The NFC West is probably the weakest division in all of football, which could bode well for any one of three teams; the St. Louis Rams, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Arizona Cardinals. Yes, even the Arizona Cardinals appear ready for a playoff run, and with no clear-cut favorite establishing themselves, a division crown isnt out of the question for 2005. Only the San Francisco 49ers appear to be in a complete rebuild year, but if they stay healthy, who knows?
The Cardinals are a popular choice to fill this years Cinderella role. If nothing else, they seem to be heading in the right direction, and I think they have what it takes to compete in the NFC West. If Kurt Warner returns to making quick reads and getting rid of the ball quickly, the offense could be explosive with the talent they have at wide receiver. A solid passing attack would also open up the field for rookie running back J.J. Arrington. But if Warner remains indecisive, or the line fails to protect him, the offense will be inconsistent.
The Cardinals have a quick, underrated defense with a bunch of new faces this year. The secondary has been upgraded, Chike Okeafor is a nice complement to Bertrand Berry at defensive end, and outside linebacker Carlos Dansby is poised for a break-out season. This unit has the potential to be one of the better defenses in the league. And facing one of the weakest schedules in the league, a 10-win season is not out of the question for this squad. Playing in a relatively weak division also gives the club a legitimate shot at a coming out on top.
San Francisco 49ers
By naming veteran Tim Rattay the starter at quarterback, the 49ers send a signal that they think they can compete in 2005, but I just dont think they have the horses. When Rattay is healthy, the offense is capable of putting points on the board. But he makes mistakes under pressure and has hard a hard time staying on the field. Rookie Alex Smith is not ready, and probably doesnt have the supporting cast to lead this team to many wins this year. Kevan Barlow is nothing special at running back, the wide receiving corps lacks a No. 1, and the offensive line has been completely revamped.
The heart and soul of the defense is the line backing crew, which is led by outside linebacker Julian Peterson. Peterson is coming off an Achilles injury which cost him the 2004 season, but is expected to be fully recovered. The defensive line, anchored by veteran Bryant Young, is adequate, but the secondary is questionable. Shawntae Spencer has good quickness, but hes more of a No. 2 corner, and Ahmed Plummer is a liability in coverage. Willie Middlebrooks was brought in to play the nickel and Mike Rumph was moved to free safety, but overall, no one in the group stands out. Even strong safety Tony Parrish had a down year in 2004.
The 49ers are in an obvious rebuilding stage, and approaching 8-8 could be asking too much for this squad. Five to six wins is probably more of a reality for 2005.
The Seahawks are retooling on defense again, and getting everyone on the same page early will be key to improving their 23rd ranking against both the run and the pass in 2004. A big key will be getting improved play from 2004 first-round draft pick Marcus Tubbs, who has shown signs of coming around in the preseason. Cornerback Ken Lucas was lost to free agency, but Andre Dyson and Kelly Herndon were brought in to team up with the talented Marcus Trufant. Given time, this defensive unit should be significantly better than last years, and could slip into the top half of the league.