NFC West Preview: In Weak Division, San Francisco 49ers Might Be Best Bet

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NFC West Preview: In Weak Division, San Francisco 49ers Might Be Best Bet
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With the preseason right around the corner, here is a breakdown of the NFC West division teams.

 

Offense

Quarterbacks

San Francisco pretty much wins this by default.

Alex Smith is an average QB, but he’s still superior to Leinart, Hasselbeck and Feeley. Charlie Whitehurst has proven nothing at the NFL level and I would be amazed if a spread QB like Bradford played well in his rookie year.

Smith is less than ideal for the 49ers offense because of his inability to operate from under centre (a problem identified at his drafting) but he is still preferable to Arizona’s duo of Leinart and Anderson.

It may well end up that Anderson gets the starting gig considering an apparent lack of desire (not to mention the arm strength essential to a vertical passing attack) possessed by Leinart. Leinart’s career completion percentage stands at a mere 56% with 14 TDs to 17 INTs.

The Seahawks and Rams have similar problems.

Hasselbeck is clearly washed up, and Feeley can be nothing more than a stop gap measure. Unfortunately neither Sam Bradford nor Whitehurst will likely remedy the situation until 2011 at the earliest. The Rams have a slight edge, however, because of Bradford’s upside.

  1. San Francisco
  2. Arizona
  3. St. Louis
  4. Seattle

 

Running backs

While the NFC West is a wasteland in terms of quality QBs, it turns into a haven for those in the backfield.

The top spot is difficult to nail down, but Frank Gore and the 49ers get the nod here. His numbers are very similar to Steven Jackson’s, but he’s had a few less injuries and fewer carries.

Let’s be honest, you can’t go wrong with either.

Both the Seahawks and the Cardinals have very promising backfield tandems, but one of my favourite potential breakout players this year is Justin Forsett.

Pairing with him is the oft-injured, although majorly talented, Leon Washington, gives Seattle one of the league’s better receiving backs to go along with the emerging youngster.

The Cardinals duo is Tim Hightower and 2009 first round pick Chris “Beanie” Wells.

Wells had an impressive rookie season, accumulating nearly 950 total scrimmage yards. But Cardinals’ fans will be concerned with his four fumbles, an unacceptable amount for his number of carries.

Tim Hightower also had a solid year, posting over 1,000 yards and eight TDs. But the question is will the lack of a true third down back hurt Arizona considering Matt Leinart’s limitations.

  1. San Francisco
  2. St Louis
  3. Seattle
  4. Arizona

 

Receivers (WRs and TEs)

The Cardinals have easily the best group of receivers in the division.

Larry Fitzgerald is a recognised superstar and, despite the loss of Anquan Boldin, the group will likely not miss a beat considering the impressive play of former No.3 wideout Steve Breaston, who will take the starters job (something he has done many times in the past considering Boldin’s injury history).

Cardinals fans will also hope promising youngster Early Doucet can win the slot receiver role, a position he excelled at during their playoff win over Green Bay. To make things even better, they snagged one of my favourite players in the whole draft in Citadel WR Andre Roberts.

The TE group leaves much to be desired in terms of receiving, which may prove to be more concerning that before considering the new QB.

That brings me to the 49ers.

Michael Crabtree’s impressive play in 2009 was simply remarkable.

He didn’t catch less than four balls in a single game and this was without practicing with Alex Smith during the offseason. It’s scary how good he can be.

Josh Morgan is an underwhelming number two, posting just over 500 yards in 800 snaps last year. New acquisition Ted Ginn continues to disappoint because of drops and sloppy route running.

But the explosion of TE Vernon Davis saves this group. The immensely talented Davis still can’t block to save his life, but he is a great check down option for a QB who lacks ideal zip.

If the Rams are to avoid picking in the bottom five in the 2011 draft, they will need some serious improvement from Donnie Avery.

After putting up impressive numbers in his first season, Avery seemed to regress in year two. He is joined by promising rookie Mardy Gilyard, a player that may be more suited to the slot.

Similarly Brandon Gibson, while a good player, is more suited to the fourth wideout role relegating Danny Amendola to returns. Laurent Robinson is a solid option, however, if he’s healthy.

At TE, Chris Baker was an underrated addition, especially considering his blocking is impressive. There is also the chance his receiving numbers will increase if given more of an opportunity.

The Seahawks drastically overpaid for a possession receiver in the 2009 offseason in former Bengal TJ Houshmandzadeh. But Golden Tate should be a solid playmaker for the Seahawks offense.

Other than the two previously mentioned players, though the Seahawks lack any sort of promising young players.

John Carlson had an incredibly disappointing season at TE for the Seahawks. His blocking was fairly atrocious despite the fact he was asked to do a lot of it, and he couldn’t find a way to get open in the passing game consistently. Perhaps it is an indictment of his play that new head coach Pete Carroll decided to add two TEs in the draft in Anthony McCoy (6th round) and Jameson Konz (7th).

