Just two seasons ago the NFC West was so poor fans questioned the division champs’ right to host a playoff game. Now, after San Francisco’s unexpected ride all the way to the NFC championship game, it has some more respectability about it.
In fact, our analysts are expecting big things from a number of players within the division–including a young QB playing up north.
So just what will happen this season? Can another team rise from obscurity to prominence?
Our analysts debate.
Who is the one player from this division you see having a breakout year?
Sam: I know people were talking about Patrick Peterson as a real stud corner last season, but the truth is he was anything but. Only towards the end of the year did he begin to look like a guy capable of shutting down a team’s top target, even if the Cardinals played him from the outset as if he could. I would look for Peterson this season to play like a legit shutdown corner who can go some way to justifying the hype already surrounding him.
Neil: The St. Louis Rams made an excellent, and relatively unheralded signing, when they grabbed ex-Dolphins defensive lineman, Kendall Langford. He’ll play tackle alongside Michael Brockers and immediately form one of the best combinations in the league. After a poor start defending the run in 2011 he came on strong, and his ability to get pressure on the QB is also strong. Look for him to have a much more balanced and consistent year.
Khaled: Chris Clemons, Brandon Mebane and Bruce Irvin. There are people on the Seattle defense to be scared of, but if I’m a quarterback I’m worried about Jason Jones not letting me step up into the pocket. Wasted in 2011 when the Titans moved him to defensive end, he’s too quick for guards and, if used correctly (and Seattle do a fantastic job of playing to people’s strengths), he could have a monster year.
Ben: After a strong rookie season in a two-down role, K.J. Wright will be emerging into a three-down role replacing the departed David Hawthorne in Seattle’s sub packages. Two-down linebackers rarely get the credit they deserve for their performances, something Erin Henderson knows only too well, and Wright went a little under the radar last season. I think in a three-down role, and in what could be one of the best defenses in the league this year, the second-year player out of Mississippi State should be one of the breakout performers of the 2012 regular season.
The over/under lines for season win totals in the division have been set at: San Francisco 10; Arizona 7; Seattle 7; St Louis 6. On which team would you put your theoretical $100?
Sam: Have the 49ers gotten any worse since last season when they were a 13-win team? Not for my money, and consequently I’d be placing my $100 on them topping the over/under mark of 10 that they’ve been given.
Neil: Seattle wins more than 7 games. The reason is my latest bandwagon (see ‘Rookie to watch’ below) which I will ride well beyond the end of this season.
Khaled: A bit risky given their quarterback situation, but there’s so much talent on that Seattle team that they just have to break .500 right?
Ben: The Cardinals had nothing at QB and have chosen to start one of the worst quarterbacks in the league from last season. One of the very few things going for John Skelton is that he is extremely willing to go to Larry Fitzgerald. That aside, I just don’t see a great deal going for the Cardinals whose offensive line is somehow worse for the loss of Levi Brown–who thought that could be possible? I can’t see how they can get close to seven wins, let alone top that mark.
Which rookie are you most looking forward to seeing in action?
Sam: I’m really looking forward to seeing how the CB pairing of Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson perform for the Rams. Both guys have big-time skills and a whole world of off-field problems–Johnson started his Rams career by oversleeping and missing a practice, not ideal. Nonetheless, I’m really hoping he in particular comes good, just so the nickname ‘Big Sky’ sticks.
Neil: The best performance I’ve seen from any player in the preseason is Seattle QB, Russell Wilson. I want to see more.
Khaled: I think everyone wants to see what Russell Wilson can do if he gets the chance. It’s not an interesting answer but it is the one that I find myself wanting to give.
Ben: Situational pass rushers are taking more and more snaps in the NFL, and consequently it was a little surprising to see the Seahawks get so roundly criticized for drafting a specialist pass rusher, Bruce Irvin, in the middle of the first round. I want to see whether Irvin can prove those who doubted the Seahawks’ drafting strategy to have been wrong in their early estimations. I’ll be looking for not just sacks, but for him to be pressuring passers and causing an absolute nuisance of himself every time he rushes the quarterback.
Who is going to make the playoffs and who is going to win it all?
Sam: This division should be the 49ers’ to take and walk away with, but if Russell Wilson can become the player that Neil is currently having dreams about, then perhaps he can drag the Seahawks into legit contention in his first season. San Francisco have to be looking to contend for a Super Bowl appearance after last season.
Neil: Although Seattle may squeak a playoff spot, I’m not predicting it. The 49ers defense is too strong and their offense good enough to see them through. St. Louis and Arizona? Please.
Khaled: I can’t go against the 49ers, who return all their defensive starters for 2012. But I do like the Seahawks. It may be a year too soon for them, but there’ll be times when that team looks very special. This is the year for the 49ers to win it all, but it needs Alex Smith to utilize all his new weapons.
Ben: The 49ers would seem to me to be the strongest favorites for any division in the entire league, and I can’t go against them for the division title. Depending upon how good Russell Wilson is, and whether he starts all 16 games, the Seahawks could also be a threat for the title and if not a wildcard spot. I can’t see the Cardinals and Rams doing anything but jockeying for a pick in the Top 10 of next season’s draft.