The NFC West has been pretty detestable and easy to pick on for most of the pundits that cover the NFL over the recent years.
Although it was just a couple years ago that a team out of the NFC West (Arizona) was represented in the Superbowl, it seems as though the teams in the west have been used as everyone else's punching bag. Not one team out of the West last year had an above .500 record. Outside of the division in the regular season, it didn't look too pretty for any of them.
Although things have looked glum cutting in close to a decade now, it appeared that last season the tide could possibly be turning in small flashes of some of the games each week. However, consistency was the largest obstacle for these teams.
Cycles of winning for certain teams have been evident as history has shown us while some other teams just continue to lose giving their fans not much to cheer about or hope for.
Three out of the four teams have been in a building process but just have not been able to put it together. While the other team (Arizona) has hungover after a loss in the Superbowl in 2009 and lost their franchise quarterback Kurt Warner to retirement, the lack of motivation just has not been there.
The 49ers, Rams, and Seahawks, despite their records, have enough talent on their respective rosters to really push each other and the rest of the league next season and on.
New head coach, Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers, third year coach, Steve Spagnuolo of the Rams, and second year coach of the Seahawks, Pete Carroll are all reasons to give each one of those team's fans a bit of hope. Although it doesn't look too promising for Arizona on paper at the moment, they should not be discounted from the equation either. Ken Whisenhunt has proved that he has what it takes to motivate his players.
The talent is there on the rosters for the most part. There may be a hole or two here and there for each team. Two of them (The 49ers and Cardinals) are in search of a franchise quarterback which would be the cornerstone to build the teams on. But if they can find them, and find them soon, there is little doubt that the tables would turn and the West would find themselves on the other side of the proverbial punching bag.
Each year is a clean slate for every team and with that in mind, the NFC West may be on its way to rivaling its counterparts in the East, North, and South very soon in competitiveness in 2011.
Breaking down each team in the next four slides, the focus will be on reviewing the past season for each team, their team needs, and the up and coming season for each of them.
Before the bye week last year, the Cardinals appeared as though they were going to challenge all it's division rivals for the number one spot. A win over the reigning Superbowl Champion New Orleans Saints at home in the desert prior to the bye had most fans riding on a hollow wave of hope.
However, the seven game skid after the bye was devastating and heartbreaking for the fan base. Most gave up soon after the losing streak began.
Assumptions were made in that the absence of Kurt Warner that things were going to be okay. But they were in for a rough ride and rude awakening the rest of the season as the Cardinals went through several quarterbacks in trying to fill that void after Derek Anderson and a plethora of rookies couldn't cut it.
The Cardinals had a few close losses and showed glimpses of the team that went to the Superbowl a couple years ago. But is was quite evident that the loss of Kurt Warner hurt them more than what was assumed at the beginning of the year.
The final dagger to the hearts of Big Red supporters came in the final game as their division rival San Francisco 49ers handed out a good ol' fashion rear-end whoopin' in a 38-7 blowout.
Quarterback: It's not a secret that the Cards need help in this area, and need it bad. A good quarterback can make a world of difference in the win-loss department.
John Skelton looked good at times, but did not show enough to convince the organization that he could or would be the savior. The performances by Derek Anderson were atrocious (and that's being generous). Then there was Max Hall, who showed a thing or two but the bus stopped there with one and two. After that, a mysterio quarterback was inserted by the name of Richard Bartel.
It's a very safe assumption and quite obvious to say that the Cards number one concern is to find some stability at this position whether it be through the draft, or free agency (if there winds up being one). Chances are that teams will be drafting for need more than any other year in history. So look for the Cardinals to take a quarterback in the first two rounds.
Cornerback: This could position could contest that quarterback is the number one priority. Arizona's corners were beat last year like they stole money from their mother's purse.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is considered by some to be the best corner on the team. But his consistency, or lack there of was a crap shoot. You never knew which guy was going o show up on Sunday. The rest of the squad may not even be considered second rate. While Toler showed some upside, he was exposed and abused by certain teams. He will more than likely not be a starter next year but could be solid as the nickel option.
If Arizona cannot find some help in free agency, they will have to get some help on the rookie front of things. Should a guy like Patrick Peterson out of LSU be there at number five when the Cardinals pick, it seems probable that they may go that route. It's also possible that there could be interest in a guy like Prince Amukamara out of Nebraska.
