The NFC West looks to be the strongest division in the NFL next season. Both the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks managed 11 wins and a playoff appearance last season, with the former making it to the Super Bowl. Now, the debate is which of the 49ers and Seahawks have the best roster in the NFL.
But the St. Louis Rams, who were in third place in the division last season, are getting a lot of attention as well. They're adding a lot of young talent, have a good head coach in Jeff Fisher and, at the end of the day, are built to do damage specifically to the rest of the division.
They have a relatively young quarterback they're building around in Sam Bradford, two exciting rookie receivers in Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, a very strong group of linebackers, defensive linemen and cornerbacks and solid special teams. How well the offense will progress is the big question mark, but that defense is punishing.
The Rams think they can make a run, experts think they can make a run and the fans think they can make a run. But how does the roster stack up with the rest of the division? We'll briefly compare their positional talent with the 49ers and Seahawks to see if they win out on any or come close.
Note -- we're not talking about the Arizona Cardinals here because this is more of a breakdown of the Rams and how they will compete with San Francisco and Seattle.
Most of the Rams' question marks come on offense. At the quarterback position, things are probably closer than most realize. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick have plenty of hype behind them, but Sam Bradford, the Rookie of the Year in 2010, has more than enough talent to elbow his way back into the conversation for the division's best signal caller.
Bradford threw for 3,702 yards with 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2012. Wilson threw for 3,118 yards, 26 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Kaepernick threw for 1,814 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions, playing in fewer games than both Bradford and Wilson.
Many consider Bradford a player who relies on short throws, but he put up big yardage numbers last year. All the while he's lacked a talented supporting cast. This is a make-or-break year for Bradford whose rookie deal makes him the highest paid quarterback in the division and one of the richest in the NFL. He may not have the kind of big-play ability that Wilson and Kaepernick add with their feet, but he has shown flashes of the ability that made him the first overall pick in the draft.
At the skill positions, there are more questions for the Rams. St. Louis lost three of its top five receivers this offseason, leaving Chris Givens as the top receiver. Givens had 698 yards last year. Enter Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. The Rams traded up to the eighth spot in the draft to snag Austin. He's all over Brian Schottenheimer's playbook, in the slot, lined up wide and more than a handful of plays form the backfield.
Bailey, who the Rams are hoping emerges into a Steve Smith (Carolina) clone, could challenge for snaps on the outside and in the slot, but he is unlikely to see the field as much as his West Virginia teammate. Any of San Francisco's or Seattle's top receivers are more established: Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice, Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham. But Austin has the kind of talent to turn into a superstar. The Rams are banking on that.
St. Louis made a big score in free agency when it landed Titans tight end Jared Cook. Fast and with good hands, he was underused in Tennessee, partially due to what he lacks as a blocker. Fisher is betting that Cook and Bradford will establish a connection. Second on the depth chart is Lance Kendricks, who should see the field plenty as both a receiving option and a tenacious blocker. Vernon Davis and Zach Miller both could be better, but Cook and Kendricks give the Rams another pair of solid options on offense.
At the running back position, it's more of the same, as St. Louis opts for a combination of Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead and rookie Zac Stacy to take over for the departed Steven Jackson. Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James carry the load for San Francisco and Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin and Christine Michael lead the way for Seattle.
Richardson is an interesting running back prospect. He had 475 yards and a per-carry average of 4.8 yards last season, but the verdict is still out on him after Jackson put up another 1,000-plus yardage season.
In regard to the offensive line, the Rams are in good shape. Jake Long needs to rebound successfully, but as a whole, the group should be in the top half of the league next season. They will do a effective job blocking for Sam Bradford, but they'll have to play their way into the same category as San Francisco and Seattle, who boast two of the top offensive lines in the NFL.
In short, the Rams are betting a lot on some very young players on the offensive side of the ball. They're behind on paper, but if those players can break out, things will be much more interesting in the NFC West.
Time for an offensive recap and ranking:
Quarterbacks: 1a. San Francisco, 1b. Seattle, 3. St. Louis
Running Backs: 1a. San Francisco, 1b. Seattle, 3. St. Louis
Wide Receivers: 1. Seattle, 2. San Francisco, 3. St. Louis
Tight Ends: 1. San Francisco, 2. St. Louis, 3. Seattle
Offensive Line: 1. San Francisco, 2. Seattle, 3. St. Louis
On the defensive side of the ball, things are much more interesting. Ranking the defensive line and linebackers is a bit more difficult given the differences in scheme, but we'll just look at a pure player-vs-player scenario.
