|There was plenty of celebration time in San Francisco last season. (Getty)|
49ersSan Francisco had the most stunning turnaround in the NFL, rebounding from a 6-10 mark in 2010 to a 13-3 record in 2011. Obviously, the major change came via new coach Jim Harbaugh, who put together a wonderful team atmosphere (along with a sturdy defense and strong running game) to lead the team to the NFC title game where San Francisco lost to the Giants in overtime. Hell, even Alex Smith, long one of the bigger draft busts of the past decade, had the best season of his career while coming up clutch in the playoffs.
And it's crazy to say this, but the 49ers don't have a huge area of weakness. Especially with Smith's paradigm shift and with Harbaugh's obvious impact. He's turned a weak team in a weak conference into one of the NFC's best in the span of a year.
Free agents of note
First off, San Francisco, assuming it doesn't woo Peyton Manning at the last moment, needs to re-sign Smith to a deal … Carlos Rogers is one of the better cornerbacks in the division. He also should be a priority for the 49ers … Already, they've taken care of linebacker Ahmad Brooks by signing him to a six-year contract and safety Dashon Goldson by franchise-tagging him. … It's interesting, though, that according to reports out of San Francisco, the 49ers are taking their sweet time in re-signing their own free agents and might opt to wait to see what the market says about them.
While the 49ers, under Harbaugh, are a power-running team, it would be nice to give Smith, assuming he signs, more receivers to catch his passes. Aside from Michael Crabtree, San Francisco's receivers leave something to be desired, and Ted Ginn Jr. and Josh Morgan are unrestricted free agents.
It would not look great to let Rogers leave from the secondary.
It sounds like the 49ers will try to re-sign Morgan, but I expect San Francisco to be active in trying to nail down a top-notch receiver. Options include Vincent Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Robert Meacham. It kind of depends how San Francisco approaches free agency. Crabtree hasn't proved himself to be the kind No. 1 receiver Jackson is, but if that's too expensive for the organization, getting a guy like Garcon or, even, Eddie Royal could be acceptable.
CardinalsKevin Kolb was supposed to be the savior for this franchise. Remember that? Though many of us believed the Cardinals were making an iffy investment on a guy who only had limited success in Philadelphia -- and giving him a $65 million contract to boot -- Arizona went ahead with the deal anyway. And it turned out John Skelton was just as effective as Kolb (if not stats-wise, with the win-loss record at least).
While the Kolb signing was a bust, the Cardinals made strides toward the end of 2011. Rookie Patrick Peterson was a revelation, Larry Fitzgerald retained his title as franchise superstar and running back Beanie Wells went over 1,000 yards. Most importantly, the team gelled in the final half of the year, winning seven of its final nine games of 2011. Yes, the 49ers, by that time, had run away with the division, but entering 2012, the Cardinals could contend. Maybe.
Free agents of note
The Cardinals have taken care of one of their biggest offseason priorities, franchise-tagging defensive end Calais Campbell. … It will be interesting to see what Arizona decides to do with linebacker Clark Haggans, receiver Early Doucet, right tackle Brandon Keith and kicker Jay Feely.
The biggest date of the offseason for the Cardinals is March 17. That's the day, the club owes Kolb $7 million, and by that point, you'd like to think that Arizona will have made the decision about its quarterback future. The Cardinals have entered the Peyton Manning sweepstakes, in part because Kolb was injured for half the season and in part because when he wasn't injured, Kolb simply wasn't very good. They could release Kolb before the $7 million payment is due, hope they land Manning, and, if not, go forward with Skelton for now.
The Cardinals also could use a pair of new tackles. Keith and left tackle Levi Brown have not been all that impressive, and depending on who's quarterbacking the team next year, an investment to protect him would be a pretty good idea. Actually, adding to the interior line also would be a good investment for Arizona. That said, if the Cardinals can get Brown and Keith at reasonable prices, they probably wouldn't be averse to having them return.
Manning, obviously, first and foremost.
