NFL Predictions 2011: Is the NFC West No Longer the Worst Division in Football?
The NFC West has been one of the NFL's weakest divisions since 2006. The entire division has gone 66-133 against the rest of the league in regular season play over that time. The best record any team had in one season was 6-4, done one time each by the Seattle Seahawks, Saint Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals.
Yet two teams from the division have represented the NFC in the Super Bowl since 2005. With the rapid improvements made by rebuilding teams, it is feasible to see this division have more Super Bowl appearances in the near future.
While there isn't much to be proud about a 2010 season that saw a pair of 7-9 teams battle in the final regular season game for the division crown, the winner of the NFC West did go on to oust the defending champion New Orleans Saints in the playoffs.
The future of the NFC West appears bright, but the present has a bunch of teams capable of going all the way. There is a lot of talent to behold, even if it is in a division that hasn't gotten much appreciation in recent years.
Here is how the season could go for the NFC West :
1. Saint Louis Rams
Rebuilding a team takes time and the Rams showed this in 2010. With the NFC West title in their grasp, Saint Louis lost the last game on their schedule to Seattle. Though the Rams shared first place with the Seahawks, they lost the opportunity to reach the playoffs.
Keeping the mission to upgrade a team that has struggled the past few seasons, Saint Louis became active in the free agent market. They picked up two veteran running backs, with good pass receiving skills, to back up star Steven Jackson.
The offense then upgraded their offensive line by signing a nasty and tough guard, while adding to a passing attack that ranked 26th last year by grabbing a talented free agent wide receiver in Mike Sims-Walker. Saint Louis also drafted two more wide receivers in hopes of scoring more points.
Defense was the star of the 2010 season for the Rams, yet they still made major changes. Both safeties and outside linebackers will have newly acquired players, as will the right side of their defensive line.
They added savvy veterans like Al Harris and Pro Bowler Quintin Mikell to the secondary. The free agent signing of Mikell was important because five-year starter O.J. Atogwe left the squad after becoming a free agent.
Saint Louis is banking their defense will be better in 2011 after signing five free agents and using their first draft pick on a athletic defensive end some think will be a star one day. With the expected improvements on offense, it could be enough to get a young team on top of their division at season's end.
2. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals were not happy playing four quarterbacks last year, so they gave up a Pro Bowl cornerback years away from his prime to get Kevin Kolb. Kolb spent the better part of four seasons sitting and learning, so he should be ready to go and prove he has what it takes to be a starting quarterback.
Running back is an issue for the Cardinals. They will be forced to rely on oft-injured Beanie Wells after 2011 second-round pick Ryan Williams was lost for the year to injury. But the Cards have Larry Fitzgerald at wide receiver, one of the better players in the league.
He was just signed to a eight-year, $120 million contract a year after grabbing 90 balls from a muddled quarterback situation. Todd Heap is one of five tight ends on the roster. Arizona is hoping a return to his home state will inspire Heap to his third Pro Bowl season. Veteran Jeff King was also brought in to help the offensive block off the edge.
The offensive line will have two new guards starting. Rex Hadnot and newly acquired free agent Darren Colledge get the nods, with last year's starter, Duece Lutui, backing them up.
Arizona will have new starting cornerbacks after Greg Toler was placed on injured reserve. Tiny Michael Adams starts at one slot, despite having just 89 tackles in his four years with the club. A.J. Jefferson is the other starter, and he has one career tackle after making the team as an undrafted free agent rookie last year.
This is expected to change soon because rookie Patrick Peterson was the top defensive back in the 2011 draft and was selected fifth overall. He will be given time to learn because the Cardinals have a good safety tandem in Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes.
The defensive line is the best part of the defense, led by defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. Calais Campbell is a huge defensive end and nose tackle Dan Williams, the Cardinals top pick last year, shows promise.
The Cardinals kept nine linebackers on the roster this year. Daryl Washington and Paris Lenon are excellent inside linebackers who are backed up by veterans Stewart Bradley and Reggie Walker, along with promising rookie Quan Sturdivant.
The Big Red ranked near the bottom in both offense and defense last year. They are expecting to score a lot more points and being especially more effective in run defense. If the offense lives up to their potential, Arizona could pick up a lot of wins off a mediocre schedule in the weak NFC West.
3. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks are the defending AFC West champs despite having a 7-9 record, the 23rd best scoring offense, the 25th best total in points allowed and being 28th in points differential. Pete Carroll's first year as head coach was highlighted by a playoff win over the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
Building on that success while rebuilding, Seattle was very active in the free agent market. They signed up a new starting quarterback, star wide receiver, tight end, defensive tackle and offensive guard.
They have a new center, and both right guard and tackle will be rookies starting. They added Pro Bowl tight end Zach Miller, which was important because incumbent starter John Carlson is on injured reserve.
While Tavaris Jackson wasn't great at quarterback in the preseason, Seattle has hopes he can frequently get the ball to the tight end as well as tall wide receivers Sidney Rice and Mike Williams.
Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett ran for 1,100 yards together in 2010. Throw in dynamic return specialist Leon Washington and Seattle has a decent backfield behind Jackson.
The defense is still a work in progress. The strength of this unit is in linebackers David Hawthorne, Aaron Curry and Leroy Hill. Alan Branch replaces the departed Kentwan Balmer to line up next to Brandon Mebane at defensive tackle.
The secondary will see Walter Thurmond at cornerback in place of the departed Kelly Jennings. Kam Chancellor is now the strong safety after Lawyer Milloy retired. Both are second-year pros with not much experience.
Seattle has 21 players who are either rookies or first-year players on their roster. There are only 19 players left that Carroll inherited last year. The rebuilding job Carroll is doing takes time, but it is headed in the right direction.
4. San Francisco 49ers
It has been a rough time for the Niners since head coach Steve Mariucci was fired in 2002. They are on their fifth head coach and haven't had a winning record in that time.
Jim Harbaugh is now the coach in charge of trying to bring a winner to San Francisco. The big issue with this team starts at quarterback, where Alex Smith has done a mostly lousy job since being the first overall selection in the 2005 draft.
The writing on the wall for Smith became real clear in the 2011 draft, when the Niners used a second round pick on Colin Kaepernick. Though very athletic, Kaepernick is very raw and a few years away from being ready.
The offense runs through the amazing Frank Gore, a halfback running around with two surgically repaired knees. The 49ers receiving corp is one of the most talented in the NFL, but they don't have a quarterback who can consistently get them the ball.
Vernon Davis is one of the most athletic tight ends in NFL history. He should be going into a fifth season that has him inducted one day into Canton, but he has been held back by an organization that has poor quarterback play and spent a few years not using him correctly.
With wide receivers Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree, the trio should be explosive. Yet it most likely be yet another season where Smith doesn't get the job done on his end.
The defense is going through changes as well. They lost their starting nose tackle, two linebackers, a cornerback and safety. They upgraded the strong safety position by signing free agent Donte Whitner and moved defensive end Isaac Sopoaga over the center.
Carlos Rogers was signed to start at cornerback and the versatile Madieu Williams will back up incumbent Dashon Goldson at free safety. The run defense was good last year, but the pass defense hurt the Niners often.
The 49ers have made some nice upgrades, but Harbaugh will need some time to rebuild the team and develop a quarterback. They are capable of winning the weak NFC West, but that depends on how often Smith can get the ball to the team's best weapons.