1) Arizona Cardinals
(2008 record: 9-7, 1st place, Super Bowl runner up)
The Cardinals appear to be a dangerous contender again this year, but they’re one bad hip away from turning things over to Matt Leinart. 38 year old Kurt Warner had his best season since ’01, throwing 30 TD and nearly 4,600 yards. He was also a Santonio Holmes TD away from another Super Bowl victory. As good as all that sounds, ’08 was the first time since ’01 that Warner started every game in a season. Smart money says he’s not throwing another 599 passes this year either. If he does get injured, how much with the offense suffer with Leinart under center? Nobody knows. The guy hasn’t seen the field for any serious amount of time since breaking his collarbone in October of ’07. Coming out of USC, Leinart was known as a QB with sound mechanics, plenty of poise, and a lot of leadership. His pro career has been quite a disappointment. Everyone knew he didn’t have a Favre-like arm, but one would have thought his other assets would have served him better in the NFL. If and when he gets his chance again, will he be able to turn it back on mentally and be a productive pro? His so called competition with Brian St. Pierre for the #2 job has been a joke……….Edgerrin James finally got his wish and was released this offseason. He was ineffective, seldomly used, and asking out of town before Halloween. After a lengthy vacation, James signed with the Seahawks. Replacing him, initially, will be Tim Hightower, one of the least impressive starting RBs in football. Hightower was a good find in the 5th round of last year’s draft, and while I like him as a decent 3rd down back, I think he’ll struggle getting the early carries. Chris Wells, the powerful runner from Ohio State, was drafted at the end of the first round to, at worst, make Hightower earn the job. Wells has missed a good chunk of the preseason action with his bothersome ankle, allowing Hightower to put a little distance between the two at the moment, but that shouldn’t last long. Ideally, Wells will earn the lead back job, and Hightower will spell him time to time and play on 3rd downs……….Things look great at receiver, as the game’s best 1-1a combo returns intact in ’09. Larry Fitzgerald owned the postseason last year, catching 30 passes for 546 yards and 7 scores in 4 games. That’s amazing. The Cardinals secured him long term with a 4 year $40 million deal last offseason, and things have been a bit uncomfortable in Arizona ever since. Fitzgerald is one of the top 5 receivers in the game, but his co-starter, Anquan Boldin, is no slouch. Boldin has had more durability issues than Fitzgerald, but he’s also the toughest receiver in the game and a perfect compliment to the vertical Fitzgerald. Boldin’s been quiet this preseason about his contract demands, but with him still under control through ’10, you wonder how long that will last if the Cardinals keep sitting on their checkbook. Happy or not, Boldin always plays hard. The third man on the totem pole, Steve Breaston, stepped in and totaled over 1,000 yards receiving last year. He’s not the fastest guy in the world, but he’s elusive in short space, something that not only helps him in the receiving game but also when returning punts. He could start on a lot of teams. Seldom used rookie Early Doucet and 5th year player Jerheme Urban round out the receivers. Leonard Pope has yet to look like a decent pick, yet with Ben Patrick suspended for the first 4 games of the season, he’s probably going to start. Pope can’t block and has only been a marginal pass catcher. That won’t work on this offense. Patrick hasn’t been much better, and missing ¼ of the season won’t help him get into any rhythm. Stephen Spach is their best blocking TE, but he’s coming back from a messed up knee……….The Cardinals were just about the worst team in the NFL at running the football, and while a lot of that had to do with the successful passing game, part of it can be traced to shoddy offensive line play. They’re returning all starters. LT Mike Gandy does a nice job keeping Kurt Warner off the ground, but he’s not terribly strong and doesn’t help much in the run game. It’s a bit of the opposite on the right side. Levi Jones, the third year man from Penn State, is a bulldozing run blocker but gave up more sacks last year than any other RT in the game. This year’s 5th round pick, Herman Johnson, is a massive massive man who played guard at LSU but is being looked at as a RT in the NFL. I don’t think 350+ pounds and having zero athleticism will help him there. If anyone can work with him, Russ Grimm can, and I’ve got to think it won’t be long before they’re working him at LG. Possible steal. Returning at LG is Reggie Wells. The Cardinals have gotten their money’s worth from the 177th pick in the ’03 draft. He’s versatile, having spent time at both tackle positions, but when he’s been healthy the last 5 years, he’s spent most of his time at LG. Like Gandy, he struggles in the run game but is a very nice pass protector. I know I’m getting way ahead here, but with Gandy being a free agent at the end of the year, maybe Wells kicks out to LT next year to “make room” for Johnson at LG. Back to ’09, Deuce Lutui returns for his 4th season in Arizona. Like Levi Jones, Lutui’s strength is in the run game. He’s improving as a pass blocker though and holds his own there better than Jones. Lyle Sendlein isn’t very strong in the middle and wasn’t much help in the run game, but the job is his.
