SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (14-4)
New faces: WR Randy Moss, WR Mario Manningham, RB Brandon Jacobs, CB Perrish Cox, RB Rock Cartwright, QB Josh Johnson, RB LaMichael James, WR A.J. Jenkins (first-round pick).
Key losses: OL Chilo Rachal, CB Shawntae Spencer, LB Blake Costanzo.
Strengths: Depth and familiar faces. GM Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh brought back entire starting 11 from defense that was tops at stopping run and became first team in NFL history not to give up rushing TD through first 14 games. Also went 36 straight without allowing 100-yard runner. Have capable backups on defense, and there’s plenty of RBs to spell three-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore at times. TEs Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are quite the 1-2 tandem. Also, cornerback spot has play-making ability among starters and reserves. Carlos Rogers re-signed and he shared team lead with six interceptions along with franchise safety Dashon Goldson.
Weaknesses: Receiving corps was priority after Niners wideouts managed one catch for 3 yards in 20-17 OT loss to Giants in NFC title game. That’s big reason they took low-risk chance on Moss after he spent year out of football, and added two pieces from New York’s title team in Manningham and Jacobs.
Expectations: Ended franchise-worst eight-year stretch without playoff berth or winning record — and now they want to take success to Super Bowl. While even Harbaugh has acknowledged 49ers might not match last season’s win total facing tougher schedule, he knows players are much further along running his system than a year ago. Harbaugh insists team never “flirted” with Peyton Manning (now in Denver) and that Alex Smith has been his No. 1 guy all along.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (7-9)
New faces: QB Russell Wilson, QB Matt Flynn, TE Kellen Winslow Jr., WR Braylon Edwards, DT Jason Jones, DE Bruce Irvin (first-round pick), LB Bobby Wagner.
Key losses: LB David Hawthorne, TE John Carlson, RB Justin Forsett, OL Robert Gallery, DE Raheem Brock.
Strengths: Seattle may have best secondary in NFL led by safety Earl Thomas. They are backbone of stout defense where every move coach Pete Carroll has made since taking over has worked. Offensive line now has a year working with Tom Cable and hopes to build off second-half success of a year ago when Marshawn Lynch was most productive RB in NFL. If Lynch can keep churning out yards, it should open up passing game for receivers Sidney Rice, Kellen Winslow and Edwards.
Weaknesses: More risk than weakness with choice of rookie Russell Wilson as starting quarterback. First goal is run and not ask QB to win games, but can Wilson transfer what he’s done in preseason to games that count? One knock on Seattle’s talented defense is lack of a pass rush. That’s why they drafted Irvin and signed Jason Jones, but there’s been little in preseason to show rush is improved. There’s also significant concerns whether Rice and Winslow can stay healthy considering their track record of injuries.
Expectations: Carroll is 14-18 in two regular seasons in Seattle — albeit with division title and playoff victory in Year 1. It’s rare for coaches to survive three consecutive sub-.500 seasons, so even with difficult schedule that features four East Coast road trips, anything less than winning record and contending for playoff spot will be disappointment.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (8-8)
New faces: CB William Gay, OG Adam Snyder, WR Michael Floyd (first-round pick), OT Bobby Massie.
Key losses: CB Rashad Johnson, OT Levi Brown.
Strengths: For first time in years, defense considered strength. All but one starter back from unit that was main reason team rebounded from 1-6 start to win seven of nine and finish 8-8 — second in division. Much will depend on improvement of CB Patrick Peterson. Peterson is a spectacular punt returner. He was first player in NFL with four punt returns of 80 yards or more for TDs. On offense, everything revolves around WR Larry Fitzgerald, but that involves getting him the ball, and shaky QB situation makes that problematic. The ground game, though, looks strong with 1-2 punch of RBs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams.
Weaknesses: QB battle between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton going down to wire shows how unsettled position is. Team has accumulated talented group of receivers alongside Fitzgerald, but someone has to get them the ball. Other potential weakness is offensive line. It wasn’t that great to begin with, then LT Levi Brown went down with season-ending triceps injury. Run blocking adequate, but preseason pass protection was scary.
Expectations: Hoping defense is as good as advertised, and that Wells and especially Williams, who missed all of rookie season with knee injury, can move ball one ground while QB situation somehow settles behind a porous offensive line. If not, 8-8 might be overachievement.
ST. LOUIS RAMS (2-14)
New faces: Coach Jeff Fisher, CB Cortland Finnegan, C Scott Wells, DE Kendall Langford, WR Steve Smith, DE Trevor Laws, LB Mario Haggan, LB Rocky McIntosh, OT Barry Richardson, FB Ovie Mughelli, DT Michael Brockers (first-round pick).
Key losses: CB Ron Bartell, WR Brandon Lloyd, DE James Hall, K Josh Brown, P Donnie Jones, C Jason Brown.
Strengths: Youth. Rams boast one of NFL’s younger rosters, giving them measure of patience during rebuilding process. Rookies will start at CB, DT, K and P and are top backups at WR and RB. Fisher also inherits handful of stalwarts in QB Sam Bradford, RB Steven Jackson, MLB James Laurinaitis and DE Chris Long along with the free agent pickups to help bring kids along. There’s developing talent on an offense that trailed NFL with 12-point average last season.
Weaknesses: A ton of roster turnover, with six new starters on offense, seven on defense plus both specialists, so expect growing pains. There were 50 players 24 or younger on roster before initial round of cuts. Offensive line unsettled with T Jason Smith, the No. 2 pick of 2009 draft but dogged by concussions, running behind low-budget free agent pickup Barry Richardson all preseason. There’s also competition at left guard. Even with WR Danny Amendola back from injury, and with Steve Smith apparently ready for major role, Rams lack No. 1 pass catcher and counting on rookies Brian Quick, Chris Givens getting up to speed quickly. Pass rush from Long, Robert Quinn will be essential with CB Janoris Jenkins learning on the go.
Expectations: Fisher prepared to live with youthful mistakes as he launches rebuilding effort that probably won’t pay off for a few years, especially given daunting schedule. Doubling victory total an acceptable goal for new regime not taking many shortcuts.