ST. LOUIS RAMS
Reasons for optimism: The Rams won seven games last year despite a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Sam Bradford in Week 7, including victories over the Colts, Cardinals, Bears and Saints. The defensive line is menacing, and when a team can create pressure, it makes everyone else’s job easier. Rookie running back Zac Stacy took over as the starter in Week 3 and went over 100 yards four times. With draft pick Tre Mason in the fold, St. Louis seems to have a nice 1-2 punch at running back.
Reasons for concern: The wide receiver group still looks underwhelming. Rookie speedster Tavon Austin showed flashes of potential last year – including a 56-yard run against the Cardinals – and if he can turn into a legitimate weapon, it would be a huge development. Mercurial talent Kenny Britt has been added, but he’s been underwhelming for three straight seasons after a promising start to his career in Tennessee.
What’s in flux: Bradford readies for his fifth season with plenty to prove. The No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft had the highest completion percentage (60.7), best touchdown-to-interception ratio (14-4) and highest yards-per-game-average (241.0) of his career last season before tearing his ACL, but still has never ascended to the top tier of NFL quarterbacks. The Rams can’t make the leap to playoff contender unless the passing game becomes more effective.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Reasons for optimism: The 49ers have kept the core of their roster together, and between 12 draft picks and other offseason moves, reinforcements have been added. The passing game struggled last year, but with Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson and Vernon Davis running routes, quarterback Colin Kaepernick will have plenty of options. Running back Frank Gore is 31 and ran for a career-low 4.1-yards-per-carry last year, but he still accumulated 1,128 yards, and between Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde and maybe Marcus Lattimore, there is talent waiting should he slip.
Reasons for concern: Cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers both departed for the Raiders, leaving the 49ers thin at the position. Tramaine Brock impressed the staff last year and has one starting spot locked up. Chris Culliver and Chris Cook are competing for the other, but it could be a position San Francisco looks to upgrade when cuts are made in the preseason. First-round pick Jimmie Ward played safety at Northern Illinois but could be in the mix at nickel cornerback.
What’s in flux: The linebackers have been the strength of the defense the past few years, but there are question marks there now. Aldon Smith has had various brushes with the law and could be suspended for some of the season. NaVorro Bowman tore his ACL in the NFC Championship game and will miss a good chunk of games. Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks are still a formidable duo, but this might not be the same dominant unit of past seasons.
Reasons for optimism: Where to start? The Seahawks are the defending Super Bowl champions, they didn’t lose many key players, and the fans are giddy about their franchise, gobbling up tickets and merchandise at every turn. Life is good in Seattle right now, and the Seahawks will be the team to beat in the NFC again. With wideout Percy Harvin healthy, the offense has the capability to be better while the defense can be just as stingy.
Reasons for concern: Free agency took away some talent, including wide receiver Golden Tate, defensive end Chris Clemons, cornerback Brandon Browner, cornerback Walter Thurmond and defensive tackle Red Bryant. None of the departures were critical blows, but it does erode some depth. If injuries hit, these losses could be felt.
What’s in flux: Not much. Seattle has its franchise quarterback in Russell Wilson, balance on offense and a talented secondary led by safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman. The offensive line had some trouble in 2013, although much of it was due to injury. Running back Marshawn Lynch is unhappy with his contract, but reported to mandatory minicamp, which lessened a possible distraction. Issues are bound to pop up in training camp, but for now the defending champions are in a good spot.