by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Throughout the month of August, TGS will be previewing each of the NFL division races for 2013, as well as providing a QB depth chart for the preseason games. Next up for our previews will be the NFC West, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2012 straight-up, pointspread, and “over/under” records included...

Not quite like past QB greats such as John Unitas or Len Dawson, who were bypassed completely in the NFL Draft. Or probably not an an all-time steal of a pick such as Tom Brady, taken in the 6th round by the Patriots back in 2000. But there were still 74 players in the 2012 NFL Draft who were taken before QB Russell Wilson, nabbed by the Seattle Seahawks (2012 SUR 12-6, PSR 13-5, O/U 9-9) in the third round. And we think it is safe to say that there will not be 74 players from the rookie class of 2012 that will have more impact in the league than Wilson. Whose third-round selection, if last year is any indication, could eventually qualify as one of the best bargains in pro football annals.

(Not to mention perhaps vindicating our own belief that Wilson could emerge as the second coming of Drew Brees, with a bit more mobility to boot.)

Wilson, however, was only one of many storylines for last year’s Seahawks, who closed the regular season as one of the NFL’s hottest teams with five straight wins and were just seconds away from a berth in the NFC title game against their division nemesis San Francisco, which was walloped 42-13 by the Seahawks during that late-season surge. None of which was really expected prior to the campaign from Pete Carroll’s troops, who eventually began to resemble a pro version of their coach’s best teams from his wondrous college run at Southern Cal in the last decade.

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The difference entering this fall is that the Seahawks are now wearing a much bigger target than they were a year ago when still flying mostly beneath the radar at the same time. Now, along with those 49ers, Seattle rates as one of the top NFC choices to qualify for the Super Bowl, quoted around 4/1 at most Las Vegas wagering outlets.

But we don’t think the added pressure is going to slow the Seahawks at all. Not one bit, in fact.

No team generated the sort of buzz in the offseason as did Seattle, which began to stockpile talent in free agency and trade. Although the highest-profile addition, ex-Vikings WR Percy Harvin, will likely be sidelined until midseason (at the earliest) due to a torn labrum in his hip, Carroll and GM John Schneider were still able to add defensive impact performers such as DEs Cliff Avril (ex-Lions) and Michael Bennett (ex-Bucs) and CB Antoine Winfield (ex-Vikings) to what was already a nasty and trash-talking “D” that allowed an NFL-low 15.3 ppg in 2012.

Still, much of the chatter from the Northwest revolves around around the marvelous Wilson, who was the lone NFL QB in 2012 to rush for more than 400 yards, throw at least 25 TD passes, and pass for more than 3000 yards. All as a rookie, when he so impressed Carroll that the coach decided by the third preseason game that Wilson had to be his starter. Which meant benching last year’s high-priced FA addition, QB Matt Flynn, who has since moved to Oakland.

Carroll has brought back 2011 starter Tarvaris Jackson, in Buffalo last year, as insurance, along with the serviceable Brady Quinn, should Wilson go down.

But the axis of this attack still remains punishing RB Marshawn Lynch, showing no signs of slowing down as he enters his 30s after gaining 1590 YR (third best in the NFL) a year ago. Although Lynch, who also gained a hefty 5 ypc in 2012, will likely be spelled a bit more often this fall by muscle-bound 2nd-year RB Robert Turbin, a Utah State product who impressed in spot work (when gaining 354 YR) last season.

Any upgrade to the passing attack, however, likely waits until the return of a healthy Harvin, who was expected to provide Seattle with plenty of extra dimensions as o.c. Darrell Bevell further develops the Seattle version of the read-option. The versatile Harvin, who can also line up in the backfield, should eventually prove a significant spark to the attack...whenever he gets on the field. Until then, however, we suspect the offense likely continues to revolve around Lynch as the Seahawks seek to improve a receiving corps with the modest likes of Sidney Rice and Golden Tate still the main targets.

Fortunately for Carroll, the Seahawks did not have to score many points last season and might not again this fall with that airtight stop unit. The “D” has Carroll’s stamp all over it, aggressive and big-play oriented, which suggests the departure of d.c. Gus Bradley to Jacksonville as the Jags’ new coach will not cause much disruption. Replacement Dan Quinn was among three holdovers from Jim Mora’s staff when Carroll was first hired in Seattle three years ago, and spent the last two years as Florida’s d.c.

In fact, the “D” has probably generated more attention than the “O” the past year, partly due to CB Richard Sherman’s shenanigans including often-colorful commentary. Though the secondary talks big, it usually backs it up, with Winfield adding more veteran savvy that already featured star safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, plus the sticky-covering Sherman and Brandon Browner on the corners.

