The NFC West is over rated. There: I said it. Last year, the division was ridiculously good. The best I can remember it being. The 4 teams went 30-10 outside the division and the top two teams won a combined 30 games, the most two teams from the same division have won since 1999. They then met for an epic slug fest in the conference championship two weeks before Sea humiliated Denver in the Super Bowl.
It's safe to say that the NFC West was the best division in football last year. It's safe to predict that the division will be the best in football again next year. However, it's still over rated. Why? 2 reasons. First of all teams that are good (and these 4 teams were all that) are never so much better than their competition. Likewise the dregs of the league are never as bad as they seem either. That's life in the modern, salary capped, injury decimated NFL. Secondly excellence is very difficult to maintain (the salary cap, inevitability of injuries and the draft structure). In a word: parity. So as good as this division is, it's not as good as pundits will hype it to be. Hype after all is the currency of punditry.
All that being said, let's run down the division, looking at what might happen next year based on what we know following free agency, the draft, and that period of the year when the players have nothing to do except get themselves in trouble.
Seattle. the good: they're the defending champions and bring back all the key players from that dominant squad. They have legitimate stars at quarterback, defensive end, cornerback, safety, running back and wide receiver. These are among the most important positions in football. As far as I'm concerned, their only weaknesses are at wr2-3 and along their offensive line. Assuming they enjoy reasonable health they could go 14-2.
the bad: they've lost depth. Golden Tate was their only reliable wr last year and he's gone. Harvin is a star but he's also fragile. If he goes down they'll have one of the worst receiving corps in football. They also lost Bryant, Clemons and McDonald from their defensive line. Those guys are all depth, but it was the depth of that unit as much as it's top end talent that made it scary. It would be easy to see them suffering some attrition and they didn't have many draft picks to reload with. Those they took were questionable... But the experts were loathe to criticize their draft too strongly because of their history of developing sleepers like Wilson and Sherman. Hard to argue with success (yet I will). Finding all world players on day 2 and 3 takes skill at evaluation and development. It also takes luck. The Seahawks could easily fall to 10-6 if they lost a few key players.
the ugly: it's hard to imagine them falling much past that barring season ending injuries to Wilson or Lynch. The future is cloudier with so much money tied up in Thomas, Harvin, Sherman and the kings ransom Wilson will command but the present is bright.
Arizona. The good: the cardinals shored up their offensive line, have the divisions best wr and have found a star rb. Their defense has been a force for years. Their defensive line and secondary are both excellent. Best case scenario probably requires bad luck to befall Sea and SF but they could be in a position to capitalize and take the division with a 12-4 season.
The bad: Carson Palmer is bad. He's also old and has an injury history. In a division stacked with talented pass rushers and defensive backs he's the quarterback equivalent of chum in the water. On the other side of the ball they lost the heart of their defense, pro bowl middle line backers Washington and Dansby. They don't have the players to replace that production in pass rushing and turnover generation. They drafted a safety to pair with the honey badger but they need both safeties to be lights out to avoid a step back on defense. I think they'll most likely go 8-8.
the ugly: Carson Palmer is old and bad. Old bad quarterbacks can fall off a cliff at any point. Andre Ellington was electric last year splitting carries with the retired (and mediocre) Mendenhall. If Ellington sputters as the featured running back the offense could crater. Further attrition on defense could reduce them from what looks like a good defense (even without star middle line backers) to an average 1. 6-10 isn't unrealistic.
St Louis. The good: this team has youth and potential. They took a huge amount of talent in exchange for RGIII. Tavon Austin was ridiculous at times last year and if he could bring that level of play consistently he would be a super star. They upgraded their lines on both sides of the ball. They could have the best defensive line in football. Bradford is at a cross roads and he knows it. This is his last chance to prove his worth and if he fails he may never start in the NFL again. They need him to be durable and productive to achieve their max potential. They probably need the incumbents to falter as well but if that happens they could take the division with 12 wins. I wouldn't hold my breath, though. I think they're where Sea was before hitting gold with Wilson.
the bad: Sam Bradford can't stay healthy. When he is healthy he isn't that exciting either. The rest of the team is pretty talented, though and I expect they'll win 7 or 8 games assuming Sam is who we think he is.
the ugly: the Rams got a ton of players for RGIII. None of them are stars yet. The odds favor them having found at least a couple stars in the group but if they don't things could get really ugly. Greg Robinson better be good out of the gate or Bradford will be hurt, again. Right now, the rams have a fantastic defensive line but beyond that they have little proven production. Things could go south if they start slowly. That means another year in the cellar... Which might not be the worst thing if they want to draft a qb (and they probably do).
San Francisco. The good: I'm a homer, but this is the best team on paper when you consider players 1-53. In the division, we have the best wr corp, the best tight end, the best offensive line, the most gifted qb, the best linebackers, the most potential at running back. We took a massive draft class in one of the highest rated drafts in recent years. If Colin Kaepernick develops as we hope we might have the scariest offense in football let alone the division. We also have uncommon depth along the offensive line, at wr, at rb, and along the defensive line. Even allowing for injuries we could win 13-14 games (if Colin plays well).
the bad: Bowman and Aldon and Culliver won't be starting in week 1. The secondary is a patch work. Rogers and Whitner were main stays and Bethea and Ward might not replace them seamlessly. Colin was shaky at times last year. Gore is older and there's talent behind him but it's untested. We have a number of players with boom/bust potential like Tank, Lattimore, Lynch, Wright, Cook, and Jonathan Martin. It's a given that they won't all develop but we might be in a position where we need one of them to step up. If Colin can't utilize his weapons we could be playing a lot of close games. I could see 9-10 wins if that frustrating scenario plays out.
The ugly: like Seattle, catastrophic injuries at vulnerable positions could sink our season. There isn't a team in the league that could expect to contend with their back up qb. The 49ers are no exception. Patrick Willis has to be a rock as well with Bowman out.