It's early, but over the next few months very little should change about the construction of the four competitors in the NFC West, so it's not too early. This will be updated at the start of the preseason.
1st Seattle Seahawks 11-5
2006 Pythagorean Wins: 7.8 (9-7)
That still might earn them home-field in an NFC that seems short on contenders.
Free Agent Grade: C- Patrick Kerney and Marcus Pollard are old and Kerney is guaranteed $19.5 million. Deon Grant is a very savvy pick-up for a team that desperately needed deep help, but it's hard to justify his contract. Failed to pick up needed help at running back and veteran help along the offensive line.
Draft Grade: A- Lots of young talent, many of whom will make the opening day roster. Love the Steve Vallos pick in the seventh.
Reasons for Optimism: Talent. This is still an above average offense with perhaps the best group of wide receivers in football and a rebuilt offensive line that should be very good, if nowhere near as dominant as the 2005 edition. Hasselbeck and Alexander are still top players at their positions. More importantly, though, this defense can be elite. The front seven is an awesome mix of playmakers and role players. The secondary is very talented and Marcus Trufant is entering an age as a cornerback where he could make a huge leap forward.
Reasons for Pessimism: Age. Seattle definitely possesses that dubious honor of being the team most likely to completely collapse due to a rash of injuries. This is especially worrisome since Marcus Tubbs, Chris Spencer and now Shaun Alexander are injured before the season has even started. Kerney is a bad signing that could explode in Seattle's face as soon as next season. There is very little depth at RB behind Morris and Alexander. A tough out of conference schedule.
2nd St. Louis Rams 9-7
Pythagorean Wins: 7.6 (8-8)
The Rams managed to outperform the Hawks despite injuries to Orlando Pace and Marc Bulger. Defense can be unpredictable and though the talent isn't there for a good defense, a few lucky fumble recoveries and some timely interceptions could at least make it look respectable.
FA: B- Not splashy, but solid. Drew Bennett is a much needed addition to a very thin receiving corps, but he won't replace Isaac Bruce if Bruce falters. It won't take much for Chris Draft to improve upon the play of Dexter Coakley.
Draft: B- Adam Carriker will help all around on defense, but this team is still without much pass rush. I can think of a dozen better matches for the Rams than Brian Leonard, but some good pick-ups late will help bolster a team that must be thinking depth for next season and starters for the future.
Reasons for Optimism: The offense. Steven Jackson, Pace, Torry Holt, Richie Incognito and Bulger still represent the best core of offensive talent in the division. The NFC West continues to look like one of the worst conferences in football--sporting not only the worst combined winning percentage of any conference in football, but featuring four teams who all outperformed their Pythagorean wins projection.
Reasons for Pessimism: Defense/Age. This defense is a Seattle Marinersesque combination of old and mediocre. Should any number of cornerstone players get hurt or decline this team could be thinking top five pick by mid-season. The offense will be two years removed from Mike Martz's tutelage.
3rd Arizona Cardinals 7-9
Pythagorean Wins: 6 (5-11)
A bad team that didn't do enough in the off season to become an immediate contender, but offense is a steadier predictor of the future and their offense looks very good. That secondary can be a difference maker if teams are constantly forced to play from behind, but, once again, the run-D and pass rush should be in the bottom third of football.
FA: C+ I initially liked the Ken Whisenhunt signing quite a bit, but in the short term, coaching instability is bad for a team. Roderick Hood is a great buy low sign, but we'll see how he performs without the assistance of an elite secondary around him.
Draft: C- Until Arizona signs a competent GM who can run his own draft, we will continue to see badly organized drafts that net a few top talents but little depth. At his worst, Levi Brown will help improve the Cards rushing attack. Actually, at his worst, Brown is injured, but you get the point.
Reasons for Optimism: Offensive Upside. By the end of the season Arizona could not only be sporting the best offense in the conference but one of the best in football. Edgerrin James is likely to continue the rushing rebound that started towards the end of last season. The offensive line started to come together last off season and noted guru Russ Grimm came over with Whisenhunt. Matt Leinart has huge potential.
Reason for Pessimism: The Defense/Depth. Should Leinart, James, Anquan Boldin or Larry Fitzgerald get badly hurt--this team loses all chance of contending. The defense looks shoddy and disorganized, and while the secondary is very talented, the pass rush looks non-existent. The Cards sack leader, Chike Okeafor, is 31 and not the sort of elite athlete or player that can be expected to age well. Antrel Rolle is still very raw and, though I like the addition, Hood's excellent 2005 performance was aided by Philly's overall strong defense and specifically aided by the deep help of underappreciated difference maker Brian Dawkins. Coaching instability.
3rd San Francisco 49ers 7-9
Pythagorean Wins: 5.1 (7-9)
A great off season, but...
FA: A- As long as the fire is still there for Nate Clements, he will earn his contract. Clements is a tough tackler, great in coverage and a playmaker. Michael Lewis is in his prime and will rebound from a down 2006. Ashley Lelie, still just 27, is a bit of wild card, he's only once been very good, but who knows how badly Michael Vick and Jake Plummer have hurt his performance.
Draft: A+ Nothing not to like.
Reasons for Optimism: Young Talent. San Francisco has a ton of young talent, plus a very good, but very old, left side on the offensive line. Darrell Jackson is a huge improvement over anyone the 49ers have started wide since Terrell Owens. Alex Smith looks like he will continue to improve. First round pick Patrick Willis will be able to contribute immediately. They have decent depth along both lines. Clements was the most valuable free agent in last year's market and may be the best CB in football in 2007.
Reasons for Pessimism: Overall Quality. Whatever your fair-weather 49er fan friends may have said to you last season, this was a very bad team. It's easy to only remember the two gut-wrenching losses those Bay Sissies dealt us, both of which were against a depleted Seattle team and both losses were for a combined 16 points, and not remember that for most of the season the 49ers were crap-PEE. In a four game span against the Chiefs, Raiders, Chargers and Bears, the 49ers were outscored 150-63. That would be even worse if the Bears hadn't rested their starters in the second half. The 49ers also suffered no major injuries, a feat they are unlikely to duplicate. No matter how Smith improves, I don't think he will ever be a very good QB. The NFL moves at a glacial pace and despite a very good off-season, they haven't improved enough to be a contender, not yet.