With training camps about to begin, we take a division-by-division look at where each team stands heading into the 2013 season.
One way or another, be it San Francisco or Seattle, the NFC West will be a favorite when the experts make their Super Bowl picks in August. The 49ers nearly pulled off an epic, post-blackout comeback in last year's Super Bowl against Baltimore; the Seahawks would have been in the NFC title game, had they not allowed two 20-yard passes from Matt Ryan to set up a field goal late the week prior.
The West could be a three-playoff-bid division in 2013, too, if the Rams continue to build on last year's momentum. The sky is brighter even in Arizona, with a new QB and coaching staff.
Week to week, there may not be a more compelling division race than the one that unfolds right here.
Key moves: Signed RB Rashard Mendenhall, DE Frostee Rucker, DE Matt Shaughnessy, OLB Lorenzo Alexander, LB Jasper Brinkley, LB Karlos Dansby, CB Antoine Cason, CB Jerraud Powers, S Yeremiah Bell; traded for QB Carson Palmer, CB Javier Arenas; drafted RB Stepfan Taylor, WR Ryan Swope, G Jonathan Cooper, LB Kevin Minter, OLB Alex Okafor, S Tyrann Mathieu; lost QB Kevin Kolb, QB John Skelton, RB Beanie Wells, WR Early Doucet, G Adam Snyder, LB Paris Lenon, CB William Gay, CB Greg Toler, S Adrian Wilson, S Kerry Rhodes; hired head coach Bruce Arians, OC Harold Goodwin; DC Todd Bowles
Where they got better: Quarterback. Carson Palmer has just a 12-28 record over his last three seasons as a starting QB but, if nothing else, he appears to be a good fit for the vertical-passing game of new head coach Bruce Arians. Palmer also cannot be much worse than Arizona's 2013 whack-a-mole QB situation, which saw Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer all pop into the lineup at various stages. Palmer can still wing it, at age 33, and he has the veteran experience that quartet did not. The Cardinals also upgraded their depth at the quarterback spot by signing athletic backup Drew Stanton. The ex-Lion and Colt (and, very briefly, Jet) has not played in the regular season since 2010, but he was 2-2 as a starter for Detroit.
Where they got worse: The secondary. Opposing teams often ran roughshod over the Cardinals' run defense, so they did not need to pass all that much. Still, Arizona finished fifth in pass defense last season and picked off more passes than every team other than Chicago. Can they repeat that success minus William Gay, Greg Toler, Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes? That's a daunting task, even if No. 1 cornerback Patrick Peterson is coming off back-to-back Pro Bowls in his first two years. The Cardinals stemmed the tide a bit by signing CBs Antoine Cason and Jerraud Powers. They also added ex-Dolphin Yeremiah Bell at safety, then drafted the "Honey Badger," Tyrann Mathieu. There is talent, but the losses will be tough to overcome.
Breakout player: Rob Housler, TE. Housler trended upward last season, going from 12 catches in his rookie year to 45. He should see another increase in 2013, even more so if the Cardinals again fail to find Larry Fitzgerald a complementary WR. Housler can work in all levels as a pass catcher, and he might be one of Palmer's favorite targets.
Where they stand: Everything seems to be headed in the right direction, finally. What will that mean in terms of results this season? Maybe not all that much. The Cardinals have the misfortune of having to play San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis a combined six times -- with 0-6 there a distinct possibility (they went 1-5 within the division last season). Baby steps here.
San Francisco 49ers
Key moves: Signed DT Glenn Dorsey, CB Nnamdi Asomugha, S Craig Dahl; traded for WR Anquan Boldin, QB Colt McCoy; drafted RB Marcus Lattimore, WR Quinton Patton, TE Vance McDonald, DE Tank Carradine, DE/OLB Corey Lemonier; S Eric Reid; lost QB Alex Smith, WR Randy Moss, FB/TE Delanie Walker, NT Isaac Sopoaga, S Dashon Goldson
Where they got better: The pass rush. Wide receiver would have been the pick here, with Quinton Patton and Anquan Boldin arriving, but Michael Crabtree's Achilles injury set that unit back. So, it's the DE/OLB spots in the spotlight. The 49ers finished 11th in the league last season with 38 sacks, and they return an elite group in Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and others. What they did not have in 2012 was a ton of depth at DE or OLB. In drafting explosive athletes Tank Carradine and Corey Lemonier, San Francisco solved that problem. Plus, the 49ers rolled the dice on Glenn Dorsey, who gives them an extra usable body along the interior of their D-line.
Where they got worse: Safety. First-team All-Pro Dashon Goldson may have been slightly overrated last season, but he leaves behind big shoes to fill for rookie Eric Reid and backup Craig Dahl. Reid should claim the starting job Goldson vacated, alongside Donte Whitner. Goldson had 69 tackles, three interceptions and 11 pass break-ups from that spot last season. The bar will need to be lower for Reid, who's a promising and hard-working prospect, but one who struggled in pass coverage and as a tackler at times during his LSU days. Dahl is a decent safety net, but he's no Goldson.
