San Francisco 49ers

More NFC West: Seattle still on top, Arizona rising, St. Louis a contender?

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett (16) celebrates with teammate Ricardo Lockette (83) after Lockett ran for a touchdown after catching a pass from quarterback Russell Wilson in the first half of a preseason NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, in Seattle.
Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett (16) celebrates with teammate Ricardo Lockette (83) after Lockett ran for a touchdown after catching a pass from quarterback Russell Wilson in the first half of a preseason NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, in Seattle. AP

STILL ON TOP

The Seattle Seahawks are clear favorites in the NFC West again, with quarterback Russell Wilson, running back Marshawn Lynch and new tight end Jimmy Graham on offense and a defense that’s still expected to be among the best.

The addition of Graham gives Wilson a target he never has had. Graham understands he likely won’t have as many balls thrown his way as he did in New Orleans, but the ones he catches from Wilson will be important.

How will Graham help Seattle’s wide receivers and even Lynch in the running game in trying to build on an offense that was good enough to win two straight conference titles?

“I know when the ball comes, there are going to be big moments,” Graham said. “And I know when the ball comes, I’m going to have to do something with that ball.”

Defensively, the Seahawks should be just as stout. But they have questions in the secondary with strong safety Kam Chancellor holding out and the addition of cornerback Cary Williams playing opposite Richard Sherman.

DESERT RISING

The Arizona Cardinals believe they have the talent to dethrone the Seahawks. They won 10 and 11 games in coach Bruce Arians’ first two seasons. They were 9-1 when injuries, especially at quarterback, helped lead to a 2-6 finish, including a wild-card playoff loss at Carolina.

The key to the Cardinals’ fortunes is the health of quarterback Carson Palmer, coming off surgery for a torn ACL. Palmer, 35, looked exceedingly sharp in training camp and has an array of targets, including veteran Larry Fitzgerald, second-year speedster John Brown and rookie J.J. Nelson.

James Bettcher replaces Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator, and cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Tyrann Mathieu are healthy, though there are questions at linebacker.

“For us to reach where we want to go, we can’t be potential,” Arians said. “We have to be damn good.”

ARCH MADNESS

Could this be the year St. Louis jumps into contention in the division?

Could it be the Rams’ last year in St. Louis?

Those questions will linger all season. On the field, the debate will be about the addition of quarterback Nick Foles and if he can improve an offense that has yet to catch up with the defense under coach Jeff Fisher. Foles will get most of the attention after coming from the Philadelphia Eagles. But there will be plenty of eyes on rookie running back Todd Gurley and – when he gets healthy – what he can bring to the offense.

Defensively, St. Louis’ front seven is among the best in the NFL, but the secondary remains the concern.

“I anticipate us contending for the West,” St. Louis general manager Les Snead said. “I’m planning on it, expecting it, and not scared.”

The Associated Press

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