NFC preview: West

49ers appear on verge of overtaking Cardinals

August 29, 2010|By Sam Farmer, Tribune newspapers

49ers

Big questions: Will having the same offensive coordinator in consecutive seasons for the first time in his career make the difference for QB Alex Smith? WR Michael Crabtree was outstanding even after holding out the first half of his rookie season, so what can he do with a full offseason of work under his belt?

Big moves: The 49ers didn't do a lot of wheeling and dealing in free agency, but they did get a backup QB in David Carr and a speedy receiver in Ted Ginn Jr. The team used its two first-round draft picks on tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati, and it's trying to do what the Jets did in 2006 — make the playoffs with two rookie first-rounders on the offensive line.

Bottom line: If the 49ers don't make their move in the division now, will they ever? They were 5-1 in NFC West games last season and swept eventual champion Arizona.

Cardinals

Big questions: Is Matt Leinart up to the challenge of replacing Kurt Warner? Will the Cardinals lean more on the running of Beanie Wells to become a Pittsburgh-style offense? With Steve Breaston starting, how will the injury-prone Early Doucet do in the No. 3 WR role? At age 33, how much does Joey Porter have left, and is he the pass rusher the Cardinals have missed? The Cardinals won the division the last two years but were swept by the 49ers last season — is a power shift afoot?

Big moves: Alan Faneca was a fixture on the Jets' offensive line last season, anchoring a group that allowed Gang Green to lead the league in rushing. He should be a stabilizing element on a reshuffled line. Porter helps the defense, but how much? Gone is playmaking linebacker Karlos Dansby.

Bottom line: The 49ers look to be closing fast in the division, but overlooking the Cardinals is a dangerous game.

Seahawks

Big questions: Here's one that has been around for most of a decade: Pete Carroll is a great college coach, sure, but can he get it done in the pros? Can the Seahawks provide better protection for the oft-injured Matt Hasselbeck? Where will the team find a true No. 1 receiver, since T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Deion Branch and Nate Burleson failed to fill those shoes? Who's going to step up the pressure on passers?

Big moves: No one in the NFL has made more roster moves than Carroll, who now has reached triple digits in that regard. Rookies to watch are left tackle Russell Okung, who's recovering from a high ankle sprain, and safety Earl Thomas, a playmaker drafted over USC's Taylor Mays.

Bottom line: Carroll has installed a new coaching staff and philosophy and has reshaped the roster. The club has won just nine games in two seasons but is making strides toward being competitive.

Rams

Big questions: How soon will QB Sam Bradford be ready to play? What type of protection will young tackles Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith provide? Running back Steven Jackson is a workhorse, playing the final six games of '09 with a herniated disk, but he can't be expected to shoulder the entire load; who is going to take some of those carries? Is this going to be a breakout year, sacks-wise, for right end Chris Long?

Big moves: Until Bradford, the Rams hadn't taken a quarterback in the first round since 1964 (Bill Munson); expectations are high for the former Oklahoma quarterback. Before opening a new chapter with Bradford, the Rams closed an old one with the release of Marc Bulger.

Bottom line: The Rams have won just six games in three seasons. Few people are expecting miracles from Bradford. But it's hard to imagine things getting much worse.

sfarmer@tribune.com

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