SeahawksThere's little doubt that Pete Carroll has helped make Seattle a better franchise in his two seasons there, but the Seahawks were slightly disappointing last year, especially coming on their heels of their improbable playoff appearance in 2010. Remember, that was the first time an NFL team had made the postseason with a losing record, but in 2011, with the same 7-9 record, Seattle was nowhere near the playoffs (thanks San Francisco!).
And while Carroll has turned over so much of the roster he originally inherited from Jim Mora Jr., he still hasn't found a quarterback. Last year, he played Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst, and well, let's just say neither are legitimate starters (at this point, I'm not even sure Whitehurst is a legit backup). Plus, the Seahawks didn't look so good after giving Sidney Rice a $41 million contract, watching him disappear into irrelevance in his first season there.
The good news, though. Marshawn Lynch looked rejuvenated in gaining more than 1,200 yards, and the Seahawks defense ranked in the top 10 in points given up and yards allowed.
Free agents of note
The Seahawks biggest priority had to be re-signing Lynch, and since they've done that, they can focus on their other needs … While Seattle wants to keep defensive end Red Bryant, the two sides have not reached an agreement yet … It's not just Bryant possibly headed for free agency. Also among those from the defensive line: defensive end Raheem Brock, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson … Two important linebackers, David Hawthorne and Leroy Hill, also are up for grabs.
Like the Cardinals, it makes sense for the Seahawks to go after Peyton Manning. The quarterback situation in Seattle is a dead end at this point, and with Seahawks owner Paul Allen apparently willing to pony up plenty of money (maybe as much as Miami owner Stephen Ross) and Carroll game to go after Manning, it's not out of the question that Manning could wind up in the Northwest. That would give Seattle a chance to go after San Francisco in the division. At this point, this idea is looking less and less likely.
While the defense was good enough for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh to label it better than Pittsburgh's unit, there's a chance Seattle could lose significant players.
With the release last week of Marcus Trufant, the Seahawks might have to be in the market for a cornerback. Even if Seattle can't land Manning, the Seahawks have to get another quarterback, because the Jackson/Whitehurst combo just isn't cutting it. Matt Flynn is a possibility there. And what happens if Bryant slips away? Hell, why not just go after Houston's Mario Williams?
RamsThe Rams got some great news this week when it was reported that they will receive three first-round draft picks and a second-rounder for the rights to the No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft (the Robert Griffin III pick). So it appears St. Louis will have a great chance to rebuild in the next couple years. Which is good, because at this point, the Rams are very far away indeed. They lost the first six games of 2011 and then lost the last seven games. In between, they weren't all that great either.
Quarterback Sam Bradford wasn't 100 percent healthy, and, in his second season, his play suffered. Until they acquired Brandon Lloyd, the team basically didn't have any receivers. And their defense was one of the ten-worst in the league. Still, it's not like they're the Colts and having to gut everything and everybody (though former coach Steve Spagnuolo and former general manager Billy Devaney might disagree with that notion). There is some hope in St. Louis, especially with the hiring of Jeff Fisher. It just might take a while for it all to pan out.
Free agents of note
Perhaps the most important free agent is wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who might want to reunite with new Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels … Guard Jacob Bell probably will not return … The team apparently almost used the transition tag on punter Donnie Jones. Ultimately, the Rams did not. … It seems likely, though, that the Rams won't be re-signing many of their free agents.
If you want Bradford to improve, you need to surround him with receivers. It's telling that Lloyd played only 11 games in St. Louis but still managed to lead the team with 51 catches and five touchdowns. The Rams would like to re-sign him, but Lloyd might be too tempted by the Patriots. Already, the Rams have tendered restricted free agent receiver Danny Amendola at a second-round level.
The offensive line was a disaster last year, especially with the injuries to Bell and Jason Smith. Somehow, Steven Jackson still managed to rush for 1,145 yards, but the Rams led the league with 55 sacks allowed. So, that's not good.
The Rams apparently are looking hard at Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan. Even if the Rams do sign Lloyd, they still need another starting wide receiver -- a guy like Marques Colston could be a target. The offensive line also needs to be shuffled, and the Rams could go after a name player in the draft. St. Louis also could go after a receiver (Justin Blackmon) or cornerback (Morris Claiborne) with the No. 6 overall pick.
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