The NFC West: A Scouting Report For The 2010 Season
The NFC West is up for grabs in 2010. Here is a team by team breakdown and also my prognostications for the division. Each team has some question marks. How these questions are answered will go a long way to determining the division.
The Arizona Cardinals have won the NFC West for the past two seasons. The Cardinals have lost some key players from last year's squad. Will they have enough to win the division again?
The San Francisco 49ers have not made the playoffs since 2002. They are poised to make a run for the division title. Patrick Willis leads the top defense in the division. Is Alex Smith capable of running the offense for the Niners to capture the title?
Pete Carroll brings enthusiasm and a positive attitude from the college ranks to Seattle. The Seahawks brought in several new players through trades, free agency and the draft. Will Pete Carroll be able to lead this group to the top of the division?
The Sam Bradford era has begun in St. Louis. With Steven Jackson, the Rams also have one of the top running backs in the league. Have the Rams done enough to be a factor in this division?
Read on for my predictions and find out who will win the NFC West in 2010.
The San Francisco 49ers Will Win The NFC West
San Francisco 49er head coach Mike Singletary has the most talented group of 49ers in many years. This team will improve on last year's 8-8 record and win the NFC West title.
The 49er offense will be much improved in 2010 for several reasons. It all starts with the maturation of quarterback Alex Smith. For the first time in his career, Smith will be working with the same offensive coordinator, Jimmy Raye, for two consecutive seasons.
Alex Smith is playing with more confidence and displaying more leadership than at any time in his professional career. He finally has a comfort zone with the offense and also has some big time playmakers surrounding him.
Frank Gore is poised for a great year and I expect him to easily surpass the 1,120 yards rushing he garnered last season. Unlike in years past, opposing defenses will not be able to stack the line against Gore, which will open up more running lanes for him to exploit.
Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon will also be major contributors at the running back position. They will give Gore valuable rest during the course of every game and also be an excellent insurance policy should Gore miss any games due to injury.
Westbrook gives the 49ers a veteran backup who is still an explosive runner and very dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield. He also is a good change of pace from the power running style of Frank Gore.
Rookie Anthony Dixon, a sixth round draft pick out of Mississippi State, was the star of training camp for the 49ers. Dixon showed good strength, as well as surprising speed and elusiveness as a runner in the preseason. He will definitely be a factor for the 49ers this year.
Alex Smith also has some weapons in the passing game. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree will continue to improve, as he missed all of training camp and the first five games of 2009. Crabtree has the potential to be a true star in this league and will easily surpass the 48 receptions and two touchdowns he had last year.
Tight end Vernon Davis gives the Niners a second big time receiving threat. Davis can be the type of player that keeps the chains moving, plus he also has the speed to go the distance on deeper pass routes.
The other starting wide out, Josh Morgan, is an up and coming young receiver and former Dolphin Ted Ginn Jr. gives the 49ers a deep threat that will stretch the field for Crabtree and Davis.
Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree got into a heated verbal altercation last week. Davis, a team captain, was upset with what he felt was Crabtree's diva attitude. Apparently, other players also felt the same way, so it was good to get this issue addressed before it developed into a major distraction.
Davis was quite upset and did what he felt needed to be done. The situation seems to have calmed down and I do not expect anything but solid effort from Crabtree from here on out. Good teams police themselves and the fact that Vernon Davis called Crabtree out seems to have solidified the team even more. Mike Singletary will not allow this type of thing to be a distraction for the 49ers.
The foundation for the improved offense is a revamped offensive line. Tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati were both selected in the first round of the draft.
The 49ers wanted to improve their strength and power on the line and they did just that. Both Davis and Iupati have stepped into the starting lineup and have been improving steadily throughout the preseason.
This improved offensive line will open running lanes for Frank Gore, as well as give Alex Smith time to find his receivers. This unit is now the type of big, physical line that Singletary has always wanted.
