Additions could lift Cards to West title
The NFC West was the weakest division in '04, and the defensive woes could lead to another year of struggling.
The NFC West was the league's worst division last year even though it produced two playoff teams -- the Seahawks and the Rams. Outside of divisional play, the four NFC West teams were 12-26. Against all teams with 8-8 records or better, the NFC West was 10-25. How bad was the West? The Seahawks dropped a game from the previous year's record and the Rams were two games off, and both teams made the playoffs.
The NFC West is a division with great offensive coaching -- Mike Martz of the Rams, Mike Holmgren of the Seahawks and Dennis Green of the Cardinals -- but there are talent problems on each of the defenses. The NFC West didn't have a defense that ranked higher than 20th in stopping the run, which explains, in part, the hiring of former Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan as the 49ers' new head coach. The best way to catch up in a division of offensive head coaches is to hire on defense. The good news around the division is that the NFC West is blessed with the easiest schedules in football. Last year, NFC West teams went 15-14 against teams with losing records, so there is hope.
Here's a look at how the four NFC West teams shape up so far this offseason:
Biggest question: The Seahawks made the playoffs despite having the league's 26th-ranked defense, and the unit might not be as talented as it was in 2004. The Seahawks signed cornerbacks Andre Dyson and Kelly Herndon to fill the void of Ken Lucas' departure for Carolina. Former Ram Bryce Fisher might not be the complete answer for the loss of defensive end Chike Okeafor, but he did finish with 8½ sacks last season. The Seahawks failed to trade up in the first round of the draft for a defensive end. The linebacking corps also is a mess. Gone are veterans Chad Brown and Anthony Simmons, replaced by veteran Jamie Sharper and second-round choice Lofa Tatupu, whom other teams had rated as a second-day draft choice. Now, the Seahawks are young and inexperienced at linebacker, and that wasn't a great position for the team last season.
Bottom line: The pressure continues to build on Mike Holmgren. He has two years remaining on his contract. Most believe he needs to win a playoff game to get to the final year of his contract. That's a little unfair because he has produced three playoff seasons in six years. Paul Allen brought in a new general manager, Tim Ruskell. Though Ruskell is a big Holmgren supporter, the people under Allen want more, and making the playoffs might not be enough.
• St. Louis
Biggest question: Can Alex Barron, considered the best left tackle in the draft, become an efficient right tackle during his rookie season? He'd better. The right tackle position was cursed last season. Kyle Turley missed the season because of back problems and will be cut after June 1. Grant Williams struggled as a replacement and granted too many sacks. The team considered using inexperienced Blaine Saipaia until Barron fell to them in the draft. Marc Bulger lacks mobility, so if Barron can seal the other side of Orlando Pace, the offense can operate more efficiently. Bulger operates his best when he has time.
Bottom line: Even though the Rams finished second in the NFC West with an 8-8 record, this still is their division. They beat the Seahawks three times, including on the road during the first round of the playoffs. They have the Seahawks' number. If Coakley and Claiborne work out at linebacker and if Steven Jackson can add more running power to the offense, the Rams could move back to the top of the division during the regular season. Until the Seahawks find a way to beat the Rams on a consistent basis, this still is St. Louis' division.
In Arizona, rookie J.J. Arrington already has become a very hot fantasy prospect. He has great upside, and despite hovering around the 5-foot-9 mark, he isn't afraid of contact. Arrington could be a good value pick this year once the top RBs are gone in your draft. Watch the Rams' backfield closely this year. Marshall Faulk is fading, and Steven Jackson will start to emerge as the clear No. 1 fantasy RB on the team and should become a regular starter in many leagues. San Francisco is a veritable fantasy wasteland, as Kevan Barlow is a proven disappointment, and could actually be pushed for playing time by rookie Frank Gore. Darrell Jackson is Seattle's only dependable fantasy receiver. Koren Robinson is on the verge of being an official bust; Joe Jurevicius seems to be an annual injury risk; and Jerome Pathon has always been very inconsistent. Jackson might be the only Seattle receiver worth drafting.
-- Scott Engel, associate editor of Fantasy Games
Biggest question: The Cardinals have the youngest secondary in the division. First-round choice Antrel Rolle and third-rounder Eric Green have to mature quickly because the Cardinals have no choice but to play them. David Macklin is the only experienced cornerback on the roster. Green has the perfect safeties in Adrian Wilson and Robert Griffith to put Rolle and Green in the right positions, but they will be targets. Maybe that's why Green spent another $5 million a year to add pass-rushing speed on the other side of Pro Bowler Bertrand Berry by signing Chike Okeafor from Seattle. Berry and Okeafor have to put on a big rush to take the pressure off the corners.
Bottom line: The Cardinals had the best offseason of any team in the division. They added Warner, Okeafor, Griffith, Rolle, right tackle Oliver Ross and halfback J.J. Arrington. On paper, that might be enough to have them challenge for the division title. The key is going to be how well they match up in games against the Seahawks and the Rams. Warner's leadership should make them better on offense.
• San Francisco 49ers
Best move: Hiring former Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan might not translate into a winning season, but Nolan appears to be a winner in establishing a new face for the organization. The 49ers were a fractured outfit. General manager Terry Donahue mismanaged the salary cap and left coach Dennis Erickson starving for players. Both lost their jobs. Nolan is the son of former 49ers head coach Dick Nolan. He's clearly in charge. Players like his energy in the way he coaches, and he hired an excellent staff of teachers.
Biggest question: How well can Alex Smith do as a first-year starter? There is little doubt he will be the starter. Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey didn't get it done last year, but after all, they were seventh-round draft choices. Smith comes from Utah with a decent arm and exceptional athletic ability. Plus, he's the first player selected in the draft. The team might have overpaid a little to get Jonas Jennings, but he's a left tackle who allowed only four sacks last year and that's blocking for immobile Drew Bledsoe in Buffalo. Smith will have to do a lot of throwing on the run. The former Utah star isn't blessed with a great group of wide receivers, but he wasn't at Utah, either, and he made it work there.
Bottom line: The 49ers are a work in progress. They are switching from being an undersized 4-3 into a more physical, aggressive 3-4 scheme. They are trying to convert a shotgun quarterback in Smith into being a rookie starter on a complicated West Coast offense. The only two games won by the 49ers last season were in the NFC West, the league's weakest division. They were 0-10 against the rest of the league. This will take time.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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