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
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Colin Kaepernick. Backups -- Blaine Gabbert, Josh Johnson.
Kaepernick worked on his change-up over the off-season to complement one of the best fastballs in the league. The 49ers are hoping that results in more check-down passes and fewer runs (92) and sacks (39). Johnson outplayed Gabbert in the preseason, but the ex-Jaguar will get the first crack being Kaepernick's primary backup.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Frank Gore, FB Bruce Miller. Backups -- Carlos Hyde, LaMichael James.
Opponents keep waiting for Gore to wear down, and now the 49ers have a safeguard against it in case 2014 is the year is happens. Second-round pick Hyde was impressive enough in the preseason to command carries in the regular season, which could make the 49ers an even better running team than when they ranked third in the league last season.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Vernon Davis. Backups -- Vance McDonald, Derek Carrier, Kyle Nelson.
The 49ers would like to believe McDonald can be used in more double-tight end formations this season, which would help the running game. But with improved depth in the wideout ranks, Davis likely will be the only productive pass-catcher among the group. Nelson made the team mostly because he'll be the long snapper on punts.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree. Backups -- Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd, Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington, Kassim Osgood.
The 49ers brought in veterans Johnson and Lloyd in the off-season to give them more of a threat in three-wideout alignments. Neither did much in the preseason, but they are veterans with decent track records. More likely, the 49ers will have to count upon the fact that Crabtree enters this season healthy, giving QB Colin Kaepernick two big-time targets on the outside from Day 1.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Daniel Kilgore, RG Alex Boone, RT Anthony Davis. Backups -- C/G Dillon Farrell, G Joe Looney, T Jonathan Martin.
Boone's holdout and Davis' offseason shoulder surgery forced the 49ers to scramble a bit in the preseason. But both regulars appear ready to start the opener, giving the 49ers one of the best offensive lines in the league, a unit equally adept at run blocking and pass protection. Looney demonstrated in the preseason he's fully capable of starting at any position other than center if there's an injury, and Martin flashed the form that once made him a starter for the Miami Dolphins.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DE Ray McDonald, NT Ian Williams, DE Justin Smith. Backups -- DE Tony Jerod-Eddie, DE Tank Carradine, DT Quinton Dial, DT Demarcus Dobbs.
The 49ers' question marks begin with two big ones on the defensive line. One is NT Glenn Dorsey, who suffered a biceps injury during the summer and likely is out until at least Dec. 1. The earliest he can play is after the 49ers' bye in Week 8 after being placed on reserve/injured/designated for return. Williams will get the first crack at anchoring the middle in his place. The other is McDonald, who figures to be the first test case for the NFL's new policy on domestic violence. McDonald was arrested Sunday; his case won't go to court until Sept. 15. The 49ers presume McDonald will be suspended, but don't know when it will start. Jerod-Eddie, who made two starts in McDonald's spot last season and three this preseason, is next in line, but expect Carradine to get some snaps as the 49ers hope quantity offsets the loss in quality.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Dan Skuta, ILB Patrick Willis, ILB Michael Wilhoite, OLB Ahmad Brooks. Backups -- OLB Corey Lemonier, OLB Aaron Lynch, ILB Chris Borland, ILB Nick Moody.
Another position, another couple of questions marks. The 49ers know they'll be without suspended OLB Aldon Smith for nine games. They are hoping ILB NaVorro Bowman can return from knee surgery sooner than that. But in the meantime, Skuta (a run-stopping specialist) and Lemonier (a strong pass rusher) will try to fill Smith's big shoes, while Wilhoite and impressive rookie Borland get shots at replacing Bowman. The unit figures to go from one of the league's best to below average, a decline that's ill-timed being that the defensive line has taken a similar hit. Rookie Lynch, a big surprise in the preseason, could play himself into a significant role well before Smith returns.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Tramaine Brock, CB Chris Culliver, SS Antoine Bethea, FS Eric Reid. Backups -- CB Chris Cook, CB Perrish Cox, CB Dontae Johnson, SS Craig Dahl, SS L.J. McCray, FS Jimmie Ward.
The 49ers will open the season with a new look at this position, too, but at least this one is by design. They let starting corners Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers go because they believe the tandem of Brock and Culliver is better. First-round pick Ward was drafted to cover slot receivers and retains that position even though Cooks impressed in the preseason. The proven Bethea comes over from the Indianapolis Colts to replace dependable SS Donte Whitner, and Reid returns after a spectacular rookie season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Phil Dawson, P Andy Lee.
