2012 NFL Preview: NFC West

The NFC West has essentially been the doormat of the NFL for years but it wasn’t always that way. In fact every team in the division has made a Super Bowl and a couple of the teams have been considered some of the best in history. In this history the NFC West has been a producer of power but over the past few years the power of the conference had been fading. It became common place that one team would dominate and the other three would just sit in the background. The one team that won was generally pretty good and had a chance but generally were not the powers of old. Not much changed last year besides the fact that one of the old NFC powers finally got back to their winning tradition. Still it was only one team out of the division that was good while the rest struggled. In the west the problem centres around the quarterbacks as the NFC West has seen one of the worst groups of QBs in the NFL. The group of Kevin Kolb, Tavaris Jackson, Alex Smith, and Sam Bradford was one of the worst in the 2011 season. The four QBs all struggled last year as they continued the pattern of the NFC West with only one team deserving a playoff spot and making the playoffs was essentially despite the QB. This year the west will continue on with three of these four QBs as the problems have not really been fixed. Despite that many of the teams are hoping that a year of generally fresh starting QBs will only help them. With another year under the belts of many of these QBs, except Matt Flynn in Seattle, the west teams are looking for improvement. The West is looking to become a competitive division where the battle for the division title comes down to the wire. Many of the teams this year have made a few tweaks but generally stayed the same it what seemed a like a vote of confidence for many. It was an offseason that many teams seemed to stay the same in hopes that last year was an off-year. It will all come to a head this fall as four teams look to make it a real fight in the West for the first time in years.

 

Arizona Cardinals

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Arizona Cardinals were one of the teams out of the west who have made waves in the NFL over the last few years. In 2009 the Cardinals took on Kurt Warner as a backup QB but after Matt Leinart did not work out Warner was put in. The veteran QB led the team to a division win and a Super Bowl appearance and despite coming up short in the game Warner added more to his legend as a member of the NFC West. Since 2009 though the Cardinals have struggled and have found it hard to find a replacement for Warner. In 2011 the Cardinals looked to finally move on as they signed Kevin Kolb, the best backup QB in the NFL, from the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cardinals believed they had their QB of the future in Kolb as he took over the offence with a lot of promise. That promise did not pan out though as Kolb struggled in his first year as a starter and put the Cards in a tough spot. This was the only problem for the Cardinals in the 2011 season as they saw Larry Fitzgerald perform amazing once again with the limited help he received from his QB. Meanwhile the defence began to emerge as a force in the division. It was all not enough though as the Cardinals still could not find a solid pivot to help them challenge for the division. In the end the Cards finished the season with an 8-8 record but still in 2nd place although out of the playoffs. The Cards are looking to move on in 2012 but they made very few changes to remedy their problems. In fact their biggest problem seemed to not even be on the list for the Cards as instead they continued adding weapons for their QB in hopes that this could help. It will be the biggest issue of the 2012 season for the Cards as they look to challenge for the division title and get back to the playoffs.

The 2012 offseason was one of fairly no movement for the Cardinals as they added a few pieces in free agency and lost essentially nobody. For the Cardinals this was fine as they have a good team that can win the division but they need a QB that can put everything together. The Cards did nothing for the QB position in the offseason as they essentially gave Kevin Kolb a vote of confidence. Kolb will be back under centre for the Cardinals as the team looks to see if 2011 was simply first year jitters and if a full offseason in camp could improve his play. Beanie Wells will give him a solid running threat alongside emerging running threat Ryan Williams for the one-two punch in the backfield. Meanwhile the passing game will continue to feature Larry Fitzgerald while Michael Floyd should provide a distraction forcing defenders to cover both receivers. This along with Todd heap as a dump pass option makes the Cardinals offence something to fear as long as Kevin Kolb can meet his potential. Meanwhile on defence the Cards have one of the best emerging defences in the league despite not being heralded as one. The Cards have a few great players in each level of the defence but the strength could be the secondary. Patrick Peterson and Adrian Wilson made up a great half of the secondary and with the addition of William Gay to the other side of the field the secondary could be a force. Meanwhile Daryl Washington, Paris Lenon, Calais Campbell, and Darnell Dockett hold down the front lines of the defence. The defence is solid but they have issues making those game changing plays as they struggle to earn sacks and turnovers. With one more year under defensive coordinator Ray Horton they are hoping to remedy these problems to carry their team if the offence struggles. As a bonus the Cardinals have a great return game that can change a game in the blink of an eye. LaRod Stephens-Howling and Patrick Peterson have both proven to be great returners and will be an important part to this team in 2012. The Cardinals are a good team overall but it is that one issue that continues to hold them back. If a full offseason and a second year as a starter can remedy the issues of Kevin Kolb the Cards will fight for a playoff spot and for the division but if he can’t pick it up they will just be fighting to stay at .500.

