10 things to watch for in the NFC West

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:18 PM ET

1. Playing ketchup: The 2010 NFC West Division get-together is a bit like a family renunion potluck supper.

You never know exactly who is going to show up. And, at the end, someone is going home to the Maalox.

The NFC West had more high first-round draft choices than any other division, an indication that all has not been well. Two teams, Arizona with Matt Leinart and St. Louis with Sam Bradford are committed to new quarterbacks and Seattle may soon be looking beyond Matt Hasselbeck.

The Cardinals tumultuous off-season saw Kurt Warner retire and the departure of Anquan Boldin (Baltimore), safety Antrel Rolle (Giants) and linebacker Karlos Dansby (Miami). The acquisition of guard Alan Faneca from the Jets and a breakout year for running backs Chris Wells signal a more smash-mouth, running style on offence.

Their biggest challenge could come from the 49ers where quarterback Alex Smith for the first time in five seasons will have the same offensive co-ordinator and not have a new playbook to learn. The offence with Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore is maturing.

But Leinart is the key to the Cardinals hold on western supremacy. After four seasons watching Warner, the Cardinals are hoping they have the next Aaron Rodgers and not the next Curtis Painter.

2. Touchy, Feeley: Rams’ coach Steve Spagnuolo doesn’t like handing anything to rookies but he may have no choice but to make Sam Bradford (when he signs) his starting quarterback. A.J. Feeley probably starts opening day but this team has to give disenchanted fans something to hope for — and that’s Bradford.

3. Old, or gold?: Matt Hasselbeck is the opening day quarterback in Seattle but he’s 35, in his contract season, and new coach Pete Carroll won’t hestitate to go to his personal golden boy Charlie Whitehurst. Nobody knows why. It just is.

4. Oh, nuts!: Survivor Santa Clara?: The toughest part of the season for the 49ers may be living through coach Mike Singletary’s “Nutcracker” drills when practice opens here tomorrow.

5. Easy does it: Rams’ running back Steven Jackson recorded more than 1,400 yards rushing last season. Unfortunately, he found the endzone only four times playing for a team without a supporting cast. He’s also coming off back surgery. Spagnuolo says he should be able to “do most everything” by this weekend — which is exactly what the Rams will need him to do this season.

6. High volume: If bloody-mindedness means anything Mike Singletary and the 49ers are due for a Cinderella-Cardinalesque Super Bowl run. Or, everyone could just get tired of getting screamed at and quit on him.

7. Double jeopardy: Larry Fitzgerald is the most athletic wide receiver in the NFL. He has four 1,000-yard seasons, soft hands and great leaping ability. What he doesn’t have is Warner getting him the ball or Boldin to deflect attention from him. Fitzgerald’s last down season came in 2006-07 (69 catches for 946 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games) when Leinart started 11 games a rookie. So, you figure it out.

8. The great unknown: Whitehurst had zero pass completions in two years in San Diego. In college he did have two 2,000 yard seasons but that also included 27 interceptions with only 18 TDs. And, now Carroll is going to put the weight of the Seahawks’ franchise on his shoulders? Yeah, like this is going to work.

9. Hero in waiting?: The 49ers are the only division team committed to a quarterback (stand up, Alex Smith) and after years of chaos are finally seeing some continuity. Their most glaring weakness is the secondary but if Smith continues to mature, the division title is within grasp.

10. Sleepless in Seattle: So what are rah-rah coach Carroll’s chances of success in the NFL? Like they say on campus: “Rah-rah! Sis-Boom-BLAH”.


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