The most tense QB competitions in the NFL seemed to reside in the NFC West. Let’s begin with the Kevin Kolb- John Skelton feud that transpired for the Arizona Cardinals. Despite Arizona sacrificing multiple assets to acquire the green quarterback when he wore emerald in Philadelphia, Kolb has failed to firmly capture the reigns and hearts of the Cardinal faithful. Skelton won the battle out of camp and will be the starter while Kolb and his lucrative salary ($12 million guaranteed) idle on the bench, when the franchise also surrendered CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second round draft choice. It’s been obvious for a while that the players and coaches feel more comfortable with Skelton conducting the offense as he tends to stand more firm and confident in the pocket. Regardless of the ambiguous nature of the QB position, Arizona touts All-World receiver Larry Fitzgerald to make life more manageable while also adding the physically-imposing WR Michael Floyd from Notre Dame with their mid first-rounder to take pressure off of Larry Fitz. It must be said that Floyd has gotten off to a slow start and not instilled the brand of confidence expected of a top 15 pick. The top four of the receiving corps is rounded out by mainstay Early Doucet and Andre Roberts, who quietly had a nice preseason.
Arizona has a pretty depth unit at halfback. While none are spectacular yet, Beanie Wells runs efficiently between the tackles and second year player Ryan Williams from VT returns after missing all of 2011. Don’t sleep on KR Larod Stephens-Howling to carry the rock and showing more than his typical third down duties. Offensive line coach Russ Grimm NEEDS to get the most out of his unit, as most of the line is not very reliable and a definite concern of the entire offense. They will have to do it without LT Levi Brown, who is out for 2012 with a torn triceps. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but now subpar veteran D’Anthony Batiste will start on Skelton’s left but Bobby Massie could possibly move over from RT and play the other bookend. Grimm will need to have LG Daryn Colledge, C Lyle Sendlein and RG Adam Snyder to be on their ‘A’ game all season long. At this point in time, they appear to be one of the worst units in the NFL. It’s obvious that Todd Heap will never play the TE position up to his former Pro Bowl level in Baltimore but he is a savy vet capable of decent stats. Rob Housler looks to fulfill the explosive role that modern TE’s have evolved into but the problem is, he has issues setting his blocks.
Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton saw his defense improve drastically in the second half of ’11-’12 after a pitiful start. Budding superstar CB Patrick Peterson showed off early as an electrifying punt returner but look for his to become a solid blanket of resistance at his main position with his many servings and doses of athletic talent. Behind him are reliable veteran safeties Adrian Wilson, who is the defense’s version of Mr. Cardinal, and Kerry Rhodes who came over from the Jets a season ago. Former Steeler William Gay will play opposite Peterson at CB and former Patriot James Sanders looks to factor into the dime and nickel packagaes. The key pieces of Horton’s 3-4 base will be rising star DE Calais Campbell, one of the most underrated players in the NFL and steady walk-and-talker Darnell Dockett who boasts great athleticism and speed yet is still hard to run on. O’Brien Schofield and Sam Acho look to provide the pass-rushing as the two edge linebackers but NT Dan Williams needs to improve and have his teammates confident he will eat up blocks for Dockett, Campbell, the aforementioned linebackers and the interior ‘backers Paris Lenon and Daryl Washington. Arizona’s defense could be much more steady and consistent from the jump than they were to start last season.