There might be some issues along the DL, where DE Chris Clemons recovers from ACL surgery and an injury suffered in last year’s playoffs, and questions remain in the center of the line after DT Alan Branch left for Buffalo in free agency. DE Bruce Irvin also misses the first four games due to suspension. But the newcomers added in the offseason, which also include three DTs taken in the draft, should compensate. And there has been no sign of weakness from the stop unit in early preseason action, when the Seahawks allowed exactly ten points to each of their first three opponents.

It looks like flip-a-coin time to pick a winner in the NFC West between the Seahawks and 49ers. Heads Seahawks, tails 49ers...and we’re thinking the coin comes up heads.

Although the season ended in bitter fashion in the Super Bowl when they couldn’t jam in the go-ahead score in the last minute from inside the Baltimore ten-yard-line, 2012 was still something of a celebration for the San Francisco 49ers (2012 SUR 13-5-1, PSR 11-8, O/U 13-6-1), who returned to the “Supe” for the first time in 17 years.

Along the way, Jim Harbaugh (whose 2-year regular-season record is now a glossy 24-7-1) confirmed himself as one of the bonafide coaching stars of the league. Moreover, the 49ers discovered their QB of the present and future in Colin Kaepernick, who treated NFL defenses like the WAC stop units he used to run around and throw over while in his college days running HC Chris Ault’s Pistol formation at Nevada.

There’s more, as the emergence of Kaepernick as a potential transformational player (perhaps along with a healthy RG III in Washington, and maybe the aforementioned Russell Wilson) in the league should ensure that the 49ers are going to be cutting edge on the attack end as long as Kaepernick stays on the field.

The latter is a concern as it relates to the 49er backup QB situation, which is now a source of some worry for Harbaugh after former starter Alex Smith was traded to Kansas City in the offseason. Harbaugh was so uncomfy with Colt McCoy and Scott Tolzein in early preseason work that he added journeyman Seneca Wallace to the equation in late August as another option just in case Kaepernick should go down.

But “Kap’s” unique gifts have also prevented him from significant injury in the last six years at QB, four of those at Nevada while running the Pistol, not considered the sort of offense conducive to QB longevity. Kaepernick’s capable successor in Reno, Cody Fajardo, has not been able to stay healthy for a full season the past two years, but “Kap” never suffered a serious injury or missed extended action while running the demanding Wolf Pack attack. Nor did he encounter any injury problems in the San Francisco verison of the Pistol last fall.

Kaepernick’s great speed and running sense also allows him to escape trouble and direct hits from defenders, which probably has had more than something to do with his superb (to this point) durability. What impressed most observers, however, was how “Kap” was able to adjust to some different defensive schemes last season, including Atlanta d.c. (and ex-SF coach) Mike Nolan effectively shutting down the flanks in the NFC title game. But Kaepernick merely attacked the middle of the field instead and led the 49ers back from a 17-0 deficit to win on the road. Which was another claimed scalp for the ex-Nevada star who also won at New England over Tom Brady and destroyed Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers in a playoff showcase (featuring an NFL playoff rushing record of 181 yards for a QB) along the way as well.

Should Kaepernick go down, however, we suspect the 49ers might be in a bit of trouble, as anyone who has watched the backups perform in preseason games would attest.

Still, we’re curious to see how Harbaugh and o.c. Greg Roman might have expanded the playbook after enemy defenses have now had a year to go to school on the 49er version of the Pistol. Early preseason work was a bit inconclusive as Kaepernick was on the field for short periods of time, although there were glimpses of excitement, and things generally were smooth in the dress rehearsal third preseason game vs. the Vikings.

Worryingly, however, the 49ers are going to be proceeding without another of last season’s breakout stars, WR Michael Crabtree, who burst upon the scene about the same time as Kaepernick last fall to finally fulfill much of the promise when exiting Texas Tech as the top WR prospect in the country a few years ago. But Crabtree’s torn Achilles tendon in June has removed him, and the unique rapport he had with Kaepernick, from the 2013 equation, putting extra pressure on one of the key offseason additions, ex-Ravens WR Anquan Boldin, to step into a featured role.

Kaepernick and the beastly Frank Gore (1214 YR in 2012), however, form quite a two-headed infantry beast for the offense. Ex-Oregon homerun hitter LaMichael James, also a kick return threat, figures to get more touches as well this fall. One of the better OLs in the league will continue to lead the way for the offense that developed such a cutting edge after Kaepernick emerged late last season. The Niners also believe they have upgraded their PK position with the signing of ex-Brown Phil Dawson after David Akers’ surprising inconsistency alst season.

After the Super Bowl loss, the 49ers shored up their already-formidable defense (which ranked third in the NFL) with the sort of defensive reserves who could probably start on most teams. The likes of CB Nnamdi Asomugha (ex-Raiders and Eagles) and Craig Dahl (ex-Giants and Rams), plus former LSU DT Glenn Dorsey (ex-Chiefs), are still frontline talents. Another former LSU Tiger, first-round draftee S Eric Reid, has impressed d.c. Vic Fangio so much in the summer that he appears to have wiggled his way into the starting lineup, taking the place of Dashon Goldsen, who left for Tampa Bay in free agency. .

