NFC West preview: Seattle best of bunch, again

The Seattle Seahawks have won four consecutive NFC West titles, but it's arguably a dubious achievement. This has been the weakest division in the league over those four seasons, the other three teams compiling a .349 winning percentage with a record of 67-125.

Seattle looks like the best of the bunch again, with a young defense, a Pro Bowl quarterback and one of the league's best homefield advantages at Qwest Field, where it's often so loud that visiting teams have great difficulty hearing their quarterback call signals.

There is an edge for the Seahawks in three key areas -- a coach, Mike Holmgren, who has taken his teams to the Super Bowl three times; the division's best quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck; and a rising, young defense that returns intact.

Under the radar's **Gil Brandt** has identified four underrated players in the NFC West, one from each team, who will bear watching this season:

Levi Brown
OT, Arizona

Started 11 games at RT as a rookie in '07. Brown has great potential, and a line coach in Russ Grimm who can bring out that potential.

O.J. Atogwe
S, St. Louis

Has outstanding ball skills for the position, with 11 INTs in last two years. A very smart player.

Jason Hill
WR, San Francisco

Injuries limited him as a rookie in '07, but he has speed, good hands and route-running ability. Set school TD mark at Washington State. He's also a good special teams player.

Leroy Hill
LB, Seattle

Playing on a team with two Pro Bowl linebackers, Hill manages to make a lot of tackles vs. the run and is a good blitzer. Makes plays all over the field.

San Francisco and Arizona went through training camps trying to establish themselves at quarterback. St. Louis is tinkering with its offensive system.

Holmgren is eager to go out a winner in his final year with Seattle and what is likely to be his final year as a head coach before turning the team over to Jim Mora. While it may not happen, Holmgren would like a shot at running a franchise from the front office, like Bill Parcells is now doing in Miami. He remains unfulfilled in that area, even though he has been more successful as the Seattle coach since he was stripped of his player personnel responsibilities.

So far, it has not been an issue and it may not be, but there's always a possibility of divided loyalties when there's a lame duck coach and a coach in waiting.

Team on the rise

Arizona. Ken Whisenhunt has a good feel for leadership and a good staff headed by Russ Grimm, who has been an excellent offensive line coach. It's easy to dismiss the Cardinals because of their history, but the atmosphere is changing in the desert. Arizona has brought in enough good, young players to make a run in the division.

Team in transition

Seattle actually fits the description because of the pending coaching change from Holmgren to Mora, but the real transition may be going on in San Francisco. The 49ers still are trying to find a quarterback for the long haul, but have done a pretty good job of drafting to improve their defense.

Coach in the spotlight

Mike Holmgren of Seattle. Holmgren's coaching record compares favorably with that of Parcells, who often is referred to as a future Hall of Famer. More than any of his other disciples, Holmgren has remained true to the late Bill Walsh's philosophies with the West Coast offense, and it continues to work for him.

Star on the rise

Linebacker Patrick Willis, San Francisco. Willis made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last season but he's really just getting started. He works and studies hard, he understands the game, and he has benefitted from the attention paid to him by assistant coach Mike Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker. Willis should be able to prove that last year was not a fluke.

Impact rookie

Tight end John Carlson, Seattle. Neither tight end nor fullback are considered glamor positions but, in the West Coast offense, they are both important. The Seahawks have had real struggles trying to establish their wide receivers in recent years, but Carlson will give them a nice middle-of-the-field target.

Count on it

San Francisco and Arizona will be quick to change starting quarterbacks. For the 49ers, it's a matter of survival for coach Mike Nolan. For the Cardinals, it's a matter of picking a starting quarterback.

Don't be surprised if ...

Rookie back Owen Schmitt, a fifth-round pick, jumps into the mix for Seattle. He looked good in camp. Holmgren doesn't want to fall into the trap he was in a year ago when he had to give up on the running game.

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