Welcome back everybody.
With another weekend of pretend football ahead of us, I bring you the next installment of our NFL Division Previews. Today we end our discussion of the National Football Conference with the NFC West.
The NFC West was the worst division in the league last year and will once again take that crown. Seattle is going in the wrong direction and the 49ers are once again spinning their wheels. The Cardinals made moves in the offseason but unless Kolb is ready to be a top five quarterback this year (not very likely), they don’t have enough else around him to be better than a .500 team.
That leaves us with the St. Louis Rams, the best team in the division because, well, someone has to win it. The Rams are a good young team, with a franchise quarterback and a defense with some good, young parts. If this team were in a better division, like say Tampa Bay in the NFC South, I would say that they were a year or two away from being good enough to get into the playoffs. But in the NFC West, they won’t have to wait.
While the teams themselves leave plenty to be desired, this is a division that features plenty of individual players who’ll be worth watching in 2011. Will Kevin Kolb be all that the Cardinals hope? Can Sam Bradford build on his impressive rookie season? Will young, high draft pick players on the defensive side like Chris Long and Aaron Curry have their breakout years? These will be some of the story lines that I’ll be interested in following this year in the NFC West.
One quick note before we get down to business. I’ve had a ton of fun bringing you these previews, they really are some of my favorite columns of the year to write. I say let’s keep the fun going, and because I’ve gotten such positive responses so far, I’m going to be writing a weekly NFL column this fall. It’s a work in progress, just an idea in its infancy, but so far I’m thinking I’ll post it on Thursdays and it’ll be a combination of a review of the week that was and a preview of the week’s games to come. I’ll break it up into sections, mostly informative but we’ll try to have some fun with it as well.
I also want to say that I appreciate all of your comments, and that the reason I haven’t been answering them is that I want I plan on including some sort of comment reply/mailbag type section in the regular season column, so I want to save any thoughts I have regarding your comments for that. So keep those comments coming, and if you have any questions, thoughts or ideas for the regular season column or these division previews, don’t hesitate to drop me a message and let me know.
In case you missed it, here is this week’s NFC South Preview
Alright, let’s dig into the NFC West.
Better or Worse in 2011: Better
The Arizona Cardinals made major moves this past offseason. Probably a good thing when you go 5-11 in a weak division.
The biggest move was the trade for Kevin Kolb, a guy they hope is going to fulfill his potential and become a premier passer. They also had a good draft, netting themselves LSU defensive back Patrick Peterson and Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams, two players who will get the opportunity to contribute right away.
This is a team with a lot of potential heading into the year. Kolb will improve the offense for sure, pretty much because there really isn’t anywhere to go but up for them. They couldn’t move the ball because they weren’t a threat to go downfield, Kolb should fix that. Don’t expect to see the results right away though, he needs to learn a new offense in a very short amount of time. The lockout hurt him big time, he would have been much better off if he was traded around draft time and had a few months to study up on the new playbook.
The defense won’t do him any favors. They were in the bottom third of the league last year, and while they did make improvements they just won’t be enough to catapult the Cardinals’ defense to the level it would need to be at to carry this team to double-digit wins.
Arizona will be better in 2011 then they were last year, with a lot of help from a weak schedule, but they’ll need to win the division to make the playoffs, which is going to be a tall order.
Important Acquisitions: Kevin Kolb, Chansi Stuckey, Todd Heap
Toughest Player Losses: Tim Hightower, Steve Breaston, Derek Anderson
Key Player: Beanie Wells
The “If” Factor: Two ifs, but two big ones, quarterback and running back
2010 Offensive Ranking: 31st Passing, 32nd Rushing
The Cardinals made a big splash this offseason by trading for what they hope is a future franchise quarterback in Kevin Kolb. Kolb showed moments of brilliance in his limited playing time with the Philadelphia Eagles, but now we’re going to see if he has the chops to be “the guy” in Arizona.
I like Kolb, I think he has a good arm and good feet, but I don’t know if I buy into him yet. You just don’t trade a franchise quarterback in the NFL, especially not one who’s only 26 years old. The fact that Philadelphia was willing to let him go has to make you wonder, right?
That being said, I don’t think that Kolb could have landed in a better spot than this. The Cardinals have a solid, young offensive line, one of the best receivers in all of football and a young running back to take the load off his shoulders from time to time.
