With a potential settlement to the NFL lockout looming, analyst Elliot Harrison takes a quick glance at where each division left off following last season. This is a look at the NFC West.
Where we left off: The Cardinals played musical chairs at quarterback in 2010. Matt Leinart was set to be the opening day starter, only to be released in preseason. Then Derek Anderson faltered early in the year, giving way to rookie Max Hall, who ultimately suffered a concussion. By the inglorious end, John Skelton was under center for Ken Whisenhunt's offense. The defense didn't fare much better, as the secondary gave up too many big plays. Opposing quarterbacks had a rating of 113.4 when they threw the ball over 20 yards downfield on Arizona's back four.
Areas of concern: The run defense has to get better if this club is to improve upon its 5-11 record. The front seven -- particularly the linebackers -- got knifed for 145.2 yards per game, the NFC's worst run defense. But Cardinals fans are far more concerned with who will be at the all-important quarterback position in 2011. Could it be Carson Palmer? Kevin Kolb? Another veteran? Whoever plays back there needs better protection, as the offensive line allowed a whopping 50 sacks.
Two things to hang your hat on, Cardinals fans:
1. So many people felt cornerback Patrick Peterson was the most talented player in the draft. He should immediately improve a secondary that gives up the deep ball far too easily.
2. Larry Fitzgerald is still a big-time player. Despite the quarterback carousel, Fitz still had 90 catches for 1,137 yards.
St. Louis Rams
Where we left off: Ok, so maybe 7-9 and falling to the Seahawks in ugly fashion in Week 17 with a chance to win the division wasn't the last outpost of awesomeness. But keeping in mind that the Rams finished 1-15, 2-14 and 3-13 the previous three seasons, 2010 has to be considered a successful year. Sam Bradford was all the Rams could hope for from a rookie quarterback, while Steven Jackson ran hard, picking up over 1,600 yards from scrimmage as a one-man gang. The young defense acquitted itself well, with Chris Long, James Laurinitis and Ron Bartell developing into effective players.
Areas of concern: Wideout, wideout, wideout. Every dude on the roster seemingly got hurt last year. Donnie Avery blew his knee out in the preseason. Early in the season, Baltimore Ravens castoff Mark Clayton was the team's best receiver. While Danny Amendola looks to be a reliable inside-the-hash player, St. Louis needs a threat on the outside (see Plaxico Burress). Meanwhile, three of the defense's best players in 2010 are question marks: O.J. Atogwe is gone, while Fred Robbins (34) and James Hall (34) aren't getting any younger.
Two things to hang your hat on, Rams fans:
1. You got a pretty good corner in Ron Bartell. The dude was thrown at 100 times in 2010 and gave up only 45 completions and two scores.
2. While Bradford played well, give some credit to the offensive line. The young tackles, Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith, are developing.
San Francisco 49ers
Where we left off: The offensive coordinator communication was a fiasco, the head coach got fired, and Alex Smith played like Alex Smith. Then ownership says the team would have been in the playoffs if they had gone to interim head coach Jim Tomsula earlier. Right, because no one saves a season like Jim Tomsula. Despite all the embarrassment, this is a team that arguably featured the most talent in the division. One of its most-gifted players, Frank Gore, was productive but missed five games. Another, Vernon Davis, continues to be one of the top tight ends in football.
Areas of concern: If the defense had received any help from the offense, the 49ers would have easily gone 9-7. New coach Jim Harbaugh must apply his craft on Smith (assuming he's back) or rookie Colin Kaepernick. The offense went three-and-out 28.4 percent of the time, fourth highest in the NFL. Getting a better compliment to wideout Michael Crabtree would help. Getting cornerback Nate Clements to play better sure wouldn't hurt, either. He´s not moving to safety. Third-round pick Chris Culliver could be a nice addition to the corners, although it's a tough adjustment to the NFL for rookies.
Two things to hang your hat on, 49ers fans:
1. Having a former journeyman quarterback like Harbaugh in house as not only a head coach, but to teach, might be the best thing that ever happened to Smith.
2. The quarterback for the defense is as good as it gets. There is no letdown in Patrick Willis' game.
Where we left off: A division title on stilts, that's where the Seahawks left off. After becoming the first 7-9 team to ever make the playoffs, Seattle justified its belonging in the postseason dance by upsetting the then-defending Super Bowl champion Saints. The offense came out of a season-long hibernation during the wild card game, particularly the ground attack, which ranked 31st in the league (89 yards per game.) Matt Hasselbeck played like Matt Lauer most of 2010, only to turn it on in the playoffs with some sick vertical throws. The dream died in Chicago, when the suspect defense gave up 437 yards to a very average Bears offense.
Areas of concern: Obviously, the ineffective run game could do a lot for whoever starts at quarterback by simply improving on that 89 yards per game total, starting with Marshawn Lynch's motivation. The team needs something out of second-year receiver Golden Tate, too. The wideouts as a whole need a shot in the arm. Defensively, one of the Seahawks' best pass rushers was surprisingly Raheem Brock, but he's now a free agent. If they can't generate pressure, the back four will be exposed. They gave up 12.5 yards per completions last season (27th in the league), and that was with a decent pass rush. If the Seahawks lose defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, they'll be very shaky on the interior.
Two things to hang your hat on, Seahawks fans:
1. Providing he's back, Hasselbeck is still the best quarterback in the division, so that gives the Seahawks a shot at repeating. Sorry, Sam Bradford.
2. Both Chris Clemons and Earl Thomas really give this team big-play capability. Clemons made the most out of his first opportunity to start, registering 11 sacks.
Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.