It seems head coach Ken Whisenhunt is either being very coy about his squad thus far or not very confident that they can make a splash this year. Either way, Arizona looks to be a medicore team with decent upside and very fortunate to play in a division that only has one menacing NFC contender.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
As is just so happens, the previously warned powerhouse of the NFC West is none other than our next team, the Niners. San Fran was extremely close to a Super Bowl birth, getting mildly outclassed by Eli Manning in the NFC Championship with some untimely special teams gaffes in their final game. Previously rocky QB Alex Smith showed some guts in his improving play and head coach Jim Harbaugh quickly took iron fist control of one of the NFL’s most decorated franchises. The 49ers are a confident bunch, rightfully so. Not only did they bolster their offense with the mercurial yet generational stud receiver Randy Moss, they signed Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham and fellow champion teammate, the Juggernaut back-breaker, tailback Brandon Jacobs. Jacobs and elusive rookie LaMichael James look to aid veteran workhorse Frank Gore for a more balanced rushing attack. Despite losing WR Josh Morgan to the Redskins, San Francisco has fairly deep options at WR. Besides Moss and Manningham, Michael Crabtree returns looking to improve and live up to his bill as a number one option. The team also drafted receiver A.J. Jenkins at the tail end of the first round out of Illinois. Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke wanted to add more explosion to the offense after being forced to play a more conservative, possession controlled game to compliment the stingy and athletic defense.
LT Joe Staley is proving to be a steady option and a hell of a performer for the Niners’ offensive line, who ranked eighth in rushing offense last season. Mike Iupati is a mauling guard who is in his second season along with the RT Anthony Davis, both chosen in the first round in 2010. Johnathan Goodwin is a veteran who pleased coaches last season with his play at center yet San Francisco aims to make former T Alex Boone slide over and play right guard to replace Adam Snyder, who signed with Arizona. This group is very solid and wants to create lanes for Gore, Jacobs and James yet create comfortable pockets for Alex Smith, who I still am not sold on as being a Super Bowl caliber quarterback. Then again, Trent Dilfer was technically a Super Bowl winning QB too. One luxury the 49ers have is at the TE position, where Vernon Davis continues to climb the ranks as one of the best while also using the sneaky Delanie Walker who works as a FB/TE hybrid and very effective on wheel routes.
The defense of the San Francisco 49ers was certainly it’s strong suit in their pursuit of a Lombardi last season and big things are expected once again. The man in the middle at linebacker leads this phase of the squad and former Ole Miss star Patrick Willis proves to be the heir apparent to Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher as the best MLB in the game for the new generation. The rest of the front seven ain’t too shabby either. The defensive line yielded an NFL low 77.3 yards rushing per game as well as 3.5 yards per carry. All Pro DE Justin Smith was an unstoppable force of wreckage, teaming up with Ray McDonald and Issac Sopoaga in the front line trenches. Off the edge linebacker position of the 3-4 are the young and disrupting Ahmad Brooks and second year phenom Aldon Smith. Not only is Smith an excellent all-around playmaking linebacker, he also had my favorite sack celebration of the year as seen in this hilarious remembrance from 2011: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtJQ4c668Hw. Rising star NaVorro Bowman plays inside next to Ole Patty Willis. We are all blessed to see this unit operate.
CB Carlos Rogers earned a very well-deserved first Pro Bowl nod in his first season with the Niners as he shut down major receivers and dominated games. It seems the most problematic aspect of Rogers’ game was rectified as he finally learned to ctach and hold on to a pigskin, recording 6 INTs. These numbers helped the San Francisco defense rank second in interceptions with 23. Tarell Brown also played very steadily, snagging four opposing passes and helping ball-hawk Dashon Goldson at safety and allowing strong safety Donte Whitner to lay heavy hits for an extremely balanced and formidable attack on defense. CB Chris Culliver will aid the team in nickel and dime situations.
Injuries withstanding, the 49ers are the cream of the crop in the NFC heading into the season. Perhaps Green Bay or Philadelphia can thwart their goal of a sixth Super Bowl title but expect the Niners to run away with the NFC West crown and be playing into February if all goes according to plan. They have the leadership, the defense, more explosion on offense and a rejuvenated Bay Area crowd. All this hinges on the continued evolution of QB Alex Smith. If he digresses, he will be the scapegoat for the team’s woes.
