2006 Season Previews
NFC West
Seattle Seahawks (Last Year: 13-3).
Major Additions:
WR Nate Burleson, OL Tom Ashworth, DE Darryl Tapp, DT Russell Davis, OLB Julian Peterson, CB Kelly Jennings.
Major Subtractions:
WR Joe Jurevicius, TE Ryan Hannam, G Steve Hutchinson, OLB Jamie Sharper, CB Andre Dyson, S Marquand Manuel, S John Howell, P Tom Rouen.

Offense This Year: The Seahawks have always had the pieces in place but could never get it together -- until last year. Joe Jurevicius' arrival helped spark a unit that was often guilty of dropping a large number of passes, playing inconsistently and fumbling at inopportune moments. Jurevicius' grit and contagious work ethic helped Seattle's offense, which failed to score at least 21 points only four times in 2005. Matt Hasselbeck became consistent, Shaun Alexander stopped fumbling and all of the receivers -- excluding Jerramy Stevens' disgraceful performance in the Super Bowl -- caught almost every pass thrown to them.

Jurevicius is gone, but all of the parts are in place for another championship run. Hasselbeck, who threw just nine interceptions last season, will have a new weapon at his disposal. Playing alongside Darrell Jackson, Nate Burleson, who was a free-agent acquisition from Minnesota, should be able to regain 2004 form when he caught 68 passes for 1,006 yards and nine touchdowns. Burleson suffered through injuries, Daunte Culpepper's downfall as a Viking and Brad Johnson's inability to get the ball downfield, and only registered 328 yards and one touchdown in 2005. Unless he is hampered by injuries again, Burleson should be able to rebound.

At any rate, the most important yard-gainer in Seattle's offense is Shaun Alexander, who compiled a league-high 1,880 rushing yards and an NFL-record 27 rushing touchdowns in 2005. Alexander no longer has Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson blocking for him, but the other four lineman are back. And besides, it isn't that hard to look good next to Walter Jones, the best left tackle in the NFL. Pork Chop Womack and Tom Ashworth will compete for Hutchinson's spot, and I'm sure either of them will do an admirable job.

Defense This Year: You can scour through Seattle's depth chart for hours, but you won't come across any holes or weaknesses. That's because there aren't any; the Seahawks have solid players at every position. General manager Tim Ruskell did a masterful job improving the team's run defense, which was ranked 23rd in 2004. The defensive-tackle rotation of Rocky Bernard, Chuck Darby and Marcus Tubbs ate up offensive linemen and cleared the way for outstanding rookie middle linebacker Lofa Tatapu. The Seahawks were consequently ranked fifth against opposing ground attacks.

Stopping the pass didn't present a problem either; Seattle's hectic pass rush, which should even be better in 2006 with the addition of Pro Bowl outside linebacker Julian Peterson, registered a league-high 50 sacks. With defensive ends Bryce Fisher (9 sacks) and Rocky Bernard (8), and outside linebacker Leroy Hill (7) placing so much pressure on signal callers, a solid starting secondary -- cornerbacks Marcus Trufant and Kelly Herndon, and safeties Ken Hamlin and Michael Boulware -- didn't have to do much work.

The only thing the Seahawks really needed going into the offseason was depth at defensive back. They seemed to answer that requirement, trading for safety Mike Green and drafting corner Kelly Jennings in the first round.

Schedule and Intangibles: Perhaps the greatest worry Seahawks fans have are a pair of looming curses: the Super Bowl Loser Jinx and the Madden Curse. No team has made the playoffs the year after they lost the Super Bowl this decade; while every player who has been on the cover of Madden (Alexander in this case) has either gotten injured or missed the playoffs the following season, with the exception of Eddie George. All George did was fumble in a playoff game against Baltimore, sparking the Ravens over Tennessee. The Eagles were inflicted with both jinxes last offseason. Ask their fans how their season went. That said, it should also be noted that Seattle does not have a malcontent receiver calling out Hasselbeck ... Kicker Josh Brown had a solid 2004 campaign, but struggled in 2005, converting just 9-of-15 attempts from beyond 40 yards. That needs to improve ... For the second consecutive season, special teams did not produce a touchdown. That also must change. ... Although Seattle finished first last year, they have a fairly easy schedule. Cupcake opponents include: Detroit, Minnesota, Oakland, Green Bay and San Diego. The Seahawks also lucked out because they don't have any 1 p.m. games on the East Coast until they play Tampa Bay in Week 17.

