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Jay Castro’s NFL Picks: NFC West

Once again, it’s time to troll Zazenlife’s gridiron-loving readership. Here are my picks for the last NFC division…AFC East-lovers, get your hate mail ready for next week! DISCLAIMER: Do not exhaust your bank account, mortgage your home, or sell your children over my prophecies; if they were that accurate, I’d keep them to myself while the money rolls in. Besides, the Fantasy Football Gods enjoy tormenting you…so please, merely enjoy my rants, and consider them somewhat entertaining, kind of as you might Bubbles and Bunny from the Nudie Bar…

nfc west 2012NFC WEST

1. San Francisco 49ers: 10-6
2. Arizona Cardinals: 9-7
3. Seattle Seahawks: 5-11
4. St. Louis Rams: 3-13

San Francisco 49ers: Skill Positions: QB: Alex Smith, WR: Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Michael Crabtree, RB: Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, TE: Vernon Davis, Notable DEF/ST: Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Carlos Rogers, Ray McDonald, Donte Whitner, David Akers, Andy Lee

I have to hand it to Jim Harbaugh. He turned around a once-glorious franchise that hadn’t seen a winning season in eight years and had gone through five regime changes in that span almost overnight, making them one of the most feared units for much of 2011. In doing so, he also catapulted Alex Smith from one of the NFL’s biggest draft busts to a playoff hero. Surely, 2012 should have much more excitement in store for you, long-suffering Niner fan, right?

Well, I’ve got good news and bad news. You want the bad news first? Expect a correction almost immediately. How about the good news? They’ll still play in a shitty enough division that we’ll see them back in the postseason.

What’ll set them apart from the pretenders below will be defense, especially run defense. San Francisco was numero uno in that regard last year, and I don’t expect any different this year; take another look at the names above and try to tell me differently. They will also rush the passer constantly, which will eliminate mediocre QBs but might open up big play opportunities for better ones; the secondary, having had a good season last year, will need to step it up another level to duplicate last year’s success. In spite of their sub-par outing against the Giants in the NFC Championship game, the special teams unit is also a strength—you can’t get a more solid veteran kicker than David Akers, and Andy Lee is among the top two or three punters in the game. Ted Ginn, Jr. sucks, so perhaps Kyle Williams gets a shot at redeeming himself in the return game.

But if the Niners are to be taken seriously as a contender, they must improve on offense. If Alex Smith has the weakest noodle of all the QBs in the game (save Mark Sanchez maybe), you can’t blame the guy—he’s seen more offensive coordinators than Hooker Heather sees johns, and having the Peyton Manning Experience nearly roll into town couldn’t be good for his psyche. Considering the moves San Fran has made in the offseason (signing Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, and drafting A.J. Jenkins in the 1st round) being 29th in pass offense won’t be acceptable. I don’t expect those guys to become locker room Stepfords either; a lot of balls need to get to them, Crabtree, and Davis, so Smith is going to have to prove he’s the man to dish them out. The running game will be an outstanding fallback option regardless of whether joining-instead-of-beating the former Giants they snagged backfires on them, so I really don’t expect this team to miss a beat. But poor play from Smith and/or locker room discord could cost them a victory or two down the stretch. Colin Kaepernick waits patiently.

In any event, they are the most talented team in the division and will win a second title. But watch closely the first couple of weeks—with tough matchups against Green Bay, Detroit and the Giants bookending potential creampuffs Minnesota, Buffalo and the Jets, it will be interesting to see how things play out in the media, especially if they start 0-2 and/or find themselves 3-3 early on.

Arizona Cardinals: Skill Positions: QB: Mickey Mouse, WR: Larry Fitzgerald, Early Doucet, Michael Floyd, RB: Beanie Wells, Ryan Williams, LaRod Stephens-Howling, TE: Todd Heap, Notable DEF/ST: Darnell Dockett, Paris Lenon, Calais Campbell, Patrick Peterson

Huh? Faithful reader, you say there is an error in my article? Where? Above, in the skill positions section, next to the QB? Oh, no…that’s no error. It’s an indictment of the Arizona coaching staff and the Magic Kingdom-like atmosphere surrounding the Cardinal organization. More Kool-Aid, please…

I had a lot more respect for Ken Whisenhunt years ago, when he dared the rest of the league by sitting their franchise QB, Matt Leinart, and dusted off Kurt Warner. As it turned out, Warner had a Super Bowl run up his sleeve. So, what did Whisenhunt do for an encore? Give Cards fans the psychological equivalent of a punt on 4th and inches with a short field early in the game. First was Derek Anderson, who sucked. Then he tried out Max Hall, who sucked. Finally, they signed Kevin Kolb, who sucks. I gave Kolb the benefit of the doubt when they got him, figuring he had a bad rap in Philly (every quarterback gets a bad rap in Philly); bad idea. Whisenhunt is less the quarterback-handling genius I thought he was.

As usual, the talented wide receiver corps these guys get their hands on year after year gets to hold the bag (perhaps the brown paper one with the eyeholes cut out, like Aints fans did in the early 80’s). Larry Fitrzgerald should lead the league in everything, but without a competent guy delivering the ball, he’s only seeing tumbleweeds coming his way. Early Doucet shows promise, but it’s hard to tell what type of player he is when the ball often goes the other way. Andre Roberts? Michael Floyd? Good luck. Unlike San Fran, their running game is not likely to pick them up…Beanie Wells hasn’t been all that effective when healthy, and Ryan Williams is coming off major surgery.

