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Friday, 26 August 2011

Pulling Linemen Previews 2011 - NFC West

Unwanted Division, Free To Good Home

The NFC West has, not unfairly, been labelled the worst division in football. None of the 4 teams made it to .500 last season, with the Seahawks finishing “the best of the worst” at 7-9. This year, the division really is there for the taking with each of the four teams in with a chance if certain pieces can just fall in to place - all it needs to someone to take it.

Previews: NFC South | AFC East

Arizona Cardinals - Is Kolb the missing piece?

From Superbowl XLIII to 5-11 and 4th in the division took just 2 seasons, and one major loss: Kurt Warner. Following Kurt’s retirement at the end of the 2009 season, the Cardinals put their faith in one-hit wonder Derek Anderson and instantly regretted it, eventually handing time under centre to backups John Skelton, Max Hall and Richard Bartel.  But with key players still in place at other positions, can something as simple as the addition of Kevin Kolb turn this franchise back into a playoff contender?

Kevin Kolb
Keys to success this year: KK has to produce and prove the price the Cardinals paid for him (a 2nd round pick, PLUS pro-bowl CB Dominique Rogers-Cromartie) was not too steep. It’s a big ask for a QB with 7 NFL starts under his belt to be labelled as a franchise saviour, but that’s essentially what Cardinal fans see him as. If pre-season has shown us anything, it’s that Larry Fitzgerald is ready to ball. He’s made 2 ridiculously good catches already and after he was vocal about wanting Kolb on his team, he’s going to have to be a significant part of making this offence gel.
On the other side of the ball, the loss of DRC would be massive to most NFL teams, but not so much the Cardinals. Across from Greg Toler (an underrated asset to this D if you ask me) the Cardinals picked up highly rated Patrick Peterson in the 2011 draft, and signed UFA Richard Marshall. Add these three corners to a (nearly healthy) Adrian Wilson, and the secondary looks formidable. With Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell still anchoring the D-line, teams aren’t going to put a lot of points on Arizona this year, it’s all just a matter of whether the O can control the clock, score some points, and win some games.

Biggest hurdle to overcome: Running the football. 86.8 YPG in 2010 left the Cardinals dead last in the league. Beanie Wells was a big disappointment, and with the addition of Ryan Williams, his number could shortly be up in Arizona. The offensive line has to take some of the flack for the lack of running game in 2010, and will need fast improvement this year. Former Packer OG Daryn Colledge was a useful free agent pick-up, but there are question marks over a number of other positions, Deuce “Stay Puft” Lutui perhaps being the biggest (in more ways than one).

Andre Roberts goes up and gets it
Keep an Eye on: Andre Roberts. The second year WR will look to make the #2 receiver role his own in 2011 and build on a decent rookie year. With Larry Fitzgerald drawing coverage from the top DB, Roberts may find himself with a lot of targets and could be a valuable assett to Kolb. He’s also not a bad punt returner.

Schedule: Technically the easiest in the whole NFL, but that’s as a by-product of being in such a weak division. Opening the season with vs.Panthers, @Redskins, @Seahawks however does look rather cushy. Weeks 9-12 could be key to taking this team over the hump (Rams, 9ers, Eagles, Rams).

Prediction: 7-9 – KK is a definite upgrade under centre, but he’s not the saviour. With enough support from the pieces around him, Kolb can lift the Cardinals to somewhere near .500 when the season is out and a chance at playoff football again.

San Francisco 49ers - Smith’s last chance?

