1. St. Louis Rams
After totaling six wins the previous the three seasons, the Rams became immediate NFC West crown contenders under the NFL offensive rookie of the year, quarterback Sam Bradford — albeit in a weak division. And in the offseason, they continued to upgrade their offense. They added former Denver Broncos Coach Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator and wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker.
New safety Quintin Mikell, cornerback Al Harris and linebackers Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga join defensive leader and leading tackler James Laurinaitis.
Running backs Jerious Norwood and Cadillac Williams add quality depth for powerful runner Steven Jackson, who has rushed for 1,000 yards in six consecutive seasons. The Rams and Coach Steve Spagnuolo were aggressive in the offseason and may have surrounded Bradford with enough weapons to nab the division crown.
2. Seattle Seahawks
Last season, his first at the helm of the Seahawks, Pete Carroll overhauled the team's roster. And in the final week of the season, Seattle held off the St. Louis Rams to claim the NFC West title and become the first team in history to reach the playoffs with a losing record (7-9). A week later, the spirited Seahawks won another game, a wild-card playoff upset of the then-defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
The Seahaws gambled twice in the offseason: not re-signing free-agent quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and cutting linebacker Lofa Tatupu. Instead, Carroll brought in unproven quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and surrounded him with receiving talent in Sidney Rice and tight end Zach Miller.
A mid-season trade with the Buffalo Bills for running back Marshawn Lynch proved fruitful, so a full year with him will certainly help the NFL's second-worst rushing attack (89 yards per game last season). There are serious questions about the defense, ranked 29th out of 32 teams last season, and whether this team can compete if Jackson falters.
3. Arizona Cardinals
The immediate chemistry between new quarterback Kevin Kolb and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has renewed hope for the return of a healthy offense. Last season, the Cardinals used three different starting quarterbacks because of injury, poor play and the release of former first-round pick Matt Leinart before the first game.
With the inexperienced Kolb and Fitzgerald both signed to lucrative, long-term deals in the offseason, the Cardinals are confident that they've found their offensive core for years to come. The addition of all-pro tight end Todd Heap adds more respectability and another dynamic to the passing game.
The defensive front, led by Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, will remain the defense's strength, while the offensive line will need to jell enough to establish a consistent running game (86.8 yards per game, worst in the NFL last season). But, there are plenty of improved parts here to compete in this weaker division. Don't be surprised if Arizona is playing for an NFC West crown late in the season.
4. San Francisco 49ers
Alex Smith, the first overall pick in the 2005 draft, signed on for another year and is getting another shot, this time under the league's newest coaching splash: former Stanford coach and NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh. The 49ers signed Harbaugh for $25 million over five years with the hope that he can help turn the team and Smith around.
The all-pro standouts on offense (running back Frank Gore ) and defense (linebacker Patrick Willis) will remain the team's steadying force as long as they remain healthy. Willis led a serviceable defense last season that allowed only 96.7 yards per game on the ground, sixth-best in the NFL. Gore is back from a fractured hip that limited him to 853 yards and three touchdowns in 11 games.
An 0-5 start and the team's performance in a season filled with hope for an NFC West title led to Mike Singletary's firing at the end of the year. The new additions — such as wide receiver Braylon Edwards, safety Donte Whitner, kicker David Akers and Harbaugh — will likely help, but they may not right the ship completely in one season.
By James Wagner - The Washington Post. Published Aug. 31, 2011.