Despite their status as defending Super Bowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks are expected to have a tough time even to repeat as the best in the NFC West for 2014.
A survey of The Sports Xchange football staff selected the Seahawks to win the division championship again, but they are the only top pick that was not a unanimous selection in their division. Also receiving first-place votes were the San Francisco 49ers, picked for second; and the Arizona Cardinals, who placed third.
And there is no telling if the St. Louis Rams might have received a first-place vote had they not lost quarterback Sam Bradford to an ACL injury in the third preseason game that put him out for the year.
Here is an in-depth, unit-by-unit look the NFC West as analyzed by reporters from The Sports Xchange who cover each team (using roster information as of Sept. 2):
1st -- SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Russell Wilson. Backup -- Tarvaris Jackson.
Wilson is back for his third year and if the preseason is any indication, appears ready to shoulder even more of the offense this season. He was 33-for-42 in the preseason with a passer rating of 133.8 and led the first-team offense to scores on 11 of 13 drives. A Super Bowl win in his second season would seem to make him worthy enough of elite status, but there may be even less doubt after this season. Jackson beat out Terrelle Pryor to hold onto the backup job and is a dependable player and much-respected in the locker room.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Marshawn Lynch, FB Derrick Coleman. Backups -- Christine Michael, Robert Turbin.
While much of the preseason conversation centered on the team grooming Michael and Turbin to eventually take over, Lynch remains the focal point of the running game. He's 28 now and many in Seattle are wondering if the end may already be near. But there was no sign of it in his brief preseason activity. Turbin was more reliable in the preseason to win the backup job, but the Seahawks will try to find ways to get Michael's explosiveness on the field as much as possible. Coleman is a dependable fullback, a position Seattle seemed to be using less of in the preseason.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Zach Miller. Backups -- Luke Willson, Cooper Helfet.
Miller, 28, restructured his deal in the offseason to return and was healthy throughout the preseason and could be due for something of a bounce-back year.He also remains a solid blocker. Willson, in his second season, has uncommon speed for a tight end and the Seahawks will continue to try to exploit his big-play ability. Helfet is a former undrafted free agent who made the active roster after two years on the practice squad.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Percy Harvin, Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse. Backups -- Paul Richardson, Ricardo Lockette, Kevin Norwood, Bryan Walters.
A healthy Harvin is one of the biggest reasons for the optimism about Seattle's receiving corps. The team expects an MVP-level type of performance out of him this season, both receiving and also getting some carries and as a kickoff returner. Baldwin and Kearse, each former undrafted free agents, will each be expected to increase their production a bit this season as the team replaces Golden Tate. Baldwin has shown a knack for making big plays on third downs, and Kearse always seems to find himself in the middle of the action at critical times -- both scored touchdowns in the Super Bowl. Of the rest, the biggest impact is expected to be made by Richardson, a second-round pick whose deep-threat ability may be unmatched on the team. However, he didn't have a play longer than 12 years in the preseason amid rumblings the team may need to show some patience. Walters was one of the most productive players during the preseason both receiving and handling returns, and it's in the latter role that he could have his biggest impact, spelling Harvin on kickoffs and Earl Thomas on punts. Walters was released in the initial cutdown to 53 but brought back Monday.'
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Russell Okung, LG James Carpenter, C Max Unger, RG J.R. Sweezy, RT Justin Britt. Backups -- Alvin Bailey, Lemuel Jeanpierre, Stephen Schilling, Garry Gilliam.
The offensive line was the area of the team that got the most criticism last season, especially its pass blocking, as the Seahawks gave up 44 sacks. But the feeling around the team is that the line should be better this season. Unger and Okung appear healthier after battling injuries last season -- Okung missed eight games with a foot injury that required offseason surgery. Britt, a second-round pick from Missouri, won the right tackle job over veteran free-agent signee Eric Winston, who was released in the cut to 53. Another reason for optimism is the apparent improvement of guards Sweezy and Carpenter. The latter is a 2011 first-round pick who is in shape and healthy and might finally be ready to play to his potential. Bailey figures to be active on game days as a swing tackle and Jeanpierre active as a backup on the interior. Schilling adds depth at center/guard and Gilliam, a rookie undrafted free agent, at tackle.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- RDE Michael Bennett, LDE Cliff Avril, NT Brandon Mebane, DT Tony McDaniel, Backups -- Cassius Marsh, O'Brien Schofield, Kevin Williams, Greg Scruggs, Jordan Hill.
The front four has been set since camp -- Bennett and Avril at the ends and Mebane and McDaniel inside. All four may be called on to play more this season than last year, when no one on the line played more than 57 percent of the snaps. That was when Seattle had essentially a seven-man rotation up front of proven, reliable players. Avril and Bennett are quick players who may get tested against the run. Mebane and McDaniel are vets who will be called on to be sturdy up the middle. McDaniel will also play some end on run downs. Williams and Hill are the primary backups inside. Schofield -- a revelation during camp -- will be the main pass-rush end backup, and Marsh and Scruggs are each young players who can handle both tackle and end.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- MLB Bobby Wagner, WLB K.J. Wright, SLB Bruce Irvin/Malcolm Smith. Backups -- Kevin Pierre-Louis, Mike Morgan, Brock Coyle.
The Seahawks think the linebacking corps could be in for a breakout season, with Wagner and Wright each entering their prime and Smith coming off his Super Bowl MVP. Wagner has lateral speed and awareness to match anyone's in the NFL, and the long and lanky Wright is an above-average pass defender. Irvin will also see some time as a pass-rushing end, though he first has to get healthy after missing all of training camp following offseason hip surgery. Pierre-Louis is the backup weak-side linebacker, Morgan the backup strong-side linebacker and Coyle -- an undrafted rookie free agent -- the backup in the middle.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- FS Earl Thomas, SS Kam Chancellor, CB Richard Sherman, CB Byron Maxwell. Backups -- SS Jeron Johnson, FS DeShawn Shead, CB Jeremy Lane, CB Tharold Simon, CB Marcus Burley.
Three-fourths of the original Legion of Boom -- Thomas, Chancellor and Sherman -- remain and will again make up a secondary as good as any in the NFL. All are signed through 2017, as well. It will be interesting to see how the league's new emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding will impact their play. There was little evidence of much change on the LOB during the preseason, however. Chancellor is coming off hip surgery and says he feels as good as he has since college. Thomas has speed to rival any safeties, and Sherman mans the left side of the field with his typical aplomb. Expect opponents to go hard after Maxwell, in his first full year as a starter. Lane will be the nickel back, a role he filled ably at the end of last season. The rest of the backups are more unproven, though there are high expectations for Simon, a fifth-round pick in 2013 who is healthy after missing last year with a foot injury. Burley is the backup nickel after being acquired in a trade last weekend.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Steven Hauschka, P Jon Ryan, LS Clint Gresham.
All three return from standout seasons a year ago -- none had any competition during camp. Hauschka hit a 59-yarder during the preseason, evidence of his improved distance from earlier in his career. Ryan may not lead the league in distance but does what the team asks in terms of hang time and direction to key a punt coverage unit that last year was as good as any in the NFL. Gresham simply handles his job without any real mistakes.
2nd -- SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS