As I evaluate the final 53 man roster for each of the NFC West teams, I see several question marks and some glaring weakness.
San Francisco 49ers. Coach Singletary is preaching to his football team, with a good mix of youth and veterans, “staying focused and win one game at a time, while maintaining consistency”. The 2009 team took a turn for the worse with a 2-6 stretch run that ultimately derailed their playoff hopes. As the NFL is a quarterback driven league, Alex Smith must play at a high level in order for the Niners to achieve their goal of winning the division. He played very well in the back end of 2009. They secured the offensive front by drafting Idaho’s Mike Iupati (OG) and Rutgers Anthony Davis (OT), both in the first round. Defense for San Francisco will set the tone and carry this team into the playoffs. They have built their defense thru the draft, while filling hot spots through free agency. They have playmakers on the edge with Michael Crabtree (WO), Josh Morgan (WO), Pro Bowl TE Vernon Davis, and Ted Ginn Jr. is the key to their return game. If Frank Gore can stay healthy, this is a potent offensive attack, and will take pressure off of Smith. On defense they are extremely talented and a fast, hard hitting bunch led by Pro Bowler Patrick Willis.
The Arizona Cardinals are a team in transition. They lost a huge chunk of leadership and their offensive playmakers with the retirement of Kurt Warner (future Hall of Famer), and the departure of receiver Anquan Boldin. Defensively they lost Antrel Rolle and Karlos Dansby to free-agency. They are still solid in Coaching led by Ken Whisenhunt, who masterminded the run to Super Bowl 2008. The two headed monster at running back – Bennie Wells and Tim Hightower – are enough for defensive coordinators to loose sleep over, possibly the best one-two punch in the NFL. They have arguably one of the top three receivers in the NFL in Larry Fitzgerald. Despite suffering an MCL strain early in preseason, he looks to continue his big play ability. The versatile Steve Breaston played well last season when Boldin was sidelined with injuries; he will complement Fitzgerald. The offensive line is intact and received a boost with the signing of Alan Faneca during the off season. With that upgrade the offensive line will continue its cohesiveness while opening holes for the running game and protecting the pocket. Arizona’s biggest question mark is QB play. Derek Anderson has been named the starter. Matt Leinart was cut and the team moves forward. Anderson’s job is to manage the offense and eliminate mistakes. Hard hitting safety Adrian Wilson and Darnell Dockett lead the junk yard dog defense. They added veteran linebacker Joey Porter to the mix, and with the continued growth of Calais Campbell (DE) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (DC), the Redbird defense still can bring pressure and big play ability.
Seattle Seahawks: In the great northwest is the team that is really unknown. New head coach Pete Carroll made several changes to the organization and the roster. Coach opened up every position to competition; his goal to create the same level of urgency and competition between players like he did at USC. The leader of the offense is still Matt Hasselbeck, the aged veteran with injury history despite production. Long in the tooth on defense and especially in the secondary, Coach Carroll continues to add key components to the team while upgrading the roster. The ‘Hawks drafted Russell Okung (OT) out of Oklahoma St to replace the retired Pro Bowler and 13 year veteran Walter Jones. Seattle depth is light at receivers – they were unable to secure some big name free agents, and the release of T.J. Houshmandzadeh has left Hasselbeck with very few playmakers on the edge. The draft day trade for running back Leon Washington from the Jets might prove to be a key addition and carries hope for a depleted group lacking size. I like their all around Tight End John Carlson; he’s an adequate blocker, but he has exceptional receiving skills and route running ability to stretch the secondary. The defense needs to discover a true pass rusher despite solid inside play from Brandon Mebane (DT). The middle is held down by veteran linebacker Lofa Tatupu; despite his injury history he is the bell cow of the defense and needs second year backer Aaron Curry to step up and produce consistently. Rookie Earl Thomas (Strong Safety) was added thru the draft and is a huge upgrade – he will be a playmaker in the back end. I coached Lawyer Malloy at the University of Washington in the mid 90’s; he is at his best when in and around the box and a liability in coverage because of age.
The St. Louis Rams are a young team. The worst thing about the 2009 season was the 1-15 record; the best thing about moving forward is franchise quarterback Sam Bradford. With the departure of Mark Bulger, this opened the door for the Rams to draft, in my opinion, the best quarterback the last fifteen years coming out of college. With Bradford teamed with Steve Jackson, Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo continues to work on building of a championship foundation. Still needing several pieces, the Rams brain trust must continue to add playmakers on both offense and defense. With Donnie Avery on IR and Laurent Robinson coming off a knee injury, Danny Amendola, Keenan Burton, Brandon Gibson and newly drafted Mardy Gilyard will have to produce as a unit. The Rams did a good job drafting two young Tight Ends that will help offensively as well as special teams in Michael Hoomanawanui (Illinois) and basketball turned football player Fendi Onobun (HOUSTON). The offensive line is flanked by two young bookend tackles, Jason Smith (second year) and 2010 second round draft pick Rodger Saffold. Defensively the Rams must manufacture pressure on the opponents quarterback as a unit. Defensive end Chris Long must step up and create sacks off the edge, while James Laurinaitis and crew police the middle of the field. Oshiomogho Atogwe, the quarterback of the secondary must pick up his ball hawking production like in 2007/’08 to help the defense produce turnovers. The bottom line for the Rams: Pray that nothing happens to Workhorse Steven Jackson.
San Francisco -Favorite to win the NFC West Division – 10-6
Arizona Cardinals – Quarterback play is key – 8-8
Seattle Seahawks – Who are they? What are they? – 7-9
St. Louis Rams – Despite good Quarterback play, playmakers and depth are an issue – 5-11