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NFC West catchphrase: Show me the WRs

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Dan Arkush

darkush@pfwmedia.com
Executive editor

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Posted Feb. 21, 2012 @ 1:09 p.m. ET
By Dan Arkush

Aside from the fact that both teams got red-hot at just the right time under the direction of quarterbacks that just happened to be performing at an elite level, there is another pertinent quality that the 2010 Packers and the 2011 Giants had in common on the road to Super Bowl glory:

A cast of receivers to die for.

Following in the lofty footsteps of the Greg Jennings/Jordy Nelson/Donald Driver/James Jones quartet that worked in such perfect harmony with Packers QB Aaron Rodgers down the stretch two seasons ago, the Hakeem Nicks/Victor Cruz/Mario Manningham trio gave Giants QB Eli Manning a special edge right down to the Super Bowl wire this past season.

There was certainly a lot more behind the Giants' narrow escape from Lucas Oil Stadium than Manningham's magnificent 38-yard catch in heavy traffic to set up the game-winning score and Patriots WR Wes Welker's costly fourth-quarter drop of a catchable Tom Brady pass that gave the Giants a last-ditch shot at victory.

But the magnitude of those two plays can't be denied.

Nor can the fact that, for the second year in a row, a multi-weapon WR corps featuring highly skilled, complementary pass-catchers — each capable of exploding for a big play on every play — ended up being a key championship component.

Which brings us to the NFC West — a veritable WR wasteland.

Start at the top of the division with the 49ers, a team that was transformed in short order into a heavyweight contender but still has one really glaring need: consistently productive wide receivers.

The lack of postseason production by a Niners' WR corps headed by the enigmatic Michael Crabtree is no doubt great cause for concern at the moment for a front office that has moved to the front of the NFL line, courtesy of Niners GM and PFW/PFWA Executive of the Year Trent Baalke.

Put simply, the Niners could really use a legitimate No. 1 WR in the Jennings-Nicks mode. What about Crabtree, you ask? After showing signs of being a No. 1 force to reckon with, his late-season failings suggest he might be better-suited as a No. 2 receiver.

Which brings us to this year's free-agent market, where more than a few worthy wideouts, including possibly Manningham and Welker, might become available.

If not Manningham or Welker, then maybe a wideout such as Vincent Jackson (Chargers), DeSean Jackson (Eagles), Dwayne Bowe (Chiefs), Marques Colston (Saints) or Stevie Johnson (Bills) could fill the free-agent bill for the Niners.

The fast-approaching 2012 draft also offers a fair share of quality WR options in the high rounds such as Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State), WR Kendall Wright (Baylor), Michael Floyd (Notre Dame) and Rueben Randle (Louisiana State), although Blackmon, who is widely considered a slam-dunk Top Five selection, is by far the best bet to be a No. 1 force from the get-go.

Of course, the Niners could possibly forsake their first-round draft pick as compensation for Steelers RFA speed merchant Mike Wallace, an explosive weapon whose addition could might make the Niners worthy of Super Bowl-favorite status in one fell swoop.

All of these options are very much worth considering. But what the Niners must keep in mind is the fact that every other team in the NFC West also has a major need for help at wide receiver.

The Rams, who couldn't catch a break for the life of them last season, are at the top of the list.

It says here that Rams Nation will deservedly be more than a little ticked off if new head coach Jeff Fisher and new GM Les Snead don't make a top-drawer No. 1 receiver a top priority. Drafting second overall, Blackmon will be there for the taking. But the Rams' offense is in such dire need of quality firepower after its dismal showing last season that it behooves the team to also make a serious play for somebody like Bowe, Colston, DeSean Jackson or Vincent Jackson — and at the same time steal the division-rival Niners' thunder.

But don't forget about the Cardinals and Seahawks.

While both teams appear to have legitimate No. 1 wideouts in Larry Fitzgerald and Sidney Rice, respectively (although Rice must prove he can stay healthy in his second season in Seattle), their supporting WR casts must be considered suspect at best.

In order for the Cardinals to seriously compete with the Niners in the NFC West, it's imperative they come up with a complement to Fitzgerald comparable to now-Ravens WR Anquan Boldin. Neither Andre Roberts nor UFA Early Doucet currently comes close to offering a sufficient enough counterpunch.

In order for the Seahawks to seriously compete with the Niners in the NFC West, it's imperative that they come up with a productive complement to Rice, although 2011 undrafted gem Doug Baldwin looks like a long-term quality force out of the slot. It's conceivable Mike Williams could bounce back from his disappointing 2011 campaign after a breakout performance the previous season, but there's no way the Seahawks can absolutely count on that happening.

In any event, in order for any team from the NFC West to catch the same kind of fire as the Packers and Giants did the last two seasons, a significant upgrade at the wide receiver position is crucial.

Let the interdivision jostling begin.

 

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