NFC West: Soaring Hawks

NFC West: Soaring Hawks
by Cris Carter, Yahoo Sports
August 30, 2004

Cris Carter
Yahoo Sports
Cris' Prediction
   1. Seattle
   2. St. Louis
   3. Arizona
   4. San Francisco
Cris Carter's division previews:
AFC: East | North | South | West
NFC: East | North | South | West

The Seahawks will benefit from their experience in last year's playoffs, and coach Mike Holmgren, after years of struggling, finally has the team that he wants in Seattle. People in Seattle should be excited about the team and what Holmgren is doing. Things are really looking up for the Seahawks.

Seattle Seahawks (Last season: 10-6, 2nd)

Player to watch: Grant Wistrom
Seattle is putting its faith in Wistrom after signing him away from St. Louis this offseason. Can he come over and be the dominant pass rusher that the Seahawks need? They are hoping he will bring that motor that runs 110 mph every play and be consistent for all 16 games this season.

Burning question: Is Matt Hasselbeck ready?
Now that Hasselbeck has some experience under his belt, it is time to find out how good he can really be. Is he just a system quarterback or is he really one of the premier quarterbacks?

Holmgren has groomed good quarterbacks in the past, and the time is now for Hasselbeck given his surrounding talent. Running back Shaun Alexander is one of the most consistent backs in the league and somewhat underrated. He, along with the receiving corps, will be vital to Hasselbeck's success.

Bottom line:
Hasselbeck appears to be growing into a confident quarterback who now has the weapons on offense to the win this division. This could be the year for him to get his just due by leading his team to not only a division title but also a deep postseason run – and possibly a trip to the Super Bowl.

St. Louis Rams (Last season: 12-4, 1st)

Player to watch: Leonard Little
There are question marks surrounding Little and the Rams' defense. After losing Wistrom in the offseason, Little now is the senior leader and most talented defensive player. But his status is questionable because of a felony drunken driving charge during the offseason. Are the Rams going to have him throughout the season or will he be forced to miss some time? His presence on that corner, especially on turf, is crucial to the success of St. Louis.

Burning question: Addition by subtraction?
Now that Kurt Warner no longer is looking over his shoulder, can Marc Bulger become the franchise quarterback that coach Martz thinks he is? He has all the help he needs in the backfield. Even as Marshall Faulk gets older, the Rams have a good player waiting in the wings because they drafted Steven Jackson with their No. 1 pick. Jackson will be a star in the NFL in the near future. And the wideout tandem of Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce still is one of the best in the league.

Bottom line:
The Rams could challenge Seattle, but they have lots of open questions entering the season. The Rams are still a powerful offensive team, but can they hold up defensively after losing defensive coordinator Lovie Smith to the Chicago Bears?

Arizona Cardinals (Last season: 4-12, 4th)

Player to watch: Bertrand Berry
New coach Dennis Green is making a big deal out of Berry, a defensive end whom the Cardinals signed away from the Denver Broncos. Arizona believes he was a situational player in Denver who can be a star in his new home. Green loves his overall ability and what he brings to the team. He has speed and great pass rushing ability, and he can be an every-down player.

Burning question: Is Larry Fitzgerald ready?
Did coach Green make the right choice by choosing Fitzgerald with the No. 3 pick? He picked Fitzgerald to become part of a three-receiver set with Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson. But now Fitzgerald becomes more important because Boldin hurt his knee during the preseason and will be out for a couple of months.

Fitzgerald is in a tough spot as the featured receiver immediately as a rookie. He would be better off with an established receiver on the other side.

Bottom line:
The Cardinals should make a big move this season. If you look at coach Green's past, Arizona at least will have a change in attitude. Green is used to winning. Also, his teams always have scored a lot of points. We'll see if quarterback Josh McCown can lead this young offense.

San Francisco 49ers (Last season: 7-9, 3rd)

Player to watch: Julian Peterson
Peterson is the best player on the franchise. After a long holdout, he doesn't have much time to get on the same page as the defense. Peterson is the key with his ability to neutralize tight ends and rush the passer. He has the ability to free up a Niners secondary that is experienced yet still fairly young.

Burning question: Is there a replacement for TO?
It's always hard to replace a franchise wide receiver. San Francisco did it with Owens when Jerry Rice left. I don't think there is anyone of Owens' talent level to step in his shoes. There is talk of Brandon Lloyd taking over. He will be a good player, but I don't think he will be a great player.

Bottom line:
The Niners are left with a shell of last year's team. Gone are veteran leaders – Garrison Hearst, Tai Streets, Jeff Garcia – and the team should struggle on and off the field this season. Starting from the top with quarterback Tim Rattay, too many questions hang over this team to predict anything but a last-place finish.

Cris Carter is Yahoo! Sports' NFL analyst. Send Cris a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Monday, Aug 30, 2004 10:00 pm, EDT

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