  1. Arizona
  2. San Francisco
  3. St Louis
  4. Seattle

 

Offensive lines

There was a massive turnover of offensive linemen for NFC West teams this offseason, considering the new organisations have tended to focus on the run game.

The 49ers likely have the best unit. C Eric Heitmann was solid in every facet of the game as was RG Chilo Rachal. LG Davis Bass struggles in the run game which happens to be the strength of newly drafted grinder Mike Iupati.

Returning to the lineup will be LT Joe Staley, an underrated player. The other OT will hopefully be 11th overall pick Anthony Davis, who will replace the only real weakness in the line in Adam Snyder, who conceded 10 sacks, 8 hits, and 30 pressures in 2009.

The Rams’ offensive line is one of the most underrated units in the league.

The awful Alex Barron is gone, to be replaced by Jason Smith, who will shift to the left side with the addition of Rodger Saffold in the 2nd round. Smith was barely average at RT in 2009, allowing 2 sacks, 3 hits, and 8 pressures in just 339 snaps, but he should improve in year 2.

Saffold was a guy I was surprised fell to round two, and he should contribute immediately if he can recover from some nagging offseason injuries. C Jason Brown and LG Jacob Bell will man two of the other spots, and both are both solid players. John Greco and Adam Goldberg will likely be in the mix at RG.

The Seahawks have some solid players on the O-line. Max Unger is a valuable, versatile linemen who excels against the pass. He is joined by the Ray Willis at RT.

Perhaps the most bemusing move of the offseason was the trade of the Hawk’s best linemen, Rob Sims, whose replacement, Ben Hamilton (formerly of Denver), isn’t even in the same league. The re-signed Chris Spencer will likely be the fill in at either C or LG depending on where Unger ends up.

The most important player for the Hawks in 2010 will likely be sixth overall pick Russell Okung. If he struggles, the Seahawk offense has no chance but if he proves he was as NFL ready as many scouts indicated then production will improve no end.

The Cardinals line is essentially a mess. Saved from embarrassment only by Kurt Warner’s quick release, whoever ends up at QB for Arizona will be seeing a lot of linemen in their face all season.

Jeremy Bridges and Levi Brown are simply not up to NFL standards, while Reggie Wells and Deuce Lutui are simply an abomination on the inside.

The addition of OG Alan Faneca was smart considering the situation, but he is certainly on the downside of his career and struggles in pass protection. C Lyle Sendlein gets the best Cardinal linemen award by default; he’s average at best and horribly inconsistent.

  1. San Francisco
  2. St Louis
  3. Seattle
  4. Arizona

 

Defense

Defensive line

The 49ers have the edge over the Cardinals on the back of the best five technique in the league in DE Justin Smith.

Despite playing on the interior, he accumulated six sacks, 16 QB hits and 44 pressures in 580 rushes. To put that into context, Darnell Dockett accumulated eight sacks, 10 hits and 28 pressures in 600.

Joining Smith on the interior is NT Aubrayo Franklin, who got a thoroughly deserved contract extension. A true space eater, his pass rushing limitations are of minor concern. The other DE position, however, remains a slight concern because of the poor play by Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald.

The Cardinals have a dominant pass rushing duo in DEs Calais Cambell and Dockett.

The former registered an impressive nine sacks, eight hits and 31 pressures in a mere 529 rushes (as well as five batted passes). Neither is especially good against the run, and Dockett was dominated at times in 2009.

That means there’ll be a lot of pressure on first round NT Dan Williams to produce straight away, as he will at worst be rotating with Bryan Robinson and Gabe Watson.

The Seahawks have a solid duo of DTs, but they are going to struggle mightily without an established DE.

Brandon Mebane and Colin Cole are both very solid run defenders but they rarely collapse the pocket. Patrick Kerney retired and Darryl Tapp was traded, leaving very little depth or proven production.

Chris Clemons is a tweener, as is Nick Reed. Lawrence Jackson failed to produce in 2009 and no addition was made until the 127th pick in the draft in EJ Wilson.

The Rams have a lot of potential on their defensive line in 2010.

Chris Long seems to be turning a corner and James Hall played well at right end. Clifton Ryan did a nice job at DT, which is good considering Chris Hovan seems to be done.

Leonard Little is a valuable pass rusher and St Louis has a couple of solid rotational players in DTs Dorell Scott and Leger Douzable.

 

Linebackers

Patrick Willis is the best LB in the game and Takeo Spikes continues to play at a high level despite the beating his aging body must have taken.

He may be even better in 2010 if 3rd round pick Navarro Bowman can contribute right away, if he does indeed end up at ILB. Manny Lawson also finally came on and though he is not spectacular, he seems to have no weaknesses in his game.

