Look at the picture under the Seahawks. This was the image that the NFC West had last year. Seattle running past and pushing away the rest of the division. Seattle won the division by 7 games and had virtually everything locked up quickly. The same could happen this year. Seattle really didn't get better....and, actually, everyone else in the division could improve...but none are in Seattle's class. Arizona is bearing down on them. Wait. Did I really say that??
COACH'S STATE: A year ago, Mike Holmgren was on the hot seat. Now, he's the defending NFC Champion coach. Holmgren has a pretty good thing going on....as he has his QB on the same page as him and an elite back. His defense, while not powerful, are decent. And remember that he knows how to repeat as a Super Bowl team.
BIGGEST ADDITION: WR Nate Burleson should have a breakout season. He is a great route runner, sure hands and breakaway speed....stuff that the Hawks really need. And stuff that makes for a great West Coast offense wide-out. He should be able to free up Darrell Jackson on the other side of the field.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: Steve Hutchinson will be missed a ton. With him on that o-line, the Seahawks were the best 4th and short teams and best at picking up a 3rd-and-1. Shawn Alexander can owe some of his big payday to Hutch. Whenever they needed a big run....Alexander just went to his right behind Hutchinson and Walter Jones to pick up yardage.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: Shawn Alexander. What!?!?! I know, dude just broke the TD record and had one of the best seasons a running back could ever have. Yep, and he got that MVP award too. But some around the league feel that with Alexander's big payday...he may not be as driven. Some feel he will be complacent. I mean, his big bad left guard is gone. He may be down a bit. I don't expect it...but with the recent history of Super Bowl runner up duds....nothing is impossible. Alexander is the motor of that offense and if doesn't show up like we all know he can...Seattle could have a struggle.
OFFENSE: Matt Hasselbeck tosses it around the field. Alexander picks up first downs. Alexander punches it in from the red zone. Easy to know....hard to stop.
DEFENSE: This isn't a great defense at all. It is solid...playing faster more than physical. Still, the team is a bending defense that can give up big plays and can get drove on. I mean, Lofa Tatupu is a great leader....but he was a rookie last year as he took the leadership role...which is kinda sad for a veteran team.
SCHEDULE: Seattle was the top dog last year, yet gets a somewhat easy skeddie. While the NFC East and South have blistering schedules, the West really doesn't. They match up with the NFC North and AFC South meaning that Detroit, Oakland, Green Bay and poor defenses Kansas City and Minnesota litter the schedule. So do the Niners, whom the Seahawks get twice...and the not-so-great defenses in Arizona and St Louis. And the Hawks happen to face off against two surprise division winners of a year ago, Chicago and Tampa. Not a cakewalk, but better than many Super Bowl participants get.
OUTLOOK: Seattle is the best team in this division, to me, in a route. And, really, they still are the best team in the NFC. Anything short of another Super Bowl run would be a disappointment....but, remember that recent Super Bowl losers haven't fared too well the next season. I see that trend ending this year [I said this same thing with last year's Eagles, though]. They may not be 13-3 good this year, but you don't have to be to dominate this division.
COACH'S STATE: Denny Green has put together quite an explosive offense. Adding Edgerrin James to that already firey receiving corps, he has the offense he really wants. His defense, while not great, is decent. Arizona has been knocking on the door the past couple of seasons...and Green needs to finally break it's way in. Not to say he's on a leash....but hecan't fail this season.
BIGGEST ADDITION: Some kid named Edge?? Edgerrin James gives the Cardinals a real running back for the first time since....well, who knows?? He can carry a workload as well as fitting right into the offense already in place. While the passing game isn't as good as the Colts...it's better than most of the NFL. And he should be able to have a big season even in the desert.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: Arizona really didn't lose anything but backup QB Josh McCown and DT Russell Davis. Davis will be missed more because depth is an area of concern on the defensive line. But his leaving won't be a grave loss.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: Not just one....but several. The Cardinals' offensive line must improve. There is talent in the skill positions for sure...but if the o-line cannot protect Kurt Warner, they won't be able to perform. Warner is injury prone and whenever pressured, he seems to go into the tank. His backup, Matt Leinart, may be NFL ready but it is rare that a rookie walks onto the field and dominantes. Protect Warner.
OFFENSE: Let's see. Warner won some MVP awards in his time. Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Edgerrin James and Eric Edwards. Pretty good talent at the skill positions. But, again, the problem lies in the line which is patchwork at best and has no depth. If they can't block....those weapons will be underutilized.
DEFENSE: A speedy defense...which means they will blitz a lot since they won't be able to hold off blockers that well. They have a solid front line....but have absolutely no depth. Injuries and fatigue could kill this unit. The linebackers aren't much to talk about either. Karlos Dansby is effective in the run and pass...but his linemates aren't. In the secondary, Adrian Wilson is a safety most people sleep on and Antrel Rolle is becoming a good corner. They just have some major depth issues all around.
SCHEDULE: Playing in the NFC West has it's advantages. They get the Niners twice and luck into some of the NFL's worst defenses. They get the Chiefs, Raiders, Packers and Vikings during the year. They also have the oddest sked I've seen. Starting Week 5...they play two at home....two on the road...two at home....two on the road...two at home....and two on the road.
