It is almost August so you know what that means - NFL training camps are back in full swing and the Hall of Fame game is just around the corner as the official kickoff of the road back to the Super Bowl. With that said, we start our divisional previews with the home of the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and the rest of the tough NFC West. This division is still the murderer's row of divisions with any of the teams here being legitimate threats to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
I am still as high on the Arizona Cardinals this year as I was last. Arizona is ready to bust out, especially with Jonathan Cooper coming back from a season-ending injury last year and the addition of Jared Veldheer from Oakland to anchor the offensive line. The emergence of Andre Ellington at the running back spot really helped situate the Arizona offence as something not to be messed around with. The all-around explosive back should better in year two. All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald is still a premier pass catcher in this league. The growing capability of Michael Floyd to be Robin to Fitzgerald's Batman has taken this offence to new levels. Keep an eye on recent second-round pick tight end Troy Niklas out of Notre Dame. His pass catching capability and decent blocking skills should give quarterback Carson Palmer another weapon to add to this potentially potent offence.
This defence is still one of the best in the league, but still might might be the worst ranked defence in this division. That's a scary thought. Losing both middle linebackers this off-season, from one leaving in free agency to Darryl Washington being suspended potentially for a year for drug and assault charges, have left the cupboard a bit bare at the linebacker position, where last year it was the teams strength. Kevin Minter, last year's second round draft pick, will be relied upon to elevate his play. While losing their middle linebackers from last year, the Cardinals made a scary pick up by signing Antonio Cromartie away from the N.Y. Jets. Adding Cromartie to pair with All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson should have quarterbacks on opposing teams shaking in their boots as they both have ability to pick off a pass and take it to the house for six. The safety pair of Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Bucannon is also scary. Both have the ability to make big plays and are a very young duo that will grow over the course of this season. Arizona has probably the slimmest chance of any of making the playoffs of any team in this division as it stands right now. That’s not from lack of talent, but just a super tough division. Prediction: 8-8
San Francisco 49ers
Having been oh so close to championship glory the last two years, the 49ers show no signs of not repeating and making it back to at least the NFC Championship. The 49ers are one of the most talented teams in the league with an offence that got better this past off-season. Acquiring Stevie Johnson from the Buffalo Bills, drafting of Carlos Hyde and the return from injury of Marcus Lattimore will bolster that side of the ball. Trading for Johnson gives quarterback Colin Kaepernick another big body target — just in case he didn't have enough in the form of Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis, and Vance McDonald. This passing attack should go as far as Kaepernick's arm and accuracy will take them. The 49ers have the weapons to be a top 5 passing attack in the league. The biggest change will look to be in the back field, where a changing of the guard appears to be happening, with Frank Gore getting older and drafting Hyde, Lattimore, and LaMichael James in the last three years. All three of those younger backs will eat into Gore's bell cow status that he has had since arriving in San Fran in 2005, which might actually be even more dangerous considering the level at which each back is capable. The offensive line is still one of — if not the — best line in football. So, whoever is in the backfield will have wide open spaces in which to run.
The San Fran defence is one of the better ones in the league, but still ranks No. 2 in my books when it comes to the division. The injury to NaVorro Bowman certainly hurts and takes away one of the league's premier middle linebackers for potentially the entire year, depending on how fast he bounces back from injury. The drafting of Chris Borland should help ease the hit at middle linebacker until Bowman gets back, and gives them incredible depth after he returns. The front three of Justin Smith, Glenn Dorsey, and Ray McDonald are solid. Smith is getting up there in years, so this might be the year his play starts to decline. The secondary is solid but not spectacular. Eric Reid should be the bright spot this year as the second-year player will have an opportunity to shine for this defence. Prediction: 11-5, battling for a Wild Card spot in the NFC.
The champs are here! The Seahawks have as good a chance as any team to make a repeat trip to the Super Bowl. Getting a full year out of star wide out Percy Harvin would be nice. Being very limited in playing time last year because of injury, if Harvin can stay healthy, he can be that explosive player that the Seahawks traded for last year to take the top of defences. The return of Marshawn Lynch from his hold out is huge news, this offence runs through him his presence makes this team the threat it is. The rest of Russell Wilson's supporting cast at wide out are playing above their potential right now and will be tested more with the departure of Golden Tate to Detroit. Look for second-round pick Paul Richardson to be the guy who steps up for Wilson to get them back to Super Bowl. Zach Miller at tight end is an average tight end who does his job well, and the offensive line is young and talented. Russell Okung is not talked about enough for his solid play at left tackle.
The defending champs largely bring back their entire defence. The Legion of Boom's play last year was incredible and Richard Sherman is the face of it. The secondary of Seattle is the best in the league and the combination of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas at safety is the best in the league. Between Chancellor's hard hitting and Thomas' ball hawking capability, the sky is the limit for this group. The linebackers for the champs are underrated. Wagner and Wright are great coverage linebackers and are quick with great range. The extra pass rush capability of Bruce Irvin off the weak side makes this a formidable trio. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril were great pick ups two off-seasons ago and anchor this line to bring the pressure against opposite quarterbacks. Both should pick up 10 sacks this year. Prediction: 12-4, deep run with a strong chance of repeating as Super Bowl champs
St. Louis Rams
This team is by far the biggest wild card in the division, and it all depends on the health and play of quarterback Sam Bradford. The Rams could sneak into the playoffs as the third team out of this division and could be just as dangerous as the Seahawks or 49ers. Bradford, first and foremost, has to be healthy for this team to do anything and has to return to form he showed as a rookie. If that happens, this team could go for division title. If not, they could easily be last place in this division. The wide receivers and tight ends for Bradford are some of the most explosive in the league. Jared Cook, Lance Kendricks, Austin Pettis, Brian Quick and especially Tavon Austin have the potential to blow the top of any defence when used correctly. Running back Zac Stacy was a surprise last year and should continue his success. Drafting Tre Mason out of Auburn should add an explosive, shifty back out of the backfield. Greg Robinson, the guard out of Auburn, should help anchor the left side of the line with Jake Long. Resigning Rodger Saffold to play right tackle should keep Bradford up-right.
This front four of the Rams' line absolutely terrifies me, and I am not even a quarterback. The addition of Aaron Donald to the already talented line of the Rams should keep quarterbacks up at night. Chris Long and Robert Quinn might be the most talented duo off the ends in the league. Quinn should have another 15 or more sack season, while Long should be in the 10 sack range. Even the defensive tackles can get around 8 sacks each. Michael Brockers and Donald will cause chaos up the middle of the offensive line. Alec Ogletree and James Laurinaitis are two great young talents who are playmakers at their position, can fly to the ball, and are solid against the run. The strong side linebacker position is a little bit weaker than elsewhere in the linebacking core. I expect Ray-Ray Armstong to come out strong in pre-season and take the job away from Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Losing Cortland Finnegan to Miami this off-season hurts this secondary, Janoris Jenkins will now be relied upon to be the shut down corner and Trumaine Johnson will be a solid across from him. The depth behind them is kind of shaky, but the pressure put on them by the front 4 on line should ease pressure on secondary. This team can either boom or bust as of right now. Prediction 7-9, but with the potential to compete in the division.