Revisited: Predicting NFC West standings

Let's just say my 2011 forecast for the NFC West is evolving.

First, though, a big "thanks" to those who advanced our discussion on the matter beginning Friday. The item asking for feedback on the subject amassed nearly 2,000 comments in a few days. We have recorded more than 21,000 votes in unscientific polling, with the Seattle Seahawks narrowly leading the San Francisco 49ers for the top spot.

It's early. Newly signed veterans are not even one week into practicing with their new teams. But with ESPN.com's first power rankings for 2010 hitting the site later Tuesday, the moment of truth was near. I had to go on record with my initial predicted order of finish.

I ranked all four NFC West teams within a six-team span on my 32-team ballot, essentially saying this division is wide open. The specific slots where each team ranked are scheduled to appear on the blog with the full rankings about 2 p.m. ET.

The St. Louis Rams were first on my ballot among teams from the division because I think they have the most talented quarterback and the most consistent defense.

The Seattle Seahawks were second because they won the division last season, improved their offensive line, added Pro Bowl-caliber talent at the skill positions and went backward at quarterback more by outdated reputation than through recent demonstrated performance.

The Arizona Cardinals were third because I wasn't yet sure what to make of Kevin Kolb's addition, though first impressions were positive, and because I have questions about their offensive line and ability to rush the passer.

The San Francisco 49ers were fourth because voting took place while their defense was subtracting multiple starters. Do I really think the 49ers are the "worst" team in the NFC West? Not when the question is phrased that way. But with a new coaching staff, short offseason, defensive turnover and no Michael Crabtree, question marks abound.

We could, and have, made the case for each of the four NFC West teams winning the division in 2011. As promised, I've singled out comments from the NFC West polling item for further discussion here.

brandonclark33 questioned why Kolb rates higher among some than Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson. He noted that Seattle's Jackson has a higher winning percentage as a starter, a better touchdown-to-interception ratio, stronger rushing stats and a playoff appearance.

Kolb immediately impresses with his personality and how he interacts with teammates. He's obviously confident. The fact that he has played less than Jackson also works to his advantage in these discussions, I think. NFL teams and the rest of us love to value potential. Once we see the limits of that potential -- in this case, once a player plays extensively -- the picture isn't always so pretty.

The drop from Matt Hasselbeck to Jackson in Seattle is difficult to define. Are we talking about the Hasselbeck who went to three Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl, then shined in the playoffs last season? Or are we talking about the Hasselbeck with the lowest regular-season passer rating since 2008 among quarterbacks with at least 35 starts during that time?

CHalla92 shot down attempts to compare Kolb to Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, noting that Bradford started every game as a rookie for an up-and-coming team.

"This division belongs to St. Louis for years to come [and] management has made that clear with the pickups this offseason," CHalla92 wrote.

The Rams' ability to rush the passer separates them from other teams in the NFC West, in my view. Whether or not Bradford has sufficient weapons remains a concern.

Some have also pointed to the Rams' difficult early schedule, and I get it. They face Philadelphia, the New York Giants, Baltimore, Green Bay and New Orleans in their first seven games. But with six NFC West matchups over the final nine weeks, the Rams will have much to say about how the division shakes out.

TRENTROCK777 was a voice of reason in our discussions, offering balanced thoughts on each quarterback in the division

“One thing I have noticed about NFC West fans,” he wrote. “We are real quick to judge the QBs of our division. Outside of Alex Smith --I think we all know what he is capable of -- the other three, we can't assume much about.”

That sums up my feelings as well. We might even want to throw Smith into that undefined group. He’ll have a better chance under Jim Harbaugh than he did under Mike Singletary.

“For various reasons (new coaches, schemes, players), I expect these teams to struggle early, and play well late,” Tigre1629 wrote. “ I expect we won't know who will win the NFC West until Week 17.”