1) St. Louis Rams
(7-9, 2nd in ’10)
Key Gets – Cadillac Williams (RB, Bucs), Mike Sims-Walker (WR, Jaguars), Jerious Norwood (RB, Falcons), Harvey Dahl (OL, Falcons), Robert Quinn (DL, UNC), Lance Kendricks (TE, Wisconsin), Austin Pettis (WR, Boise State), Gregory Salas (WR, Hawaii)
Key Gones – OJ Atogwe (S, Redskins)
Key Games – wk1 v. Eagles, wk2 @ Giants, wk3 v. Ravens, wk6 @ Packers, wk7 @ Cowboys, wk8 v. Saints, wk9 @ Cardinals, wk12 v. Cardinals, wk16 @ Steelers
Aaron Rodgers is easily my favorite NFL QB, but the guy slinging the skin for the Rams is quickly becoming #2 on that list. Sam Bradford did so much with so little, throwing for over 3,500 yards to the likes of Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, Laurent Robinson, and Mark Clayton. The surrounding talent hasn’t improved much, but imagine the steps he’ll take with Josh McDaniels now calling the shots offensively. Big big things await Bradford. The first receiver in that aforementioned list has a shot at big things too. McDaniels used to coach a guy named Wes Welker and helped do quite a few things for his career. Amendola is licking his chops. Watch out for Sims-Walker too. He’s had a fine preseason, and I’d expect Amendola and Sims-Walker to pace the team in receptions. Danario Alexander is a guy (with knee issues) I liked a lot coming out of Missouri a couple of years ago, but he’s dealing with knee issues again. Rookie TE Lance Kendricks is making a name for himself this preseason. They’re moving him around a bit, looking for mismatches to exploit, so look for him to be a steady weapon of Bradford’s. McDaniels’ entrance will no doubt help Steven Jackson as well, but at 28 and given the poundings he’s taken, his output is likely to start slipping. Two things stand out on the offensive line. One, I like the thought of this young unit developing together, especially tackles Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith. Second was the (year overdue) upgrade at RG with Dahl over Adam Goldberg. The offense isn’t St. Louis’ only unit heading in the right direction. Under Steve Spagnuolo the Rams defense was a formidable force last season, headlined by Chris Long and James Laurinaitis. Long busted out with a career high 8.5 sacks, and Laurinaitis built upon a strong ’09 rookie campaign. I look for them both to continue trending upward as foundational forces for this unit. James Hall busted out with 10.5 sacks, but the Rams wisely started succession planning with the drafting of the athletically gifted Quinn. He was a steal at #14 in the draft. I worry a bit about the secondary. Losing Atogwe will hurt, and there’s zero depth behind corners Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher. If they’ve got a weak spot defensively, I think this is it.
Sam Bradford writes the first chapter in his legacy of greatness this year.
Team MVP – Sam Bradford
Breakout Player – James Laurinaitis
Disappointment – Steven Jackson
2) Arizona Cardinals
(5-11, 4th in ’10)
Key Gets – Kevin Kolb (QB, Eagles), Stewart Bradley (LB, Eagles), Todd Heap (TE, Ravens), Richard Marshall (CB, Panthers), Patrick Peterson (CB, LSU), Ryan Williams (RB, Virginia Tech), Rob Housler (TE, FAU), Sam Acho (DE/OLB, Texas), Quan Sturdivant (LB, UNC)
Key Gones – Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (CB, Eagles), Steve Breaston (WR, Chiefs), Alan Faneca (OL, retired), Tim Hightower (RB, Redskins)
Key Games – wk 4 v. Giants, wk7 v. Steelers, wk8 @ Ravens, wk9 v. Rams, wk10 @ Eagles, wk12 @ Rams, wk13 v. Cowboys
The Cardinals won as many games as they had players attempt passes last season (Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, Richard Bartell, and Steve Breaston (2 tosses)). In an attempt to not repeat the past, the Cardinals made the most expected move of the offseason, acquiring Kevin Kolb from the Eagles. Philly didn’t get the first round pick they were seeking, but a second rounder and DRC for a QB with a 3-4 NFL record is a pretty decent haul. Larry Fitzgerald was obviously pleased with the pick up because he just signed a long term extension to stay in Arizona. Look for him to rebound from a quiet ’10 with some stability under center. Bringing in Todd Heap will help Kolb, and I like the potential production from the Andre Roberts / Early Doucet tandem opposite Fitzgerald. What won’t help is Ryan Williams going down for the year with a knee injury. The shaky Beanie Wells doesn’t have much competition for carries, but that doesn’t mean he’ll survive for 16 games. Arizona’s defense yielded nearly 6,000 yards last year, good for 4th worst in the league. Make no mistake, the defense wasn’t solid by any means, but a pathetic offense will wear on any defense. I really like the front line of Calais Campbell, Dan Williams, and Darnell Docket. Lotta bulk and brawn there. The ends were their top sack artists, responsible for 11 of the team’s meager 33 QB takedowns. Their OLBs are a combined 66 years old and slowing tremendously, but Arizona’s only attempt at an upgrade was Sam Acho. Not enough. Inside man Daryl Washington is the bright spot at LB. Look for him to stand out even more this year. The Cardinals picked up my favorite college player this past April and will insert Patrick Peterson into the lineup and leave him there until his contract expires. I also like the Richard Marshall acquisition. FS Kerry Rhodes is three years younger than SS Adrian Wilson, but I think the latter has more left in the tank.
Kolb makes things better but not good enough as Wells has trouble holding up through the entire season.
Team MVP – Larry Fitzgerald
Breakout Player – Patrick Peterson
Disappointment – Jerry Porter
3) San Francisco 49ers
(6-10, 3rd in ’10)
Key Gets – Braylon Edwards (WR, Jets), David Akers (K, Eagles), Carlos Rogers (CB, Redskins), Donte Whitner (CB, Bills), Madieu Williams (S, Vikings), Aldon Smith (DE/OLB, Missouri), Colin Kaepernick (QB, Nevada), Chris Culliver (CB, South Carolina), Kendall Hunter (RB, Oklahoma State)
Key Gones – Aubrayo Franklin (DL, Saints), Takeo Spikes (LB, Chargers), Manny Lawson (LB, Bengals), Nate Clements (CB, Bengals)
Key Games – wk2 v. Cowboys, wk4 @ Eagles, wk5 v. Bucs, wk10 v. Giants, wk11 v. Cardinals, wk12 @ Ravens, wk13 v. Rams, wk14 @ Cardinals, wk15 v. Steelers, wk17 @ Rams
In 2010, a once proud franchise that boasted 16 straight, yes 16 straight seasons with at least 10 wins completed their eighth straight with less than 9. Jim Harbaugh to the rescue. As a frame of reference, Harbaugh was completing his one season with the Ravens the year the Niners’ 16 season streak ended. The object of much San Fran hatred, QB Alex Smith, is back for what most fans hope is his last as a Niner; a placeholder until Kaepernick learns how to swim. Frank Gore’s license says he’s 28, but he seems 38 in football years. He hasn’t played 15 games since ’07 and was just rewarded with an extension. He’s still one of the best in the league when healthy, but that hasn’t been something you can take for granted in recent history. Watch for Kendall Hunter, a guy high on my list for the Bucs, to do a fine job backing up Gore and stepping in as the lead guy if needed. Michael Crabtree has been a huge disappointment as a pro, scoring just 8 TDs in two seasons and entering this one hobbling on a foot that he fractured in ’09. I’m not a big Edwards fan, but they’ll lean on him if Crabtree misses more time. Vernon Davis has certainly matured and will likely be the team’s leading receiver a third straight season. I like the potential of this offensive line with Mike Iupati, Chilo Rachal, and Anthony Davis. Iupati is already making quite a name for himself. If Joe Staley is recovered from the broken leg and steps his game back up to where it was a couple of years ago, this line can be dangerous. When you talk about San Fran’s defense, you’ve got to start with Patrick Willis who, in my opinion, is the best linebacker in the game. As good as Willis is, the Niners are going to miss his inside mate Spikes and to a lesser degree Lawson. Rushing Aldon Smith isn’t in his or the team’s best interest, but they’ll need him to contribute quickly. Up front the Niners had their biggest loss in Franklin. Justin Smith is still getting it done and has more career sacks than a more heralded guy like Aaron Kampmann (7 more) who he shares a birth year of 1979 with. Replacing the 31 year old Clements with the 30 year old Rogers isn’t a huge step forward, and the other starting corner, Shawntae Spencer, wouldn’t start on a lot of teams. Safety Donte Whitner has seen better days.
