Predicted order of finish
1. San Franscisco 49ers
2. Arizona Cardinals
3. Seattle Seahawks
4. Saint Louis Rams

San Francisco 49ers
Head Coach: Mike Singletary

What to expect:
If the first two picks of this year’s draft are any indication, the formerly high-flying 49ers are officially ready to be molded in coach Singletary’s hard-hitting vision. Rather than use either of their first round picks on skill players to address potential long-term needs at quarterback or running back, or to continue to rebuild their WR corps, the team’s new GM acceded to Singletary’s wishes and got two maulers to shore up their leaky offensive line. trading up two spots to land tackle Anthony Davis, and then sidestepping the free-falling Jimmy Clausen to take the draft’s top-rated guard, Mike Iupati.

This should signal a return to more of a balanced offense for San Francisco this season. The Niners started 2009 with a “safety-first” passing game run by journeyman Shaun Hill and plans to ride RB Frank Gore heavily, but had to switch gears after an injury to Gore and the eventual appearance of Michael Crabtree put more emphasis on the passing game. Alex Smith took over at quarterback, and bent the playbook to a spread-friendly attack, leading the team to a 5-3 finish and 8-8 record overall.

The NFC West as a whole is leaning on the run like never before. The factor that sets San Francisco apart in the division is a ferociously effective run defense led by Patrick Willis, one of the very best defenders in football.

Up and Coming players:
QB Alex Smith had the beginnings of a breakout last season, looking comfortable in an NFL offense for the first time since he was drafted #1 overall six seasons ago. He has a chance to mature into an effective passer. If so, it means a potential big-time breakout for WR Michael Crabtree. On the defensive side of the ball, Patrick Willis may still be getting better, and should earn more recognition than he does. Playing regularly alongside Willis enabled Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson to have their most effective seasons to date, and DT/NT Aubrayo Franklin has emerged as an interior force.

Veterans over the hill:
The 49ers continued to struggle in the secondary, where CB Nate Clements still reigns as the team’s primary cover option and playmaker. Now 30 and having missed much of the 2009 season with a gruesome shoulder injury, Clements may be aging out of the Niners’ plans. At age 27, RB Frank Gore should be heading into his sunset years, but it may be a long and productive sunset a la Jerome Bettis, with a newly energized line blocking in front of him. LT Joe Staley is a mere 25, but needs to show more consistency and improvement at this crucial spot to keep the aging Barry Sims at bay.

Rookie Watch:
If early returns from camp are to be believed, both Iupati and Davis will earn starting jobs (or at least heavy rotation) on the offensive line. Strong Safety Taylor Mays, however, may have a steeper climb up Singletary’s defensive depth chart, though he is eventually expected to contribute. The biggest mover in preseason might just be power-running RB Anthony Davis, who is in line to become Gore’s primary backup after the surprise retirement of Glen Coffee.

Team Needs:
1 . A consistent season from Alex Smith, playing in his contract year. The 49ers do not have much of a fallback plan if Smith doesn’t succeed (the words no Niner fan wants to hear: “your starting quarterback, David Carr!”), nor any other serious long-term options at QB.
2 . A second receiver to emerge alongside Crabtree, whether Josh Morgan or Ted Ginn Jr. Isaac Bruce’s retirement leaves a large void in professional route-running.
3 . Any kind of return game on special teams. Ginn is expected to contribute here, long a trouble spot for San Francisco.
4 . The healthy return of Clements, to solidify their secondary.
5 . An eventual successor to Gore as their workhorse running back.

Predicted Record: 10-6

Arizona Cardinals
Head Coach: Ken Whisenhunt

What to expect:
A combination of Whisenhunt’s offensive prowess, an elite receiver group and an amazing return to all-pro form by a quarterback thought to be broken down has turned the Cardinals from perennial laughing stock to offensive powerhouse. A defense that has slowly evolved from a weakness to at least a respectable unit has helped them win their division in consecutive years for the first time since the days of Don Coryell. While no reports are claiming that Whisenhunt has lost any of his ability to diagram plays, Arizona is looking at steps backwards at the QB, WR and LB positions. How will the team respond after the losses of Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin and Karlos Dansby? That is the question that will define the 2010 season.

