By Zac Bellman
A couple years ago the NFC West was one of the weakest divisions in all of football, often getting more representatives in the top ten on draft day than in the playoffs. In 2012, it sent two teams to the playoffs, and represented the NFC in the Super Bowl with the 49ers. In 2013, the 49ers, Seahawks, Rams, and Cardinals are gearing up for what may be the most competitive division race of the year.
The reigning NFC champion 49ers knew that despite last year’s dominant run that they would have to make moves to stay on top of the surging Seahawks. They replaced Randy Moss withAnquan Boldin via trade to keep a veteran presence in their wide receiver corps. The holes on defense left by safety DashonGoldson and Isaac Sopoaga were filled by Craig Dahl and Glenn Dorsey respectively. Finally they added Nnamdi Asomugha, an elite shutdown corner, and Colt McCoy to back up ColinKaepernick. As if this roster wasn’t stacked from top to bottom already, the 49ers also have 13 draft picks this year to acquire just about anyone else they could possibly want via draft or trade.
The primary challenger for the 49ers this year will be the Seattle Seahawks, who made some equally large moves this offseason.The Seahawks brought in some pass rushers in Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, who had a combined 18.5 sacks last season.On offense they added Percy Harvin via trade to a group that scored over 40 points in three games down the stretch last season. The trade cost them a first and seventh round pick, which still leaves the Seahawks with 11 picks, five of which are in the seventh round. They won’t find many starters with those draft positions, but a few productive role players could emerge from this class.
The Rams chose to focus this offseason on improving the protection and targets for quarterback Sam Bradford. Pro Bowl tackle Jake Long was signed to shore up an offensive line that allowed 35 sacks in 2012. Jared Cook will also suit up for the Rams this year at tight end to replace some of the production of slot receiver Danny Amendola, who left for the Patriots. In addition to Amendola, the Rams also lost running back Stephen Jackson, who may be replaced internally or through the draft. In the draft the Rams have eight picks, including two first round picks, to add a little more firepower on offense and in the defensive secondary.
The Cardinals started hot in 2012, going 4-0 to start the season, but won one game after that and struggled to pass the ball downfield. Larry Fitzgerald, who has gone much of his career without playing with a Pro Bowl caliber QB, may have finally gotten one in Carson Palmer. The Cardinals brought him in from the Raiders in a trade for late draft picks in hopes that he can have a similar impact that Kurt Warner did a few years ago, when he led the Cardinals to a Super Bowl appearance. In addition to addressing that glaring need for a signal-caller, theCardinals added safety Yeremiah Bell, running back RashardMendenhall, cornerback Antoine Cason, linebacker Jasper Brinkley, and a pair of defensive ends in Frostee Rucker and Matt Shaughnessy. After a 5-11 season that included a nine game slide, the Cardinals will be relying on these acquisitions and their seven draft picks to bring a new identity to the team and make a run in 2013.
An arms race of sorts is taking place in the NFC West right now, and the divisional matchups between these teams should be some of the most entertaining to watch in the coming season.