So how can they salvage the season? By making the elementary move, Sherlock…ditching any idea of a QB controversy and STARTING John Skelton. How hard is that to do? All the guy did was possibly save Whisenhunt’s job last year by taking a lost season and getting them to a respectable .500 record by winning five of his seven starts. Make the move, Kenny boy.

Defensively, this unit has some good, young talent combined with a good veteran presence. Their four starting linebackers combined for 19.5 sacks last year, and only Paris Lenon is over twenty-five years old. Patrick Peterson is a corner to watch out for. Darnell Dockett is a perennial Pro-Bowler.

But while Whisenhunt sorts out his quarterback situation, Cardinal fans will likely be wishing on a star this year. An early trip to New England will likely undo them, but the schedule is pedestrian enough that they should compete. Nevertheless, the tough NFC will leave little room for error, and if the coaching staff pushes the wrong buttons, the bitter losses will be colder than Walt Disney’s cryogenic chamber come January.

Seattle Seahawks: Skill Positions: QB: Matt Flynn, WR: Terrell Owens, Sidney Rice, Braylon Edwards, Golden Tate, RB: Marshawn Lynch, Leon Washington, TE: Kellen Winslow, Zach Miller, Notable DEF/ST: Chris Clemons, Barrett Ruud, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas

Before penning this week’s previews, I polled friends and fellow Zazenlife bloggers on Seattle’s situation. My question was this—what is Braylon Edwards, now a member of the Seahawks, most likely to catch during Week 1? And the results are in—only 25% of voters stated he would catch a TD pass from Matt Flynn. The remaining 75% said he would catch herpes.

This new-look Seahawk receiving corps would have been dynamite in 2007, but show nothing for 2012. What’s more is the uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position—will they start Flynn, whom they signed for millions back in March, or incumbent Tavaris Jackson? Answer carefully, Pete Carroll…the victor of this battle gets the pleasure of being berated by T.O., watching balls go through Braylon’s Crisco-secreting hands, and getting stomped on by some of the dynamic pass rushers this division has to offer. Adding Kellen Winslow to this soup just shows how much Crennel-era Brown the coaches want to see on this club…might I suggest none? I expect the running game to be solid here, at least…Marshawn Lynch had a strong showing in 2011, and I expect more of the same.

Defensively, Seattle has the makings of a top ten unit. They have one of the more disruptive secondaries in the league—corners Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, combined to snatch 16 INTs in 2011. Only Browner is older than 25. The pass rush is suspect—aside from Clemons, no one seems to scare anyone—but the addition of first round pick Bruce Irvin could change that. It will probably be easier to advance the ball on the ground than through the air against these guys.

Looking at this squad, I feel there are too many questions than answers. If T.O. thinks his (last?) hurrah here is finally going to earn him a title, he’s got another thing coming. And so does that long-suffering 12th man.

St. Louis Rams: Skill Positions: QB: Sam Bradford, WR: Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, Brian Quick, Chris Givens, Steve Smith (the lesser), RB: Steven Jackson, Isaiah Pead, TE: Lance Kendricks, Notable DEF/ST: Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Cortland Finnegan, Michael Brockers

Make no mistake—you won’t see the Rams among the NFL’s best in 2012. Not even close. Instead, they will contend for the #1 overall pick again in 2013…and that’s the best place they could be.

You see, the trade that sent the #2 overall pick to Washington (allowing them to draft Robert Griffin III) netted them additional first round picks for three straight years. They then turned Washington’s #6 pick into more goodies by letting Dallas grab Morris Claiborne before netting defensive tackle Michael Brockers with the 15th overall pick. It was a bonanza Bill Belichick would have appreciated if New England wasn’t busy doing the opposite for once.

One place they don’t need improvement is at the QB position. Okay, so Sam Bradford was bad last year…he was also hurt. Name me one young quarterback who didn’t struggle miserably when playing hurt; I fully expect a bounceback year from the guy who almost delivered the Rams a surprise divisional title a year prior. He’ll need help though…these receivers are mediocre at best. Quick could be a fantasy darling if he lives up to his name, and Givens could be as long as he doesn’t. Steven Jackson is the old standby among the newcomers, and should put up another 1,000 year rush campaign if he stays healthy. If not, they have yet another promising rookie in Pead.

On the defensive side, new head coach Jeff Fisher (formerly of the Titans) went out and snared one of the better CBs (if not one of the more liked or respected) in Cortland Finnegan. He should only add to a unit that actually was 7th overall in pass defense. They also have a Pro-Bowl pass rusher in Long (son of Raider legend Howie), and a promising one in Robert Quinn. Middle linebacker Laurinaitis recorded an attention-grabbing 142 tackles last year.

This is a young team that is bound to get even younger and better as the years pass, courtesy of the ‘Skins. While Fisher wouldn’t be one of my top choices as head coach (I feel his QB handling is suspect at times; see Volek, Billy, or Young, Vince), he should bring leadership to an infant squad that should soak up every lesson he has to teach them. But a true playoff hunt is in their future; opponents will feast on them for now.

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About Jason E. Castro
Jason E. Castro isn’t here to govern your Caribbean island, sell your convertible furniture or sing you a top 40 hit. He is a writer from New York City and you can find more of his work online at literary websites such as Danse Macabre or Mediavirus Magazine. And while you're at it, feel free to check out his full length novel, "Rowdies", or his on-line novella, "Cricket for Souls"; both are available from Amazon.

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