The San Francisco 49er Defense Will Make The Difference
The San Francisco 49er offense will be improved, but the one thing that will set the 49ers apart from everyone else in the division is a top flight defense. In 2009, the Niner defense was the fourth best in the league, in terms of points allowed.
The 2010 version of the 49er defense has all of the starters back from last year. In addition, cornerback Nate Clements is back to full strength, after missing much of 2009 due to injury.
Patrick Willis is arguably the top inside linebacker in the league. He anchors an outstanding group of linebackers, which include veterans Takeo Spikes, Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson. Ahmad Brooks, the newly acquired Travis LaBoy and rookie NaVorro Bowman give the 49ers depth and athleticism at the linebacker position.
The defensive line was bolstered with the return of nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, after he was unable to renegotiate a new deal with the 49ers. Although this group, with includes Justin Smith and Isaac Sopoaga, is not dominating, it is a very solid unit. Ricky Jean-Francois and Ray McDonald give the Niners quality depth along the defensive line.
The secondary is the biggest area of concern for the 49er defense. They have shown a propensity to allow pass completions in front of them for easy first downs. The corners are Shawntae Spencer and Nate Clements, who is being counted on to return to top form.
Dashon Goldson and Michael Lewis are the safeties. Goldson, entering his fourth season, is a ball hawk and hard hitter. Lewis is excellent against the run, but often a step or two late on pass plays.
The Niners kept eleven defensive backs on the 53 man roster, so they definitely have a lot of options when it comes to their nickel and dime packages.
Defensive coordinator, Greg Manusky, employs an aggressive defensive approach, with a lot of blitz packages. Although no 49er was in the top thirty in sacks, they were tied for third in the league, as a team, with 44.
The Niners will need a similar type of attacking defense, which will take some of the pressure off the secondary. This style of play also resulted in creating turnovers. With 33 takeaways in 2009, the 49ers ranked fifth in the league. Their plus nine turnover margin was also fifth best in the NFL.
With place kicker Joe Nedney and punter Andy Lee, the 49ers also have excellent kicking specialists. The return game, a problem in 2009, will also be much improved. The 49ers have a young and more athletic team this season, which will also be an asset to their coverage units.
The 49er defense will keep them in every game this season. An improved offense will score enough points to give the San Francisco 49ers their first playoff appearance since 2002.
San Francisco 49ers projected record: 11-5. NFC West Champions.
The Arizona Cardinals: Sundown In The Desert
The Arizona Cardinals have won the NFC West for the past two years. Their run of success includes a Super Bowl appearance, following the 2008 season.
Times have changed for the Cardinals. No team in the division lost more impact players than Arizona this off season. Although the Cardinals did make some good acquisitions this off season, they were not able to do enough to overcome those losses.
The 2010 preseason saw head coach Ken Whisenhunt feuding with former first round draft pick Matt Leinart. With the retirement of Kurt Warner, the Cardinals were hoping that Leinart would successfully assume the role of starting quarterback. He didn't.
There were definitely some underlying issues with the Whisenhunt - Leinart relationship. Leinart seemed to value the media spotlight and Hollywood glitz more than his coach wanted him to. There were questions about his work ethic and commitment to becomming a top notch NFL quarterback.
Leinart was entering his fifth year of pro football, not counting USC, which many consider "pro". He has been groomed for the starting job, and this was to be the year he took over. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt, however, had other ideas.
Unhappy with Leinart's showing in training camp, Whisenhunt chose to go with Derek Anderson as the starting quaryterback. Adding more salt to the wound, the Cardinals then unceremoniously dropped Leinart from their 53 man roster.
With Leinart's departure, there will be no quarterback controvery in Arizona. For better or worse, the job belongs to Derek Anderson.
The Cardinals dealt with a lot of chaos and unwanted media attention revolving around this issue. This type of thing is causes distractions and is never good heading into a season.