The transition to a 3-4 takes another big step in ’09. Darnell Dockett is developing into one of the best linemen in the business, using his upper both strength and explosiveness to be a regular wreaker of havoc in the backfield. As dominant as he can be, Dockett struggles when he starts reading his own headlines. Hopefully he’ll be fine with his current deal, because being under contract through ’11, the Cardinals don’t have to be in a huge hurry to make him happy. In his second season, Calais Campbell will look to replace Antonio Smith. He’s huge at 6-8, 290 and will need to occupy offensive linemen this season. Kenny Iwebema and Keilen Dykes are weak reserves. They need depth. Speaking of needed depth, their NT position is ugly. Manning the middle, unfortunately the 35 year old Bryan Robinson. Gabe Watson loses his job after dealing with a bad knee injury all of last year. The biggest disappointment in the group is Alan Branch, the 3rd year player from Michigan who’s done absolutely nothing as a pro. He hasn’t been quick, he hasn’t been strong, and he’s played with zero balance……….Karlos Dansby is coming off back to back impressive seasons and earned the franchise tag in ’08 for the second year in a row. He’s a really active ILB who can get into the backfield, hold his ground against the run, and drop into coverage. He makes plays. Linking up next to him is 7th year veteran Gerald Hayes. The former Pitt Panther isn’t the gamechanger that Dansby is, but he’s a reliable tackler who should be cleaning up the middle this year. The outside situation isn’t the most desirable. Chike Okeafor and Clark Haggans are past their peaks. Okeafor can still get to the QB, and he’ll be asked to do that a lot. Haggans is a barely passable run stopper on the other side. Bertrand Berrry will again see time on passing downs, but like the other two, he’s on a decline as well. They’ll struggle applying pressure with this group. Not helping things is rookie Cody Brown going down for the year before it even started with a dislocated wrist……….Things get a bit better in the secondary. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie became a starter around mid-season last year and totaled 4 INTs in the Cardinals last 7 regular season games. So far he looks well worth the 16th overall pick in the ’08 draft. The small school corner is a true cover man with superb ball skills and the hips and speed to hang with any receiver in the league. Look for another strong step forward from DRC this year. Bryant McFadden was signed this offseason and gives them a reliable veteran on the other side of the youngster. The former Nole has had trouble staying healthy for an entire season, but when he’s in the lineup, he’ll give the Cardinals a steady presence across from Rodgers-Cromartie. He doesn’t create many turnovers, but he can play in either a man or zone scheme, is very reliable against the run, and doesn’t give up big plays. On paper this starting duo looks a lot better than last year’s Rod Hood and Eric Green combo. Neither one is with the team anymore. Michael Adams and Ralph Brown are weak depth. Fierce Adrian Wilson returns at SS for his 9th season as a Cardinal where he’s still one of the toughest hitters in the game, playing like a LB in the secondary. Wilson made his second Pro Bowl this past season, and with only 2 INTs and 1 ½ sacks, he’ll become only the 9th player in NFL history to join the 20-20 club. He’s expected to play near the LOS a lot this year, so the sacks should come quickly. Great teammate. At FS is former Cane Antrel Rolle. The Cardinals determined that Rolle’s move from corner to safety would be a better use of his skills and allow him to react a lot quicker. His play hasn’t been poor, but Arizona would like to get more momentum turners out of him.
