Key veteran arrivals: DE Landon Cohen, CB William Gay, OLB Quentin Groves, RB Javarris James, S James Sanders, OG Adam Snyder.
Key veteran departures: OG Rex Hadnot, CB Korey Lindsey, OG Deuce Lutui, CB Richard Marshall, S Sean Considine, WR Chansi Stuckey.
Juiciest story lines: It’s quite conceivable there isn’t another NFL player facing as much heat as QB Kevin Kolb will be facing in the desert next season. Kolb’s quest to keep the starting job under center with strong-armed backup John Skelton breathing down his neck will demand primary focus. On both defense and special teams, all eyes will be on 2011 first-round draft pick Patrick Peterson, an instant sensation as a kick returner, but a work in progress as a cornerback.
Burning questions: The QB issue sticks out, but there other major concerns. Can RBs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams, who didn’t play a down as a rookie, stay healthy? ... Will first-round WR Michael Floyd bring back instant memories of Anquan Boldin? ... Will the tight ends become more of a factor in the offense? ... Will there be an entirely new right side of the offensive line? ... Can the defense force more badly needed takeaways and continue improving its pass rush? ... Who will be the starting CB opposite Peterson: Greg Toler, William Gay, A.J. Jefferson or rookie Jamell Fleming?
Fearless prediction: Kolb will hold on to the starting QB job and be much better, but with both the Niners and Seahawks making life challenging in the NFC West, the Cardinals will finish no better than .500 again in 2012.
Fantasy nugget: After averaging a career-high 17.6 yards per reception last season — nearly three yards higher than his previous season high of 14.9 (2008) — there’s legitimate reason to believe WR Larry Fitzgerald could be even more dangerous this season. Not only have the Cardinals added a potentially explosive complement to Fitzgerald in first-round pick Michael Floyd (21 TDs his last two seasons at Notre Dame). Fitzgerald will also be matched up vs. seven pass defenses that ranked no greater than 20th last season, including the 31st-ranked Patriots and the 32nd-ranked Packers.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Key veteran arrivals: OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, TE Brody Eldridge, CB Cortland Finnegan, OLB Mario Haggan, DE William Hayes, DE Kendall Langford, DT Trevor Laws, OLB Rocky McIntosh, TE Matthew Mulligan, OT Quinn Ojinnaka, OT Barry Richardson, WR Steve Smith, OL Robert Turner, C Scott Wells.
Key veteran departures: DT Justin Bannan, CB Ron Bartell, OG Jacob Bell, OL Jason Brown, PK Josh Brown, OLB Chris Chamberlain, DT Gary Gibson, DE James Hall, CB Al Harris, P Donnie Jones, OLB Bryan Kehl, CB Justin King, WR Brandon Lloyd, DT Fred Robbins, OT Thomas Welch, OG Tony Wragge.
Juiciest story lines: After also being pursued hard by the Dolphins, the well-regarded Jeff Fisher returns to the NFL head-coaching ranks, facing major issues both on and off the field. Fisher and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer must get a lot more out of a lackluster offense that scored a league-low 193 points last season. The implementation of a coordinator-by-committee system for the defense — due to the suspension of coordinator Gregg Williams — will be an equally challenging task. Hanging heavily over the team is the grim prospect of the Rams being unable to reach a new stadium agreement, which could hasten the team’s possible exit to Los Angeles.
Burning questions: Can QB Sam Bradford bounce back from a mediocre, injury-plagued sophomore campaign under his third different coordinator in three years? ... Will the Rams’ new regime finally be able to unearth a legitimate downfield threat at wide receiver? ... How will the free-agent additions, led by CB Cortland Finnegan and C Scott Wells, pan out? ... How will an intriguing boom-or-bust rookie crop with good talent but a lot of red flags fare? ... Who will start at both WR spots, left guard, both OLB spots and the CB spot opposite Finnegan?
Fearless prediction: While their future in St. Louis could very well still be in limbo, the Rams will show quick improvement under Fisher with five or six victories. Bradford will regain his rookie form, and second-round CB Janoris Jenkins will be a strong candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Fantasy nugget: Could Rams WR Danny Amendola be a poor man’s version of fellow college alum Wes Welker this season? With the Rams’ lack of proven pass-catching options, it’s hardly a stretch, provided Amendola is fully recovered from the elbow and triceps injury that ended his 2012 season in Week One. Amendola was Sam Bradford’s most reliable target in Bradford’s stellar rookie campaign two years ago, leading the league in all-purpose yardage (2,364) and finishing third in third-down catches. A return to more of a quick-hit passing game under new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer bodes well for Amendola’s fantasy future.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Key veteran arrivals: RB Rock Cartwright, CB Perrish Cox, RB Brandon Jacobs, QB Josh Johnson, WR Mario Manningham, WR Randy Moss.