That young running back, Beanie Wells from The Ohio State University, seemed to be primed for a breakout year in 2010. Instead, he took a step backward like the rest of this offense. In his rookie year Wells rushed for 793 yards, but last season only managed 397. 2011 is going to be the year where we see whether last season was a blip on the radar or if he was a one hit wonder in 2009.
The addition of Kevin Kolb will be a big help for Wells. Last year opposing defenses knew that the Cardinals weren’t going to beat them by throwing over the top, so they packed the box and didn’t allow Wells to have any room to run. This year those same defenses are going to be forced to defend more of the field, which should open up some of those running lanes for Beanie. I worry overall about the depth that Arizona has at this position, you need at least two good backs to win, and we just don’t know what to expect from rookie Ryan Williams.
The Cardinals’ offense is on the right track. Whether Kolb is the long term answer or not, he’s certainly an upgrade from the quarterbacks they had last year.
If Kolb is as good as advertised he’ll bring out the best in Larry Fitzgerald, open up the running game for Beanie Wells, and have the Cardinals back in contention for the NFC West title.
Important Acquisitions: Patrick Peterson (R), Richard Marshall, Stewart Bradley, Vonnie Holliday
Toughest Player Losses: Trumaine McBride, Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie,
Key Player: Joey Porter
The “If” Factor: Low
2010 Defensive Ranking: 23rd Passing, 30th Rushing
This Cardinals defense was among the worst in the league last year. They couldn’t get any pressure on the quarterback and they couldn’t stop anyone from running on them. I wish I could find some insightful reason why 2011 will be any different, but I just can’t. They bring back pretty much the same roster as they had last year, the same group that allowed opposing offenses to march down the field on them.
The only positive improvement will come from the addition of LSU defensive back Patrick Peterson. The 5th overall pick in the draft, Peterson is considered to be the most NFL-ready player taken. He has a superior skill set, and should settle into a starting role right from the start.
The problem is that defensive backs can only be effective when they have help from the pass rushers in front of them. All of the best cover guys in the league, guys like Revis and Asumogha, are only able to do what they do because they play on teams that get after the quarterback. It doesn’t matter how good you are, no one can be a shutdown cover corner if they are being asked to stay with their man for long periods of time.
And, despite their poor yardage rankings last year, the Cardinals were solidly mediocre at sacking the quarterback last year. They had 33 sacks as a team in 2010, good enough to be tied for 14th in the league. Most of those sacks were spread across the board for this defense, but the one guy who has the potential to pad that sack number is Joey Porter. Porter has shown the ability to be an elite pass rusher in the pass, whether or not those days are past him we will see.
If Porter can regain his double-digit sack form, and Patrick Peterson is the upgrade in the defensive backfield that he should be, this defense will be a better unit than they were in 2010, which will keep them in enough games for Kolb and the offense to have a chance at a double digit win total.
Better or Worse in 2011: Worse
This 49ers team is the prime example of the golden rule of NFL football, you can’t win without a good quarterback. They have a good offensive line, good receivers, a top flight running back and a capable defense. If you transplanted a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning to this team they would be a Super Bowl contender.
Which leaves me wondering, why didn’t they do more to try to upgrade their quarterback this offseason? They can’t think that Alex Smith is all of a sudden going to be an All Pro, second-round draft pick Colin Kaepernick is a year or two away at best from being a reliable starter, and please let’s not even get into how ridiculous the whole Dante Culpepper coming off the couch thing is. There were plenty of options available, like Donovan McNabb or Matt Hasselback, that would have given the team a better chance to win games this year. So why didn’t they make a move?
Most likely because they already have enough on their plate with integrating a new head coach in a shortened training camp. They figured the least amount of new parts the better. But it’s a tempting conspiracy theory to think that Harbaugh is just buying his time, and losing enough games this year, to get himself his old college quarterback Andrew Luck. I’m a sucker for a good conspiracy theory, but it would be a bad idea for a head coach in the first year of his NFL life to risk that much of his already small job security.
San Francisco is like a band with great guitar players and a good drummer but without the front man to make it all come together. They have playmakers on offense, but they won’t live up to their potential with Alex Smith under center. The defense will be good enough to keep them in a few games, but the offense just won’t be able to put up enough points for this team to end up with many wins.