The 49ers have adapted to Fangio’s 3-4, especially ILB Patrick Willis, a Pro Bowl selection in all six of his years in the league. Although Willis has been sidelined in preseason with a hand injury, he’s expected to be ready for the regular-season opener vs. the Packers. The LB corps, also featuring NaVorro Bowman on the inside and Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks on the outside, might be the NFL’s best.

If there is a concern defensively, it might be in the middle of the line, as the Niners lost NT Isaac Sopoaga (to the Eagles) and DT Ricky Jean Francois (to the Colts) in the offseason. DEs Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, however, are adept at bringing pressure.

The 49ers could become truly frightening if Kaepernick merely scratched the surface last season, but we suspect the “O” might lose something without Crabtree. And since all measurements in the NFC West are now against Seattle, that small difference might be enough to force the 49ers to take the wild card route into the playoffs.

While most pundits merely pick divisions by last year’s finish, and we sometimes do the same, we’re breaking rank a bit in the NFC West. As you saw, we have projected the Seahawks at the top over the two-time defending division champ 49ers. And we also expect the Arizona Cardinals (2012 SU 5-11, PSR 7-9, O/U 7-9) to move up a notch ahead of the Rams and into the third slot in the division.

We also fancy the Big Red as a solid “over” 5 ½ on the season win total, posted at various Las Vegas sports books, even though the Cards are almost certain to be underdogs in their four games vs. Seattle and San Francisco. But we are cautiously optimistic in Glendale and the futuristic U of P Stadium, sitting majestically next to the NHL Coyotes’ Jobing.com Arena and a vast entertainment complex that really is one of the most pleasant suburban venues in the NFL.

Things definitely went pear-shaped over the final years of the Ken Whisenhunt regime in the Valley of the Sun, partly because of unsolved QB issues that can be traced to the retirement of Kurt Warner after the 2009 season. Or, more specifically, as some NFC West insiders believe, the abject failure of heir apparent Matt Leinart, the first-round pick in the 2006 draft whose immaturity and cockiness soured Whisenhunt and prompted Leinart’s release in 2010, beginning a wild merry-go-round at QB in Whisenhiunt’s final three years in the desert. Which would ultimately cost Whisenhunt (now the Chargers’ o.c.) his job after last season’s ugly 5-11 fiasco that included a humiliating 58-0 December loss in Seattle...all after a promising 4-0 start.

Enter Bruce Arians, who stepped in heroically as the Colts’ interim HC last season when Chuck Pagano needed a leave of absence to deal with leukemia treatments (which, thankfully, have gone well). Arians, a longtime o.c. mostly with the Steelers before moving to Indy and once a HC on the college level at Temple, seems to have a better idea than Whisenhunt what to do with the Big Red “O” that has a new look, beginning at QB where Carson Palmer tries to resurrect his career after a disappointing couple of seasons in Oakland.

Results have been mixed at best in early preseason action, with the Cards leaving much to be desired with their red zone offense, but while on the field, Palmer has at least looked comfy in his new surroundings. Having nonpareil WR Larry Fitzgerald, who was making noise about leaving the Valley for other locales until the Arians hire, is a plus that Palmer certainly did not have with the Raiders. Arians also believes that 2nd-year ex-Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd can emerge as a dangerous complement to Fitzgerald this fall.

Another new face to watch will be RB Rashard Mendenhall, a FA addition whose career hit the skids in Pittsburgh but is excited to be reunited with Arians, under whom the ex-Illinois star had his best year with the Men of Steel. Preseason work has also suggested that north-south Stanford rookie RB Stepfan Taylor could make contributions in the fall. An upgrade of the OL was also a necessity in the offseason; merely having a healthy LT Levi Brown, sidelined last season by a torn triceps, will be a big plus. The Big Red also addressed the OL immediately in the draft with 1st-round pick North Carolina G Jonathan Cooper, although his broken leg suffered in the third preseason game vs. the Chargers will likely shelve him until midseason, if not longer.

Still, with Palmer acting reborn in the Arians offense, and the potential contributions of Mendenhall and Floyd alongside the great Larry Fitzgerald, expect significant upgrades from the Arians-conceived 2013 attack over the Whisenhunt “O” of 2012.

The Cards have also quietly built a “D” (ranked 12th in 2012) they believe is in the same ballpark as those in Seattle and San Francisco. Although former d.c. Ray Horton moved to Cleveland, his 3-4 schemes remain with new coordinator Todd Bowles, who is happy to have the “interim” tag removed after serving in that capacity for parts of each of the last two seasons, at Miami as head coach in 2011 and Philadelphia as the d.c. last season.

