Even though it produced the NFC’s representative in the Super Bowl, the NFC West was arguably the worst division in the NFL last year.
With three teams picking in the top 10 of the draft, expectations are high for newcomers in the division. However, rookies can’t be the only ones making a difference. Here’s a list of what each team needs to improve on the most in order to achieve success this year.
San Francisco —Quarterback Situation
San Francisco was actually ranked 13th in terms of total passing yards for the ‘08 season, but without a clear-cut starter this year, it is tough to predict if they will have the same success.
Shaun Hill has been given the edge over Alex Smith so far in camp, but apparently Smith has a nicer deep ball. With Hill throwing a more catchable short ball, why not make use of both quarterbacks?
With the Wildcat formation all the rage in the game now, teams will line up their starting quarterback as a wideout, and set an elusive runner to take the snaps. Once the runner takes the snap, he has the ability to run, hand the ball off, or pass. It’s the pro version of the spread offense.
Who ran the spread offense under one of the best coaches in college football so well it made him a No. 1 overall pick? Alex Smith.
Smith was an elusive runner, and clearly still has the ability to air the ball out. Offensive Coordinator Jimmy Raye would be wise to use Smith this way because that was Smith’s meal ticket. Let him take snaps out of the shotgun, read the defense, and see the pitch, if necessary.
Defenses would have to respect Smith’s long ball, as well as his feet when he’s in, not to mention Frank Gore’s legs, and Hill’s arm on a double pass. Also, since first-round pick Michael Crabtree is in no hurry to play , San Francisco will want as many playmakers on the field as possible.
Arizona— Running Back Situation
It’s not breaking news that Arizona had no running game last season. They ranked dead last, averaging 73.6 yards per game and J.J. Arrington left the team after four lackluster seasons.
Top rusher Edgerrin James forced his way out the door, and sits in limbo waiting for a new team. This hurts Arizona because James led the team in every major running category, except for touchdowns.
Tim Hightower was busy bogarting those scores, and ruining anyone who had James on their fantasy squads. Hightower’s 10 touchdowns tied him for eighth in the league. Losing those two rushers forced Arizona to draft Chris “Beanie” Wells in the first round, who picked up his pro career in the same fashion he ended his college one—injury-prone.
In his first practice, Wells was carted off with an ankle sprain. Although it’s been tabbed as not serious , it was the first practice of his career.
That being said, if Wells stays healthy, he can easily be the starter, and offer this team the home run threat at RB it has been waiting for. Wells’ stiff-arm in college was brutal, and he showed off his speed outrunning my beloved Wolverines defenders all too often.
Wells definitely seemed faster than his 4.59 40-time indicates. He is big at 6'1", 235-lbs, can be hard to take down, and can be shifty behind the line before hitting a hole. With Wells starting, and Hightower’s ability to move the pile and pick up short scores, the team could have a good “smash and dash” duo to supplement the passing game this year.
St. Louis— Offensive Line Situation
QB Marc Bulger took the fourth most sacks (38, in 15 games) in the league last year. He also threw for more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (11), resulting in a 71.4 rating and the second worst year of his career.
The only year worse than 2008 was the one that preceeded in (2007). With Bulger getting hit so often, St .Louis’ passing attack takes the hit as well. More sacks equate to fewer attempts, fewer completions, fewer scores and less reliability at the quarterback position.
Typically, when the offensive line can’t keep up with pass blocking, they have trouble run-blocking as well. St. Louis ranked 25th in total rushing yards last year. So, with the second overall pick, St. Louis took Baylor offensive tackle, Jason Smith, hoping to shore up the left side for years to come.
Maybe that will start next year . Smith is starting at right tackle, while Alex Barron starts the year at left tackle . This is a make or break year for Barron, who has typically played right tackle, and is in the last year of his contract.
If he can anchor down and protect Bulger’s blind side, Barron could be in line for a lucrative deal in the offseason. That deal won’t come from St. Louis as long as Smith shows improvement.
Right now, Smith has trouble sliding his feet the opposite way (Smith played left tackle at Baylor), and defenders are flying by him. But if Smith can play half-way decent at right tackle, and switch back to left tackle, Bulger will be grateful, and the offense can prosper. If Barron gets re-signed by St. Louis as the right tackle, the team could have bookend first-round tackles for the next couple of years—exciting news for Bulger and Stephen Jackson fantasy owners.
Seattle— Injury Situation
Seattle couldn’t possibly be bitten by the injury bug as much as last year, right?
How often was the medical staff on the field last year? It seemed like EVERY receiver had a season-ending injury, followed by QB Matt Hasselbeck, and the list goes on.
However, starting the season off with your left tackle already missing practice is not what Seattle envisioned for this period. Walter Jones had microfracture knee surgery over the offseason, which is more serious than it sounds. With his body aging as it is, having to heal from fractures placed in his knees can not be easy.
Jones has been the heart of the Seattle line since he arrived in the league, and even moreso since Steve Hutchinson left. One of the most reliable and dominant left tackles in the game, Seattle can not afford to lose Jones at any point this season.
Moving to the receivers, Seattle brought in T.J. Whosyamama to provide some talent opposite Deion Branch, and give Hasselbeck a big (6′2″) target in the red zone. Housh hasn’t started all 16 games in a season in his career, but has produced hefty stats the past five years (70+ receptions, 900+ yards every year).
He has strong, consistent hands and can allow Branch to use his speed and open up the field for the running game. If the rash of injuries hits this receiving corps, expect Hasselbeck to drop as well. Hasselbeck only started seven games last year due to a back injury, and was never the same in the pocket. His receivers didn’t get open in time for him to release the ball, so he got leveled consistently (19 sacks in those seven games). Seattle’s offense needs to stay healthy this year in order for the team to have a shot at taking the division crown back.