NFL Nation: The Big Question NFC 71310

NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The San Francisco 49ers are a popular pick -- and the most logical one -- to win the NFC West this season. What are the two-time defending champion Arizona Cardinals' chances?

At least four factors give the Cardinals more than a fighting chance in their first season following Kurt Warner's retirement:

    [+] EnlargeDan Williams
    AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinFirst-round pick Dan Williams joins Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett on what figures to be a formidable defensive line.
  • Superiority on the front lines. The Cardinals could have the best offensive and defensive lines in the division. Quarterback is still the most important position, but it's not as though the rest of the division is stacked at the position. The 49ers are the only team in the division with a defensive line close to as strong as the one Arizona will field this season. One question, though, is whether the Cardinals' defense can take full advantage of the strength Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and rookie first-round choice Dan Williams can provide. On offense, the 49ers loaded up with two offensive linemen in the first round, but the Cardinals' veteran group should be better in the short term after adding Alan Faneca and Rex Hadnot.
  • The Smith-Leinart factor. The Cardinals' Matt Leinart couldn't beat out Warner over the last few seasons. There's little shame in that. If the 49ers' Alex Smith can become a promising prospect less than a year after failing to beat out Shaun Hill as the 49ers' starter, Leinart shouldn't be written off automatically. Playing even to Smith's level could be enough for Arizona to win the division. Leinart hasn't done much to inspire confidence that he's ready for the job, but neither had Smith until he finally got an extended chance last season.
  • Coaching. The Cardinals wisely extended Ken Whisenhunt's contract through the 2013 season. Whisenhunt has succeeded in embracing the underdog's mentality in Arizona even while he has worked to change perceptions about the organization. The natural and justifiable tendency to discount the Cardinals following Warner's retirement should play into Whisenhunt's motivational hands.
  • Pressure/expectations. The pressure is off Arizona after the team won back-to-back division titles, multiple playoff games and earned a Super Bowl appearance over the last two seasons. The 49ers haven't won anything lately and it's unclear how they'll respond to pressure and expectations. Team president Jed York guaranteed a playoff appearance before last season. The team fell short, but it's clear York expects the team to deliver this season. The pressure is on San Francisco.

I've named the 49ers my preseason favorite based on what should happen, but what should happen isn't always what does happen. The Cardinals do not plan to go quietly.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How will Carolina coach John Fox handle the development of rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen?

[+] EnlargeJimmy Clausen
Sam Sharpe/US PresswireJimmy Clausen is just the quarterback the Panthers need, but he might not start right away.
Under normal conditions, Clausen’s fall to the second round and into the hands of the Panthers would be considered a blessing. Under the current circumstances, though, his presence puts added pressure on Fox.

Clausen, as a quarterback prospect, is just what the Panthers have been looking for as a replacement for the departed Jake Delhomme. He’s smart, talented and comes from a big-time school in Notre Dame. But Fox doesn’t have the luxury to think long term. Despite his success, Fox is in the final year of his contract and there is a good chance he could leave after the season. Fox must win now, which can be difficult with a rookie quarterback.

Fox has spent the offseason with Matt Moore as the starter. Not trying to rush Clausen, Fox has had him working as the third-string quarterback behind Moore and Hunter Cantwell. To some degree, having Cantwell ahead of Clausen has slowed his development because Clausen has had fewer reps with the starters. With Moore, Clausen and Tony Pike on the roster, Cantwell won’t make the 53-man roster unless there is an injury.

Further complicating things is the broken arm suffered by wide receiver Steve Smith. None of the quarterbacks gets to work with their go-to wide receiver until the start of the regular season. Clausen has the benefit of knowing the offense. Jeff Davidson, the Panthers’ offensive coordinator, worked with former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis in New England and has installed the same system Clausen ran in college. The conventional thought is that Moore enters the season as a starter, but if teams figure him out and the Panthers lose some games, Clausen could get the nod. Still, the Panthers are mostly a running offense, so it could be easier to start Clausen at the beginning if Fox wanted. It’s a tricky situation to sort out this summer.

Big Question: The best backup QB?

July, 13, 2010
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Who's the best backup QB in the NFC North?

Take a few minutes and peruse all the NFL depth charts. Look at the No. 2 quarterbacks for every team. This isn’t a topic that is discussed enough, but it is a putrid group. Not every team has a clear-cut No. 2 and some of the quarterbacks who presently qualify are extremely young and unproven -- such as Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen -- making it hard to comment on their NFL acumen. But overall, the backup quarterback situation in this league is horrendous.

