensive side of the football.

 

Analysis

In his first season with St. Louis, Coach Spagnuola must begin from square one in rebuilding this franchise. Evidenced by his decision to shed veteran players, Spags must be content to allow his inexperienced players some on the job training. 

The results this season cannot be measured by wins and losses for the Rams, who must improve at almost every position to compete for a division title in the NFC West. 

Although the Rams’ running game will be a strength in 2009, lack of depth should be cause for concern. Stephen Jackson is a bona fide star, but after him the depth chart is pretty thin. 

As it stands, Antonio Pittman and Kenneth Darby round out the stable, and those two players combined for only 450 rushing yards and zero touchdowns in 2008.

Under any circumstances the Rams will struggle next season; if Stephen Jackson gets hurt, the results could be disastrous. Unfortunately, this is a real possibility, as Jackson has not been able to complete a full season since 2006.

Lack of proven talent at the wide receiver position also presents significant worries for the Rams. Starting wide outs Doney Avery and Keenan Burton have combined to catch a measly four career touchdowns.

Even for one season, those numbers are bad. How will Mark Bulger feel about having his Pro Bowl caliber receiving corps replaced by a group of unproven sophomore upstarts?

 

Prediction

There’s nothing short term about Coach Spagnuolo’s rebuilding project in St. Louis.  Although he has some nice young pieces, Spags will need several seasons to build this team through the draft, and mold them into contenders. 

As for this season, look for the Rams to establish some identity as a tough, defense-minded football team. 

Although the Rams will likely improve their 2-14 mark from a year ago, they should get comfortable in the cellar of the NFC West, as they will occupy that dubious position for the 2009 season and beyond.

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