St. Louis Rams
San Francisco 49ers (11-5)
Offense is the name of the game in the NFC West, so it should come as no surprise that the team which did the most to improve its defense in the off-season (and has one of the league's weakest schedule) stands out. San Francisco will score 27.8 points per game and allow 18.1, against a schedule that features games against just three 2007 playoff teams.
Offensive Outlook: The 27.8 points a game are second in the NFL and tops in the NFC. Obviously, playing against the three other defenses in the NFC West will help any offense, and it just gets better for the 49ers with games against sieves New Orleans, Atlanta, Cleveland, Cincinnati and the Giants. Former first overall pick Alex Smith loses his offensive coordinator, yet an even more powerful running game and playmaking defense, helps Smith improve on his 2006 breakout campaign with one of the top ten statistical seasons by a quarterback in 2007. Smith completes 60% of his passes for 3,541 yards, 26 TDs and 15 interceptions. And Smith is almost considered an afterthought behind monster running back Frank Gore. Gore touches the ball on 399 plays, going for a conference best 2,219 total yards and 18 touchdowns. The receiving corps took a big step forward with the additions of Darrell Jackson and rookie Jason Hill. Throw in the sure-handed Arnaz Battle and a tight end who is faster than most wideouts and, what was a weakness last season, looks like a strength for the conference's most explosive offense.
Defensive Outlook: The 18.1 points a game allowed are seventh in the league. With all the optimism that abounds with the offense, the defense is actually more improved. With a ton of cap space, the 49ers added Pro Bowl cornerback Nate Clements, Pro Bowl safety Michael Lewis and pass-rushing specialist Tully Banta-Cain. Then, with the draft, San Fran brought it a player in Patrick Willis who is polished and fills in perfectly, allowing the team to utilize the 3-4. This is all good news to end Bryant Young, who plays in his 208th game with the San Francisco 49ers. Young and Marques Douglas are the big ends who thrive in the 3-4, while Isaac Sopoaga plugs the middle. This leaves the pass-rushing up to athletic freaks Manny Lawson, Tully Banta-Cain, Brandon Moore and Parys Haralson. The quartet finishes with 19 total sacks, 196 tackles and countless hurries. On the inside, Willis is as NFL-ready as it gets and the underrated Derek Smith shines. That duo totals 212 tackles. So with a front seven that now perfectly fits the system, it should be noted that the greatest area of improvement is in the secondary. With Torry Holt, Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald, Deion Branch and others in the division, it is crucial to have a shutdown corner. Clements provides that and some playmaking ability, making 60 tackles and intercepting eight passes. When healthy, Shawntae Spencer and Walt Harris are more than adequate as well. With the right pieces around him, Safety Michael Lewis returns to his 2005 form with 83 tackles, three interceptions and two sacks. The 49ers are not just a sleeper playoff team in 2007, they are legit NFC contender.
Schedule (simulated 2007 record in parentheses): Arizona (8-8), @St. Louis (8-8), @Pittsburgh (7-9), Seattle (6-10), Baltimore (8-8), @NYG (6-10), New Orleans (10-6), @Atlanta (6-10), @Seattle (6-10), St. Louis (8-8), @Arizona (8-8), @Carolina (10-6), Minnesota (7-9), Cincinnati (9-7), Tampa Bay (7-9), @Cleveland (5-11)
Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Alex Smith (10) 3,541 yards, 26 TDs, 15 INTs; Frank Gore 1,819 rushing yards, 47 receptions, 18 TDs; Darrell Jackson (20) 79 receptions, 1,094 yards, 8 TDs; Vernon Davis (7) 47 receptions, 680 yards, 4 TDs; Joe Nedney(9) 45/46 XPs, 27/33 FGs; Defense (7) 23 INTs, 38 sacks, 289 points allowed.
St. Louis Rams (8-8)
The 2007 St. Louis Rams look eerily similar to the 2006 version and, not too surprisingly, finish with the same record, just out of the Wild Card. St. Louis will score 25.2 points a game and allow 26.1, against a schedule that features six games against 2007 playoff teams.
Offensive Outlook: The 25.2 points a game are 5th in the NFL and third in the NFC. Not much has changed. Marc Bulger is efficient - 7.84 yards per attempt, 1.92:1 TD-to-incerception ratio - yet misses two games due to injury. Steven Jackson is a beast - 2,126 total yards and 18 touchdowns. And, the receivers are deep and talented. One major addition is Randy McMichael, the former tight end of the Dolphins, who grabs 41 balls for 433 yards and three touchdowns. With two highly drafted tight ends already on the roster, Torry Holt, Steven Jackson, rookie Brian Leonard, Drew Bennett, Isaac Bruce, Dane Looker and return specialist Dante' Hall, Bulger has a myriad of options in the passing attack. Scott Linehan's balanced approach keeps this from being the Greatest Show on Turf II, yet the team can still score in bunches.