I think a return to the Super Bowl this year is a stretch, but the offense should still be pretty potent. Warner’s health is worth watching, as is the backfield situation. On defense, I worry about the front 7 and their evolving 3-4 defense. Can they put enough consistent pressure on the QB to make use of their secondary?
2) Seattle Seahawks
(2008 record: 4-12, 3rd place)
It’s glass half empty, half full depending upon how you look at things in Seattle where jackass Jim Mora takes over for the retired Mike Holmgren. Scary coincidence – Jim Mora, Greg Knapp (OC), and Tim Ruskell (GM) were all a part of the Falcons when they made their Super Bowl push in ’04. The running game was the focus of the Falcons’ offense, and that’s expected to be the case in Seattle as well. That’s why it was a bit of a surprise to see them release TJ Duckett, a part of Mora’s offense in Atlanta. Remaining as starter is perennial underachiever Julius Jones. I’ve never been terribly impressed with his ability, as he’s been unable to establish himself as a franchise back in both Dallas and Seattle. He was replaced by Maurice Morris as the lead back towards the end of last season, and even though the run game is supposed to be the team’s focus, it’s hard to get excited about Jones getting most of the carries. He’s a good runner in space (as are most pros) but has really poor vision, is unable to create plays on his own, and the next tackle he breaks will be his first. The Seahawks brought in Edgerrin James who is one year removed from a string of 5 consecutive 1,000 yard seasons. During that streak, he took the ball over 300 times each season and may have run nearly all of the tread off his tires. The Cardinals weren’t too disappointed to let him go despite the lack of direction in their run game. I expect him to take over for Jones at some point this year as the primary ball carrier because, well, it’s Julius Jones, but a 1,500 yard resurgence is highly unlikely. He’s the better pass catcher of the two and is far far far more competent in picking up the blitz. I wouldn’t be surprised if Edge ends up getting more carries, but despite Mora’s likely attempt to lean heavy on the run, I don’t see either runner turning back the clock on his career. Second year man Justin Forsett figures to be part of the plan as well……….After missing 9 games in ’08 with a bad back, Matt Hasselbeck returns to a different offense. The play calling is expected to be more conservative than he’s used to, and he’ll likely be asked to go deep less often this year. He’s had an impressive preseason even while dealing with a sore throwing elbow. Hasselbeck has never been the best QB in the league, but in his 7 years as a Seahawk prior to ’08, he was one of the most consistent. If healthy, he’s an ideal fit for this offense. Lead consistently productive drives, don’t make mistakes, and keep defenses honest. Backing him up again is Seneca Wallace, the 5th year veteran who performed more than admirably in Hasselbeck’s absence……….Despite their desire to be run-heavy this year, you still need some guys who can make plays downfield. To help in that area, the Seahawks signed WR TJ Houshmandzadeh from the Cincinnati Bengals. I expect his role in Seattle’s offense to be about what it was in Cincinnati. He’s going to be the primary possession receiver, working the intermediate routes and doing the dirty work inside. Despite the likelihood of a run heavy offense, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see him approach 90 catches for a 4th year in a row. He’s their unquestioned #1. Across from him is the disappointing Nate Burleson, a receiver who has struggled to be relevant in 4 of his 6 NFL seasons. ’08 got off to a bang with Burleson tearing his ACL in the season opener. He’s back this year, and I’m not holding my breath on him being a legit deep threat. Yes he’s fast, but with the likely strong focus on the run game and TJ playing opposite him, there’s no reason to get aggressive with his projections. Hasselbeck favorite, Bobby Engram, is now catching passes in KC. Deion Branch has been a real disappointment since coming over from the Patriots, and he’s making far too much ($5 million) for a hit or miss 3rd WR. Ben Obomanu broke his collarbone in last year’s preseason finale and missed the entire season. Deon Butler was added in the draft, and while he’s a consistent receiver with nice hands, he’s unlikely to be a difference maker in the NFL. The Seahawks may be forced to lean on the run. Helping out is second year TE John Carlson. The former Golden Domer was a pleasant surprise in his rookie season. When they drafted him in the 2nd round of last year’s draft, the Seahawks thought they were getting a steady TE who they hoped wouldn’t make too many mistakes. What they got was a team leading 55 receptions and 5 TDs. He’ll be steady once again, but with the addition of TJ and an emphasis on the run game, he might not see 55 catches this year……….Onto the bad news. Franchise stalwart Walter Jones, a 9 time Pro Bowler, is going to likely miss at least the first third of the season. The Seahawks are downplaying it, but at 35 years of age and coming off offseason microfracture