2010 Division Preview: NFC West
The 49ers will go as far as quarterback Alex Smith can take them
How the Cards respond to roster turnover will determine their season
The Seahawks (Pete Carroll) and Rams (Sam Bradford) have new leaders in place
For SI.com's complete previews of the other seven NFL divisions, click here.
This is a year of change in the division. The Seahawks brought in a new coach (Pete Carroll), the Rams added a potential franchise quarterback (Sam Bradford), the Cardinals lost a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback (Kurt Warner) and the 49ers raised expectations.
Arizona won the past two division titles, but changes in its personnel and an unsettled quarterback situation makes San Francisco the trendy pick to earn its first playoff berth in eight years. Interestingly, the 49ers and Cardinals don't play each other until November, which means divisional fans could have a lot to look forward to the second half of the season.
What the 49ers do best: Compete.
The 49ers finished 8-8 last year in Mike Singletary's first full season as coach, but six of the defeats were by a touchdown or less, with four by four points or fewer. One of the losses was to the Vikings on Brett Favre's last-second, 32-yard touchdown strike to Greg Lewis.
Singletary stresses the need to be tough, physical and smart, and the expectation this year is that his team will be all those. San Francisco is a trendy pick to win the division, not only because of its talent, but also because the rest of the division is rebuilding or retooling.
"I don't really care about the publications," Singletary says. "Publications picked us in the past three years to stink up the place. ... If you read that you'd be all out of whack."
What the 49ers need to improve: Quarterback play.
It's not a stretch to say that the 49ers will go as far as Alex Smith takes them. According to coaches, the former No. 1 overall pick has made dramatic strides since last season, when he returned to the starting lineup in Week 7 after missing 25 games because of two shoulder surgeries and subpar play. He finished the year with career highs in passer rating (81.5), completion percentage (60.5) and touchdown passes (18). He did not have to learn a new offense for the first time in his pro career, and that meant he could focus on his fundamentals and technique.
"He's understanding everything that we're trying to do from a protection standpoint and a route standpoint, and it's allowing him to play faster," QB coach Mike Johnson says of Smith. "That's the biggest difference in him, his total understanding of what we're trying to do. Alex is a very competitive person and he wants to prove to everyone that he was the No. 1 pick for a reason and warrants that type of respect. He has a tremendous amount of self-respect and pride and works harder than anybody I've ever coached. He's growing."
Which 49er needs to step up: Right tackle Anthony Davis.
The 49ers sought to upgrade their offensive line by using their two first-round draft picks on in-the-trenches guys. Davis, a 6-foot-5, 323-pound right tackle from Rutgers who was selected 11th overall, could have a tougher time than Idaho left guard Mike Iupati, taken 17th overall, because he's playing on the edge and reportedly will be the youngest starting offensive lineman in team history; Davis turns 21 on Oct. 11.
The 49ers gave him an early test in the preseason, allowing him to play against Colts veteran end Robert Mathis one-on-one. He held his own, prompting Singletary to say: "It was a great opportunity [for Davis] to see the speed of the game without having help and feeling the anxiety of playing against a premier pass rusher. I thought he did a pretty good job."
Predicted record: 10-6.
San Francisco plays good defense and can run the ball. That's a recipe for being in every game. With Smith having a second year in the same system and wideout Michael Crabtree having a full offseason and training camp, the passing game should be noticeably improved.
What the Cardinals do best: To be determined.
It used to be throwing the football, but Kurt Warner, whose 56 touchdown passes the past two seasons tied for fifth-most in the league, retired in the offseason. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has yet to settle on a replacement, although journeyman Derek Anderson appears to be the front-runner ahead of disappointing Matt Leinart. The Cardinals also traded former Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin to Baltimore.
Now, the Cardinals are searching for an offensive identity. It was believed they would lean more heavily on the run, but that wasn't the case in the preseason. The line was supposed to be a strength, but it was porous at times in the preseason. At this point there's no way to know what the Cardinals do well, even defensively. They lost linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Antrel Rolle to free agency, and reserve end Bertrand Berry retired. Outside linebacker Joey Porter was signed, but it's unknown whether the 12-year veteran will be the player who had nine sacks last season or the one who had 17.5 in 2008.
What the Cardinals need to improve: Defensive consistency.
After allowing more than 24 points only twice in their first 15 games, the Cardinals allowed an average of 41 in their last three, including the playoffs. Green Bay gashed them for 33 and 45 in back-to-back weeks, and New Orleans put up 45 in the second round of the playoffs.
The unit is going to have to be more consistent for Arizona to defend the division title it won the past two years. A lot of eyes will be on Porter and safety Kerry Rhodes, who replaces Rolle at free safety. The Cardinals surrendered 50 completions of 20 yards or longer last season, 10th-most in the league. But if Porter can rush the passer and Rhodes can defend the back end, that figure could fall.
Which Cardinal needs to step up: Quarterback Derek Anderson.
The former Browns QB appears to be the front-runner to start in Week 1. He did not have a strong offseason and was average at best in the preseason, but Whisenhunt apparently believes he's a better fit than Leinart, the former first-round pick who failed to seize the job after Warner retired.
Anderson has a strong arm and throws a pretty deep ball, but he struggles with accuracy. In four seasons, he has never completed more than 56 percent of his passes, and outside of 2007 he has never thrown for more than nine TDs. Complicating matters is that Warner was insanely accurate and a touchdown machine. His shadow, even in retirement, will linger over the Cardinals in 2010.
Predicted record: 8-8.
The Cardinals' failure to develop a young quarterback will haunt them all year. They spent the offseason talking up Leinart, then gave up on him after two exhibition games. You also have to wonder about the psychological scars of yielding 123 points in their final three games.