NFC West: Steve McMichael

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. ranks NFC West defensive lines in this Insider piece posted Monday. I've listed the teams alphabetically while offering a few thoughts of my own, each punctuated with what to watch for from Williamson:

Arizona Cardinals: They have the best young talent across the board with Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and the emerging Dan Williams projected to start in 2011. I'm with Williamson in thinking the 2010 season was an aberration for this group. Dockett played hurt. Williams, as a rookie, faced an adjustment period. The Cardinals should expect improvement up front. Dockett expressed frustration during the season when his injured shoulder would not let him fight through double teams as effectively. He's a hard worker and should come back strong. New coordinator Ray Horton is adapting his system to fit some of the Cardinals' existing terminology, but the key is whether Williams builds on a strong finish to 2010 and whether Campbell bounces back from a down season. What to watch for from Williamson: strong thoughts regarding what's in store for Campbell.

St. Louis Rams: Chris Long's development has accelerated since moving to the left side. Some other key members of the line will decline in the near future. Will it happen in 2011? That is not known. Fred Robbins and James Hall defied their age last season. Robbins had a career-high six sacks last season at age 33. Steve McMichael, John Randle and Warren Sapp are the only defensive tackles since 1990 to hit that number in a season at 34 or older. It's a bonus if the Rams' older linemen continue to defy the odds, but it's not something the team should bank on. What to watch for from Williamson: how he sees George Selvie and Gary Gibson fitting into the rotation.

San Francisco 49ers: Williamson graded them lower than I would have anticipated, based mostly on Aubrayo Franklin's uncertain status. Using the franchise tag for Franklin last season allowed the team to keep him at a palatable salary number. I see some parallels between Franklin's situation and the situation the Rams encountered with Oshiomogho Atogwe. Both have been franchise players, but neither was a Pro Bowl performer. Their teams used franchise tags on them out of convenience, not because they viewed either player as indispensable. Replacing a solid safety such as Atogwe is easier than replacing a solid nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme. The 49ers might need to draft one. What to watch for from Williamson: where he ranks Justin Smith among linemen in the division, and what might be in store for Ray McDonald.

Seattle Seahawks: Health will be a key variable after Red Bryant, Colin Cole, Brandon Mebane and Chris Clemons battled through or succumbed to injuries last season. There is also the detail of re-signing Mebane, who could become a free agent. Williamson ranks the Seahawks' defensive line higher than I would have anticipated, to the point that he sees no reason for the team to address the position in the first round of the draft. I could see the team looking to use one of its choices for another player in Bryant's mold -- a big, top-heavy defensive tackle with the ability to serve as a run-stuffing defensive end opposite Clemons. Bryant, a fourth-round choice in 2008, is coming off his second ACL surgery since 2006. What to watch for from Williamson: where he sees Clemons fitting among the top pass-rushers in the NFL.

Leading Questions: NFC West

February, 14, 2011
2/14/11
1:00
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With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC West team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

ARIZONA CARDINALS

What happens to the offensive line?

We've been asking, answering and asking some more questions about the Cardinals' quarterback situation for months. Let's tap a few brain cells to discuss the guys up front.

Center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui are without contracts for 2011. Left guard Alan Faneca might retire. Right tackle Brandon Keith is coming off hamstring and knee injuries that shortened his first season as a starter. The Cardinals do not have fresh talent in reserve. They have drafted only one offensive lineman in the first four rounds since Ken Whisenhunt became head coach in 2007. Twenty-seven teams have drafted more. As much as the team trusts assistant head coach Russ Grimm to get the most from its offensive line, Arizona could use fresh young talent for him to groom.

The Cardinals went through the 2010 season with the NFL's oldest offensive linemen, counting backups. That wouldn't matter so much if left tackle Levi Brown were meeting the Pro Bowl expectations that came with his status as a top-five overall selection in the 2007 draft. Brown was underwhelming at right tackle to begin his career and a liability at left tackle last season. His salary balloons in 2012, so this could be his last season in Arizona.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Can the defense take the next step?

The Rams allowed 328 points last season, tied for the third-lowest total since the team moved from Los Angeles for the 1995 season. They allowed seven rushing touchdowns, their lowest total since 1999 and down from 50 combined over the previous two seasons. But with starting defensive linemen James Hall and Fred Robbins turning 34 this offseason, and with questions at linebacker, the Rams' defense will not automatically go from competitive toward dominant.

Hall will be looking to become the 14th player since 1982 (when the NFL began tracking sacks as an official stat) to collect 10 sacks in a season at age 34 or older. The others: Trace Armstrong, Chris Doleman, William Fuller, Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Tony McGee, Steve McMichael, John Randle, Warren Sapp, Bruce Smith, Michael Strahan and Reggie White.

Robbins is coming off one of his finest seasons. He joined Keith Traylor, Jeff Zgonina and Ray Agnew among defensive tackles to set career highs for sacks at age 32 or older in the free-agency era (since 1993).

Getting similar production and continued good health from two older players is no given. The Rams also need to find help at outside linebacker after losing 32-year-old Na'il Diggs to a torn pectoral muscle 12 games into the 2010 season. The Rams are set at middle linebacker with James Laurinaitis, but they could stand to upgrade around him.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

How well can Jim Harbaugh coach up a quarterback?

When the 49ers' new coach needed a quarterback at Stanford, he recruited one. Andrew Luck set records and led the Cardinal to national prominence. Recruiting isn't a significant part of the equation in the NFL, so Harbaugh will have to settle for the best quarterback he can draft or otherwise acquire. He might even have to give Alex Smith a shot.

The 49ers will need Harbaugh to do what his recent predecessors could not: get good production from limited or flawed talent at the most important position.

Rich Gannon was well-established as an NFL quarterback when Harbaugh arrived as his position coach in Oakland for the 2002 season. The pairing reflected well on all parties. Gannon set career highs for completed passes, attempts, completion percentage, passing yards and passer rating. Gannon was already a good quarterback and the Raiders were already a good team, so it's tough to measure Harbaugh's impact.

Gannon is long since retired. Harbaugh is back in the NFL for the first time since the two were together on the Raiders in 2003. The 49ers don't have a legitimate starting quarterback under contract. Harbaugh has been meeting with Smith and keeping open his options. The stakes are high in the short term because the 49ers have enough talent elsewhere on their roster to compete for a playoff spot.

Outside expectations for Smith are so low that Harbaugh could appear heroic if he could get even a 9-7 record out of the 49ers with Smith in the lineup.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

How much more roster turnover lies ahead?

The Seahawks were fearless in overhauling their roster during their first year under general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll.

The team added Marshawn Lynch, Leon Washington, Chris Clemons, Stacy Andrews, Tyler Polumbus, Kentwan Balmer, Kevin Vickerson, Robert Henderson and LenDale White, though Seattle parted with Vickerson, Henderson, White and 2009 regulars Deion Branch, Julius Jones, Owen Schmitt, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Josh Wilson, Lawrence Jackson, Rob Sims, Darryl Tapp, Deon Grant and Seneca Wallace. The Seahawks watched a couple other starters, Nate Burleson and Cory Redding, leave in free agency.

If those were the moves the Seahawks felt comfortable making right away, I figured there would be quite a few to come after the team's new leadership watched players for a full season. And there still could be, but similar wheeling and dealing could be impractical or even impossible if the current labor standoff continues deep into the offseason.

Teams cannot make trades without a new labor agreement. They cannot know for sure whether or not a salary cap will come into play as part of any new deal. It's just tough to act as decisively as Seattle acted last offseason without knowing the rules. That's a disadvantage for Seattle and other teams with much work to do this offseason.

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