Defending Champions Seattle Seahawks look to remain on top we answer the question ‘can they?’ in our NFC West 2014 Preview

With both teams in the NFC Championship game last year and a blowout win for the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, the NFC West was comfortably the best division in football in 2013. Can they maintain their dominance this year, as the Seahawks look to repeat and the 49ers, Cardinals and Rams chase down the World Champions?

Arizona Cardinals:

Coming off a ten-win season which still saw them outside the playoff spots, the enormity of the task confronting Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was made obvious. The team needs to be one of the best in football just to be relevant in the hyper-competitive NFC. There are encouraging signs on offense, as the late-season form of rookie RB Andre Ellington and WR Michael Floyd should be set to continue into 2014. Larry Fitzgerald should be fit after playing through a nagging hamstring injury in 2013, and preseason standout John Brown adds burning pace to what is a potentially explosive offense for Carson Palmer. The addition of Palmer’s former Raiders left tackle Jared Veldheer should steady an offensive line that gave up 41 sacks last year, but this upgrade may be offset by the continued struggles of left guard Jonathan Cooper to recover from a broken leg which saw him sit out his rookie year. The team need better blocking up front if their offensive weapons are to reach their potential. At least in 2013 they could rely on a stout defense to keep them in close games. They won’t have that luxury this year. The secondary sees an upgrade as Antonio Cromartie, who is coming off an injury-plagued down year with the Jets, arrives to partner the re-signed shutdown corner Patrick Peterson. If Cromartie can bounce back, they form a formidable tandem. Talented safety Tyrann Mathieu is recovering well from knee surgery and could be ready in time for Week 1, and the addition of first-round rookie Deone Bucannon will lead to competition for the other safety spot with Tony Jefferson. That’s where the cause for optimism ends however. What was a staunch front seven last season has been decimated over the summer, with Karlos Dansby gone in free agency, DE Darnell Dockett lost to a season-ending ACL injury and star linebacker Daryl Washington suffering a year-long suspension for marijuana use. The resigning of veteran John Abraham will help, but after that the linebacker position is low on quality, and the defensive line will be overly reliant on DE Calais Campbell and Dan Williams to block up running lanes. These losses will hurt the Cardinals on defense this season, and that will be their downfall. A regression in 2014 is on the cards, as the Cardinals look set to fall short of playoff contention.

Prediction: 3rd

San Francisco 49ers:

It’s been a strange offseason for the 49ers. Amid rumours that they had fielded a trade offer from the Cleveland Browns for head coach Jim Harbaugh, the team re-signed Colin Kaepernick to a team-friendly, incentive-based contract. Then star tight end Vernon Davis threatened to hold out of training camp but didn’t, while guard Alex Boone did, only returning on the last day of August after receiving a restructured contract. Uncertainty has surrounded much of what the team has done. The 49ers offense was competent last season even in the early stages while nursing Kaepernick back to health and awaiting the return of Michael Crabtree from injury, but with Boone missing all of camp and doubts about the depth behind Crabtree, Davis and the ageing Anquan Boldin and Frank Gore, any injury on this side of the ball could be disastrous. The team took rookie Carlos Hyde in the second round of the 2014 draft with a view to replacing Gore, and the rookie should see the field this season having looked serviceable in preseason games. The hope will be that two trade acquisitions QB Blaine Gabbert and WR Stevie Johnson will see less of the field, as both have failed to impress in the offseason. This remains an impressive and consistent starting group however, and if everything breaks their way, the offense will be the least of the team’s worries in 2014. Of far more concern is the ravaged defensive unit. A redesign at cornerback saw Carlos Rodgers and Tarell Brown depart for Oakland, leaving Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver to start on the outside. At safety the departure of Donte Whitner will be offset by the arrival of free agent Antoine Bethea and first-round pick Jimmie Ward, who look set to share duties beside second-year Eric Reid. This is a secondary with growing pains ahead, and they wont be helped out by a front seven missing three key starters. At linebacker, star pass rusher Aldon Smith will miss the first 9 games of the season thanks to suspension for substance abuse and felony charges, while middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman is coming off ACL injury and will be out for at least six games. Until Smith’s return Ahmad Brooks will be tasked with getting to the quarterback opposite either Dan Skuta or second-year player Corey Lemonier, who showed flashes of potential in limited time last year. Neither is a patch on the All-Pro, obviously, and the defensive troubles will be exacerbated by the loss to injury of Glenn Dorsey at nose tackle. Along with Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, Dorsey formed a formidable front last season and his loss will be keenly felt, especially with Smith hitting 35 years old this year. The 49ers defense, for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era, is looking at a slump. It’s far from a terrible unit, but given their division, conference and schedule the missing stars will be enough to hurt San Francisco’s regular season, and this could be the year they fall out of the playoff hunt altogether.

