2011 NFL Division Preview
Better or Worse in 2011: Better
The Arizona Cardinals made major moves this past offseason. Probably a good thing when you go 5-11 in a weak division.
The biggest move was the trade for Kevin Kolb, a guy they hope is going to fulfill his potential and become a premier passer. They also had a good draft, netting them LSU defensive back Patrick Peterson and Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams, two players who will get the opportunity to contribute right away.
This is a team with a lot of potential heading into the year. Kolb will improve the offense for sure, pretty much because there really isn’t anywhere to go but up for them. They couldn’t move the ball because they weren’t a threat to go downfield, Kolb should fix that. Don’t expect to see the results right away though, he needs to learn a new offense in a very short amount of time. The lockout hurt him big time, he would have been much better off if he was traded around draft time and had a few months to study up on the new playbook.
The defense won’t do him any favors. They were in the bottom third of the league last year, and while they did make improvements they just won’t be enough to catapult the Cardinals’ defense to the level it would need to be at to carry this team to double digit wins.
Arizona will be better in 2011 then they were last year, with a lot of help from a weak schedule, but they’ll need to win the division to make the playoffs, which is going to be a tall order.
Important Acquisitions: Kevin Kolb, Chansi Stuckey, Todd Heap
Toughest Player Losses: Tim Hightower, Steve Breaston, Derek Anderson
Key Player: Beanie Wells
The “If” Factor: 2 ifs, but two big ones, quarterback and running back
2010 Offensive Ranking: 31st Passing, 32nd Rushing
The Cardinals made a big splash this offseason by trading for what they hope is a future franchise quarterback in Kevin Kolb. Kolb showed moments of brilliance in his limited playing time with the Philadelphia Eagles, but now we’re going to see if he has the chops to be “the guy” in Arizona.
I like Kolb, I think he has a good arm and good feet, but I don’t know if I buy into him yet. You just don’t trade a franchise quarterback in the NFL, especially not one who’s only 26 years old. The fact that Philadelphia was willing to let him go has to make you wonder, right?
That being said, I don’t think that Kolb could have landed in a better spot than this. The Cardinals have a solid, young offensive line, one of the best receivers in all of football, and a young running back to take the load off his shoulders from time to time.
That young running back, Beanie Wells from The Ohio State University, seemed to be primed for a breakout year in 2010. Instead, he took a step backward like the rest of this offense. In his rookie year Wells rushed for 793 yards, but last season only managed 397. 2011 is going to be the year where we see whether last season was a blip on the radar or if he was a one hit wonder in 2009.
The addition of Kevin Kolb will be a big help for Wells. Last year opposing defenses knew that the Cardinals weren’t going to beat them by throwing over the top, so they packed the box and didn’t allow Wells to have any room to run. This year those same defenses are going to be forced to defend more of the field, which should open up some of those running lanes for Beanie. I worry overall about the depth that Arizona has at this position, you need at least two good backs to win, and we just don’t know what to expect from rookie Ryan Williams.
The Cardinals’ offense is on the right track, whether Kolb is the long term answer or not, he’s certainly an upgrade from the quarterbacks they had last year.
If Kolb is as good as advertised he’ll bring out the best in Larry Fitzgerald, open up the running game for Beanie Wells, and have the Cardinals back in contention for the NFC West title.
Important Acquisitions: Patrick Peterson (R), Richard Marshall, Stewart Bradley, Vonnie Holliday
Toughest Player Losses: Trumaine McBride, Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie,
Key Player: Joey Porter
The “If” Factor: Low
2010 Defensive Ranking: 23rd Passing, 30th Rushing
This Cardinals defense was among the worst in the league last year. They couldn’t get any pressure on the quarterback and they couldn’t stop anyone from running on them. I wish I could find some insightful reason why 2011 will be any different, but I just can’t. They bring back pretty much the same roster as they had last year, the same group that allowed opposing offenses to march down the field on them.
The only positive improvement will come from the addition of LSU defensive back Patrick Peterson. The 5th overall pick in the draft, Peterson is considered to be the most NFL ready player taken. He has a superior skill set, and should settle into a starting role right from the start.
The problem is that defensive backs can only be affective when they have help from the pass rushers in front of them. All of the best cover guys in the league, guys like Revis and Asumogha, are only able to do what they do because they play on teams that get after the quarterback. It doesn’t matter how good you are, no one can be a shutdown cover corner if they are being asked to stay with their man for long periods of time.
And, despite their poor yardage rankings last year, the Cardinals were solidly mediocre at sacking the quarterback last year. They had 33 sacks as a team in 2010, good enough to be tied for the 14th best total in the league. Most of those sacks were spread across the board for this defense, but the one guy who has the potential to pad that sack number is Joey Porter. Porter has shown the ability to be an elite pass rusher in the pass, whether or not those days are past him we will see.
