The NFL preseason starts Sunday with the Hall of Fame Game between the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints, and then it truly gets underway with six more games the following Thursday.
So, starting this week, we’re going division by division providing a preseason primer for all 32 NFL teams.
NFC WEST LEVEL OF UNCERTAINTY (1-10)
49ers (3): San Francisco was inches away from a shocking Super Bowl berth in 2011, but when you make a very public push for Peyton Manning in the offseason and then deny that you ever wanted him, it creates at least a little bit of a dilemma at the quarterback spot. Alex Smith is still the starter, and the Niners brought in Mario Manningham and Randy Moss in the offseason, but they’ll need to improve their 29th-rated passing game.
Cardinals (7): If you don’t have a clear No. 1 quarterback, there’s always a general uneasiness floating around training camp. Kevin Kolb got all the money last offseason and is probably tops on the depth chart right now, but John Skelton is about 0.0001 percent behind him. Arizona spent a first-round pick on wideout Michael Floyd when it had far more pressing needs along both lines, so you can’t fault either quarterback for a lack of weapons. Maybe just a lack of time to throw.
Rams (8): St. Louis had what some called the most successful draft of anyone back in April, using six picks in the first four rounds to fill holes on both sides of the ball. Can a loaded draft class pay immediate dividends? Let’s not forget, this team was one game away from winning the NFC West in 2010 and then was one of the favorites to win it last year before injuries derailed their season.
Seahawks (8): Seattle recognized it needed a better quarterback to compete in the NFC and went out and signed Matt Flynn from the Packers and drafted Russell Wilson out of Wisconsin. Those two will compete with incumbent Tarvaris Jackson for the starting job, and Flynn appears to be the favorite. The strategy of signing another team’s backup has had mixed results at best throughout the league, though.
Here’s how each NFC West team has fared for gamblers in the preseason since realignment in 2002 (10 years).
49ers: 20-19-2 ATS | 17-24 O/U
Cardinals: 20-19-1 ATS | 19-21 O/U
Rams: 19-21 ATS | 21-19 O/U
Seahawks: 22-16-2 ATS | 23-17 O/U
Added: RB Brandon Jacobs, WR Mario Manningham, WR Randy Moss,
Lost: OG Adam Snyder, SS Reggie Smith, FS Madieu Williams
Added: WR Michael Floyd, OG Adam Snyder, CB William Gay
Lost: OG Rex Hadnot, OG Deuce Lutui, CB Richard Marshall
Added: C Scott Wells, DT Kendall Langford, OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, DT Michael Brockers, OLB Rocky McIntosh, CB Cortland Finnegan
Lost: WR Brandon Lloyd, OG Jason Brown, C Tony Wragge, DT Justin Bannan, DE James Hall, DT Fred Robbins, OLB Chris Chamberlain,
Added: QB Matt Flynn, TE Kellen Winslow Jr., DT Jason Jones, DE Bruce Irvin
Lost: QB Charlie Whitehurst, OG Robert Gallery, MLB David Hawthorne
PLAYERS TO WATCH
49ers | OLB Aldon Smith
Everyone will be watching Randy Moss to see if he’s still up to speed after taking some time off, but Smith will likely have a far greater impact. He burst onto the scene with 14 sacks as a rookie last season, but now he’ll be asked to be an every-down player. Furthermore, he was the victim of a stabbing incident at a house party over the summer and was arrested for a DUI earlier in the offseason.
Cardinals | OG Adam Snyder
Arizona gave up 54 sacks in 2011, trailing only St. Louis for the most in the league. The Cardinals snagged Snyder from the 49ers and drafted three offensive linemen later in the draft, but was that enough of a commitment to see any tangible improvement? Both the starters at quarterback (Kevin Kolb) and running back (Beanie Wells) are prone to injury, so protecting them and opening up holes is essential.
Rams | LT Rodger Saffold
If the Cardinals’ offensive line was leaky in 2011, St. Louis’ was gushing, and Saffold was one of the biggest culprits. He struggled to protect Sam Bradford’s blind side and then was sidelined with a pectoral injury, but he should be fully healthy by the opening week of the season. The Rams are sticking with Saffold at the most important place on the offensive line, so he’ll need a good preseason to reward their faith in him. Bradford’s job isn’t in question, but if he gets good protection and still doesn’t perform, it could be.
Seahawks | QB Matt Flynn & QB Russell Wilson
Sure, there are some other storylines in Seattle’s camp, but how much do any of them matter compared to the quarterback battle? Flynn showed flashes of brilliance in the brief amount of time he got to play behind Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, but other quarterbacks who succeeded in a backup role (Matt Schaub, Matt Cassel, Kevin Kolb, etc.) haven’t always translated that to other teams. Flynn has the tools to be an outlier.