 

Strength:

Skill Players

– Besides the QB the skill players on the offensive side of the ball are great Larry Fitzgerald, Todd Heap, Beanie Wells, Ryan Williams, and now Michael Floyd are a group that any team would love to have if they can do what they are meant to do with a solid QB

 

Weakness:

Quarterback

– It is no question that in a QB driven league that Kevin Kolb is not cutting it and if he stumbles out of the gate the Cards will be in trouble with only John Skelton to back him up as the offence waits for a QB that can feed the great skill players

 

Biggest Addition:

Michael Floyd, WR (Draft)

– Larry Fitzgerald will always be the feature of the Cards offence but the addition of Michael Floyd could provide a second game-breaker that will force defences to cover both sides of the field rather than doubling Fitzgerald

 

Biggest Lost:

Nobody

– Realistically the loss of Rex Hadnot, Chansi Stuckey, Brandon Keith, and Richard Marshall didn’t really do much as the Cardinals kept the majority of their team with no real losses this offseason

 

St. Louis Rams

 

 

 

 

The St. Louis Rams have probably the most recent spat of dominance in the NFC West under Kurt Warner and the “Greatest Show on Turf.” While under this moniker the Rams had an explosive offence that led them to a Super Bowl win in 1999. That began a stretch from 1999-2004 where the Rams missed the playoffs only once. Since 2004 though, the Rams have been unable to repeat their success missing the playoffs every year since then. It has been a tough road for the Rams since that time as they are desperately looking for a winner. The biggest problem for them has become a theme for the NFC West as they continued to look for another Kurt Warner under centre. They thought that they had found one in 2010 when they drafted Sam Bradford with the first overall pick. The future looked promising for the Rams as Bradford started all 16 games and broke records set by Peyton Manning for rookie QBs. As the Rams seemed to find their QB of the future they started to build around him believing that they would be on the upward trend. 2011 brought them back to the ground though as Bradford struggled in his second season under centre. It was a rough year for Bradford and the offence as they were the lowest scoring offence in the league. The 2011 season was not all on Bradford though as the team around him faltered hurting the chances of the Rams building on the momentum of 2010. The Rams ended the season in last place as they only managed two wins all season as they took one massive step backwards. The Rams are hoping it was a hiccup as they enter the 2012 season with the same team. Once again the NFC West will see a QB that could be great but is still generally unknown.

The 2012 season will be on the shoulders of Sam Bradford who will need to return to his rookie form if the Rams hope to make a run at the playoffs. It will be a tough season as well with a new coaching staff in place as Jeff Fisher takes over the head coaching duties and Brian Schottenheimer taking over the offence. It will be the third offence that Bradford will have to learn in his three years in the league. The new offence will be similar to the West Coast offence that Bradford had success under in his first year but it will still require a learning curve. As Bradford looks to recover from his sophomore slump he will lean on Steven Jackson and draft pick Isaiah Pead to help him out. They will be on display as well with Jeff Fisher is a big proponent of the running game. The run game will also be featured as the passing game has little power to it with a weak stable of wide receivers. The biggest playmaker on the receiving corps is free agent signee Steve Smith who will join Danny Amendola and rookie wideouts Brian Quick and Chris Givens. It will be a tough learning curve for the offence that is full of young rookies that will be the backbone of an offence that struggled last year. The defence will not fair much better as the front seven will only feature two returning starters. The one good thing is that these two starters are very good as Justin Long and James Laurinaitis will be back to lead a young defence. Joining Long on the line will be second year player and first year starter Robert Quinn along with first round draft pick Michael Brockers. Both players have all the potential in the world but if they cannot perform the run defence will be in trouble. In the linebacking corps Laurinaitis will be joined by veteran linebackers Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan that the Rams hope will make up for a lack of experience on the line. In the secondary the Rams made one of their biggest moves of the offseason signing Cortland Finnegan will lead the secondary with a number of young players in the fold. On special teams the youth movement continues with two rookie kickers and two rookie returners. The Rams are a work in progress with a number of young players and a brand new coaching staff. The Rams look to continue a downward slope as they rebuild the team from the bottom as they will be out of the playoffs again this year.

