Forget about the NFC Worst. Last year proved the NFC West is the deepest division in the NFL.
Whether it was San Francisco and Seattle, the league’s best rivalry, meeting in the NFC championship game, or the Seahawks posting the most lopsided Super Bowl victory in two decades by routing Denver, the profile of the NFC West is drastically different from a few years ago.
Predicted order of finish
NFC West depth goes beyond just the Seahawks. The four teams combined to go 42-22 a year ago, the best of any division, and could be that good again.
There are concerns for each team entering 2014. St. Louis has already lost Sam Bradford for the season. Arizona must replace linebackers Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby, and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. San Francisco will play at least half the season without All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
And Seattle must deal with the attention and scrutiny that comes with being the defending champ.
Here are some things to watch in the NFC West:
Crown of thorns
Seattle had never been a champion. But Pete Carroll had.
His blueprint for keeping the Seahawks elite involved locking up All-Pros cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Earl Thomas, plus receiver Doug Baldwin to contract extensions, re-signing DE Michael Bennett, and never resting on what happened last season. The Seahawks also avoided a contract dispute with RB Marshawn Lynch and have seen glimpses of the punch a healthy WR Percy Harvin could add to their offense. Their defense might not match the suffocating numbers posted a year ago, but if quarterback Russell Wilson and the offense continue to evolve the Seahawks might not need the best defense to remain atop the division.
Just off Highway 101, the 49ers move into their new palatial home this season — Levi’s Stadium — replacing the outdated Candlestick Park, and trying to regain their perch atop the division. QB Colin Kaepernick is locked up long-term and he will have tight end Vernon Davis and WRs Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson as targets all season. Frank Gore and rookie Carlos Hyde will be the featured backs of an offense that again will rely heavily on the run. Defensively there are more concerns. The secondary has been completely remodeled since the Niners’ Super Bowl appearance two seasons ago. Bowman likely won’t be back until at least midseason after a gruesome knee injury in the NFC championship game, and LB Aldon Smith has been suspended nine games for off-field troubles.
Arizona was one of the hottest teams at the end of last season after finally clicking under coach Bruce Arians, winning seven of its final nine. The Cardinals also hold the distinction of being the only team to win in Seattle since 2011 after knocking off the Seahawks in Week 16. Quarterback Carson Palmer has another year in Arians’ system and Larry Fitzgerald remains an elite pass catcher. Andre Ellington established himself as Arizona’s leading rusher with 652 yards and three touchdowns his rookie season. But the Cardinals are struggling to replace Dansby and Washington, and Dockett tearing his ACL is another significant loss.
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