Four Potential Surprises In The NFC West: 49ers Fall To 3rd, Cardinals Make The Wildcard, And Rams With A Top 10 Offense?

Oct 21, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin (12) against the Arizona Cardinals at the Metrodome. The Vikings defeated the Cardinals 21-14. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 21, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin (12) against the Arizona Cardinals at the Metrodome. The Vikings defeated the Cardinals 21-14. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports /

With preseason Power Rankings beginning to pop up all around the league, some fans will begin to cast their “mental mold” for how the season will play out. Last year, few would have imagined the Indianapolis Colts rising from the ashes to break into the playoffs. Few believed the New Orleans Saints would shrivel up and dive into the bottom tier of the league. This season will be no different!

So, instead of following the storylines preached by the mainstream NFL media, we wanted to think outside of the box. What are the most surprising things that “could happen” in the NFC West this coming season?

The San Francisco 49ers falling to 3rd in the NFC West

While it is unlikely to happen, those in ‘9ers Nation should be genuinely concerned about some of the offseason moves… or, should I say, failure to make offseason moves. Outside of the Anquan Boldin pickup, San Francisco whiffed on a majority of the players that they genuinely seemed interested in acquiring. As a result, they have, for the first time in two seasons, notable questions marks on the defensive line and in the secondary. No one outside of Justin Smith in the front three has any credibility, and 49ers lost, arguably, their best defensive back from last season, Dashon Goldson.

San Francisco is also not “set” offensively, with a handful of key changes that could drastically alter their effectiveness on the field. The loss of Delanie Walker will not go unnoticed, especially with being replaced by a non-utility rookie. Michael Crabtree’s injury will also be a significant loss, especially considering the heavy, heavy reliance on the “breakout” wide receiver in the passing game by Colin Kaepernick. Speaking of, the junior signal caller will have to, for the first time, watch as defensive coordinators formulate gameplans specifically around his weaknesses… they should have plenty of tape to go off of now. Don’t think that it can be done? Look at Cam Netwon.

Most, at this point in the offseason, believe the 49ers will lose out to the Seattle Seahawks in the battle for the NFC West. However, it would not be completely baffling to imagine some early struggles leading to a 3rd-place finish in the division. The NFC West is certainly not a volatile at the NFC East, but it no one near as concrete as the AFC East.

The Arizona Cardinals challenging for a Wild Card slot in the NFC

Last season, the Arizona Cardinals were the hottest team in the opening quarter of the season; starting 4-0 with an impressive win over the New England Patriots. However, the ship quickly began to sink after that, falling prey to a rash of injuries on the defensive side of the football.

The Cardinals won games with their defense, despite the fact that Larry Fitzgerald is still dominating on the offensive side of the field. When that is your M.O., the loss of numerous interior lineman and defensive backs can be devastating. Now, with “full health,” the Cardinals could be one of the biggest surprises of the 2013 regular season. But, what about their offense…

The Arizona Cardinals were, by far, the worst offensive team in the NFL last season. In fact, Pro Football Focus graded the Cards as a -188.6 overall, primarily do to dysfunction in the passing game. To put that into grade into perspective, there was only one other offense that graded out negatively, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and they were still only at -69.4 overall. The reasoning for their failure  is easy to pinpoint: no quarterback, no running back, and no offensive line. While the “arms race” in the NFC West has been thrown on the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks, the Arizona Cardinals may be the “most improved” team in football next season, especially after the announcement this morning…

With that move, the Cardinals have replaced essentially their entire, putrid offensive line from last season with new names at both tackle (Eric Winston and Levi Brown) and both guard spots (Jonathan Cooper and Earl Watford). On top of that, they acquired Rashard Mendelhall from the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carson Palmer from the Oakland Raider, creating a Frankenstein-offense composed of some of the better free agents from around the NFL. So, this offseason the Cardinals have 1) got their defense healthy, 2) completely revamped their offensive line, 3) upgraded at quarterback and running back, and 4) kept Larry Fitzgerald on the roster. The Cardinals might not have the continuity, leadership, or firepower to keep up in an extremely tough NFC West. However, both the St. Louis Ram and the San Francisco 49ers have both seen drastic changes within the organization almost immediately after a regime change. Could it happen in Arizona?

The Seattle Seahawks transforming into an “offensive” team

When most people think about the Seattle Seahawks, they envision a defensive juggernaut, dominating the outside with their massive cornerbacks, while terrorizing quarterbacks with their speedy pass rush. However, the Seahawks have slowly transitioned over the last year into an offensive powerhouse, including a three-game stretch where the team average 50 points per game. While the ‘Hawks secondary remains unchanged, the front-seven will look drastically different in 2013, with a shiny, new defensive line and question marks surrounding their starter at strongside linebacker.