The 9ers went in to 2010 as the odds-on favourites to win the division. They had a solid offensive line to blow open holes for Frank Gore, and to protect Alex Smith long enough that he could find weapons Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree. They had a very strong defence, led by arguably the best sideline-to-sideline MLB in the NFL today, Pat Willis. They had Mike Singletary as head coach, one of the most respected former players and positional coaches in the league. What they did with these tools was, well, nothing. They started 0-5, the worst opening to a 49er season since 1979. They flip-flopped between incumbent QB Alex Smith, and free agent pick up Troy Smith, with varying degrees of failure. Singletary didn’t even make it to week 17, as he was fired on December 27th.  Despite all these problems, as well as a season ending injury to Frank Gore (week 12, hip), the 9ers finished the season 6-10, and 3rd in the division. Since then, Jim Harbaugh (formerly of Stamford) has been appointed as HC, and they picked up pass rusher Aldon Smith from Missouri, and Nevada Wolfpack QB Colin Kaepernick in the draft. This addition of Kaepernick is another clear sign that former #1 overall pick Alex Smith is not a sure-fire thing in San Fran. He has been constantly slated as a bust throughout his career and given chance after chance after chance, but with a second round rookie QB behind him and a new HC wanting to stamp his mark on the team, his time might just be up. Harbaugh will no doubt give him another shot at making it, just like all his predecessors at Candlestick Park have, but a bad start could lead to a quick end.

Can the 9ers keep Gore rolling?
Keys to success this year: Keeping Frank Gore rolling. No matter who is under centre for the 49ers this season, they will be under a lot of pressure. One big mistake could be Alex Smith’s last in the NFL, and Colin Kaepernick can expect a baptism of fire if he’s thrown in to the mix too soon. To keep these two safe, the San Fran running game HAS to propel their offence. The offensive line is good, with the potential to be great. Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis were excellent draft picks last year, and with more experience under their belt can really get defensive lines panicking how to beat them. Gore has been troubled with injury over recent years, and hasn’t played 16 games since 2006. If he can stay fit and moving forward, this offence can still be dangerous. Backups Anthony Dixon and rookie Kendall Hunter will undoubtedly take some snaps to keep Gore fresh, and will need to produce if the 9ers have any chance of success.

Biggest hurdle to overcome: Loosing defensive pieces. Pat Willis is a machine, and one of the best young defensive players in the league. But over the past few seasons he has had some help from the guys around him – guys who are now playing in new cities. Takeo Spikes has gone south to San Diego and talented NT Aubrayo Franklin has gone to New Orleans. These guys demanded the respect of offensive blockers, and drew pressure away from Willis. Now, as arguably the sole lynchpin of the 9ers D, he will attract more blocks and lose some of his potency. Aldon Smith was a nice edge rushing addition in the draft, and Justin Smith at DE can still play at 31, but the D is a question mark for 2011 when it was an asset (and 13th in the NFL) in 2010.
Is Pat Willis the best MLB in the NFL?
Keep an Eye on: The cornerback situation. Carlos Rogers has arrived from Washington and appears to be the #1 option at the position. Across from him, however, is less clear. Shawntae Spencer will need to find his 2009 form when he gets back from a hamstring injury that has hampered him all off-season, mostly because his 2010 form was horrible. The other starting options are Tremaine Brock and Chris Culliver. A 2nd year UDFA and a rookie respectively, neither have seen the field in a competitive game in the NFL yet, so both would be a big question mark to start week 1. If teams are worried about Pat Willis, they might spend their days throwing all over the 9ers, and we could potentially see some big losses for them.

Schedule: 30th most difficult, but could struggle from a lack of divisional matchups early on. 3 road games against the other NFC West teams in the final 4 weeks does not bode well for a strong finish.

Prediction: 5-11 – This could be a tough year for Harbaugh. I don’t see Alex Smith making it past the midpoint of the season (due to poor play rather than injury), and that’ll put the franchise in a rookie QBs hands. Even if Gore does stay healthy, the offence may find itself behind in games and be forced to go to the air. No playoffs here.

Seattle Seahawks - Shaky off-season, shaky season?