Key veteran departures: ILB Blake Costanzo, WR Josh Morgan, OG Chilo Rachal, S Reggie Smith, CB Shawntae Spencer, OG Adam Snyder, S Madieu Williams.
Juiciest story lines: Don’t look now, but hot on the heels of head coach Jim Harbaugh’s storybook debut at the pro level, the Niners are picking up steam among many league observers as a serious Super Bowl contender. The strength of the team remains a ferocious defense that will be returning every starter from a unit that went 14 weeks last season before allowing a single TD run and led the league with a most impressive plus-28 turnover differential. But for the Niners to go all the way, there must be major improvement in an offense presumably bolstered by the free-agent additions of WRs Randy Moss and Mario Manningham and RB Brandon Jacobs and rookies A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James.
Burning questions: Can QB Alex Smith move beyond being merely an efficient caretaker in what will hopefully be a much more effective and lively offense, particularly on third down? ... Does Moss, a future Hall of Famer, still have some gas left in the tank after a one-year layoff? ... Will Harbaugh retain the feisty edge that triggered his well-documented postgame exchange with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz last season? ... Will the defense be even better with 2012 first-round sensation Aldon Smith becoming an every-down player?
Fearless prediction: Harbaugh proves he’s hardly a flash in the pan as the Niners lead the league in every major defensive cagegory and represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Fantasy nugget: Look for Niners TE Vernon Davis to be much more of a season-long fantasy threat in 2012 after admitting he was overwhelmed early last season by the amount of information he was asked to absorb in Jim Habaugh’s new West Coast offense. Davis surpassed 70 yards receiving only three times during the regular 2012 campaign, but the light went on big-time late in the year, as he averaged 107.2 yards receiving in his last five games, including two exceptional playoff performances (10-292-4).
Key veteran arrivals: OT Alex Barron, QB Matt Flynn, DE Jason Jones, RB Kregg Lumpkin, OG Deuce Lutui, OL Frank Omiyale, ILB Barrett Ruud, TE Kellen Winslow.
Key veteran departures: S Atari Bigby, TE John Carlson, RB Justin Forsett, OG Robert Gallery, ILB David Hawthorne, DE Anthony Hargrove, QB Charlie Whitehurst.
Juiciest story lines: Skittles-eating featured back Marshawn Lynch, who made a beastly leap in his second season as a Seahawk, will provide undeniably juicy copy. But, at least initially, Lynch will be overshadowed by the competition for the starting QB job involving high-profile free-agent addition Matt Flynn, holdover Tarvaris Jackson and very intriguing third-round rookie Russell Wilson.
Burning questions: Will Flynn prove worthy the major free-agent investment in him, or will he follow in the footsteps of Kevin Kolb, who was a disappointment in his first season in Arizona?... Is Wilson the real deal? ... Will Lynch be slapped with a suspension after being arrested for suspicion of DUI in July? … Will first-round draft pick Bruce Irvin, considered a major reach by some, be able to provide an instant pass rush similar to the one provided by Niners first-round rookie Aldon Smith last season? ... Can second-round pick Bobby Wagner come through right away as a replacement at middle linebacker for the departed David Hawthorne, the team’s leading tackler each of the last three seasons? ... Then there’s perhaps the biggest question of all: Will Pete Carroll be on the hot seat if the team finishes under .500 for the third straight season under his command?
Fearless prediction: Flynn will win the QB battle, and the Seahawks will finish over .500 and improve just enough to keep Carroll from getting whacked.
Fantasy nugget: There isn’t a team in league with more fantasy gambles at wide receiver than the Seahawks. Projected No. 1 WR Sidney Rice sat out seven games last season with shoulder and concussion issues. He has missed more regular-season games (17) than he has played (15) in the last two years and played 16 games only once in his four seasons in Minnesota. As for the Seahawks’ No. 2 fantasy WR, it’s anybody’s guess among a host of challengers, including Doug Baldwin, Ben Obomanu, Golden Tate, Deon Butler, Kris Durham and Ricardo Lockette.