The other NFC West strenuous QB camp comp was regulated to Pete Carroll’s new look Seattle Seahawks. When I say new look I’m not just referring to the transformations Nike made to the uniforms. Seattle made their biggest splash when they inked former Packer backup Matt Flynn to a lucrative contract. Ironically enough, he will begin the season on the bench as rookie Russell Wilson drafted from Wisconsin showed enough to get the nod and lead a young team with many questions. The engine workhorse of the offense, Marshawn Lynch, will begin the season dinged up so who knows how he will activate Beast Mode. He’s a hell of a back, Seattle needs him to shoulder the load once again for his new QB. Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell is thrilled at Lynch’s newfound discipline and vision in the running game his first full year in Seattle that helped the Seahawks go 5-3 the finall games of ’11. RBs Leon Washington and fourth round rookie Robbie Turbin will spell The Beast in the one cut zone-blocking scheme. Prized free agent from last year, WR looks to have a much improved season after collecting a fat pay check and an array of nagging ailments that kept him from producing as expected. Also getting targets from Wilson/Flynn at wideout will be former Notre Dame pass catcher Golden Tate and Ben Obomanu. Surprise player Doug Baldwin will operate in the slot most likely and even girzzled journeyman Braylon Edwards will attempt to get in on the action. Wait, what?? Let’s just hope Seattle has a viable public transportation system. Former Borwn TE Evan Moore will line up at the same position as Zach Miller and Moore will also be battling third year pro Anthony McCoy for PT.
Nimble and gargantuan yet oft banged-up LT Russell Okung will have to be a consistent contributor in order for the Seahawk offense to have success. His progression has been slowed by injuries but he definetly has the tools to be a good-great tackle in this league. Lining up to him is ‘Captain Ugly’ (word to the Baltimore Ravens) Pat McQuistan, who has never been anything to write home about. C Max Unger is back after injuring his toe and will hope to live up to a hefty contract extension and prove to be very effective in the ZBS. However, the right side of the line is iffy at best starting John Moffitt and Breno Giacomini replaces slated RT James Carpenter who will miss significant time this season.
The Seattle Seahawks defense quietly ranked in the top 10 last season, showing off good speed and ball attacking talent. Cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman are very effective playing bump-and-run coverage but coordinator Gus Bradley runs many zone schemes, allowing rising star safety Earl Thomas and fellow third year pro Ken Chancellor to roam the field and make impactful plays. Aging Mr. Seahawk defensive back Marcus Trufant will play in the slot in nickel and dime packages which is helpful given his lengthy arms. One move I wasn’t terribly thrilled with in the draft was SEA selecting West Virginia DE Bruce Irvin 15th overall. I don’t doubt his skills but the guy was quite troubled off the field and better things could have been done with the quality of that pick. I could end up being proved wrong but if they really coveted Irvin, a trade down could have also secured the new pass-rusher. He could turn out to be quite dangerous on the edge. Red Bryant will spell him on rushing downs and many snaps overall after getting a contract extension. Former Michigan nose tackle Alan Branch seems to have figured it out well enough to start and use his size and power after failing to do so in Arizona. Brandon Mebane shoots the gaps well and can eat up multiple blocks, proving to be a well-rounded option up front. Linebacker is not a particularly strong unit for the ‘Hawks. However, Bobby Wagner is now techinally a veteran so his experience could lend very helpful for the defense as a whole. Strong side linebacker K.J. Wright is fluid in pursuit, if not exactly a household name. Veteran Leroy Hill is a very solid pro football player and helpful in run support, even if he does enjoy the BC buds a little too much.
