Breaking Down the NFC West: June Edition

How is the NFC West race shaping up? Brad Wilbricht explains.

As of now, the NFC West looks to be a two-team race heading into the 2010 season. The Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers are the main contenders with the Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams hoping their fortunes will turn sooner than expected. The Cardinals are coming off two consecutive division titles but will need to navigate through several key losses in order to win a third straight NFC West crown. Meanwhile, San Francisco has spent the better part of the last two campaigns positioning itself for a run at the division title.

Key losses in Arizona such as Kurt Warner, Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle will certainly hinder the team's development. However, the Cardinals were prepared for each departure and managed to execute suitable contingency plans. Fifth-year QB Matt Leinart will take over for Warner under center and while his consistency has waivered, Leinart possesses invaluable experience as a starter in the NFL. In Dansby's case, Arizona invested a second-round draft pick on Daryl Washington and also signed journeyman Paris Lenon to shore up the linebacker position.

Kerry Rhodes

Dansby cashed in on a lucrative long-term deal with the Miami Dolphins, something the Cardinals were reluctant to agree to after tagging him as a franchise player in 2008 and 2009. The last time Arizona's front office made a similar decision involved Calvin Pace, now of the New York Jets. Given Pace's mixed results in New York, that decision is paying off due to his struggles on and off the field. Finally, while Kerry Rhodes lacks the playmaking skills of Rolle, he's a dependable secondary member who comes with a substantially lower price tag.

In San Francisco, the 49ers' hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of QB Alex Smith and a potentially dominating defense. Smith, the first overall selection of the 2005 draft, experienced the best season of his career a year ago but needs to progress even further in 2010. Having the services of dynamic wideout Michael Crabtree for a full season should aid Smith's growth as will the addition of rookie offensive linemen Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati. TE Vernon Davis has developed into a matchup nightmare and will continue giving opposing defenses fits.

The one weak link of the 49ers' defense in 2009 came in the secondary. San Francisco allowed 229 yards per game through the air compared to just 97 yards per outing on the ground. While the 49ers focused on securing their offensive line and bringing in help for workhorse RB Frank Gore, they did little to address those pass defense woes. Standout defenders such as Patrick Willis and Manny Lawson are entering the category of the league's best but their talents will be neutralized if play in the secondary remains an issue.

At this point both Seattle and St. Louis remain irrelevant in the race for the division title. This holds particularly true for the Rams who are just one year removed from a dismal 1-15 record with the future of their franchise depending largely on rookie QB Sam Bradford. Meanwhile, the Seahawks are in a better position to make a run at the NFC West crown but many new faces, including head coach Pete Carroll, will prove to be extremely difficult to overcome. It's fairly safe to chalk up 2010 as a learning experience for both teams who have struggled mightily in recent years.

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