Jim Harbaugh will win in San Francisco…eventually.
Team MVP – Patrick Willis
Breakout Player – Mike Iupati
Disappointment – Michael Crabtree
4) Seattle Seahawks
(7-9, 1st in ’10)
Key Gets – Sidney Rice (WR, Vikings), Zach Miller (TE, Raiders), Robert Gallery (OL, Raiders), Tarvaris Jackson (QB, Vikings), James Carpenter (OL, Alabama), John Moffitt (OL, Wisconsin)
Key Gones – Matt Hasselbeck (QB, Titans), Lofa Tatupu (LB, free agent), Chris Spencer (OL, Bears), Sean Locklear (OL, Redskins)
Key Games – wk2 @ Steelers, wk3 v. Cardinals, wk4 v. Falcons, wk5 @ Giants, wk9 @ Cowboys, wk10 v. Ravens, wk11 @ Rams, wk 13 v. Eagles, wk14 v. Rams, wk15 @ Bears, wk17 @ Cardinals
All that scoffing about the sub .500 Seahawks making the playoffs last year, and they went out and knocked off the Saints in a huge home upset. What’s Pete Carroll got up his sleeve this year? If it’s Tanard Jackson at QB for an extended amount of time, Carroll club won’t sniff the postseason this year. Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst are giving John Beck / Rex Grossman and Chad Henne / Matt Moore a run for worst QB pair in the league. Bringing in a bona fide #1 receiver in Sidney Rice and proven pass catching TE in Zach Miller will help, but I’m not expecting Mike Williams to recreate the magic again this year. I actually like Seattle’s offensive line for a change, despite their preseason struggles. Russell Okung was a rookie last year, and he’s the only returning starter if you don’t count Max Unger’s one game before missing the rest of the year with an injury. James Carpenter and John Moffitt were brought in to solidify the right side, and new OL coach, Tom Cable, brought a familiar face with him in Robert Gallery. They’ll need time to gel, but I like the pieces in place. Where’s the beef? 1,216 pounds of it lines up in the front four defensive spots for Seattle. Brandon Mebane is too unknown for how good he is; really excels against the run. He’s assisted by Colin Cole and Alan Branch. Red Bryant’s a huge LE, and Chris Clemons, the lightest starter on the line, broke out with a career high 11 sacks in ’10. I think they’ll struggle to get to the passer this year, and that’s not good considering Marcus Trufant is declining, and neither Walter Thurmond nor Kelly Jennings should be starting on the other side. FS Earl Thomas is the only bright spot in the secondary, and he’ll have a ton on his shoulders this season. David Hawthorne is the top talent at LB, and his play won’t have anyone chanting for Lofa Tatupu. Unfortunately, Eric Curry hasn’t played anywhere near his draft choice as pro, and LeRoy Hill has never taken that step up in game like many thought he would. They’ve got studs at each level of the defense in Mebane, Hawthorne, and Thomas, but it won’t be enough to get them to the postseason again.
It’s hard to project a ton of wins for a team that looks this awful at QB.
Team MVP – Earl Thomas
Breakout Player – David Hawthorne
Disappointment – Tarvaris Jackson
1) St. Louis Rams
2) Arizona Cardinals
3) San Francisco 49ers
4) Seattle Seahawks
Division MVP – Sam Bradford
Division Breakout – David Hawthorne
Division Disappointment – Michael Crabtree