This offseason, Seattle appeared to sign every “big name” defensive end during free agency. At first, the signings seemed a bit unnecessary, with incumbent players like Red Bryant, Chris Clemens, and Bruce Irvin.  Now, with the suspension to Irvin and the less-than-exciting progress of Clemens from his knee injury sustained in the playoffs last season, the moves seems much more “appropriate.”

However, the move that most failed to notice was on the interior of that line, with Alan Branch and Jason Jones both heading to greener pastures this offseason. On top of that, Leroy Hill will not be returning, moving the official count up to four potential new starters in the ‘Hawks defense.  Replacing Branch and Hill are Tony McDaniel (DT) and Malcolm Smith (OLB), both of which are moderately-talented players with limited production, if any, in the league. RumorS are even starting to emerge that the team may attempt to throw Bruce Irvin at outside linebacker, which would likely not bode well for the team unless they are planning on converting to a 3-4 base scheme.

With all of that in mind, switch over the offensive side of the football, where they team appeared to focus most of their efforts this offseason. Acquiring Percy Harvin was arguably the biggest move of the year, regardless of the hefty first-round price tag. In addition to that move, with their first pick in the draft, in the second-round, the Seahawks snagged Christine Michael, arguably the best running back in the 2013 class. With Percy Harvin and a change-of-pace backup running back, the Seattle Seahawks could certainly continue their trend towards an offensive-minded football team. Unlikely Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson’s style of play should be less susceptible to a “sophomore slump,” with more reliance on his arm than on his legs to do the offensive damage.  All of that could slide the Seahawks’ strength towards the offense…

The St. Louis Rams cracking the Top 10 offenses in the NFL

According to Pro Football Focus, the St. Louis Rams graded out as the 25th best offense in the league last season, posting mildly positive numbers across the board. On the flip side, you have teams like the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, New Orleans Saints, and Atlanta Falcons completely controlling the NFL with their offenses, all ranking in the Top 10 in all pertinent offensive categories. So, how could the St. Louis Rams crack the Top 10?

Well for one, the Rams have made significant upgrades on both the offensive line and at the skill positions. St. Louis drafted the most explosive player in the draft, Tavon Austin, and the most productive receiver in college football last season, Stedman Bailey, to join forces with second-year player, Chris Givens, who proved to be an explosive, all-around receiver last season. On top of that, they snagged the biggest mismatch-offensive weapon on the free agent market, Jared Cook, who will come into St. Louis and pair with the significantly underrated Lance Kendricks.

The second piece of the puzzle is the offensive line, which was devastated with injury last season. At one point, the left side of the line was starting their third-string tackle (Joe Barksdale), fourth-string guard (Shelley Smith), and backup center (Rob Turner). With the offseason comes recovery, and now the St. Louis Rams should have a formidable offensive line, comparable to almost any in the NFL. The acquisition of Jake Long and the shifting of Rodger Saffold to right tackle will provide the Rams with one of the best bookend combinations in the league. Scott Wells will finally get an opportunity to get back on the field, having missed most of last season recovering from multiple surgeries. Throw in Harvey Dahl, a one-time Pro Bowler, and Chris Williams, a former first-rounder, and you have the makings of an offensive line that should allot Sam Bradford plenty of time to get the ball to his new offensive weapons.

The last, and most important piece is the offensive system. For starters, Bradford will be under the same offensive coordinator for the first time in his four-year career, which should allow him to fine-tune the offense, as opposed to learning an entirely new playbook. Secondly, the loss of Steven Jackson in free agency finally frees the Rams to formulate the offense around Bradford and the passing game. With Jackson on the roster, the team was naturally run-oriented and, frankly, predictable… regularly exhibiting a “run, run, pass” play-calling scheme. With Jackson gone, and no incumbent feature back to take the reins, rumors have circulated that the offensive will shift towards the much quicker, spread offensive that Bradford dominated in at Oklahoma. We saw small glimpses of a no-huddle, hurry-up style of offense last season, especially when Jackson was sidelined with injury. There could certainly be plenty more of that this year…

With significant upgrades at the skill positions, a healthy return of the offensive line, and the transition to a pass-oriented, Bradford-centric style, the St. Louis Rams might finally break out of their predictable, less-than-exciting offensive shell. Couple that with the handful of Top 10 teams expected to fall from grace offensively (i.e. New England, Baltimore, Washington) and the Rams could have a shot at breaking into the top-tier of offenses.