surgery on the same knee and an emerging back problem, there’s reason to be concerned. Even at 35, Jones is Seattle’s best blocker up front. As a result of Jones’ absence, RT Sean Locklear is being moved to the left side. That move itself isn’t a horrible one as Locklear excels in pass blocking, but he’s had injury issues of his own in 2 of the last 3 seasons. Stepping in at RT is Ray Willis, a strong run blocker but a liability in the passing game. He’s dealing with a knee injury of his own, and one has to wonder how this tackle situation will impact Carlson’s usage as a blocker. Chris Spencer was supposed to return as the starting center for the 3rd year in a row, but a torn quad has him missing at least the first few games of the season. He’s a strong run blocker but hasn’t developed sufficient pass blocking skills. Steve Vallos is an underwhelming replacement. I’m not quite sure to make of is, but it looks a little disappointing that second round pick, Max Unger, isn’t the guy stepping up in Spencer’s place. Veteran LG Mike Wahle was released, and while Unger was expected to get that job, strong but unrefined Mansfield Wrotto gets the promotion. He’s currently slated to start at RG while veteran Rob Sims, who sat out all but one game in ‘08 with a torn pectoral muscle, moves into Wahle’s spot. Sims is an average pro lineman and rounds out what appears to be a very disappointing group up front. If the Seahawks are going to run the ball effectively, the offensive line is going to need a lot of help.
This side of the ball is expected to get a boost with Mora’s promotion, and their first significant move was to swap veteran Julian Peterson for Cory Redding. The former Lion has been used most often at tackle, but he’s slated to be at LE on early downs. He’ll slide inside in passing situations where he’ll look to frequently get into the backfield. Redding has been a better tackle than an end in his career, so this situation is worth monitoring. The other part of this move has Patrick Kerney moving to RE. Kerney has been Seattle’s one reliable pass rushing threat, and that was evident when he went down with a season ending shoulder injury in October. The move to RE will have him going against better pass protectors, and the Seahawks hope he’s up to the challenge. Darryl Tapp and Lawrence Jackson provide fine depth and will see plenty of time at end when Redding kicks inside. Speaking of inside, the Seahawks continued their “beef addition” by signing 330 pound Colin Cole, formerly of Green Bay. The large lineman is a proven run stopper, but after signing a 5 year $21 million deal, he’ll be asked to contribute on every down. I still really wish the Bucs had made a more serious run at him. The addition of Cole should really benefit the guy playing next to him, Brandon Mebane. Coming out of Cal, Mebane’s strength was as an aggressive penetrator. He should be able to focus more on that in this alignment. Last year’s 4th round pick, Red Bryant, should be a nice reserve run stopper, but he was inactive most of last season……….In Peterson’s place steps Aaron Curry, the 4th overall pick from Wake Forest. Back in April, I thought Curry was probably the safest pick in the draft. Seattle could have gone with Mark Sanchez or Eugene Monroe to fill bigger needs, but they went with the explosive playmaker who is capable of playing every LB position in either a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment. He also had the fastest combine 40 at his position, is very smooth in coverage, and will hit you like you like you insulted his momma. LeRoy Hill returns at WLB after getting a 6 year deal this offseason. Hill is a heck of an active LB who went a bit under the radar playing with Peterson. He’s only 26 and likes to hit, but he’s yet to play a full 16 games in 4 seasons as a pro. In the middle once again is Lofa Tatupu, the 5th year veteran who suffered through the worst year of his career. After signing a fat 6 year $42 million deal in March of ’08, things went downhill. He was hit with a DUI, banged up his knee pretty good, sustained a concussion, injured his groin, and missed the Pro Bowl after 3 consecutive trips. His numbers may not show it, but there’s no reason to think he won’t have a better ’09 and return to the level of play he’s accustomed……….The secondary is a real mess. #1 corner Marcus Trufant went out with a back injury at the beginning of August and hasn’t seen the field since. He easily has the best coverage and ball skills in the group. Ken “Toast” Lucas is starting at the other corner spot and should be targeted frequently. With Trufant out, either Kelly Jennings or Josh Wilson (’06 and ’07 draft busts respectively) taking his place. Neither is terribly physical nor will they help out much against the run. At FS, Brian Russell is a marginal starter who doesn’t make many plays. SS Deon Grant is versatile enough to play either safety spot successfully, and I’m surprised they aren’t letting him cover more of the field given their lack of talent in the secondary. They’ll be playing Cover 2 which should help negate a lot of their physical limitations, but they’ll still be thrown on with regularity.