The Cardinals hope Derek Anderson can return to his 2007 form, which made him a Pro Bowl quarterback with the Cleveland Browns. If this happens, the Cardinals could contend for the division title again this year.
Anderson's career numbers are rather mediocre, however. In the past four seasons, Anderson has completed just 52.9 percent of his passes, with 46 TD's and 45 interceptions. If Anderson plays to this level in 2010, it will be a tough year for the Cardinals.
In addition to the loss of Kurt Warner, Arizona also lost several impact players from last year's 10-6 squad. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin is gone, as are safety Antrel Rolle and linebacker Karlos Dansby.
Newly acquired safety Kerry Rhodes replaces Rolle and Joey Porter was signed to take the place of Dansby. Although both are solid additions, I believe they are a slight step down from what Rolle and Dansby brought to the Cardinal defense.
The cupboard is not totally bare, however. The Cardinals still have superstar receiver Larry Fitzgerald and a very solid Steve Breaston.
In addition to Kurt Warner, what made the Arizona passing game so tough, was the fact that with Anquan Boldin, a defense needed to worry aboout three excellent receivers that could hurt you at any time. Now, a defense only has to account for two of these playmakers.
Arizona hopes to rely more on the running game in 2010. Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells will split time in the backfield. Wells was the leading rusher in 2009 with 793 yards and seven touchdowns. Hightower accounted for 598 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. Hightower was arguably a bigger threat out of the backfield, as he contributed 63 receptions for 428 yards.
I just don't see this rushing attack being able to offset the weaker passing game and I expect the Arizona offense to suffer.
Arizona also must improve on their turnover margin, as they were a minus seven in that category in 2009. The Cardinal defense will be called upon to stop opposing offenses with greater regularity, as the offense will likely not be as explosive in 2010.
The Arizona defense averaged 20.3 points allowed per game in 2009, which was in the middle of the pack. They also allowed 346.4 yards per game, which was only 20th best in the league. These numbers must improve for Arizona to win their third consecutive NFC West title.
Arizona Cardinals projected record: 7-9
Pete Carroll Hopes To Revitalize The Seattle Seahawks
New head coach Pete Carroll comes to Seattle brimming with enthusiasm and energy. The positive attitude and intensity that Carroll brings to the Seahawks will be a welcome change over former coach Jim Mora Jr..
Unfortunately for Carroll, his former USC team probably had more talent in several positions, over this current Seattle squad. The roster turnover is immense this year, as the Seahawks will open the season with fewer than half the players from their 2009 team. Anytime you have this much turnover, it takes time to get all of the pieces to fit.
If the Seahawks could somehow defeat the 49ers at home in the opener, it would generate even more belief and positive vibe for Pete Carroll.
Matt Hasselbeck, who will turn 35 in a couple weeks, returns at quarterback for his twelfth NFL season. He is still an excellent passer and can pick apart an opposing defense when given time. Pass protection will be the single most important thing for this Seattle offense.
The problem is that the biggest concern for Seattle is the offensive line, which is in a state of flux. Offensive tackle Russell Okung, their prized first round draft pick, is currently injured and will likely miss the opening game against the 49ers.
The Seahawks also just acquired tackle Stacy Andrews in a trade with the Eagles. In addition, Evan Dietrich-Smith, a guard, was just signed off the waiver wire from Green Bay. The offensive line positions are very undecided, which does not bode well for Matt Hasselbeck and the Seattle offense.
Adding further confusion to an already chaotic situation, offensive line coach Alex Gibbs abruptly retired on Saturday. The Seahawks moved quickly and added Paul Ruel to replace Gibbs. Ruel has NFL experience and also worked with Carroll at USC. Nevertheless, this type of upheaval is never good this close to the start of the season.
In 2009, the Seahawks allowed 41 sacks, which was the fifth worst in the NFC. With the uncertainty along the line, this could be a problem all year for the Seattle offense. Matt Hasselbeck is very immobile and could get pounded. I seriously doubt that he will stay healthy for the entire season.