No turnover here and with good reason. Dawson ranked sixth in the league in scoring last season, while Lee had the third-best average (48.2) among punters. The big concern on special teams is the loss of four of the top five tacklers from last season, all waived at the 53-man deadline. McCray, undrafted out of Division II Catawba College, immediately inherits a key role in kick coverage.
3rd -- ARIZONA CARDINALS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Carson Palmer. Backups -- Drew Stanton, Logan Thomas.
Palmer looked comfortable in his second preseason in Bruce Arians' offense. He still has a tendency for making a bizarre decision here and there, but mostly he's steady and efficient. If he gets hurt, who knows what will happen? Stanton hasn't thrown a pass in a regular-season game since 2010. He played well in the preseason. Thomas is a project. If he has to play, the season is lost.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Andre Ellington. Backups -- Jonathan Dwyer, Stepfan Taylor, Robert Hughes.
Ellington is dynamic. He can score from anywhere and is especially dangerous as a receiver. He is not going to carry between the tackles 15 times a game. For that, the Cardinals will use Dwyer and Taylor. Dwyer showed in the preseason he could be an effective short-yardage back, and he will see action near the goal line. There is nothing fancy about Taylor. He's rugged but needs better vision. The Cardinals don't call Hughes a fullback but he will play that spot at times, especially in tandem with Ellington. Hughes is a good blocker, and coaches love his receiving skill.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters -- John Carlson, Rob Housler. Backups -- Troy Niklas, Darren Fells.
Carlson had an excellent preseason, and appeared to have great chemistry with Palmer. But he's had three concussions in his career, so durability is a concern. Housler has great athletic ability, but he's an average blocker at best, and an inconsistent receiver. Niklas, the second-round pick, is raw but looks the part. He's big, rugged and can catch. But he has a lot to learn. That also describes Fells, a converted basketball player.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd. Backups -- John Brown, Ted Ginn, Jr., Jaron Brown.
Fitzgerald and Floyd have similar styles. They are big, physical and track the ball well. But they aren't speedsters. That's why the Cardinals concentrated on adding speed in the offseason. John Brown, the third-round pick, excelled in the preseason and should be dangerous. Ginn can stretch the field, too. Jaron Brown was the most improved player on the team through the offseason. Top to bottom, it's one of the best groups in the NFL.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Jared Veldheer, LG Ted Larsen, C Lyle Sendlein, RG Paul Fanaika, RT Bobby Massie. Backups -- G Jonathan Cooper, G Earl Watford, T Bradley Sowell.
Veldheer, Larsen and Massie are new to the starting lineup. Coaches think this group is more powerful and athletic than a year ago. Veldheer should give the team an above-average left tackle for the first time in two decades. Larsen, who can also play center, had an excellent camp. So far, he's starting ahead of Cooper, but that could change, perhaps before the opener. Fanaika isn't great, so Larsen could always move to that side, too. Massie had an excellent summer but remains a question mark. Depth is a concern. Sowell was inconsistent in the preseason. Watford is a work in progress.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Frostee Rucker, NT Dan Williams, RE Calais Campbell. Backups -- E Kareem Martin, E/T Tommy Kelly, E/T Ed Stinson, NT Alameda Ta'amu.
The loss of end Darnell Dockett to a knee injury hurt but not as much as outsiders think. Rucker had outplayed Dockett in camp. Dockett's loss will come into play if the Cardinals have more injuries. Martin and Stinson are rookies with much to learn. Kelly, a veteran, was a nice addition after being cut by the Patriots. Ta'amu might miss a game or two while recovering from a knee injury suffered last December. When healthy, he is as good as Williams. And both are pretty good players. Campbell is an elite player who will now be called upon for leadership.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SOLB Matt Shaughnessy, WOLB John Abraham, ILB Kevin Minter, ILB Larry Foote. Backups -- OLB Sam Acho, OLB Alex Okafor, OLB Thomas Keiser, OLB Lorenzo Alexander, ILB Kenny Demens, ILB Desmond Bishop, ILB Glenn Carson.