The only guy holding this unit back is Parys Haralson, but his struggles rushing the passer are well disguised through his replacement by Ahmad Brooks on passing downs.

The NFC West is really stacked with great LBs, and the Seahawks are no different.

Despite an injury to veteran MLB Lofa Tatupu, David Hawthorne stepped fluidly into the MIKE LB spot and became a dominant force against the run, as shown by his 92 tackles (49 of which were blocked). He will want to maintain concentration, however, as he also missed 10 on the season.

Partnering him for much of the season was the incredibly disappointing Aaron Curry. Touted as the most NFL ready player in the 2009 draft, he really struggled in coverage only showing improvement when he had his role limited. Rounding out the group are the solid Leroy Hill and Will Herring.

Another reason for hope in St Louis is the LB corps.

James Laurinaitis proved his draft fall was unfounded, putting forth a very solid first season in registering 100 solo tackles, of which 48 were plays in which he was blocked.

Paris Lenon also defied his age, registering an especially good season against the run. But he’s now in Arizona having not been resigned. He’ll likely be replaced by former Panther Nai’ll Diggs, although he’s more suited to the strongside. The biggest surprise, however, was SLB David Vobora, who crushed people against the run and did a solid job in coverage.

Depth is the only concern.

With aging OLBs, the Cards decided to aggressively target former Dolphin Joey Porter. Unfortunately he had a poor season in terms of total pressure, registering just nine sacks, five hits and 11 pressures in 354 rushes, as well as being shaky against the run.

Clark Haggans remains a solid player on the other side, but he’s certainly not upgradeable. Karlos Dansby chased the money to Miami, leaving a massive void next to the already underwhelming Gerald Hayes.

The decision to go with the athletic ILB Daryl Washington was therefore a smart one, and I would be surprised if he didn’t have a good rookie year. It remains to be seen whether Paris Lenon can continue to defy his age and how he’ll transition to the new system.

  1. San Francisco
  2. Seattle
  3. St Louis
  4. Arizona

 

Secondary

The Cardinals are set at three of the four secondary positions.

SS Adrian Wilson improved in coverage in 2009 despite being inconsistent, and the addition of potential All-Pro (if motivated) Kerry Rhodes from the Jets was another shrewd move, and almost certainly an improvement over the departed Antrel Rolle.

Going into his third year, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has a shot to elevate himself into the top echelon of CBs with another good season. His 16 pass deflections were second only to Darelle Revis and his reception percentage allowed of 51 was in the top 10 with CBs targeted over 30 times.

With Bryant McFadden shipped back to Pittsburgh after an awful season, a lot of hopes rest on Greg Toler who was impressive in limited action. Arizona should be on the lookout for a slot CB.

San Francisco has at least one good CB in Shawntae Spencer. The other CB position remains a concern, however, although Nate Clements flashed some of the ability that got him such a huge contract. Dre Bly and Tarell Brown are also in the mix.

At safety, Dashon Goldson and Michael Lewis are both strong against the run but struggle in coverage, which makes it odd that Singletary decided to add Taylor Mays in the draft. He is a player renowned for needing work in that very same department.

Seattle will have been pleasantly surprised with the solid play of CB Josh Wilson, but the Seahawks will be equally as dismayed with the production of Marcus Trufant. Apart from Trufant’s generally poor play, he also conceded nine penalties.

Both Deon Grant and Jonathan Babineaux struggled in coverage, so it is likely 14th overall pick Earl Thomas will start at safety if he shows any ability. Despite immense talent, Thomas may struggle if Seattle’s CBs continue to do so.

The situation remains bleak for the Rams secondary. Ron Bartell struggled desperately at LCB, as did Justin King in the slot. The other CB position remains a mystery, but the Rams could really do with third round pick Jerome Murphy panning out to fill the void.

At safety the situation is hardly better, though getting O.J. Otogwe re-signed will surely help.

 

Conclusion

The NFC West is generally weak because its best players are at positions of lower importance, specifically RBs and LBs.

The 49ers should be good enough to win this division, especially considering they are the team with the best QB and generate the most pass rush.

The Cardinals will obviously regress due to the loss of Warner, but the situation is only exaggerated considering how weak the offensive line remains. The Rams have a lot of potential but the defense, especially the secondary, remains a work in progress.

The team that might struggle the most is Seattle.

An aging or unproven QB, declining offensive weapons and no pass rush don't add up to a good mix. To win in the NFL you need a QB, LT and DE in that order. The Hawks have none of the above. T

he same argument could be made for the Rams, but Jason Smith will be entering his second year while Okung will be a rookie and one less highly touted at that.

Here are my final predictions.

 

  1. San Francisco 49ers: 8-10 Ws
  2. Arizona Cardinals: 6-8 Ws
  3. St Louis Rams 3-5 Ws
  4. Seattle Seahawks: 1-4 Ws

 

 

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