The NFC West had been the weakest division in football over the couple seasons prior to 2011. The Seattle Seahawks won the division in 2010 with just nine wins. In 2009, it was a ten win Arizona Cardinals team that won with the Rams finishing with a single win. In fact, you have to go back to the 2005 season to find a team that won the NFC West with more than ten wins.
This usually leaves them looking for castoffs from other teams that have had more success. Well, 2011 was a different story. San Francisco won 13 games and made a trip to the NFC Championship Game, Arizona finished the season with eight victories, winning seven of their last nine games and Seattle had seven wins.
You are going to see ample interest in players that are released from these teams this off-season. Each of the four NFC West teams do find themselves in a decent salary cap position, so you will not see any purges based solely on finances. It will mostly be due to out of whack contracts and under performing players.
San Francisco 49ers
CB- Shawntae Spencer: $4.2 million cap hit
Just one sign of how the 49ers improved during the 2011 season is the fact that Spencer was active for a total of nine games after starting all 32 games the previous season as the their default No. 1 corner. It is pretty clear that Spencer doesn't have a future in San Francisco. This doesn't mean his career is over. This is a player that played extremely well for the 49ers in 2009 and 2010. You can expect teams to vie for his services as a nickel corner.
LB- Parys Haralson: $4.0 million cap hit
San Francisco sits at about $30 million under the cap before these "purges." So, they are not going to have to make pure financial decision based on the cap. This is what the front office has been building towards. With that said, they are going to look at retaining and acquiring the best talent. Haralson was okay rotational player for a marginal football team, but he wont cut it for a team looking to vie for a Super Bowl. He had just two sacks in 2011 and isn't good in coverage. That $4 million cap figure can be best utilized elsewhere, so expect him to get the axe.
OT- Levi Brown: $18.0 million cap hit
A major bust, Arizona has been hoping for the best from Brown over the last couple seasons. It has now become apparent that he is never going to cut it as a top of the line offensive tackle. Arizona pass protection was pretty much the death of them in 2011 as their quarterbacks were sacked a total of 54 times. Additionally, Brown is set to count a whopping $18 million against the cap. He is as good as gone.
TE- Todd Heap: $3.4 million cap hit
The former Baltimore Raven' was brought in for Kevin Kolb as a safety valve between the hashes. One of the most underrated fantasy tight ends over the last decade, Heap wasn't able to get it done in 2011 due to age and injuries. He played in a total of just nine games starting four and acquiring a grand total of 24 receptions. Expect the Cardinals to go with Rob Housler, who I like a lot, and draft another tight end in April.
LB- Stewart Bradley:$6.0 million cap hit
Bradley just hasn't been the same player since sustaining a complete tear of the ACL prior to the start of the 2009 season. This also makes you wonder why Arizona gave him a $30 million contract over five seasons when Philadelphia wasn't making a play for him. After recording 108 tackles in a breakout 2008 campaign, Bradley has recorded just 82 tackles in 28 games since coming back from the injury. You have to wonder if his career is over, but its clear Arizona will not be looking at retaining his services.
LB- Joey Porter: $7.3 million cap hit
Porter was a healthy inactive for ten games this season as it became apparent he was no longer able to contribute in a meaningful way. The former Pro Bowl linebacker might have actually played his last game in the NFL. Either way, the Cardinals are definitely not picking up that $7.3 million cap figure for 2012.
S- Kerry Rhodes: $5.0 million cap hit
Rhodes missed nine games during the middle of the season and didn't seem his normal self after returning. Arizona also has an up-and-coming player in Rashad Johnson, which makes Rhodes expendable. He will latch on to another team because the talent is there and he is still only 29.
RB- Leon Washington: $3.4 million cap hit
This is more about the fact that the new kickoff rule has made special team players less valuable. Washington was second on Seattle in rushing and had over 1,500 combined return yards. With that said, they face the onus of having to pay Marshawn Lynch top five running back money and will be looking at a true complementary back in the NFL Draft. Washington has become less important to Seattle due to the myriad of young athletes they have that can return kicks. It is less about how good of a special teams player he is.
CB- Marcus Trufant: $5.6 million cap hit
Trufant is as good as gone from the pacific northwest. He has been injury plagued over the course of the last couple seasons and seems to have lost a couple steps. With the improved play of both Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, there really doesn't seem to be much room on the roster for Trufant. Look for him to get play on the open market by a contending team hoping to fill a void in the slot.
St. Louis Rams
OT- Jason Smith: $10.0 million cap hit
One of the biggest busts in the NFL over the course of the last decade, Jason Smith is going to be released by the Rams unless he agrees to restructure that massive contract. Sam Bradford needs a reliable offensive tackle to protect his blindside, it is obvious that Smith will never be that guy. This is going to be a bitter pill to swallow for the Rams considering they spent the second overall pick on him just three years ago.
G- Jason Brown: $5.0 million cap hit
Another huge disappointment along the Rams offensive line, Jason Brown was signed from Baltimore three seasons ago, but has yet to play like they thought he would. Brown continues to struggle in pass protection and is a marginal run blocker. If the Rams hope to contend with the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West they are going to have to replace these marginal players. Consider him as good as gone.