NFL Free Agent Signings: NFC West Trying Desperately to Change Status
For at least the last decade, the NFC West has been one of the more erratic divisions in football.
While the rest of the NFL is embroiled in competition down heading into the playoffs, the NFC West has struggled to crown a clear-cut champion in recent years. The Arizona Cardinals were 9-7 when the went to the Super Bowl in 2009, and the Seattle Seahawks won the division last season with a 7-9 record.
This offseason has been about the NFC West getting back on track with key free agent signings.
The St. Louis Rams have all the makings of a young team on the rise, while the San Francisco 49ers are the perennial favorites heading into the season. The Seahawks are the enigmas of the division, and the Cardinals are the closest to returning to Super Bowl contention.
Here are some of the ways the NFC West has tried to recapture some of its former luster during this post-lockout offseason.
Seattle Seahawks Bring in Big Names on Offense
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The Seahawks eked their way into the playoffs last season and managed to score both a home game and an upset victory over the New Orleans Saints. That being said, 7-9 isn't going to cut it most seasons and the team needed to upgrade their personnel.
Pete Carroll's coaching put them over the hump, but it is going to take more to turn the Seahawks into a contender. Carroll's second season should be more consistent with the additions made on offense this offseason.
Seattle scored the biggest receiver of the free agent class in Sidney Rice. The Seahawks paid a hefty $60 million for Rice, but if he can produce another season like 2009, he would be worth most of it.
Rice missed 10 games last season while he recovered from hip surgery. He will be paired with the newly rededicated Mike Williams as the primary targets on offense, with Golden Tate playing a slot role or a part of four receiver sets.
The Seahawks brought some insurance to go along with Rice, signing Vikings teammate and quarterback Tarvaris Jackson to provide some familiarity.
The addition of Robert Gallery at guard, alongside the equally formidable second-year man Russell Okung at tackle, gives the Seahawks a monstrous left side. If Marshawn Lynch can run the way he did against the Saints in the playoffs, Seattle will have the makings of a well-balanced offense this season.
Arizona Cardinals Make Big Move for Franchise Quarterback
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The Arizona Cardinals were not ready for life after Kurt Warner, and their performance during the 2010-2011 season is proof of that.
The team finished 5-11 and dead last in the NFC West after reaching the Super Bowl in 2009. The lack of a franchise quarterback was evident in the season-long carousel of Derek Anderson, Max Hall and John Skelton.
The Cardinals traded for Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb to fill their most glaring need from last season.
Though unproven, Kolb has been touted as a franchise quarterback by the Eagles since he was drafted in 2007. Arizona gave up cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the deal, but the team likely felt it was a necessary expenditure.
Kolb has just 12 starts, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions in his career but owes his inexperience to a lack of opportunities more than anything else.
The Cardinals to sign guard Daryn Colledge to plug one of the gaping holes left by the retirement of Alan Faneca and Deuce Lutui signing with the Bengals.
Arizona lost Steve Breaston to the Chiefs but hope to add another receiver to a team with perennial All-Pro in Larry Fitzgerald. The team brought some experience to their defense by signing Eagles linebacker Stewart Bradly and Steelers defensive end Nick Eason.
The offense was built to be explosive, and the Cardinals hope Kolb can play the role Warner did in the past.
St. Louis Rams Bolster Both Sides of the Ball
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The St. Louis Rams were in the first year of the Sam Bradford franchise revival and could have easily claimed the division crown if not for a season-ending loss to the Seahawks in week 17. The Rams have dedicated themselves to building around Bradford and running back Steven Jackson, which has been the focus this offseason.
St. Louis has all the makings of a rising young team, and Bradford's second year is already shaping up to be exponentially better.
Bradford made due with a collection of proverbial no-name receivers last season after losing his early go-to receiver Mark Clayton in Week 5. The Rams signed Jaguars receiver Mike Sims-Walker to a one-year deal to be their No. 1 target for the needy Bradford.
Walker has missed five games in the last two seasons, but caught 106 passes for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns in that span with David Garrard under center.
To help Jackson, the team signed Falcons guard Harvey Dahl and are reportedly in the process of wooing running back Jason Snelling to help lighten the load on the ground.
The defense saw the addition of Texans linebacker Zac Diles and Eagles safety Quintin Mikell. Diles brings youth and production to the linebacking corp, and Mikell fills the hole left after the team released O.J. Atogwe in February.
San Francisco 49ers Content to Sit on Their Hands
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The San Francisco 49ers welcome a new coach in John Harbaugh and usher in a new era for the franchise.
Most first-year head coaches would look to improve their team immediately, even if that means signing a collection of poor man's players instead of the big names to start. Still, the Niners seem to have different ideas for this offseason and don't appear all too smart.
The team re-signed quarterback and resident bust, Alex Smith, but failed to cash in on the Nnamdi Asomugha sweepstakes.
The 49ers are set to face a potentially nasty contract dispute with running back Frank Gore, who is in the final year of his deal and is prepared to hold out to get it.
The already shaky offensive line lose center Dave Baas to the Giants and the defense lost veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes to the Chargers. They released cornerback Nate Clements, but didn't line up a suitable replacement before making their run at Asomugha.
Though the offense has a collection of talented players in Gore, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, they need to upgrade everywhere else.
Harbaugh and Co. picked the wrong offseason to slow play the market, and it could lead to a year or more in the NFC West basement.
Predictions for the 2011-2012 Season Standings
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There is plenty of time between now, preseason and the regular season, but the moves each team has made should serve as a fair determiner for their direction heading into the 2011-2012 season.
1) Arizona hasn't changed much from the Super Bowl season but needed to recover from the loss of Kurt Warner. Kevin Kolb is billed as franchise quarterback material, but only time will tell.
The Cardinals should be the favorites to start the season with Larry Fitzgerald being one of the best receivers in the NFL and Kolb having great potential to succeed in Arizona.
Prediction: 9-7 (Division Champions)
2) St. Louis is definitely on the rise, but needs to improve on offense. The defense finished 12th in the NFL, but the offense lacked playmakers for quarterback Sam Bradford.
Adding Mike Sims-Walker should help that situation, and take the pressure off of both Bradford and Steven Jackson. It should allow the offense to be multi-dimensional where they were predictable last season.
3) Seattle has added some solid players on offense with Sidney Rice, Tarvaris Jackson, and Robert Gallery, but the quarterback situation is still uncertain.
The defense becomes the primary concern, and the Seahawks haven't made significant improvements over the unit that finished 25th in the league last season.
4) San Francisco is a bit of an enigma at this point. If they are just biding their time this offseason, waiting for the better deals to come along, their fate could change. Until then, they have all the makings of a team bound for the first overall pick in the 2012 draft.
It may take some time before the NFC West poses a threat to the other divisions as the NFL's best, but there is plenty of talent to make a serious run in the next few years. It won't be pretty in this season, but Arizona is the furthest remove from a wholesale rebuild and should take the division crown.