New coaching staff, shortened training camp, same old quarterback adds up to a team that will struggle in 2011.
Important Acquisitions: Braylon Edwards, Jonathan Goodwin
Toughest Player Losses: None
Key Player: Vernon Davis
The “If” Factor: Low, not much else matters when you know neither quarterback can get the job done
2010 Offensive Ranking: 18th Passing, 19th Rushing
Remember the days when the San Francisco 49ers were synonymous with top level quarterbacks? Me too, but those days are getting farther and farther in the rear view mirror.
After two decades of Montana, then Young, then the underrated play of Jeff Garcia, the 49ers have spent the last few years struggling to find a quality starter. Alex Smith certainly isn’t the right answer, he’s just the best option available heading into the 2011 season.
It’s really too bad, the rest of the pieces are there. I like the signing of ex-Jet Braylon Edwards, a talented but troubled receiver, to compliment Michael Crabtree. Along with one of the better pass catching tight ends in the game, Vernon Davis, this would be a highly productive unit on most teams. But not here, they can’t throw the ball to themselves.
While I like the Edwards pickup, I love the free-agent acquisition of center Jonathan Goodwin. Goodwin was the starter in New Orleans for the past three years and was a pro bowler during the 2009 Super Bowl season. Centers are important to an offense because they’re the ones setting up the blocking assignments at the line of scrimmage. If there’s one chance that Alex Smith is better than we think, the key to unlocking it could be an upgrade in the pass protection department.
But that’s highly unlikely, we’ve had a large enough sample size of Smith’s play to know that he just doesn’t have what it takes to be a top flight NFL quarterback.
2011 will be a rough year for the 49ers offense, and until they can get their hands on a new conductor for this orchestra they’ll struggle to score points.
Important Acquisitions: Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, Madieu Williams, Aldon Smith (R)
Toughest Player Losses: Manny Lawson, Aubrayo Franklin, Takeo Spikes, Nate Clements
Key Player: Aldon Smith
The “If” Factor: High, there are plenty of knew and known parts on this squad
2010 Defensive Ranking: 24th Passing, Sixth Rushing
Much like this franchise as a whole, the 49ers defense saw a lot of turnover from last year. Usually when you’re a 6-10 team turnover is good, but San Francisco comes into 2011 with a defense that is at the same talent level as they were last year, if even that.
They let Manny Lawson go, his replacement will be the seventh overall pick in this year’s draft, Aldon Smith. Smith has outstanding physical talents, but he’ll be yet another college defensive end who’s going to be asked to transition to an outside linebacker in a 3-4 system. The jury is still out on this strategy, some have been successes (DeMarcus Ware) and some have been horrible failures (Vernon Gholston). Which end of the spectrum Smith will end up on we will see at some point, but this year don’t expect too much from him.
The 49ers also lost their nose tackle, Aubrayo Franklin, and their best defensive back, Nate Clements. Both moves were the right ones to make, those players weren’t going to be worth the cap hit that came along with them, but for this year it’s the talent on the field that’s taken the hit.
The one thing this defense has going for it is they have one of the best linebackers in the league, middle linebacker Patrick Willis. Willis is a tackling machine, and his ability to clog the run between the tackles will be the one upside for San Fran fans this year.
2010: 7-9, NFC West Champion
Better or Worse in 2011: Worse
It’s going to be a long year in Seattle. They have needs at the two most important positions in the franchise, one on the field and one off of it. The hole in the on the field roster is at quarterback, but maybe more limiting to this team’s potential is their head coach, Pete Carroll.
Why Pete Carroll will never lead a team to a Super Bowl? Because he values his life outside of football, and that just doesn’t allow for you to be a successful NFL head coach. For better or for worse, I’m not making any value judgments here, the coaches who are successful at the highest levels of football put their professional lives far ahead of their personal lives. Guys like Bill Belichick and Andy Reid have seen sacrificed their lives off the field to have success on it. Coaches are constantly being asked to spend ridiculous hours at the office, tales of them sleeping on coaches for nights at time are legendary.
But Carroll has always been different, he’s always maintained that he won’t commit his entire life to football, and that’s why he’s never had great success at the NFL level. In college, his energy and ability to motivate players was enough to win, especially because it made him an outstanding recruiter. But in the pros you need a coach with a singular focus on football strategy.
