2010 NFL Preview: NFC West Predictions

MIAMI - DECEMBER 14:  Head coach Mike Singletary of the San Francisco 49ers looks at a replay while taking on the Miami Dolphins at Dolphin Stadium on December 14, 2008 in Miami, Florida. The Dolphins defeated the 49ers 14-9.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

While it’s counterpart in the AFC is likely in store for a rough year as well, the NFC West is by far the worst division in football. The Cardinals are going through a major transition year, the Rams will be rebuilding for a couple of years and nobody quite knows what to make of Pete Carroll’s Seahawks.

That leaves the 49ers, who don’t come without their weaknesses but is definitely the team to beat this year in the West. Now it’s just up to Mike Singletary’s squad to execute.

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the NFC West in 2010. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes this season.

1. 49ers

What to Like: As you would expect from a Mike Singletary-led team, the 49ers can play a little defense. They finished a very average 15th in total defense last season, but stats don’t tell the whole story. The Niners finished sixth against the run last year by allowing just 97 yards per game, largely due to the play of inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who led the league in tackles. Takeo Spikes continues to be a steady veteran presence and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin is highly underrated. Staying on that side of the ball, Justin Smith may not put up flashy numbers, but he’s easily one of the best 3-4 ends in the league. Offensively, the Niners have a solid core in Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and second-year player Michael Crabtree. With more consistency at quarterback, this won’t be the dreadful unit it was at times last season.
What Not to Like: The offensive line is still a concern, although removing Adam Snyder from the starting right guard spot is a plus. There are high hopes for Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, but it’s usually not wise to rely on one rookie lineman, nevertheless two rookie linemen. There have also been mixed reviews on Alex Smith this offseason. Some think he’s ready to turn the corner, while others believe he’ll probably be just as inconsistent as ever. OC Jimmy Raye will try to balance the pass more with the run this year, which is a good thing because the team’s strengths is at running back. But Smith still has to step up and make plays when opponents successfully take away the run. Defensively, this is a unit that gave up 229.4 yards per game through the air last season, which means it needs better production out of Nate Clements, Shawntae Spencer and especially, free safety Dashon Goldson (who struggled in coverage last season).
Keep Your Eye On: The two rookie O-linemen
Iupati and Davis might be the difference between this team challenging for a division title and it failing to deliver on high expectations. Both players are excellent prospects but they’re going to have to grow up in a hurry because this team expects to compete this season.
The Final Word: If the Niners played in a more competitive division I’d be saying something along the lines of, “Improving team, but will probably come up just short of making the postseason.” But since they’ll be able to feast on the trash that is the NFC West, there’s little to no excuse for San Fran to win a division title this year. I’m not completely sold on Smith turning a new leaf, but there’s enough talent on both sides of the ball for this team to produce a 9-7 or 10-6 record. I don’t foresee them advancing in the playoffs unless a couple of players overachieve, but I still think this is a solid football team and you know they’re going to compete every week under Singletary. Plus, don’t forget that the year the Cardinals went to the Super Bowl, they were highly average in the regular season, only to turn it on during the playoffs. I’m not saying…I’m just saying.

San Francisco 49ers 2010 Question Mark: Offensive Line

2. Cardinals

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 27:  Running back Beanie Wells #26 of the Arizona Cardinals carries on a three yard touchdown run iun the fourth quarter against the St. Louis Rams on December 27, 2009 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.   The Cardinals won 31-10.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

What to Like: Although he won’t have Anquan Boldin lining up opposite him any more in the offense, Larry Fitzgerald remains the Cards’ biggest playmaker. Assuming Derek Anderson can get him the ball, he’ll once again have plenty of opportunities to make things happen in the passing game. In the backfield, the Cards have a future stud in Beanie Wells, although Tim Hightower is still going to get looks early in the season. Steve Breaston also gets to show what he can do in a full-time role now that Boldin is in Baltimore. Defensively, I love the addition of free safety Kerry Rhodes, who was a miscast in Rex Ryan’s defense but who once again showed superb tackling with the Jets last season. He’ll line up next to the most underrated strong safety in the game in Adrian Wilson. The Cards also have two young, talented corners in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and the improving Greg Toler. Up front, the duo of Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett at defensive end is excellent.
What Not to Like: One of the many things that Kurt Warner did well was mask the offensive line’s poor pass protection over the years. Warner knew how to get the ball out of his hands quickly – Anderson doesn’t, which obviously could be a huge problem if the O-line continues to struggle in pass protection. Speaking of Anderson, he has all the tools to be a strong leader but he hasn’t done anything since 2007 when he almost led the Browns to the playoffs. He was brutal last season, compiling a TD-to-INT ratio of 3:10. Defensively, the loss of linebacker Karlos Dansby was massive. As I wrote in the Dolphins preview, he’s the best all-around linebacker in the game in that he can play the run and hang with tight ends and backs in coverage. Pass rush will also be a major concern, even though the team added Joey Porter. He has consistently put up good sack numbers over the years, but he doesn’t provide enough pressure on a play-to-play basis to say that pass rush won’t be a problem.
Keep Your Eye On: Beanie Wells
I don’t care if he’s currently listed behind Tim Hightower on the depth chart: Beanie Wells will be the full-time starter at some point very early in the season. While he got off to a slow start last year because of an injury, Wells turned it on down the stretch and proved that he could be a playmaker out of the backfield. Hightower is still listed as the starter because he’s much better than Wells in blitz pick up (something young players tend to struggle with), but there’s no doubt that the Cardinals’ running game is more explosive when Beanie is in the game. He is their future.
The Final Word: If Anderson can rekindle the magic he had in ’07, then the Cardinals will compete with the 49ers for the division crown. But given how bad he has looked over the past two seasons, Arizona fans shouldn’t count on him being the answer. And if he struggles, does this team have enough trust in Matt Leinart to get the job done? Will he even make the roster? Thanks to Fitzgerald, Wells and Breaston, the Cards have plenty of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball to be dangerous. But the O-line didn’t play well in preseason and pass protection will be an issue. I think their defense will be on the field a lot and considering the lack of a pass rush will be a concern, I’m not sold on this team returning to the playoffs.

