(Before I begin, a few things to note. You'll read some information in these previews that was blatantly stolen from the Pro Football Prospectus book, an extremely enjoyable publication released by the brains behind Football Outsiders. I want to give my props to Aaron Schatz and all his experts for their hard work. While I don't yet comprehend everything in the book, there are some great points both about teams and individual players. It's all helped me increase my understanding of football, and the Prospectus will be an annual purchase for me as long as it's in publication.)
We now continue our series of NFL previews with a look at the NFC West. You'll notice we've gone a bit shorter with this preview. Same goes for the NFC East and NFC South. Stupid time constraints. THE SEASON OPENS TONIGHT!!!
1. Seattle Seahawks
Last year: 9-7 (3-3 vs. NFC West)
Playoffs: Beat Dallas in NFC Wild Card; Lost to Chicago in NFC Divisional Playoff
At times last year, everything let the Seahawks down. The offensive line was often porous, Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander were both hurt, and the defense was equal parts dominant and awful.
1. Can Alexander bounce back? He may have been playing hurt most of the year, which would explain things, because his numbers were bad. 3.6 yards per carry, seven touchdowns, and five fumbles.
2. Are the receivers good enough? D.J. Hackett and Nate Burleson now work with Deion Branch as the primary receivers, as leading receiver Darrell Jackson was dealt to San Francisco during the draft. They won't desperately miss Jackson, but it's a blow to the position's depth, because they really didn't add anyone new.
3. Can Jim Mora coach up this secondary? The Seahawks have changed over some personnel here, and the hope is Mora - the former Falcons head coach - can help mold a cohesive unit. He has solid starters to work with at CB with Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings, but his safeties, Deon Grant and Brian Russell, are both new.
2. San Francisco 49ers
Last year: 7-9 (3-3 vs. NFC West)
The nattily-clad Mike Nolan appears to have this team headed in the right direction. QB Alex Smith is only going to improve, and they have an elite RB in Frank Gore that many people may have forgotten about. As the passing attack continues to gain steam, the 49ers will have to lean less and less on Gore and the defense to do everything.
1. Did they make the right moves at receiver? Darrell Jackson is a good pickup. He'll provide a solid target for Smith, and he'll start opposite the anonymous but talented Arnaz Battle. Ashley Lelie looked like a good idea at the time, but he's buried on the depth chart as we approach the opener. Remember, too, that super-athletic TE Vernon Davis should be healthy from the start.
2. How good is Gore? In an offense devoid of passing-game playmakers, Gore was four yards short of 1,700, and he averaged a more-than-impressive 5.4 yards per carry. He also caught 61 passes. An improved passing game is probably music to his ears, as it will peel those pesky defenders further and further away from the line of scrimmage.
3. $80 million? Really? Nate Clements is good, but it seems as if he's stolen some money from the 49ers here. He'll be paired as a starting CB with Walt Harris, who has been up-and-down for most of his career but managed eight picks last year. If Clements is as good as advertised, Harris will get even more chances to intercept the ball with an elite corner on the other side of the field.
3. St. Louis Rams
Last year: 8-8 (2-4 vs. NFC West)
Steven Jackson and Marc Bulger lead the way for the Rams now on offense, and the mission is a bit different than it was when Mike Martz ran things. They still light up opposing defenses, but Jackson gives them more muscle than sizzle. The problem, however, was the defense last year. And it's still a problem.
1. Will Jackson decline? 346 carries, 90 receptions. That's a lot, even for a young guy. But Jackson's high number of touches shouldn't be a problem just yet. Even with that in mind, expect the Rams to try to limit his work a little more this year. It would make sense, and a small cut in his touches wouldn't hurt the offense that much while it prolongs his career at the same time.
2. How much better will the defense be? It still looks like an issue for the Rams, though they tried to help themselves in the offseason by bringing in Mike Rumph and Lenny Walls to provide reinforcements in the secondary. The front seven is still missing something, even after they drafted lineman Adam Carriker in the first round.
3. Finally, about those special teams...? The Rams brought in former Chief Dante Hall to invigorate the worst return team in the NFL. Hall will do some things to make this unit better, but he won't work miracles without some blocking.
4. Arizona Cardinals
Last year: 5-11 (4-2 vs. NFC West)
It's a familiar thing for Cardinals fans, who are probably accustomed to the firing of failed head coaches and the hiring of new ones. With new coach Ken Whisenhunt comes optimism, but the same thing happened when Dennis Green got the job. He was who we thought he was, so he got fired.
1. Will we ever see the old Edgerrin James again? While an offensive line would help, James is no longer a spring chicken. He struggled his way to a 1,000-yard season last year, needing 337 carries to do it because of a 3.4-yard average. Improvement on the line, thanks to new line coach Russ Grimm, will make James a better back. How much better is in question because of his advancing age.
2. Will Matt Leinart be good? A lot of it depends on the line and James, but Leinart showed me a lot last year. He has a good arm, is smart, and has the guts to be a leader at this position. He knows to feed the ball to Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, too, and that can make any quarterback look good.
3. Is the defense going to see improvement? Some, yes, but injury and age issues along the defensive line will combine with talent issues in the secondary to hold the Cardinals back a little bit. The first part of the schedule will really test this team, with the 49ers, Seahawks, Ravens, Steelers, and Rams all in the first five weeks.