Additional Reading: Super Bowl Loser Jinx 2006

Analysis: The Seahawks are the best team in the NFL. Whether they win the Super Bowl or not depends on how real the two aforementioned curses are. If they are hoaxes, Hasselbeck, Alexander and Mike Holmgren will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February 2007.

Projection: 12-4 (1st in the NFC West).

Arizona Cardinals (Last Year: 5-11).
Major Additions:
QB Matt Leinart, RB Edgerrin James, TE Leonard Pope, G Deuce Lutui, G Milford Brown, DT Kendrick Clancy, DT Gabe Watson.
Major Subtractions:
QB Josh McCown, DT Russell Davis, CB Raymond Walls, S Quentin Harris.

Offense This Year: The Cardinals' offense makes me think of a bland tie wrapped in a gold box with ruby and emerald studs embossed on the cover. That's because Arizona has a lot of appealing players. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin are the top receiving duo in the NFL; they combined for a mind-boggling 205 catches, 2,811 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2005. Joining them in an exceptional receiving corps are Bryant Johnson (40 catches, 432 yards) and rookie Leonard Pope, who is expected to immediately take over for Adam Bergen at tight end.

The most important acquisition the Cardinals made this offseason, in terms of projected 2006 production, is Edgerrin James, who compiled four 1,500-yard rushing campaigns with the Indianapolis Colts. James will draw more defenders to the line of scrimmage, which will only enhance the potency of Boldin and Fitzgerald.

Despite everything Arizona has in place, its offense will not work and will struggle once again (it only managed 19.4 points per game in 2005). The main reason is the lack of talent on the offensive front. Second-round selection Deuce Lutui, who will start at left guard, should help improve a line that surrendered 45 sacks last year. However, the rest of the unit is comprised of hacks, no-talents and underachievers.

Quarterback Kurt Warner is also a problem. Ever since his injury-plagued 2002 campaign, Warner has not been the same. He takes too many sacks because he waits in the pocket too long. Matt Leinart, picked 10th overall in April's draft, will be the team's starting signal caller by 2007. Until he's under center and the Cardinals have a solid line in place, the offense will continue to be inconsistent.

Defense This Year: Arizona is notorious for perennially producing terrible defenses. However, I believe that the team has finally put together a foundation that could turn into a solid stop unit. The Cardinals surrendered just 3,097 passing yards in 2005, thanks to a pass rush that produced 37 sacks, and as young and improving secondary.

Defensive ends Chike Okeafor and Bert Berry combined for 13 sacks, assisting a cornerbacking corps comprised of Antrel Rolle, David Macklin and Eric Green. While those three players are all talented, the best defensive back Arizona has is strong safety Adrian Wilson, who registered 109 tackles, 8 sacks and one interception last year. The weak link in the secondary is free safety Robert Griffith, who turns 36 in November.

Meanwhile, stopping the run was a problem in 2005, but at least the Cardinals made strides in doing so; they decreased their yards-per-carry average from 4.8 to 4.1. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, who will be playing alongside Kendrick Clancy, might be able to drop that number even further. It helps that middle linebacker Karlos Dansby is playing behind them.

Arizona still needs a free safety, a stud outside linebacker and more depth at corner, but their defense is no longer the laughing stock of the NFL.

Schedule and Intangibles: If Arizona wants to take the NFC West crown away from Seattle, it must develop a better home-field advantage at its new facility. Going 2-5 at Sun Devil Stadium just won't cut it. ... The Cardinals failed to return a punt or a kickoff for a touchdown, while permitting four to their opponents. That's pretty embarrassing. ... Kicker Neil Rackers seemed invincible at times last year. He was 19-of-21 from beyond 40 yards. ... Like the Seahawks, Arizona has a balanced schedule. While the team plays tough, non-NFC West opponents, such as Atlanta, Kansas City, Chicago, Dallas and Denver, it also has the luxury of stomping on Oakland, Green Bay and Detroit.

Analysis: When the Cardinals were fortunate to land Leinart with the No. 10 pick, I predicted them to participate in the 2008 NFC Championship. If Dennis Green adds talent to his offensive front and adds a few weapons on defense, my projection could become a reality.

Projection: 8-8 (2nd in the NFC West).