Defensive Outlook: The 26.1 points a game allowed are 26th in the league. The defense is not great, but it is intriguing. On the field and when he wants to be, Leonard Little is as disruptive a force off the end as there is in the NFL. In 2007, he is joined by rookie Adam Carriker as well as second-year player Victor Adeyanju and free agent James Hall, as the Rams found a way to add size and pass-rushing ability. Little records a team-high 13 sacks, while Carriker compliments him with eight sacks. The tackle position is not as promising. The aging La'Roi Glover and 2006 backup to the backup Claude Wroten are the only tackles with any experience on the roster. The linebackers are all undersized - every LB on the depth chart but the 242 pound Brandon Chillar is under 235 pounds - and yet not highly athletic. At safety, Corey Chavous and O.J. Atogwe looked good in 2006 and improve on that success in 2007. They combine for 162 tackles, six interceptions and three sacks. Tye Hill and Fakhir Brown do not fare nearly as well at corner. Both are burned by the stellar receivers on the schedule.
Schedule (simulated 2007 record in parentheses): Carolina (10-6), San Francisco (11-5), @Tampa Bay (7-9), @Dallas (8-8), Arizona (8-8), @Baltimore (8-8), @Seattle (6-10), Cleveland (5-11), @New Orleans (10-6), @San Francisco (11-5), Seattle (6-10), Atlanta (7-9), @Cincinnati (9-7), Green Bay (8-8), Pittsburgh (7-9), @Arizona (8-8)
Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Marc Bulger (11) 3,690 yards, 25 TDs, 13 INTs; Steven Jackson (3) 1,476 yards rushing, 71 receptions, 18 total TDs; Torry Holt (7) 98 receptions, 1,436 yards, 8 TDs; Drew Bennett (33) 51 receptions, 857 yards, 6 TDs; Randy McMichael (17) 41 receptions, 433 yards, 3 TDs; Jeff Wilkins (13) 44/45 XPs, 25/28 FGs; Defense (26) 16 INTs, 40 sacks, 418 points allowed.
Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
For as long as we have been projecting the NFL, Arizona has always failed to live up to our expectations. Generally, we would call this - when a team loses more games than their points for and points against would suggest - bad luck. With the Cardinals, it likely has more to do with a franchise mentality. Ken Whisenhunt, who has been with a franchise that traditionally overachieves, hopes to change that way of thinking and change the team from underachieving to at least achieving. Whether the team will do better or worse than 8-8 will not be learned for almost seven months; but, for a team with such a strong offense, .500 cannot be that much of a pipedream. Can it? In 2007, Arizona scores 25.1 points a game and allows 24.8, against a schedule that features five games against 2007 playoff teams.
Offensive Outlook: The 24.8 points a game are sixth in the NFL and fourth in the NFC, yet third it the Cardinals' division. With Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Edgerrin James on the roster, most quarterbacks would look good. In 2007, that translates to a top five statistical season with 3,996 yards, 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. The lefty may not be throwing the ball as much as he did under Dennis Green, but most of the throws are snatched out of the air and taken for several more yards by those great weapons. James is the ultimate workhorse, who fends off the inevitable regression for another season, rushing for 1,406 yards and scoring 14 times behind a slightly improved line (though of the 11 running backs with more than 300 carries, he has the lowest yards per carry). Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin are proven and, for 2007, healthy. The duo goes for 2,753 yards and 18 TDs on 187 catches. Ken Whisenhunt may not have landed the role of replacing (his twin) Bill Cowher, but, as an offensive-minded coach, he steps into a better situation in Arizona.
Defensive Outlook: The 24.8 points a game allowed are 23rd in the league. Staying in the 4-3 for 2007, the line is well-constructed and talented. The tackles have three recent high draft choices with athletic freak Darnell Dockett and mammoth Michigan monsters Alan Branch and Gabe Watson. At the end, lightweights Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor really get after the quarterback. Clearly, with two starting ends under 270 pounds, the Cardinals will struggles against the run, particularly on the outside where intra-division backs Shaun Alexander and Frank Gore like to roam. If the team adapts to the Steelers' 3-4 ways in the future, look Watson and Branch are perfectly cut in the nose tackle mold, Duckett can play at the end and Berry is probably better suited to come of the outside anyway. Either way, Karlos Dansby will start at outside linebacker. The former Auburn Tiger records 98 tackles and five sacks. Gerald Hayes and Calvin Pace are probably better suited for backup roles in this league. Behind an athletic line that cannot stop the run and a linebacking corps that lacks starting talent, the secondary actually looks sharp. Safety Adrian Wilson is a star and cornerback Antrel Rolle is quickly headed in that direction. Contributing in every way he can, Wilson makes 96 tackles, five interceptions and three sacks. In the NFC West, where all the offenses are adept at running and passing the ball, a defense cannot afford to forsake one of these areas like the Cardinals do with stopping the run.
