Sunday, August 15, 2010

NFL Preview: 2010 NFC & AFC West

By Andrew Jones

Also see: NFC & AFC North | NFC & AFC South

NFC West

This is the worst conference in the NFL. It contains three mediocre teams and one awful team. The division title is completely up for grabs. Only one quarterback (Matt Hasselbeck) is proven and he's aging and injury-prone. Oddly enough, there are some top quality running backs in the mix, even though all of these teams (except St. Louis) are rather pass-happy. All in all, defense will be how the NFC West is won.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers have a pretty talented offense. Frank Gore is still a beast and if he can avoid injury and be put to slightly better use, he's good for 1,300 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. In 2009, he essentially missed three games and only had 229 attempts and still managed to wrangle 1,120 yards and 10 touchdowns. Gore is also a threat in the passing game. His 52 receptions for 406 yards and 3 scores is nothing to sneeze at.

Along with Gore, the receiving core is quite good. Michael Crabtree should play a full season. He did not have a 100-yard game, nor all that many touchdowns (2), but I think he'll be a solid asset in 2010. The star of the 49ers' passing attack in 2009 was TE Vernon Davis with nearly 1,000 yards and 13 scores.

Despite such weapons, the 49ers ranked 22nd in passing yards and 25th in rushing yards. Doesn't it seem crazy that with Frank Gore they'd be that low in rushing? The offense will rest on Alex Smith, who has shown glimmers of greatness and glimmers of Ryan Leaf. Smith doesn't need a stellar season, he simply needs to get the ball to his weapons and not turn the ball over.

The defense, led by the beast Patrick Willis, is solid and I think the main reason the 49ers will win their division is because they seem to be the only team with consistency on the coaching staff and on the field. I think that will prove helpful, especially for Smith. I think they'll go 9-7 and lose to a strong wild card opponent.

Seattle Seahawks

New head coach and established quarterback is seldom the recipe for a winning team. Especially in today's era of win or be fired, new coaches rarely take over good teams. They take over dysfunctional teams and Seattle is certainly dysfunctional at the moment.

Matt Hasselbeck has been fighting injuries the past two seasons and the Seahawks' record of 9-23 is pretty good evidence that they need him and need him healthy. In 2007, the Seahawks won the division at 10-6 with Hasselbeck throwing for nearly 4,000 yards. I don't think he has that left in him.

Pete Carroll was phenomenally successful at USC, but he left the place in shambles and has never been successful in the NFL. I don't think he will be this time around either.

There are just too many questions for this team. They are still operating on running back by committee, which seems to only work in New England. Justin Forsett had a pretty good second half of the season averaging 5.4 yards per carry, but expect him to split time pretty evenly with Julius Jones and Leon Washington. The one-two punch of Forsett/Washington sounds good. Jones simply does not excite me. His 3.7 yards per carry in 2009 is not impressive.

Then there is the defense. Where to even start? The pass rush is weak. Turnovers are not created frequently enough. It simply looks like it may fall apart at any second. There's nothing holding it together.

I think Seattle will begin to realize it's holding on to things that need to be replaced and upgraded, but 2010 will not be a good year. They'll finish 6-10.

Arizona Cardinals

Even if Kurt Warner pulled a Brett Favre (which he won't), the Cardinals are not the team that lost to the Steelers in the Super Bowl two seasons ago. Without Warner and Anquan Boldin (now a Baltimore Raven), this team is left with the perpetual underachiever Matt Leinart at the helm. Even though Leinart has one of the best weapons in the game in Larry Fitzgerald, I think Leinart's performance will be poor and the Cardinals will suffer because of it.

The only way this team will find its way back into the playoffs is if Beanie Wells is given 300 carries and rushes for 1,500 yards, which would be the antithesis of what this team has been for the past five years. Leinart will be blitzed and pressured relentlessly and the Cardinals will unfortunately fail to utilize their best player in Fitzgerald.

The defense isn't terrible, but they're certainly not good enough to carry the team. Warner and the pass attack carried the team and that isn't going to work anymore. I think a hurtful season of 6-10 will motivate the Cardinals toward a real franchise quarterback.

St. Louis Rams

The contract Sam Bradford received is completely insane (six years, $78 million, $50 million guaranteed). If I were to offer that kind of money to a player, I'd expect to be in the playoffs every year except perhaps the first and win the Super Bowl at least once in his tenure as quarterback. If Sam Bradford leads the Rams to the playoffs within his current contract, I'll be surprised. I won't be shocked simply because this conference is so weak and let's face it, a team could probably get in at 7-9.

I think Bradford will win the starting job and honestly, would you want to pay a player 1/6 of his ridiculous salary to sit on the bench? No, he'll be in there right away.

The saddest part about the Rams is that they have perhaps the most talented running back in the NFL in Stephen Jackson. He has rushed for over 1,000 yards each of the past five seasons for a team that is completely dreadful. He has also fought injury and missed multiple games and still hit 1,000 yards.