All eyes will be on QB Matt Leinert, who has seldom looked comfortable in the glare of the NFL after living a charmed life at USC. He is the de facto starter and will have a very long leash, as no NFL team with anything like playoff aspirations can afford to play Derek Anderson at QB. Whisenhunt may lean on his Pittsburgh gameplan from Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie year, shifting to a run-heavy attack featuring Beanie Wells and air/land threat Tim Hightower. Helping him in this mission is former Steeler guard Alan Faneca, who was acquired from New York.

Stepping into Boldin’s shoes will be a combination of Steve Breaston and Early Doucet, both of whom were productive as third and fourth options, respectively. And rookie linebacker Daryl Washington is expected to climb quickly through a weak depth chart of inside linebackers to replace Dansby’s impact.

This will be a year of uncertainty for the Cardinals, who have very few key veteran performers to lean on outside of WR non pariel Larry Fitzgerald and DE Darnell Dockett.
And as ESPN’s Mike Sando notes, the Cardinals have only one offensive lineman returning to the same position he played a year ago, and only the Seahawks have seen more roster turnover this offseason.

Up and Coming players:
If he can stay healthy, Doucet’s physical style of play may give him a chance to supplant Breaston as the team’s primary WR2. Both are emerging players, the question is which of the two builds better chemistry with the erratic southpaw Leinert. Beanie Wells spent his first full offseason with the team, in preparation for expectations of earning a heavier workload. In the secondary, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie hopes to marshal his talent towards greater consistency, while continuing to create game-changing turnovers (3 FFs, 6 INTs in 2009).

Veterans over the hill:
Whispers about his decline started to surround Faneca in New York, culminating in his surprising release from a Jets team intent on building a powerhouse running attack. He will be trying to prove that he has something left in the tank. Likewise, outside linebacker Joey Porter arrives for his 12th season in the NFL trying to reverse a three-year slide in tackles, and hoping to get back to double-digit sack totals working opposite Dockett. Backup QB Derek Anderson’s “hill,” a surprise Pro Bowl 2007 season in Cleveland, is far in the rear view mirror.

Rookie watch:
NT Dan Williams has been immediately slotted into the team’s first-team defense, fitting for a first-round pick with the perception of having a very NFL-ready skillset, particularly against the run. Daryl Washington will have a strong chance to contribute at linebacker. The team’s other rookies of note, QB John Skelton and WR Andre Roberts, were seemingly picked up for long-term development more than immediate impact.

Team needs:
1 . Something positive from Matt Leinert, who has taken multiple steps back as a quarterback in his career and failed to throw a single touchdown pass despite extended playing time in a high-powered offense.
2 . A realistic backup plan if/when Leinert disappoints. Derek Anderson is not that, and Skelton is a strong-armed but raw project player who should be holding clipboards for at least a season or two.
3 . The continued development of Calais Campbell’s pass-rush skills. The 3-4 DE surprised many with 7 sacks in his second season. A strong pass rush will make up for a lot else on a defense that is beginning to gentrify from old to young.
4 . A more consistent year from Beanie Wells. The RB was fitfully effective last season, averaging better than 5.0 yards per carry in seven games, but held under 3.5 ypc in five contests. He only broke 100 yards once, and didn’t get more than 17 carries in a game.
5 . Fitzgerald’s leadership and performance to continue setting a standard of excellence for the team’s young receivers.

