The San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals are the consensus top two for the NFC West. The St Louis Rams were the worst team in the league last season and the Seattle Seahawks have a new Head Coach and will take time to get used to their new systems.
Today I will break down the rosters of the 49ers and Cardinals as I try and predict who will win the NFC West.
Both Alex Smith and Matt Leinart have struggled for their franchises since being drafted in '05 and '06 respectively. Both have shown promise at times but haven't been able to deliver on a consistent basis. I think the two are pretty close but if I had to choose one I would go with Alex Smith simply because of the form he displayed last season.
He showed that he could lead the franchise well and compiled a respectable 81.5 passer rating through 10 starts. He will only improve with continuity and the weapons he has surrounding him including: Pro Bowlers Vernon Davis and Frank Gore as well as emerging Wideout Michael Crabtree.
After showing some promise in his rookie season, Matt Leinart has had a poor last 3 seasons for the Cardinals. He has started only 6 games and thrown 3 TD's to 8 Ints. He will also have an improved supporting cast around him.
The battle between these two QB's is so important that it will probably decide the division. Now onto the Running Backs.....
For both teams, I would say that this is a position of strength. The 49ers have a 2 time pro bowler who has 4 consecutive 1000 yard seasons while the Cards have a double headed rushing monster. Both teams are likely to call on the running game to win them games in 2010.
Although I love Frank Gore I have to give this one to the Cardinals with Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower only improving along with the Cards run blocking improving by adding Alan Faneca. However, if either Glen Coffee or Anthony Dixon can prove to be a reliable backup to Gore, this one may swing the 49ers way.
Both teams have some decent depth at this position. Larry Fitzgerald is widely regarded as one of the best in the league, while Michael Crabtree is definitely set up for a breakout season for the 49ers. Josh Morgan will also continue to improve for the Niners just like Steve Breaston and Early Doucet will for the Cards.
If it was just Wide Receivers, I would give this one to Arizona but Vernon Davis was an absolute beast for San Francisco last season racking up 78 cactches for 965 yards and 13 trips to paydirt. The Cards have no real depth at TE so the Niners win this round.
This one is extremely tough to call as both lines are pretty close especially with the new talent that has come to these two teams this offseason. The 49ers invested their two first round picks in OT Anthony Davis and G Mike Iupati while the Cardinals added 9 time pro bowler Allen Faneca.
At Left Tackle, I would say that Joe Staley beats out Levi Brown, Alan Faneca is the obvious choice at LG while at C Eric Heitmann beats Lyle Sendlein. At the RG position it's pretty close with Deuce Lutui causing problems for the Cards with Chilo Rachal playing inconsistently with the Niners so I'll call it a tie and finally at RT, in the SHORT TERM I say that Brandon Keith is better than whoever the Niners will put out there but Anthony Davis should develop for next season and become a formidable player on the Niners line.
I'm going draw with this one so as we head into the Defensive side of the ball it's 2-1-1 to the Niners
This is another position of strength for both teams with each team having a pro bowler last season. Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell form an elite group of Defensive Ends for the Cards while the 49ers have Justin Smith and Aubrayo Franklin anchoring their line.
It is another tight one, but I'm going with the Cards here simply because of that improving duo of Dockett and Campbell and if Dan Williams develops quickly the Cards will have one of the best lines in the league.
Patrick Willis is obviously the best ILB in the game right now. He racks up HUGE stats even though the 49ers employ a 3-4 Defense and have a plethora of talented Linebackers that include Vet Takeo Spikes, former first round pick Manny Lawson and pass rushers Parys Haralson, Ahmad Brooks and newly acquired Travis LaBoy. In my opinion, this is the strength of the 49ers and was why their Defense peformed so well last season.
Even with adding Joey Porter, the Cards just can't compete with one of the most talented Linebacking corps in the league. Look for the 49ers to only improve in this area in seasons to come.
The 49ers have some good but not great starters at the CB position. Shawntae Spencer had a decent year with 53 tackles and 2 picks and is a very team oriented player, but he will have to improve those numbers if he wants to be a starter for at least a few more seasons while Nate Clements has regressed during his three year tenure in San Francisco.
Clements was replaced by Tarell Brown before being injured in the same game however he will probably be the Number 1 CB for the Niners. Dashon Goldson is an up and comer at Safety while Michael Lewis will be challenged by 2nd rounder Taylor Mays at SS. Dominique Rodgers Cromartie is definitely the best CB in the division racking up 10 Interceptions in his first 2 seasons.
At Safety the Cards have one of the best duos in the league with Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson who can both proficiently sack the QB as well as rack up the Interceptions. It's definitely a win for the Cards here which makes it 3-3-1. I will now move onto the specialists.
Both sides have good special teams units with reliable performers. At punter Andy Lee is a 2 time pro bowler while Ben Graham has been above average and is one of Lee's main rivals for the starting NFC pro bowl spot. At Kicker both Joe Nedney and Jay Feely have been consistent with both being 80%+ Kickers throughout their careers.
Onto the return games now and the 49ers addressed another of their needs which was finding a decent return man. They traded a 5th rounder for Miami burner Ted Ginn who is a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball as well as signing UDFA Leroy Vann. Larod Stevens-Howling is a livewire for the Cards while Steve Breaston is a reliable punt returner. The 49ers also have one of the best Long Snappers in the league with both teams having decent coverage units.
I'm going to have to give this to the 49ers simply because they have a pro bowler at the position and have finally found some decent return men who will only help improve their Offensive field position.
So there you have it folks, the Niners have won 4-3-1. Don't take these ratings too seriously though and I know that it will be an enthralling see-sawing battle between these two squads. Hope you had as much fun reading this as I did writing it! Leave your thoughts below.