Schedule (simulated 2007 record in parentheses): @San Francisco (11-5), Seattle (6-10), @Baltimore (8-8), Pittsburgh (7-9), @St. Louis (8-8), Carolina (10-6), @Washington (6-10), @Tampa Bay (7-9), Detroit (6-10), @Cincinnati (9-7), San Francisco (11-5), Cleveland (5-11), @Seattle (6-10), @New Orleans (10-6), Atlanta (6-10), St. Louis (8-8)
Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Matt Leinart (5) 3,996 yards, 28 TDs, 14 INTs; Edgerrin James (7) 1,406 yards rushing, 29 receptions, 14 total TDs; Anquan Boldin (5) 94 receptions, 1,417 yards, 9 TDs; Larry Fitzgerald (8) 93 receptions, 1,336 yards, 9 TDs; Leonard Pope (20) 36 receptions, 372 yards, 3 TDs; Neil Rackers (10) 45/46 XPs, 25/36 FGs; Defense (23) 19 INTs, 35 sacks, 397 points allowed.
Seattle Seahawks (6-10)
With the best defense in the division, the Seattle Seahawks accidentally won the NFC West in 2006. Now that the other teams have improved on D and Seattle has the toughest schedule of the lot (games against Chicago and Philadelphia), the Seahawks struggle mightily. In 2007, Seattle will score 19.4 points a game and allow 27.2, against a schedule that features seven games against 2007 playoff teams.
Offensive Outlook: The 19.4 points a game are 25th in the NFL and 13th in the NFC. After an injury plagued 2006, 2005 NFL MVP Shaun Alexander is a bright spot on this offense. Alexander rushes for 4.49 yards per carry on 343 carries for 1,726 total yards and 13 scores, meaning that four of the top eight statistical running back seasons come from the NFC West. Matt Hasselbeck and the passing game are not nearly as fortunate as they take a step back with just 6.97 yards per attempt and a 1.26:1 TD-to-interception ratio. It does not matter how good Deion Branch looks in the Super Bowl if he cannot help his team get there. D.J. Hackett is not a bad player, but losing Darrell Jackson and Jeramy Stevens hurts this offense.
Defensive Outlook: The 27.2 points a game allowed are 27th in the league. Third year starting middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and speed demon Julian Peterson are close to as good as it gets, but age and a couple free agent losses actually hurt the defense more than the offense. Gone are Ken Hamlin, Kelly Herndon, Grant Wistrom and D.D. Lewis. In their respective places are NFL-caliber, yet inferior players Deon Grant, Josh Wilson, Patrick Kerney and Will Herring. Tatupu leads the team with 132 tackles, while Peterson, Kerney and veteran defensive end Bryce Fisher tie with a team-high six sacks. Beyond the most interesting story, may be that of rookie second round pick Josh Wilson who beats out 2006 first round pick Kelly Jennings, to start at corner. The gritty Wilson notches 51 tackles and grabs two interceptions.
Schedule (simulated 2007 record in parentheses): Tampa Bay (7-9), @Arizona (8-8), Cincinnati (9-7), @San Francisco (11-5), @Pittsburgh (7-9), New Orleans (10-6), St. Louis (8-8), @Cleveland (5-11), San Francisco (11-5), Chicago (11-5), @St. Louis (8-8), @Philadelphia (8-8), Arizona (8-8), @Carolina (10-6), Baltimore (8-8), @Atlanta (6-10)
Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Matt Hasselbeck (25) 3,173 passing yards, 19 TDs, 15 INTs; Shaun Alexander (8) 1,539 yards rushing, 21 receptions, 13 total TDs; Deion Branch (14) 90 receptions, 1,309 yards, 7 TDs; D.J. Hackett (30) 66 receptions, 960 yards, 5 TDs; Marcus Pollard (40) 21 receptions, 214 yards, 1 TDs; Josh Brown (23) 34/34 XPs, 23/29 FGs; Defense (27) 15 INTs, 35 sacks, 435 points allowed.