By Brian Willwerth
1.) St. Louis Rams [9-7] – Is this the year the Rams return to the playoffs? Quarterback Sam Bradford showed tremendous progress last year, coming up just short of a division title. He appears to be the best quarterback in what’s shaping up to be yet another weak division. Defensive end Robert Quinn, the team’s first-round draft pick, should help bolster the pass rush.
2.) Arizona Cardinals [8-8] – This is Kevin Kolb’s team now. And the Cards will take anything as an improvement over last year, when they were near the bottom in passing yards and rushing yards. Larry Fitzgeraldmade waves during the offseason when he signed an 8-year, $120 million contract. But Arizona needs a lot more help on both sides of the ball to be a contender.
3.) Seattle Seahawks [6-10] – A lot of people are still wondering how the Seahawks not only won the division last year, but also won a playoff game. But this year will be different. Matt Hasselbeck is gone. Tavaris Jackson is the starter. Just how effective will he be? Does he have enough help around him to carry the load? They used their first-round pick on offensive tackle James Carpenter. There are just too many holes that this team needs to fill, and Seattle did not do a good job of filling them during the offseason.
4.) San Francisco 49ers [5-11] – A lot has changed in San Francisco. Jim Harbaugh is the coach. There are new offensive and defensive coordinators. Alex Smith gets another shot to be the starter at quarterback. He hasn’t done much in the pros, and there’s no reason to believe that will change in 2011. Fortunately they have Frank Gore at running back. Expect to see a lot more carries from him.