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Friday, June 7, 2013
Raining on NFC West offseason parade

By Mike Sando

Mel Kiper Jr. is listing the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals among five NFL teams Insider he thought enjoyed outstanding offseasons to this point.

This comes a couple days after Matt Williamson gave "A" grades Insider to the Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks for their offseason work. He gave the Rams a B-plus, and had the 49ers close behind with a solid "B" grade.

Meanwhile, opportunistic bettors have been throwing cash at the Seahawks above all others, driving down their Super Bowl odds from 18-1 to 8-1 in short order. Las Vegas even initially installed Seattle as a road favorite against the Houston Texans and New York Giants, with the Seahawks' visit to Atlanta considered a toss-up.

It's getting to be a bit much. In the interests of balance, here's a look at the other side of this shiny NFC West coin, couched as reasons for at least some restraint:

Arizona Cardinals: Coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim are putting down what appears to be a solid foundation, but producing immediate results could be tough. Opening with three road games in the first four weeks increases the level of difficulty. From there, Arizona faces the 49ers, Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons and Texans over a five-game period taking them into their Week 9 bye. The Cardinals were riding a four-game losing streak at the midpoint last season, but they had a 4-4 record. Is anyone taking the "over" on four victories through eight games in 2013?

St. Louis Rams: Excitement about the future is justified for a team with so many young and highly drafted players. How ready will those players be in September? That question is difficult to answer. By my early calculations, the projected starters for the Rams' division rivals will rank among the NFL leaders in most combined 2012 starts. The Rams' projected starters will rank at or near the bottom. That's probably a good thing for the Rams in the long term. It's just tough to know for sure what it all means right away.

San Francisco 49ers: Injuries at wide receiver hurt the 49ers in their NFC Championship Game defeat to the Giants two seasons ago. Last season, injuries in the defensive front seven, specifically to defensive end Justin Smith, proved costly. Well, guess what? Injuries are a big concern at receiver once again. Michael Crabtree recently had surgery for a torn Achilles' tendon. Mario Manningham remains a ways away from rejoining the team for practice. And while initial reports paint an encouraging picture for Smith, he'll turn 34 in September and is coming off triceps surgery. Can he hold up?

Seattle Seahawks: Top pass-rusher Chris Clemons is five months past reconstructive knee surgery while his heir, 2012 first-round choice Bruce Irvin, faces a four-game suspension to open the season. Two other key pass-rushers, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, have their own less serious injury concerns. That has to be a little concerning given that the team hasn't even put on the pads yet. Pass-rush issues doomed Seattle once Clemons was hurt in the playoffs. Will injuries and Irvin's suspension cost the team early in the 2013 season? Every game counts in a tight division race.