NFC West

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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By Clark Judge | CBSSports.com Senior Columnist

People keep telling me the San Francisco 49ers are in for a wake-up call, but, sorry, I don't see it. The club that returned to the playoffs last season for the first time in nine years is stronger, deeper and more confident.

That makes them the team to beat in the NFC West, with everyone else playing for second. That includes Seattle, a dark horse I once thought could push the 49ers. But then the Seahawks started playing games with their quarterbacks again and wound up choosing a 5-foot-11 rookie as their starter.

Nothing against Russell Wilson, but the odds are against you, young man.

The odds are against the rest of the division, too, for one simple reason: Nobody has the players San Francisco does. I'll make the argument that nobody in this division has the quarterback, either. Yeah, I know, Sam Bradford could be special, but Alex Smith was vastly better last year -- and he should be vastly better this season than the Alex Smith of 2011.

Bottom line: This is the 49ers' division to win. They have the talent. They have the coaching. And they have the motivation. Neither Smith nor the defense kept these guys from last year's Super Bowls. Two muffed punts did. The 49ers are determined to prove that what you saw last year is what you'll get again.

  
 

Post-camp outlook: There was virtually no defense better last year than these guys, and every starter from that unit is back. That's bad news for the rest of the division. So is this: Alex Smith will play in the same offensive system in successive seasons for only the second time in his career -- expect him to flourish. A year ago, he had 22 touchdown passes and only five interceptions in 18 starts (including the playoffs), and I don't expect him to replicate that. But I do expect him to be given freer rein in this offense, which means the TDs go up.

Best that could happen: The 49ers repeat as division champions. This club probably doesn't win as many games as it did in 2011 (13), but it's better overall. Winning the division could be a gimme. It's gaining home-field advantage for the playoffs that San Francisco is after.

Worst that could happen: Smith gets hurt, the inexperienced Colin Kaepernick steps under center, and the 49ers limp to the finish. I still think they can win the division with Smith's backup because of the defense. But it won't go deep after that without its quarterback, and I'll tell you why in one word: turnovers. San Francisco didn't make them last year. It finished with a league-best 10, and that's how you go 13-3.

Last word: This is essentially the same team that lapped the division last year, except it added more playmakers on offense. Randy Moss is here. Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham is here. Brandon Jacobs is here. Rookie LaMichael James is here. So is rookie A.J. Jenkins. The 49ers are not one-dimensional anymore; they could be a load on both sides of the ball.

  
 

Post-camp outlook: Once upon a time, I thought the Seahawks had the ammunition to catch Seattle. Not anymore. It's not the defense that bothers me. These guys are tough. Nor is it Marshawn Lynch or Sidney Rice. Nope, it's the quarterback. The Seahawks can never settle on one, and I offer Charlie Whitehurst, Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Flynn as proof. Flynn was supposed to be the answer because of GM John Schneider's familiarity with him in Green Bay, but now he's backing up a 5-11 rookie. Russell Wilson had a sensational summer, but the odds are against any 5-11 quarterback thriving, especially as a rookie.

Best that could happen: Wilson becomes Matt Hasselbeck overnight, and the Seahawks win the division. I don't know, the more Seattle changes quarterbacks, the better Hasselbeck looks. Nevertheless, it does have a defense that will keep games close.

Worst that could happen: Wilson is rushed too fast, sinks under the weight of an enormous learning curve and takes his teammates down with him. The question I have is: Let's say he struggles out of the gate. How long before coach Pete Carroll makes the change?

Last word: The Seahawks have the defense to contend in the AFC West, but starting Wilson won't enhance their chances. It's not that he doesn't have enormous ability -- he does. It's just that the deck is stacked against any 5-11 rookie trying to make it. There are five teams starting rookie quarterbacks, but there's only one that is ... or, at least, was ... a first-place threat. And it just made the climb steeper by handing the ball to an undersized rookie quarterback. Maybe it works out, but the Seahawks' history with quarterbacks invites skepticism.

  
 

Post-camp outlook: This is all about the quarterbacks and the offensive line, neither of which is very good. Neither John Skelton nor Kevin Kolb did much of anything this summer, leaving coach Ken Whisenhunt with a difficult decision: Which of the two offers more hope? Whisenhunt chose Skelton but hedged his bet. He announced him as his Week 1 starter, which means Week 2 is wide open. Maybe the idea is to light a fire under Kolb, I don't know. But neither of these guys has a chance if the offensive line doesn't plug enormous holes at tackle, where the Cards lost Levi Brown, possibly for the season.

Best that could happen: Kolb or Skelton solidifies the position, the offensive line plugs its leaks and Arizona pushes San Francisco at the top of the division. The Cards' defense is rock solid; it was outstanding football down the stretch a year ago. But it's not the defense that's the issue -- it's the offensive line and its quarterback.

Worst that could happen: The Cards don't find a quarterback and become the club they were two years ago when they sank to 5-11 while running through a string of QBs Du Jour.

Last word: Arizona has talent in most places you would like. Their defense is terrific. They finally seem to have a running game. Wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is one of the game's premier players. And Whisenhunt gets more out of less than most guys. But none of that matters if they can't solve the most important position, and I offer preseason results as proof.

  
 

Post-camp outlook: With Jeff Fisher in charge, the Rams will be better. The question is: How much better? That depends on which Sam Bradford shows up. Two years ago, he nearly took the Rams to the playoffs. Last season, he went backward as his confidence suffered, his body was battered and his receivers looked more like backboards. If the Rams can rebuild Bradford, they have a chance to move forward.

Best that could happen: Bradford becomes the quarterback he was two years ago, and the Rams push for second. They don't have the playmakers to scare off San Francisco, but progress comes in increments. First things first, and first they must get out of the basement.

Worst that could happen: Bradford is the quarterback he was a year ago, and the Rams are the offense they were a year ago. I keep waiting for them to draft franchise wide receivers for their franchise quarterback, and it doesn't happen. If their receivers aren't a substantial improvement over last season, they stay stuck in last, with some people starting to question their options at quarterback.

Last word: Fisher is a defensive coach, and his defenses often were tough, physical and productive in Tennessee. I would expect nothing less here, though Fisher is handicapped by the NFL's 31st-ranked run defense. First-round pick Michael Brockers was supposed to help there, but he's out for at least three to four weeks with a high ankle sprain suffered in the last preseason game. The Rams are young, and young teams make mistakes. But Fisher will make them physical and relentless, which means improvement is just around the corner.

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