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The Rise of the NFC West - The Toughest Division in the NFL?

For the better part of the last decade, the NFC West has been one of the weakest divisions in the NFL. In 2011, the San Francisco 49ers - sporting a stifling defense - sprang out of nowhere to challenge the NFL's best. Even though the rest of the division struggled in the win column, Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis showed signs of renewed life. No longer an afterthought on the schedules of NFL teams, this division is ready to make a case for its being one of the best.

Christian Petersen

Current struggles not withstanding, every team in the NFC West can rightfully claim having top tier defenses. Two of the Top 5 defenses in the NFL are from the NFC West (San Francisco - #2 and Seattle - #5), while Arizona (ranked 7th) and St. Louis (ranked 13th) also make the case for the division's change from also-ran to respected.

The NFC West is crowded with defensive stars - with both established players and on the rise rookies. If we take away individual team loyalties, think about what an NFC West All-Star team would look like. This division arguably boosts the best defensive ends & tackles, linebackers, corner backs and safeties in the entire NFL.

The division's offenses are struggling to find final pieces to the puzzles, but teams like St. Louis and Arizona are quite literally two or three players away from finding the sweet spot on the offensive side of the ball. Seattle and San Francisco have two promising young quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. St. Louis' Sam Bradford is peering over the successful quarterback wall after having three offensive coordinators in his first 3 years. While Arizona's offense has made their fans groan, even the most negative experts around can see they're only a couple of offensive linemen and a quarterback away from being extremely good. They arguably have one of the finest wide receiver corps in the NFL, and a group of running backs who - when healthy - are more than capable.

The division features some promising coaching staffs too. The 49ers' Jim Harbaugh may not have a bathroom built for a king like he did at Stanford, but he's taken a troubled Mike Singletary team to being a Super Bowl contender in his first two years. Seattle's Pete Carroll has established himself and the Seahawk's team as one of the toughest in the NFL. He's slowly building a team with position depth that's beyond impressive. Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt is the longest tenured NFC West coach, and while on the "hot seat", no one can deny he's built a quality team that bodes well for their future. Jeff Fisher returned to coaching in St. Louis, and he's shown the stark difference between himself and failed coordinators-turned-head coach in the Rams recent past. His team - the youngest in the NFL - has fans and pundits alike salivating for what comes next. With four first round draft picks in the next two NFL Drafts, his already competitive team is positioned to take the next step up.

Other NFL divisions learned earlier this year that the NFC West wasn't a cakewalk. All four NFC West teams at one point this season were considered strong enough to be "Power Ranked" in the top 14 NFL teams. They've had their ups and downs, but that's to be expected of teams growing from adolescence to a adulthood. What makes this division truly one to watch is the rising level of position depth on each team. Yes, all these teams have positions that could be improved upon, but that's the norm in the NFL. The intriguing part for me comes when I analyze each roster and see how they are all within - at most - three players of being a Top 4 NFL team. I have zero problem believing the NFC West could very well have teams in every NFC Championship - if not Super Bowls - during the next five years. I have no doubt at all the NFC West will be the toughest division in the NFL during that time too.