Key offseason additions OLB Lorenzo Alexander (also an ace special teams performer) from the Redskins and ILB Jasper Brinkley from the Vikings join an already-stout front seven featuring DTs Darnell Dockett & Dan Williams and DE Calais Campbell. But what we really like about the “D” is third-round pick CB Tyrann Mathieu from LSU, potentially one of the all-time draft steals. Although with some accompanying risk after his dismissal from LSU and off-field issues, Mathieu might have been the best player in college football two years ago, and has looked much the same as the best player on the field in the first few preseason games. Bowles will be tempted to pair Mathieu on the corner opposite his former LSU teammate and LSU mentor Patrick Peterson, considered an important element in keeping Mathieu on the straight-and-narrow path in the pro football world. In early preaseason action, Mathieu has been especially effective as a roaming nickel back, a role in which Bowles likely uses him off the bat. It will be hard to keep Mathieu off of the field.

With the Seahawks and 49ers in the division, a real breakthrough season might be asking a lot. But we think Bruce Arians’ Big Red will be an improved lot this season.

We’re not nearly as bullish on the St. Louis Rams (2012 SU 7-8-1, PSR 11-5, O/U 8-8) despite some of the positives from Jeff Fisher’s first season at the Edward Jones Dome a year ago, one in which the Rams also became a trusted pointspread overachiever (as their 11-5 mark vs. the line would attest). But the Rams have ridden a rollercoaster the past few seasons and we suggest another dip in form might be in the offing.

For all of our respect for Fisher, we think he and the front office played it very dangerously in the offseason by not only letting RB Steven Jackson walk to Atlanta in free agency, but also failing to adequately replace Jackson’s spot in the lineup. For the moment, the Rams are counting upon 2nd-year RBs Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson to fill the gap.

Sorry, that’s a major dropoff from last season and Jackson, confirmed by early preseason work in which the Rams’ infantry has been spotty at best and invisible at worst. Remember, the St. Louis offense disappeared two years ago when Jackson was hurt in the opener vs. the Eagles and played at less than 100% when he returned later in the season; with him gone entirely and no adequate replacements on the radar, we shudder to think what might happen this fall.

The pressure thus shifts to 4th-year, ex-Oklahoma and former Heisman winning QB Sam Bradford, who has blown hot-and-cold during his first three seasons in the league. At this level, Bradford has yet to prove himself an elite QB as he did in the Big 12, and we remain unconvinced that he can be the star attraction, especially since his favorite target in recent years, WR Danny Amendola, also left (to New England) via free agency.

True, the Rams did add some other offensive pieces in the offseason, especially along the OL where All-Pro LT Jake Long made the jump from Miami, and Alabama rookie C Barrett Jones is a versatile piece to be added to the forward wall. It is hoped that West Virginia rookie wideouts Tavon Austin (also a punt return threat) and Steadman Bailey can help fill Amendola’s shoes, and ex-Titan TE Jared Cook was also added in free agency.

Still, with key elements Jackson and Amendola having departed, we are hardly convinced that the St. Louis “O” has upgraded, especially with Bradford needing to get familiar in a hurry with a mostly-new set of receiving targets. We severely doubt the Jackson-less offense approaches last year’s modest 107 ypg rushing (ranked 19th in the league), either. Moreover, we are not convinced that Bradford has progressed enough to handle the burden of the offensive load.

It’s a good thing that PK Greg Zuerlein, with seven FGs of 50 yards or longer last season, emerged as a consistent threat last season; expect him to get more work this fall if drives bog down as expected before reaching the end zone.

It is hoped that the Rams’ second pick in the first round of the draft, Georgia LB Alec Ogletree, can add an element that Fisher’s 4-3 “D” lacked a year ago, that being speed in coverage from the LB spots. Fisher had spent much of the previous year trying to upgrade the secondary, and that overhaul might be complete with 3rd round Southern Cal safety T.J. McDonald (from the same school and position as Fisher) joining CBs Cortland Finnegan (who rejoined Fisher last year after playing for him at Tennessee) and Janoris Jenkins, a risky rookie pick a year ago who has flashed plenty of upside along with a lot of questions about his off-field behavior. With draftee Ogletree also having a history of trouble, perhaps Fisher should have also inquired if Fran Drescher was available to reprise her role as The Nanny to keep an eye on the young and volatile defenders. (If Fisher can’t find a role for Fran, maybe we will at TGS.)

The Rams will still bring pressure from the defensive front with DEs Chris Long and Robert Quinn, although DT Michael Brockers has much room for improvement.

Bottom line at the Dome? If Sam Bradford steps up to be “the man” for the offense, maybe the Rams push over .500 and into playoff contention. But if he’s not ready to assume that full leadership mantle, St. Louis likely falters in the division basement. There is no room for standing still in the NFC West.


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