Sam Bradford leads the St. Louis Rams
The four teams in the NFC West, the Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are very evenly matched. All of the teams have certain strengths and weaknesses, which will make this an incredibly close race for the division title.
The NFC West was maligned in 2010 for being the weakest division in football and this season, there again, is no dominant team. This parity means that any of the four teams has a legitimate shot at winning the division title.
The 2011 season should be a fun and tight race in the NFC West with every win a crucial step to the goal of making the playoffs. Let's take a closer look at the division and the projected finishes of the four teams.
Tarvaris Jackson arrives from Minnesota to lead the Seahawks
Head coach Pete Carroll escaped the penalties the NCAA handed down to USC under his watch and moved to the NFL for the 2010 season. While current USC players, fans and alumni must endure the sanctions, Carroll is off on his latest coaching adventure.
Truth be told, Carroll did a good job with the Seahawks in 2010. Half of the players from the previous year were jettisoned and Carroll brought in a fresh batch of talent and molded them in his vision. The Seahawks won the division with a 7-9 record, and upset the Saints in the first round of the playoffs.
The Seahawks brought in some top flight new talent in the offseason. Veteran TE Zach Miller and G Robert Gallery migrate up the coast from Oakland. Wide Receiver Sidney Rice gives the Seahawks a veteran presence, but he has been nursing a sore shoulder and may not be available to start the season.
In addition to Rice's injury, Gallery injured his knee in the final exhibition game against the Raiders. Their availability and effectiveness is uncertain for the Seahawks' first regular season game at San Francisco.
The biggest offseason acquisition for the Seahawks was former Viking quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. There was spirited competition for the starting quarterback job between Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst. Jackson is the starter but was actually outplayed by Whitehurst.
Jackson will undoubtedly be looking over his shoulder and unless Seattle gets off to a very good start, there is likely to be a quarterback controversy. Uncertainty and a bevy of injuries already this season threatens to undermine the Seahawks.
The Seahawks are well stocked at running back with former Cal stars Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett handling the bulk of the duties. Leon Washington will get a few opportunities and is also a dangerous kick return man.
The wide receivers are not a terribly exciting group and with Sidney Rice banged up, it's an adequate group at best. Mike Williams, Golden Tate and Ben Obomanu will be counted on to make plays on the outside.
The Seattle offensive line is a question mark and it could take them awhile before they show solid continuity. Only one starter on the Seahawks' line, left tackle Russell Okung, will be starting in the same position as in 2010.
The Seahawks plan to start two rookies, John Moffitt and James Carpenter, on the right side of their line. This is risky and there will surely be growing pains.
Center Max Unger moves over from a guard spot and returns to the position he played in 2009. Unger missed all but one game last year due to injury. To further complicate matters, if Gallery isn't healthy, it could be a tough early season for Jackson.
Defensively, the 2010 Seahawks ranked 27th in yards allowed and 25th in points allowed. They added defensive tackle Alan Branch, but not much else.
In addition, the Seahawks chose not to re-sign linebacker and fan favorite Lofa Tatupu to a long term deal. Tatupu, who was a team leader, has moved on. The Seahawks will undoubtedly miss his leadership.
In summary, the defense is still below average and with question marks at quarterback and the offensive line, the Seahawks will not win the NFC West this year. Good fortune also plays a role, but the injury bug has already bitten the Seahawks before the season has even begun.
Projection: 6-10, fourth place in the NFC West.
Kevin Kolb moves to Arizona from Philadelphia
The Arizona Cardinals have arguably the best wide receiver in the game today in Larry Fitzgerald. However, they had nobody who could consistently throw him the football in 2010.
The Cardinals, desperate to upgrade the quarterback position, acquired Kevin Kolb from the Eagles, but the cost was very dear. Kolb is the unquestioned starter in Arizona, but the Cardinals had to give up top cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2012 second-round pick.
The Cardinals also acquired tight end Todd Heap, a very strong blocker and fine receiver. Heap will be counted on to divert some of the focus away from Fitzgerald.
The Cardinals no longer have the outstanding depth of talent at the other receiver position, as Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston are long gone. Andre Roberts and Early Doucet are the second and third receivers, but are largely unproven.
