NFC West Overview

The NFC West should be competitive in 2005, with three teams capable of walking away with the crown.

The St. Louis Rams might be the class of the division, the upstart Arizona Cardinals could surprise people and the Seattle Seahawks must overcome salary-cap and roster issues to defend their NFC West title. The San Francisco 49ers, who own the No. 1 overall selection in the draft, continue to rebuild.

Turning around a San Francisco organization that has been crippled due to poor personnel decisions will certainly be a difficult task for new 49ers head coach Mike Nolan and vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan. Following his hire, Nolan quickly noted that the 2005 season would not be a throwaway season but rather an opportunity to grow as a team.

The quarterback position is one where the 49ers would be well-served to upgrade their talent. The front office has opened negotiations with two quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers of California and Alex Smith of Utah, with Rodgers clearly the Niners' preference for the first pick. Quarterback isn't the team's only pressing need. With issues at wide receiver, tight end, offensive line and defensive backfield, the 49ers are counting on an impressive draft to solidify these positions.

The Seahawks appear to be set on offense, but the contract status of running back Shaun Alexander remains unsettled. Unsure if they should give Alexander a long-term contract, the Seahawks may trade him on draft day to avoid further salary-cap issues. However, moving Alexander would create a huge void in the Seattle offense and force the team to deal for a running back or add one in the draft. Finding a top talent at running back with the No. 23 pick isn't likely.

Despite making the playoffs last season, the Seahawks' immediate future isn't rosy. Due to free agency, age and the salary cap, Seattle has numerous holes to fill and the free-agent market does not have suitable replacements. With all of the changes on defense, head coach Mike Holmgren will have to pull off his greatest coaching feat ever for the Seahawks to compete at the same level they did in 2004.

Heading into Dennis Green's second season, the Cardinals appear to have a new attitude and direction. Consistency and respectability have found their way to Arizona, which finished 6-10 last season but was outscored by a mere 38 points. While the Cardinals have a long way to go before they can be considered a prime contender in the NFC West, just the notion this team has improved is enough to provide hope.

Green believed an upgrade at quarterback was needed for the Cardinals to progress. Free-agent signee Kurt Warner can still lead a team – if he's given time to throw. Pass protection, which wasn't strong in 2004, hasn't been addressed in the offseason, as the team appears to be settling for the status quo with the hope that continuity will lead to continued improvement.

The Cardinals' offensive focus is on the running game, which improved greatly over the second half of last season. While it may have been sad to see veteran Emmitt Smith retire, no tears will be shed as the Cardinals seek a young and talented back. Marcel Shipp is penciled in as the starting running back, but that could change if the team trades for Travis Henry or selects a running back early in the draft.

In St. Louis, one more underachieving season by the Rams could seal the fate of Mike Martz.

Protecting quarterback Marc Bulger has to be a priority for Martz. While somewhat elusive, Bulger is not the type of QB that can be successful without a diversified offensive set and protection. The Rams are gambling with the health of Bulger and their overall success if they don't solidify their offensive line.

The defense, St. Louis' most inconsistent unit the past few seasons, has been upgraded with the additions of linebackers Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley. The linebacking corps, which was an area of weakness, now may be considered an area of strength with Claiborne in the middle and Coakley and Pisa Tinoisamoa on the outside.

The secondary features proven starters in Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler, but its depth is questionable. DeJuan Groce has been injured and Kevin Garrett has not played well. Due to the potential retirement of veteran cornerback/safety Aeneas Williams, the Rams may be best served by addressing the defensive backfield early in the draft.

St. Louis has the makings of a solid team in 2005. With a solid draft and a couple of breaks, the Rams could again challenge for the NFC West crown.


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