Whatever the case, the Cards certainly could stand to get stronger at this position.
Outside Linebacker: There's a slight possibility that some may feel like this position is potentially a higher area of concern than cornerback. Whatever the thoughts are, the two are very close in priority.
Joey Porter has always been viewed as a bark is louder than the bite type of guy. Last year this proved to be true. He entered the season talking a very big game. He backed it up with only 50 tackles and 5 sacks. For a supposed Pro Bowler, the numbers did not support all the talking he did early on. Clark Haggans on the other side over there put up about the same numbers... nothing to write home about really.
The free agent market, even if there is one, is very slim pickin's at this position. It is very possible that the outside linebacker from Texas A&M, Von Miller could be the top three on Arizona's draft board come April 28th.
Should the Cardinals find themselves at the least a serviceable quarterback and somebody that can legitimately get the ball to their number one receiver and team leader Larry Fitzgerald, then their offense could be rolling again. Particularly if Beanie Wells can stay away from injury to secure the ground game for them. The supporting cast of receivers that surround Fitzgerald give teams something else to look at in game-planning against.
The defense on the other hand looks a bit like Swiss cheese on paper. There are a few more holes to fill on that side of the ball. The secondary is probably the weakest link on that defense and in a pass-happy league that could be the kicker for the Cards.
Overall, the Cardinals could be a team that creeps slowly back in to the picture. They may just be the NFC West's sleeper next season. Then again, there's always the chance that the Cardinals do what they've done throughout a majority of team history... give their fans false hope.
The bar was set high from the get-go for the 49ers. Before the season even began, most critics, analyst's, and pundit's had the 49ers selected to win the division under Mike Singletary who led the 49ers to an 8-8 record the previous season.
The 49ers went 4-0 in the preseason which led most fans to believe that it would carry over in to the regular season. Whatever hope was there was smashed by a 70 ton locomotive also known as the 12th man as the Niners got demolished in Seattle in the season opener 31-6.
After that, there was the disappointing loss to New Orleans on Monday Night Football but seemed to serve as a moral victory at the time. The 49ers played the World Champs extremely tough despite a few costly mental errors early on.
Five games in, the 49ers found themselves staring at a very steep climb upward with an 0-5 record. Shortly after that, San Francisco was looking at a 2-7 record once the bye week hit. But as nutty as it seemed at the time, the 49ers were still in playoff contention. Just a testament as to just how poor the NFC West was last year.
The season was just erratic; all over the place. There were high's and low's like nobody's business.
Mike Singletary gave it his best, but failed to realize that coaching in the NFL was not the same as being the field general that he was for the Bears in the 1980's and 1990's. With one game left, the 49ers front office let Samurai Mike go. Not sure how that firing went, but most folks probably would not have wanted to have that responsibility.
The very last game of the year against the Cardinals, the 49ers were led by defensive line coach Mike Tomsula who let the players just go out there and have fun. The 49ers had fun and the production followed suit in a 38-7 victory. No matter what Denzel Washington said in Remember the Titans about football not supposed to be fun, he's wrong. Football should always be fun, and the teams who do that are the teams that win.
Quarterback: Much like Arizona, San Francisco desperately needs some stability at this position. In the last five years or so, the Niners have not really had a clear-cut starter.
While Jim Harbaugh has had nothing but the nicest things to say about free agent Alex Smith, it's uncertain at this point if he will in fact return. Furthermore, it's unclear as to whether or not if he did that he would be the declaratory starter. I am sure there will be competition no matter who is brought in unless somehow the 49ers land a veteran free agent that has some legit experience.
Between Alex Smith, Troy Smith, and David Carr the fans seemed to be confused as to who the starter would be week in and week out. An abundance of jokes were thrown out each week as to who the starter would be. Most of the time the answer was just, "Smith".
The quarterback situation may not have been as bad as the Cardinals but that doesn't really say much. They did however have one of the worst situations in the league. But maybe some of that came from the indecisiveness of the coaching staff.
Cornerback: With the 24th ranked secondary in the league and veterans aging like two-week old bread, it's a fairly safe assumption to say that this is a major priority for the 49ers this offseason.
Nate Clements never was considered to be an elite corner of the league even though he got paid like one. But he may have been at one point in his career to be an above average cornerback. As he is nearing the end of his career, it's pretty evident that he has lost a step or two and cannot keep up with some of the leagues quicker receivers. He is solid in assisting in the ground game but a corner's number-one job is to defend receivers.