I see them being just dangerous enough to keep things interesting in the NFC West. With the offensive line and secondary being in such shoddy conditions, it’s hard to expect a ton from this club.
3) San Francisco 49ers
(2008 record: 7-9, 2nd place)
The 2009 49ers were best known for Mike Singletary’s colorful postgame presser. One fairly bright spot was the QB play of Shaun Hill who came in and led the Niners through the last 9 games of the season. In the most uneventful QB competition in recent memory (uh, on second thought, maybe not), Hill beat out former #1 pick Alex Smith. His best asset is his accuracy, and with the Niners expecting to be extremely conservative this year, they’ll need Hill to simply not make mistakes. 5th round pick Nate Davis has been arguably the best QB in camp, and his play and potential made Damon Huard expendable……….In what should come as a surprise to no one, Frank Gore will once again be the focus of this offense. He’s a powerful runner who gets the most out of every play. Gore has also led the Niners in receptions two out of the last three seasons. He’s by far their best asset, but one has to wonder if his cumulative number of touches (he averaged well over 300 the last 3 seasons) will begin to take a serious toll on a guy with a history of injury trouble. Backing him up is 3rd round pick, Glenn Coffee, one of the most impressive players in the league this preseason. Coffee is kind of like a poor man’s Gore; gets the tough yardage, minimizes mistakes, and catches the ball out of the backfield. The Niners might be wise to mix him in early and often in order to keep Gore as fresh as possible this year……….Things are a little foggy at receiver. 10th overall pick Michael Crabtree is still holding out and has threatened to sit out the entire season. If/When he decides whether or not he can survive on top 10 money, he gives the Niners the most well-rounded receiver in the draft. He has great hands, sufficient speed, is very strong and physical, and (what I like most) has superb body position and control. Unfortunately for Frisco, it looks like they won’t be seeing that for a while. For the second year in a row, Josh Morgan is the best receiver in camp. The less heralded of the two ’08 WR draftees from Virginia Tech isn’t as dynamic a talent as his collegiate teammate, but he’s wowed Niners staff with his consistency and ability to go up and get the football. I expect Morgan, not Crabtree, not Gore, to lead this team in receptions this season. Isaac Bruce is still getting it done at the age of 75. He’s not nearly as explosive as he once was, but his performance just goes to show that you don’t have to run 100 miles and hour or be the biggest guy on the field to be successful. He’s a consummate pro and someone Crabtree could learn a lot from by just being around him, but I guess that will have to wait a while. Arnaz Battle is a decent #4, Jason Hill is barely holding onto a roster spot, and the underwhelming Brandon Jones is going to miss a chunk of the season with ah fractured shoulder. Vernon Davis is a waste of talent. Despite his freak athleticism and tremendous mismatch potential, the former 5th overall pick still looks like a high school jackass. There’s no reason why he’s not one of the 3 most productive players at his position……….A marginal unit got worse this preseason when 9 year veteran Marvel Smith retired due to back problems. He was brought in to play RT, but that job now goes to Adam Snyder, a player with some G/T versatility who is better suited as a backup. Things are better at LT. Joe Staley has spent time on both ends of the line, but he’s found a home on the left side. His footwork and technique has helped him well as a pass blocker, but he needs to be more of a force in the run game. The Niners have faith it will come, evidenced by the $42 million extension they gave him this summer. Big David Bass is an underrated LG who is fairly developed in both run and pass blocking. Starting at RG is ’08 second round pick Chilo Rachal. He’s got a higher ceiling than Bass and plays with a nastier demeanor. Eric Heitmann returns for his 4th year at center, and he’s a better run blocker than pass protector.
