We are under the one month window before the 2012 NFL season, which has all of our writers here at The Waiver Wire gearing up for another year of debates, poorly made bets and trash-talking. This year, we’ve decided to break down the season-to-be division by division. We will preview all eight divisions and pick our division winners, likely wild cards for both the AFC and NFC, and even which teams will be lining up for the Matt Barkley 2013 Draft Sweepstakes.
Last year the story of the NFC West was the unexpected emergence of Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49er’s. The division also saw the Rams go from “team with potential” to “suck for Luck.” As the year went on the Seahawks and Cardinals proved to be tough outs despite their mediocre records. We’ll examine all of the big questions going into this year from Randy Moss’s return, Seattle’s quarterback questions, the viability of Kevin Kolb as a starter and the Jeff Fischer era in St. Louis. Answers to all the questions you were too afraid to ask from Michael Cresci and Matt McCarthy.
MM: This is an easy pick for division winner right here. The 49ers are coming off a year in which they burst onto the relevancy scene under their brand new rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh, finishing with a 13-3 record and a playoff berth. The Niners look to duplicate their success last year with some key off-season moves that seem to only make an already good team better. This is a team that preached defense the entire year and proved that a team led by its defense can succeed in the NFL.
Key Additions/Losses: With no big losses on the defensive front, expect these 49ers to cruise through a relatively soft division and expand on the defensive domination that this team showed last year. Key additions were made on the offense however, which only makes this pick for division winner even more of a lock. The 49ers went out and got 2 new targets for Alex Smith to throw to in Mario Manningham and Randy Moss. These additions are huge improvements to the passing game and will make the offense more complete. Everyone knows about Frank Gore and the type of season he is able to put together when healthy. With him running on all cylinders and the new and improved passing game established, look for the 49ers to put up their fair share of points.
Main Storylines: There are certainly some questions that will determine just how good this team can be. Michael Crabtree needs to live up to his hype, Vernon Davis needs to produce like he has shown he can and Alex Smith needs to basically not be terrible. Speaking of Alex Smith, there is a lot of skepticism surrounding him and whether or not he will be able to duplicate his numbers from last year. The key thing to remember here is that he doesn’t have to. He has enough tools around him where he does not have to be a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers for this team to make a run at the championship. Smith will not be a top 10 quarterback, but that’s fine, the 49ers will still win the division easily and make a run into the playoffs if everyone stays healthy. (I’m looking at you Frank Gore)
Team MVP: Frank Gore
Projected Record: 12-4
2.) Seattle Seahawks
MC: If the Seahawks are able to make the right call at the quarterback position they are set up to have a pretty good year. They spent the second half of last year establishing themselves as a tough out who played beyond their record and they have a solid defense and dynamite running game lead by the Skittles fueled robot known as Marshawn Lynch. The big story has been Seattle’s signing of Terrell Owens but their acquisitions of Jason Jones and first round pick Bruce Irvin have bolstered the Seahawks pass rush and been the real noticeable upgrade.
Key Additions/Losses: The big additions have been Terrell Owens, Braylon Edwards, Matt Flynn, Russell Wilson, Jason Jones and Kellen Winslow. These were all smart picks ups and tempered their few losses. Backup QB Charlie Whitehurst showed flashes of strong play last year but has been replaced by two potential quarterbacks of the future.
Main Storylines: Seattle’s biggest question mark is at QB. They gave former Green Bay backup, Matt Flynn, a three-year, $19.5 million contract this offseason but then surprised people by drafting Russell Wilson in the third round creating a legitimate quarterback competition. As training camp progressed last year’s starter Tavaris Jackson has reportedly taken a back set to Flynn and Wilson who have shined in camp. The Seahawks whole season likely comes down to who they decide to give the ball to. With depth in other areas, strength at the game’s most important position could really put them on the next level.
Terrell Owens is, of course, another storyline. The oft problematic wideout has some stiff competition to make the team and the much younger Braylon Edwards could be a more attractive long-term option.
Team MVP: Marshawn Lynch
Projected Record: 10-6
MM: One of the only good things to say about this team is they still have Larry Fitzgerald, one of the best receivers in the game. With Michael Floyd on the other side of the field, Fitz should expect big numbers this year even though he has John Skelton throwing him the ball.
Key Additions/Losses: Michael Floyd is a flat-out physical monster. At 6’3 225 lbs, he is going to be a problem for anyone trying to D him up. He is the biggest addition the Cards made this off-season without question. The biggest loss for Arizona did not come in the shape of a lost player, but more of a lost opportunity. Arizona had a great chance to improve on their weak points this off-season and failed to do anything. Last season, Arizona ranked 24th in rushing and 21st in run defense, both numbers suggest that something had to be done in these areas for the Cardinals to make any noise this season, but alas, no significant moves were made to shore up either side of the ball when it came to the ground game.
Main Storylines: As of today, sources claim that it is John Skelton, not Kevin Kolb who seems to be the frontrunner for the starting quarterback position. Arizona really did not go out and invest anything in improving the QB position so it would seem they were comfortable with Kevin Kolb as their starter. The main thing to watch for this team in the upcoming weeks will be who wins out as the starting QB and whether or not he will be able to hold onto the spot for any significant time. Can either quarterback string enough solid performances together to win some games? I wouldn’t count on it.
Team MVP: Larry Fitzgerald
Projected Record: 6-10
4.) St. Louis Rams
MC: The Rams are going to have a decent amount of attention this year because of their head coach, Jeff Fischer. One of the staples of the league until he left the Titans, Fischer’s return is going to be an interesting one as the Rams are a serious project after last year’s 2-14 record. There is some reason for optimism, though, as they seemingly have the QB of the future in Sam Bradford. After an impressive rookie season Bradford’s 2011 was marred by a high ankle sprain but the organization and coaches see something special in Bradford and are very confident about building around him.
Key Additions/Losses: The Rams biggest addition outside of Head Coach might be Pro Bowl center, Scott Wells. He is going to strengthen a weak offensive line while facilitating the transition to a more run oriented offense focused around Stephen Jackson and rookie Isaiah Pead. Former Giant and Eagle, Steve Smith should lend some depth at the wide receiver position (one which was weakened last year by Danny Amendola’s injury). The Rams have really focused on defense this off-season and upgraded at cornerback through free agency by signing Cortland Finnegan and the draft, with the selection of Janoris Jenkins.
Main Storylines: The development of Sam Bradford is as important as any other issue with the team. The Rams are committed to Bradford, they proved as much by trading away the second pick in the draft, and attribute his poor sophomore season to injuries and an abysmal supporting cast. Well, they didn’t exactly shower him with new weapons but the O-line received a slight upgrade and a few wide receiver options he didn’t have last year.
The other story is new offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, who is installing a “ground and pound” offensive system. I’m a Jets fan and Schottenheimer was something of a pariah after last season and I’m as unreasonable as the next fan so I’m on board the “Brian Schottenheimer is terrible at his job” train. It will be interesting how the still under construction O-line responds to this strategy.
Team MVP: Sam Bradford
Projected Record: 5-11