 

Strength:

Running Back

– The offence struggled last year with Sam Bradford taking a step back but the one constant has been Steven Jackson who will be featured again as the running game will be the best part of the offence with Isaiah Pead to relieve the pressure on Jackson

 

Weaknesses:

Passing Offence

– Sam Bradford took a massive step backwards in 2011 and this year does not look to be much better as he will have few weapons to work with and a brand new offence to learn in his third year

 

Biggest Addition:

Steve Smith, WR (Free Agent, Phi)

– The passing game lacked any true weapons and in the offseason the Rams went to look for one as they signed Steve Smith who is not the game changer that they need but can at least provide a solid target for Bradford

 

Biggest Loss:

Josh Brown, K (Free Agent, NYJ)

– With such a rookie team in St. Louis many would look to the special teams but in 2012 the Rams will also be without Josh Brown as his leaving means that no area of the Rams team will be without a learning curve

 

San Francisco 49ers

 

 

 

The San Francisco 49ers have one of the richest traditions in the NFC West as one of the classic teams in the NFL. The Niners have a winning tradition but since the middle 90s they have struggled to return to their winning ways. With that the Niners became a team that everyone marked on their calendar as a sure win. That all changed in 2011 though as San Francisco hired Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh to head up their team. The changed seemed eerily similar to a signing in the 1979 when they hired Stanford head coach Bill Walsh. When Bill Walsh came in to San Francisco the team was changed forever as they became the next NFL power for the 1980s and 1990s. The Niners were hoping that Harbaugh would have the same effect on a team that had struggled to be relevant since the early 1990s. In 2011 with his first NFL team Jim Harbaugh changed almost nothing from a team that missed the playoffs the year before yet still turned the team around. The Niners seemed to be back at their dominant ways as despite a team that didn’t look great on paper they won the division and looked on the path to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately the playoffs were not as kind to the Niners as a few mistakes in the return game ended their season losing to the eventual champion New York Giants. Still the 2011 season was a resurgence for the Niners as they got back to their winning ways in the 80s and 90s. A lot had to do with the introduction of Harbaugh as he seemingly worked his magic to change the team in one season. They looked completely different in the 2011 season and the Niners look to continue their upward trend. With Harbaugh back and the same team, minus a few tweaks, the Niners are hoping that they can repeat the performance of last year and take it to the Super Bowl.

The 49ers are a changed team with a new attitude under head coach Jim Harbaugh and that makes them dangerous. The Niners are a running team in a passing league as they boast one of the best running games in the league. Led by Frank Gore a running game with Brandon Jacobs, Kendall Hunter, and draftee LaMichael James has plenty of options to keep the backfield strong. The problems lie with the passing game and QB Alex Smith who did well managing a low risk pass game that focused on Vernon Davis making plays from the middle of the field. They could not stretch the field though as Smith seemed to lack the arm or the weapons to throw the deep pass. This year they added a number of receivers including Brett Swain, Mario Manningham, and A.J. Jenkins to help with the wide receiver depth. The biggest addition though was Randy Moss as the Niners added the veteran receiver to give Smith a true deep threat. If Smith can get the ball to Moss this year the Niners will have found that deep passing route that can make their offence complete. The 49ers will have a lot of questions on offence but the rock of the team will be the defence. The Niner defence is one of the best in the NFL as they ranked 4th in total yards and 1st in run defence. It was almost impossible to run against the 49ers in 2011 and that was mainly because of the play of defensive end Justin Smith and linebackers NaVarro Bowman and Patrick Willis. The run defence is solid with this trio of players up front and in the secondary it is the same situation with Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson, and Donte Whitner holding down the fort. The Niners have no real concerns on defence with clearly one of the best defences in the NFL if they can continue dispelling the age myth. Can the Niners begin to stretch the field with Randy moss or is Smith not meant to be that kind of QB. That main question will be the difference between a successful year and a disappointing year for San Francisco. On special teams punter Andy Lee and kicker David Akers are a powerful duo while Ted Ginn Jr. is a solid returner that can provide that something extra for the team. They will probably fight for the division title this year and if Smith can step up they will likely win it and have a chance at the Super Bowl and if he can’t then the season will be a toss-up.