If Bradford can take any pressure off of Jackson at all and Jackson stays healthy, he could very well rush for over 1,800 yards.

Sadly, that still won't save the Rams. Defensively, this team has nothing. They can't stop the run. They can't stop the pass. In 2009, they had 8 interceptions. Eight. James Laurinaitis had 120 tackles and is somebody to build a defense around, but given Bradford's contract, building anything isn't going to be easy.

I think Bradford and the Rams will manage 3-13, but only because their schedule is so soft, including @Oakland, @Detroit, @Tampa Bay, Kansas City at home, and a pathetic division.

AFC West

This division is filled with underachievers. San Diego always falls short in the playoffs. The Broncos are too streaky. The Chiefs have talent, but no offensive line and the Raiders, well, they have a lot of problems from top to bottom, but the top, the front office, is the real problem.

San Diego Chargers

The San Diego Chargers are a talented team. Philip Rivers is near elite status as a quarterback. Antonio Gates is one of the best tight ends the NFL has ever seen. Vincent Jackson is a solid number one receiver and the defense has some decent playmakers, including Shawne Merriman (though his 2009 performance was oddly lacking).

What's amazing about the Chargers is that they were able to win their last 11 games of the regular season with the second worst running game in the NFL. LaDainian Tomlinson is gone. Darren Sproles remains, but I think the Chargers expected more out of him in splitting carries with Tomlinson in 2009.

The Chargers expect rookie running back Ryan Mathews to take the bulk of the load and I can't imagine him doing worse than Tomlinson's 3.3 yards per carry in 2009. That should help Rivers, Gates and Jackson out in the pass game making for a continually potent Chargers offense.

Despite an early exit to the Jets in the playoffs, the Chargers still remain an elite team and should win the division without a ton of competition. I'll say 11-5. Their playoff value is yet to be determined. They can't seem to finish the season well. It seems they tend to peak too early.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos have baffled me ever since John Elway retired. How they were able to start 6-0 last season is a mystery and how Kyle Orton threw for nearly 4,000 yards is a conundrum, but their two streaks of four losses a piece is a telling sign that this team is inconsistent.

We're not sure who the quarterback will be. I'm going to guess that they'll have three different starters throughout the year — Orton for 10 games, Tim Tebow for four games, and Brady Quinn for two games.

While I think getting rid of Brandon Marshall was necessary for the sanity and chemistry of the team, the offensive weapons are lacking a bit now.

The defense is what will keep this team from falling apart, but unless Orton has another crazy year or Tebow proves to be something I can't see quite yet, I think Broncos fans are in for another disappointing season at 6-10.

Kansas City Chiefs

I annually over-predict on the Chiefs. Or perhaps they annually underachieve. I think the weapons Matt Cassel has been given are sufficient to lead a productive offense. I think Matt Cassel, given solid protection, can be a good quarterback, though he'll never have another season like he did in 2008 for New England upon replacing the injured Tom Brady. Cassel's accuracy was off in 2009. He went from 63.4% in 2008 to 55.0% in 2009. That's not going to get the job done.

Dwayne Bowe was a huge disappointment. He dropped passes. He was lazy and overweight. He got suspended for four games. So much for that weapon. Chris Chambers was solid after the trade to Kansas City and hopefully he will continue to be effective.

The running game for the Chiefs wasn't bad in 2009, Jamaal Charles had the best last four weeks of the season in the NFL, over 600 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns. If he is anywhere near those numbers with Thomas Jones sharing the load, this could be the best one-two running back punch in the NFL. The offensive line will have to hold, but things are in place for the offense to be pretty good.

The defense is still atrocious. Nobody has filled Jared Allen's shoes to be the sack king and they just cannot stop the run, allowing over 150 rushing yards per game, good for second-worst in the NFL.

I think the Chiefs will begin to get better in 2010, but it will take a few seasons of going in the right direction before they are a playoff team. They'll improve to 6-10.

Oakland Raiders

Did you know the Raiders went 5-11 last season? It shocks me that a team that bad won five games. JaMarcus Russell, one of the original recipients of the ridiculous rookie contract, was sent packing and the chances he will ever start another game in the NFL are about zero, making him perhaps the worst overall number one pick ever.

Darren McFadden has underachieved in his first two seasons, fighting through injuries, yet he remains a talented back with potential for a breakout season.

Jason Campbell finds himself at the helm of a worse team than he previously was charged with leading and yet people are expecting the Raiders to turn around under his tenure at quarterback. No doubt he's better than Russell, but Campbell has never been a good quarterback.

Darrius Heyward-Bey was an immediate bust and is simply not ready to be a number one or number two receiver. He's fast and has great size, but he hasn't been trained to be a good receiver. He needs a mentor and there is no such person in Oakland.

This is an inconsistent team that needs a better front office. The drafts of the recent past have been dreadful, especially early picks. Don't expect Campbell to turn things around in a hurry, or at all. 5-11.

Stay tuned as Andrew Jones brings you his NFL previews each week leading up the season!

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