Wednesday, September 8, 2010

2010 NFL Predictions - NFC West

Arizona took control of the division for good last year after a week 7 win at the Giants, but they finished the season in the wrong place at the wrong time in a lopsided loss in their divisional round matchup at New Orleans. It was a rather unceremonious exit for longtime “really good, not great” QB Kurt Warner who retired at the end of the season. He was terrific in his last three years as the starting QB for the Cardinals with 11,752 yards passing, 83 TD, and 45 INT. Arizona has the look of a much different team this year, but more on that later. San Francisco was thought of as a possible Cinderella team last season, but they were a disappointingly unthreatening 8-8. Seattle limped through a 5-11 season before sending Jim Mora Jr. packing, and St. Louis was in a world of it’s own with their 1-15 campaign. Funny enough, their one victory came against the Detroit Lions, the team that went 0-16 in ’08.

Predicted order of finish

1) San Francisco 49ers
Alex Smith or Aaron Rodgers? Want a do-over San Fran? I know I’m picking this team to finish first, but it’s certainly in spite of Smith rather than because of him. Does he instill confidence in his team, his coach, his fans? It’s not working for me. Frank Gore is the machine that moves this offense, and a fourth straight 1,000 yard season is evidence of that. Backing him up this year is longtime Eagle Brian Westbrook. Injuries have really taken a toll on Westbrook in the last couple of years, so this role should suit him well. ’09 was a breakout year for TE Vernon Davis. Effort and focus finally caught up with talent, and Davis destroyed his previous career highs in receptions, yards, and scores. I think he can do it again. Out wide on the other hand, Michael Crabtree had a rather unceremonious and unimpressive rookie year, appearing in only 11 games and scoring a mere two touchdowns. Hopefully he worked a little harder this offseason. Patrick Willis is the best ILB in football and leads a strong defense that excelled against the run and rushing the passer last season. Manny Lawson is improving as a pass rusher, and Dashon Goldson is yet another young safety making strides in the league.

Reasons for optimism –
-Michael Crabtree is in uniform from the start of camp this year
-Draft picks Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati look like great OL building blocks
-Kurt Warner retired

Potential pessimistic pitfalls –
-They’re forced to count on Brian Westbrook to carry the load
-Nate Clements can’t improve upon back-to-back poor seasons
-Alex Smith doesn’t play like Aaron Rodgers (is this rubbing it in?)

2) Arizona Cardinals
Man, things can sure go bad in a hurry. Just eight months after finishing their second NFC West winning season in a row, the Cardinals are on a bit of a downward spiral. Warner wasn’t the only Cardinal to leave the nest. #1a WR An quan Boldin is in Baltimore, standout LB Karlos Dansby is in Miami, and playmaking FS Antrel Rolle is in New York. Matt Leinart has not only already lost the starting QB job he inherited from Warner, but he’s also lost his spot on the roster. Arizona dumped him before the season even started. Now the offense is in the “capable” hands of Derek Anderson. Oh, and did I mention that Larry Fitzgerald is dealing with an MCL sprain? Darnell Dockett is a formidable RDE, and I think Calais Campbell is on the verge of a big year at LDE.

Reasons for optimism –
-Larry Fitzgerald may be banged up, but he’s still one of the game’s best at what he does
-Beanie Wells demonstrated lead back qualities down the stretch in ‘09
-NT Dan Williams and ILB Daryl Washington look to have won (not been handed) starting jobs as rookies

Potential pessimistic pitfalls –
-Not upgrading either offensive tackle position or adding depth at corner
-Undrafted rookie free agent Max Hall is under center if/when something happens to Anderson
-Kurt Warner retired

3) St. Louis Rams
A 1-15 season results in a chance at redemption, an opportunity to start again. The Rams were that team this year, and with the first pick in April’s draft they selected the player they hope is key to turning this franchise around. Sam Bradford takes over an offense with a few promising pieces. Steven Jackson, one of the game’s fiercest competitors and best all-round talents, enters his 7th season as a Ram. He’s had six straight years of 1,000 yards or more, but he’s failed to play a complete season in all but one of them. He’ll continue to be the key to their offense, at least this year, but I’m expecting him to get banged up again and have one of his more (or most) disappointing seasons as a starter. I’m sure it won’t shock many seeing as how they lost 15 of 16 games last year, but the Rams had one of the worst defensive units in the game in ’09. One player who didn’t contribute to the putrid play is MLB James Laurinaitis who became only the second rookie in team history to lead them in tackles. There are certainly some building blocks in place in key areas, but I still think this is a bad football team.

Reasons for optimism –
-Sam Bradford had a great preseason and has actually earned the starting job
-Several young, promising receiving talents in Laurent Robinson, Danny Amendola, Mardy Gilyard, and Brandon Gibson
-James Laurinaitis looks like an emerging stud at LB

Potential pessimistic pitfalls –
-Stephen Jackson has surpassed 1,500 carries and, given his lack of ideal health over the year, one has to wonder when his breaking point will be reached
-Losing deep threat Donnie Avery for the year before the season even began
- Chris Long fails to step up as the pass rushing threat the Rams thought they were getting when they drafted him

4) Seattle Seahawks
What’s going on in Seattle? First they get LenDale White and cut him before even one preseason game snap. Then they wait until final cut day to decide that they no longer need TJ Houshmandzadeh. And now Alex Gibbs has decided to quit one week before the season starts. What’s going on up there? Oh that’s right. Pete Carroll is back in the NFL. Captain controversy isn’t exactly righting the ship in Seattle. They traded for Charlie Whitehurst this offseason, but he’s behind Matt Hasselbeck, the 35 year old veteran. I’m not very optimistic about this situation given his injury history (hasn’t played a complete season in the last two) and their weak offensive line. First round draft pick Russell Okung should help eventually at LT. Deion Branch has seen better days, and they’re counting on NFL flunkie Mike Williams to be a contributor. I like Golden Tate. He should end up their leading receiver this season. On the other side of the ball what stands out immediately is the lack of any semblance of a pass rush. They were one of the league’s worst at getting after the passer (28 total sacks, tied with Tampa Bay at 26th in the league), and last year’s top sacker, Patrick Kerney, retired this offseason. The best part of the defense is at LB where Lofa Tatupu returns for an ’09 that was shortened by a torn pectoral muscle. David Hawthorne played so well in his place that the Seahawks seem ready to make starting WLB LeRoy Hill a bench player. Aaron Curry was a bit of a disappointment last season, but he should do much better having a year under his belt and with a healthy Tatupu next to him. St. Louis will be bad, but I think these guys will be just a little worse.

Reasons for optimism –
-A nice trio of Justin Forsett, Leon Washington, and Julius Jones at RB
-Their first three draft picks (Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, and Golden Tate) addressed key areas of need
A healthy Tatupu next to last year’s top pick Curry at LB

Potential pessimistic pitfalls –
-Trying to replace future Hall of Famer Walter Jones at LT
-The pitiful pass rush fails to improve
-They’re very shaky at corner if Marcus Trufant isn’t healthy

Conference Awards
MVP (best talent in biggest role) – Frank Gore (RB, 49ers)
Offensive POY (most impressive season) – Beanie Wells (RB, Cardinals)
Defensive POY – Patrick Willis (ILB, 49ers)
Offensive ROY – Golden Tate (WR, Seahawks)
Defensive ROY – Daryl Washington (ILB, Cardinals)
Offensive Breakout Player – Danny Amendola (WR, Rams)
Defensive Breakout Player – Calais Campbell (DE, Cardinals)

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