We will preview an NFL division each day for eight days, before presenting final standings, fantasy and statistical leaders, award winners, playoff results and power rankings. This analysis is part of a broader endeavor with FOXSports.com's Fantasy Football.
Rosters and depth charts are up-to-date and as accurate as possible as of June 9, 2009. A schedule of upcoming NFL preview content including links to other previews that have already been posted is located here.
Also, we account for players with injury histories who are considered likely to miss games despite currently being healthy by randomly taking them out of what the analysis dictates is the correct number of games throughout the season. For players who will begin the season injured or who are assumed to replace the current starter during the season, we deliberately make those roster changes in the appropriate weeks. All of these items can cause some perceived inconsistencies with the scores, especially when a team plays one opponent from its division with one set of starters and uses different personnel later.
Today we preview the NFC West.
Arizona Cardinals (11-5)
Coming off a surprising Super Bowl appearance, the Cardinals will win more than three games outside the division this season. Last year the Cardinals were 6-0 vs the NFC West, but were outscored 325-247 while going 3-9 against the rest of the schedule.
A defense that stepped up in the postseason will match the dynamic offense, carrying Arizona to a first round bye as the #2 seed in the NFC. The Cardinals average 25.0 points per game (#3 in the NFL) and allow 18.3 points (#5) against a schedule featuring five games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 15-1
Most Significant Newcomer: Chris "Beanie" Wells, RB - Arizona finished second-to-last in the NFL in yards-per-carry in 2008. Kurt Warner and the passing offense proved that they do not need an effective running game to be successful, but it wouldn't hurt. Wells has all the tools to be an above-average NFL running back. There are obvious injury and effort concerns, which will likely limit Wells in his rookie season. If he can stay healthy all year, Wells presents a big upgrade over Tim Hightower and could easily compete for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Since he is probably not going to stay healthy, the timing of the games he misses will have a great impact on the Cardinals' season. Arizona should cruise into the playoffs and do everything it can to make sure that Wells is good to go for the postseason. Our projections have Wells rushing for 845 yards on 195 carries in 11 games.
Biggest Strength: Passing Offense - Kurt Warner has this game figured out. In Arizona that has a lot to do with getting Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston the ball in the position to make things happen. We assume Boldin will stick with the Cardinals and that Early Doucet will step up and split catches with Breaston.
Keeping Warner and Fitzgerald together is the key. They connected on 96 passes for 1,431 yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season and then elevated that to 546 yards and seven touchdowns on 30 receptions in the playoffs. Fitzgerald's post-season numbers, tallied against some of the best defenses in the league, project to 120 catches, 2,184 yards and 28 touchdowns in a 16-game season. While that's not to be expected, especially without wide receiver guru Todd Haley—now the head coach in Kansas City—and with question marks surrounding Boldin, Fitzgerald is still a relative lock for 1,400+ yards and double-digit touchdowns.
At 37, Warner probably does not have many great years in the NFL left. We expect him to play in 14 games and be the most efficient quarterback in the league.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Rushing Offense - The defense is not as much of a concern as many may think after the secondary showed great improvement in the playoffs and added Bryant McFadden.
Even with the benefit of a fantastic passing attack, Arizona ran for just 3.5 YPC as a team in 2008 and a healthy Wells may alleviate this. The offensive line has not changed and returning leading rusher Tim Hightower only ran for 2.8 yards-per-carry in his rookie season, so the Cardinals will need Wells to have any chance of improving the ground game.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Early Doucet, WR - Wells injury probability is worrisome and there are no tight ends of note. Doucet, a second-year player our of LSU, may be a late-week fantasy opton as a potential third wide receiver if anything happens to Anquan Boldin or Steve Breaston cannot match his 2008 performance. Last year, the Cardinals' No. 3 WR caught 77 passes for 1,006 yards. In the projections, Doucet catches 39 passes for 488 yards and four touchdowns.
Closest Game: @New York Giants (Week 7) - If the Cardinals are going to get back to the Super Bowl, they are going to have to prove again they can beat a very tough defensive team like the Giants on the road.
Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Kurt Warner (5) 3,522 yards, 25 TDs, 12 INTs; Chris Wells (37) 863 total yards, 8 TDs; Tim Hightower (46) 845 total yards, 6 TDs; Larry Fitzgerald (2) 92 receptions, 1,389 yards, 10 TDs; Anquan Boldin (19) 80 receptions, 947 yards, 6 TDs; Steve Breaston (32) 58 receptions, 843 yards, 6 TDs; Neil Rackers (4) 44/44 XPS, 26/31 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|1||San Francisco 49ers||71||26-17|
|7||@New York Giants||41||17-21|
|11||@St. Louis Rams||87||30-17|
|14||@San Francisco 49ers||61||21-20|
|16||St. Louis Rams||84||31-16|
|17||Green Bay Packers||76||28-17|
San Francisco 49ers (8-8)
After finishing the 2008 season 5-2 under new head coach Mike Singletary, San Francisco may be a popular "sleeper" playoff pick. The 49ers are closer than they have been in a long time, but a tough schedule means they are still about a win away from the postseason. The 49ers average 21.4 points per game (#14) and allow 20.5 points (#15) against a schedule featuring seven games against 2008 playoff teams.