Prediction: 2nd

Seattle Seahawks:

Let’s face it, 2013 was Seattle’s year. CenturyLink Field proved to be a fortress yet again, as the team went 7-1 in front of their own fans, Russell Wilson showed he’s more than just a game-managing QB and Richard Sherman’s smack talk made him a household name. Above all else, the Seahawks romped to a 43-8 victory over the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. All of this has led to mega-contracts, TV commercials and Madden covers for the Seahawks stars, but despite the distractions the team itself is still in good shape for the 2014 season. On offense the team quickly dealt with a Marshawn Lynch holdout, bringing the offensive centrepiece back into the fold with a sweetened deal, and the loss of WRs Golden Tate and Sidney Rice is more than offset by the return to fitness of Percy Harvin. The former Vikings playmaker starred in the Super Bowl with an 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, but he should figure prominently in the regular season alongside the improving Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and tight end Zach Miller. This is a solid group of weapons for Wilson, whose ability to extend plays gives his targets time to get open. The ground threat of Marshawn Lynch, who should post another strong season even if it could be his last in Seattle, and a solid offensive line which has only lost one starter to free agency, should also ensure that the offense doesn’t dip in production in 2014. Still, the strength of the Super Bowl champions lies in their dominant defense. After securing Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman to lucrative, long-term deals the ‘Legion of Boom’ secondary is secure for another season, although the loss of Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond to free agency will hurt their depth. There were no losses at linebacker but the defensive line saw Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, reliable players last season, depart for Jacksonville in free agency. Still, the team resigned Michael Bennett to start opposite Cliff Avril on the defensive front, and Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel and Kevin Williams should provide quality on the interior. While the Seahawks have lost some depth, there isn’t a weak spot in their starting defense. Apart from one nagging question on the offensive line, this roster is set to dominate the NFC West, and potentially the NFC, once again this year. If everyone stays fit and healthy the Seahawks could well be the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the Patriots ten years ago.

Prediction: 1st

St Louis Rams:

The St Louis Rams hoped to be something of a dark horse in the NFC West this season. They had made some additions, found an offensive philosophy and still had a young, first-round quarterback to bring forward in Sam Bradford. Then, for the second season in a row, Bradford went down with a season-ending ACL injury, leaving the whole project in disarray and effectively dashing any hopes of a playoff berth. The reins will now be passed to Shaun Hill, who should at least be an upgrade on last season’s backup Kellen Clemens. The injury to Bradford is especially a shame as Jeff Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer really found themselves a working strategy down the stretch last season, leaning heavily on their excellent running back Zac Stacy and play action passes for rookie wide receiver Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and tight end Jared Cook. The team have brought in veteran Kenny Britt, who worked well with Fisher for a time in Tennessee before suffering injuries and personal problems, and hopes to assume the no.1 receiver role in St Louis. The free agent signing of Davin Joseph at guard and the addition of no.2 overall pick Greg Robinson should help the offensive line maintain their strength from last year. Robinson was a great run-blocker in college but has looked raw in preseason. He’ll sit and learn for a period, but he should develop as the season progresses. Left tackle Jake Long is returning from ACL injury and could take some time to return to his Pro Bowl best, but with centre Scott Wells, the versatile Roger Saffold and right tackle Joe Barksdale, this unit is probably the strength of the offense, comprising experience, talent and upside. If they can make holes for Stacy and protect Hill, the Rams should be a competent unit in 2014 despite Bradford’s absence. On defense the Rams have one of the scariest fronts in all of football. Star defensive end Robert Quinn notched up 19 sacks last year and at just 24 years old only figures to get better. Starting opposite him Chris Long is no slouch himself, after getting to the QB for 8.5 sacks in 2013, and in the first round of the 2014 draft the Rams added the impressive interior rusher Aaron Donald to this already imposing unit. QBs in the NFC West should be afraid. At linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar and James Laurinaitis are both decent starters, while Alec Ogletree should improve in his second year in the league. That’s where the good news ends for the Rams, as their secondary was poor last year and figures to be poor again in 2014. The loss of cornerback Cortland Finnegan in free agency is no real loss at all, as he was awful last season, but his replacement Trumaine Johnson wasn’t a revelation either. He’s still young and has room to develop alongside Janoris Jenkins, and second round pick Lamarcus Joyner should also see time. The unit has potential for improvement but little depth or experience. There has been no change at safety, and the Rams will be hoping that Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald can improve considerably on their 2013 campaigns if this secondary is to help the front seven out in coverage. The Rams can realistically hope for a season approaching a .500 record as they search for the solution at QB. That’s not the worst situation for a young and talented roster, but it is essentially another lost year in St Louis.

Precdiction: 4th