This could be a promising group of players up front on defense. Justin Smith is one of the most consistent players in the game, and he didn’t disappoint in his first season after coming over from Cincinnati. He’s a reliable tackler who will likely once again finish among the team leaders in sacks. At the other end spot is the huge Isaac Sopoaga. He’s a good two down run stopper who will likely get spelled by Demetric Evans, the free agent signing from Washington. Evans gives up about 60 pounds to Sopoaga, but he’s been a nice rotational run stopper during his career. The Niners hope to get more out of last year’s 1st round pick Kentwan Balmer in ’09. Coming out of UNC, Balmer was known for being an athletic big man who exhibited spurts of explosiveness. He’s not terribly strong or consistent, and that is likely why he saw so little time as a rookie. If he’s unable to unseat Sopoaga or drastically increase his snaps, this could start to look like a really bad pick. Ray McDonald is dealing with a knee injury, but when healthy, he’s a fine backup to Smith. In the middle once again is Aubrayo Franklin. He’s not the biggest NT in the game, but he’s one of the better run stoppers. Franklin is paid to keep Patrick Willis clean, and he’s done a solid job of that……….Speaking of Willis, the third year LB from Ole Miss may be the best player in the game at his position. He’s 2 for 2 in Pro Bowls and is the unquestioned leader of that defense. The guy makes every tackle. Think Singletary sees a little bit of himself in Willis? Lining up next to him is longtime veteran Takeo Spikes. In his first year as a Niner, Spikes teamed with Willis to give them a formidable tandem in the middle. He’s racked up a few tackles in his career as well and is a good veteran for Willis to learn from. Veteran Jeff Ulbrich returns to provide depth, and Scott McKillop, the 5th round pick from Pittsburgh, looks to be the eventual replacement for Spikes. After three pretty quiet seasons, Manny Lawson is being put in a good position to succeed. Barring another injury, he’ll be a 3 down player who will be asked to get after the QB with regularity. He’s an extremely athletic player who should thrive in this system. Little known Parys Haralson will again start at the other OLB spot. He led the Niners in sacks last year and saw his play really take off when Singletary took over for Mike Nolan. Haralson doesn’t have the natural talent that Lawson does, but outside of Willis, he’s probably the highest effort guy on the defense. Marques Harris is a decent backup, but I don’t like the oft-troubled Ahmad Brooks in this defense……….Nate Clements is the team’s top DB and one of the highest paid corners in the game. Last year was the first time he missed a game in his 8 year career. Walt Harris was supposed to start at the other spot, but he tore his ACL during OTAs and is out for the year. Starting in his place looks to be Dre Bly, the 11th year vet who is holding off third year corner Tarell Brown. I take that as more of a knock against Brown than a solid job by Bly. The former Heel’s best days are well behind him, but I guess they’re looking for veteran experience outside. I’ll be surprised if Brown doesn’t take the job by midseason. If recovered from last year’s ACL injury, Shawntae Spencer will provide nice depth at corner. SS Michael Lewis is one of the hardest hitting safeties in the game and does a nice job making any of the tackles that Willis misses. Next to him is first year starter Dashon Goldson, a solid run defending FS who has decent coverage skills. Last year’s starting FS, Mark Roman, returns in a backup role, as does Reggie Smith, a guy I had really high hopes for coming out of Oklahoma (and still do).
Great QBs lift their teams great heights. Can an average QB do the same with very few weapons? Expect good things from Josh Morgan and Patrick Willis, but I don’t think it’s enough.
