Here are five teams you can expect to see at the top of the standings for the next several seasons, starting with the new best club in the NFC West:
Arizona lost too many talented players in the offseason to avoid taking a step back from consecutive division titles. Seattle has plenty of rebuilding to do under coach Pete Carroll. St. Louis doesn't look like a threat anytime soon.
So everything is in place for San Francisco, in coach Mike Singletary's second full season as head coach, to end a seven-year playoff drought.
Singletary's strength is his motivational ability, getting the most out of a skilled roster that includes a slew of first-round picks: Alex Smith, Vernon Davis, Manny Lawson, Patrick Willis, Joe Staley and Michael Crabtree.
Last month, the Niners used Round 1 to get exactly what they needed: a right tackle (Anthony Davis) and a left guard (Mike Iupati) to re-establish their power running game featuring workhorse Frank Gore.
"The Niners helped themselves," NFL Network analyst and former offensive lineman Brian Baldinger said. "They should win that division."
When you look at the athletes San Francisco has assembled on both sides of the ball, you see few glaring weaknesses — none that will stand in the team's way in a weak division. There is also extra confidence in the locker room because the team swept the Cardinals last season.
The only real concern is whether Smith can build on his strong finish last season and finally deliver as a winning quarterback after being taken first overall five years ago.
"You don't see much wrong with that team," an NFC director of pro personnel said. "It all comes down to their quarterback."
So far, Smith has danced away from being a bust. If he busts out this season, he'll no longer be the quarterback San Francisco should have passed on to take Aaron Rodgers.
They have the three most important elements for long-term success: an elite defense, an outstanding offensive line and a budding franchise quarterback. They look ready to displace New England in the AFC East and should be among a handful of teams that consistently contend for the conference title the next few years.
The Jets aren't afraid to make bold personnel decisions to stay a step ahead with their roster. Adding Braylon Edwards helped them in the playoffs last year, and the Jets are banking on immediate impact from offseason pickups Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes this season. They also were smart not to overpay to keep either Leon Washington or Alan Faneca.
In the same vein, you can bet they will lock up essential young stars like Darrelle Revis and Nick Mangold.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff has been methodical about rebuilding this team, He put the quarterback (Matt Ryan) and running back (Michael Turner) in place in Year 1 and has brought in a lot of young defensive help since then.
Last season, the offense was derailed a bit by Turner's ankle injury, but the team still managed to finish 9-7. The defense is in the developmental stage but eventually should become a solid all-around unit. Look for the Falcons to be soaring again in 2010, capable of reaching the same height as the Saints.
Call it a re-emergence in Dallas. The mini-roster purge before last season created a strong locker-room dynamic to go with the improvement and maturation of several young players. It's important to remember that Tony Romo, entering his fourth full season as a starter, is only now reaching his prime.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
If the Vikings get "StarCapped" by suspensions to their starting defensive tackles and that notable former Packer doesn't return under center, Green Bay will seize the division. If those things play out in Minnesota's favor, the teams will be neck and neck again.
Still, the Packers are in the position to pull away in the not-too-distant future because of Rodgers and their defensive front seven. Age is on their side, and their best players have yet to hit their prime. Green Bay's front office excels at injecting youth where needed, and that should pay off soon on both the offensive line and in the secondary.
CSN: Brian Urlacher, who played 13 seasons for the Bears, announced his retirement from football Wenesday on his personal twitter account.
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