Last season the NFC West was the strongest division in the NFL three teams made it into the playoffs as only the Rams posted a losing record, San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks duked it out in the NFC Championship final and the Seahawks then went on to hammer the Denver Broncos 43-8 in Superbowl.
Will the NFC West be as strong this season though? Lets take a look at some of the key issues that will determine it this time around.
Will Seattle open up the passing game?
Last season the Seahawks were the archetypal ground and pound team as they based their Superbowl winning offense around the running game. Are the Seahawks going to be quite so run heavy in 2014 though?
There are rumours of disquiet regarding star running back Marshawn Lynch and the wide receiver corp should be bolstered by the return of a fit Percy Harvin. Add to this wide receiver Trent Richardson who was Seattle's first pick in this years draft and it seems possible that the Seahawks could be moving away from being such a run heavy offense.
The installation of the playbook at training camp should give us our first clues as to whether this is actually the case.
The Cardinals offensive line
It is a simple fact of football that poor offensive line play can lose you games no matter how talented the rest of the offense is. Pro Football Focus ranked the Cardinals offensive line as the worse in the NFL as the unit played a key part in Arizona's drop off in the second half of the season.
The offensive line is a area that the Cardinals need to see improvement and they have strengthened.
Left tackle Jared Veldheer has been brought in from the Raiders. Couple this with the return to fitness of Jonathan Cooper (2013 draft 1st round selection) and the left side of the line looks like it should be solid.
Similarly, on the right hand side of the line the right guard position is Earl Watford's to lose and the hope is that Bobby Massie makes the right tackle spot his own. This will mean though that the Cardinals offensive line has four new starters from this time last year. With much expected from the Cardinals offense it is crucial that the line clicks quickly in training camp.
Does Kaepernick make the leap?
Kaepernick has rather flattered to deceive since taking the 49ers starting role. On the one hand he has taken his team to a Superbowl and an NFC Championship game. He boasts four wins out of six in the playoffs and 17 wins out of 23 regular season starts. He is also a dual threat QB able to punish teams with his feet as well as his arm.
On the other hand Kaepernick isn't a great thrower of the ball. In the 2013 season his completion percentage was 58.4%, ranking him as the fourth worst QB to play more than 600 snaps. In the post-season this score dropped to 54.9%.
A large part of this is likely due to his seeming inability to see the entire field. Kaepernick only threw touchdowns to three separate players last season. One of these was Michael Crabtree who only caught one and only played the last five games. This means for most of the season Kaepernick didn't target any receiver other than Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. When defenses start to pick up on this trend the 49ers passing game could be in trouble.
The 49ers have given Kaepernick that massive $61 million guaranteed contract so they have faith in him. Will the faith be rewarded though? Will Kaepernick cement himself as
an elite QB in 2014?
The Rams offense
Quite simply there are questions about pretty much every areas of the Rams offense. QB Sam Bradford is entering the last year of his bumper rookie contract. He showed some promise before injuring his knee last season but is he a franchise QB. This year is surely his last chance to prove this is the case.
In the run game rookie Tre Mason is expected to push Zac Stacey for carries. Whilst
in the passing game the Rams receiver corp doesn't seem to have a genuine #1. To call either Tavon Austin or Kenny Britt a number one receiver seems hopeful at best. Whilst the likes of Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Austin Pettis and Stedman Bailey will hope to make the roster at wide receiver three. None of the bunch is particularly inspiring though and the Rams will need a number of them to deliver career best years if they are to challenge the rest of the NFC West.
Training camp should give us some idea of what shape the Rams offense will take and
whether it has any chance of success.