Most Significant Newcomer: Michael Crabtree, WR - See our NFL Draft Review where Michael Crabtree ranked as the top impact rookie for 2009.
Biggest Strength: Rushing Defense - Don't let the 106.8 yards-per-game allowed deceive you; San Francisco's run defense only allowed 3.8 yards-per-carry in 2008, ranking the team eighth overall in the NFL. That number is somewhat biased by facing Arizona and Seattle twice, but the 49ers also held the NFL's best rushing team, the New York Giants, to 3.5 YPC and the NFL's fourth-leading rusher, Clinton Portis, to just 2.8 YPC.
Inside linebacker Patrick Willis is an extension of former middle linebacker Mike Singletary's toughness and football IQ. With games against Minnesota, Atlanta, Tennessee and Jacksonville, San Francisco will need its run defense to be at its best to compete out of the division.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Turnover Margin - This has to change under Mike Singletary. The 49ers tied Denver for the worst turnover margin in the league at minus-17 in 2008. The team had a particular issue with fumbles, losing the ball a league-high 16 times and only getting six back on defense.
Shaun Hill is our expected starting quarterback for the majority of the season. He projects to be an effective player, yet must limit turnovers after eight interceptions and four fumbles in just nine games. It's very tough to be a playoff team when consistently losing the turnover battle.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Glen Coffee, RB - Coffee, an unheralded rookie running back from Alabama, could ultimately become one of the better fantasy rookies. Starting running back Frank Gore is an all-around beast, but he is also a good bet to miss one or two games every season. Last year's backup, Michael Robinson, was mostly innefective.
San Francisco will hope Coffee can effectively substitute for Gore in games and produce when starting in Gore's place. Gore's backups total 948 yards and eight touchdowns. Coffee gets about half of that in our projections. Recent news sounds like his role may be even more significant than that.
Closest Game: Tennessee Titans (Week 9) - This is the start of a nine-game stretch where the 49ers play just two teams who we have making the playoffs this season (Eagles and Cardinals). Getting the Titans at home and the Bears at home the following week, can help the 49ers in their quest to finish over .500.
Fantasy Notables: Shaun Hill (19) 2,534 yards, 17 TDs, 9 INTs; Frank Gore (8) 1,591 total yards, 12 TDs; Michael Crabtree (28) 69 receptions, 888 yards, 6 TDs; Isaac Bruce (61) 33 receptions, 468 yards, 3 TDs ; Josh Morgan (67) 29 receptions, 440 yards, 3 TDs; Vernon Davis (10) 53 receptions, 649 yards, 4 TDs; Joe Nedney (23) 37/37 XPs, 23/27 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|4||St. Louis Rams||77||27-16|
|11||@Green Bay Packers||60||22-21|
|17||@St. Louis Rams||78||27-19|
Seattle Seahawks (7-9)
Coming off a disappointing four-win season, new head coach Jim Mora will bring a defensive mindset to a team that has been offensively focused for years.
The defense may improve, but the offense disappoints. The Seahawks average 19.1 points per game (#27) and allow 21.6 points (#18) against a schedule featuring five games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 5-11
Most Significant Newcomer: Aaron Curry, LB - Seattle traded Julian Peterson and may have improved at linebacker. Curry reminds me of Brandon Roy in the NBA who was the consensus "safest" and most NBA-ready pick in the 2006 NBA Draft, yet fell to sixth overall because of the front office love for high-ceiling, freakish athletes. It's not like Brandon Roy was a bad athlete or couldn't be a great player though. Three years later Roy is undoubtedly one of the league's top ten players.
Aaron Curry is widely considered the most NFL-ready rookie, yet fell to fourth overall because his ceiling is not much higher than his current talent and he doesn't play a position that is often drafted highly. None of that should matter. Curry already projects to a great NFL linebacker. Playing alongside Lofa Tatupu and LeRoy Hill should only help his progression.
Biggest Strength: Linebackers - This is a no-brainer. It's the one huge bright spot on the team. Lofa Tatupu, LeRoy Hill, and Aaron Curry could each make the Pro Bowl. The trio has the potential to surpass the Bears corps as the best in the league. The team is thin behind these three and Hill has some injury history. In our projections, Hill, Tatupu, and Curry combine for 199 solo tackles, five sacks, and three interceptions.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Offense - Injuries to quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and others were part of the issue in 2008 when Seattle finished 25th in the league in scoring against a relatively easy schedule.
It's hard to agree with some the moves the team has made to address its offense. Julius Jones was brought in to start in 2008 after a poor 2007 season for Dallas. Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who was signed this offseason, can be productive as an excellent route-runner with good hands, but he cannot carry or even spark an offense with big play potential. His addition will not help the offense much.
Other additions like Deion Branch, T.J. Duckett, Nate Burleson, and Charlie Frye were suspsect at best. Seattle likes to go out and get guys with big totals numbers, who fail to bring a unique play-making dynamic to the team. Expect the Seahawks offense to rank among the league's worst for a few more seasons as they dig out from this mess.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Aaron Curry, LB - The offense is unexciting. T.J. Houshmandzadeh and John Carlson can be owned, but the rest should probably be avoided. Instead, we'll go with rookie linebacker Aaron Curry because we went one whole section without mentioning him.
Closest Game: Chicago Bears (Week 3) - Jay Cutler may still be adjusting to his new surroundings in Week Three and the Seahawks and their strong defense may be able to steal this game at home.
Fantasy Notables: Matt Hasselbeck (26) 2,182 yards, 13 TDs, 10 INTs ; Julius Jones (42) 890 total yards 6 TDs; T.J. Duckett (57) 688 total yards, 5 TDs; T.J. Houshmandzadeh (11) 101 receptions, 1,118 yards, 7 TDs; Deion Branch (64) 29 receptions, 475 yards, 3 TDs; Nate Burleson (74) 28 receptions, 398 yards, 3 TDs; John Carlson (12) 53 receptions, 574 yards, 4 TDs; Olindo Mare (22) 31/31 XPs, 25/30 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|1||St. Louis Rams||69||25-16|
|2||@San Francisco 49ers||29||15-22|
|12||@St. Louis Rams||74||25-19|
|13||San Francisco 49ers||42||20-21|
|15||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||51||25-23|
|16||@Green Bay Packers||42||17-21|
St Louis Rams (3-13)
Despite bringing in a defensive-minded head coach, the Rams will struggle on defense as their young players adjust. Even worse, the offense is nowhere near where it once was, so the team cannot try to simply outscore teams in shootouts. St. Louis ties for the worst record in the league with Cleveland. The Rams average 17.2 points per game (#31) and allow 28.3 points (#32) against a schedule featuring five games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 0-16
Most Significant Newcomer: Jason Smith, OL - The second overall pick will have to come in immediately and replace a legend in Orlando Pace at left tackle for the Rams. Like Jason Peters of Philadelphia, Smith is a former college tight end with great footwork and exceptional pass-protecting skills. It would be hard to call him an upgrade over Orlando Pace, but he will be needed right away. Rookie linebacker James Laurinaitis and former Giants' starting safety James Butler will also make for significant newcomers playing big roles. The Rams appear to be on the path to improvement, slowly. They probably have more overall football talent than the Seahawks and would win over the Browns. They just need a year or two to put it all together.
Biggest Strength: Punting - Seriously. One could easily make the case that St. Louis was worse overall than the Lions last year. The Rams only above-average rating out of all of the possible categories is in punting. Donnie Jones helped St. Louis to lead the league in punting average and finish third in net punting. I guess for a team that is as poor offensively as the Rams, having a good punter is valuable.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Passing Offense - Everything outside of the punting game is bad, but we have some faith in new head coach Jim Spagnuolo and his new additions to improve the defense.
Steven Jackson can still be a good runner, but we'll pick the passing game. Marc Bulger is not too far removed from being a stud fantasy quarterback after replacing Kurt Warner for the "Greatest Show on Turf." However, he has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns and completed less than 60 percent of his passes for each of the last two seasons. And that was with Torry Holt. Second-year receiver Donnie Avery looks like a great talent, but there's nothing else in the passing game that looks promising.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Donnie Avery, WR - Avery's situation is similar to Dwayne Bowe's in Kansas City, where he appears to be the only wide receiving weapon on the roster. Unless someone like Keenan Burton, Laurent Robinson, Derek Stanley, or Brooks Foster shocks everyone as a viable NFL receiver, Avery is a lock to top 70 catches and 900 yards.
Closest Game: @Detroit Lions (Week 8) - While we already stated yesterday that this game might be the Lions' best chance at a win, the same can be said for the Rams. There are not very many "winnable" games on the schedule for a team like the Rams. This game does pose the possibility of being a matchup of two 0-7 teams.
Fantasy Notables: Marc Bulger (27) 2,564 yards, 13 TDs, 13 INTs; Steven Jackson (11) 1,545 total yards, 10 TDs, Donnie Avery (26) 73 receptions, 981 yards, 5 TDs; Keenan Burton (70) 33 receptions, 447 yards, 2 TDs; Randy McMichael (14) 38 receptions, 494 yards, 2 TDs; Josh Brown (28) 28/28 XPs, 22/27 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|3||Green Bay Packers||36||22-25|
|4||@San Francisco 49ers||23||16-27|
|10||New Orleans Saints||15||21-32|
|17||San Francisco 49ers||22||19-27|