With massive improvements within the division, the NFC West has turned into an aspiring team's nightmare. Only years ago, the NFC West was deemed as the worst division in football -- 8-8 was a great record, and 7-9 more than likely warranted a playoff spot (just ask Brees and company what it was like to have their Super Bowl dreams dashed by a relentless 12th man up in Seattle); point being, this division was weak in all formats: Coaches weren't capable of developing youth, players stayed away in free agency, and other teams viewed a march west as an easy "W" on their respective schedule.
WIth additions up and down the board, the NFC West has been vaulted to the top of the NFL world. Let's briefly analyze who has the chance to claim superiority over the reigning NFC West Champions, the San Francisco 49ers.
1.) The San Francisco 49ers
Maybe I'm just a tad biased here, but I still firmly believe that this team has all the right pieces in place to maintain their stance atop the division. This defense is as mean as Jack Bauer in the middle of a gunfight, and they have nothing but a giant sized chip on their shoulders after being chastised for their playoff performance. Add the heartbreak that a Super Bowl loss can bring, and I only see this defense improving and making a solid march towards football greatness.
Offensive evolution is key for the 49ers this year. Finding ways to continue to befuddle defenses within the read option will be key. Better understanding the read option is at the top of every NFL defenses checklist this offseason. The 49ers must find ways to stay fresh in their offensive schemes, all while implementing ways to let franchise quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, grow in to the player all of Red and Gold Nation envisions. Chalk the 49ers up for 11-13 wins this year, and another NFC West crown.
2.) The Seattle Seahawks
Scared. Trying to keep things real for my readers, this is a team that should frighten Red and Gold Nation. Realizing just how close they were to making some real noise last year, the Seahawks are poised to give not only the 49ers a run for their money, but the entire NFL as well; this is a team that can win it all.
Catching a sniff of glory in last years playoffs, the Hawks have added pieces all over the board, both on offense and defense. CB Antoine Winfield just made this the best secondary in football, and DE addition Cliff Avril should bring his dynamic play to the Hawks front, but will have to improve run stuffing abilities to fill in the void created by losing DT Jason Jones. They hit hard, and they are as close as it gets to nasty, just like the men ranked above them.
Russell Wilson is a monster, no way around it. If anybody watched him while at Wisconsin, they would understand that the Hawks made one of the best draft picks in recent memory by taking him in the 3rd round of last years draft. Add Percy Harvin's versatility and speed, and this team will be the one giving out the migraines, not feeling them. We all know that RB Marshawn Lynch is playing at an all-world rate, and I don't foresee him losing any of his skittle fueled ability.
The offense is sound, the defense is tough, and they are extremely disciplined, yet schooled, by one of the better coaches in the NFL, head coach Pete Carroll. Look for the Seahawks to nip at the heels of the 49ers again, but to come up a game shy. I see 11-5 again and another wild card trip into the madness that is the NFL playoffs.
3.) The St. Louis Rams
The Rams are going old school, and it's only making them a much more powerful and overlooked squad. Vying for head coach Jeff Fisher two years ago was one of, if not the best decision, that this squad has made in some time.
There are offensive improvements up and down the board for the Rams, but almost all of them come with the dreaded question mark after their name. Can Bradford regain his rookie form and vault up the NFL's quarterback rankings? WIll RB Isaiah Pead be the bell cow that the Rams, and especially Fisher (running DNA within him), had with RB Steven Jackson? Will Brian Quick develop into the second round talent he was valued at and be able to replace the void created by Danny Amendola's departure? Can Jake Long regain his lost ability he displayed for most of his young career? I am a big fan of signing tight end Jared Cook, but with any new arrival, he has to prove his ability once again. Lot's of "ifs" here, but a definite trend upwards from where they were a couple years back.
The defensive side of the ball is where the Rams take a hit. With so many NFC west improvements coming on the offensive side of the ball, the Rams have to find a way to stay competitive by outplaying their defensive personnel. The Defensive line has definite ability with DE's Robert Quinn and Chris Long, and they will be paramount in checking the mobility of QB's Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. I just don't see this LB core stymying the speed and deep threats that both Kaep and Wilson are. The secondary is definitely above average, but a bit of it's soul went out the door with FS Craig Dahl's departure within the division (with the 49ers). Look for Fisher to coach his butt off and to make this "D" play well above their talent level.
Fisher has this team moving towards the past glory that "The greatest show on turf" once displayed. I still see the Rams needing two years to compete with the 49ers and Seahawks, but moving in the right direction is key for the day to day. Very few realize that the Rams went 4-1-1 in the toughest division in football last year. The Rams will be relevant very soon, and I see this team ending up a half game ahead of last years record at 8-8.
4.) The Arizona Cardinals
Where to begin? This really is a sinking ship. The only team that I see moving in a downward fashion within the division, the Cardinals just haven't done enough to stay relevant in the NFC West. I do like the addition of Bruce Arians at head coach, but I believe most of the NFL undervalued just how good Andrew Luck and the Colts truly were last year (I picked them to go 10-6 last year and to secure a wild card spot; say what!). Arians needs to show true moxie to get through this upcoming season.
The Cards were very active this offseason, but it's coming off as a guise to make GM Steve Keim seem active as an owner following a ridiculous 5-11 campaign after starting out 4-0. They added RB Rashard Mendenhall, QB Carson Palmer, and Safety Yeremiah Bell. They lost stud Safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes, and threw Kevin Kolb out of the closest window.
Hear it here first, QB Carson Palmer will be out of the league after this season's summation. He's getting old, he's playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league, and he gets 4 games with Seattle and San Francisco to see all the stars while living firmly on his back. His lack of mobility will thrust The Cards into yet another QB controversy; enough about the USC dinosaur. Wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Notre Dame product Malcolm Floyd should see a slight bump in their production via Palmer, but look for most of those balls to end up in the hands of the defense.
"And here we go.." The only side of the ball that really matters for the Cards, the defense has some definite ability. CB Patrick Peterson will be a pro bowl fixture until his Canton card is called (I WISH we found a way to get this kid two years ago), and the defensive front 7 is strong enough to eek out wins in crunch time. The secondary grew a little weaker this offseason, but there's enough here to not make them a true laughing stock. The least important team in the NFC West, look for the Cardinals to stay exactly where they are; stuck at the bottom of the division, and waiving the white flag at an awful 5-11.
Where do you stand Red and Gold Nation? Do the Seahawks or Rams have enough added fuel to push the 49ers? Let's get these comments to a boil please!!!
Sean McMahon is an avid sports fan and 49ers purist. Reach him via his blog @nothingbutgold.sportsblog.com, or at his email @email@example.com. Thanks for your contributions and time Red and Gold Nation !!!