Part 1 of these rankings named the four top wildcards in the division: the Cardinals’ Kurt Warner (#1) and defensive coordinator Bill Davis (#4), Mike Singletary of the Niners (#2) and Steven Jackson (#3) of the Rams. These rankings also gave my thumbnail of how many games in the standings these individuals could swing.
Naturally, the first comments were “what, no Seahawks?” I’ll be a boor and answer the question with another question: honestly, what’s the ceiling for the Seahawks this season? Maybe 5 wins, 6 at the most, given the crumbling offensive line, a mismatched receiving corps, castoffs at running back, and a suddenly very aged quarterback?
On the other hand, what’s their floor? How bad could it get? Outside of some sort of time-travel catastrophe where the team decides to hold OTAs in the Kingdome circa 1994 and it collapses and crushes Leroy Hill, Lofa Tatupu, and Aaron Curry, the defense should be stout enough and opportunistic enough to keep the team close, allowing for at least 2-3 wins. So by these back-of-the-envelope calculations, you’ve got a swing of maybe three wins that somebody might deserve credit for. Not enough to rank in the top four, but we’ll award two of those potential wins to #5 on our list…
#5: Seneca Wallace (+/- 2 wins)
Now, this isn’t a prediction that Wallace will win the starting job out of preseason, or that he’s The Answer or The Future at quarterback for the Seahawks. But the cold hard facts from last season are this: Matt Hasselbeck earned a 57.8 rating, barely beating out the likes of Brad Johnson and Trent Green for the league’s worst QB. In games he started, the ‘Hawks were 1-7. (The one win came courtesy of the Rams’ complete inability to defend the run — Julius Jones and TJ Duckett combined for twice as many touches as Hasselbeck had throws.) Yes, the Seahawks had massive receiver troubles, but those troubles were the same when Hasselbeck went down and Wallace had to step up.
Meanwhile, Wallace’s QB rating was a very respectable 87 — in the same neighborhood as Matt Ryan and Jay Cutler, both anointed saviors of their respective teams. Moreover, he has some escapability, and ability to freelance — important qualities when the pocket has more holes than Hollister jeans. Qualities that the 34-year-old Hasselbeck and his battered spine no longer have.
At some point, he will get the ball this coming season. And therein lies the small potential for the Seahawks to blow their chance at a top-3 draft pick.
#6: Michael Crabtree (+/- 2 wins)
It’s possible that this pick will bust. That Crabtree just won’t connect with [starting quarterback TBD]. That his offseason foot and ankle problems will hobble him more than expected. Or that the whispered reports of his diva-like attitude will drive a wedge between his ego and the Singletary vision of the team.
It’s more likely, though, that Crabtree will add a dimension that has been lacking in San Francisco since the departure of Terrell Owens. A true #1 receiver, and a true red-zone threat. In college, Crabtree thrived on making the big catches in traffic — a vital skill against the higher level of NFL competition. Outside of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in Arizona perhaps, the division doesn’t have upper-level cornerbacks to stay with him and neutralize his impact.
Last season, the Niners turned the Isaac Bruce signing into the classic low-risk, high-reward scenario, as he became their leading receiver — and caught more touchdowns than any Niners receiver since 2003. This year, that signing pays off double as the Bruce is ideally positioned to both mentor Crabtree in the finer arts of route-running, and serve as a still-legitimate #2 option, keeping defenses from overloading coverage on the rookie.
Bruce caught 7 TDs last year. That’s their high-water mark since Terrell Owens grabbed 9, five seasons ago. Crabtree might just surpass both of those marks in his debut season — assuming [starting quarterback TBD] can get him the ball.
These next six individuals are very tightly bunched, as you can see from the +/- ratings. There will be plenty more wildcards that emerge as the season unfolds, to be sure, but these are my best guesses.
#7: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (+/- 1.5 wins)
Lanky, fast, soft hands and a rapidly developing skillset overall — what’s not to like? DRC became a huge difference maker on the field for the Cardinals’ second half of the season, once he earned a starting job. And he’s one of the potential drivers of whether or not Arizona will continue taking steps forward this season.
In the modern NFL, you want as many weapons on the field as you can. Arizona has more threats on offense alone than the rest of the division combined, and Rodgers-Cromartie’s field vision and open-field running ability (witness his 40-yard average on interception returns last season) gives them an additional threat when the offense is on the sidelines. When you play six times against some of the most scattershot quarterbacks in the league, that’s a huge advantage.
That is, if he can continue his growth, and avoid a Tye Hill-esque sophomore slump. So far this offseason, Kurt Warner is a believer:
#8: Alex Barron (+/- 1 win), #9 Walter Jones (+/- 1 win)
Perhaps the smartest left tackle in the game, and perhaps the dumbest — yet each has an equal chance of swinging their team’s fate this season. Jones is a perennial pro-bowler and veritable hall-of-famer who knows how to do his job better than anyone in the division. The only question about Jones is whether his body, coming off microfracture surgery to his knee, will allow him to perform even close to the level at which he’s accustomed. When he lost linemate Steve Hutchinson, the Seahawks vaunted power running game took a major step back. Now coach Mora hopes to resurrect it — even with Jones it will be difficult. Without him it simply won’t happen. Not this season.
Barron, young and physically gifted, has been a perennial punching bag for Rams fans seemingly since day one. He is notorious for his false starts and blown assignments, even though he has made incremental progress in cutting down on both of them. Now he has been asked to slide over to left tackle to ease the transition of The Future of the Rams’ line, #2 overall pick Jason Smith.
The responsibilities of the left and right tackle aren’t that different — the difference is that, for a right handed quarterback, if his right tackle blows an assignment, the QB can see it and make a snap decision, and either protect himself or even salvage a play by hitting a hot read. However, if the left tackle whiffs a block, the QB become roadkill.
According to Stats.com, Barron single-handedly allowed 7.5 sacks at the right tackle spot last season. If he can’t miraculously transform into a league-average LT, the Rams’ hopes for showing improvements this season are lost.
#10: These Guys (+/- 1 win)
#11: Frank Gore (+/- 1/2 win)
At this stage in his career, Gore is what he is — a dependable beast on short yardage, but too lumbering to break a run or a game wide open. Additionally, his receptions have decreased for three consecutive years, perhaps indicating that he’s reached his ceiling as an offensive weapon.
However, he should expect a healthy increase in carries under the Jimmy Raye offense, and with the re-addition of his favorite blocking back to the roster, Gore has a mild chance of recapturing that dominant form of 2006.
#12: You (+/- 1/2 win)
Okay, this is admittedly kind of corny. But St Louisans should remember that the Edward Jones Dome was built as a football stadium first, and a convention center second. On gameday, we should be rolling up those welcome mats that have been so graciously extended to our opponents. We should be rude and downright inhospitable, not only to the other team, but their fans as well. We should be standing in the way of those pesky traveling out-of-towners, not gladly handing our tickets over for beer money come time for holiday shopping.
The last time the Rams were on prime time TV was that infamous Monday night game in December 2006 against Chicago, a 42-27 loss that sounded like a home win — judging from all the Bears fans in our dome.
This Rams team has transformed from one of the oldest rosters into one of the league’s youngest in a matter of months. Our front office has transformed from one of the league’s least competent, and most fractured, into something resembling a real-life football organization. Yes the team is for sale, and yes the team may opt out of its lease in 5 years. No, those excuses don’t hold water when the team has taken every sincere and necessary step to truly give this franchise a restart in this town.
It’s time to step up.