The San Francisco 49ers posted a 5-1 record in the NFC West last season while winning the division by a five-game margin.
Their division rivals did make up ground as the season progressed.
The 49ers outscored Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis by a combined seven points in rematches last season, down from a 58-point gap the first time around. The Cardinals defeated the 49ers in Week 14 while winning seven of their final nine games. Two weeks later, Seattle led San Francisco with three minutes remaining in an eventual two-point defeat.
The question this offseason was whether the 49ers' rivals could do enough to close the gap. That quest will continue with the draft, where the 49ers will be picking much later than the rest of the West.
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. joined the conversation Tuesday with a look at what NFC West teams have done and the possibilities that await. We begin with the Cardinals.
Best move: Using the franchise tag for Calais Campbell was smart, but also an easy call once the sides failed to reach agreement on a long-term deal before free agency. Williamson: "After that, picking up William Gay was probably their best move. Not that he is great, but he does not embarrass himself, the coordinator is very familiar with him, he can start and he is a solid nickel. I would rather have Richard Marshall, but not by leaps and bounds. Both are low-end starters. Signing Gay stops the bleeding a little bit. It means you don't feel the need to take a corner super high in the draft."
Worst move: Failing to buy insurance at tackle stands out as the obvious one. Demetress Bell was one option, but Philadelphia signed him for what amounts to a one-year deal with an option for more. Levi Brown's return to a cap-friendlier deal made some sense without upgrading anything. Williamson took issue with the team's decision to sign guard/tackle Adam Snyder from San Francisco for a deal including a $5 million signing bonus. Williamson: "The worst move would be an inability to upgrade on the offensive line. I don't like Snyder at all. I watched him and thought, 'Man, he is awful.' I can live with him as maybe the sixth guy because he can play multiple positions, but even then, I'm not thrilled. And the Cardinals played against him twice a year. I'll bet their defensive linemen are rolling their eyes."
Williamson's ideal first-round scenario: "I don't love where they sit based on their needs. They are a good candidate to trade down, and without a second-round pick, that makes more sense for them. They would jump on Michael Floyd, but I think he goes in the top 10. He would fit given their need for a solid receiver opposite Larry Fitzgerald, but it almost has to be offensive line. I don't love the tackles who are likely to be available in this spot. I would live with Riley Reiff, but he might not be there and he looks like just an average starting offensive tackle. They would be reaching on Mike Adams there. He can work out fine. David DeCastro would be great, but that is not really the need. They need tackles more than inside guys."
San Francisco 49ers
Best move: We could single out re-signing Carlos Rogers or franchising Dashon Goldson or even making sure Ahmad Brooks did not reach free agency. Or we could focus on the collective, as Williamson chose to do. Williamson: "I was extremely impressed in their ability to bring back the best defense in the league. They had guys who easily could have left in free agency. You would expect them to take a hit or two. Instead, the 49ers kept their guys. That was the home-run move of the Niners this offseason."
Worst move: We won't take issue with the 49ers' inability to land Peyton Manning. They tried, but in the end, they could not force Manning to make what arguably would have been the best football decision for him. While there was much to like about the 49ers' offseason, Williamson questioned Brandon Jacobs' signing: "I just don’t think he is all that good of a football player. He needs room to operate and isn't a very good receiver. I would rather use a third-round pick on back than sign Jacobs. He is not consistent. If you just watch his highlights, he's great. But he gets hit in the backfield, it takes him a while to get going and the Giants started using Ahmad Bradshaw, a much smaller back, more as the goal-line guy a lot of the time."
Williamson's ideal first-round scenario: "Addressing the offensive line, I think. They are another team that could trade up or down. I don't see a wonderful fit for them. The guard from Midwestern State, Amini Silatolu, might be a really nice player to plug in at right guard. I'll bet Jim Harbaugh is high on Coby Fleener and I would understand that. Delanie Walker is entering the final year of his contract. Fleener would be one more weapon to make Alex Smith's life easier. Maybe a Rueben Randle type of guy would work, too, but all of a sudden you can't keep all these receivers on the roster."
Best move: Easy call here. The Rams got good value for the second overall choice, sending it to the Washington Redskins for the sixth and 39th choices this year, plus first-round selections in 2013 and 2014. They've got a veteran first-year head coach with the job security to use those selections over the next few seasons. With Sam Bradford already in place at quarterback, the Rams were not interested in taking Robert Griffin III second overall, so moving out of that spot made sense.
Worst move: While the draft choices acquired from Washington help for the long term, the Rams still haven't done much to improve the odds for Bradford in 2012. Williamson and I could not point to any one example of the Rams failing to add a specific player. The team did not have obvious options, in other words. Williamson: "They did not screw up in one instance, but collectively, not doing anything at tight end, receiver or running back beyond signing Steve Smith was not good. They will probably use some high picks in the draft on offense, but is that going to help this year? You have to get a guy or two to make Bradford's life a little easier. It wouldn't kill them to get a Jerricho Cotchery, a chain-moving veteran. But it is a deep receiver draft and they probably want to go young."
Williamson's ideal first-round scenario: "Matt Kalil will be gone, but I sit there and take Morris Claiborne, Justin Blackmon or Trent Richardson. I probably would take Claiborne first considering their needs, but he is probably not there. Blackmon would be my last choice because he is not as good as those other guys, but he certainly would address the biggest need. Richardson is the best prospect and has the Jeff Fisher mentality. He could be his Eddie George for years and years. I love where the Rams sit. I do not want them to trade back. They should not trade to No. 10 and lose one of those stud players. They need studs. They have so many picks in the coming years. They have to stay in the top six and get one of those three players I mentioned. There's a drop after that."
Best move: The Seahawks made a few good ones, from keeping Red Bryant to re-signing Marshawn Lynch before free agency. Adding quarterback Matt Flynn at a reasonable price (for a quarterback) stands above the others. Williamson: "I don't love Flynn, but I don't know how you can't commend a team when they get better at quarterback. They are not leaps and bounds better, but they are better and it's such an important position. Of all their moves, I cannot come up with an unimpressive one. Jason Jones will be a really good fit as well."
Worst move: The team did not improve its outside pass rush, watching Mario Williams and Kamerion Wimbley sign elsewhere. But Williams in particular was not a serious consideration. Williamson pointed to David Hawthorne's departure as potentially the worst move. Williamson: "Letting Hawthorne go was probably a mistake. They made a desperation signing with Barrett Ruud in the meantime because they need bodies. It is a position you can find in the draft and free agency. It's better than being light at tackle or wideout. Ruud is a very overrated player and I said it a year ago when he left Tampa. He is a decent tackler, but he is not physical, he lacks range and makes a lot of plays chasing guys eight yards downfield. He is a backup now, but people probably look at him as a starter. I just don't agree with that."
Williamson's ideal first-round scenario: They have to be looking at Luke Kuechly. He would be a leader of your defense and a great fit. They have to consider the rush end from USC, Nick Perry, if Pete Carroll likes him. He could be the next Chris Clemons and line up opposite him on passing downs for now. Carroll would know. You add Jason Jones with a hand on the ground at defensive tackle and Brandon Mebane or whoever next to him, and suddenly the front four can get after people. The draft will probably work out well for Seattle. Someone better than Perry will fall to them, whether it's David DeCastro, Kuechly, Michael Floyd or even Ryan Tannehill. I think they would jump on Ryan Tannehill if he is there at No. 12 and maybe even consider moving up to seven to get him. To me, he is a franchise quarterback and they do not have one on their roster, even though they got better at the position."