Pete Carroll has a lot to prove in this league. Despite his tainted success at USC, the NFL is a whole other animal to contend in. Just ask Steve Spurrier. Still, the Seahawks have integrated some talent on offense AND defense. The Russell Wilson situation will be interesting given the money sunk into Matt Flynn. The pumped in noise of Qwest Field could call for Flynn if Wilson struggles but I have a feeling Seattle can prove to be a formidable opponent.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Sorry St. Louis but that brings us to the worst team in the division. Now, things could change and they could shock myself as well as other ‘real’ NFL analysts but it’s never a good sign when your number one quarterback, who was selected number one overall in 2010 has no real receiving threats or a line to give him time to deliver the rock. I really like Sam Bradford and believe in his abilities. However, heralded head coach Jeff Fisher and staff have their work cut out for them in their first year in the state that serves as the gate for the West. It doesn’t help that new defensive coordinator, the aggressive Gregg Williams has been suspended indefinetly by the league for the Saints’ bounty scandal. Poor STL had no idea this would transpire when they hired him so automatically, the Rams were at a disadvantage before the year even started. Luckily, new owner Stan Kroenke and his front office did a great job accumulating multiple draft assets when they traded the number two overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington so the Redskins could select rookie QB sensation Robert Griffin III. Unfortunately, that will not help during the 2012 campaign where they are sparse at key positions.
Workhorse RB Steven Jackson has had to absorb hits like a linebacker as he continues to play out his prime in St. Louis. New tackle Wayne Hunter will be behind RT Barry Richardson and starting LT Rodger Saffold will have to keep Bradford’s ankle safe and create lanes for Jackson and rookie tailbacks Isiah Pead from the Cincinnati Bearcats and Daryl Richardson who were selected in the second and seventh rounds, respectfully. The problems with this offense are not the ball carriers or QB but their protection and the receiverw who need to stretch the field. Luckily, STL signed C Scott Wells to help with the cohesive unit responsible for sustaining the offense. Bradford has a mish-mash of options but can any of them emerge as a number 1 option? Shifty slot receiver Danny Amendola is a solid player that draws comparisons to Wes Welker but was sidelined last year with injury. St. Louis inked former Giant and Eagle receiver Steve Smith (not the good one) and he will compete with willing blocker Brandon Gibson and last year’s third rounder Austin Pettis. None of these options are overwhelming. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will try to utilize second year TE Lance Kendricks in the passing game and also can hopefully lean on veteran FB Ovie Mughelli for support in the ground attack.
One of the best signings in the NFL offseason was the Rams securing the services of scrappy CB Cortland Finnegan in free agency. Not only is he a good, physical cover guy, Finnegan will get in the head’s of his opponents and take them out of their game or force them to retaliate and get costly penalties. St. Louis traded down from Washington’s sixth overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft to number fourteen and selected LSU DT Michael Brockers, who was quite the talent in the vaunted SEC. DE Robert Quinn looks to improve on a lackluster rookie season and will need to push himself to keep up with the beastly son of NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long. Chris Long had a career year, in which he tallied thirteen sacks, earning him a five-year, 60.3 million dollar contract extension, $36.8 million guaranteed. Free agent DT Kendall Langford comes over from Miami to play next to Brockers and make plays with lateral swiftness.
MLB James Laurinaitis is the geographical focal point of the defense and best of the linebackers. He also has gotten better every season and is in a contract year, so look for a focused season for ‘Little Monster.’ His fellow linebackers are sub-par, touting Mario Haggan, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and insignificant ex-Redskin Rocky McIntosh on the outside. The St. Louis Rams took a risk and rolled the dice when they drafted ex-Florida turned North Alabama DB Janoris Jenkins in the second round. Jenkins, a first round talent, fell because of numerous off-field issues including a possession of marijuana days before the draft. Trumaine Johnson is an option/project at cornerback if Jenkins doesn’t work out. Quintin Mikell and Darian Stewart will start at both safety positions as both can lay the lumber in the box but are questionable in coverage. S Craig Dahl will be reserve im case either slips up or gets injured.
I have no doubt that head coach Jeff Fisher can restore credibility to the St. Louis Rams’ organization. He is a great leader and great captain for a proverbial football ship stranded at sea. The question is how much progress will be made this season? Bradford is a smart accurate quarterback but I’m thinking the Rams will need their palpable 2013 draft assets to build an actual contender. I can’t see them finishing anything but fourth in this division and under .500 with the vertical options Bradford has to work with. After all, it’s only year one of Fisher’s regime.