Defenses will routinely double and sometimes triple team Fitzgerald, so the production of Heap, Roberts and Doucet will be crucial for the Cardinal offense.
Beanie Wells is an exciting runner and rushed for 793 yards and a 4.5 yards per carry average in 2010. He should be able to increase his production and I look for him to rush for 1,000 yards in 2011, if he stays healthy.
Depth in the backfield is a definite question mark. Larod Stephens-Howling backs up Wells, but has only 29 carries in his first two years in the NFL.
Defensively the Cardinals gave up more points last year than only Dallas and Denver. Their average of over 27 points allowed was terrible. In addition, they were ranked 29th in yards allowed.
The loss of Rodgers-Cromartie will hurt, but the improved Arizona offense will alleviate some of the pressure on the defense.
Head coach Ken Whisenhunt likes to employ a high pressure, big play type of defense. The problem was the Cardinals were also susceptible to giving up the big play.
Arizona selected cornerback Patrick Peterson with their first round pick in the 2011 draft. Although he may not begin the season as a starter, he will see action in nickel and dime situations. Peterson should also be a factor in the return game for the Cardinals.
The Arizona defense will be better in 2011, but a lot of that improvement will be because the offense will have the ball more. There are question marks on both sides of the ball and while Arizona has some great players, they just don't have enough of them.
Projection: 7-9, tied for second place in the NFC West.
If Alex Smith plays well, the 49ers could surprise
The San Francisco 49ers finished the 2010 season a disappointing 6-10, which cost Mike Singletary his job. In comes the offensive minded Jim Harbaugh, who also brought Vic Fangio aboard as the defensive coordinator.
The new regime is significant because the 49ers will no longer be a one dimensional and predictable offensive team.
In addition, Fangio will employ a pressure oriented, attacking defense. This style will fit the 49ers' personnel much better than the read and react style of former coordinator Greg Manusky.
The playoff hopes for the 49ers' are based on two key factors. First is the offensive line play and the second is the productivity of Alex Smith.
The 49ers' offensive line was like a sieve in 2010 and no matter who was at quarterback, they were often running for their lives. The line was better at run blocking, but extremely poor in pass protection.
Last year's rookies, Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati should be better, after one year of seasoning. Davis especially needs to improve as he was the weakest link along the line.
Left tackle Joe Staley has battled injuries for the past two years and the 49ers need him to stay healthy and be effective. Right guard Chilo Rachal also played poorly in 2010 and will need to step it up, or risk losing his job to super utility lineman Adam Snyder.
The 49ers also acquired former Pro Bowl center Jonathan Goodwin from the Saints. If he and the rest of the line can jell and protect Smith, the 49ers could be a surprise team in 2011.
Jim Harbaugh is a noted "quarterback whisperer" and he is focused on the growth and improvement of Smith and also rookie Colin Kaepernick. If given time, Smith can be a decent NFL quarterback. It would be unrealistic to expect Smith to be great, but he can at least be productive and a better game manager.
Smith must avoid the critical mistakes and turnovers that have plagued him for the first six years of his NFL career. Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman are working with Smith and are hopeful that he will not wilt under pressure, as so often occurred in the past.
The 49ers will also need Smith to stay healthy, as rookie Colin Kaepernick is far from ready to be the starter. Kaepernick, who has a world of athletic talent, struggled this preseason. He often threw into double and triple coverage and the result was five interceptions with no touchdowns.
Offensively, Harbaugh is installing the more diverse west coast offense. This should keep opponents more off balance and also utilize the 49ers' talent much more effectively.
I see the potential for Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker and newly acquired free agent Braylon Edwards to have good years.
Harbaugh will also get contributions from running backs Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon, as they will take some of the load off of Gore. Hunter was very impressive in the preseason. He is explosive and will be an outstanding situational back and big play threat in Harbaugh's system.
Defensively, the 49ers were solid against the run, but very suspect against the pass last year. With Justin Smith and Patrick Willis anchoring the front seven, I expect the 49ers to be strong against the run again in 2011.
Navorro Bowman replaces Takeo Spikes at the other inside linebacker spot, next to Willis. Bowman has been impressive in the preseason with his athleticism and play making ability.
