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The 49ers ran away with the NFC west and were the 1st team to lock up a division this last year thanks in large part to the other teams stinking up the place. Even though the Niners look like the team to beat going into this year, let’s not count out the other 3 teams. The Niners were the 3rd team in 3 years to win the division. The previous 2 failed to even have a winning record following their division championship.
While there is no reason the Niners should fall off like this, we can’t expect the other teams to be that bad. They will improve and it starts with their offseasons.
The Arizona Cardinals 2011 8-8 finished 2nd in the NFC West
In week 8 the Cardinals lost their 6th game in a row to fall to 1-6 on the season. After that 30-27 loss in Baltimore the Cardinals turned into a phoenix going 7-2 the rest of the way including a 21-19 victory over the 49ers on December 11th. The thing they did best was compete. After being out of the race early this team played tough, and won 4 of their last 9 games in overtime. Their 2 losses in the final 9 weeks were to playoff teams. Did the lockout hurt this team? I’d say yes, but some teams flourished after changes occurred with either the coach or quarterback. The Cardinals can save the excuse for someone else.
Biggest Need: Quarterback. Coach Whisenhunt could be on the hot-seat if this team misses the playoffs again. I think they made a terrible trade for Kolb last year; I wouldn’t have given up a 2nd round pick for him let alone a good young cornerback in Rodgers-Cromartie. Keep in mind Matt Cassel was packaged with Mike Vrabel from New England for a 2nd round pick to the Chiefs. Cassel had a larger sample size and better numbers than what Kolb had. After awarding Kolb with a 5 year-63 million dollar deal, the Cardinals organization almost have to stick with him a bit longer. Peyton Manning would be on the radar otherwise.
The Seattle Seahawks 2011 7-9 finished 3rd in the NFC West
Much like the Cardinals, the Seabirds had a slow start (2-6). The Seahawks finished up the season 7-9. Seattle was a strange team that won 5 games by double digits, but lost 4 games by a field goal or less. If they could have found a way to win close games, they could have easily been a playoff team. Instead Pete Carroll had to watch Jim Harbaugh come in and take over again in the same division/conference as him.
Biggest Need: A quarterback. Seattle had a top 10 defense in their 2011 campaign and as long as they can retain Marshawn Lynch they will be set at running back. Seattle has a very talented, young receiving core and just need a guy to get them the ball. I expect Seattle to throw their hat in the Matt Flynn sweepstakes. Reason, they’ve been looking for a quarterback who isn’t old, but don’t have a high enough pick to draft one. They’ve tried in recent years by picking up Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst, but neither seemed to be the answer. I think Seattle is fed up with career backups and will finally put some money into free agency for a chance at gold. They would have to give up a lot to get Robert Griffin III, so if they don’t improve in free agency I see them just picking up Nick Foles or someone along those lines in the mid rounds of the draft. Some mocks have Ryan Tannehill as the guy; I think it’s a big mistake if any team invests a 1st round pick on the guy.
The St. Louis Rams 2011 2-14 finished last in the NFC West
Some would already qualify to 2012 offseason a success for the Rams. After coming within a game from the playoffs in 2010, the 2011 version of the Rams took a major step back. With a new head coach in Jeff Fisher, the Rams will look to build around QB Sam Bradford. Bradford was injured for the majority of the season, resulting in the team only scoring more than 13 points just 4 times during the season. St. Louis will need to fix some of their line issues if there is any chance to make a push for the division.
Biggest Need: A playmaker. The Rams should handle this need with the 2nd pick in the draft by taking Oklahoma State standout receiver Justin Blackmon. After watching this guy play the last few years, I think he is the best WR coming out since Randy Moss. I was high on A.J. Green last year and thought Julio Jones could be a star in just his freshman season at Alabama, but this guy is on another level. Justin Blackmon was a teammate of Dez Bryant at Oklahoma State; Dez went late in the 1st round due to off the field issues. Blackmon doesn’t have that issue and he is also bigger, faster, and stronger.
Some could say a 2-14 doesn’t have a biggest need, but rather many needs. The Rams will look to trade back a couple of spots to pick up extra draft picks, but they will only do it if they still think they can grab a top offensive tackle or a receiver.