In a few short years, the NFC West went from one of the league’s most pitiful to most powerful. The 49ers steadily improved, especially defensively, and ended up riding 2nd year sensation Colin Kaepernick into the Superbowl last year. The Seattle Seahawks under Pete Carrol have been doing their best to keep pace, and the budding rivalry between the two teams is as potent as the Seahawks roster looks going into 2013. Not to be outdone, the St. Louis Rams have made some key additions as well, and have one of the league’s most underrated defenses. The Arizona Cardinals look like they have the deck stacked against them, but there are hopes with a new head coach, QB, and potential in various younger players stepping into their roles and making a difference.
1 – San Fransisco 49ers
Last year’s NFC reps in the Superbowl bring back almost the exact same roster, plus and minus a few key players. The balance of the transactions equals another division championship in my mind, keyed by solid coaching and a stacked roster topped by Kaepernick, who I fully believe is primed to become one of the league’s best with another season or two of top-notch play. There’s a whole lot of hype around division rival Seattle, but all that hype won’t mean much when the more experienced and talented 49ers hit the field.
If you’re not ready to call Kaepernick a strength, you must have missed most of 2012. He has a rare combination of size, speed, athleticism and arm strength, and has the poise and confidence of a much older and more experienced quarterback. While he is aging, Frank Gore is still a consistent and strong runner who can be leaned on, especially considering the great depth behind him. All that running is keyed by one of the league’s best offensive lines, featuring three former 1st-round picks that have all panned out into excellent players. The loss of Michael Crabtree with a torn achilles hurts, but the addition of Anquan Boldin and the versatility of Vernon Davis offer excellent weapons for Kaepernick.
As good as the offense can be, this team is still, in my mind, represented by their defense. It all starts up front, where Aldon Smith provides the flash and Justin Smith provides the force, and both do it better than almost anyone else in the NFL at their respective spots. The linebackers are ridiculously talented; Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks form a formidable trio. The secondary may miss Dashon Goldson, but not if 1st round pick Eric Reid lives up to his college game tape. Bringing in former Oakland hotshot and Philadelphia flop Nnamdi Asomugha strictly for depth was a wise move; at this stage in his career, he doesn’t need to be starting.
Causes For Concern:
It’s hard to find any, on either side of the ball. Special teams may be a concern, but the team managed to overcome the lackluster play of David Akers all of last season, and finding a replacement for Ted Ginn as a return specialist may result in a downgrade, but it won’t make or break their season. The biggest concern may be Kaepernick and the overly mentioned “sophomore slump”. I don’t see it happening, but if it does, the offense could stall, especially with the underwhelming Colt McCoy backing him up. There are also some that think the team lacks weapons in the passing game, and while no Crabtree hurts regardless of the other receivers available, there’s enough to work with.
I see no concern with the defense to mention, beyond the secondary often getting beat when the pash rush isn’t consistent. The players across the back four are talented, but there are times when the entire defense seems to lapse and gaping holes open where they shouldn’t. If this happens in the postseason, it could be all the room an opposing team needs to send the Niners home disappointed.
Without a doubt, I expect San Fransisco to be the top seed in the NFC in 2013. There is just too much talent on both sides of the ball to make me think otherwise. The aforementioned hype around the Seahawks is all well and good, and they will be a worthy adversary who might steal one of their two games against the 49ers, but eclipsing them in the division? Unlikely.
2 – Seattle Seahawks
The hype machine has geared up in the Northwest, as the emergence of Russell Wilson has convinced more than a few people that the Seahawks have finally found the last piece of the puzzle. A dominating running game, coupled with a hard-hitting, intimidating defense was enough to propel the Seahawks into the postseason, but Wilson’s abilities to reliably work inside and out of the pocket meant the difference between sneaking in and convincingly making the push.
Wilson was an unlikely rookie candidate in the year of Luck and Griffin to make an impact at the QB position, but after a slow start he caught up with the rest of his offense and never looked back. Perhaps the most impressive part of his game is his elusiveness, his ability to extend a play and allow his receivers the chance to work off of routes to find openings. As far as they go, Sidney Rice and Golden Tate provide solid targets, if not spectacular ones, and the TE position is set with the reliable Zach Miller and the up-and-coming Luke Willson. That dominating running game begins with Marshawn Lynch, who went from humble beginnings in Buffalo to being the very definition of a bell-cow back in Seattle. Robert Turbin provides the depth and change-of-pace to round out the attack. The offensive line is anchored by Russell Okong at LT and Max Unger at C, two Pro Bowl talents.
The defense is packed with talent, and was given an upgrade or two in the offseason as well. Red Bryant and Chris Clemons are terrific bookends, and the possibilities in the pash rush that newcomer Cliff Avril can provide are tantalizing, especially when you consider that Bruce Irvin should only improve upon his eight sacks as a rookie. The secondary gives opposing offenses fits, between the vocal and confident Richard Sherman and the solid play of safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.
Causes For Concern:
It may just be me overthinking the situation, but what the Seahawks gave up for Percy Harvin, and it looking like he’ll miss the majority of 2013…well, it almost feels like they were robbed blind minus the blind part. There’s no doubt Harvin is a dangerous weapon, but his entire career up until this point has been tainted by a bad attitude, injuries and what I suspect (from the whole migraine situation in Minnesota) is the occasional desire to simply not play. Without him, Seattle’s passing game is solid, but nothing pops out at you as gamebreaking about it. Of course, in concert with their running game, anything is possible and the sky is the limit for Wilson.
It’s almost impossible to find a hole in their defense, but according to Football Outsiders, they only ranked 12th against the run in 2012. Their front seven are more conditioned to collapse the pocket than they are to keep gap assignments consistently, and this may be the only actual weakness on an otherwise excellent unit.
