In an NFL that becomes more and more competitive every year, the NFC West is the league's nuclear roller derby -- the division where every game is a huge battle for ultimate supremacy, and talent is plentiful across the board. The Seahawks survived this division of attrition to win the Super Bowl, but they had to get past the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, and the trailing Cardinals and Rams would be division champs in some other surroundings.
Now that all four teams are preparing to load up for the 2014 version of this particular go-round, let's take a look at where each team stands with its own free agents.
• Key free agents: CB Javier Arenas, SS Yeremiah Bell, CB Antoine Cason, ILB Karlos Dansby, K Jay Feely, WR Andre Roberts, RB Rashard Mendenhall, DE Frostee Rucker, OT Eric Winston
• Players Arizona needs back: Bell, Dansby, Roberts
Bell was exposed in coverage enough to put him on the bubble, but he's a decent short-term stopgap. Dansby, however, combined with Daryl Washington to create perhaps the most mobile inside linebacker duo in the league -- he's without question Arizona's most important free-agent consideration. Roberts is a talented receiver with the potential to be Larry Fitzgerald's second banana.
• Players Arizona should let walk: Arenas, Mendenhall, Winston, Rucker, Cason, Feely
Winston took a lot of snaps for the Cardinals in 2013, but that wasn't a good thing -- he gave up a team-leading 58 total pressures, and the Cardinals clearly need to reinforce their offensive line. Arenas and Cason are league-average players who can be replaced over time -- clearly, the front office has a knack for identifying and deploying secondary talent. Feely's leg is not as powerful as it once was, so it would be easy to see Arizona looking elsewhere.
• Outlook: It's clear that with a few tweaks, the Cardinals will be ready to challenge the Seahawks and 49ers for supremacy in the NFL's toughest division. They have enough cap room to do some things thanks to Larry Fitzgerald's restructure. Moreover, Bruce Arians is the right man to be this team's head coach, and general manager Steve Keim is one of the league's more able executives. The arrow is definitely pointing up in the Valley of the Sun.
San Francisco 49ers
Key free agents: WR Anquan Boldin, S Donte Whitner, C Jonathan Goodwin, WR Mario Manningham, K Phil Dawson, CB Tarell Brown, RB Anthony Dixon, QB Colt McCoy, CB Eric Wright
• Players San Francisco needs back: Boldin, Whitner, Goodwin, Dawson, Brown, Wright
Boldin had yet another outstanding season for a new team -- he's getting up in age, but speed is not his game at this point. He's a marvelous possession receiver who's as tough in tight coverage as any other player in the league. Given the aggressive nature of NFC West secondaries, it would be very surprising if San Francisco made the same mistake the Baltimore Ravens made last year when they undervalued the veteran. Whitner isn't quite the cover guy he once was, but he's still aggressive enough (in a good way) in coverage to make a big difference, and he teamed especially well with rookie safety Eric Reid.
None of San Francisco's free-agent cornerbacks are especially notable, but this franchise has had trouble grabbing legitimate starters in its last few drafts, so the best path to success may be to continue with the status quo and hope that the pass rush and linebacker play continues to shore things up. Goodwin is still a key cog in an offensive line that regressed to a degree in 2013, but remains one of the league's best.
• Players San Francisco should let walk: Manningham, Dixon, McCoy
The 49ers were hoping for much more from Manningham, but multiple knee injuries have put his future in doubt. Dixon is a decent reserve player, but the team may be ready to unleash Marcus Lattimore in 2015. McCoy is a decent enough quarterback, but aside from his mobility, he doesn't really fit the team's current quarterback template.
• Outlook: Head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke have done an amazing job in creating a culture of success over the last three seasons. The question is when and whether the franchise will start paying the price for two very iffy drafts. The 49ers enjoyed historic performances from a lot of their defensive players, but the passing game fell sharply without receiver Michael Crabtree, and depth overall starts to look like a concern.
BURKE: Potential salary cap casualties
St. Louis Rams
• Key free agents: QB Kellen Clemens, OL Rodger Saffold, G Chris Williams, LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, LB Will Witherspoon,
• Players St. Louis needs back: Saffold, Williams
In St. Louis' revolving-door offensive line, Saffold and Williams were fairly reliable, at least -- Saffold held it down at three positions, and Williams was the only Rams lineman to start all 16 games. They should be relatively low-cost options for the near future as the team works to improve other positions of priority.
• Players St. Louis should let walk: Clemens, Witherspoon, Dunbar
Given Sam Bradford's injury history, the Rams will either move on and find a younger quarterback, or try it one more time. Either way, a better backup quarterback will be required -- the Rams are too close to contention to allow games to get away from them via the game's most important position. Witherspoon and Dunbar are easily replaceable cogs, especially given the way head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead develop defensive talent.
• Outlook: Like the Cardinals, the Rams are trying to find a way to kick it up a notch in a brutal division. And because they're so solid in so many other areas, the decision made at quarterback with this team could very well turn the NFC West's balance of power sooner than later.
• Key free agents: WR Golden Tate, DE Michael Bennett, K Stephen Hauschka, DT Tony McDaniel, DT Clinton McDonald, CB Walter Thurmond, QB Tarvaris Jackson, OLB O'Brien Schofield, FB Michael Robinson, OT Breno Giacomini, OL Paul McQuistan
• Players Seattle needs back: Tate, Bennett, Hauschka, McDaniel, McDonald, Jackson, Robinson, Thurmond, Schofield
Tate and Bennett are known priorities for the Seahawks this offseason -- Tate as the speed slot guy and return man who adds a great deal to the passing game, and Bennett as the one-year player who far exceeded everyone's expectations. Thought to be a swing tackle by head coach Pete Carroll at first, Bennett became a major inside/outside force in the NFL's best defense. McDaniel and McDonald were valuable reserve players inside, and their talents are perfectly suited to the schemes set up by head coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Jackson is an ideal backup to Russell Wilson -- comfortable in his role and respected by everyone in the locker room. Robinson has those same qualifications, and he provides veteran leadership for a very young team. Thurmond is good enough to play outside corner in this defense if he can stay healthy -- the question is whether some other team will come calling with more money than Seattle is willing to give up.
• Players Seattle should let walk: Giacomini, McQuistan
Both Giacomini and McQuistan have been tough guys with a lot of starts, but Seattle's offensive line has underperformed over the last few seasons, with the exception of center Max Unger and left tackle Russell Okung. They now need better players in the other spots if they wish to defend their Super Bowl title with everything they've got.
• Outlook: Carroll and general manager John Schneider have established one of the most appealing environments in the NFL -- a winning franchise with top-level facilities in which players are encouraged to be themselves, even if that works to the team's detriment at times. As long as the discipline holds out and Seattle is able to alleviate some short-term salary cap concerns, this is a team built to ride the high wave for a good long time.
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