St. Louis Rams (Last Year: 6-10).
Major Additions:
QB Gus Frerotte, TE Joe Klopfenstein, TE Dominique Byrd, DT La'Roi Glover, DT Claude Wroten, OLB Jon Alston, MLB Will Witherspoon, CB Fakhir Brown, CB Tye Hill, S Corey Chavous, P Matt Turk.
Major Subtractions:
QB Jamie Martin, TE Brandon Manumaleuna, G Rex Tucker, G Tom Nutten, DE Tyoka Jackson, DT Damoine Lewis, DT Ryan Pickett, MLB Chris Claiborne, CB Corey Ivy, CB Terry Fair, S Adam Archuleta, P Bryan Barker.

Offense This Year: Although the Rams are coming off an ugly 6-10 campaign, they still have an attack unit that should be known as "The Greatest Show on Turf." Marc Bulger, who only played in eight contests last season, commanded St. Louis to 25 points per game when he was in the lineup. The West Virginia product has a quartette of outstanding wide receivers to throw to: Torry Holt (102 catches, 1,331 yards, 9 TDs), Isaac Bruce (525 yards, 3 TDs), Kevin Curtis (901 yards, 6 TDs) and Shaun McDonald (523 yards). Even the deepest secondaries in the NFL have trouble covering those four, especially with a potent runner like Steven Jackson in the backfield.

Jackson, a punishing runner, rumbled for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns, and also caught 43 passes. Former head coach Mike Martz was guilty of not giving Jackson enough carries, but I'm positive that new head man Scott Linehan and offensive coordinator Greg Olson will change that trend.

Making sure Jackson has enough running lanes and Bulger has ample breathing room is Orlando Pace, one of the two premier offensive tackles in the NFL.

Everything that I have written up to this point makes it sound like the Rams will score 40 points every week. That's not the case -- St. Louis' offense has two major concerns. The first is everyone on the offensive front, excluding Pace. Right tackle Alex Barron, who is entering his second year, needs to improve immediately; left guard Claude Terrell should be a backup in this league; and right guard Adam Timmerman turns 35 in August. The Rams consequently surrendered 46 sacks in 2005. If they allow Bulger to get hurt again, they can kiss their playoff hopes goodbye. The other concern is the team's inability to score consistently on grass; St. Louis averaged just 18.3 points in outdoor contests the past two years.

Defense This Year: Last year I mocked St. Louis' defense, calling "The Greatest Show on Turf's" counterpart "The Worst Defense on Earth." The stop unit didn't disappoint me, as it was ranked dead last against the run.

However, the Rams did a solid job this offseason in improving a defense that yielded 26.8 points per game in 2005. The first thing they did was discard a pair of former No. 1 picks (Damoine Lewis and Ryan Pickett). They acquired La'Roi Glover, who was lost in Dallas' 3-4 scheme. Glover will be playing alongside another No. 1 disappointment, Jimmy Kennedy. Third-round selection Claude Wroten could find his way into the rotation if he impresses during training camp and preseason. The presence of Glover and Wroten should improve St. Louis' ineptness against ground attacks, especially considering that free-agent signee Will Witherspoon will be the team's new middle linebacker.

As for pressuring the quarterback, the Rams have defensive ends Leonard Little and Tony Hargrove, who combined for 16 sacks last season. With Little and Hargrove expected to exceed those numbers, a very deep cornerbacking corps shouldn't have any problems covering opposing receivers. Aided by offseason-addition safety Corey Chavous, the group is comprised of: Jerametrius Butler, Fakhir Brown (starters), DeJuan Groce, Travis Fisher, Ronald Bartell Jr. and this year's No. 1 pick, Tye Hill.

That said, St. Louis has three major gaps on the defensive side of the ball. I already discussed Kennedy. The other two are at outside linebacker and free safety. Neither Brandon Chillar nor O.J. Atogwe should be starting, which is something that must be addressed in the offseason of 2007.

Schedule and Intangibles: The Rams are just 9-15 away from the Edward Jones Dome the past three seasons. They have had trouble winning on the road for years because grass and harsh weather conditions make it tedious for their skill players to run quickly. This is another trend Linehan must reverse. ... Jeff Wilkins is one of the top kickers in the NFL. He converted 13-of-16 attempts from beyond 40 yards in 2005. ... The Rams have seven outdoor contests this year, so they will have to learn how to win on grass. ... Linehan's first schedule looks fairly balanced. Taxing, non-divisional opponents include: Denver, Kansas City, Carolina, Chicago and Washington; while some cream-puff foes are: Detroit, Green Bay, San Diego and Oakland.

