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This is a year of change in the division. The Seahawks brought in a new coach (Pete Carroll), the Rams added a potential franchise quarterback (Sam Bradford), the Cardinals lost a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback (Kurt Warner) and the 49ers raised expectations.
Arizona won the past two division titles, but changes in its personnel and an unsettled quarterback situation makes San Francisco the trendy pick to earn its first playoff berth in eight years. Interestingly, the 49ers and Cardinals don't play each other until November, which means divisional fans could have a lot to look forward to the second half of the season.
What the 49ers do best: Compete.
The 49ers finished 8-8 last year in Mike Singletary's first full season as coach, but six of the defeats were by a touchdown or less, with four by four points or fewer. One of the losses was to the Vikings on Brett Favre's last-second, 32-yard touchdown strike to Greg Lewis.
Singletary stresses the need to be tough, physical and smart, and the expectation this year is that his team will be all those. San Francisco is a trendy pick to win the division, not only because of its talent, but also because the rest of the division is rebuilding or retooling.
"I don't really care about the publications," Singletary says. "Publications picked us in the past three years to stink up the place. ... If you read that you'd be all out of whack."
What the 49ers need to improve: Quarterback play.
It's not a stretch to say that the 49ers will go as far as Alex Smith takes them. According to coaches, the former No. 1 overall pick has made dramatic strides since last season, when he returned to the starting lineup in Week 7 after missing 25 games because of two shoulder surgeries and subpar play. He finished the year with career highs in passer rating (81.5), completion percentage (60.5) and touchdown passes (18). He did not have to learn a new offense for the first time in his pro career, and that meant he could focus on his fundamentals and technique.
"He's understanding everything that we're trying to do from a protection standpoint and a route standpoint, and it's allowing him to play faster," QB coach Mike Johnson says of Smith. "That's the biggest difference in him, his total understanding of what we're trying to do. Alex is a very competitive person and he wants to prove to everyone that he was the No. 1 pick for a reason and warrants that type of respect. He has a tremendous amount of self-respect and pride and works harder than anybody I've ever coached. He's growing."
Which 49er needs to step up: Right tackle Anthony Davis.
The 49ers sought to upgrade their offensive line by using their two first-round draft picks on in-the-trenches guys. Davis, a 6-foot-5, 323-pound right tackle from Rutgers who was selected 11th overall, could have a tougher time than Idaho left guard Mike Iupati, taken 17th overall, because he's playing on the edge and reportedly will be the youngest starting offensive lineman in team history; Davis turns 21 on Oct. 11.
The 49ers gave him an early test in the preseason, allowing him to play against Colts veteran end Robert Mathis one-on-one. He held his own, prompting Singletary to say: "It was a great opportunity [for Davis] to see the speed of the game without having help and feeling the anxiety of playing against a premier pass rusher. I thought he did a pretty good job."
Predicted record: 10-6.
San Francisco plays good defense and can run the ball. That's a recipe for being in every game. With Smith having a second year in the same system and wideout Michael Crabtree having a full offseason and training camp, the passing game should be noticeably improved.
What the Cardinals do best: To be determined.
It used to be throwing the football, but Kurt Warner, whose 56 touchdown passes the past two seasons tied for fifth-most in the league, retired in the offseason. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has yet to settle on a replacement, although journeyman Derek Anderson appears to be the front-runner ahead of disappointing Matt Leinart. The Cardinals also traded former Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin to Baltimore.
Now, the Cardinals are searching for an offensive identity. It was believed they would lean more heavily on the run, but that wasn't the case in the preseason. The line was supposed to be a strength, but it was porous at times in the preseason. At this point there's no way to know what the Cardinals do well, even defensively. They lost linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Antrel Rolle to free agency, and reserve end Bertrand Berry retired. Outside linebacker Joey Porter was signed, but it's unknown whether the 12-year veteran will be the player who had nine sacks last season or the one who had 17.5 in 2008.
What the Cardinals need to improve: Defensive consistency.
After allowing more than 24 points only twice in their first 15 games, the Cardinals allowed an average of 41 in their last three, including the playoffs. Green Bay gashed them for 33 and 45 in back-to-back weeks, and New Orleans put up 45 in the second round of the playoffs.
The unit is going to have to be more consistent for Arizona to defend the division title it won the past two years. A lot of eyes will be on Porter and safety Kerry Rhodes, who replaces Rolle at free safety. The Cardinals surrendered 50 completions of 20 yards or longer last season, 10th-most in the league. But if Porter can rush the passer and Rhodes can defend the back end, that figure could fall.
Which Cardinal needs to step up: Quarterback Derek Anderson.
The former Browns QB appears to be the front-runner to start in Week 1. He did not have a strong offseason and was average at best in the preseason, but Whisenhunt apparently believes he's a better fit than Leinart, the former first-round pick who failed to seize the job after Warner retired.
Anderson has a strong arm and throws a pretty deep ball, but he struggles with accuracy. In four seasons, he has never completed more than 56 percent of his passes, and outside of 2007 he has never thrown for more than nine TDs. Complicating matters is that Warner was insanely accurate and a touchdown machine. His shadow, even in retirement, will linger over the Cardinals in 2010.
