Strengths – Kurt Warner had his renaissance throwing the ball to Fitz, Boldin and Breaston last year. That passing attack is mostly responsible for their near Super Bowl championship. The rest of the team came together just well enough to allow the passing game to accomplish that near-feat. The 3-4 defense is a great fit for the personnel on the team. Specifically, the defense plays to the strengths of DEs Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell. The DBs came into their own last year. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie-Solomon-Smith-Barney-Booz-Allen-Hamilton made the transition from a small school rookie to a #1 CB without much of a learning curve. With the addition of Bryant McFadden, the DBs are potentially stronger.
Weaknesses – I will probably get a lot of grief for this, but the offensive line is not as good as what we saw in the playoffs. They came together, but I won’t be surprised one bit when they “shine” as the weakness of this team. Mike Gandy is the only lineman that I would have confidence in at this point, and somehow, he was the only one who’s play suffered during the playoffs. Also, as great as the passing attack is, the team lacks a safety valve receiver, and lost both Edgerrin James and J.J. Arrington, their best receivers out of the backfield. There was some hope for Ben Patrick, but his suspension for the early part of the season undermined that progress.
Opportunities – With Beanie Wells nursing an ankle, Tim Hightower gets a gift shot at reclaiming the starting RB role that he failed to impress in late last season. On defense, Alan Branch and Gabe Watson have the size to man the NT position, yet neither has stepped up. Bryan Robinson is not the answer, and at his size should not be standing in either players’ way from claiming the starting NT job.
Threats – Will there be high expectations for a team that barely won the worst division in football (maybe the worst we’ve seen in decades)? This is a mediocre team that got hot in the playoffs. Also, will Boldin’s unhappiness show? This team needs Boldin, as he takes full advantage of the coverage Fitz draws.
Passing/Receiving the Torch – Going out on a limb with this one. Adrian Wilson may be slowly getting ready to share the torch to Antrel Rolle, who made the conversion from CB to FS, and did better than expected. If Rolle continues to rise, Wilson and his contract could potentially come to the forefront.
Position Battle – RB: Beanie Wells vs. Tim Hightower. Both should share time, but the battle will be over who gets more balls handed to them. Hightower came out of the gate on fire last season when working inside the red zone. If Beanie Wells can dominate between the 20s, The cards may have a potent weapon where they lacked one last year.
Rookie Contributors – Beanie Wells will probably get most of the spotlight as a rookie, however don’t sleep on Cory Brown. He is an unheralded rookie out of UConn. He could surprise and get a lot more playing time than most would think.
St. Louis Rams
Strengths – The upgrades on the O-Line should go a long way towards patching things up. Jason Brown will be originating line calls and leading this line for the next few years, at least. Jason Smith was my highest rated OT in the draft, and will be eased in at RT. Despite how bad this team was, it is not short of offensive leaders. Marc Bulger, Steven Jackson and Jason Brown must take this team over, and help those around them excel.
Weaknesses – How does this team expect to stop any receiver with the set of CBs they have? Ronald Bartell is up and down (luckily, he stepped up last year), and Tye Hill gets out-played on most weeks. The Rams have a foursome of highly drafted CB talent. Can they step up? The LB corps is one of the weakest in the league. The team needs James Laurinaitis to step up. The WRs are not ideal. Someone must emerge from that group. Actually 2-3 must emerge for this team to get out of the hole it has dug for itself.
Opportunities – While the outlook for this team is bleak, they are in the weakest division in the league. If a couple of players pick up the slack and the veterans can perform to their standards, this team has a slim chance to surprise. Alex Barron was an athletic lineman, much in the mold of what teams are looking for today at LT. However, he was stuck on the right side with Orlando Pace there. Could Barron realize his full potential on the left side.
Threats – Have the holdovers on the team bought into the “Loser Mentality”? If so, it may be time to clean house completely. The team also needs to send a message to Richie Incognito, for him to tone down his behavior. This was the knock on him in college and it’s haunting him in the NFL. He nearly cost the team their first win, because he lets his temper get out of hand. How long will the team tolerate his behavior? Will it take losing a game because of him? This is the wrong kind of influence to have around young players.
Passing/Receiving the Torch – Looks like the torch may go from the Lions to the Rams as the worst team in 2009. However, San Fran may beat the Rams to the punch.
Position Battle – On a team like this, there should be a lot of open battles. The one that catches my eye is at WR. While Laurent Robinson, Donnie Avery and Keenan Burton are the top 3 WRs on the team, they will battle to see which of those three spots they will occupy. Avery should be the clear cut #1 though.
Rookie Contributors – Jason Smith is behind Adam Goldberg for now at RT, but should see the starting role at some point this season. Laurinaitis could see time at MLB, moving Chris Draft to the strong side. DT Dorell Scott could be a dark horse. The team could use a run stopper up front.