Predicted Record: 8-8

Seattle Seahawks
Head Coach: Pete Carroll

What to expect:
While many Seahawks fans were hoping that 2008’s 4-12 season was an injury-caused aberration, 2009’s decisively bad 5-11 record washed away all doubt that this is a franchise in need of serious change. And change did come to the Pacific Northwest, in a big way. GM Tim Ruskell resigned, head coach Jim Zorn and his staff was fired, and nearly any player not nailed down has been churned off the roster. Dozens of transactions and multiple trades yielded a draft overflowing with picks, bringing in a horde of new faces to evaluate and try to pin hopes on.

The question facing the team, though, is “have they done enough?” The offense still revolves around the elder quarterback Matt Hasselbeck; aside from the rookie Golden Tate there are not many receivers with upside on the roster; the offensive line is still a work in progress (though many hope that the arrival of zone blocking guru Alex Gibbs can effect immediate imrovement); and the 26th-ranked pass rush appears unimproved.
Even within this weak division, there has been a gulf between the good teams and the bad (and a gulf between the bad teams and the Rams) for the last two seasons. Seattle has been on the wrong side of that gulf, and unless their triple-threat running game suddenly explodes, Seattle is likely looking at another long season.

Up and Coming players:
RB Justin Forsett is getting a lot of attention, especially among sleeper-loving fantasy heads, and with good reason. The shifty back appeared to be the best option out of the backfield, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, but only received about 40% of the workload. TE John Carlson appears to have untapped offensive potential, but may require a change in gameplan to get him more looks. Former backup DE Chris Clemons in Philadelphia will be given a long look in a starting D-line desperate for pass pressures. With 4 sacks and 12 pressures in very limited playing time, this still-young veteran could be ready to emerge. Finally, QB Charlie Whitehurst was acquired ostensibly to give the team a potentially low-cost “QB of the interim future” option; his contract is large enough, however, to draw speculation that his future may come as soon as the bye week.

Veterans over the hill
Umm, where to start? Matt Hasselbeck, TJ Houshmandzadeh, Lofa Tatupu (whose injury count is now nearly as long as his hair), Leroy Hill (reportedly on thin ice with the new coaches), Julius Jones, and the defensive backfield pairing of Jordan Babineaux and Lawyer Milloy are some of the higher-profile examples. Additionally, former Detroit “bust” WR Mike Williams attempts to rekindle his USC magic under coach Carroll. The roster churn in Seattle could continue well into the trading deadline.

Rookie watch
Free Safety Earl Thomas and LT Russell Okung, both first round picks, are expected to step right into the starting lineup and contribute right away. Likewise, WR Golden Tate is one of the few young skill players on the roster, and should get plenty of playing time if he can adjust quickly to NFL play.

Team needs:
1 . A continuation of the aggressive roster management that has taken place so far this offseason. Constant competition for jobs should keep players focused and on edge, and the roster still needs serious improvement – from inside and out.
2 . Pete Carroll to make a better adjustment to coaching in the pros than his recent NCAA peers. The list of college coaches flaming out in the NFL over the past decade is long and filled with many high-profile names, including Nick Saban, Bobby Petrino, Steve Spurrier, and Butch Davis. Carroll has to hope the second time is the charm.
3 . Their to draft picks Okung, Thomas and Tate to become legit pro players, and avoid the doubts now swirling around Aaron Curry. Rebuilding teams must be able to lean on their high draft picks.
4 . Someone to stand up and earn long-term trust at quarterback, whether it’s Hasselbeck or Whitehurst…
5 . … or a series of early losses bad enough to justify a complete tank job, preparing for first dibs at local hero Jake Locker in the draft.

Predicted record: 5-11 (but could easily trend down)

Saint Louis Rams
Head Coach: Steve Spagnuolo

What to expect:
The Rams have been on a path toward becoming one of the worst teams in the NFL for a number of years, thanks to years of odious roster mismanagement and a collection of ill-fit coaches. A new leadership structure took place after the death of owner Georgia Frontiere, and last season the rebuild began in earnest as the team transitioned from one of the league’s oldest rosters to one of its youngest – and completed its free fall to the first overall draft pick. This year, the rebuild becomes a complete “reboot” around quarterback Sam Bradford.