4) St. Louis Rams
(2008 record: 2-14, 4th place)
This team is going to be bad. QB Marc Bulger is coming off two forgettable seasons in which his team won 5 of 32 games. In that span, Bulger was the 4th most sacked QB in the league both years, had the 28th and 25th worst completion percentages, and finished with the 30th worst QB rating twice. Is he really that bad? The Rams are going to have plenty of time to find out because that fat 6 year $65 million deal is untradeable. Top that off with the fact that he’s been unable to get many reps on the new WCO that Pat Shurmur is implementing due to a broken pinky finger on his throwing hand. The change in offensive philosophy should work to his advantage though, with a ball-controlled system that doesn’t rely on him to attempt a ton of deep passes. Even with his piss poor receivers, ’09 should have a better look to it than the last two years. Right?..........Bulger hasn’t been completely on his own out there, but I think he’d like to have Steven Jackson behind him for more than the 12 games he’s played each of the last two seasons. Groin and thigh injuries were the culprits keeping Action Jackson on the sidelines. For a guy with four 1,000 yard seasons in five years a pro, he really hasn’t had a ton of carries. He toted the ball 346 times in ’06, and you should expect that kind of workload again. When healthy, he’s one of the best runners in the game, combining his tough running style, with excellent vision, smooth footwork, and dependable hands. They’re going to ride him until his wheels fall off. Samkon Gado will make the team because someone’s got to back up Jackson, but Kenneth Darby and Antonio Pittman might want to update their resumes……….Donnie Avery, the 1st receiver take in the ’08 draft, was the second leading receiver on the team behind Torry Holt. He’s expected to be the Ram’s #1 (maybe by default), but he’s spent a lot of the preseason the sidelines with a stress fracture in his left foot. Avery exploded for 91 catches his senior year at Houston displaying not just quickness but uncommon deep speed. I wasn’t much of a believer, but he was inserted into the lineup early, starting 12 games his rookie year. The Rams would like him to get into the endzone more than 3 times in ’09, and assuming his foot is good to go early on, he’ll have no problem breaking that mark. Laurent Robinson, acquired from the Falcons for basically nothing (swap of 5th and 6th round picks), looks to start opposite Avery. He’s got a really nice size/speed combo, but injuries have kept him from establishing any consistency. Robinson missed most of last season with hamstring issues and fought ankle problems at Illinois State. He isn’t very physical either, and that could limit his production playing opposite Avery. Keenan Burton, an ’08 draft pick like Avery, lost out to Robinson for the second receiver spot, but he’s (IMO) the better fit for #2. Burton has had injuries of his own, suffering through a bad knee most of ’08 and a hamstring injury in OTAs. He’s the guy who makes the tough catches, plays physical ball, and has a great work ethic. I like his chances to beat out Robinson at some point and take ownership of the #2 spot. Where have you gone Ron Curry? I expected the former Heel point guard to come in and at least make a serious case for the #2 receiver spot, but he’s been a ghost this preseason. Randy McMichael missed most of ’08 with a broken leg, but he’s not a bad target when healthy. 50 catches isn’t an insane goal……….Man, this team had injuries at every position. On the offensive line, Orlando Pace, Jacob Bell, and Nick Leckey missed a combined 11 games. Pace is in Baltimore, and Leckey’s a Saint. Bell is an intelligent, hard working LG who excels in pass protection. He’s a bit on the small side (285) and could stand to put on a few pounds. Richie Incognito is a big, physical run blocker who has, surprise, struggled with injuries throughout his career. He also seems to have a screw loose and is as much of a headach as he is an asset. I’m a little surprised ’08 draft pick Roy Schuening didn’t see any action at RG. He played both RG and RT at Oregon State and is a mentally sane blocker who excels at run blocking. Jason Brown, free agent from Baltimore, is a really nice run blocker who played mostly guard for the Ravens but will be the Rams’ starting center. At 320 pounds, he’s one of the larger snappers in the league. Big upgrade over Leckey and Brett Romberg. Alex Barron moves over from RT to LT where he’ll look to replace Pace. With pass protection being his strength and run blocking his weakness, he’s better suited (ideally) for the left side. He’s had trouble with consistency and focus (did at FSU too), but the Rams are going to be counting heavily on him this year. In a bit of déjà vu, the Rams drafted a first round left tackle to come in and play on the right side. #2 overall pick, Jason Smith hopes to be on a faster track than Barron to the left side. Nothing against Matthew Stafford, but I thought Smith should have been the #1 overall pick in the draft. He does have experience at RT, having played there his sophomore season. Smith is a tall, athletic tackle with good lateral movement and an incredibly high ceiling. He doesn’t have much experience drive blocking, so he’s going to need some coaching. Unimpressive Adam Goldberg provides depth.