As far as the defensive line is concerned, the Seahawks added Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett this offseason. They still need some guys to get healthy to live up to their potential but it's hard to argue with what they're putting out there. The 49ers are hoping for big things from Tank Carradine in the future, and perhaps Glenn Dorsey will experience a career revival. For now, they earn high marks for Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, two of the best in the league.
Then come the Rams. Chris Long is one of the best in the business, and Michael Brockers, a first-round pick in 2012, is loaded with talent. Kendall Langford was a very underrated signing last year. Brockers was the catalyst to a much-improved line overall. Robert Quinn has 10.5 sacks last season, his second in the league. Throw in versatile William Hayes and the Rams can do a lot with their front four to harass quarterbacks. St. Louis had a whopping 52 sacks last year, tied for first in the NFL, and these guys are the reason.
At outside linebacker, the 49ers are on top with Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson. The addition of Corey Lemonier can only help that group in the end, as well. K.J. Wright is an excellent outside linebacker who does everything well, but Seattle is sorely lacking on the other side. Korey Toomer and Malcolm Smith don't inspire a whole lot of confidence.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar is probably one of the most overlooked players in the NFL. At this point, most would take Dunbar over Wright. He's better in coverage, he gets more tackles and he gets more sacks. That, plus the addition of Alec Ogletree to take over on the other side, and St. Louis suddenly has better outside linebackers than Seattle.
On the inside, the 49ers have the two best inside linebackers in the league individually. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are arguably No. 1 and No. 2 in the entire league. Then we come to Bobby Wagner versus James Laurinaitis. Wagner still has more to show, but last season, he was indisputably better than Laurinaitis, who struggled in both pass and run defense.
The cornerback position is the easiest to break down in the entire division. Seattle already was set with Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, and the addition of Antoine Winfield to play the nickel role gives the Seahawks claim to the best group of corners in the NFC West. St. Louis isn't that far behind at this point. With Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins, they have two solid, confidence-inspiring corners.
San Francisco isn't on that level. They played extremely well last season, but Carlos Rogers, Chris Culliver, Nnamdi Asomugha and Tarell Brown just don't inspire as much confidence as the other guys. At the safety position, it breaks down in a similar manner, though Donte Whitner and Eric Reid are better looks than the Rams, who are leaning on rookie third-round pick T.J. McDonald to anchor the secondary. Seattle leads the bunch with the combo of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. If the Rams' young safeties struggle to pick up the game, it could be the weak link in a very good defense.
Defensive Line: 1a. Seattle, 1b. St. Louis, 1c. San Francisco
Outside Linebackers: 1. San Francisco, 2. St. Louis, 3. Seattle
Inside Linebackers: 1. San Francisco, 2. Seattle, 3. St. Louis
Cornerbacks: 1. Seattle, 2. St. Louis, 3. San Francisco
Safeties: 1. Seattle, 2. San Francisco, 3. St. Louis
The NFC West in general has had pretty good special teams play over the past several years. The 49ers looked like the best in the league in that vein in 2011, but David Akers hit a wall in 2012 and the 49ers suffered for it. That said, the 49ers went out and signed Phil Dawson, one of the top kickers in the league, and now have claim to the top spot with the best punter in the league, Andy Lee.
St. Louis has decent kickers and punters, though Greg Zuerlein's underwhelming numbers were odd given his hype. Then again, the Rams did attempt 13 field goals from 50-plus yards. Johnny Hekker had an average of 45.8 yards per punt, which puts him barely above Jon Ryan for Seattle (45.6 yards per punt). His ability on trick plays, like his two fake punts that burned the 49ers last year, boosts Hekker's stock.
Where the battle gets interesting: kick returners.
Tavon Austin and Chris Givens are the top returners for St. Louis, and given that they're both unproven, Seattle might win by default. But to say "by default" is to do a disservice to Percy Harvin, one of the top returners in the league. Harvin has had five kick return touchdowns for his career and seals the top spot for Seattle there.
Kickers: 1. San Francisco, 2a. St. Louis, 2b. Seattle
Punters: 1. San Francisco, 2a. St. Louis, 2b. Seattle
Returners: 1. Seattle, 2. St. Louis, 3. San Francisco
At face value, the Rams have a ways to go on offense, but the young talent is certainly promising. If they're even half as good as the Rams hope they turn out to be, then they'll have an effective unit to go alongside their defense, which should count itself among the NFL's elite, especially with a strong 2013. Add in a solid group of special teamers, and the Rams aren't too far behind Seattle and San Francisco.
Perhaps the hype is warranted. Jeff Fisher is building a talented roster and the clear vision is simple: beat up the NFC West and do enough outside the division to make it into the playoffs. They accomplished the latter last season, with a 4-1-1 mark within the NFC West, but still have strides to make on offense before they get into the postseason.