If Hasselbeck gets injured, Charlie Whitehurst will replace him. The Seahawks are very high on Whitehurst, after acquiring him in a trade with San Diego this off season. Whitehurst, who will be heading into his fifth NFL season, has good upside potential but has not thrown a pass in a regular season game.
The Seattle rushing attack will be led by Justin Forsett and Leon Washington. Forsett played very well in 2009 and Washington gives the Seahawks a definite big play threat. Last year's leading rusher Julius Jones was cut.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the leading receiver for the Seahawks was also cut. Deion Branch and Mike Williams will start at the receiver positions for Seattle. Williams has not played a game in the NFL for two seasons. Rookie, Golden Tate, from Notre Dame, will also see plenty of action.
Tight end John Carlson is a reliable player and may end up with more catches than any of the wideouts.
Seattle will also need to improve a defense which was one of the worst in the NFL. Only seven teams gave up more points than Seattle last year. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu anchors a very young and unproven defense.
The Seahawks acquired defensive end Chris Clemons to bolster a pass rush that was 26th in the league with only 28 sacks. Aaron Curry, who was the Seahawks' round one draft pick in 2009, is also being counted on to provide pass rushing pressure from the outside linebacker position.
Free safety, Earl Thomas, was the second round one draft selection and is being counted on to solidify a pass defense that gave up more yards than any team in the NFC. In another curious roster move, the Seahawks waived last year's starting strong safety Jordan Babineaux.
Seattle ultimately has too many question marks along both the offensive and defensive lines to challenge for the division title. Strong line play is essential for any team to have consistent success and the Seahawks are woefully lacking along both lines.
There has been a dizzying whirlwind of personnel changes for the Seahawks. I do believe that Pete Carroll will ultimately get Seattle in contention, however that's likely a year or two away.
Seattle Seahawks projected record: 6-10
The St. Louis Rams Are Hoping To Make Positive Strides
The St. Louis Rams were the worst team in the NFL last year. With a record of 1-15, the Rams got the number one selection in the 2010 draft. They used the pick to draft Sam Bradford and hope he will be their franchise quarterback for years to come.
Sam Bradford has impressed second year head coach Steve Spagnuolo with his physical skills and presence in the huddle. Bradford has a strong and accurate arm. He has also displayed very good leadership skills, even though he's a rookie.
The Rams have one other star on offense. Running back Steven Jackson is one of the best in the league and rushed for 1,416 yards, good for second in the NFL. Jackson is entering his seventh season but is showing no signs of slowing down. Unfortunately for Jackson and the Rams, by the time this team is ready to contend, Jackson's career may be winding down or over.
The Rams suffered a serious blow when top receiver Donnie Avery went down with a season ending knee injury.
Defensively, St. Louis gave up an average of 27.2 points per game, which was the second worst in the NFL. The Rams added two veterans to the defense in the off season. Linebacker Na'il Diggs and defensive tackle Fred Robbins join the team. These two are decent players, but not the impact additions the Rams need.
The Rams also did not get any impact defensive players in the 2010 draft. In the first five rounds of the 2010 draft, the Rams only selected one player who even made the team on defense. Defensive back Jerome Murphy, a third round pick, will play a reserve role in the secondary.
The Rams will be much more interesting to watch in 2010, as Sam Bradford and Steven Jackson will provide some fireworks on offense. Unfortunately, there are too many weak spots on this roster for the Rams to win a lot of games.
St. Louis Rams projected record: 2-14
Mike Singletary Leads The 49ers To The Playoffs In 2010
The 2010 season will mark the return to the playoffs for the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers will win the NFC West in Mike Singletary's second full season at the helm.
Here again are my predictions for the 2010 season:
San Francisco 49ers 11-5 NFC West Champions Arizona Cardinals 7-9 Seattle Seahawks 6-10 St. Louis Rams 2-14