Analysis: A few things need to happen for the Rams to qualify for the postseason: Bulger must stay healthy; the defense needs to improve; they need to claim at least four road victories; and the Cardinals can't jump ahead of them just yet. All of those things can come to fruition, but the odds aren't in St. Louis' favor.

Projection: 7-9 (3rd in the NFC West).

San Francisco 49ers (Last Year: 4-12).
Major Additions:
QB Trent Dilfer, WR Antonio Bryant, WR Bryan Gilmore, WR Brandon Williams, TE Vernon Davis, G Larry Allen, OLB Manny Lawson, OLB Parys Haralson, CB Walt Harris, CB Sammy Davis, P Tom Rouen.
Major Subtractions:
QB Ken Dorsey, FB Fred Beasley, WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Johnnie Morton, OT Anthony Clement, DT Travis Hall, OLB Julian Peterson, OLB Andre Carter, CB Ahmed Plummer.

Offense This Year: After the 49ers averaged just 16.2 points per game in 2004, I remarked that it couldn't possibly get worse for them. After all, their trio of signal callers -- Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett -- threw more interceptions (21) than touchdowns (16).

Well, apparently I was dead wrong. San Francisco's offense was even more pathetic in 2005, as it produced only 14.9 points per contest. Last year's quarterbacks, joined by No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith, were guilty of 21 interceptions to just eight touchdowns. During Smith's seven starts, things got even uglier. The 49ers produced just 12.3 points per game, which can be attributed to Smith's one touchdown, 11 interceptions, 11 fumbles and 40.8 quarterback rating. And this guy was the first player chosen in 2005? Why didn't they just wait for Matt Leinart?

At any rate, I'll write what I asked last year. It can't get worse than last season, can it? Smith almost has to be better with a year of experience under his belt. His top receiver, Brandon Lloyd, was traded to Washington, but he will have rookie tight end Vernon Davis at his disposal. Newly acquired Antonio Bryant will also be reliable at wide out. The offensive line received a small boost in left guard Larry Allen, who turns 35 in November. In the backfield, Frank Gore will look to build on his 2005 campaign, in which he rumbled for 608 yards at 4.8 yards per carry.

San Francisco seems to have a foundation in place, but it's currently very shaky. The right side of the offensive front is horrific; there are no reliable targets beyond Davis and Bryant; while Smith looks like he could become one of the biggest busts in NFL history.

Defense This Year: Take a mediocre defense, strip it of its top three players and what do you have? San Francisco's stop unit. A defense that surrendered a nauseating 4,427 passing yards in 2005 will be without outside linebackers Julian Peterson and Andre Carter, and cornerback Ahmed Plummer next season.

Instead of two outstanding veterans, the 49ers will be relying on two rookies -- Manny Lawson and fifth-round selection Parys Haralson -- to apply pressure on opposing signal callers. San Francisco registered only 28 sacks last year, which put a lot of pressure on a reeling secondary. The quartette of Walt Harris, Shawntae Spencer, Sammy Davis and Mike Rumph is the NFL's worst; while free safety Mike Adams has no business starting in this league.

The 49ers' ability to stop the run isn't that bad; they permitted only four yards per carry in 2005, thanks to linemen Bryant Young, Anthony Adams and Marques Douglas, and inside linebackers Jeff Ulbrich and Derek Smith. However, that statistic will worsen without Peterson and Carter.

Schedule and Intangibles: The 49ers went 3-5 at home, but they were able to compete with every team that visited Monster Park, or whatever that abomination is called nowadays. ... Joe Nedney missed only two field goals last season, converting on 12-of-13 attempts from beyond 40 yards. ... The 49ers have a chance to pick up some wins against Oakland, San Diego, Detroit, New Orleans and Green Bay.

Additional Reading: The Alex Smith Project (Written Oct. 23)

Analysis: The 49ers hit rock bottom in 2004. They remained there in 2005. This season won't be any different.

Projection: 4-12 (4th in the NFC West).

2000 Season Preview
2001 Season Preview
2002 Season Preview
2003 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards

2004 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards / Simulation

2005 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards / Simulation

2006 Season Preview:
AFC East / AFC North / AFC South / AFC West
NFC East / NFC North / NFC South / NFC West
Playoffs / Awards / Simulation

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