With Steve Spagnuolo taking over in St. Louis, the defense is going to get a bit more aggressive. Instead of the passive, side to side defense run under Jim Haslett, you can expect Spags to have the Rams attacking more up front. He has had some talent to work with, but Spagnuolo has consistently gotten the most out of his players. One guy who has to be licking his chops with this hire is last year’s #2 overall pick, Chris Long. I mistakenly didn’t include Howie’s son in my breakout players of the year piece, but given the amount of pressure he put on QBs as a rookie last year, he could really take off in his second season. He didn’t record a sack after week 8, so he wore down early. Long is the perfect player for Spags. He’s young, fundamentally sound, intense but level-headed, and explosive. Big year. Big big year. Murderer and moron Leonard Little plays the other end position. Don’t care to say anything more about him. Given Spags’ propensity for shuffling players in and out, Victor Adeyanju and James Hall will see plenty of snaps as well. Hall’s the much better pass rusher of the two. Adam Carriker, the 13th pick in the ’07 draft is a guy who’s played a little inside and outside in St. Louis, but I always thought he was better off as a tackle. He’s similar to Chris Long in that he’s an intelligent guy who is usually one of the first guys to get to the football. If this ankle problem he’s dealing with this preseason isn’t too big of a deal, he could be in for a huge year. Clifton Ryan is a pretty weak run stopper. I’m also not a fan of 4th round draft pick Dorell Scott; too inconsistent……….Will Witherspoon is much better suited to play WLB than inside as he has been used. He’s not a very stout guy, but uses angles and his athleticism to his advantage. Chris Draft is below average SLB. He’s not terribly consistent anymore and is usually a step or two behind the guy he’s covering. The Rams spent their 2nd round pick on James Laurinaitis, yet another instinctive, intelligent defender with solid field awareness. He’s going to start right away at MLB and is someone to watch on defense……….Ron Bartell ended up being St. Louis’ best corner last year, which might not be saying much, but he went from nickel corner to starter early in the season and didn’t disappoint. Bartell (Central Michigan/Howard) was an ’05 2nd round pick with good size and strength and gets a nice jam on the receiver at the line. He was a guy I wanted the Bucs to make a run at this offseason, but he was retained by the Rams for 4 years and $25 million. Fakhir Brown is still looking for work, and Tye Hill, and huge ’06 draft bust, was sent to the Falcons for peanuts. Starting opposite Bartell is a guy I’m not a big fan of, Jonathan Wade. Like Hill, he’s fast and does a slightly better job in coverage. Weak spot here. Last year’s 4th rounder Justin King will probably be the 3rd corner. O.J. Atogwe, the Rams’ ’08 franchise player, is on the verge of something big. The FS has a knack for making big plays, is a great centerfielder, and shows consistent effort. Keep an eye on him. Spags brought James Butler to St. Louis with him to replace veteran SS, Corey Chavous, who had become a defensive liability. Butler, the 5th year veteran out of the Georgia Tech, is an ’05 undrafted free agent who excels against the run.
I really like the potential of this defense, but the lack of weapons on offense and Steven Jackson’s spotty health history have me dialing back expectations. Look for big years from Long, Carriker, Bartell, and Atogwe. If all those guys step up and Avery produces like a #1 and either Burton or Robinson steps up, maybe they make it out of the NFC West cellar for the first time in three years.
MVP – Larry Fitzgerald (best player in the division)
Offensive POY – Steven Jackson (likely the best single player performance of the year)
Defensive POY – Patrick Willis
Rookie of the Year – Aaron Curry
Offensive Breakout Player – Josh Morgan
Defensive Breakout Player – Chris Long