Shawntae Spencer, Tarrel Brown, and recently drafted Phillip Adams are all considered pretty average; in some of those cases maybe below.
So with that said, it's highly probable that the Niners will target Patrick Peterson or Prince Amukamara with their first selection. The possibility of drafting a quarterback is not out of the question necessarily but with a not-so-strong class of quarterbacks, this may be San Francisco's number one priority in this year's draft.
Outside Linebacker: While this position has been debated over quite a bit among the "Faithful's" fan base of where the priority should be, it still appears from last year that the Niners could stand to get a bit better here. But it really is up for debate.
In 2009, the 49ers were tied for 3rd in the league in sacks. In 2010, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky began running his defense a bit more like a Cover 2. Hence, the drop in production. The 49ers simply weren't going after the quarterback as much as they were in '09.
Although speculation is out there in that the 49ers could be targeting Von Miller from Texas A&M, with the other needs it just seems hard to justify a first-round selection on a tier three need when there may not be free agency and the draft possibly being the only source to address the other two needs.
The firing of Mike Singletary and the hiring of Jim Harbaugh has given the 49ers a fresh face and possible fresh start. Although the new head coach is not currently allowed to meet or talk to his players, the players seem eager to play for him and have been working out in groups across the nation on their own. This says that they may be more dedicated to player for this coach than the last who at times seemed to be out of his element and lost.
In conjunction with a new head coach, there is a chance that there could be a new quarterback as well. With that potential combination, it could in and of itself turn things around for the five-time Superbowl winning storied franchise.
There's plenty of talent there already, it just needs to be channeled and used correctly. Harbaugh seems like a guy who knows how to use his players to their strengths.
This could be a new beginning for the 49ers... if not, the glory years may just be behind them.
The first two games of the year were lost by a total 6 points to the Cardinals and Raiders. But in week three against the Redskins, the Rams seemed to have pulled everything together.
By the Rams bye week they were 3-3 (.500). Some of the competition was not exactly considered the leagues best. But not many people thought that the Rams would be where they were at that mark in the season. Through the first portion, running back Steven Jackson took some of the load off of the rookie quarterback, Sam Bradford.
After midway through the season, Jackson had already racked up close to 700 yards. It helped Bradford gain the confidence he needed to go on and be as efficient as he was for the remainder of the year.
Despite going on to finish a game under .500, Bradford was putting up some big numbers in passing toward the end of the year. Jackson and Bradford were complementing each other quite well at the end, so it will be interesting to see how they do in 2011 together.
Free Safety: No more O.J. Atogwe means a huge vacancy back there in center-field. Without a decent free safety, a team will be left exposed. The Rams cannot afford to get any weaker in their secondary as they were ranked 19th in the league.
Coach Steve Spagnuolo takes pride in his defense and will be looking ot replace Atogwe somehow, someway. If the draft is the only way to go, then a guy like Rahim Moore could be on the radar. That may be considered a pretty big reach, but teams will be doing some of that early on in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Every draft has it's surprises and this could certainly be one of them here. There's also a possibility that the Rams may entertain trade offers to move down so it's not too much of a reach if they go this route.
Wide Receiver: There really isn't a true presence on the Rams roster as a clear-cut number one guy. They are stuck with an abundance of number two type of guys. Sometimes that is good and sometimes not. Having a game changer on the roster like A.J. Green or Julio Jones could really spike the Rams offense and send them in to the "elite" category as far as passing is concerned.
Receivers like Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, and Mardy Gilyard will all still be a huge help should the Rams decide to go with one of the top two receivers instead at number fourteen.
Defensive Tackle: The pressure up the middle was almost non-existent for the Rams last year. In passing up Ndamukong Suh to take Bradford, the Rams struggled in that department.
This year, the wildcard could be at this position. Stopping the run up the gut was a task that wasn't met as well.
Fred Robbins will be heading in to his twelfth season as a pro. For a defensive lineman that is a lot of wear and tear... there may not be much tread left on the tires. I am sure Spagnuolo will kick the tires though to see what's left.
On the other side, the production between Gary Gibson and Darrell Scott was completely subpar. This could be a huge reason that the Rams would go this route opposed to the other two in the first. But of course it's always contingent on who is available and who is on their board.
There has not been a rookie quarterback bring as much success to a losing teams since Peyton Manning in 1998.