They picked who? When the former HC of a college prospect looks surprised that they went in the first round, this isn’t a good sign. James Carpenter was an unusual choice by Seattle to say the least, and it kicked off an all-to-strange off-season for the Seahawks. Having scraped into the playoffs with a week 17 win over the Rams, the ‘Hawks shocked the Saints in the Wild Card round thanks in no small part to Marshawn Lynch’s beast mode (I’ll come to that later). This “success” left them with the 25th pick in the 2011 draft, and they went with the OT Carpenter out of Alabama. Now I’m never normally one to criticise the selection of an offensive lineman in the draft (and for that matter I think the pick of OG John Moffitt in the 3rd round was a great one, despite him being labelled "unathletic" and "a reach" by ESPN "expert" Todd McShay), but Seattle already has their LT for the future in Russell Okung, and Sean Locklear was a serviceable RT before he was allowed to go to the Redskins. So why draft another OT so high when the team has other glaring needs? Admittedly, the current line if fully fit looks excellent (Okung – Gallery (from Oakland) – Unger – Moffitt – Carpenter) but boy are they going to need to be...

Will Tarvaris Jackson be Seattle's QB come week 1?
Keys to success this year: Having any kind of offence. It was fairly apparent all lockout that Matt Hasselbeck was going elsewhere, but without picking a top rookie in the draft the ‘Hawks needed to find some veteran help. So obviously you’d think they’d make a play for someone like Kevin Kolb, Kyle Orton, one of the bigger names touted as “available”. But Tarvaris Jackson? A career backup, essentially a disappointment in Minnesota, and released without a contract from the Vikings – not really an obvious choice for your new starting QB. Not just that, but he’s now been horrific in pre-season, especially against his former teammates when they came to visit. Last season’s backup Charlie Whitehurst has looked a little better, and may beat Tarvaris out eventually, but either way neither is going to strike fear into an opposing defence. The addition of Sidney Rice is a serious upgrade at WR, but if no-one can get the ball to him then he’ll be useless. So if defences are not scared of the passing game, what about the running game?
Marshawn Lynch made a lot of headlines with his ridiculous run against the Saints in the 2010 playoffs, but going forward all they have done is papered over the massive holes in his game. In the regular season, Lynch averaged just 47.8 YPG, lost 3 fumbles, and the Seahawks run game finished 31st in the NFL. Doesn’t sound much like a “Beast Mode” to me. And even if defences do remember that one run, with no passing game to balance their play calling, Lynch might see a fair few 8 man fronts. Pete Carroll better hope that his new O-line can dominate.

Biggest hurdle to overcome: Keeping the offence in games. The 27th rated defence in 2010 lost one of its key players in the off-season, with Lofa Tatupu deciding to move on after a contract agreement couldn’t be reached. The front 7 looks susceptible now, and teams might find themselves running all over the Seahawks. The secondary is better, and Earl Thomas looks like the real deal, but if the D can’t stop teams moving the ball on the ground the offence will spend a lot of time coming from behind, and relying on Jackson/Whitehurt’s arm... Nothing but trouble and heartache there.
Curry's days numbered?
Keep an Eye On: Aaron Curry. His contract has been restructured from 6 years to 4, giving him the clear message that either he steps up this season, or he’s out. For a 4th overall pick, he’s disappointed fans and front office officials alike, and on a unit that needs some playmakers, he’d better be one...

Schedule: Winning the division in 2010 gives them the 24th hardest schedule and matchups with the Bears and Falcons. Added to the already tough matchups with AFC North and NFC East teams this season, and this looks like a long season for the Seahawks

Prediction: 5-11 – There will be a few games this year where things click. Either one of the QBs is consistent, Marshawn breaks one, or the secondary creates some key turnovers. But this will be the exception and 5-6 wins is the most they can hope for.

St Louis Rams - Sophomore slump, or the second coming?

