Mailbag: Worst to first a towering order

Jeff from St. Louis asks whether the St. Louis Rams have a decent shot at going from worst to first in the division.

"I know the 49ers have expectations this year," he wrote, "but it seems in our division it changes year to year. I'm a die-hard fan and always hope for the best."

2012 Worst-to-first Candidates

Mike Sando: Yes, the Rams have a chance. It's an outside chance. They arguably have the most talented quarterback in the division. They have talent on their defensive line. Strength at those positions will give a team a chance.

The Rams will need much better luck with injuries. They're due on that front.

Also, while the NFC West has improved, the quarterback situations aren't stable across the board. There are no perennial Pro Bowl quarterbacks standing in the Rams' way. Every team in the division has taken too many sacks recently. Sacks put quarterbacks at risk to injury. A team's fortunes can swing wildly with an unexpected quarterback change.

Alex Smith started all 16 regular-season games for the 49ers. He was an exception among quarterbacks in the division. League-wide, seven quarterbacks have started 16 games in each of the past two seasons: Joe Flacco, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Mark Sanchez. Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Matt Schaub, Josh Freeman and Bradford started 16 games in 2010, but not last season (Palmer was not injured).

Fifteen different quarterbacks have put together consecutive 16-start seasons since 2007.

Doug from Newbury Park, Calif., thinks the San Francisco 49ers look great on paper. He wonders where I might see the biggest depth concerns.

Mike Sando: Let's go with the safety position, where the 49ers have unproven depth. The 49ers have eight safeties on their roster, counting unsigned franchise player Dashon Goldson. The six backup safeties -- C.J. Spillman, Colin Jones, Ben Hannula, Trenton Robinson, Mark LeGree and Michael Thomas -- own a combined one NFL start (Spillman, with San Diego in 2009).

This doesn't mean I'm opposed to the 49ers' approach. I'd rather go young and trust the coaching staff's ability to develop than simply take the comfortable, short-sighted route with retread players. But the price is some uncertainty.

Boomer, deployed in Afghanistan, asks whether Bruce Irvin might put up Aldon Smith-like numbers (14 sacks in 2011) while playing a similar role for Seattle. He also wants to know who I think should start at quarterback for the Seahawks.

Mike Sando: Smith appears stronger and more physically imposing. He also benefited from stunts featuring Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith. The Smiths each had five sacks on third down alone. Ahmad Brooks (seven total sacks) also threatened offenses.

Seattle has Chris Clemons and newcomer Jason Jones. I'd give Irvin a decent shot at double-digit sacks. If he gets to 14, great for him, but that's a lot to ask.

Joe from Fort Worth suggests he'd rather have the Arizona Cardinals' receivers by a wide margin over those from other NFC West teams even though every team in the division expects improvement at the position.

"Please agree or disagree (and comment, of course)," he writes.

Mike Sando: Agreed. I'd probably take Larry Fitzgerald over the entire receiving corps elsewhere in the division. Every other receiver in the division could be replaced with relative ease -- if not right away, then after the season. There is no replacement for what Fitzgerald represents on and off the field. The gap widens further when we throw in first-round pick Michael Floyd, the underrated Andre Roberts and third-down threat Early Doucet.