Once, this was the league's worst division. Now it's one of its most competitive.
|Predicted Order of Finish|
|1. Seahawks||2008 standings: 4-12|
|2. Cardinals||2008 standings: 9-7|
|3. 49ers||2008 standings: 7-9|
|4. Rams||2008 standings: 2-14|
Sure, Seattle's still the team to beat. But the pack is closing in on the Seahawks, just as it did a year ago. The envelope, please:
• St. Louis should be better defensively, especially if rookie Adam Carriker is as good as advertised. He's here because the league's 31st-ranked run defense dialed 911.
• Arizona will do a better job running the ball. When Ken Whisenhunt took over the league's 31st-ranked rushing offense in Pittsburgh, he took it to the top. He could do the same thing here with Edgerrin James.
• San Francisco has new players and a new coach on defense, and I bet they produce different results. They better if they're serious about shaking four years of mediocre play. The question there, of course, is how the departure of Norv Turner affects Alex Smith in particular and the offense in general? We won't have long to find out. They will open against Arizona on Sept. 10.
Now, let's get back to Seattle. The Seahawks improved their secondary with the additions of safeties Deon Grant and Brian Russell and assistant coach Jim Mora. They improved their pass rush, too, with the addition of defensive end Patrick Kerney.
There were few changes with the offense because change is not necessary. All the Seahawks must do is keep Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck in the lineup, and they should be looking at another division title.
|Seattle will need Matt Hasselbeck and its big guns healthy to win this year. (Getty Images)|
Significant subtractions: DE Grant Wistrom, C Robbie Tobeck, CB Jimmy Williams, WR Darrell Jackson, TE Jerramy Stevens, S Ken Hamlin, RB Josh Scobey, DE Joe Tafoya.
Biggest offseason move: Overhauling the secondary, with the hiring of Mora the clincher. Mora is an outstanding position coach and could -– no, should -- be the head-coach-in-waiting. In the meantime, the Seahawks will be better because of his addition and the additions of Grant and Russell.
Rookie to watch: Second-round draft pick Josh Wilson could make an impact as a return specialist. He did this summer, ripping Green Bay for 161 yards on six returns -– including a 46-yarder. Impressive, huh? He also saw a 55-yarder called back because of a holding penalty.
Will make the playoffs if ... they don't lose Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck again.
Overview: This is a good team waiting to challenge Chicago and New Orleans for NFC supremacy. The Seahawks are loaded on both sides of the football, and their defense should be improved. It better be if they want to catch the Bears.
Significant additions: WR Drew Bennett, DE Adam Carriker, LB Chris Draft, KR Dante Hall, DE James Hall, S Todd Johnson, DB Lenny Walls.
Significant subtractions: WR Kevin Curtis, WR Shaun McDonald, CB Travis Fisher, FB Paul Smith, LB Dexter Coakley, G Adam Timmerman.
Biggest offseason move: Drafting Carriker. The Rams need inside help to stuff the run, and Carriker might just be the ticket.
Rookie to watch: Carriker. He can play inside or out.
Will make the playoffs if ... they shore up the league's 31st-ranked rushing defense. They're in a division with Alexander, James and Frank Gore. You do the math. If they don't stop the run, they will go nowhere.
Overview: The Rams are intriguing. They could be one of the league's surprises, but they better do something about a run defense that allowed 4.9 yards per carry. Pathetic. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with an offense that puts Steven Jackson, Torry Holt and Marc Bulger in the same huddle.
|All eyes in Arizona will be on Edgerrin James and the running game. (US Presswire)|
Significant subtractions: T Leonard Davis, G Chris Liewinski, CB David Macklin, S Robert Griffith.
Biggest offseason addition: Hiring Russ Grimm as offensive line coach. The Cards stunk up front -- one of the reasons nobody here could run -- but that will change with Grimm on board.
Rookie to watch: Now that Oliver Ross is out for the season, first-round pick Levi Brown, the new starter at right tackle, will be put to the test right away. Brown will play a critical role in trying to manufacture a rushing attack that wasn't there a year ago.
Will make the playoffs if ... Whisenhunt can do for this running game what he did with Pittsburgh's. Arizona can pass. Nobody questions that. But it must do more than gain 3.2 yards per rush. And the Cardinals must do a better job of pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
Overview: This is a year when it's tempting to pick the Cards to do something. After all, there's a new head coach with a new plan, and that's usually good for something. Then you remind yourself: These are the Cardinals, for cripe's sake. What am I thinking?
Significant additions: LB Patrick Willis, T Joe Staley, CB Nate Clements, S Michael Lewis, LB Tully Banta-Cain, DT Aubrayo Franklin, WR Darrell Jackson, WR Ashley Lelie.
Significant subtractions: DT Anthony Adams, S Deke Cooper, TE Eric Johnson, C Jeremy Newberry, WR Antonio Bryant, S Tony Parrish.
Biggest offseason move: Landing Clements. The 49ers spent a ton for the guy, but they had to do something about solving a porous pass defense that ranked 26th. Clements is a big step in that direction.
Rookie to watch: Linebacker Patrick Willis could be a monster in this defense. The 49ers think so -- that’s one reason they made him the 11th choice in the draft. Willis flies to the ball; he was so impressive in camp, he moved into the starting lineup ahead of Brandon Moore, the team's leading tackler a year ago.
Will make the playoffs if ... Alex Smith continues to improve as a quarterback, Frank Gore keeps piling up yards and they keep their defense off the field.
Overview: I'm not sure what to make of these guys. I think they're better, especially on defense, but Alex Smith makes me nervous. Having Gore to lean on helps, but at some point Smith has to make plays. He improved significantly a year ago, but a year ago Norv Turner was here. Now he's not.
|Aug. 27||AFC East|
|Aug. 28||NFC East|
|Aug. 29||AFC South|
|Aug. 30||NFC South|
|Sept. 3||AFC North|
|Sept. 4||NFC North|
|Sept. 5||AFC West|
|Sept. 6||NFC West|