The Cardinals are heavy in numbers (11) at this position. But they have some problems with age and injury. Abraham is 36 and was three weeks late reporting to camp. He appears to be in shape but it's a concern. Minter suffered a pectoral injury in the first preseason game and is playing with a harness. Foote is 34. He's smart and experienced but it's questionable if he moves well enough. There is some depth here. Acho and Okafor have looked decent this offseason and need to prove they can rush the passer. Keiser was picked up over the weekend and has pass-rush ability. Bishop provides experience in the middle. Carson, an undrafted rookie, was a nice surprise throughout the offseason.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Patrick Peterson, RCB Antonio Cromartie, SS Tony Jefferson, FS Rashad Johnson. Backups -- CB Jerraud Powers, CB Justin Bethel, FS Tyrann Mathieu, SS Deone Bucannon.
This should be the team's most talented secondary in years. Peterson is an elite corner but can improve. He tends to rely too much on athletic ability and not technique. Cromartie appears to be over the hip problem that troubled him a year ago. Jefferson, in his second year, appears much improved over a year ago, when he was a backup. Johnson is very smart and helps cut down on mistakes. Powers is a capable nickel corner, and coaches think Bethel could be an elite cornerback. Mathieu, who suffered two torn knee ligaments last December, didn't play in the preseason. He thinks he will be ready for the opener, but that's doubtful since he has yet to tackle anyone in nine months. When he is back, he will replace either Johnson or Jefferson in the base defense. He also moves to nickel corner at times. The Cardinals would like to use him more as a roaming safety, allowing him to use his instincts and speed to make plays. Bucannon will begin his NFL career as an integral part of the nickel package. As he learns, he should push Jefferson.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Chandler Catanzaro, P Dave Zastudil, LS Mike Leach, KOR/PR Ted Ginn Jr.
Keeping Catanzaro over Jay Feely is a big gamble, but it was time to get younger at the position. Catanzaro has a strong leg and made all seven of his field-goal attempts in preseason. The Cardinals are hoping that Ginn can improve what was one of the NFL's worst return units a year ago. The Cardinals received barely any production on either kickoff or punt returns. Zastudil is a steady vet, who is deadly at placing the ball inside the 10. That's a huge benefit to a team that has an excellent defense. Leach is reliable and still makes it downfield to tackle.
4th -- ST. LOUIS RAMS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Shaun Hill. Backup -- Austin Davis, Case Keenum.
Hill gets a rare opportunity to be the starter at the beginning of a season. He will be leading an offense expected to run the ball, but he has shown the ability when given the chance to play to be efficient and productive. The Rams rotated a lot of their top receivers during the summer, so he was able to work with all of them. That should help. Davis looked better this year than he did in 2013 when he was released at the end of training camp. He returned when Sam Bradford was injured, and showed some moxie when he played this year in the preseason. However, his hold on the No. 2 job could be tenuous after the Rams picked up Keenum on waivers after he was released by Houston.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Zac Stacy. Backups -- Benny Cunningham, Tre Mason, Chase Reynolds, Trey Watts.
Stacy enters the season as the starter, but will likely get a lot of help from Cunningham and Mason. Stacy got nicked at the end of several games last season, and the Rams want him as fresh as possible for the fourth quarter. He also looked more comfortable as a receiver during training camp. Cunningham came to camp determined to hold off Mason, but they both will get their opportunities, provided Mason proves adept at pass protection. Reynolds is one of the team's core special teams players, but could help at running back in a pinch. Watts won a job with his performance in preseason games, but will rarely be active for games.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters -- Jared Cook, Lance Kendricks. Backups -- Cory Harkey, Alex Bayer.
When the Rams are in their base offense, Cook and Kendricks will be on the field together. Cook has excellent pass-catching skills and the ability to stretch the field. Kendricks is the better blocker, but also has the knack for getting open in the passing game. Harkey has continued to improve in both receiving and blocking, and will make a big play from time to time. Bayer became the fourth tight end end when Justice Cunningham was placed on injured reserve after the Rams claimed QB Case Keenum on waivers.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Kenny Britt, Brian Quick. Backups -- Tavon Austin, Chris Givens, Austin Pettis, Stedman Bailey (suspended).