It’ll shock me and a whole gaggle of other people if Seattle isn’t competing for the division crown and at least taking a wildcard spot in the process. There may not be a more balanced team in the league offensively, and with a defense that can shut down most opponents when they want to, missing the postseason in 2013 will be looked at as a major disappointment. I don’t see it happening, but I also don’t see them in the Super Bowl, which seemingly every ‘expert’ in my field is willing to bet on. The 49ers are still a step ahead, particularly in the vital but often overlooked department of experience.
3 – St. Louis Rams
Year two of the Jeff Fisher era is going to bring an entirely new look to the Rams, or at least that’s what we’re hearing from the people in St. Louis. The team hasn’t been shy in the past two offseasons, accumulating talent (mostly via the draft, where they took in a bounty of picks in exchange for Robert Griffin III in Washington in 2012) and watching a defense bud into a solid, underrated unit that tied for the league lead in sacks last year. Things are looking up in St. Louis, but at the end of the year, they’ll still be looking up at the two obviously better teams ahead of them.
To this point, Sam Bradford has been up, down, and all points in between, but the common consensus is that a lack of talent to work with has been his ultimate bane. With Chris Givens, Austin Pettis and Brian Quick emerging into reliable options, alongside newcomer Jared Cook and 1st round dynamo prospect Tavon Austin, that excuse may no longer be applicable. There is room for Bradford and the passing game to prosper, but it all depends on the youth meeting and exceeding expectations. The offensive line got a major upgrade at left tackle as Miami refused to pay Jake Long what he deserved. Despite his recent injury problems, none of them have been major and Long is a clear upgrade at his position.
The team’s identity as of right now is that of a defense-first organization, a unit that features young stars like Chris Long at DE and James Laurinaitis at MLB. The solid Cortland Finnegan is joined by high draft pick Janoris Jenkins at the CB position. Combined with a handful of roleplayers, the Rams defense was a top-10 unit in 2012 and likely is looking to make strides towards becoming more dominant in 2013.
Causes For Concern:
There is a very real, and up until now hush-hush sort of possibility that Bradford simply isn’t the quarterback to lead the Rams to the goal every NFL team is seeking. I don’t believe this is the case, but 2013 is geared up to be the defining season for the 4th year signal caller. One area that will remain a question mark until somebody steps up to fill Steven Jackson’s shoes (gone to Atlanta) is the running game, where the offensive line struggled at times and nobody really stood out as an obvious in-house replacement for Jackson in 2012. The team is prepared to go with Daryl Richardson, who averaged an impressive 5.8 yards in limited work last year, but also coughed up the ball 3 times.
The defense is solid in all phases, but the safeties are more or less role players who can be exploited, and Jenkins has to step into his role and prosper. Continuity in the pass rush is going to be pivotal in once again making the secondary look better than they actually are, and beyond last year’s sack leaders Long and Robert Quinn at the DE positions, it’ll be up to a group of roleplayers to again pick up the slack. Doable, but will it be enough against the high talent they’ll be facing in their division?
Many are predicting big things for the Rams in 2013, perhaps even sneaking into the postseason if all their pieces fall nicely into place, but I’m not close to being convinced they’re wildcard material. It’ll take a fantastic year from Bradford and the offense as a whole to jettison them from a tough team to a dominating one. Such a performance may be a year or two away, as young pieces continue to progress into viable weapons.
4 – Arizona Cardinals
After one of the team’s worst overall seasons in recent memory, a host of changes had to be made, and were. In comes last year’s hottest head coach in Bruce Arians, who led the Colts in the absence of the ailing Chuck Pagano to an unexpected postseason berth. The passing game was dreadful, and the two QBs who saw the most work are both gone, replaced by Carson Palmer, who Arians hand-picked to run his risky, long-ball oriented offense. The team still has talent, but the feel here is that there is too much to overcome in front of them to expect them to move up from the bottom of the NFC West pile in 2013.
The woes of the passing game were in no way the fault of Larry Fitzgerald, who remains one of the NFL’s elite pass catchers and is primed for a memorable bounce back season. The team is also high on the progress and potential of young receivers Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd, and will also look to incorporate the budding superstar CB Patrick Peterson into the offense as well.
Peterson is one of the many reasons why the Cardinals are a better team on the defensive side of the ball. Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett are staples on a strong defensive line, and the team brought back former standout Karlos Dansby to pair with Jasper Brinkley at ILB. Sam Acho is a steadily improving force at OLB who may be primed to make the next step. The Cardinals were ranking 2nd overall against the pass in 2012 according to Football Outsiders, and this was due to a combination of consistent penetration, the incredible skills of Patrick Peterson and inspired play from the rest of the secondary. This is the area of the team they will lean on when times get tough.
Causes For Concern:
Bruce Arians may think he’s the answer, but Carson Palmer hasn’t been himself for years. The jury is still out on whether or not the 33 year old can still be a top passer. One of the biggest hurdles in front of him is an offensive line that gave up a whopping 58 sacks in 2012. The line is pretty much the same, and with the loss of promising rookie Jonathan Cooper, any improvement has to come from better coaching and, most importantly, less underachieving from the likes of Levi Brown and more overachieving from the rest of a patchwork unit.
The defense was soft against the run in 2012, a statistic that is influenced by the fact that they have to face the 49ers and Seahawks twice a year, two of the best running teams in football. Still, to have any chance at all at competing in the West, they have to be more disciplined in the gaps and unwilling to bite on the read option, which should be used heavily by their rivals in the division.
No. This team is just beginning a transition that, if given enough time and an influx of talent on both sides of the ball, particularly the offensive line, might turn the team’s fortunes around for the better. But they have an incredibly high mountain to climb in their division, and there’s little chance they’ll make past the first few steps in 2013. Expect progress, but don’t expect the (near) impossible.