 

Strength:

Defence

– The veteran defence is the strength of the Niners team as they rank among the best in the league in total yards allowed and were a force against the run but their biggest question will be if they can continue to stave off their age

 

Weakness:

Quarterback

– It is clear that Alex Smith is their biggest issue as he has yet to prove that he can stretch the field and instead has become a game manager and the success of the 2012 season will be on his shoulders and his ability to stretch the field

 

Biggest Addition:

Randy Moss, WR (Free Agent)

– The offence was based on short yardage last year because of the lack of deep threats so the Niners took a risk signing Moss after a season where he was out of football because of locker room issues but he will look to make his comeback as the new deep threat for the Niners

 

Biggest Loss:

Nobody

– The Niners lost a number of players but none of the players that left for other teams or sat in the free agent market were much more than role fillers as San Francisco will go into the 2012 season with essentially the same team that went to the NFC Conference Finals

 

Seattle Seahawks

 

 

 

The Seattle Seahawks have struggled for years yet have been a team that can still boast a number of division championships. It is not that the Seahawks were great but rather that they played in a division with no true challengers. 2010 was the last time the Seahawks won the division as they had a surprising season and playoff run. Even with that surprising playoff run the Seahawks still did not become a power in the division. 2011 humbled the Seahawks as they struggled all year to get anything going. It was not that the team was all that bad either as the Seahawks put together a solid team with few holes. It was once again the curse of the NFC West as the QB position was the major reason to why the Seahawks could only muster 7 wins in 2011. Tavaris Jackson was clearly not the QB for the job in Seattle as he could not do much even with some good weapons. As a result of the lack of QB play the Seahawks fell back to third place behind two teams that had made improvements. It was not the resurgence that Pete Carroll had hoped to bring to the Seahawks after having such a successful rookie year as the head coach. He failed to return to the playoffs although the 2010 year did not see them with a much better record than the year they made the playoffs. Still it was a step back as teams caught up to them and surpassed them while they stayed the same in the hopes that they would repeat their performance. It did not work and it left Carroll out of the playoffs in his second year back in the NFL. Now he will look towards a new year with a few new parts as he was one of the only teams in the division to try to fix their most glaring problem. Instead of giving Jackson another chance under centre the Seahawks went out to get a new QB as they hope that this one piece will change everything for the new season.

The biggest move for Pete Carroll came in the form of a new QB when the Seahawks signed free agent Matt Flynn to take over the offence. It was the one glaring weakness of the Seahawks as Tavaris Jackson was clearly not ready to be a starting QB. The signing of Flynn turned out to be worthless though as third round draft pick Russell Wilson beat out Flynn in the training camp battle to earn the starting job. He will have one former workhorse in Braylon Edwards who will give Wilson some weapons. There are question marks though as Edwards has not been the same wide out since leaving Cleveland struggling to repeat his production of his early years. Wilson will have some support in the backfield though as Marshawn Lynch has proven to be a big play running back that can relieve the pressure on the passing game. A big concern for the offence will be the line as the Seahawks will go with their young inexperienced offensive line in 2012. It will take a lot for Wilson to be successful in this offence but if he can put together some wins the future looks bright for the Seattle offence. On defence the Seahawks are still a work in progress as they have essentially thrown together a team that doesn’t look to provide much help. The one spot where they have built a foundation in is the secondary as the Seahawks have found those rare big defensive backs. Brandon Browner, 6’4”, Richard Sherman, 6’3”, and Kam Chancellor, 6’3”, are all big physical backs who cause problems for the opposition. Up front there is really only Chris Clemons who can put the pressure on quarterbacks while the rest of the line is not really that intimidating. The Linebacking corps is probably the worst part of the team with Barrett Ruud as the only impact player and even he is not going to change a game. One of the biggest bright spots for the Seahawks will be the return game as Leon Washington represents one of the most feared returners in the NFL. Meanwhile the offence will need to get far into the red zone with Steven Hauschka taking over kicking duties with a limited range.. If they get lucky and Wilson can carry the team they may fight for a wild card but I would hold my breath if I was a fan. It looks like another losing season for the Seahawks as they are a work in progress with some promising prospects for the future.

 

Strength:

Defensive Secondary

– It is rare to find defensive backs that are as tall or close to as tall as the wide receivers they cover but the Seahawks have found three of them in Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor who ranked 4th as a group in interceptions for 2011

 

Weakness:

Offence

– The only proven spot on the offence is the running back as Marshawn Lynch is a solid runner but other than that an unproven QB in Matt Flynn, an inexperienced offensive line, and a mediocre receiving corps makes the offence a big issue for the Seahawks

 

Biggest Addition:

Russell Wilson, QB (Draft)

– Despite the signing of free agent Matt Flynn the Seahawks saw something in their third round draft pick as Wilson will be the future of the Seahawks offence and will need to be the key to this offence if they hope to go far

 

Biggest Loss:

Nobody

– Yet another NFC West team that got rid of essentially nobody they did lose some people but all of those potential holes were filled quickly with upgrades as Seattle really did not see any type of downgrade from offseason losses

 

Prediction:

1. San Francisco 49ers

2. Arizona Cardinals

3. Seattle Seahawks

4. St. Louis Rams

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