ST. LOUIS RAMS
Coach: Steve Spagnuolo (third year, 8-24)
Last year: 7-9 (did not make playoffs)
Comings: S Quintin Mikell (Philadelphia), G Harvey Dahl (Atlanta), WR Mike Sims-Walker (Jacksonville), RB Cadillac Williams (Tampa Bay), CB Al Harris (Miami), DE Robert Quinn (rook
ie), TE Lance Kendricks (rookie), WR Austin Pettis (rookie).
Goings: S Oshiomogho Atogwe (Washington), LB Larry Grant (San Francisco), OG John Greco (Cleveland), TE Daniel Fells (Denver), WR Laurent Robinson (San Diego), LB Na’il Diggs (San Diego), DE George Selvie (Carolina)
Quarterback: Sam Bradford, last year’s top pick, needed only one season to establish himself as the best quarterback in the division and looks like a legitimate star in the making. With few offensive weapons around him aside from running back Steven Jackson, Bradford didn’t put up monster numbers, but still set several rookie records and was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Biggest question mark
Big-play threats: As good as Bradford was last season, the Rams weren’t a threat to rip off big chunks of yardage. The addition of Mike Sims-Walker should help Bradford and rookie Austin Pettis has potential, but Bradford is still lacking a truly elite target. In the running game, Steven Jackson is as tough as they come, but isn’t regarded as a home-run threat.
The Rams made a big leap last year, going from 1-15 in 2009 to nearly making the playoffs. A young defense that was the team’s strength last year should only get better. With Bradford leading the way, the Rams have to be the favorites in a wide-open division.
Projected record: 9-7
Coach: Pete Carroll (second year with Seahawks, 40-40 in five NFL seasons)
Last year: 7-9 (won NFC West, lost in divisional round of playoffs)
Comings: QB Tarvaris Jackson (Minnesota), WR Sidney Rice (Minnesota), G Robert Gallery (Oakland), TE Zach Miller (Oakland), T James Carpenter (rookie), G John Moffitt (rookie), CB Brandon Browner (CFL), DT Alan Branch (Arizona), K Steven Hauschka (Denver).
Goings: QB Matt Hasselbeck (Tennessee), LB Lofa Tatupu (released), SS Lawyer Milloy (unsigned), C Chris Spencer (Chicago), T Sean Locklear (Washington), CB Kelly Jennings (Cincinnati), DT Colin Cole (released), K Olindo Mare (Carolina).
Run defense: Through six games, the Seahawks ranked second in the NFL in run defense last season, and not coincidentally, Seattle had a 4-2 record. In Game 7, the Seahawks lost two starters on the D-line and the run defense — and the defense as a whole — fell off dramatically. DE Red Bryant is healthy after undergoing knee surgery last season and the re-signing of DT Brandon Mebane was important. The Seahawks also added depth on the line with the hope that, should injuries happen again, the drop-off won’t be so dramatic.
Biggest question mark
Offensive line: It would be easy to say quarterback considering Seattle made a change there for the first time in a decade, but based on preseason games, the line has to be the biggest concern. With Russell Okung battling an ankle injury and two rookies manning the right side of the line, Jackson has been under near constant siege when he drops back to pass, and the running game has been inconsistent. This group has the talent to be very good in the future, the question is how good it will be in the present.
This looks like a team with a bright future, but it could be a challenge for the Seahawks to play well right away. A tough schedule early will only make the growing pains more difficult for a young offensive line and new quarterback. But if the Seahawks can be near .500 at the halfway point of the season, they could contend for a second straight division title in what should again be a down NFC West.
Projected record: 7-9
Coach: Ken Whisenhunt (fifth year, 32-32)
Last year: 5-11 (did not make playoffs)
Comings: QB Kevin Kolb (Philadelphia), CB Patrick Peterson (rookie), TE Todd Heap (Baltimore), LG Daryn Colledge (Green Bay), LB Stewart Bradley (Philadelphia), DE Vonnie Holliday (Washington), FB Anthony Sherman (rookie).
Goings: WR Steve Breaston (Kansas City), G Alan Faneca (retired), CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Philadelphia), QB Derek Anderson (Carolina) DL Alan Branch (Seattle), RB Tim Hightower (Washington), LB Gerald Hayes (unsigned), TE Ben Patrick (retired).
Defensive line: DT Darnell Dockett and DE Calais Campbell make a formidable duo, and will bookend NT Dan Williams, a first-round pick last year who steps into the starting lineup. The Cardinals hope a secondary bolstered by first-round pick Patrick Peterson can make the defense good in the back end as well, but for now, Arizona will once again be best at the line of scrimmage.
Biggest question mark
Quarterback: This position isn’t a question mark because the Cardinals are uncertain about Kolb, but for exactly the opposite reason. Arizona was so sold on Kolb that they gave up a Pro-Bowl cornerback in Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick, then signed Kolb to a massive, long-term contract. In other words, the Cardinals had better be right about Kolb, who has just seven starts and a 73.2 career passer rating. If Kolb is what the Cardinals are hoping, they’re division contenders right away. If not, the move could set Arizona back for years.
After back-to-back division titles, the Cardinals fell on their face last year and finished in last place. There is still talent on this roster, however, and if Kolb turns out to be the solution at quarterback, Arizona could quickly find itself back on top of the division.
Projected record: 7-9
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Coach: Jim Harbaugh (first year)
Last year: 6-10 (did not make playoffs)
Comings: WR Braylon Edwards (NY Jets), CB Carlos Rogers (Washington), K David Akers (Philadelphia), C Jonathan Goodwin (New Orleans), S Donte Whitner (Buffalo), LB Aldon Smith (rookie), QB Colin Kaepernick (rookie).
Goings: NT Aubrayo Franklin (New Orleans), C/G David Baas (NY Giants), CB Nate Clements (Cincinnati), LB Manny Lawson (Cincinnati), LB Takeo Spikes (San Diego), LB Travis LaBoy (San Diego), C Eric Heitmann (retired).
Run defense: The 49ers ranked sixth in the league in run defense last year, allowing just 96.7 yards per game. They’ve lost two of their best run stoppers in Franklin and Spikes, but they still have two-thirds of their defensive line in Isaac Sopoaga and Justin Smith, one of the best 3-4 ends in the league, and Pro-Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis on the inside.
Biggest Question Mark
Quarterback: Alex Smith enters his seventh season having never passed for 3,000 yards or 20 touchdowns in a season. He also has never had a winning year as a starter and has lost 31 of 50 career starts. It hasn’t all been Smith’s fault, however. He’s had some shaky offensive lines and a revolving door of coaches. In Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback, Smith could finally have a coach who can help him reach his potential.
The 49ers flopped as division favorites last year, and it could be a struggle this season as they learn under a new coaching staff. Even so, that defense has a lot of talent, and if Smith can emerge as a legitimate starting quarterback — granted, that’s a big if — there’s no reason San Francisco can’t be in the mix.
Projected record: 5-11