I've never really been able to put a finger on why I enjoy covering the NFC West so much for Pro Football Weekly. In recent years, I don't think there has been a more mediocre division in the NFL. And yet, as was the case with the 2005 Seahawks and the 2008 Cardinals, you never know when a team from the NFC West will suddenly rise from the parity-laden ashes and catch lightning in a bottle at just the right time.
With another NFL draft having passed by the wayside, I can't see any NFC West teams seriously contending for the Super Bowl in 2010. But I can definitely see an upwardly mobile trend beginning to take shape in the division. As PFW draft guru/personnel expert Nolan Nawrocki indicated in his recent team-by-team 2010 draft report card, the NFC West did all right for itself.
More than all right, in fact.
With NFC West teams preparing for their first minicamps, the time seems right to ponder 10 pertinent questions in a division that still has a lot of issues — but certainly a lot less than it had last season, when the Seahawks and Rams (in no particular order) couldn't have been more terrible at the end of the year:
1. Should Niners be new favorites in NFC West?
That's what the PFW editors are predicting in our Preview 2010 magazine, which is being put to bed as I write this column. Same goes for most of the national pundits who have decided to go out on an early limb with their 2010 projected orders of finish. The one stat that just jumps out is the Niners' dominating 5-1 record within the NFC West last season, established mostly on the strength of a scrappy, tenacious defense masterfully coordinated by the very underrated Greg Manusky. Head coach Mike Singletary has made no secret of his desire to develop an overpowering smashmouth mentality on both sides of the ball. The drafting of imposing road graders Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati in the first round, as well as super-physical S Taylor Mays in Round Two, is right in line with his game plan. With the defending NFC West champion Cardinals having suffered major hits at quarterback and inside linebacker due to the retirement of Kurt Warner and Karlos Dansby's exit to Miami, respectively, it really does look like the arrow is continuing to point up for the Niners, although they still could be hard-pressed to reach double digits in regular-season victories.
2. Is Cardinals' offense ready to become 'Steelers West'?
With RB Chris "Beanie" Wells, who came on like gangbusters as his rookie season wore on, appearing to have replaced Warner as the Cardinals' new offensive centerpiece (with apologies to all-world WR Larry Fitzgerald), the Arizona attack could be dramatically different moving forward. When Ken Whisenhunt first arrived in the desert, he talked about eventually putting together a run-oriented power offense similar to the one he so effectively coordinated in Pittsburgh. The post-draft arrival of Alan Faneca, who was such a key force on the accomplished O-line that current Cardinals assistant head coach/running-game coordinator/O-line coach Russ Grimm coached in Pittsburgh, further cements that belief. While Fitzgerald will still be a force to reckon with, Arizona's ground game featuring Wells and Tim Hightower, who is excellent as a receiver out of the backfield, will be the new featured attraction in an offense I expect to be very conservatively directed by new QB Matt Leinart.
3. Just how much have Seahawks really improved after draft?
OK, here's the deal. Yes, the Seahawks appear to have had a really good draft. Some say, if you also include the savvy trade additions they made (LenDale White, Leon Washington, Kevin Vickerson), Seattle just might have done the best job of any team. And yet, as I completed my position-by-position grades in my team write-up on the Seahawks for our preview magazine, Seattle had above-average marks at only three positions: tight end, linebacker and special teams. One area where the team still appears really weak is the pass rush, which must make a quantum leap if the Seahawks are to be any kind of a factor this season. Pete Carroll will make the Hawks competitive and much more watchable from the get-go. But at the end of the day, I would be surprised if it doesn't take the Seahawks a year or two before they climb out of the really deep hole they somehow managed to dig themselves into.