Arizona Cardinals 2010 Question Mark: Quarterback

3. Seahawks

SEATTLE - AUGUST 21: Head coach Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks congratulates players after the Seahawks scored a touchdown in the first half during the preseason game against the Green Bay Packers at Qwest Field on August 21, 2010 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

What to Like: Nobody knows if Pete Carroll will pan out but the good news is that he’s not Jim Mora, who struggles to make in-game adjustments and whose teams are usually unprepared. Carroll has won in this league before and was obviously very successful at USC, so it’s just a matter of if the players will respond to his style. Even though the Hawks finished 24th in total defense last year, the unit has a couple of nice playmakers, starting with defensive tackle Brandon Mebane and middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who returns from an injury-riddled 2009 season. If young players like Aaron Curry and Earl Thomas can make an impact from Week 1, this defense will definitely be improved. Offensively, adding Leon Washington to a backfield that also features sleeper Justin Forsett was a good move by the front office and rookie receiver Golden Tate will turn some heads once he gets his hands on the ball.
What Not to Like: Seattle’s biggest concern heading into the draft was offensive tackle and they did well by selecting massive Oklahoma State product Russell Okung. But Okung suffered a high ankle sprain a couple of weeks ago and now it appears that Mansfield Wrotto will start the season at left tackle, which is a grave concern. Matt Hasselbeck has always been an underrated quarterback, but does he have one more year left in him? He better, because Charlie Whitehurst has done nothing to prove that he deserves a look as the starting gig. After signing him to a five-year $40 million contract just last year, the Hawks already want to dump T.J. Houshmandzadeh, whose skills are eroding. Whether they trade him, release him or he stays on the roster, the massive free agent flop won’t make much of an impact this season. Defensively, unless Curry can figure things out in a hurry, the pass rush will likely be an issue all year. Marcus Trufant is also coming off a poor ‘09 campaign and even though the team is high on Thomas, it’s always a little uneasy to trust a rookie at any position.
Keep Your Eye On: Justin Forsett
Why the Seahawks continue to play Julius Jones when Forsett is clearly the more explosive player is beyond me. Although with that being said, Forsett needs to prove that he can take the pounding too. He has the speed and agility to be a major weapon in Seattle’s offense, but he needs someone (Washington preferably) to split carries with because he’s not a full-time player. Still, Forsett has a ton of talent and could put himself on the map if he doesn’t wear down throughout the year.
The Final Word: It would be easy to suggest that since the Seahawks have improved in some areas that they’re going to contend. But even playing in a weak NFC West I think this team is going to struggle to win more than six or seven games. Carroll has already put his stamp on this franchise and that’s a good thing. But again, he has to get the players to buy into his system or else this experiment will fail before it even gets off the ground. This is a team that couldn’t stay healthy last year and they sunk. Assuming everyone stays relatively injury-free, they could be a surprise contender. But even then, I think the Hawks have too many holes.

Seattle Seahawks 2010 Question Mark: Offensive Line

4. Rams

St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford looks to pass the ball against the New England Patriots in the first quarter of their NFL preseason football game in Foxborough, Massachusetts August 26, 2010.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder  (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

What to Like: When healthy, Steven Jackson is the star of this team and a player that can be relied on to produce every week. The offensive line, while not quite there yet, is improving and if Jason Smith can make strides in his second year this unit might even become a strength. Thus far, the team has to love what it has seen out of No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford, even though expectations should be tempered. Laurent Robinson has breakout candidate written all over him, but he has to stay healthy – something he hasn’t been able to do so far as a pro. Defensively, the strength of the unit is at linebacker and is held together by second year player James Laurinaitis, who was outstanding as a rookie last season. A lot is also expected out of former No. 2 overall pick Chris Long, who is heading into his third year (which is when the game usually starts to click for defensive linemen).
What Not to Like: Bradford played well in preseason but he’s only a rookie and he’s going to need time to mature. Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan succeeded in their first years, but they also had more talent around them. Robinson and fellow receiver Danny Amendola could potentially turn out to be a nice duo, but the receiving corps is incredibly weak as a whole. Defensively, Ron Bartell was handed a nice contract last offseason and then he struggled mightily in coverage. That’s not good considering the other side will be manned by Kevin Dockery, who was brutal with the Giants last year. Craig Dahl and O.J. Atogwe are fine safeties, but Atogwe can be hit or miss.
Keep Your Eye On: Mardy Gilyard
Even though he has failed to make an impression thus far, Gilyard has a ton of talent and could be an explosive player in this league. Donnie Avery was lost to a season-ending injury, so Gilyard will have opportunities to shine if he can play catch up (he missed OTAs due to Cincinnati’s late graduation). If he does, he could provide the spark that the Rams desperately need on offense.
The Final Word: The Rams are improving but they have a long way to go. As is the case with the Lions, they just don’t have enough overall talent to be competitive on a weekly basis. If the O-line plays up to its potential and Bradford plays well as a rookie, then this team won’t be completely inept like it was last year. But still, expecting too much too soon out of a rookie quarterback is a mistake. He’s going to turn heads at times and he’s going to make dumb decisions as well. That’s just what rookies do. Hopefully in due time the Rams can start competing again but as of right now, you’re probably looking at the worst team in the league for the second straight year.

St. Louis Rams 2010 Question Marks: Receiver and Secondary

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

Related Posts