The eighth of eight divisional looks ahead at the upcoming NFL season. -----
ARIZONA CARDINALS (8-8, 2nd in NFC West, in 2011)
The good: Especially because WR Larry Fitzgerald has John Skelton throwing him the ball, CB/PR Patrick Peterson is probably the most important player to the Cardinals. Peterson looked like an elite defender late last season, and he's better as a returner. ... That Fitzgerald gained 1,411 yards last season with Skelton and Kevin Kolb sharing quarterback duties is absolutely amazing. And in Andre Roberts, Michael Floyd and Early Doucet, there's good young receiving talent around him. ... Ends Calias Campbell and Darnell Dockett give the Cardinals one of the best 3-4 defensive fronts around.
The bad: Kevin Kolb has cost the Cardinals Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a second-round pick and millions of dollars, and he's backing up the immortal John Skelton. Arizona's quarterbacks going to cripple their chances enough through their play, and Kolb's negative effect on the franchise goes beyond that. ... The Cardinals may not be able to keep their bad quarterbacks on the field, or run the ball at all, with D'Anthony Batiste, Daryn Colledge, Lyle Sendlein, Adam Snyder and Bobby Massie doing the blocking. ... Most 3-4 defenses are going to have more proven talent at linebacker than O'Brien Schofield, Daryl Washington, Paris Lenon and Sam Acho.
The verdict: This could be a pretty OK to decent defense, and the Cardinals have more skill-position talent than most. But quarterback and, to a lesser extent, offensive line are such issues that I can't see them competing.. The finish: 6-10, t-3rd in NFC West
ST. LOUIS RAMS (2-14, 4th in NFC West, in 2011)
The good: DE Chris Long finally broke out in 2011, recording 13 sacks, and if the Rams get similar improvement from their other young end, Robert Quinn, they could have the makings of a good pass rush, even without Gregg Williams. ... I'm not a huge Cortland Finnegan fan, but with rookie corner Janoris Jenkins and safeties Darian Stewart and Quentin Mikell, he should help make it a much better secondary. ... RB Steven Jackson is ancient by the standards of his position, but he's still effective, and should have some success running behind LT Rodger Saffold, C Scott Wells and RG Harvey Diehl.
The bad: I don't know how much success Aaron Rodgers would have throwing to the likes of Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson and the never-healthy Steve Smith, let alone a struggling young QB like Sam Bradford. It's quite possibly the worst receving talent in the entire league ... Speaking of Bradford, yeah, he had a similarly awful receiving corps in 2011, but I thought that was too often used as an excuse for him not playing well. He's got to be better for this team to have a prayer. ... ILB James Laurinaitis is a good player, but Rocky McIntosh and Jo-Lonn Dunbar are substandard starters on the outside.
The verdict: I can actually see this being a pretty decent defensive team. Offensively, unless Bradford finally starts justifying his top overall pick status and huge contract in a big way, the Rams aren't going to be good enough. The finish: 6-10, t-3rd in NFC West
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (13-3, 1st in NFC West, in 2011)
The good: Ahmad Brooks has a respectable 18 sacks over the past three seasons, and he's the weakest of the Niners' starting linebackers. Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are an unparalleled duo inside, and Aldon Smith is coming off a 14-sack rookie year. ... Speaking of sacks, Justin Smith gets them despite being a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme. He's probably the best player on what I think is legitimately the best defense in the league. ... It's not exactly a return of the days of Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes, but between TE Vernon Davis and WRs Randy Moss, Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, QB Alex Smith certainly has an array options.
The bad: The problem for the 49ers passing game is that Smith is still quarterbacking it. I can think of few things less likely in this world than him playing 16 games and only throwing five interceptions again. ... LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Jonathan Goodwin, RG Alex Boone and RT Anthony Davis comprise an offensive line that is experienced but isn't necesarily overwhelming. ... If anywhere on the defense is exploitable, it's the secondary, where CB Carlos Rogers, S Donte Whitner, S Dashon Goldson and CB Tarell Brown, are slated to start.
The verdict: The 49ers are about as much a sure thing to be good as any team with Smith at quarterback could conceivably be. Some expect a regression, but if one happens, it'll likley be due more to a tougher schedule than the Niners falling off. The finish: 12-4, 1st in NFC West
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (7-9, 3rd in NFC West, in 2011)
The good: Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor have a chance to emerge as the best pair of safeties in the NFL this season. They're both entering their third seasons, and they're both fresh off 90-tackle seasons. ... If rookie DE Bruce Irvin is what the Seahawks think he'll be, the defensive line can be about as good as the secondary. Another end, Chris Clemons has put together back-to-back 11-sack seasons, and a third who also plays inside, Red Bryant, got paid big for being a big run stopper. ... Even when opponents weren't exactly fearing Tarvaris Jackson and the passing game, the Seahawks proved in 2011 they could run the ball effectively, and sometimes spectacularly, behind Marshawn Lynch.
The bad: Russell Wilson did some nice things at Wisconsin. I never remember watching him and thinking he'd be a star in the NFL; certainly not that he'd excel as a rookie. Count me among the skeptical that he's ready to quarterback a playoff contender. ... Injuries to RG John Moffitt and RT James Carpenter have created a potential mess on the offensive line. The Seahawks are already thin, and one more injury probably subjects them to the Frank Omiyale experience. ... The defense has a nice front four and a potentially great back four, but the three in the middle (K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner and Leroy Hill) are nothing special.
The verdict: I drafted the Seahawks' defense/special teams (they still have returner Leon Washington) to scoffs in my fantasy leagues. I can't understand why. This could easily be a top-five defense in 2012; I think it's good enough to keep Seattle right in the hunt. The finish: 10-6, 2nd in NFC West