San Francisco and Seattle spent the last few years establishing themselves as the preeminent heavyweights of the NFC. They face a tougher challenge now: staying atop the mountain.
Seattle was confident letting go of a number of key contributors because it has a deep bench ready to step up. Michael Bennett got big bucks to stay, and future monster contracts will be spent on their own guys -- Earl Thomas, Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman among them. The 49ers have done their work at the margins of the market, making low-level trades for reclamation projects like Blaine Gabbert and Jonathan Martin. Contract extensions for Colin Kaepernick and possibly Aldon Smith are in the offing. The 49ers view injured "redshirt" '13 draft picks Tank Carradine and Marcus Lattimore as key offseason additions.
*In our Roster Reset series, Around the League will rank teams in each division based on how much they improved this offseason. The NFC West is up next. *
1. Arizona Cardinals
How they improved: Picking up left tackle Jared Veldheer was one of the best signings in all of free agency because it was such a massive upgrade for coach Bruce Arians' offense. The left tackle position held Arizona's offense roster hostage dating back to when Kurt Warner roamed the desert. With improved protection, Carson Palmer has the weapons to go down the field more often.
The Cardinals didn't make many huge splashes otherwise, but the Veldheer move alone is enough to stand out after this quiet month in the division. Arizona essentially replaced slot receiver Andre Roberts with Ted Ginn, which hurts the passing game slightly and helps the team's return game. Antonio Cromartie joins a talented secondary, replacing the departed Antoine Cason. Cromartie has the skill set to be a difference-maker, but he's as unpredictable as a Palmer throw in the fourth quarter. In Cromartie, Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, the Cardinals have three players that excel in man coverage.
2. St. Louis Rams
What's changed: After two offseasons full of big splashes, general manager Les Snead professed belief in his roster. He showed it by staying quiet in free agency. The team's biggest ticket move was bringing back guard Rodger Saffold, and that only happened after the Raiders failed Saffold on a physical. St. Louis did well to upgrade its backup quarterback spot from Kellen Clemens to Shaun Hill, and said goodbye to a pair of middling guards, albeit starters.
In wide receiver Kenny Britt and defensive tackle Alex Carrington, Snead grabbed two low-cost players with potential to make an impact. Carrington adds depth to a potentially scary defensive line. Britt adds another question mark to a position group full of them. Snead's big signing from two years ago -- Cortland Finnegan -- was too expensive to keep around.
» Maximize No. 2 overall draft pick:Don't be surprised if the Ramstrade out of the No. 2 spot to pick up a raft of draft picks, like they did with the Robert Griffin III trade. (They also hold pick No. 13.) The Rams say they don't want a quarterback and may not see Jadeveon Clowney as a fit with Robert Quinn and Chris Long in town. This draft needs to set up the Rams for years to come. Because ...
» Plenty of needs to fill: For all the talk of the Rams as a team on the rise, this group has big holes on the offensive line and the secondary. They might like the talent on their roster, but it still ranks fourth overall in the division.
3. San Francisco 49ers
What's changed: The most interesting part of the 49ers' offseason didn't show up on the transaction wire. The team stayed busy dousing the flames from reports about coach Jim Harbaugh's wandering eye. His management style has created tension in the building that threatens to short circuit what he and GM Trent Baalke have built over the last three years.
The 49ers' rugged roster has stayed mostly intact. San Francisco kept Anquan Boldin rather than invest in a speedier receiver on the open market. They replaced Donte Whitner's big hitting at safety with Antoine Bethea's excellent coverage skills. They lost trusted cornerback depth with Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers left. Jonathan Martin and Blaine Gabbert both have big names, but Martin has an uphill climb to see the field. If Gabbert plays much in 2014, the tension will take the pleats out of Harbaugh's pants.
» Resolve Harbaugh situation: Harbaugh should get a new contract if the sides are as in-step as they claim publicly. Anything less sends a message that this could be his final season in San Francisco.
4. Seattle Seahawks
Why this offseason isn't so bad:Seahawks dumped quality starters like defensive linemen Red Bryant and Chris Clemons in salary cap moves. They also lost starters like wideout Golden Tate, cornerback Walter Thurmond and offensive tackle Breno Giacomini. Even role players like Clinton McDonald got paid elsewhere by teams wanting a whiff of that Super Bowl smell.
The Seahawks are ranked fourth in terms of "improving" this offseason because a lot of talent left the building. Their biggest acquisition from outside the team was ... Phillip Adams? And yet, we don't think it will matter much because Pete Carroll has a plan in place for all the departures. Tony McDaniel and Cliff Avril will replace Bryant and Clemons in the lineup. Seattle has the right depth to replace Thurmond and Browner at cornerback. More importantly, Carroll and general manager John Schneider count on *developing * players to step into new roles. They understand they often only have players for four years, just like at USC.
» Lock up Thomas: NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported in February that Thomas will be the team's first priority in long-term contract talks, even before Sherman. The Seahawks should get that contract out of the way so they can focus on Wilson and Sherman next year.
» More weapons:Sidney Rice is still a free agent. Tate is gone. The Seahawks still don't have a quality pass-catching tight end. Seattle should add a wide receiver in the draft, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see the team bring back Rice and possibly sign tight end Jermichael Finley when he's medically cleared.
» Offensive line help: The right side is still a problem. Wilson was constantly under duress last year.