ESPN and Scouts Inc has an annual tradition of looking at each division prior to training camp. It looks like they ran through the NFC West last week, but it did not seem all that publicized. It's partially Insider protected so I thought I'd throw out some tidbits from it. There's some video of NFL Live discussing the West, but it's acting up so I'll get it up sometime later if I can.
Mike Sando did the review of the 49ers up to this point. He hit all the high points including the use of Justin Smith at outside linebacker in practice. I definitely think this will be quite the on-going story, particular if this leads to a boost in his sack totals. Sacks are one of the sexy stats on defense so if he piles up sacks from the linebacker position, it'll certainly make news. Additionally, Sando addressed the hiring of Mike Martz. They even included some video footage from the NFL Network of Marshall Faulk talking to Alex Smith. In the interview Faulk asked Smith about competing for the starting job and Smith seemed "fine with it," acknowledging you're always competing. Of course the most interesting line was when he mentioned competing with Shaun, but no mention of J.T. O'Sullivan.
Not surprisingly, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis were pointed too as two extremely important guys for the offense, alongside Alex Smith. Gore is a dual threat as a rusher and receiver, while Vernon Davis had one of the quieter 52-catch seasons in recent memory. I think that goes to show just how much potential people see in Davis, that they'll be ho-hum over a 52-catch season.
Scouts Inc also did a breakdown of the NFC West in a roundtable discussion amongst all their scouts. They asked the scouts who had the best offense, who had the best defense and what was the most important offseason move in the division. On the offensive side, 3 out of 5 voters picked the Cardinals, with the Seahawks garnering the other two votes. What was a little more surprising was that a couple of voters felt the Cardinals had the best defense as well. Part of that was due to the high upside of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Calais Campbell, as well as the signing of Travis LaBoy.
Not so shocking was that most of the voters felt the biggest offseason move was the 49ers hiring Mike Martz. In regards to the signing, scouts said:
I would like to see him run the ball a little more because his pass-happy offensive game plans can get the quarterback hit more than you would like, but the bottom line is that his teams score points. Look for QB Alex Smith to be more efficient and the 49ers' scoring average to go up a minimum of seven points per game.
The innovative Martz should be able to jump-start an anemic passing game with the addition of veteran WR Isaac Bruce coupled with a healthy Smith.
Bringing in Martz will give the 49ers an experienced playcaller and a creative passing game to challenge defenses. However, I'm not sure they have enough talented receivers. Their best receiver is 35 years old, and I wonder whether this group can be consistent enough to meet the demands of a Martz system over the course of the year.
Smith could excel in this system. Yes, I said it. Smith fits this offense very well. He is heady, a good touch passer and should adapt quickly to what Martz asks of him. Of course, Smith's supporting cast is suspect and he has to get the ball out much quicker. However, I do expect RB Frank Gore to put up an awful lot of all-purpose yards, and the offensive line is a little better [than] it gets credit for . . . How he incorporates [Vernon Davis] into this offense and maybe more importantly, how Davis adapts mentally to the new scheme, is paramount for a turnaround of a dismal offense. Martz can only help.
Some of this is fairly obvious, but still good to get some perspective on the situation. I do agree with the very last line that Martz can only help. Things certainly can't get any worse.
And just to wrap it up, ESPN Sportsnation has a poll up on who will win the NFC West.