Re-Assessing the NFC West After a Wild Week of NFL Movement
The post-lockout NFL offseason has been like a six-year-old's birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.
Going in, you knew it was going to be wild and crazy and impossible to slow down. So you mentally prepared yourself for it. You had your game face on. Then it started, and it was still wilder and crazier and louder than you imagined, leaving your head spinning while trying to keep up with everything.
Usual big-market suspects like the Patriots and Eagles have dominated the headlines so far by adding a few superstars here and there, but no division has experienced a bigger facelift than the NFC West.
The Cardinals and Seahawks have new starting quarterbacks. The Rams upgraded their defense and gave franchise QB Sam Bradford some new weapons. The 49ers took swings at some of the biggest available names on the market, and while they missed making a major splash, are still actively looking for that one big move.
The division that was the joke of the NFL last season is again shaping up to be one of the most competitive next season, only this time at least a couple of its teams have 10-win potential. In fact, the NFC West standings could be completely turned around—defending division champ Seattle finishing in last place, and 2010 doormat Arizona winning the 2011 division title—and it wouldn't be a big surprise.
After an opening round of player movement that resembled Hagler vs. Hearns, how does the NFC West look today?
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What they're talking about: Traded for QB Kevin Kolb; traded CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie; signed TE Todd Heap; traded for DE Vonnie Holliday; traded RB Tim Hightower; released QB Derek Anderson; lost WR Steve Breaston.
What they aren't talking about: Signed CB Richard Marshall; signed OG Daryn Colledge; signed OG Floyd Womack; signed TE Jeff King; re-signed OG Deuce Lutui; re-signed C Lyle Sendlein; signed LB Stewart Bradley; re-signed LB Joey Porter.
Analysis: The Cardinals had a good week. Not only were they finally able to get the quarterback they wanted all along—the guy Larry Fitzgerald wanted, too—but also they quickly filled the hole left in the secondary by Rodgers-Cromartie's departure. Marshall started for Carolina each of the past two seasons and will line up across from rookie Patrick Peterson to give Arizona a pair of physical and athletic corners.
One main reason why I've said Kolb isn't the answer in Arizona is that the team's inexperienced offensive line won't be able to protect him. But the Cardinals have since been busy shoring up the wall in front of Kolb, signing Colledge (starter for Green Bay), Womack (starter for Cleveland) and blocking tight end Jeff King (starter for Carolina), as well as re-signing starting center Sendlein and starting guard Lutui, two of the team's better incumbent O-linemen.
Trading away last season's leading rusher (Hightower) for a 35-year-old backup defensive lineman and a conditional late-round looks like a bad move on paper, but the Cardinals already have a promising pair of young running backs in Beanie Wells and rookie Ryan Williams.
And as I'm posting this column, Arizona is reportedly close to a deal with free-agent WR Braylon Edwards. If that signing happens, Edwards and Fitzgerald will be the most dangerous wide receiver tandem in the division.
Updated 2011 prediction: NFC West champions.
St. Louis Rams
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What they're talking about: Signed SS Quintin Mikell; signed WR Mike Sims-Walker; re-signed WR/KR Danny Amendola.
What they aren't talking about: Signed LB Zac Diles; signed DT Justin Bannan; signed DT Daniel Muir; signed OG Harvey Dahl.
Analysis: Even if the only St. Louis game you watched in 2010 was the winner-take-all regular season finale loss to Seattle, you saw enough to know that the Rams desperately needed playmakers to surround Sam Bradford and Steven Jackson.
That's where Sims-Walker enters the picture. He caught 14 touchdowns over the past two seasons with the Jaguars, good enough to put him among the league's top 20 wide receivers.
The Rams also needed to patch up its defense, including the void left when star safety O.J. Atogwe signed with the Redskins. Quintin Mikell played for St. Louis head coach Steve Spagnuolo when he was an assistant coach in Philadelphia, so the veteran strong safety is already familiar with the defense.
Updated 2011 prediction: third place, NFC West
San Francisco 49ers
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What they're talking about: Re-signed QB Alex Smith; released CB Nate Clements; lost LB Takeo Spikes.
What they aren't talking about: Released C Eric Heitmann; lost OG David Baas; signed LB Antwan Applewhite; signed K David Akers.
Analysis: The biggest story in San Francisco last week wasn't a personnel move, but rather a personal move—that being star RB Frank Gore's decision to hold out of training camp. Disaster appears to have been averted with the news that Gore is returning to the field on Monday, but the Niners won't be totally out of the woods until Gore is satisfied with his contract.
Meanwhile, San Fran was reportedly among the losers in both the Nnamdi Asomugha and Johnathan Joseph sweepstakes and are still looking for help at wide receiver as big names like Vincent Jackson and Santonio Holmes disappear from the board. The search for offensive playmakers becomes even more prevalent after the team learned WR Michael Crabtree will miss at least the next four to six weeks with a foot injury.
Former No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith may only be a seat-warmer until brand-new franchise/project QB Colin Kaepernick is ready to play, but Smith finished last season strong—throwing for 276 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in a blowout win over Arizona—and new head coach Jim Harbaugh already likes him. But so far, Smith is working behind an offensive line that has lost two starters in Baas and Heitmann.
Nobody is going to make a big deal out of a new kicker unless it's Adam Vinatieri, but don't sleep on the Niners signing David Akers. The five-time Pro Bowler can help an offense that finished 29th in the NFL in third-down conversion and 24th in the league in scoring last season.
Updated 2011 prediction: fourth place, NFC West
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What they're talking about: Signed QB Tarvaris Jackson; signed WR Sidney Rice; signed OG Robert Gallery; re-signed DT Brandon Mebane; released LB Lofa Tatupu; lost QB Matt Hasselbeck.
What they aren't talking about: Re-signed LB Leroy Hill; signed DT Alan Branch; re-signed DT Junior Siavii; lost C Chris Spencer.
Analysis: Maybe you're not a fan of Jackson—and a lot of people aren't—but his mobility and athleticism brings an element to Seattle's offense that the team didn't have during the Hasselbeck era. It also helps that Jackson has spent his entire pro career being coached by Seahawks first-year offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.
Rice is a deep threat who will complement possession WR Mike Williams and forms the third part of the imported Minnesota family with Jackson and Bevell.
The Seahawks had to bolster both lines. Gallery brings experience and borderline Pro Bowl talent to the offensive line (Seattle also used its first and third-round draft picks on O-linemen), while Branch adds size and depth to the defensive line. Re-signing Mebane was also crucial. Not only is Mebane the team's best D-lineman, the Seahawks were able to keep him away from the division rival Rams, who wanted to sign him.
Tatupu was the heart and soul of Seattle's defense at middle linebacker. David Hawthorne—a natural MLB who has been starting at outside linebacker—is ready for the job physically, but only time will tell if he (or somebody else) can fill the leadership void. Hill will compete with rookie K.J. Wright to take Hawthorne's place at OLB. Hill is a veteran who was Seattle's starter from 2006-2011, but now he's just trying to salvage his career after some off-the-field problems.
The Seahawks may not have gotten worse on paper, but Hasselbeck and Tatupu were longtime leaders and the faces of the franchise on offense and defense, respectively. Their value can't be quantified until we see what kind of chemistry the Seahawks build during training camp.
Updated 2011 prediction: second place, NFC West