NFC West: 2012 One big question

Cardinals: One big question

May, 3, 2012
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
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
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
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.