- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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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:
Best move: A tip of the cap for the rehiring of Mike Reinfeldt as the team's salary capologist. Reinfeldt quit the year before after he was asked to take a pay cut. Brought back in an emergency role, Reinfeldt re-signed six of the eight most important free agents on what was the league's best free-agent shopping list. Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones finally got from Reinfeldt the long-term deal he has been seeking for four seasons. Reinfeldt locked up quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, offensive linemen Floyd Womack, Robbie Tobeck and Chris Gray, along with former Pro Bowl special teamer Alex Bannister. Pro Bowl halfback Shaun Alexander stays as a franchise player. With free agents at the most important positions quarterback, left tackle, defensive end, cornerback and halfback the Seahawks faced gloom and doom forecasts. Reinfeldt saved the day by keeping all but two free-agent starters.
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
Best moves: Mike Martz believes the defense strengthened itself up the middle with the free-agent additions of middle linebacker Chris Claiborne and safety Michael Stone. The Rams had continually relied on the draft to address their linebacker woes and failed. Robert Thomas, a 2002 first-rounder, didn't hold up at middle linebacker. Tommy Polley, a talented second-round outside linebacker, left for Baltimore. So this offseason, the Rams looked to free agency for help. Claiborne is a big body with decent speed. St. Louis went for a proven playmaker on the outside in Dexter Coakley from the Cowboys. However, Stone might be the team's best bargain. Signed for the minimum, the converted cornerback has drawn rave reviews and appears to be the safety to play next to Adam Archuleta, who was slowed by back problems last season. Stone's promise allowed Pisa Tinoisamoa, the team's best linebacker, to abandon a move to safety.
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.
Best move: Signing Kurt Warner to a one-year, $4 million contract might close the three-game gap that would make this team a winner. Warner was 5-2 in his first seven games with the Giants and completed more than 62 percent of his passes. He comes to a team with a better offensive line and better receivers. Dennis Green was only fooling himself thinking he could get by with Josh McCown and Shaun King as his quarterbacks. McCown had the athletic ability, but the offense never kicked in under his direction. King wasn't the answer as the backup. Warner proved he can still start in New York before giving up the reins to Eli Manning. He got what he wanted -- a team that would start him and believe in him for 16 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.
The NFC West was the weakest division in '04, and the defensive woes could lead to another year of struggling.