The team seemed to go through a few growing pains throughout the year, but with each game they looked stronger and stronger. All the pieces to the puzzle that Spagnuolo is trying to put together aren't there yet but he has made progress and breathed a breathe of life in to a sinking ship.
If Bradford can side-step the mythical "sophomore slump" then the Rams could be on track as the front runner as the division winners.
Assuming that all the key-players stay healthy, the sky is the limit for this up and coming very young and talented team.
Seattle only had four games before they went in to their bye week. Up to that point, the Seahawks were 2-2 (.500) on the year. After that, there was a long road in front of them.
Although they seemed to be one of the more streaky teams in the league winning one here and then going on multiple game skids, the 'Hawks found themselves staring at the playoffs at the end of the year even after dropping three of their last games.
All it took was one victory against the division rival Rams to get in to the dance. Regardless of a losing record, Seattle was in.
Most folks thought that the Seahawks would get annihilated in the first round of the playoffs considering their 3-5 second half of the season finish. To most people's surprise, Seattle wound up shocking the world in a 41-36 shootout over the previous year's Superbowl Champs.
Upon that home victory over New Orleans, Seattle then had to travel to play the Bears at Soldier Field. Coach Pete Carroll had his team believing in themselves after that. The confidence showed up on that cold mid-January afternoon. The 'Hawks scraped, clawed, and fought but it just wasn't enough to get over the mountain and in to the NFC Championship Game as they lost 24-35.
Defensive End: In running a 4-3 defense, it's imperative to have defensive ends that can put pressure on and get to the quarterback. Out of desperation mid-season, Seattle picked up San Francisco's trash in the former first-round bust Kentwan Balmer.
On the other side, you had Chris Clemons who did quite well racking up 11 sacks. His career was revived and brought to life under new head coach, Pete Carroll. However, teams took notice toward the end of the year and were able to neutralize him a bit more than early on.
If the Seahawks and Carroll want to continue to get better, they will need to get a legit prospect on the other side to take some of the attention off of Clemons next year. With the first-round stacked with talent at this position, there will be options available to Seattle at pick number twenty-five.
Quarterback: Hasselbeck is not going to be a long-term answer. There's a good possibility that Seattle could be searching for the quarterback that will be the successor to the current Seattle starter.
Most people refer to Charlie Whitehurst as "clipboard Jesus", no matter how wrong that is, Whitehurst is simply far from Jesus and even further from being starter material. If the Seahawks surprise everyone much as they did last year in the playoffs, and don't draft a quarterback early on, then they will absolutely need to draft one in the 2012 NFL Draft.
If Hasselbeck is healthy (which is key), Seattle may be able to even squeeze two more good years out of him.
Offensive Guard: Yes, this is the sleeper pick for Seattle potentially. Nobody likes to see their quarterback on the ground more often or not. And nobody likes to see their teams interior line getting man-handled for the most part shutting down the run.
The 'Hawks had a few good games on the ground but it was not nearly enough as the finished ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing yards behind only... you guessed it, the NFC West rival Arizona Cardinals.
If an offense can't block as a unit, then you may as well throw in the towel because teams will have taken notice of what you can and cannot do. If you are one-dimensional then they will shut you down, turn off the engine, and hand you back your own keys.
Marshawn Lynch looked to be back to form but had serious trouble breaking loose like he did in Buffalo his first couple of years due to the incompetence at the guard positions. He, and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck would be the first to welcome the rookie in with open arms should the Seahawks select a guard.
If Seattle doesn't go defensive end or quarterback, then this would be the third place to look for them to draft. It would be ill advised to ignore this area of concern in the earlier rounds to say the least.
Considering that they were not picked by most to win the division last year with exception to maybe their fan base, does that mean we should assume that they would do it again? It's hard to say without seeing all the pieces to the puzzle.
But one would have to assume that they would be the front runners after their extremely strong finish to the year before. However, if Peter Carroll's NFL track record has anything to say about it, the 'Hawks may be doomed next season.
The talent is obviously there. There are a few areas that need a bit of an overhaul on both sides of the ball. If those are addressed the Seahawks could be very competitive, not only in the division and conference, but to the entire NFL.
If there is football, the NFC West will once again not start the season off with much respect, but as the season progresses it's quite possible that by the end of the year, the perception will have been changed from the NFC's worst, to the NFC's best.