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Key Games -- Week 1 at Rams, Week 3 at Saints, Week 7 vs. Seahawks, Week 8 vs. Falcons, & Week 17 vs. 49ers
Breakout Player -- The acquisition of quarterback Carson Palmer gives Arizona a major upgrade at quarterback. Palmer’s presence will have a major influence on wide receiver Michael Floyd. With ideal size and route running, he could emerge as an excellent complimentary receiver.
Rookie Impact -- The Cardinals got awful news when they found out guard Jonathan Cooper broke his leg. The first-round pick is out for the season, putting a major damper on their draft class. It‘s not all doom and gloom, though. Third-round pick Tyrann Mathieu is all over the field at practice. The Cardinals are using him in the return game as well as in the secondary, where he‘s making an impact at both safety and slot corner.
Fantasy Stud -- After two seasons of incompetent quarterback play, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald will finally benefit from his signal caller’s presence. The hiring of Bruce Arians is also a major boon to Fitzgerald, who you can now consider a backend WR1.
Prediction -- The hiring of Arians and acquisition of Palmer has many optimistic about Arizona’s 2013 season. However, the NFC West is no longer the laughingstock of the league. This is a division with two legitimate Super Bowl contenders (San Francisco & Seattle) as well as two ascending teams. Somebody needs to finish last and the Cardinals are that somebody. They have one of the conference’s best defenses, but Palmer’s impact on the team is a double-edged sword. He’ll help improve the production of Fitzgerald and Floyd, but he’s turned the ball over 58 times in his last 41 games. Turnovers and playing behind arguably the league’s worst offensive line (58 sacks allowed in 2012) is a good way to lose several close games.
San Francisco 49ers
Key Games -- Week 2 at Seahawks, Week 4 at Rams, Week 11 at Saints, Week 14 vs. Seahawks & Week 16 vs. Falcons
Breakout Player -- Developing nose tackle Ian Williams is critical to San Francisco’s run defense. Losing Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois creates a liability along their defensive front. Williams is somewhat light for a nose guard (305), but his quickness allows him to penetrate the backfield and disrupt opposing offenses. He could be their answer to filling San Francisco’s d-line void.
Rookie Impact -- The 49ers traded up to select LSU safety Eric Reid in round one, and he’s been impressive throughout camp. Leading into the draft, teams coveted his combination of size and athleticism. He even drew comparisons to all-pro Ed Reed. Nobody is proclaiming him the next Reed, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he leads San Francisco in interceptions.
Fantasy Stud -- The win over Green Bay in the divisional playoff game remains fresh in the minds of many. As a result, most have a false notion about how quarterback Colin Kaepernick plays the game. In reality, he only averaged 34 yards on the ground in seven regular-season starts. His capabilities as a runner can’t offset losing Michael Crabtree until November nor can they change the run-first system he plays in. He’s a top 10 fantasy starter, but he’ll finish closer to ranking No. 10 than ranking within the top five.
Prediction -- There’ll be no Super Bowl hangover in San Francisco. The 49ers are one of a handful of teams entering the season as Super Bowl contenders. In fact, some outlets proclaim them the Super Bowl favorites. They aren’t without their flaws, though. Losing Crabtree is a big deal, as he established a good rapport with Kaepernick, and the 49er signal caller is going to miss him on the outside. Because of their elite pass rush, they’ve gotten away with an adequate secondary, but a well-protected quarterback could exploit holes. However, those are minor blips on the radar. Expect no fewer than 10 wins from San Francisco.
Key Games -- Week 2 vs. 49ers, Week 8 at Rams, Week 10 at Falcons, Week 14 at 49ers, & Week 15 at Giants
Breakout Player -- I originally felt receiver Sidney Rice would benefit from Percy Harvin’s absence, but Rice has missed all of preseason due to an injured knee. This has opened the door for receiver Golden Tate to establish a strong rapport with quarterback Russell Wilson. In 15 games last season, Tate caught 45 passes for 688 yards and seven touchdowns. Nobody will mistake Seattle for a passing team, but an improving Wilson allows Tate to increase his production.
Rookie Impact -- The Seahawks aren’t looking to phase out running back Marshawn Lynch, but they’re going to find ways to involve fellow running back Christine Michael in their offense. He’s had an excellent August, displaying smooth cutting ability, and an extra gear once gets to the next level. He could be their future.
Fantasy Stud -- From a fantasy standpoint, Wilson tops the list of second-year starters. Through the second half of 2012, he was among the best quarterbacks in football (16 touchdown passes), as he became more acclimated to the NFL. His knowledge of Seattle’s offense is only going to expand, as they open up their playbook. Unlike other dual-threat quarterbacks, Wilson also knows when to slide and protect himself, making it less likely he’ll end up on IR before your fantasy championship.
Prediction -- This season’s trendy Super Bowl pick, Seattle features a swarming defense, punishing running game, and one of the league’s best quarterbacks. Like San Francisco, they’re without their top receiver (Harvin) for an extended period, but Seattle won 11 games without Harvin on their roster a year ago. The key to their team is Wilson’s progression. The player you saw in week one of last year was not the same player you saw in the playoffs. His progression made a borderline playoff team into a Super Bowl contender. That’ll carry over into this season, as Seattle has a real good chance to unseat the 49ers as NFC West champions.
St. Louis Rams
Key Games -- Week 1 vs. Cardinals, Week 4 vs. 49ers, Week 8 vs. Seahawks, Week 13 at 49ers, & Week 15 vs. Saints
Breakout Player -- Many draft experts had the Rams targeting cornerback Morris Claiborne in the 2012 draft. Claiborne ultimately ended up with Dallas -- after they traded ahead of St. Louis -- and the Rams moved down for defensive tackle Michael Brockers. The LSU product came on strong in the second half of last season, setting him up for a strong ‘13 campaign. His combination of athleticism and power makes him one of the league’s most disruptive defensive tackles in football.
Rookie Impact -- The Rams didn’t trade up for receiver Tavon Austin so he could only return kicks. While he’ll definitely affect the return game, the Rams will incorporate him into their offense in a variety of ways. Look for Austin to catch passes from the slot, while also lining up in the backfield and taking carries as a running back. He’s a rookie of the year contender.
Fantasy Stud -- Jeff Fisher teams will always run the ball, so there’s upside in St. Louis’ running game. All signs point toward Daryl Richardson receiving the bulk of touches. He doesn’t have the build of somebody capable of carrying the ball 20-25 times a game, but he’s a shifty runner, who averaged nearly five yards a carry in 2012. He’s a weekly flex play with the upside to emerge as a No. 2 running back.
Prediction -- Featuring arguably the league‘s best front four, the Rams enter the season with high expectations on that side of the ball. Chris Long, who was the No. 2 overall pick in ‘08, is coming off an excellent year where he notched 11.5 sacks. Robert Quinn -- also a former first-round pick -- contributed 10.5 sacks to St. Louis’ league leading 52 in 2012. Long and Quinn might form the best defensive end combination in football. Offensively, the Rams are moving in the right direction, but they still lack the talent around quarterback Sam Bradford to make a postseason run. They don’t boast a great offensive line or many great skill players. Drafting Austin helps them in this department, but they’re still another year away from watching it all come together.