Before 2011 this was viewed as the weakest division in the NFL, but after the San Francisco 49ers compiled the second best record in the NFC and came agonizingly close to the Super Bowl, people have had to reconsider that opinion. Especially when you consider the development of the Seattle Seahawks and the aggressive moves the St Louis Rams have made this offseason. Heck, you even have to imagine the Arizona Cardinals quarterback situation will have improved, so it’s looking like a division on the up.
If you squint.
In any case, let’s take a look at four prominent battles we expect to see in training camp.
The Players: William Gay, Greg Toler and Jamell Fleming
The Battle: There’s no danger of Patrick Peterson being supplanted, his skill set is just too good to ignore even after a rookie year that was more about his punt returning than his coverage skills. That leaves this as a straight battle between the rookie, the free agent signing, and the guy who missed all of 2011 hurt. That’s a scary proposition, even if the NFC West isn’t home to the best receivers (outside of Larry Fitzgerald).
If you want experience then you can’t go wrong with Gay. A versatile player capable of moving inside to cover the slot, he’s never built on the sophomore year that excited so many, but he did bounce back with a decent 2011 after two sub=standard years. Arizona does like its Pittsburgh retreads, though they have tended to be guys who are long on years and short on production. Gay, who is just 27, could buck that trend.
Or you could look at a guy who is just a day younger than the former Steeler, as Greg Toler is now available after missing all of last year with a torn ACL. That’s not the most enticing of prospects– a corner coming off such a big injury–and Toler’s play before he left wasn’t such that he should expect to walk straight back into the line-up. Indeed, that’s the problem for both men, neither has displayed the kind of upside that makes you think of them as a long-term solution. Instead, the Cardinals could turn to third-round-pick Fleming, the star of off season practices. There’s always a risk with rookies starting but its not unheard of for teams to throw them into the starting line-up. You could probably throw A.J. Jefferson into the mix, but his streaky play as a starter will likely see him relegated to depth and special teams if he makes the roster.
The Verdict: They don’t call me ‘Cautious Kal’ for nothing. William Gay may not be as talented as his foes, but he’s coming off a good year and there are fewer question marks about him. Of course, if Toler can prove himself back to 100% then he’s worth the risk. Either way, expect a veteran to start, and for Fleming to be waiting for either man to slip up.
Position: Wide receiver
The Players: Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham, Ted Ginn and A.J. Jenkins
The Battle: Life is good in San Francisco. They managed to build a formidable defense and then did the near impossible and managed to return every starter for 2012. It left them able to focus on offense, and they clearly identified a big need at wide receiver. How else do you explain spending a first-round pick on one and signing two more in free agency?
It has left a somewhat interesting battle for playing time. Crabtree has made himself the default number one since being drafted, without ever really scaring defenses, and so he shouldn’t feel that he’ll replicate the 437 pass routes he run last year. The other guys returning are Ginn and Williams, though it’s hard to see Ginn becoming the player the Dolphins drafted him to be, while Williams has to get over those fumbles that cost the 49ers a shot at the Super Bowl. The good news is Williams looked good with limited opportunities, and can play in the slot.
Of the new guys, Randy Moss has earned praise for his work in offseason practices, but the question is will it translate to the field? He’s a long way removed from his glory days, and with a quarterback who has never had the best on-field chemistry with his wide receivers, will he play like the guy we saw in Tennessee? Then there’s Manningham who will always be remembered for that catch in the Super Bowl, but it’s important not to forget he’s coming off a horrible year and isn’t the most versatile of receivers (something Moss can be labelled with as well).
The Verdict: Can you say “timeshare”? You expect Crabtree, the most complete receiver, to get the majority of the work but the extra playmaking ability of Moss and Manningham might coax Alex Smith into being a little more aggressive. All three should initially feature prominently, but don’t be surprised if Williams’ playing time increases as the year goes on.
The Players: Matt Flynn, Tarvaris Jackson and Russell Wilson
The Battle: It’s the most important spot on the field and the Seahawks have themselves a three-way competition for it. Whoever wins can’t have any excuses when you look at the weapons available, though you need to factor in they’ll be playing behind a line that isn’t new to allowing pressure.
Flynn is obviously the favorite, and it’s as much for his salary and what you get from Tarvaris Jackson as anything. The trigger-shy former Viking passer has all the tools you look for in a quarterback and at times looks like a capable starter. All too often, though, he doesn’t challenge defenses and you wonder if he has what it takes to push a team on. The former Packer Flynn got paid like a starter even if he doesn’t have the resume of one. Of course, he looked excellent in the regular season finale against Detroit, and people remember the solid performance against New England in 2010. Still, you’re looking at a guy who has started two games, so it’s a leap of faith to put your trust in him.
That said, a bigger leap of faith would be to go with the rookie Wilson, who the Seahawks developed a pretty big ‘man crush’ on during the draft process. There’s the problems with his height (but then, how’s Drew Brees doing) and more than that, would you really feel comfortable handing over a potential playoff team to a rookie? It’s year three in Seattle for Head Coach Pete Carroll, so results are starting to matter big time.
The Verdict: The job is Flynn’s to audition for this year. His contract is structured in such a way that Seattle needs to see if he can be a starter in this league sooner ratehr than later, and if so, how good he can be. Jackson is likely the odd man out again, because the further removed from starting he is, the closer Russell Wilson gets to being ready. With the intriguing Josh Portis also on the roster it wouldn’t be a surprise if Jackson found himself looking for a new team.
Position: Outside Linebacker
The Players: Jo-Lonn Dunbarr. Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh
The Battle: Two from three, and none without their question marks. McIntosh has been a constant disappointment, failing to live up to his draft slot and struggling in every scheme the Redskins have run. He’s just not good enough at diagnosing plays, nor does he do a good job of shedding blocks. At this stage you know what you’re going to get from the former second-round pick, and you know it’s going to underwhelm.
The same can’t be said of Dunbar. The former undrafted free agent had looked good in flashes until a disastrous 2011 saw him earn a quite incredible -25.5 grade. He wasn’t helped by missing 13 tackles, but he was also hampered by a scheme that left linebackers vulnerable and switched his position around. He demonstrates talent, but if he practices like he played last year then it’s hard to see him getting on the field.
The last contender isn’t getting any younger, but what he lacks in youth he makes up for in consistency. Haggan isn’t cut out to be an every-down player, but he does certain things very well: namely, run defense. In coverage he’s a liability, but regardless of how the Broncos used him he was always productive when teams tried running on them. He isn’t the long-term solution, and should be off the field in nickel, but at least you know what you will get from him.
The Verdict: The idea of putting McIntosh on the field should scare Rams fans. He’s failed under different defensive coordinators and different schemes while others around have flourished. With that said, you have to ask yourself if Dunbar can play the weakside, although there’s some upside that McIntosh doesn’t possess. A Dunbarr/Haggan partnership isn’t going to wow many, but it’s making the best of a bad situation.