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Wednesday, May 23, 2012
NFL Future Power Rankings: West won?

By Mike Sando


The San Francisco 49ers' NFC West rivals might as well start working on their divisional concession speeches.

That is because the 49ers, after one good season, suddenly tower over the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams by just about every meaningful on-field franchise marker.

That was my somewhat skeptical takeaway from the "NFL Future Power Rankings" Insider projecting where teams are headed by 2015, using a weighted formula reflecting rosters, quarterbacks, drafts, front offices and coaching.

The 49ers, easily underrated while charging to a 13-3 record last season, appear overrated in relation to their division rivals by this ranking, in my view. Can we really say their front office blows away those for the other NFC West teams by an 8.5-to-5 margin across the board? A five-game cushion in the 2011 division standings says we can, but that will be a tough edge to maintain. Then again, last season did happen. It has to count for something, and the front office usually had the right answers.

"This category weighs each team's front office in terms of its ability to manage its roster and bring in new talent via free agency or trades," the methodology reads. "It also factors in a team's willingness to spend money, and a market's attraction to free agents. A 10 represents a team that has the ability to spend freely and obtain top-choice talent on a regular basis. A one represents a team that has little ability to spend, has no track record of bringing in quality free-agent talent or, worse, has spent big on free agents that have made little-to-no impact."

The 49ers hit big on Aldon Smith in the 2011 draft while finding outstanding free-agent value in Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers. They succeeded in keeping together their defense. CEO Jed York appears to have made the right move for a general manager even though fans were hardly chanting for Trent Baalke to assume the role. York and Baalke landed Jim Harbaugh as head coach.

On the flip side, the 49ers' front office has done less heavy lifting than the front offices for Seattle and St. Louis in particular. San Francisco stayed the course to a greater degree than those other teams, relying upon a new coaching staff to get more from Alex Smith and others. But the Rams remain in the early stages of a rebuild, while the Seahawks will need better on-field results to validate the high-impact moves they've made since Pete Carroll arrived in 2010. Seattle's unsettled fate at quarterback stands as another key variable.

Overall, the 49ers finished ahead of their division rivals in all five core categories except for one. They were second to St. Louis in projected quarterback strength. Having Sam Bradford gave the Rams 6.25 points out of 10 in that category, ahead of scores for Seattle (4.5) and Arizona (3.75).

I'll be curious to hear your thoughts on how these teams are set up for the future. I suspect a 2008 projection would have expected more from the Cardinals in 2011.

As the piece freely admits, these projections cannot anticipate everything.

"But they do provide some interesting conclusions about what's truly important to succeeding on a perennial basis in the NFL, specifically the value of a franchise QB," the piece notes. "And while some teams may experience a down year, the squads at the top of this list are well suited for sustained success over the long term."

Note: Gary Horton, Matt Williamson, Trent Dilfer and Mel Kiper Jr. worked with Bill Polian in putting together these projections.