The perfect end to the 2010 season didn’t happen. After years of being league whipping boys, the Rams found themselves one win away from playoff football. A misfiring offence and a porous run defence gave a 16-6 win to the Seahawks in their week 17 winner-takes-all matchup, but just being in this position was a long await treated for Rams fans. One of the major reasons for the relative success was Sam Bradford and his impressive rookie season. For the first time since Marc Bulger’s high-point in 05/06, the Rams had a signal caller who looked comfortable in the pocket, showed strength and touch in his passes, and leadership in the huddle. It's fair to say that the Rams now have as close to a franchice QB as you'll find in the NFC West. With such a promising start, a lot of hopes have been put on Sam’s shoulders for 2011, and the off-season has been spent providing him with the weapons he lacked last season to help him succeed. Along with the arrival of Josh McDaniels as OC, the additions to the offence have left fans excited for big things this year.

The defence wasn’t horrific in 2010 either (in stark contrast to previous years). Steve Spagnuolo has brought the D up from in the bottom 5 in the NFL consistently to be #19 in 2010. The D-line in 2010 look rejuvenated with elder statesmen Fred Robbins and James Hall leading the charge, and at corner Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher are developing in to a respectable duo. The biggest concern for the D was at OLB, where players who would be pine-riding on other rosters were forced to start consistently at the Edward Jone Dome.

Can Sims-Walker become the weapon Bradford needs?
Keys to success this year: Finding a #1 receiver. Bradford lacked that go-to guy in 2010, and the rotation of wide outs failed to produce a consistent option for him. The addition of Mike Sims-Walker to Donnie Avery, Danario Alexander, Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson leaves the Rams with potential – someone just needs to step up. This is pretty much the only unanswered question of the offence. Sam is undisputed starter at QB, the offensive line is now set (and personally, I am excited about this unit: Saffold – Bell – Brown – Dahl (from Atlanta) – Smith), and with Michael Hoomanawanui and Lance Kendricks in 2TE sets, the passing game is almost complete. In turn, this should open up the running game for Steven Jackson, taking away the extra man in the box he has faced for years - hopefully allowing him to record his 7th consecutive 1000 yard season.

Biggest hurdles to overcome: Refreshing the front 7. Fred Robbins is 34, as is James Hall. Both had great season in 2010, but at some point their productivity will decline. Rookie Robert Quinn will take some reps from Hall, and Justin Bannan will take some of the pressure off Robbins (who had little help inside at DT last year), but if either of these guys falls off the cliff, a young guy will have to step up fast to fill the void on the D-line. In the LB corps, Ben Leber, Brady Poppinga and Zac Diles have all been added to shore up the edges, but on recent evidence from the pre-season game against the Titans, the run D is far from complete.
It's also worth noting that last season a number of teams under-estimated the Rams. Coming off a 1-15 record with a rookie QB under centre, they seemed like easy pickings. Now, everyone is talking about the potential of this offence, and the element of surprise is gone. No-one is going to be caught off guard when the Rams come to town.

Keep an Eye On: Safety Quintin Mikell, previously of the Eagles, was a big slash for St Louis, brought in to directly replace OJ Atogwe (now in Washington). In 2010, Mikell recorded 88 tackles, 3 picks, and 15 defended passes . He’s started well in pre-season and could provide the key turnovers that turn the narrow defeats of 2010 into the necessary wins in 2011.
Mikell picks off Curtis Painter in week 1 of the pre-season
Schedule: No divisional matchups until week 9 will hurt the Rams, with arguably the most brutal  first 8 weeks in the NFL this year: vs PHI, @NYG, vs BAL, vs WAS, BYE, @GB, @DAL, vs NO. I can see  the Rams being  2-5 at best when the Cardinals arrive in week 9, but provided their spirirt (and Sam Bradford) isn’t broken by this time, the glut of divisional matchups for them from then on in bodes well for a fast finish.

Prediction: 8-8 – the Rams seem like the marginal favourites for the division right now, provided the pieces fit together. If the Rams can go 4-2 in divisional matchups, this could be the year they make it back to post-season football.

- Phil Gaskin (@sosayitisaid)
- The Pulling Linemen

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