The NFC West is the best division in football, and though the teams atop the standings may change in 2014, that should remain the case. Will the Rams, Cardinals or 49ers have enough firepower to unseat the Super Bowl champion Seahawks?
In 2013, the NFC West ranked as one of the most competitive divisions in NFL history. Three of the division's four teams -- the Seahawks, 49ers and Cardinals -- won 10 games, and the sole team with a losing record (the 7-9 Rams) may have helped themselves more in the 2014 draft than any other franchise. Only the 1984 AFC West has a better non-divisional record in the post-merger era, and the 2013 NFC West is tied with the 2007 AFC South with the best non-divisional record (30-10) since divisional realignment in '02. The Seahawks and 49ers have overtaken the Steelers and Ravens as the NFL's best rivalry, splitting their two regular-season contests with Seattle winning the rubber match in the NFC Championship Game in the final seconds, when Colin Kaepernick's pass headed toward Michael Crabtree in the end zone was tipped and intercepted by the eventual Super Bowl champions.
The purpose of all these numbers? To make clear that this is the best division in football, and though the teams up top may change in 2014, that should remain the case. The Seahawks managed to retain most of their major stars and may have a dynasty on their hands if they can shore up a few issues. The Rams have the NFL's most intimidating defensive line and the potential to be a nightmarish physical matchup for any opponent. The Cardinals have suffered the most losses to injury and free agency, but this is still a team that could take half the other divisions in the NFL from a pure talent perspective. And the 49ers -- who are a couple of plays from having at least one Super Bowl ring in the last three years -- could be a candidate for regression, but could also surprise everyone and finally claim the ultimate prize they've been seeking since the Jim Harbaugh era started in 2011.
Once again, the NFC West will be a smashmouth demolition derby from start to finish, and it will provide a lot of the season's most compelling football.
The favorite: Seattle Seahawks
The 2013 Seahawks ran through the regular season and postseason, finishing their most successful season in franchise history with a thorough beatdown of the Broncos in the Super Bowl. But just as the Broncos have firmed up their defense to match the team they couldn't beat, Seattle appears to be in line for more firepower on offense. Receiver Percy Harvin, acquired in a 2013 trade with the Vikings, appears to be healthy enough to play more than the 68 snaps he got last season. The Seahawks selected receivers Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood in the 2014 draft, and the number of wide and empty formations they've displayed in the preseason seems to indicate that the team with fewer passing attempts than any other over the last two seasons is about to open things up.
It's a good time to do that. Quarterback Russell Wilson, coming into his third NFL season, appears poised (if not champing at the bit) to move past the conservative offensive structures he's been in before. And while Marshawn Lynch is still the bellcow back, he's 28, has more carries than any other NFL back over the last three seasons and has excelled in a high-contact style that doesn't generally see players well into their 30s. Now may be the time for younger backs Robert Turbin and Christine Michael. Even if Seattle's league-best defense falls back a bit (and it may well after 2013's historic campaign), the Seahawks appear to have just about everything in place for a return trip to the NFL's biggest game.
Dark horse: St. Louis Rams
Before he was lost for the season to a torn ACL last October, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford was enjoying his best season to date. St. Louis has the (hopefully) healthy Bradford back in the fold with more targets to throw to, but how much-maligned offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will use those targets is a subject of much debate. The Rams have unquestionably the best defensive line in football, with Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford and first-round tackle Aaron Donald ready to smack opposing offenses around. Head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have assembled a young, confident and super-tough team that looked to be a few key players (or a change in offensive structure) away from playoff contention in 2013. Bradford could be the X-factor, but even if he isn't, the Rams will provide a stern test for every team they face.
Most important player: Colin Kaepernick
No team threw the ball fewer times than the 49ers last season, but in the 2014 preseason, the team added former Bills receiver Stevie Johnson in a trade, selected underrated South Carolina receiver Bruce Ellington in the fourth round of the draft, took a flyer on veteran Brandon Lloyd and hope that Michael Crabtree can stay healthy this year so that he can pair with tight end Vernon Davis. In addition, the team gave quarterback Colin Kaepernick a contract extension that will guarantee him $13.073 million in the first year and ramp up every year after that. It's pretty clear that the 49ers are ready to take the training wheels off the Nevada alum, hoping that his passing acumen will match his knack for explosive plays and overall game intelligence.
"I really expect a real breakout year for Colin," Harbaugh said in May. "Athletically, he looks bionic. If you all remember the Six Million Dollar Man, that’s what it looks like to me. He’s very gifted and he always has been. He has the look and feel of a guy who’s really going to break out, even more so than he already has. I’m really excited about everything about his game right now.”
Athletically, Kaepernick does look bionic. As a pure passer? There's still work to be done. Kaepernick struggles at times to work beyond his first reads and will often bail to run too soon. The extent to which he's able to overcome these issues in 2014 will go a long way in determining how far the 49ers can go.
Rookie to watch: John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals
While the Seahawks would like to increase their offensive efficiency, the Cardinals are going to have to if they're to have any shot at this division, or a playoff spot of any sort. Last season, they won 10 games led by a Todd Bowles-coordinated defense that surprised a lot of people. But defensive lineman Darnell Dockett will miss the entire 2014 season with a torn ACL, linebackers Daryl Washington (suspension) and Karlos Dansby (free agency) are out of the picture and defensive back Tyrann Mathieu is still coming back from his own knee surgery.
So, rookie receiver John Brown could find himself as a key player in any Cardinals resurgence. And the speedy target from Pittsburg State has already shown that he can be a perfect foil in an offense run by head coach Bruce Arians. Arians has always relied on smaller speed receivers to take the tops off defenses in trips and bunch packages, and Brown has that speed. He also has good route awareness and is tougher in traffic than his 5-foot-10, 179-pound frame might convey.
"You never know who had what grades on guys," Arians recently said of Brown's status as an underrated draft prospect. "I know that people say, 'Hey, you got my guy right before we were going to take him.' Yeah, really? I've been through this so many times with small school, smaller receivers that are fast. A lot of guys like them 6-2, 220 that can't run. I like those little fast guys."
Arians has one of those guys in Brown, who will get more than his fair share of opportunities to make a big difference.