[+] EnlargeTarvaris Jackson
AP Photo/Andy KingBackup QB Tarvaris Jackson has 19 starts -- 12 in 2007 -- in four seasons with the Vikings.
For the sake of this exercise, I am assuming that Brett Favre is the Vikings’ starter. And Favre just doesn’t miss games. But even though he is unlikely to see the field, I give Minnesota's Tarvaris Jackson the nod over Detroit's Shaun Hill, Green Bay's Matt Flynn and Chicago's Caleb Hanie as the top backup in the NFC North.

This is a two-horse race between Jackson and Hill, as both quarterbacks have at least started games in the NFL. Flynn and Hanie fall into that “relative unknown” category at this stage. I do think Flynn is cerebral and would do little to hurt his high-powered offense. In fact, if I saw a little more of Flynn in action, I might tab him the best backup in this division. But there just isn’t enough to go off of right now -- 17 career passing attempts aren’t enough. Hanie might surprise as a nice side project for Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz, but again, I just can’t rank him over Jackson or Hill without seeing a lot more from him first.

Trust me, I am not a believer in either Jackson or Hill. They both have a huge flaws. Jackson has proven to be too inaccurate of a passer at all levels. He also consistently tries to do too much -- which he proves to be incapable of over and over again. Hill is very tough and plays with moxie. He has won his share of games as a starter. As the veteran presence among this group of quarterbacks, his contributions most likely will come in the meeting room and off the field. Hill also doesn’t turn over the ball often and is a quick decision-maker. But Hill’s physical tools, namely his arm, will always hold him back from being able to utilize the entire field, which is why he was allowed to leave San Francisco with little in return in a trade.

Jackson can improve and did show positive signs before Favre came to Minnesota. The tools are there. He has a big, strong frame, an excellent arm and great athletic ability. But I don’t think he will ever be a respectable passer in terms of his accuracy -- in fact, he wasn’t even all that accurate at Alabama State.

In the end, I will take Jackson over Hill, Flynn or Hanie. But again, I wouldn’t be excited about any of the options.

Big Question: Biggest first-round impact?

July, 13, 2010
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Which NFC East 2010 first-rounder will have the largest impact this season?

I would expect Redskins OT Trent Williams to get the most snaps as a rookie and the physical abilities of both Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul and Cowboys WR Dez Bryant are simply superb, but when considering ability and opportunity, I will select Eagles DE Brandon Graham. In fact, I am strongly considering Graham as my defensive rookie of the year pick. He’s a heck of a football player.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Graham
Howard Smith/US PresswireRookie Brandon Graham had 10.5 sacks and 26 tackles for a loss during his senior season at Michigan.
With the exception of Williams, cracking the lineup probably will not come easily to this group. There are three quality defensive ends in front of Pierre-Paul. Bryant has Roy Williams in front of him, who obviously has not lived up to expectations, but Dallas does have a lot invested in him. Bryant might be quick to surpass Williams, but in the pecking order of Dallas receivers, it seems unlikely that he will catch more balls than Jason Witten or Miles Austin. The Eagles have a plethora of undersized defensive-end types. But with the exception of Trent Cole, I think Graham quickly will surpass all of those players.

But Cole is the key here. Although rarely recognized as such, he is among the best players in the NFL at his position. He will demand a ton of attention from every pass-protection scheme that the Eagles face. And in the NFC East, the left tackles Cole will face (Doug Free, David Diehl and Trent Williams, who played left tackle for only one year in college) appear to be overmatched against him in the passing game. Offenses will keep extra blockers in to help protect their quarterback’s blind side against the Eagles -- which sets up Graham perfectly for a monster rookie season.

Graham doesn’t have Pierre-Paul’s physical gifts, but he is more NFL-ready than any defensive end in this rookie class. He is tenacious and is very adept at using his shorter stature to his advantage as a terrific leverage player. Graham is pretty stout when teams run right at him, but because of the other defensive ends on Philadelphia’s roster, he probably will not be in a situation where he will wear down from teams running right at him. He also is very good in pursuit on running plays away from him.

As a pass-rusher, he can bull rush with leverage and power. He can use his speed around the corner and dips his shoulder low without losing speed. For such a young player, Graham is excellent at going to a second move and he simply never gives up on a play. To me, this combination gives him the best chance to provide the most immediate impact of these four promising NFC East first-round selections.