There might not be an 80-catch receiver in this group, but there will be plenty of catches to go around. Britt emerged as a leader of the young unit and helped Quick make a big jump in his third training camp. Now, he has to prove he can be consistent when the games count. Both Britt and Quick have the size and speed to get downfield, so defenses will have to respect them. Hill will probably go to Quick early and often to continue to build his confidence. Austin will be used in a variety of ways and will be on the field a lot as the third receiver. He will also be utilized in the running game. Givens seemed to be the forgotten man during the preseason, but then had a breakout play in the third preseason game. He can still contribute, but has dropped back more because of the players ahead of him. Pettis might not get a lot of looks, but when he is in the game, he is adept at getting first downs. Bailey will miss the first four games, but is expected to also be a big part of the passing attack after he is reinstated.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Jake Long, LG Rodger Saffold, C Scott Wells, RG Davin Joseph, RT Joe Barksdale. Backups -- G/T Greg Robinson, T/G Mike Person, C Tim Barnes, C Barrett Jones.
It appears Saffold, as long as he's healthy, will be the starter at left guards to begin the season because the Rams need to have their best five linemen on the field, and because protecting Hill is paramount. Robinson will likely get some snaps during games at left guard, and will get a lot more if Saffold can't stay on the field. Long is also a question mark. He had a rocky first quarter in his only action of the preseason, and now he will be thrust into action in the first game against Minnesota. The starting line has the potential to be formidable, but health remains a major concern. Wells hasn't been able to finish the last two seasons. Joseph turned out to be a find, and without him, Saffold would be at right guard and Robinson starting. Barksdale remains durable and solid at right tackle. Jones has a back injury and might be a candidate for injured reserve/designated for return.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DLE Chris Long, DT Kendall Langford, DT Michael Brockers, DRE Robert Quinn. Backups -- E William Hayes, E Eugene Sims, E Ethan Westbrooks, T Aaron Donald, T Alex Carrington.
It's difficult to imagine there is a deeper and more talented group in the NFL. Long and Quinn are backed up by Hayes and Sims, who both also see time inside on passing downs. Hayes was slowed during the summer by a knee injury, so it remains to be seen how much he will be able to help early. Westbrooks has immense potential, and he might get a chance to show it depending on Hayes' health. The rookie Donald has been added to strong starters Langford and Brockers, and will get many opportunities to help collapse the pocket and create more sack opportunities for Quinn and Long. Carrington will also help the rotation.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Alec Ogletree, MLB James Laurinaitis, SLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Backups -- OLB Ray Ray Armstrong, MLB Daren Bates.
The linebacker group is light, but that might not be the case all season. The starting trio collectively complement each other well. Laurinaitis, how, has been hampered by a foot injury throughout the summer, so there could be some rust early. Dunbar also had an injury for the final couple weeks of the preseason, but he is tough against the run. Ogletree, in his second season, will keep getting closer and closer to having a breakout year. He played well as a rookie, and will be even better as he becomes totally comfortable in Gregg Williams' defense. Armstrong and Bates are special-teams leaders, but still need a lot more experience to contribute on defense.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Janoris Jenkins, CB Brandon McGee, SS T.J. McDonald, FS Rodney McLeod. Backups -- CB Trumaine Johnson, CB Lamarcus Joyner, CB E.J. Gaines, CB Marcus Roberson, S Cody Davis, S Maurice Alexander.
Will it be McGee in Johnson's spot? Will it be Gaines? How about Joyner? There could be a lot of different combinations as Johnson begins the season sidelined by a knee injury. Joyner will likely be in the slot in the nickel, although McGee can also play that role. Gaines, a sixth-round pick, is feisty and has a knack for making plays, as does Joyner. Many will contribute, and perhaps even Roberson who made the roster as an undrafted free agent. Of course, Jenkins remains one starter, and he seeks to improve from an up-and-down second season in 2013. McDonald and McLeod are solid at the safety spots, and coaches expect them to continue getting better with more experience. Alexander has a good upside, and Davis also has potential. Most notably, the 10 defensive backs listed include four rookies, three second-year players and three third-year guys, making Jenkins, Johnson and McLeod the "senior citizens."
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Greg Zuerlein, P Johnny Hekker, LS Jake McQuaide, PR Tavon Austin, KOR Benny Cunningham.
The kicking game is as good as any in the league. Hekker set a league record in net punting last season and the Rams allowed a total of 79 punt-return yards, also best in the NFL. Zuerlein was somewhat shaky in the preseason, so we'll see just how consistent he will be. Coverage units are young and aggressive. Austin has the ability to break any punt return, while Cunningham should be OK on kickoffs, but isn't much of a threat for explosive returns.