The Rams believe they have the foundation pieces in place to at least keep him upright, investing heavily in the offensive line in the last few years, and getting rid of problem players like Alex Barron and Richie Incognito. However, if Minnesota’s gleeful welcoming party for Bradford is any indication – four sacks and multiple hits on 17 dropbacks in less than two quarters of preseason play – this may be prematurely wishful thinking.

Last season’s offense was so conservative that even Rush Limbaugh wanted to be part of the team (rimshot!), while the defense lacked enough pass-rushing talent to put Spagnuolo’s schemes to work. However, effort was there across the board, personified by Steven Jackson’s phenomenally difficult Pro Bowl season, earned against eight-and nine-man fronts. (More than two-thirds of his yards were gained after making first contact with a defender.) This team is still more than a few playmakers away from contention, but there are enough young and hungry players that some of those playmakers may arise from within this season, and help this team surprise.

Up and coming players:
Whoever the team’s top six receivers turn out to be, none is older than 25 or has more than four years’ experience in the league. One or more of Donnie Avery, Danny Amendola, Laurent Robinson (if healthy) or dark horse Keenan Burton have potential here. My money is on Amendola, who has looked incredibly focused in camp. DE Chris Long has been slow to break out of his shell, but the switch appeared to come on in the latter half of ’09, and #72 has been a force so far in preseason. MLB James Laurinaitis had a fine rookie season, and should show that he still has room for growth. Likewise, SS Craig Dahl excelled in run defense, and could earn the bulk of the playing time at the position.

Veterans over the hill:
The Rams had few players who fit this category after the ’09 season, so naturally they brought a fresh crop in during free agency. QB AJ Feeley (holding the reins for Bradford), DT Fred Robbins (starting, for now), DT Chris Hovan (already on IR), OL Hank Fraley (in the mix at center and guard) and LB Na’il Diggs (starting on the strong side) are all well on the downside of their careers, but are expected to provide “veteran leadership.” Additionally, DE James Hall and erstwhile starting SS James Butler belong on this list as well.

Rookie watch:
All eyes will be on Bradford, of course, but the surprise in camp is the effectiveness of second rounder Rodger Saffold. He made Barron expendable, and is challenging last year’s first round pick, Jason Smith, for playing time at the premier left tackle position. Physical CB Jerome Murphy and change-of-direction artist WR Mardy Gilyard will have ample opportunities to contribute. The steal of this draft might be 7th round DE George Selvie, who a year ago was considered a much better prospect than 1st round pick (and USF teammate) Jason Pierre-Paul. A healthy Selvie could provide immediate spark to the Rams’ nascent pass rush.

Team needs:
1 . Protection, protection, protection. After several breakdowns in the first week of live action, coach Spagnuolo strongly intimated that Bradford will not start until the offensive line gels. With AJ Feeley at QB in the interim, the “reboot” will not begin until that happens.
2 . Coach Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur need to get creative. Last year’s offensive playcalling made “vanilla” look like a new and exotic flavor, with an overall philosophy of risk avoidance and a huge chunk of the passing offense directed well short of the sticks. Both are young coaches who just finished their first years ever at their positions, and they need to demonstrate that they can be trusted to lead this rebuild.
3 . The healthy return of Steven Jackson from offseason back surgery – especially since there is no proven backup option on the roster. #39 still makes the offense run in St Louis, and will keep the defensive focus away from Bradford.
4 . A revamped pass rush will go a long way toward filling the cracks in this defense. The Rams appear to be much stouter against the run, but still have many holes in their secondary, even with the return of OJ Atogwe.
5 . Mistake-free and injury-free football is a must for this team to win games. The Rams killed themselves many times over with penalties and turnovers last year. Again. And they lost significant amounts of man-games to the trainer’s room. Again. This has to stop.

Predicted Record: 4-12

Follow Will Horton on Twitter @RamsHerd!