NFC West: 2014 NFC key to success

Rams' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
Since the arrival of coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead in 2012, the St. Louis Rams have been headed in an obvious direction. The goal is to build a physical, aggressive team capable of winning games with a power running attack and a stout defense.

While that approach can win championships in the NFL, there's no denying that predicting the long-term success of a franchise is most tied to what that team has at quarterback. For the Rams, what happens at the game's most important position beyond this season is still up in the air. Predicting what happens over the next three seasons is a task made much harder without knowing who will be playing quarterback.

The Rams have committed to Sam Bradford as the starting quarterback for 2014 and he will get his fifth chance to stake his claim to the spot.

In the team's ideal world, Bradford will take what could be a true make-or-break season and excel to the point that he earns himself a lucrative contract extension. St. Louis had interest in signing him to an extension before his 2013 knee injury, but those plans have been put on hold. Bradford has also preferred to wait on any possible extension, choosing to bet on himself as Joe Flacco once did.

If Bradford struggles or suffers another serious injury this season, the Rams will have to begin considering alternatives. They chose to pass on the top quarterbacks in the 2014 draft despite having two first-round picks. Given Fisher's track record of pushing his teams to at least a mediocre record, they may not be in position to choose a replacement.

If that happens, the Rams could find themselves on the other end of a major trade like the one they made with Washington, forced to give up a big package of picks to move up for a franchise quarterback.
The Arizona Cardinals' biggest key to success for the next three seasons can be summed up in one word: offense.

How the Cardinals can adapt and adjust on the offensive side of the ball will determine whether they continue to build on the foundation that coach Bruce Arians laid in 2013 or whether they regress back to the state of mediocrity.

The first step to being successful over the next three seasons is finding a long-term solution at quarterback. Current starter Carson Palmer is entering the final year of his contract because his third season voids if he remains on the roster five days after the Super Bowl. A young, steady, productive quarterback is needed to take over this team, and the question then becomes is Logan Thomas that guy? The Cardinals also need to solidify the right side of the offensive line, like they did the left side by signing tackle Jared Veldheer and drafting guard Jonathan Cooper.

Stability up front can make the offense run despite rough conditions behind it. In three years, the likes of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd might not be wearing Cardinal red anymore. Fitzgerald is coming up on the end of his career in the next few years, and Floyd might be a free agent in the next two. The Cardinals will need to make Floyd their next No. 1 receiver and build around him to remain successful.

Running back and tight end are the two positions that are young and feature players poised to be around for the next few seasons, but, in order for the Cards to be successful through 2016, the rest of the offense needs to be stabilized and shored up.

Seahawks' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
Keep doing what you're doing.

Those five words are the simple answer to how the Seattle Seahawks can continue their success over the next three seasons. It sounds easy. It isn't.

Keeping the core players of a Super Bowl winning team in place is always a difficult task. The Seahawks have done a remarkable job so far, working new contract deals for free safety Earl Thomas, cornerback Richard Sherman and defensive end Michael Bennett.

However, it's going to get progressively more difficult. In light of the new contract signed by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is in line for a new contract, starting in 2015, that likely will pay him between $23 million and $25 million a year over five years. Probably $70 million will be guaranteed.

The contracts to Thomas, Sherman and Bennett are worth $125 million, with $84 million guaranteed.

All those deals were good decisions, but it means the Seahawks will have to let some key performers go in the next two years. Running back Marshawn Lynch probably is one of them, which is why they are grooming second-year player Christine Michael to take his place after 2014.

Seattle has three quality starters on defense who are free agents after 2014 -- defensive end Cliff Avril, outside linebacker K.J. Wright and cornerback Byron Maxwell. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner also can renegotiate his rookie contract after 2014.

From a salary-cap standpoint, Seattle can't keep all of them. What the Seahawks must do to maintain a championship level is continue to get quality play from young players, rookies, undrafted free agents, etc., to fill the gaps.

The Seahawks have done a better job of that than most teams, finding talented players who fit their system -- players other teams didn't want or didn't see as having the same value the Seahawks saw.

49ers' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
The San Francisco 49ers are well positioned to remain as one of the NFL's elite franchises over the next three years.

The 49ers have advanced to the NFC Championship Game the past three seasons, cementing themselves as a top franchise. In the next three years, the 49ers should be in good shape because their roster is deep and young.

And it all centers around quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The key for the 49ers' success in the next three seasons starts with the quarterback. Kaepernick, 26, hasn't even entered his prime. He has started just 29 NFL games.

Earlier this offseason, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh predicted Kaepernick, who signed an extension through the 2020 season in June, would have a breakout season in 2014.

Kaepernick has tremendous skill as a passer and as a runner, but he needs to improve his accuracy and read progressions.

Kaepernick is a tireless worker, coachable and should continue to make strides. The 49ers are well equipped to help make Kaepernick better because they have a strong supporting cast.

The key is to try to extend the contract of receiver Michael Crabtree, who is Kaepernick's favorite target. Crabtree is entering the final year of his current deal. The 49ers are excited about second-year receiver Quinton Patton and fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington. They also have Stevie Johnson for the next three years. If Crabtree is re-signed, the 49ers should continue to be stacked at receiver.

At tight end, second-year player Vance McDonald needs to make strides as a receiver, especially with Vernon Davis being 30 and his contract ending after the 2015 season. The ground game looks set for the future with rookie Carlos Hyde and 2014 fourth-round pick Marcus Lattimore.

All of these weapons will make Kaepernick better and ensure the 49ers get as much as they can from him as he enters his prime.