San Francisco 49ers
Last season: 12-4, lost to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.
New faces: S Antoine Bethea, WR Stevie Johnson, OT Jonathan Martin, DB Jimmie Ward, RB Carlos Hyde.
Comment: The 49ers’ offense could be more explosive this year with the addition of Johnson, the former Buffalo Bills receiver, and the addition of RB Hyde. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick should have plenty of weapons to work with this year.
Key losses: S Donte Whitner, CBs Tarell Brown and Carlos Rodgers, WR Mario Manningham, RB Anthony Dixon.
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- Seattle’s vanishing black community
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Comment: The 49ers return the core of their team from a year ago, but the one question mark is in the secondary, particularly at cornerback. Can Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver hold up?
Strengths: The 49ers have a lot of them: an incredibly fast and talented group of linebackers, loads of experience, options at wide receiver. On paper, they have the look of a team that should be in Super Bowl contention again.
Weaknesses: San Francisco has question marks more than true weaknesses. Will NaVorro Bowman return to his old form from his horrific injury? Will Aldon Smith be able to avoid off-field problems? Will the cornerbacks be good enough? Does Frank Gore have much left in the tank at age 31?
Expectations: The 49ers should once again challenge the Seahawks for the NFC West and be on the short list of teams capable of winning the Super Bowl.
Last season: 10-6
New faces: LT Jared Veldheer, CB Antonio Cromartie, WR Ted Ginn, TE Troy Niklas, S Deone Bucannon, LB Larry Foote.
Comment: The Cardinals’ left tackle spot was a huge problem last season, and Veldheer should solidify that position right away for QB Carson Palmer.
Key losses: LB Karlos Dansby, LB Daryl Washington (suspended for the season), CB/KR Javier Arenas, WR Andre Roberts.
Comment: Dansby and Washington were big contributors for a defense that ranked first in the NFL against the run. Those are two big holes to fill.
Strengths: The defense, particularly the defensive line, should once again be a wall against the run. The Cardinals return their entire defensive line, and the secondary could be just as good with Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie and Tyrann Mathieu.
Weaknesses: The offensive line could once again prove problematic for an offense that otherwise should be better from a year ago. Palmer and his receivers have another year with Bruce Arians’ offense, and RB Andre Ellington looked like he could be a breakout player last year. The question is whether the line will hold up its end of the bargain.
Expectations: If the Cardinals played in most other divisions in the NFL, they’d have realistic expectations of winning the division. But even with their potential improvements, they are still a step — even if not a big one — behind the Seahawks and 49ers. It’s going to be a tough road to get into the playoffs.
St. Louis Rams
Last season: 7-9
New faces: DL Aaron Donald, OL Greg Robinson, DL Alex Carrington, WR Kenny Britt, QB Shaun Hill.
Comment: Donald and Carrington should make a defensive line that was already really good last season even better.
Key losses: QB Sam Bradford, CB Cortland Finnegan, G Chris Williams, G Shelley Smith, QB Kellen Clemens.
Comment: Bradford suffered a torn ACL that will force him to miss the 2014 season. The Rams didn’t lose much else otherwise, but Bradford’s absence will be a dark cloud for the Rams all season.
Strengths: There is no way to look at the Rams’ roster and not see the team’s strength: the defensive line. The Rams had eight sacks in a game against the Seahawks last season, and DE Robert Quinn might be the best pass rusher in the game. Add in first-round DT Aaron Donald and that group looks scary good.
Weaknesses: The offense was already a question mark before Bradford’s injury, but it’s an even more pressing one now. An offense that ranked near the bottom third of the league last season could be even worse this season.
Expectations: The season-ending injury to Bradford is beyond a punch to the gut. It’s likely a knockout blow to the Rams’ hopes this season.