NFC West preview
Rock-solid 49ers all set for a return to the play-offs
By David John. Last Updated: September 5, 2012 10:36am
The San Francisco 49ers were head and shoulders above the rest of the division last year and it would be a shock if they did not return to the play-offs.
San Francisco 49ers(13-3)
Star Man: Patrick Willis
Jim Harbaugh enjoyed a sensational first year in the Bay area as he turned around a franchise of perennial under-achievers and got them to within touching distance of a Super Bowl appearance. But they have no element of surprise this time around so Harbaugh is going to have to find a little extra improvement if they are going to reach the promised land.
Signal caller Alex Smith flourished under former quarterback Harbaugh. He had a league-low five interceptions as he showed toughness and intelligence and his best quality remains the ability to manage a game efficiently.
Smith lacks elite arm strength but new arrivals Randy Moss and Mario Manningham give him two new legitimate deep threats while Vernon Davis remains one of the best tight ends in the league. Frank Gore has had a punishing career at running back but he operates behind a stellar offensive line with Kendall Hunter and the experienced Brandon Jacobs capable of easing his workload.
The defense is jam-packed with Pro Bowlers headed by linebacker Patrick Willis. They eliminate the run then Willis, Justin Smith and NaVorro Bowman are unleashed on the quarterback as they came up with 42 sacks and 23 interceptions in 2011. They will be the foundation any success is built on.
Star Man: Richard Sherman
The Seahawks look to be heading in the right direction under head coach Pete Carroll but until he finds a reliable quarterback, they are going to struggle to beat the best in the league. Carroll hopes he may have discovered the solution in rookie Russell Wilson, who replaces the inconsistent Tarvaris Jackson.
Running back Marshawn Lynch seems to have found his metier in Washington State and has moved on from the loose cannon attitude that made him so frustrating in Buffalo. He had over 1,200 yards rushing in 2011 and possesses an extremely tough and attritional style that bludgeons defenses into submission.
The strength of the defense lies in the secondary with Kam Chanceller, Brandon Brown and Earl Thomas all making the Pro Bowl. Second-year cornerback Richard Sherman is big and rangy for the position and could be a superstar in the making as part of an elite unit.
Star Man: Larry Fitzgerald
Arizona need badly to iron out their situation at quarterback and some improved play at that position could see them post a winning record. Kevin Kolb was brought in last season from Philadelphia but spent much of his time in the treatment room with a foot injury and then concussion. John Skelton stepped in as a replacement and fared positively down the stretch - it should at least mean some healthy competition for the starting job.
Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald continues to play at an elite level despite some hit-and-miss performances from his quarterbacks. He is double-teamed constantly but the arrival of Notre Dame stud Michael Floyd should help loosen up things a little. Chris 'Beanie' Wells is the starting running back and can be productive if healthy although Ryan Williams will get his share of carries after missing his rookie year with a ruptured Achilles.
The defense had to digest a new playbook last season but improved as they went along and were pretty effective over the closing eight games. A few more sacks and interceptions would not go amiss though in the grand scheme of things.
St Louis Rams (2-14)
Star Man: James Laurinaitis
Jeff Fisher is now the head coach in St Louis after the pretty disastrous tenures of Steve Spagnuolo and Scott Linehan. The latter duo had never been head coaches so the Rams have gone to the other end of the spectrum with Fisher, who spent a total of 16 full seasons with Houston/Tennessee.
Quarterback Sam Bradford was limited by injuries in 2011 and with the coaching staff changed once again, he will be on to yet another playbook. Injuries aside, he was given very little help on offense but hopefully a fit-gain Danny Amendola and second-round draft pick Brian Quick will give him some consistency in the passing game.
Workhorse running back Steven Jackson has been a credit to the organisation through thick and thin and posted another 1,000-yard+ campaign last year.
Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis remains an underrated performer but is the heartbeat on the defensive side of the ball. Smart and aggressive, he should get help from free agent Jo-Lon Dunbar while the line has the potential to make some waves as they develop.