If Porter can regain his double digit sack form, and Patrick Peterson is the upgrade in the defensive backfield that he should be, this defense will be a better unit this year then they were in 2010, which will keep them in enough games for Kolb and the offense to have a chance at a double digit win total.
San Francisco 49ers
Better or Worse in 2011: Worse
This 49ers team is the prime example of the golden rule of NFL football, you can’t win without a good quarterback. They have a good offensive line, good receivers, a top flight running back, and a capable defense. If you transplanted a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning to this team they would be a Super Bowl contender.
Which leaves me wondering, why didn’t they do more to try to upgrade their quarterback this offseason? They can’t think that Alex Smith is all of a sudden going to be an All Pro, second round draft pick Colin Kaepernick is a year or two away at best from being a reliable starter, and please let’s not even get into how ridiculous the whole Dante Culpepper coming off the couch thing is. There were plenty of options available, like Donovan McNabb or Matt Hasselback, that would have given the team a better chance to win games this year. So why didn’t they make a move?
Most likely because they already have enough on their plate with integrating a new head coach in a shortened training camp, they figured the least amount of new parts the better. But it’s a tempting conspiracy theory to think that Harbaugh is just buying his time, and losing enough games this year, to get himself his old college quarterback Andrew Luck. I’m a sucker for a good conspiracy theory, but it would be a bad idea for a head coach in the first year of his NFL life to risk that much of his already small job security.
San Francisco is like a band with great guitar players and a good drummer but without the front man to make it all come together. They have playmakers on offense, but they won’t live up to their potential with Alex Smith under center. The defense will be good enough to keep them in a few games, but the offense just won’t be able to put up enough points for this team to end up with many wins.
New coaching staff, shortened training camp, same old quarterback adds up to a team that will struggle in 2011.
Important Acquisitions: Braylon Edwards, Jonathan Goodwin
Toughest Player Losses: None
Key Player: Vernon Davis
The “If” Factor: Low, not much else matters when you know neither quarterback can get the job done
2010 Offensive Ranking: 18th Passing, 19th Rushing
Remember the days when the San Francisco 49ers were synonymous with top level quarterbacks? Me too, but those days are getting farther and farther in the rear view mirror.
After two decades of Montana, then Young, then the underrated play of Jeff Garcia, the 49ers have spent the last few years struggling to find a quality starter. Alex Smith certainly isn’t the right answer, he’s just the best option available heading into the 2011 season.
It’s really too bad, the rest of the pieces are there. I like the signing of ex-Jet Braylon Edwards, a talented but troubled receiver, to compliment Michael Crabtree. Along with one of the better pass catching tight ends in the game, Vernon Davis, this would be a highly productive unit on most teams. But not here, they can’t throw the ball to themselves.
While I like the Edwards pickup, I love the free agent acquisition of center Jonathan Goodwin. Goodwin was the starter in New Orleans for the past 3 years and was a pro bowler during the 2009 Super Bowl season. Centers are important to an offense because they’re the ones setting up the blocking assignments at the line of scrimmage. If there’s one chance that Alex Smith is better than we think, the key to unlocking it could be an upgrade in the pass protection department.
But that’s highly unlikely, we’ve had a large enough sample size of Smith’s play to know that he just doesn’t have what it takes to be a top flight NFL quaterback.
2011 will be a rough year for the 49ers offense, and until they can get their hands on a new conductor for this orchestra they’ll struggle to score points.
Important Acquisitions: Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, Madieu Williams, Aldon Smith (R)
Toughest Player Losses: Manny Lawson, Aubrayo Franklin, Takeo Spikes, Nate Clements
Key Player: Aldon Smith
The “If” Factor: High, there are plenty of knew and known parts on this squad
2010 Defensive Ranking: 24th Passing, 6th Rushing
Much like this franchise as a whole, the 49ers defense saw a lot of turnover from last year. Usually when you’re a 6-10 team turnover is good, but San Francisco comes into 2011 with a defense that is at the same talent level as they were last year, if even that.
They let Manny Lawson go, his replacement will be the 7th overall pick in this year’s draft, Aldon Smith. Smith has outstanding physical talents, but he’ll be yet another college defensive end who’s going to be asked to transition to an outside linebacker in a 3-4 system. The jury is still out on this strategy, some have been successes (DeMarcus Ware) and some have been horrible failures (Vernon Gholston). Which end of the spectrum Smith will end up on we will see at some point, but this year don’t expect too much from him.
The 49ers also lost their nose tackle, Aubrayo Franklin, and their best defensive back, Nate Clements. Both moves were the right ones to make, those players weren’t going to be worth the cap hit that came along with them, but for this year it’s the talent on the field that’s taken the hit.