San Francisco 49ers
Strengths – Frank Gore has been outspoken and is finally taking on a leadership role with this club. He may be the only bright spot on offense. On defense, you have Patrick Willis as the type of leader you build an entire defense around. Mike Singletary has his prodigy/protégé. The D-Line may be somewhat of a no-name crew, but they actually have the right pieces to fit their style of the 3-4 defense. In the D-Backfield, they might finally have some decent depth.
Weaknesses – The overall theme of this team is under-achievers. Regardless of who the QB is (Shaun Hill, Alex Smith, Damon Huard, Gio Carmazzi), there is a lot of doubt whether he will be able to lead the team anywhere. Regardless of the QB, he will not have a great set of targets to work with. To make matters worse on offense, Vernon Davis is the biggest tease in football. He was one of the fastest and strongest players coming into the league, and has done nothing but disappoint. While the O-Line is led by an over-achieving center in Eric Heitman, the rest of the line was highly touted coming into the league, and has also disappointed.
Opportunities – This is Mike Singletary’s chance to show that he can whip an under-achieving team into shape. He could build a legacy off of this situation. Those who knew and remember him as a player have no doubt that he has the brass to do it. One player that could use that brass is Manny Lawson. He has all the tools to be a great pass rusher in the 3-4, but still has not lived up to his potential. He’s in the final two years of his tiny rookie contract, and might want to make a case for a renegotiation for the uncapped year. Delanie Walker could prove that he’s the better TE for this offense than Vernon Davis.
Threats – The amount of under-achievers on this team is way too high, and could be cancerous to the team. If they continue on this path, it may be time to do some major house cleaning.
Passing/Receiving the Torch – Tarell Brown is the closest to receiving a torch. He may start getting some sparks from Nate Clements as the #1 CB. He is the type of over-achiever that this team needs.
Position Battle – It’s a 5-man race (when Crabtree decides to join the fray it will be 6). Josh Morgan and Isaac Bruce are penciled in as starters. Brandon Jones is dealing with an injury. Jason Hill is the home run threat who has some length. He has the most potential (outside of Crabtree). Arnaz Battle was once a starter, and hopes to regain that form again.
Rookie Contributor – Michael Crabtree is an idiot. Mark my words, he will lose more money in the long run by holding out of valuable time than he will make by holding out. Grade-A IDIOT. The real rookie gem on this squad might be Glen Coffee. He should win the RB2 role behind Gore, and is poised to surprise. There is a Dark Dark Horse in Ricky Jean-Francois. He played the same 3-4 DE position at LSU, and seems to be fitting in here.
Strengths – The front seven is probably the brightest spot on this team. The LB corps are every LB coach’s dream. Lofa Tatupu leads the defense from the middle. Leroy Hill played so well last year, the team felt it could move high-priced Julian Peterson, to make room for Aaron Curry. The three together could be dominant. The D-Line has mostly quality no-name talent. If they can tie up the blockers, the LBs can play freely and cause many problems for offenses. Young DEs Lawrence Jackson and Darryl Tapp need to step up for this to be an elite front seven.
Weaknesses – Can this team really survive with Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett as the feature backs? The middle of the O-Line hasn’t looked good and only makes it tougher on the running game. The CBs must step up this year. Kelly Jennings is in danger of being cut or traded for next to nothing if he doesn’t turn things around. Marcus Trufant and Ken Lucas team up again, but they were probably a better tandem when they were younger. The young talent at CB is not the kind that you put out there as a starter. Josh Wilson is too small to be an every down CB.
Opportunities – The surprise this team might have up its sleeve is the passing game. After putting 47 WRs on IR last year, theyhave a healthy bunch with the additions of T.J. Houshamazilla…WhosYoMama…Houshmandzadeh and rookie Deon Butler. John Carlson could be a pro-bowl caliber TE, though it doesn’t help that Tony Gonzalez is in the NFC now.
Threats – Does Matt Hasselbeck have it anymore? I quietly had them in the QB derby on draft day, knowing they could take Sanchez and put him in the perfect situation to sit for a year behind Hasselbeck for at least the start of this season.
Passing/Receiving the Torch – Walter Jones might be passing the LT torch to Sean Locklear soon. If Jones gets hurt or falters, Locklear will take the position and not give it back. This will also open the door at RT for Ray Willis.
Position Battle – WR3: Deion vs. Deon. Branch vs. Butler. Look for the veteran to have the early lead, but the rookie will push.
Rookie Contributor – Aaron Curry is the obvious stud rookie on this team. In many eyes, he was the class of the 2009 draft. He should do a lot for this club. Penn State burner, WR Deon Butler, is hard to keep up with on the field and has a little Bobby Engram to him. Utility lineman Max Unger could find his way into the RG mix with Mansfield Wrotto when Ray Willis moves to RT.