Carroll can be a good fit for this team because they’re young and don’t have the talent to go deep in the playoffs anyway. He can get the most out of players who need to be motivated, but he’ll never be a top tier coach in the NFL.
Important Acquisitions: Zach Miller, Sidney Rice, Tarvaris Jackson, Robert Gallery
Toughest Player Losses: Chris Spencer, Matt Hasselbeck
Key Player: Russell Okung, yeah I went offensive line on you here
The “If” Factor: Five ifs, as in the entire starting offensive line
2010 Offensive Ranking: 19th Passing, 31st Rushing
I’m starting to feel bad for Tarvaris Jackson. I mean, he went from a bad situation on the Vikings to a worse one with his move to Seattle this offseason.
He was doomed to fail in Minnesota because he was asked to do too much too soon. That team was built to win right away when he was there, and what he needed was a team, and a fan base, that was going to be patient while he developed. And now that he’s at the point in this career when he’s ready to play his best, he ends up on a team with two rookies on his starting offensive line.
In addition to those rookies the Seahawks have a first year starter at center, and a new addition to the team in ex-Raider Robert Gallery. Gallery is good, but transitioning to a new team and a new offensive system can take time, so whether or not he can be a dominant force falls squarely into if factor territory. The one player among the group tasked with giving Jackson time to throw who should have been a bright spot is second-year left tackle Russell Okung. Okung is coming off a rookie season that saw him show immense talent but where he was slowed by injury. He’s nothing if not consistent, starting 2011 off with an injury to his left ankle during the team’s first exhibition game.
Okung, and the rest of the offensive line, will be the key to this offense. If they can open holes for the running game, and most importantly keep Jackson upright, they have enough weapons in the passing game to put a few points on the board. Mike Williams and Brandon Tate are good young receivers, and they stole Zach Miller right from under the noses of the Oakland Raiders.
The Seahawks have a few of the pieces in place to be a good offense, but don’t have a quarterback or an offensive line to take advantage of those playmakers at the skill positions. 2011 is going to be a frustrating year for the Pacific Northwestern Offensive Appreciation Club.
Important Acquisitions: Alan Branch
Toughest Player Losses: Jordan Babineaux, Will Herring
Key Player: Aaron Curry
The “If” Factor: Low
2010 Defensive Ranking: 27th Passing, 21st Rushing
The Seattle defense comes back pretty much intact from 2010, so the best predictor of its future success is to look at how it performed last year. Unfortunately, that performance wasn’t terribly good. The Seahawks were decent against the run, but struggled to stop other teams from gaining yards in the passing game.
While they didn’t bring in any significant upgrades, they should benefit from some of their younger players being a year older, better, and hopefully wiser. Aaron Curry, a Top 5 draft pick from two years ago, has shown improvement in his play each of his first couple of years in the league. If Curry continues on this development curve, 2011 will be his breakout year. He has all the tools to get the job done and if he can start getting to the passer with more frequency he can join the ranks of the elite outside linebackers in the league.
Curry will get help from a defensive line in front of him that includes Brandon Mebane and Chris Clemons. This group is decidedly solid, they won’t win you any games but they certainly aren’t going to be a liability either. Depth among the group could be a problem as the season goes along. If any of the starting four go down. you're looking at over-the-hill vets like Raheem Brock or underperformers like Kentwan Balmer being asked to pick up the slack.
There’s not a lot of room for error on this defense, even a couple of key injuries could really send them spiraling towards the bottom of the league defensive rankings.
St. Louis Rams
Better or Worse in 2011: Better
The St. Louis Rams were one of the more feel good stories of the 2010 season. After having the worst record in the league in 2009, they bounced right back with a record just one game below .500 and were playing in a winner-goes-to-the-playoffs game in the last week of the year.
They lost that game to the Seahawks, proving that despite all the steps they took forward, they have plenty more to make.
I know you’re probably sick of me, and everyone else saying it but it just can’t be said enough that the NFL is a quarterback’s league. You win when you have a good quarterback and you lose when you don’t. It’s that simple.
Okay, maybe it’s not quite that simple, you can hide a bad quarterback and get a few wins, maybe even sneak into the playoffs (like that pesky Seattle team from last year), but you can’t be a consistently good team if you don’t have a consistently good quarterback. Which is why, especially with the old rookie wage rules, that St. Louis had to hit a home run when they had the first overall pick in the draft a year ago.
