Who will that team be? Let’s take a look at my…
2011 NFC West Predictions
St. Louis Rams (9-7)
AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, QB Sam Bradford, will look to replace the Seahawks as the division winners. Bradford threw for 3,512 yards and 18 TD and really took charge of this offense in 2010. Don’t expect a sophomore slump in 2011.
The Rams added 6’2″ WR Mike Sims-Walker (7 TD in ’10) and RB Cadillac Williams, providing quality depth to a fairly young offense. Williams was 2005 Rookie of the year for Tampa Bay and will look to make an impact behind star RB Steven Jackson.
On defense St. Louis added safety Quintin Mikell from the Eagles to be the leader of a young secondary. Cornerbacks Ron Bartell (6’1″ 206 lbs.) and Bradley Fletcher (6′ 198 lbs.) are stars in the making.
Third year MLB James Laurinaitis lead the team in tackles his first two seasons and is also great at defending the pass (10 career pass deflections). James got some solid help when the Rams added Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga to shore up the linebacking corps.
If defensive ends James Hall (10.5 sacks in ’10) and Chris Long (8.5) continue to wreak havoc on QBs, this can be a pretty solid defense in a weak division.
The Rams defense could be a solid complement to a young, on the rise offense led by Sam Bradford. The sky may be the limit for this young squad.
Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
Veteran LB and defensive leader Joey Porter will be looking to notch his 100th sack in 2011 (97 career); I predict he will. Porter, along with the durable DT Darnell Dockett (110 starts in 111 career games), will have to be at the top of their games to help this team win.
Arizona also has some big (but very young) corners in Patrick Peterson (6’1″ 219) and A.J. Jefferson (6’1″ 190). Peterson was arguably the best defensive player taken no.5 overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, he will be expected to be an impact player from the start. Veteran safeties Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson should be solid and provide leadership to these young kids.
On offense the Cardinals added QB Kevin Kolb to be their passer of the future. Kolb will benefit from having a target like WR Larry Fitzgerald to chuck the ball to. Fitz is arguably the best receiver in the NFL logging 90+ receptions and 41 TD in the last for seasons. Don’t expect anything less from him in 2011.
If RB Beanie Wells can have a breakout third season in the NFL the Cards offense can be highly productive in 2011. Well ran for 793 yards and 7 TD as a rookie but fell off last season with only 397 yds. and 2 TD. The Cards added Chester Taylor to help out of the backfield on third and passing downs.
The Cardinals schedule is fairly tough for a team with a new quarterback but with Fitz and a solid D, the Cards will be competitive in 2011.
San Francisco 49ers (6-10)
The 49ers have another new coach this season in Jim Harbuagh and the same old quarterback in Alex Smith. Smith has looked good, yet bad in his five seasons in San Fran. 2011 will be his last chance to prove he can win at the NFL level.
Receivers Michael Crabtree and Braylon Edwards is a couple of weapons that can really help Alex shine. Add in TE Vernon Davis, Smith will be out of a job if he can’t be successful with these weapons.
Running back Frank Gore signed a 3 year extension in August and will need to really step up if the 49ers have any chance in 2011. Gore only had 300+ carries back in ’06 and will need to avoid the nagging injuries that has limited his playing time over the years. In six seasons Gore has been productive (6,414 yds. 35 TD); but must stay healthy.
Safety Donte Whitner (140 tackles in ’10) and hard-hitting MLB Patrick Willis are the leaders of this somewhat no name defense. Willis in four seasons has been a beast with 459 tackles, 15 sacks, 8 forced fumbles and 4 INT; he definitely keeps offenses awake at night. But, with corner Carlos Rogers as the only threat to maybe provide coverage on opposing receivers, overall this defense could be in trouble.
Seattle Seahawks (4-12)
Last season the Seahawks won the West at 7-9, hosted and beat the then defending champion Saints in a wildcard game; but that won’t happen in 2011.
Head coach Pete Carroll has put his faith in unproven QB Tarvaris Jackson to lead this team to the promise land. Can Jackson do it, or will he fail as he did in Minnesota?
Jackson will get some help adjusting to a new team by fellow Vikings mate WR Sidney Rice. Rice is a big target at 6’4″ but missed 10 games to start 2010 after offseason hip surgery. Speaking of big targets, Jackson also has the 6’5″ Mike Williams which will allow him to not worry about being oh-so accurate since these big guys can reach all over the field. These receivers are going to be some serious red zone threats for real.
The problem for the ‘Hawks is that their defense is ho-hum at best. Second year safety Earl Thomas (76 tackles, 5 INT in 2010) may be looked upon to be the leader of this defense. Seattle failed to re-sign their leader and 3-time pro-bowler MLB Lofa Tatupu; replacing his captain skills will be tough.
The Seahawks could be competitive in 2011, but my predictions are that they will stumble with Tarvaris Jackson at the helm and will be drafting a QB in the 2012 draft.
The St. Louis Rams will be the team to beat in the West in 2011, but, in the future this division may actually be one of the best in the NFL.