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Dwayne Bryant’s 2006 NFC West Previewâ?¦
Bullseye-Sports.comâs Dwayne Bryant gives his thoughts and predictions on the NFLâs NFC West division in 2006. Teams are listed in their predicted order of finish.
1. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
Offense: The reigning NFC Champions took a major step toward repeating when they re-signed league MVP Shaun Alexander. Alexander set an NFL record by scoring 28 TDs. He also led the league with 1,880 rushing yards on career-high 370 carries. Thatâs a huge workload. Believe in the Madden cover jinx? Alexander is on this yearâs cover. His offensive line took a hit when free-agent Pro-Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson signed with Minnesota. QB Matt Hasselbeck has mastered Mike Holmgrenâs offense. Hasselbeck threw 24 TD passes in 2005 and had just 9 INTs while compiling a stellar 98.2 QB rating. Darrell Jackson is Hasselbeckâs favorite target. D-Jack needs to stay healthy this season. Bobby Engram will occupy the slot this season. Jurevicius left for Cleveland, but his replacement, Nate Burleson, should do quite well opposite Jackson. TE Jeramy Stevens finally became a threat last season and should continue to produce in 2006. This offense led the NFL in 2005 with a 28.3 points-per-game average and should be close to that number again in 2006.
Defense: This unit was seventh in the league in 2005, allowing just 16.9 points per game. Their red-zone defense was second in the NFL behind only Chicago. They also led the league with 50 sacks. Ends Grant Wistrom & Bryce Fisher and tackles Chartric Darby & Rocky Bernard give Seattle a solid front four. Perhaps the biggest surprise in 2005 was the play of the LB corps, led by rookies Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill. Adding Julian Peterson to the fold should give the âHawks one of the best front sevens in the league. The secondary is also solid with Michael Boulware and Ken Hamlin, who is returning from a head injury.
Special Teams: The return game needs improvement. Josh Scobey averaged just 22.5 yards on kickoff returns. Kicker Josh Brown didnât get much FG practice last season thanks to Seattleâs league-high 57 TDs. He connected on only 18 of his 25 FG tries. Look for his numbers to up slightly, especially his success rate.
Prediction: The offense should produce again, provided Hutchinsonâs replacement is adequate and Alexander avoids the Madden cover jinx. Super Bowl losers usually donât fare too well the following season, but Seattle is clearly the class of this division and should waltz into the playoffs. Another Super Bowl run is certainly not out of the question.
2. ARIZONA CARDINALS
Offense: One of the biggest offseason moves was RB Edgerrin James coming over from the Colts. With receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald needing much defensive attention, plus the addition of rookie TE Leonard Pope as another receiving option, âEdgeâ shouldnât see too many eight-man fronts. James wonât benefit from the line he had in Indy, but he should still find some decent running room here. Heâs also a solid receiver, which gives QB Kurt Warner yet another weapon and a great safety valve when the pressure comes â and it will. Opponents know this line can be had and they also know Warnerâs durability issues. However, the Cards drafted QB Matt Leinart (USC), who was the most NFL-ready signal caller in the draft. He could pressed into service sooner rather than later. This should be one of the NFLâs most explosive offenses in 2006.
Defense: The good news is, Arizona ranked eighth in the league in yards allowed in 2005. The bad news is, they also ranked 26th in the league in points allowed. The biggest improvement came from the run defense, which jumped from 27th in 2004 to tenth in 2005. If the Cards hope to contend for a playoff spot, theyâll need to improve their red-zone defense in a big way. This unit missed its leading sack-master, DE Bertrand Berry, for half the season. Berry registered six sacks in the first eight games of the season before sustaining a season-ending knee injury. Karlos Dansby led the LB group with two INT-return TDs. CB Antrel Roll missed 11 games in his 2005 rookie campaign. Roll has shutdown-corner potential, which should become more evident this season. Safety Adrian Wilson provides the secondary with big-play ability.
Special Teams: Neil Rackers had a monster 2005 season, hitting an amazing 40 of 42 FG attempts. Reggie Swinton handled punt and kickoff-return duties in 2005 with minimal results.
Prediction: This team is full of promise. Improvement is inevitable with a proven winner like Dennis Green at the controls. The offensive line is still a problem and the defense needs to show some improvement, too. An 8-8 season sounds about right for this bunch. The playoffs will have to wait at least another year.
