NFC West: 2012 One big question

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
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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.

 

Cardinals: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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Can the Arizona Cardinals' defense maintain the growth it showed late last season, outpacing whatever gains the San Francisco 49ers make on offense?

Joshua Steuter asked that question and a few others via Facebook as part of our ongoing discussion. We could have asked about Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and the quarterback situation, but we've been having that discussion for nine months already.

The answer to Joshua's question could hinge on a few variables:
  • Dan Williams' recovery: Williams, the Cardinals' first-round draft pick in 2010, is returning from a nasty arm injury suffered against the 49ers late last season. Arizona should remain strong at both defensive end spots. Darnell Dockett and franchise player Calais Campbell are established players. Williams was showing signs of becoming one before the injury. Conditioning can be a concern for him. As a first-round talent, he holds the key to determining whether the Cardinals field one of the best 3-4 fronts in the game.
  • Stewart Bradley's transition: Arizona's coaches had big plans for Bradley heading into last season. They envisioned pairing him with Daryl Washington to get pressure with inside blitzes. Do those dreams live? Bradley struggled with the transition from a 4-3 defense to the 3-4. Paris Lenon beat him out and played well enough to keep the job. Were the Cardinals really that wrong on Bradley? Did the lockout-affected offseason merely delay the transition? The Cardinals will find out for sure this season. They have a full offseason to make this work. And Bradley did take a pay cut.
  • Acho/Schofield progression. The Cardinals were the only NFL team to go through the 2012 draft without selecting a player for their front seven. They had needs on offense but showed faith in some of their emerging defensive players, including outside linebackers Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield. Acho had seven sacks last season. Schofield had 4.5 sacks. Getting one of those players into double digits would signal the continued development Arizona needs to keep its defense on the upswing.
  • Next step for Peterson: Cornerback Patrick Peterson should take a significant step forward, improving the Cardinals' ability to match up with a reconfigured 49ers receiving corps featuring Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. Peterson scored four touchdowns on punt returns last season. I like his chances to score on defense this season as well. He'll relish a chance to match up with Moss.

The Cardinals' defense held San Francisco to 23 and 19 points last season despite occasionally horrible play from Arizona's offense. The 49ers converted 11 of 38 times on third down against Arizona, including 3 of 17 times during the Cardinals' Dec. 11 victory over San Francisco.

I'm expecting Arizona's defense to keep pace in this matchup.

49ers: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
12:00
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Will the San Francisco 49ers approach their turnover differential from last season?

Ken Baker asked the question via Facebook. He's a Seattle Seahawks fan, so the question was probably rhetorical, but there's a broader context worth our attention.

The 49ers were plus-28 in turnover differential last season, a big reason they posted a 13-3 record. Winning the turnover battle most of the time is a reasonable expectation for the 49ers based on how they play defense. It was an even more reasonable expectation last season based on how the 49ers played offense in concert with that defense.

The 2011 49ers risked sacks instead of risking interceptions, trusting their defense and special teams. It usually worked. And the offense produced in critical moments against New Orleans during the divisional playoff round. But there were signs of trouble all season, especially on third down. The 49ers will have a harder time taking the next step in the playoffs -- reaching the Super Bowl -- without taking the next step on offense.

There should be higher expectations in 2012.

The 49ers have spent the offseason acquiring offensive weapons. They welcomed Randy Moss out of retirement. They signed Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham. They used a first-round pick for receiver A.J. Jenkins and a second-rounder for running back LaMichael James. By all appearances, the 49ers want more from their offense.

Spinning off the original question from Ken, I'm curious to see whether the 49ers demand more from quarterback Alex Smith and whether Smith can deliver without committing too many additional turnovers.

The 49ers built flexibility into their new contract with Smith, and they have expectations for Colin Kaepernick. How much higher will coach Jim Harbaugh raise the bar on offense?

Rams: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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What are the St. Louis Rams going to do at outside linebacker?

The team faces other questions coming off a 2-14 season, but that position went largely unaddressed in the draft. St. Louis emerged from the draft with five linebackers on its roster, leaving roughly six or seven spots to fill for training camp.

The Rams used a seventh-round choice for Aaron Brown, a weakside linebacker from Hawaii, but linebackers selected that late would generally project as special-teams contributors only if they earn roster spots at all.

Veteran Jo-Lonn Dunbar, signed from New Orleans in free agency, projects as one starter. Josh Hull, a seventh-round choice in 2010, projects as the other starter until the Rams can further address the position.

James Laurinaitis is a solid starter in the middle. He should fare better in 2012 playing behind recently acquired Kendall Langford (Miami Dolphins) and Michael Brockers (first-round draft choice). He cannot make every play from sideline to sideline, however. He needs help. The Rams desperately need speed on the outside.

After struggling through last season with aging stopgap options such as Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga, the Rams have gotten younger at the position, but they have not gotten appreciably better. Some of the players they cast aside in previous seasons -- Paris Lenon, Pisa Tinoisamoa and Will Witherspoon come to mind -- would have been better than the players St. Louis wound up relying on.

At one point in the draft, the Rams traded down from the 45th spot, coming away with running back Isaiah Pead and the 150th choice. Philadelphia and Seattle took inside linebackers with the 46th and 47th overall picks. The Rams could have drafted Nebraska's Lavonte David, who went to Tampa Bay at No. 58, but they thought Pead would bring greater value at another position of need.

Teams running 4-3 defenses selected only four projected outside linebackers from the third through fifth rounds, with Jacksonville selecting Nevada's Brandon Marshall at No. 142, eight spots before the Rams chose South Carolina guard Rokevious Watkins.

The bottom line was that St. Louis entered this draft with more needs than it could address with the available picks. Outside linebacker moves closer to the top of their priority list as the roster rebuild enters its next phase.

Seahawks: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
12:00
PM ET
Will Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Flynn live up to his Green Bay hype?

J.C. Colom asked the question via Facebook, and initially I was reluctant to answer it. Some things must wait until the regular season because there's not enough evidence to form a solid opinion, as Brett Schumacher pointed out before pleading with me to avoid quarterback-related questions.

But an answer came to mind. A theory, really.

What we've seen from Flynn, the presumed starter even though he hasn't yet won the job, suggests he'll be more aggressive than 2011 starter Tarvaris Jackson. He'll take more chances. That seemed to be his nature with Green Bay.

Some of that could reflect the advanced state of the Packers' offense overall and the types of games Flynn participated in while completing 55 of 81 passes for 731 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions in two starts. That is obviously an unsustainable pace; he's not going to pass for 72 touchdowns with 16 interceptions over a full season. Things will even out if Flynn plays as aggressively as he played while posting that 9-2 ratio.

I'm anticipating a point in the 2012 season when Flynn and coach Pete Carroll must reconcile the gap between a quarterback's aggressive mindset and a defensive-minded head coach's emphasis on avoiding mistakes even at the expense of productivity.

Carroll and Matt Hasselbeck needed time to develop a full understanding in 2010. The two hit a stride for a few weeks, with Hasselbeck playing his best against Arizona and New Orleans. Hasselbeck finished strong in the playoffs, leading the Seahawks past the Saints in the wild-card round.

Flynn will likely experience peaks and valleys over the course of a season. Most quarterbacks do. We'll raise additional questions along the way.

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