Under Fangio, the 49ers will attempt to put a lot more pressure on the quarterback. First round draft pick Aldon Smith was selected for this primary purpose. Fangio will also employ more blitz packages and we will see pressure coming from many different angles and players this year.
The defensive secondary has been upgraded. Former Redskin, Carlos Rogers, who was signed as a free agent, will start at one corner.
Veteran Shawntae Spencer did not play in any preseason games due to injury and will likely miss the start of the regular season. Tarell Brown or Tremaine Brock will fill in for him and surely be tested.
Free agent acquisition Donte Whitner is a big upgrade at one safety position. His steady, veteran leadership should also help Dashon Goldson emerge into more of a big play man at the other safety spot.
In addition, if the 49ers are successful with their more attacking style of defense, it will help the secondary, as they won't be required to cover the receivers for as long.
The 49ers have a lot of question marks and the lockout really hurt them. Harbaugh and Fangio have not been able implement their full systems, so this team will be a work in progress.
The 49ers' defense should keep them in most games, so expect a lot of tight finishes for this team. They could easily be 5-11 or potentially go 9-7 and win the division.
Projection: 7-9, tied for second place in the NFC West.
Running back Steven Jackson returns for his 8th season
The St. Louis Rams are my pick to win the NFC West. They have, on paper, the best talent in the division and fewer question marks on their roster.
The Rams are a team on the upside and are well coached with Steve Spagnuolo. St. Louis finished last year with a record of 7-9 and are poised to take the next positive step in their growth.
If quarterback is the most important position on a football team, then the Rams have an advantage because they have the best quarterback. Sam Bradford, who was the 2010 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, returns for his second campaign.
Bradford completed 354 passes out of 590 attempts, a 60 percent completion rate. He threw for 3,512 yards, 18 touchdowns and had 15 interceptions. Bradford should continue to improve and also has a strong running game to ease the burden on him.
Steven Jackson returns for his eighth season with the Rams. Showing incredible consistency and durability, Jackson rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of the past six years. I see no signs of him slowing down, so expect him to do the same in 2011. He will be backed up by the very capable Cadillac Williams.
The Rams have a good offensive line and quality receivers in Mike Sims-Walker, Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson. The biggest test will be how smoothly Bradford and his mates implement new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' system.
The Rams' biggest advantage in 2010, over the rest of the teams in the NFC West, was their defense. St. Louis had the best defense in terms of points allowed in the division, ranking 12th overall in the league.
The Rams' defense is led by defensive end Chris Long and linebacker James Laurinaitis. The front four is very strong with Long, Fred Robbins, James Hall and newly acquired Justin Bannan. This group puts a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, without the need for a blitz.
In addition to Bannan, linebacker Ben Leber and safety Quintin Mikell join an already stout defense.
The Rams have a very tough schedule and the first two months of the season will be a huge test. They will face 2010 playoff teams Philadelphia, Baltimore, Green Bay and New Orleans over that period. In addition, tough road games at the New York Giants and Dallas threaten to derail this team.
I do feel the Rams will win five of their six division games and they should be able to find four more victories on their schedule. That should be enough to give them the NFC West title.
Projection: 9-7, first place in the NFC West.
Jim Harbaugh is biggest new addition in the NFC West
2011 will be a fun year to follow the NFC West. Do not expect the precision of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or the physical dominance of the Steelers or Eagles, but the games should be close, hard fought contests.
Although I give a slight edge to the Rams, realistically, any of the four teams could legitimately win a very evenly matched division. Injuries and good fortune will play a big role. A couple of injuries to top players can derail any of these four teams.
One of the most interesting things to watch for include the Week 1 match up between the Seahawks and 49ers, in San Francisco.
Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh had a very adversarial relationship when Carroll was at USC and Harbaugh at Stanford. It will be fun to see if any of that animosity flares up.
Perhaps the biggest overall questions revolve around the quarterback position. Will Alex Smith, Tarvaris Jackson or Kevin Kolb fulfill the promise that they have shown glimpses of in the past?
How quickly will Sam Bradford assimilate Josh McDaniels' new offensive system, and can the Rams avoid a terrible start against a brutal schedule in the first two months?
The bottom line is that although you may not see the best football every Sunday, this will be a very competitive and entertaining year in the NFC West.