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1. Seattle Seahawks (Projected Finish: 11-5)
In a division with the rancid 49ers, the perennially-rebuilding Cardinals and the declining Rams, this must be the year that Mike Holmgren's team finally wins the West and makes a strong playoff run. QB Matt Hasselback controls an offense that has averaged 285 yards and 25 points over the team's past 22 games. RB Shaun Alexander, FB Mack Strong, WR's Koren Robinson, Darrel Jackson and Bobby Engram, along with TE Itula Hill make up as strong an offensive supporting cast as you'll see anywhere. With guys like LT Walter Jones, LG Steve Hutchenson and C Robbie Tobeck leading the way up front, the Seahawks should stay with anyone on the scoreboard.
The big free agent additions this offseason were DE Grant Winstrom (Rams) and CB Bobby Taylor (Eagles). Winstrom will give the Seahawks the kind of pocket crashing pressure they need up front; while Taylor gives them the big, physical corner that can hang with any receiver in the league. With Taylor taking the oppositions #1 receiver, second-year CB Marcus Trufant should see more success this year, while rookie SS Peter Boulware's speed and coverage skills should make up for his lack of experience in Seattle's revamped secondary.
Barring a rash of serious injuries, if the Seahawks can't win the division title and/or make a deep playoff run this season, Mike Holmgren should be fired.
2. St. Louis Rams (Projected Finish: 8-8)
Mike Martz has a tough task ahead of him with the Rams coming off a disappointing 12-4 season. First, they were blown out in the season finale by the Detroit Lions, losing home field advantage in the process. They followed that up by filling their collective pants during crunch time in their playoff loss to the Carolina Panthers. It was a monumental collapse, and it only amplifies the pressure on the Rams to rebound in 2004.
Martz must retool his high-powered offense and slumping defense on the fly. With Kurt Warner dispatched to the Giants, QB Mark Bulger is now the official triggerman of the Ram offensive attack. In April, the team picked up RB Steven Jackson, who they hope will one day replace the Canton-bound Marshall Faulk. Faulk is now 31 and is finally beginning to slow down. Torry Holt is now one of the best wideouts in the league. He and his bookend WR, Isaac Bruce, now have ten 1,000 yards seasons between them; but if either of them go down, the lack of quality depth could drop Bulger's production substantially.
While the offense remains formidable, the defense could slump badly this season. With Grant Winstrom now with the division rival Seahawks, and DT Brian Young now in bayou country with another rival (New Orleans); the team is left with DE Leonard Little. Unfortunately, Little was charged once again this spring with drunken driving, and faces possible jail time and/or an NFL mandated suspension. The starting LB core of SLB Tommy Polley, MLB Robert Thomas and WLB Pisa Tinoisamoa are good, but will make their share of mistakes. FS Aeneas Williams and SS Adam Archuleta are one of the NFL's best safety tandems, but it remains to be seen if whether CB's Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler can continue to improve to a championship level.
K Jeff Wilkins remains one of the league's best kickers and the ageless Sean Landetta's coffin-corner-eye keeps him a valuable asset, but the coverage and return teams have to improve from subpar 2003 performances.
The Rams will remain in the playoff hunt for most of the season in a weak NFC, but the lack of depth on both sides of the ball will ultimately doom their hopes for the postseason.
3. Arizona Cardinals (Projected Finish: 6-10)
Dennis Green must be a glutton for punishment, how else could anyone explain why he decided to take on what is annually the toughest coaching job in the NFL. The Cardinals have not won an NFL championship since Harry Truman was in the White House. On the bright side, they have just one playoff win in the last 57 seasons. Nevertheless, Green thinks he can turn things around, and with a career-record of 97-62 as an NFL head coach, he certainly deserves the chance to try.
Josh McCown will remain the Cards' QB this season. Green had plenty of success in molding the likes of young QB's Brad Johnson and Daunte Culpepper in Minnesota. He also squeezed ultra-productive seasons out of the likes of Jeff George, Randall Cunningham and Warren Moon after each veteran was castoff by previous teams. If McCown has any ability in him at all, Green will find it. Marcel Shipp and Emmitt Smith will share the carries in the Cardinal ground game. Neither player is a game breaker, but they are both far from chopped liver.
The loss of WR Anquan Boldin to a season-ending knee injury during the preseason was a big blow. It will likely hamper the development of rookie first-rounder Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is as can't miss as they come, but it sure would have helped to have the explosive Boldin lining up opposite of him during his first season. Boldin's absence provides a prime opportunity for TE Freddie Jones to earn his first Pro Bowl trip. Expect the Cards to use Jones to attack the seams and work the middle of the field the same way the Vikings used Pro Bowler Steve Jordan during Green's early years in Minnesota. If the new staff can get the Cardinals talented but underperforming offense line to live up to their potential, Arizona's offense could make noise despite the absence of Boldin.
The Achilles heel of the Cardinals is their defense, Other than free agent addition DE Bertrand Berry, who collected 11.5 sacks last year in Denver; they have no real playmakers on that side of the ball. Young DT's Kerry King and Wendall Bryant have the best chance to finally make waves in Arizona's revamped defensive scheme. If the line fails to improve, the overmatched linebackers and secondary will again be fully exposed.
The Cardinals have a long way to go to get back to respectability, but the arrival of Dennis Green gives the Cardinals their most innovative coach since Don Coryell and their most successful and battle-tested head coach since Hall of Famer Jimmy Conzelman, who led the Cards to their last championship in 1947.
4. San Francisco 49ers (Projected Finish: 2-14)
Twenty-five years after his first season as ‘Niner head coach in 1979, I think it is safe to say that the Bill Walsh imprint on the San Francisco franchise has finally washed away. Owner John York, GM Terry Donahue and head coach Dennis Erickson will soon turn this one time crown jewel of the NFL into a laughingstock. They are all over matched in their roles and it will be only a matter of time before they will sink lower than the flotsam and jetsam that floats on the surface of San Francisco Bay.
The ‘Niner hierarchy has tried to spin the current teardown - featuring over the last two seasons the free agent departures of WR's Terrell Owens and Tai Streets, QB Jeff Garcia, RB Garrison Hearst, OT Derrick Deese and OG Dave Fiore - as planning for the future, namely 2005 or 2006. That's a long way off in today's NFL environment, and with the expected departure of Pro Bowl OLB Julian Peterson at the end of 2004, the San Francisco talent vacuum will likely suck up Erickson in the process. The coach has already suggested that he might not have taken the job had he understood more clearly what York and Donahue's long-term plans were.
It's gonna be a long . . . long . . . season in San Francisco. Hey look! Isn't that NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue?
"The San Francisco Forty-Niners are now on the clock."