4. Will weak supporting cast bring down Rams' Bradford?
With the obvious exception of NFC leading rusher Steven Jackson, who will be expected to do most of the Rams offense's heavy lifting, for good reason, rookie QB Sam Bradford's other weapons cannot be classified as anything close to heavy artillery. Put simply, the receiving corps couldn't look more ordinary at the moment, including the TE position. Would it help if former Eagle Brian Westbrook entered the mix, which could happen any minute, according to sources? Most definitely. But what would help Bradford the most at the moment is for the Rams to get him signed as expeditiously as possible and change the perception that the team is twisting in the wind because of its up-in-the-air ownership situation.
5. Is Alex Smith the best fit for Niners' smashmouth offense?
We already mentioned the Niners wanting to go smashmouth in a big way. Smith, however, was much more effective in the spread/shotgun formation that the team unveiled with such surprising effectiveness on occasion last season. Put simply, Smith was either really good or really bad last season. If that inconsistency continues, so could the Niners’ so-so league status.
6. Is Rams' defense any better after not drafting any DTs?
After thinking so long and hard about opting for either Ndamukong or Gerald McCoy over Bradford with the first overall pick of the draft, that the Rams ended up not drafting a single defensive tackle was a real eye-opener. While versatile veteran free-agent addition Fred Robbins played very well for the most part under head coach Steve Spagnuolo when they were both working for the Giants, the Rams' D-line seems as lackluster as their aforementioned receiving corps. The continued improvement of former first-rounder Chris Long on the edge could go a long way toward changing that opinion.
7. How quickly must top two Cardinals rookies make an impact?
Can you say, "Right away"? If first-round NT Dan Williams and second-round LB Daryl Washington don't immediately fortify the middle of a defense that made tissue paper look like solid steel in the playoffs last season — even before Dansby hightailed it to Miami — the Cardinals could really topple in the division. Being asked to replace Dansby, Washington, in particular, has huge shoes to fill. If he can beef up a bit under the direction of John Lott, the best strength and conditioning coach in the business, it should help. If I were to pick one rookie in the division worthy of being tabbed the biggest X-factor, it's Washington. Under Whisenhunt, the game plan for rookies has been to ease them into the mix. Not this year, friends!
8. Is Seahawks-Niners new hot rivalry in NFC West?
I can hardly wait to see the sparks fly in Week One when the Niners and their new safety, Taylor Mays, invade Qwest Field to take on the Seahawks and their new safety, Earl Thomas, whom head coach Pete Carroll selected instead of Mays, an up-and-down star at USC on Carroll's watch. Mays, as you might have heard, felt very betrayed by his former college coach. Carroll said, in effect, "Sorry, kid, I love you like a son, but I love Thomas more as a player on the pro level." Think Mays might have a chip on his shoulder in Week One? When you add the natural intensity that both Singletary and Carroll bring to the table, I could see the blood boiling over more than ever when the Niners and Seahawks run into each other from here on in.
9. Can Russell Okung become Walter Jones Jr. in Seattle?
That would be a quite a trick, as Jones, whose retirement is imminent, might have been the best pure left tackle of the modern era. But Okung was widely considered the best overall tackle available in a pretty solid group, and after the Seahawks burned through so many left tackles last year waiting for Jones to somehow miraculously return to the lineup, it's imperative that Okung settles in and becomes the O-line's new cornerstone in short order. New O-line coach Alex Gibbs apparently loves the kid, and that's a good thing.
10. Are Niners playing with fire with so many character risks?
The one issue some observers had with the Niners' 2010 draft is the large number of players selected with troubled pasts, with Anthony Davis, whose reputation for being lazy dropped his stock in a lot of people's eyes, at the top of the list. Singletary has worked wonders with the likes of previously immature players with off-field issues such as TE Vernon Davis and LB Ahmad Brooks. Up until now, it would appear all of his players have embraced his emphasis on character of the highest order and a desire to create a genuine feeling of family. But if he feels compelled to keep pulling down his pants to make a point, how long will it be before his troops start rolling their eyes behind his back? We'll find out soon enough.
For the most authoritative NFL draft news and free-agency analysis, visit ProFootballWeekly.com.