By: Tony Meale

NFL Free Agency has begun ( check out our Free Agency Tracker here ) and we’re taking a look at which players each team and division needs to pick up to improve in the 2012 season.

NFC West

San Francisco (13-3)

The day that Peyton Manning was released by the Colts, the 49ers announced that they have no interest in the soon-to-be, 36-year-old. This means one of two things: the 49ers are either lying, or crazy.

How could San Francisco not have an interest in Manning? The 49ers have perhaps the best defense in football, without question the best rushing offense in football, a top-five tight end in Vernon Davis, and a receiving corps that would go from mediocre to above average with the addition of Reggie Wayne – or Vincent Jackson, whose 6-5 frame would be perfect for this offense.

Kudos to Alex Smith for having by far the best season of his career last year. But even though it was his best year, he still only averaged one passing touchdown per game. He also failed to surpass the 300-yard mark even once last season, including in the playoffs. In fact, he finished with 201 passing yards or fewer in 12 of 18 games.

If any team in the NFC is a quarterback away from being a Super Bowl favorite – not just contending for the Super Bowl, but being a favorite – it’s the 49ers. They should be doing whatever they can to get Manning. And with that defense and rushing attack, Manning’s health becomes less of an issue, mainly because San Fran wouldn’t need Peyton to throw 40-50 times a game.

In this league, you need an elite quarterback to win a championship. Alex Smith is serviceable – good, even – but he’s not elite. The Niners either aren’t aware of this fact, or they aren’t willing to admit it.

Arizona (8-8)

The Cardinals had perhaps the most frustrating season of any team in the league last year. Yes, they went 4-0 in overtime – which was probably a tad fortunate – but they also lost four games by four points or fewer. Maybe the luck evened out in the end, but if one thing is clear, it’s this: Arizona should not feel comfortable throwing a lot of money at Kevin Kolb. And, as we all know, John Skelton is not a viable long-term solution.

While I think the best fit for Peyton Manning is San Francisco or Houston, Arizona makes the most sense of all the teams considered among the finalists in the Manning sweepstakes. Arizona needs serious help on defense, but if Manning winds up a Cardinal, Stanford offensive guard David DeCastro would be a borderline steal at No. 13 overall. DeCastro’s college teammate – offensive tackle Jonathan Martin – would also make sense, as would drafting another playmaker to line up opposite of Larry Fitzgerald.

Of course, if Arizona gets Manning, Reggie Wayne may be quick to follow suit.

Seattle (7-9)

The Seahawks had the ninth-ranked defense in all of football last year, but that won’t stop them from giving Melvin Ingram – a stout run-stuffer out of South Carolina – serious first-round consideration.

Seattle’s biggest need, of course, is quarterback. In six years, Tarvaris Jackson has 43 touchdowns (38 pass, five rush) and 50 turnovers (35 interceptions, 15 fumbles). He’s simply not a quarterback who can lead a team to the playoffs – not even in arguably the worst division in football.

The Seahawks are among a handful of teams thought to have a legit shot at Peyton, but I don’t see Manning going to Seattle for one main reason: he would have no one to throw to. Doug Baldwin led Seattle with 51 catches for 788 yards and four touchdowns last year. No other pass-catcher reached even 40 catches or 500 yards.

The Seahawks can toss their Manning hat in the ring, but they have a more realistic shot of wooing someone like Matt Flynn. Peyton just isn’t in the cards.

St. Louis (2-14)

Some say the Rams should draft Robert Griffin III. Why? Griffin is impressive, no doubt, but Sam Bradford is no slouch, either. His sophomore slump can be attributed to two factors: one, he couldn’t stay healthy, and two, he had no one to throw to. The Rams had just one receiver – Brandon Lloyd – finish with more than 50 receptions and 500 receiving yards.

That’s pretty terrible.

A lot of teams will be for desperate for Peyton Manning, and all but one of those teams aren’t going to get him, thereby increasing the demand for Griffin. The Rams should trade down and draft Justin Blackmon, who had 120+ catches, 1,500+ yards and 18 touchdowns last year at Oklahoma State. And even if the Rams draft Blackmon, they should still go after Vincent Jackson, who has 1,000+ yards in three of the last four years.
St. Louis should then invest in the trenches, ensuring that Bradford remains upright and that the Rams improve a run defense that ranked 31st in the league last season.

Bottom line: get Bradford some weapons, and the rest will fall into place.

Tony Meale is a freelance writer for, and, among others. His fantasy football work has led to guest appearances on several radio outlets, including ESPN Radio and Sirius Radio. He has a Master’s in Journalism from Ohio University and has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists for outstanding work. A Cincinnati native, he is currently writing a book on one of the great sports stories never told. Follow Tony Meale on Twitter @tonymeale

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