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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

2012 NFL Preview: NFC West

The NFC West have come to be known as NFL doormats, but suddenly every team is trending up...or are they?  49ers for real or one-year wonders?  Is Kolb ready to bounce back?  Will Flynn be the best QB in the division by week 17?  What impact will Fisher have on the worst team in the conference? 

San Fransisco 49ers

2012 NFL Preview: NFC West San Francisco 49ers
2011 Review: The 49ers are far and above the most intriguing team from 2011. They outperformed their stats more than every other team combined.

They rolled through the season going 3-1 in tough games (add a playoff win over the Saints), 5-1 in their division, and a league best 11-4-1 ATS. 

The 49ers did this despite ranking low in passing/red zone/third down offense and completed plays per game.

So how did they do it? In one word--coaching.  Harbaugh got more from his players than anyone expected.  They were phenomenal keeping people out of the red zone, were near the top in special teams and turnover differential, and had a very high yards-to-points ratio.  These are the kinda stats that winning teams excel in.

2012 Offseason: San Fran immediately went out and addressed their problems in the passing game. Moss and Manningham have been added to open up the offense (though Moss might be nothing more than window dressing). They also took AJ Jenkins in round 1--with mixed reviews.

Kaepernick has a year of clipboard development under his belt and will continue to push for playing time. Smith seems safe for now, but for how long?  Josh Johnson has an interesting link with Harbaugh from college, too. Just sayin'.

They also brought in Brandon Jacobs and Rock Cartwright to beef up the running game. I can't say I'm a fan of the former, but we'll see how it shakes out.

On defense there is quite a bit of continuity and not much significant change to note.

Looking ahead: Depending on how you see things, one could make a fair argument to either ride or fade San Fran in 2012. Usually a team that struggles in key areas and thrives in the hidden stats don't have as much go right in the following year. At the same time, well-coached teams that take care of the supplemental categories can make it part of their personality going forward (the Bears are a good example of this). 

Oddsmakers threw up a generic '10' on the board for their season win total and no one has taken the bait. What would happen if Kaepernick takes over at some point this year? No one knows, but I'm not sure there should be as much as an adjustment as people might think.  What I do know is the 49ers will continue to be a tricky team to handicap until we see another month's worth of games.

Arizona Cardinals

2012 NFL Preview: NFC West Arizona Cardinals
2011 Review: Last season I was well ahead of the curve regarding Kolb's short-comings and now his position on the team is up in the air. What I was wrong about was how well this defense would come together so soon.

The result was a 1-5 record vs tough teams, a 2-6 record on the road, a horrible rush attack, bad turnover differential, subpar line play, and an inability to convert 3rd downs.

On the flip side, who would have thought they would rate so high with red zone/third down defense? Their special teams was also solid.

2012 Offseason: Not a lot to report here. William Gay was added to the secondary. The defense will continue to be aggressive and should do well if their offense gives them a fighting chance.

They also went after Michael Floyd to compliment Fitzgerald. Big help is also expected from Rob Housler and Ryan Williams. Arizona addressed the O-line in the draft and added Snyder in free agency.

Looking ahead: If the glue doesn't hold on the O-line, the entire deck of cards could fall apart. Put a red flag on that issue. Kolb will need to re-establish himself after (unjustified) hype going into 2011. I dogged on him this year, but I think he has more potential than Skelton.

I say Kolb wins the job and shows some improvement this year. How much? Who knows. He forces too many balls and lacks pocket awareness. If he can be more patient he has the chance to improve a lot.  If the O-line doesn't hold up then we could see the 2.0 version of last year.

Their season win total is at 7, but heavy juice is on the under. I'm not surprised at the pessimism, but there could be some value here. It would be premature to write-off Arizona before week 1.

Seattle Seahawks

2012 NFL Preview: NFC West Seattle Seahawks
2011 Review: I'm not sure if anyone noticed, but Seattle was 10-5-1 ATS in 2011. They also played very well on defense which is no small feat given expectations.

Unfortunatly, their pass offense was non-existent, both their O and D lines were bad (-17 sack ratio), and they took way too many penalties.

2012 Offseason: Gallery, Carlson, Trufant, Whitehurst, and Hargrove are out. Say hello to the Matt Flynn era...or is it?

Did Green Bay sell high in another Kevin Kolb situation or is Flynn a legitimate starting option? I don't think you are going to find a consensus on that one. Training camp and preseason will be interesting at QB. I'd be surprised if Flynn didn't start. I know he was in a great situation at Green Bay, but I think he has enough raw skills and mojo to make it succeed in Seattle. Some think 3rd round pick Russell Wilson is the eventual starter, but it won't be this year.

Whoever starts under center, they'll need Rice to prove he's over the injuries/inconsistency and Tate is a legitimate WR in this league. Winslow will help at tight end, but this needs to be a collective effort.

Don't ask me what Seattle did in the draft because they made some surprising moves. I'm certainly not a scout, but missing on high draft picks is the worst thing you can do as a franchise.  Bruce Irvin needs to step up and justify his selection.

Other than that I like the potential of the defense. It's vital to have a good secondary in this league and the Seahawks have that in spades. In theory the defensive line should be better and give the unit good structure.

Looking ahead: Overall I really like the direction of this team, but I don't feel that way if Tavaris Jackson is taking snaps.  Their season win total opened at 7 and there has been heavy juice towards the over. 

If the O-line becomes a problem and the WR's don't rise to the occasion, Flynn might be expected to do too much. His defense should keep him in a lot of games and allow him to make mistakes and grow. The arrow is pointing up.

St Louis Rams

2012 NFL Preview: NFC West St Louis Rams
2011 Review: The Rams are a team that I was very high on heading into last season. I'm a big believer in Bradford and I thought they would compete for the division crown.

Instead, they were one of the worst teams in football and couldn't recover from a bad start, a tough early schedule, and key injuries.  If there was a bright spot feel free to send me an email and let me know.

2012 Offseason: There is so much to like about what St Louis did this offseason and it starts with the head coach.  Jeff Fisher brings instant credibility to a team that desperately needs a rock at the center of the rebuild.

Luring Finnegan from the Titans was a big coup. Grabbing Scott Wells to play center is another solid move.  Who knows if Steve Smith will pay off, but he can't be any worse than what they had last year can he?

In the 2nd round St Louis drafted Isaiah Pead to serve as a counter-punch for SJ. Who knows how many touches Jackson has left, so targeting that position is essential. They also grabbed a WR in Brian Quick in round 2.

On defense, the Gregg Williams suspension couldn't have come at a worse time. Strangely, there isn't a clear-cut replacement for him. The good news is the personnel on the field should be improved--especially with Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins at corner.

They will likely rely a lot on 1st rounder Michael Brockers at DT. There will be growing pains, but fresh blood is always better than fading veterans when a rebuild is in motion. In fact, the D-line could become a strength if they can stay healthy.

Not surprisingly, St Louis might start the year with a rookie kicker. No pressure kid!

Looking ahead: I'm tempted to copy and paste my outlook for St Louis from 2011 and update the names, but this is a much more in-your-face rebuild this time around. 

Their season win total opened at 6 and there's a good chance you see their name in my list of predictions. In a division like this, a quick turn-around isn't out of the question.

Up Next: NFC East
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