General impressions on how the NFC West standings should shake out following visits to each training camp in the division:
Projected wins: 8
General feel: The Rams have been and remain on an upward trajectory. Sam Bradford, though good for a rookie in 2010, must improve quite a bit for the Rams to navigate a relatively tough schedule well enough to win the division. He has a good chance to do that under new coordinator Josh McDaniels.
What I like most: Beyond Bradford, the Rams have added veterans from winning organizations to the most consistent defense in the division. The change at offensive coordinator gets plenty of attention, but the Rams have good continuity overall. Every member of coach Steve Spagnuolo's original 2009 defensive staff remains with the organization.
Lingering concerns: Drawing road games against Super Bowl participants Green Bay and Pittsburgh shrinks the Rams' margin for error. I understand the Rams' thinking at wide receiver without endorsing it fully. Depth at cornerback appears tenuous. How much does Steven Jackson have left after carrying so much of the load?
Projected wins: 7-8
General feel: Life is much less stressful once an organization has identified and acquired a franchise quarterback. The Cardinals will be significantly improved on offense from 2010 as long as Kevin Kolb remains behind center. At worst, he'll be better than what the team had at quarterback last season.
What I like: Kolb has breathed life into the Cardinals. The team was also more aggressive than usual in its courtship of free agents. Cornerback Richard Marshall, guard Daryn Colledge, tight end Jeff King, tight end Todd Heap and linebacker Stewart Bradley should help. Re-signing Larry Fitzgerald doesn't make Arizona better this season, but his contract status could have been a distraction.
Lingering concerns: Kolb had some injury problems in Philadelphia and now he's playing for an offense with potentially shaky pass protection. On defense, the team still appears to lack the outside pass-rushers needed to make any 3-4 system work properly. Adrian Wilson's injury situation doesn't help.
Projected wins: 6-7
General feel: The 49ers are starting fresh under a new head coach, making it tougher to get a feel for what to expect in the short term. Better-than-expected play at quarterback could send the 49ers north in the standings pretty quickly. I am saying there's a chance. Lower expectations from the outside should help this team.
What I like: Harbaugh seems like a good fit for the organization given his Bay Area roots, offensive philosophy and background as an NFL quarterback. The team should immediately become more competent on offense and in its overall game management, improving the 49ers' chances in close games. The 49ers have young, promising pieces in place on offense. Defensive personnel subtractions stirred fears early in free agency, but most were by design.
Lingering concerns: One knock on the 49ers is that they too frequently overrate their own talent. Six of their own first-round draft choices project as starters on offense, one of the highest figures in the league. But how many will play at a first-round level? Bringing back quarterback Alex Smith for a seventh season with the team made sense under the circumstances without inspiring much confidence for the season ahead.
Projected wins: 5-7
General feel: The Seahawks made strong moves to upgrade their talent for the long term, but too many questions remain to feel great about the 2011 season. Like the 49ers, the Seahawks could outperform expectations with better-than-expected play at quarterback. Overall, though, they feel like a team eager to let young players develop before acting more boldly to upgrade the quarterback position in the offseason.
What I like: The Seahawks aren't trying to fool anyone. They're going young and willing to live with the short-term consequences. They've improved the young talent along their offensive line while giving their quarterbacks a chance with free-agent additions Sidney Rice and Zach Miller. They have the makings for a good defensive line against the run as long as Red Bryant is healthy.
Lingering concerns: How many teams around the league would be excited about going into a season with Tarvaris Jackson as the starting quarterback and Charlie Whitehurst in relief? One NFL team executive I spoke with recently said he suspected Seattle was hoping to get Carson Palmer. Elsewhere on the roster, Russell Okung's recurring ankle injuries threaten to weaken a young offensive line. That could make it tougher to realize expected gains in the running game.