They had to hit a home run because they had to use the pick on a quarterback. When your team is that bad the only thing that is going to make them good, not just better but actually good, is to get a true franchise quarterback, and you’re never going to have a better opportunity to do just that than when you get the No. 1 overall pick. The bust level is high for these picks, so they had to get it right. Good for them Sam Bradford was waiting to be selected.
Bradford proved to be all that the Rams could have asked for and then some. He changed the whole dynamic of the team, and now has the Rams on the short list of teams that have a player under center who will give them a chance to win for many, many years to come.
2011 will be another step forward for Bradford and the rest of the Rams. In a tougher division the climb to the top would be harder, but considering how little it will take to win the NFC West this year, something like eight or nine wins, St. Louis has what it takes to get there.
Important Acquisitions: The Cadillac Williams, Mike Sims-Walker, Jerious Norwood, Harvey Dahl
Toughest Player Losses: Laurent Robinson
Key Player: Stephen Jackson
The “If” Factor: Very High
2010 Offensive Ranking: 21st Passing, 25th Rushing
After years of relying solely on running back Stephen Jackson to carry the load offensively, 2010 saw the Rams debut a rookie quarterback and a newfound passing game. Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft, had one of the best seasons we’ve seen from a first year passer in a long time. He finished with 3,512 yards, 18 touchdowns, and most importantly only 15 interceptions.
The Rams added some skill position players in the offseason like Cadillac Williams, wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker and Jerious Norwood to help Bradford continue his progression into the ranks of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL. None of those pickups were game changing in and of themselves, but good offenses are deep, and this team was shallow at both receiver and running back.
They were especially in need of adding depth in the backfield. For years they have worn down their workhouse back, Stephen Jackson. Jackson was one of the more productive backs in the league, but runners in the NFL can only take so much pounding, and if they’re going to get anything from him in the future they’re going to need to provide some relief for him. Both Williams and Norwood are coming off injury, but if neither of them can be the change-of-pace guy that St. Louis has been trying to find, Bradford is going to have a hard time carrying the team to wins all by himself.
The offensive line, which was a weak point at times last year, will see an improvement with the addition of veteran guard Harvey Dahl. Dahl and the offensive line should give the playmakers on offense a chance to make plays. If Bradford avoids a sophomore slump, and one of the new running backs can prove to be a capable backup (my money is on The Cadillac Williams) the Rams offense will take a step forward in 2011.
Important Acquisitions: Al Harris, Ben Leber, Zac Diles, Quintin Mikell, Daniel Muir, Robert Quinn (R)
Toughest Player Losses: None
Key Player: James Laurinaitis
The “If” Factor: Even higher than the offense
2010 Defensive Ranking: 19th Passing, 17th Rushing
This Rams defense is quietly amassing the talent to become one of the best units in the league for the foreseeable future. They have two good ends, assuming Robert Quinn is as good as advertised, upgraded their outside linebackers, have one of the best young middle linebackers in the game and added a playmaker in the defensive backfield.
That playmaker is ex-Philadelphia Eagle Quintin Mikell, who brings a toughness and a winning pedigree to a team that has been in need of both for quite a while now. Another player who ups the toughness quotient for the Rams D is third-year player James Laurinaitis, who has notched triple-digit tackles in each of his first two years in the league. Now that he has better players around him Laurinaitis has a chance in his third year to take a step up in his career and be a big-time player.
The defense should put ample pressure on opposing quarterbacks with Chris Long and Robert Quinn at the defensive end positions. Long has steadily improved during his first three years in the league, increasing his sack total each year. 2010 saw him tally 8.5 QB takedowns, and if he continues his progression, 2011 should see double-digit sack numbers from this previous Top 5 draft choice.
Quinn was this year’s first round draft choice and was a sack machine at the University of North Carolina, when he was on the field that is. Good thing in the pros no one cares that you’re getting paid to play, so he should be all right.
The defensive line will pressure the quarterback, the linebackers are going to be the ones stuffing the run and the upgrades in the defensive backfield will help slow down opposing passing attacks.
The Rams are a young team on the rise, and this defense is like a sauce that’s been simmering on the stove for hours, and it's finally ready to unleash all it has to offer.