OUTLOOK: The new stadium should be a boost for everyone...as they are selling tickets and it should be a great place for the Cards to call home. Arizona can be a playoff team. They have the offensive firepower to do so. The keys are [stick...meet dead horse] if the line can protect Warner and if Warner can stay healthy. James should help a ton in freeing up space for the receivers. But the team cannot afford any injuries everywhere....and we all know that in the NFL that isn't realistic. Personally, I think they battle for a playoff spot but come up just short.
3-ST LOUIS RAMS
COACH'S STATE: The Mike Martz era is over....and it was a messy divorce just as it was a messy marriage. It's Scott Linehan's team now. Linehand isn't the defensive guy they were looking for...but he's a "go get 'em" type of guy which could bring the team together [also, ex-Saints coach Jim Haslett was added to run the defense, so there is some experience there].
BIGGEST ADDITION: The Rams made several key additions...Will Witherspoon, Fakhir Brown, Todd Steussie. But it will be DT La'Roi Glover that may bring the biggest impact. Glover can eat up blockers and stuff runs....which should bring out the best in everyone around him...namely Witherspoon and Leonard Little.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: Losing S Adam Archuleta means the Rams lost the only feared thing from the defense. He was fast and a big hitter and made guys pay for crossing the middle.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: We can give Steven Jackson a mulligan so far. Under Martz, Jackson didn't get much of a chance at running the football. When he did get a shot...he was sometimes great, sometimes below average. And he has a bit of a durablity problem. Not good for a franchise that has just a blown-out-knees-ready-to-retire Marshall Faulk and Tony Fisher backing him up.
OFFENSE: When the Rams broke off Martz...they were looking to replace him with a defensive and running type of guy. Instead, they got a guy who like flinging the ball around. Linehan will run the ball more than Martz....and use shorter passes involving *gasp* tight ends. However, Linehan likes a speedy offense...meaning he wants his team to go, go, go.
DEFENSE: The Rams hired Haslett as sort of the "head coach of the defense". He will whip his defense into a better unit. It may take a while for it to get that way. There should be 6 new starters and his firey demeanor may take some time getting used to. There is talent all over the defense...it just hasn't been realized yet.
SCHEDULE: It is an odd mish mash. They get the Chargers, Seahawks and Panthers all on the road in a 4-week period....followed by a three game homestand. It isn't that hard to navigate thru...which could give the Rams that shot at being relevant this season. The wild thing is that they gotta face Edgerrin James [twice], LaDanlian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson, Shawn Alexander and Clinton Portis. Wow.
OUTLOOK: That above fact could be a downfall of their season. The offense is fine...just needs a bit more balance. The defense needs work...but they have the tools and the materials to put it together. St Louis needs a miracle to win the West...but a few breaks here and there and they could be a wildcard contender.
4-SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
COACH'S STATE: Mike Nolan is a good coach that is stuck in a bad situation. The Niners are a team filled with really young guys and no real ready made stars. He doubled the Niners win total from 2004 and must show improvement in the team to keep his job going.
BIGGEST ADDITION: Drafting TE Vernon Davis could be the best thing San Francisco could've done to help QB Alex Smith develop. Dude is fast...and huge. Last year, tight ends caught 17 passes for the Niners....worst in the NFL. Thatnumber should rise significantly this year. And with a guy that Smith feels comfortable with out there...it can only help him.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: The Niners lost two key players to the Redskins: LB Andre Carter and WR Brandon Lloyd. It will be Lloyd that should be missed most. The Niners do have depth there...but none are as good as Lloyd was.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: The running game. Somebody has got to take the job over and do something with it. Starter Kevan Barlow has just lost it: he doesn't explode thru holes as he once did. Heck, he barely finds them. His injuries last year allowed Frank Gore to take over the job...and he did pretty well. Well enough that he may end up being the starter. Either way, the Niners need someone to move the chains so that their young QB isn't forced to win games by himself.
OFFENSE: Those two backs should be relied on heavily. Norv Turner takes over the offense and he enjoys running the football a lot. That should work out well for Alex Smith and his development. If Gore and Barlow step up...and their new receivers getting involved...the Niners offense could be decent.
DEFENSE: The secondary sucks...as evidenced from the NFL worst pass defense. And they did nothing to improve it. So, the bulk of the load will come from the front seven who must find ways to put pressure on the quarterback. Not as easy with Carter and Julian Peterson gone now. Two rookies may be relied on in the linebacker area.
SCHEDULE: Nothing too difficult. They only have four games against teams that made the playoffs last year...and two are against division foe Seattle. They mainly stay out west...with only one game in the Eastern time zone.
OUTLOOK: The Niners aren't as horrid as they were a few years ago...but they still are far away from being where they want to be. The offense is a work in progress...but there is promise. The defense is a patchwork with some holes in it. A reasonable goal this year would be to get to 6-10...adding another two wins to their total from last year [which was a 2 game improvement from the year before].