By SAM SPIEGELMAN
The Seattle Seahawks finished the 2013 NFL season as the Super Bowl champions, and the division as a whole solidified itself as the best division in the league.
The San Francisco 49ers lost a number of key players in the offseason, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Arizona Cardinals endured a similar fate, while the St. Louis Rams are in a make-or-break type of season with their quarterback. So how good is the best division in football?
1. Is the NFC West still the best division in the NFL?
I'm not so sure this reputation remains intact. Seattle and San Fran are still elite teams, but I project a drop-off from Arizona and another sub-.500 campaign out of St. Louis. You can argue that between the Packers and Bears and Lions, NFC North has better teams from top to bottom.
2. Can Seattle repeat as Super Bowl champions?
The core remains intact. Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas III are still headlining the secondary, while Michael Bennett returns to a very talented front seven. Russell Wilson is only going to improve in his third season, not to mention Percy Harvin should be a real factor this year. With all that being said, the Seahawks should remain the favorites in the NFC.
3. Can Colin Kaepernick live up to his new contract?
I am not the biggest fan of Kaep, but he's still a potential-laden player under center. He has some new weapons in his receiving corps he needs to take advantage of. And if the defense takes a step backward, Kaep will need to step up if the Niners want to compete.
4. How long will Vernon Davis hold out, and will he get a new deal?
Davis seems set on not attending 49ers offseason activities until he's paid, and if I'm a member of the front office I'm opening my wallet right away. Davis is a talented blocker and receiver, and has been the face of the franchise for almost a decade. I understand the logic of playing out the rest of his contract, but this is a franchise player that I'd want to keep happy.
5. Is 2014 a make-or-break year for Sam Bradford?
Without a doubt. The Rams passed up drafting Johnny Manziel or signing a veteran in free agency because the team continues to put its faith in Bradford. He's got more talent around him entering this season, but if he can't make the most of those weapons then maybe it's time for the team to look in another direction. Bradford made our list of quarterbacks entering the season on the hot seat.
6. How much will injuries derail the Cardinals?
It's injuries, plus a rough offseason that'll force Arizona to take a step in the wrong direction. The aging Larry Foote and unimpressive Kevin Minter will be charged with replacing Karlos Dansby, who left in free agency, and Daryl Washington, who's suspended for the year. Tyrann Mathieu will miss the beginning of the year as he recovers from injury. Those losses cannot be overlooked.
7. Is this the last year of Beast Mode?
That's how it seems to be. The hype for Christine Michael has been off the charts, and given that Marshawn Lynch is getting older and wants more money, Michael may have an opportunity to take over sooner rather than later. Lynch needs to understand that running backs on the verge of 30 who carry the rock 300 times a season don't have too much leverage in this NFL.
8. How will the offseason impact the 49ers D?
Aldon Smith could still be suspended. Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver are now the starting corners. And there's a high likelihood NaVorro Bowman doesn't return until the middle of the season. That does not bode well for the Niners, who are already in a tough spot with Seattle in their division.
9. Is it possible that Carson Palmer loses his job?
Yes and no. Palmer did pick up his play in the second half of 2013, but he's an aging player who doesn't have a high ceiling at this point in his career. The next-best option, though, is rookie Logan Thomas, who is still considered to be a very raw prospect. I don't think Arians opts for the question mark in Thomas unless the Cardinals are far out of contention by November.
10. Will Michael Sam make the team?
I think he will. SEC Players of the Year usually wind up on NFL rosters, and Sam should not be the exception. Cutting Sam would shed a negative light on the organization, and it doesn't make sense not to give Sam a shot. Conversely, keeping him on board with a chance he can find a role on this teams would result in quite the success story.
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