Predicted record: 8-8.
The Cardinals' failure to develop a young quarterback will haunt them all year. They spent the offseason talking up Leinart, then gave up on him after two exhibition games. You also have to wonder about the psychological scars of yielding 123 points in their final three games.
What the Seahawks do best: To be determined.
The Seahawks have yet to establish an identity under first-year coach Pete Carroll, who joins them after an incredible nine-year run at USC, where he won seven consecutive Pac-10 titles (2002-08), two national championships (2003-04) and led the Trojans to a 97-19 record. One of his favorite mantras is, "Always Compete." That might have to do in his first season, because it likely will take a couple of years for him to reshape the roster.
In the meantime, he must shore up the offensive line (rookie left tackle Russell Okung sustained a high ankle sprain in training camp) and find a No. 1 receiver (T.J. Houshmandzadeh, their top returning receiver, is better-suited as a complementary player), a big back (LenDale White was released before training camp) and an edge rusher (their top three ends from last season are gone: Patrick Kerney to retirement, Darryl Tapp in a trade and Cory Redding in free agency).
What the Seahawks need to improve: The running game.
Since going to the Super Bowl in the 2005 season, the Seahawks' running game has been in steady decline. It ranked third in the league in 2005 with an average of 153.6 yards a game, but plummeted to 26th last year with an average of 97.9.
Carroll likely will look to the waiver wire and roster cuts for a big back, but in the meantime he'll make due with a group of runners who have similar characteristics: more small and quick than big and strong. Justin Forsett played well the last month of the 2009 season, but at 5-8, 198, there are questions about his durability. Julius Jones (5-10, 208) is the incumbent, but he lacks Forsett's suddenness. The best of the bunch could be newcomer Leon Washington (5-8, 203), who is a threat every time he touches the ball.
"I've always liked complementary backs, different style guys," says Carroll. "We love the physical nature of the running game, so it's nice to have that type of big back. [Quinton] Ganther has been running really good for us and has that physical presence. He's tough and might give us that little change of style type thing. ... But I really like this position group."
Which Seahawks needs to step up: Linebacker Aaron Curry.
The fourth pick of last year's draft, Curry appears to be the team's best edge rush option. Seattle needs him to step up because it had only two sacks over its final five games last season and its top three ends from last season are gone.
Curry has the physical tools to rush the passer, but does he have the mindset? The 6-2, 244-pounder prefers playing over the tight end, but most successful pass rushers come from the weak side of the formation, where there is less traffic. Beyond Curry, the Seahawks don't have much in the way of pass rushers.
Predicted record: 6-10.
Carroll did not inherit a team that's built to win now. The Seahawks have the talent to compete, but need more playmakers to make a run at the division title. The good thing for Carroll is the players appear to have bought into his high-energy, open-competition philosophy.
What the Rams do best: Run the ball.
Steven Jackson is among a dying breed: the three-down, workhorse running back. Last season, he ran for 1,416 yards and ranked second in yards from scrimmage with 1,738 despite playing behind a patchwork line and lacking a complementary passing game.
"There's a lot of truth to the talk that he's going to have to carry us," says center Jason Brown. "What do they call that special player on Madden? Game-breakers? He's our game-breaker. He adds an explosive nature to our offense. We know as an offensive line if we do our job at least 10 percent better than last year and sustain some of those blocks, it's off to the house for him. Our goal this year is make sure that we allow Steven to shine in the way that he deserves."
What the Rams need to improve: Scoring.
It's tough to win when you don't put points on the board, and in each of the past three seasons the Rams have ranked in the bottom four in scoring. They were last in 2009 (10.9 points a game), tied for 30th in 2008 (14.5) and 28th in 2007 (16.4).
Perhaps No. 1 pick Sam Bradford can help reverse the trend. The former Oklahoma QB has all the tools: accuracy, a strong arm, intelligence and a competitive streak. All he needs is a healthy receiving corps. His top threat, Donnie Avery, tore knee ligaments in the preseason and is out for the year. And Laurent Robinson, a capable No. 2, has missed 23 of 32 games the past two seasons because of injury.
Which Ram needs to step up: Left tackle Rodger Saffold.
The rookie left tackle is being asked to protect the blind side of Bradford, who received $50 million in guarantees as part of his landmark $78 million contract. At 6-5, 323 pounds, Saffold has the size, athleticism and experience (41 starts in 42 games at Indiana) to get the job done. He also realizes the enormous responsibility of his job.
"I don't want to be the guy that lets somebody get through where [Bradford] could get injured or something like that," Saffold told reporters. "That would stay with me the rest of my career. That's one of the reasons I'm working so hard."
Predicted record: 4-12.
The Rams have just six victories over the past three seasons, but there is optimism they're on the road to respectability with the arrival of Bradford. The former Heisman winner won't be able to do it alone, and the season-ending loss of Avery was a major blow, but this season won't be measured by wins and losses as much as it will be measured by the development of Bradford.