After getting the Niners to the NFC Championship Game, Alex Smith has earned the confidence of Jim Harbaugh and likely a new deal with San Francisco. (SI)
The San Francisco 49ers raised the bar for this division with a shocking resurgence in 2011. The challenge for them now is to maintain that level of excellence, and that puts some pressure on the few decisions they have to make before free agency starts.
Elsewhere, Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis face varying degrees of difficult decisions this offseason, but the Seahawks may have the toughest road ahead.
Let's take a look at how the NFC West stacks up heading into free agency:
• Key free agents: DE Calais Campbell, WR Early Doucet, LB Clark Haggans, DB A.J. Jefferson (exclusive rights), S Rashad Johnson (restricted), DB Richard Marshall, LB Joey Porter.
• Players Arizona needs back: Campbell; Marshall.
Given the respective status of Jefferson and Johnson, both figure to return to the desert in 2012. Marshall, though, is the jewel of Arizona's potential free agent defensive backs. He may not be a Pro Bowl-caliber player on the back end, but he had 78 tackles, 11 pass deflections and three interceptions in 2011 and proved himself to be a versatile defender.
Arizona absolutely cannot let Campbell get away. He was a game-changer up front for the Cardinals, which is why the franchise tag may come into play.
• Players Arizona should let walk: Doucet; Haggans; Porter.
There is a very realistic chance that either Haggans or Porter will be back to play outside linebacker for Arizona next season, with the smart money on Haggans, who started 16 games in 2011. It's hard to get excited about either possibility, though. Haggans is a locker room favorite and a veteran presence, but he went almost unnoticed most of the time last season -- not what you want out of a 3-4 OLB.
Doucet had a few nice games and wound up catching 54 passes, making him the Cardinals' second-leading receiver. But Larry Fitzgerald was right during the regular season when he said that this team needs more help at the receiver position. Arizona can find a better No. 2 option than Doucet.
• Outlook: This might not be a very active offseason for the Cardinals. There are only a few impact players on their potential free-agent list and they won't have a ton of money to go throwing around on the open market.
• Key free agents: LB Ahmad Brooks, S Dashon Goldson, WR Ted Ginn, DB Carlos Rogers, QB Alex Smith, OL Adam Snyder.
• Players San Francisco needs back: Goldson; Rogers; Smith.
All indications coming out of San Francisco are that the team is prepared to use the franchise tag on Goldson while trying to re-sign Rogers. Will that work in the long run? It definitely puts losing Rogers on the table as a risk. San Francisco has some depth at cornerback, so that might be OK, but Rogers is coming off a Pro Bowl season. Even with other options on the roster, it's hard to see Chris Culliver or anyone performing like Rogers did.
Smith, you would think, has to be back after his breakthrough 2011 campaign. Jim Harbaugh appears to have all the faith in the world in him.
• Players San Francisco should let walk: Brooks; Ginn; Snyder.
You could make a case that the 49ers need all three of these guys back. Brooks started 16 games at outside linebacker, Ginn's absence as a return man may have singlehandedly led to San Francisco's playoff loss and Snyder held down a guard spot all year.
Ginn continues to be less and less involved in the passing game, and the 49ers badly need some reliable weapons there. Snyder, meanwhile, allowed 34 QB pressures in 2011, second most on the team behind Anthony Davis' 35. And Brooks, despite seven sacks, never really took full advantage of playing next to San Francisco's dynamic interior linebackers.
• Outlook: Unlike the Cardinals, the 49ers will be forced to make some major decisions on key contributors. Any of the players discussed above could wind up back with San Francisco in 2012 ... and just about any of them could be allowed to leave.
• Players Seattle needs back: Bryant; Hawthorne; Lynch.
The Seahawks already re-signed offensive lineman Breno Giacomini, otherwise he might have landed here.
I'm on the fence about Bryant, even though Seattle wants him back. He's a hard guy to analyze, because he is a sensational run defender but, at 6-foot-4 and 323 pounds, he doesn't bring anywhere close to the level of pass-rushing you'd like to see from a defensive end. Still, losing him would substantially hamper the Seahawks up front.
Seattle might take its pick between Hawthorne and Hill at linebacker -- both are due big raises over the salaries they had in 2011. The team might choose Hill, since K.J. Wright could take over Hawthorne's spot in the middle. Allow me to throw my hat in the ring for Hawthorne, who has led Seattle in tackles for three straight seasons, is three years younger than Hill and does a better job in coverage.
Lynch could wind up with the franchise tag. There's little to no chance Seattle lets him get to free agency.
• Players Seattle should let walk: Forsett; Hill.
See above on Hill. The other factor to consider in his case was that 2011 was his first season out of seven in the NFL that he stayed healthy for all 16 games.
Seattle needs to make it a focus to find more depth at running back. Assuming Lynch is back, he'll team with Leon Washington to take the majority of the reps. Adding a third-down-type back would be nice -- Forsett could have had that role, but he's been a disappointment.
• Outlook: Lynch and the linebackers, that's where Seattle will land most of its attention. Bringing back "Beast Mode" is the key to the offseason, but the Seahawks could have upwards of $12 million to spend in free agency, so they'll have to decide how much of that to throw at their defensive players.
St. Louis Rams
• Key free agents: WR Danny Amendola (restricted), OL Jacob Bell, QBs Kellen Clemens/A.J. Feeley, OL Adam Goldberg, DB Justin King, WR Brandon Lloyd.
• Players St. Louis needs back: Amendola; Lloyd.
Put an asterisk next to Lloyd, who delivered 51 catches and five touchdowns in 11 games after being traded to St. Louis, but might be too expensive to justify bringing back. With a decent crop of free-agent WRs and the possibility of trading down from the No. 2 pick and drafting Justin Blackmon a viable option, St. Louis should not break the bank here.
Amendola, in reality, ought to be the Rams' top priority when it comes to wide receivers. He and Sam Bradford developed great chemistry in 2010 (85 catches), and the Rams' offense hit the skids after Amendola's season-ending injury in Week 1.
• Players St. Louis should let walk: Goldberg, King.
King missed the last four games of the season with a shoulder injury, one that may linger into offseason workouts wherever he winds up. It's hard to say that injury was a bad thing for St. Louis -- Pro Football Focus rated King as the worst cornerback in the NFL this season. He allowed 43 receptions and had just two pass break-ups.
Goldberg is somewhat representative of the remainder of St. Louis' 20 potential unrestricted free agents. The Rams' new staff under Jeff Fisher might opt to bring him back, because he would make financial sense and is familiar with the organization. But would anyone really be upset if he left? There are very few high-impact names on St. Louis list of potential free agents.