Breakout player: LaMichael James, RB. James had just 27 carries during the 2012 regular season and another 11 in the postseason. He only broke one of those for longer than 30 yards and found the end zone just once, too. But he showed enough explosiveness so that San Francisco should want the ball in his hands -- especially in a creative offense led by a mobile QB.
Where they stand: The 49ers did not come within a play of winning the Super Bowl by accident. This team is loaded, and it took off to another level once Colin Kaepernick inherited the QB role. They should run near the top of the NFC West division again this season, with a chance to go all the way. The lingering mystery right now: Will Crabtree's injury, and resulting multi-week absence, tip the division scales in Seattle's favor?
Key moves: Signed QB Brady Quinn, QB Tarvaris Jackson, DE Cliff Avril, DE Michael Bennett, DT Tony McDaniel, CB Antoine Winfield; traded for WR Percy Harvin; drafted RB Christine Michael, WR Chris Harper, DT Jordan Hill, DT Jesse Williams; lost QB Matt Flynn, RB/KR Leon Washington, DT Alan Branch, DT/DE Jason Jones, OLB Leroy Hill
Where they got better: Wide receiver. Drop the mic and walk away. The Seahawks paid a pretty penny, including their 2013 first-round pick, for Percy Harvin. He will be worth it, provided he can put his recent injury history behind him. Few players in the league are capable of changing a game like Harvin, who sure feels like the piece Seattle was missing. Rookie Chris Harper could be one to watch eventually, as well. He's a physical receiver who will make catches in traffic and might battle for playing time as the year progresses.
Where they got worse: Outside linebacker, if anywhere. The Seahawks did not lose many contributors off their 2012 team, and where they did -- like at defensive tackle, with Alan Branch -- quickly replaced those parts with multiple options. But at outside linebacker, they need third-year player Malcolm Smith, he of three career starts and 22 tackles in 2012, to take over for Leroy Hill, a starter in Seattle since 2005. Hill hit free agency this offseason, then was arrested for an alleged domestic violence incident. Seattle could mix and match here, with guys like Bruce Irvin or Mike Morgan. It's one of the few spots, though, where the answer is not obvious.
Breakout player: Christine Michael, RB. The path to playing time has one big hurdle in it, in the form of Marshawn Lynch. That said, Michael very well might knock Robert Turbin from the backup role, giving him some looks -- Turbin had 80 carries from that spot last year.
Where they stand: Seattle and San Francisco are 1 and 1a in this division. The two dates to circle are Sept. 15, when the 49ers visit Seattle; and Dec. 8, when the Seahawks make the return trip to San Francisco. Those games could decide the division. And if Seattle somehow can come up with home-field advantage in the playoffs, the 12th Man might be enough to push them all the way through to the Super Bowl.
St. Louis Rams
Key moves: Signed TE Jared Cook, OT Jake Long; drafted RB Zac Stacy, WR Tavon Austin, WR Stedman Bailey, OL Barrett Jones, OLB Alec Ogletree, S T.J. McDonald; lost RB Steven Jackson, WR Danny Amendola, WR Brandon Gibson, LB Rocky McIntosh, CB Bradley Fletcher, S Craig Dahl, S Quintin Mikell
Where they got better: On offense. Pretty sweeping review, that, but it's the truth, even with Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola out. The Rams finished 7-8-1 last year and went 2-1-1 against San Francisco and Seattle, despite an offense that finished 25th. So, they upgraded pretty much everywhere, with former Pro Bowler Jake Long in at left tackle, the high-upside Jared Cook at TE, college teammates Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey joining the receiving corps and Zac Stacy helping to replace Jackson at running back. There really are no excuses left for QB Sam Bradford now. Either he takes advantage of all his new toys and plays like the Rams expected him to after taking him No. 1 overall in 2010 or this reworked offense could have a new passer next season.
Where they got worse: Safety. Another NFC West team with potential issues in the deep secondary. St. Louis received 16 starts from Craig Dahl last season and 15 from Quintin Mikell. Both have moved on now, dropping the onus on 2011 starter Darian Stewart (who's yet to play a full NFL season) and third-round pick T.J. McDonald. St. Louis may be looking for another choice as we speak, because it cannot feel too confident about a Stewart-McDonald combo for Week 1, in a division where the top two teams run intricate offenses that put pressure on opposing safeties.
Breakout player: Alec Ogletree, LB. Off-field incidents, including a pre-combine DUI arrest, drove Ogletree down the draft board. St. Louis may have landed a Defensive Rookie of the Year contender at No. 30, as a result. Ogletree will start at one of the Rams' outside linebacker spots and, with a strong line in front of him, will be free to utilize his quickness all over the field. Where they stand: Were it not for an 0-4-1 stretch in the middle of last season, the Rams might have been in the wild-card mix. The 49ers and Seahawks definitely would be making a mistake to overlook this team in the division this year. Does that mean that St. Louis can sneak in and steal the NFC West? Probably not -- at least, not until 2014. But the Rams will be very competitive and should stay in the postseason race until the latter stages of the season.