3. ST. LOUIS RAMS
Offense: Gone is Mike Martzâs pass-happy attack. Enter new coach Scott Linehan, whoâll place more emphasis on the running game. That means an increased workload for stud RB Steven Jackson. Jackson is young, strong, quick and has great hands. Linehan knows he has talent in the passing game and heâll use that talent to make for a more balanced offense than weâre used to seeing from the Rams. QB Marc Bugler, who only played in eight games in 2005, must stay healthy if this team has any chance to succeed. The Rams have three solid WRs in star Torry Holt, the aging but still-effective Isaac Bruce and emerging playmaker Kevin Curtis. Curtis had 60 catches and 6 TDs last season and could surpass Bruce on the depth chart. The Rams picked TEs Joe Klopfenstein and Dominique Byrd on Day One of the draft, which can only mean the TE will become more involved in Linehanâs system.
Defense: Pathetic. Horrible. Just plain awful. Say it however youâd like, this unit was an absolute disaster in 2005. They ranked 30th in the NFL in yards allowed and 31st in points allowed. They lacked playmakers and the 2006 version will be without SS Adam Archuleta, who fled to Washington. The good news is â thereâs nowhere to go but up. They brought in DT LaâRoi Glover from Dallas. Glover will shine in the 4-3 scheme and help to not only stop the run, but also rush the passer. Thatâll help the rest of the line, including DE Leonard Little, the teamâs top pass rusher. One problem this group has is the absence of another established DE to take the double teams away from Little. Theyâve added LB Will Witherspoon from Carolina. He gives the LB corps an upgrade. Archuletaâs vacancy is filled by veteran Corey Chavous. The Rams took CB Tye Hill with their first-round draft pick. Heâll compete for a starting job in a secondary that still has some holes to fill.
Special Teams: The numbers say it all: 23rd in kickoff returns, 29th in punt returns, 29th in punt coverage and 30th in kickoff coverage. Obviously, major improvement is needed. The only special-teams bright spot was kicker Jeff Wilkins, who connected on 27 of 31 FG tries.
Prediction: New coaches. New scheme. These things take time to run efficiently. And too many defensive holes wonât help either. Theyâll challenge Arizona for second in the division, but I see them falling short. 7-9 looks about right.
4. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Offense: QBs go through growing pains their first couple of seasons in the league, but Alex Smithâs rookie season couldnât have gone much worse. Smith had a QB rating of 40.8, but heâs not the only one to blame. The 49ers had little-to-no weapons for Smith. They drafted TE Vernon Davis, who has the potential to have an immediate impact. They still have TE Eric Johnson, which could make two-TE sets very interesting. They brought in Antonio Bryant, a talented but moody WR. He looks like the top WR on the team, which is definitely not good. The Niners also brought in guard Larry Allen to bolster the o-line, which should bode well for RBs Kevan Barlow and Frank Gore. Barlow has averaged just 3.4 and 3.3 yards per carry over the last two seasons. His poor play paved the way for Gore, who tallied 608 yards on a solid 4.8 yards per carry. Based on those numbers, Gore appears to be the front-runner for the starterâs job, but I wouldnât be surprised to see Barlow get significant playing time as well.
Defense: Mike Nolan switched this team to the 3-4 defense last season, mostly because he had two talented OLBs in Julian Peterson and Andre Carter. Theyâre both gone â Carter to Washington and Peterson to Seattle. Having two new starters at OLB in this scheme will be tough. The secondary has holes, too, but welcomes back CB Mike Rumph from a foot injury. This unit ranked 30th in points allowed and 32nd (or last) in yards allowed in 2005. It looks like itâll be another long season for this defense in 2006.
Special Teams: Otis Ameyâs 75-yard punt-return TD was the lone bright spot on what was a poor return unit. Kicker Joe Nedney set a franchise record for FG percentage. Nedney made 26 of his 28 FG tries for a stellar 92.86% success rate.
Prediction: New offensive coordinator Norv Turner has a history of success with his RBs. 49ers fans better hope that continues because that defense cannot be allowed to stay on the field too long. More growing pains for Smith combined with a lack of weapons and a porous defense equals another long season in San Francisco. Anything better than 4-12 will surprise me.
FINAL THOUGHTS: The Seahawks, barring major injuries, will walk away with the division crown once again. Arizona is closing the gap and could sneak into a playoff spot with a little luck. The Rams need to further improve their defense before they can get back into the playoff picture. And the 49ers, with a young QB and porous defense, are a few years away from even sniffing a postseason berth.