The NFC West was one of the least active divisions in the free agent market this year with WR Mario Manningham, DB Cortland Finnegan, QB Matt Flynn, RB Brandon Jacobs and CB William Gay among the bigger names to become members of teams who reside in the division. Otherwise, most player movement came from those on the fringe of making rosters for 2012.
San Francisco returns all but three if its primary 22 starters from a year ago. The 49ers They added an improved wide receiver corps to give Alex Smith a more productive set of threats. The Niners will be attempting to put back-to-back winning seasons together for the first time since 2000 and 2001.
The free agent signing of former Stanford wideout Chris Owusu could be interesting. He played for current head coach Jim Harbaugh and has great speed, but has been victimized by multiple concussions in his college career and dropped completely out of the draft.
San Fran stayed amazingly healthy on both sides of the ball last year, which led to the 13-3 record. Asking for a repeat of that good fortune is too much to expect and the depth on this roster is very thin. Any significant loss of player-games to injury could be a serious blow to the Niners' chances of repeating their solid 2011 campaign. Sixty-one teams went 13-3 or better from 1978 through 2010, and only five were able to reach 13 wins or better the following season.
They need better offensive line play to avoid the 44 sacks that Smith suffered last year. They also benefitted from a plus-28 turnover margin.
Everything fell into place for the Niners in 2011, and while they will be better in the second year under Harbaugh, I would be surprised if they repeat the 13 wins with injuries and turnover margin both regressing to the mean.
The Seahawks were among the most active in the free agent market among NFC West clubs this offseason, picking up Flynn from Green Bay along with WR Sidney Rice, TE Kellen Winslow and Zach Miller among others. Seattle also drafted Russell Wilson from Wisconsin and NC State, who despite concerns about his height may turn out to be the “sleeper” of this draft class. Flynn is not a shoo-in as the starter despite the big contract.
Seattle’s defense finished seventh in points allowed last year and added eight players in the 2012 draft, most in the NFL, despite finishing 23rd in offensive scoring. Tom Cable, former head man at Oakland, joins the staff as Pete Carroll’s offensive line coach. That area needs serious attention.
The Seahawks can improve on last season if they get better quarterback play and more production from the pass catching wide receivers. First-round pick Bruce Irvin from West Virginia will add power to the defensive front. The additions of Deuce Lutui from Arizona and Frank Omiyale from the Bears could help, but they were cut loose from those teams due to contract size and lack of production so they may not be the impact players that Seattle so desperately needs.
Tarvaris Jackson played most of last year with a torn pectoral muscle at quarterback and failed to make much of an impression with his play. That position has the most pressure under it to produce this season. If Cable can improve the offensive line woes, the Seahawks could make the postseason in 2012. A 9-7 record could be enough to secure a Wild Card spot in 2012.
The St. Louis Rams have made the biggest splash this offseason, signing Jeff Fisher to run the show and purging most of their defensive secondary from 2011, which was torched regularly in the passing game last year. Cortland Finnegan will step in the bring a ballhawk to the back five and lead his teammates with his aggressive play, bordering on cheapshots.
Draft choice Janoris Jenkins has a world of talent, but was booted from multiple universities due to his off-field issues. If he can become a good citizen, he will be a player that along with Finnegan can vastly improve a secondary that struggled in coverages last season.
The Rams moved down in the draft by trading with Washington who wanted Robert Griffin III from Baylor with the second pick. The Rams were able to stockpile multiple first and high round draft picks from the Redskins, and they used their own high picks to fill needs in the defensive backfield and on the offensive line.
St. Louis also signed Steve Smith, formerly of the New York Giants, to go along with Danario Alexander, Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson at the WR spot. None of these are gamebreaker types, but it does improve the options for Sam Bradford, based on a healthy full season from Bradford and Amendola. Offensive line is still a need area, but the franchise has slowly moved in the right direction. Steven Jackson is on the downhill side of his solid career, but without line help he will be hard-pressed to remain healthy and productive.
The Rams finished dead last in scoring and produced only nine offensive touchdowns in 2011. The defense was doubled up in scoring and allowed more than 30 points in five games. They likely had more games lost to player injury than any other NFL franchise last season which directly led to the 2-14 record. That 2-14 record will be improved upon just due to Fisher and the new faces, but anything above five wins would be considered a success as they move forward.
Arizona finished at 7-9 last season mainly due to inefficient quarterback play and sloppy defense. The Cardinals allowed 12 touchdowns over the final nine games to show some signs of turning the corner defensively. They return 10 of the 11 starters from last year from that side of the ball, losing only corner Richard Marshall, but the linebacking group needs to improve greatly in pass defense.
Kevin Kolb has shown an inclination to panic when dropping back and facing pressure from the defensive front, throwing balls into traffic and making bad reads. John Skelton stepped in when Kolb went down with injury but the production wasn’t as great as hoped, even for a backup. Losing Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston didn’t help matters, but Larry Fitzgerald was his usual productive self in the receiving game.
Offensive line consistency will be huge as Kolb and Skelton compete for the starter’s role since the Cards had virtually no rush attack to speak of in 2011. Taking the pressure off the quarterback and limiting mistakes with the football are keys for Ken Wisenhunt’s crew as they move forward. Left tackle has been a glaring weakness and the reason that the sacks and pressures have forced so many turnovers. They drafted another wideout with their first pick in Michael Floyd from Notre Dame, a somewhat curios selection given the needs that need addressed at other positions.
I am looking at undrafted free agent Marcus McGraw from the University of Houston to possibly make an impact on defense. McGraw comes from a 12-1 team that was in the hunt for a BCS slot, and he was outstanding in the Cougars' scheme but was not selected in the seven rounds of the NFL Draft. He brings the skills that may make an impact at a spot where Arizona needs help greatly, inside linebacker. Look out for him in preseason play as he led UH in tackles over his career.
The Cardinals won seven of their final nine games to make up somewhat for the 1-6 start, but another slow start in an improved division will mark an early end to their hopes of 2012. Nothing will come easy as those seven wins came by an average of only 4.25 points per game, the slimmest margin of victory of any team since at least 1970. A play here and there against them could make that margin of error even slimmer in the upcoming season.
||To Win Super Bowl
||To Win NFC