Arizona Cardinals: St. Louis Rams

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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Catch us if you can.

That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.

It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.

By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.

It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.

So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?

The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.

Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.

The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.

First Down

The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?


Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.

Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.

Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.

Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.


Second Down

The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?


Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.

Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.

Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.


Third Down

Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?


Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.

Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.

Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.

Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.


Fourth Down

If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?


Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.

Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.

Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.

Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.

 
Tavon Austin and Carson PalmerUSA TODAY SportsTavon Austin and Carson Palmer were part of overhauls on offense for the Rams and Saints.
The St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals are widely regarded as the afterthoughts of the difficult NFC West Division.

Sure, both teams have done enough to draw optimism from their respective fan bases but when it comes to high expectations, neither team is supposed to keep pace with chic Super Bowl picks Seattle and San Francisco.

If the Rams or Cardinals intend to keep pace with the Seahawks and Niners, it would serve them well to beat the other to open the season.

Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss discuss the important topics that will shape Sunday’s outcome.

Nick Wagoner: Sitting here in St. Louis, it looks like it’s been a busy offseason out there, the type that I’m used to seeing around here. The Cardinals had a major makeover in the front office and with the coaching staff. The obvious first question here is what type of impact has new coach Bruce Arians made since his arrival?

Josh Weinfuss: Pretty much from the get-go, Arians has changed the culture throughout the organization. He’s not a micromanager. All he cares about is winning football games. Arians cleaned house almost immediately and brought in his own staff, save for two holdovers -- quarterbacks coach Freddie Kitchens and defensive assistant Ryan Slowik. But it was more than the personnel he changed. The mindset was different, too. Players were excited again after losing seasons two of the past three years, and Arians established respect throughout the locker room quickly. He was open and honest with the players, even if it wasn’t what they wanted to hear, and the players appreciated it, some even relished in it.

It’s not like you haven’t seen some change there in St. Louis. With the loss of Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola, how has the Rams' offensive identity changed this season?

Wagoner: After eight years of Steven Jackson punching the clock and picking up 1,000 yards or more on the ground, things are quite a bit different in that regard. The Rams are faster with tight end Jared Cook and receivers Tavon Austin and Chris Givens. They’ve added those guys to give quarterback Sam Bradford every chance to succeed. The offense has been rebuilt to feature Bradford and allow him to take the next step. While offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer says the tempo and style of offense will change from game to game and be more game-plan specific, there’s little doubt the offense will look much different than it has been around here in some time.

Speaking of building around quarterbacks, Carson Palmer is an obvious upgrade at quarterback but how much will that improve the offense?

Weinfuss: I think it’ll improve the offense more than most people think, but for a few reasons. Not only will the Cardinals now have a capable quarterback who threw for 4,018 yards and 22 touchdowns last season -- they’ll have consistency. The Cardinals trotted out four different starters in 2012 and there was no unity that kept the offense together. Combined, they threw for 3,383 yards and 11 touchdowns -- that’s 635 fewer yards and half as many scores. In Arians’ downfield offense, having a big arm and a smart quarterback is as important as any factor. And Palmer showed during the preseason that he can launch it.

You talk about the new weapons around Bradford, but how will the addition of left tackle Jake Long help the Rams' offense, specifically the running game?

Wagoner: The Rams did everything they could during the preseason and training camp to ensure Long is healthy and ready to go when the season begins. They limited his reps in practice to keep him fresh, and he responded with solid performances in the three preseason games in which he appeared. He says he feels as good as he has in three years and from talking to him, he’s got something of a chip on his shoulder. He was told for years he was an elite tackle then people began doubting him last year. He looks poised to bounce back and be effective in pass protection and the run game.

While we’re on the topic of offensive lines, it certainly seems to be the ongoing saga out there. The Rams had nine sacks last year when Arizona came to town. Has the offensive line improved enough to keep Palmer upright on a consistent basis?

Weinfuss: The short answer is yes. The long, complicated answer is we’ll see. Last year the Cardinals allowed a league-high 58 sacks, but that was with a patchwork offensive line that saw seven different starters. This year, the unit is more solidified with the return of Levi Brown, who missed last season with a torn triceps, and the addition of free agent right tackle Eric Winston, who has started every game since 2008. The biggest question mark will be the interior. First-round pick Jonathan Cooper is out for the year with a broken leg, which forced Daryn Colledge to move from right guard back to left and opened the door for Paul Fanaika at right guard. He was out of football last season. Overall, this year’s line is a veteran, improved unit and I expect it to protect Palmer, who was sacked 26 times last year, better than he’s seen in a while.

Let’s flip to the other side of the ball. How much can the Rams rely on solid corner play to make up for having no starting experience at safety?

Wagoner: Well, the Rams have talent and experience returning at every position on the defense except for safety. Rookie T.J. McDonald and second-year undrafted free agent Rodney McLeod are the likely starters Sunday and they have a total of zero starts between them. They do have veteran Cortland Finnegan to provide leadership in the secondary and McDonald seems wise beyond his years. Still, it may be tough on those young safeties against Arians’ vertical passing attack. McDonald figures to play more of the box safety role and McLeod is a better fit as a center-field type on the back end.

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