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15 Mar 2005

Four Downs: NFC West

by Mike Tanier

Missed the first offseason edition of Four Downs: NFC West? You'll find it here.

Arizona Cardinals

A Productive Start

With the signing of DE Chike Okeafor, the Cardinals may have the best defensive line in the division, while the acquisition of Oliver Ross nearly completes a badly-needed makeover of the offensive line. Even if the Cardinals hadn't signed Kurt Warner, their offseason would be off to an excellent start.

The Warner signing overshadows everything else; the Cardinals got a quarterback with a Super Bowl pedigree, a DPAR ranking a few notches above incumbent Josh McCown (22nd vs. 25th), and a passer who can be deadly when his protection is adequate but is useless when he's pressured.

Luckily for Warner, Denny Green is committed to upgrading the offensive line. Ross is a very good pass protector at right tackle; more importantly, he's a new face on a line that for years featured L.J. Shelton, Anthony Clement, and Leonard Davis. Shelton and Clement never developed into dominant players, and they had a tendency to loaf, as did Davis when he played guard. The Cardinals will start the 2005 season with Davis at left tackle, Ross at right, and youngsters Alex Stepanovich and Reggie Wells at two of the three interior positions. Shelton and Clement are as good as gone, though there has been no action on the rumored Shelton-for-Travis Henry trade front. All of the fresh faces will allow Green and his staff to implement their system without worrying about players who think they're on scholarship.

As for Okeafor, he and Bertrand Berry are the best pair of pass rushers the team has had since Simeon Rice and Andre Wadsworth. Neither player is an exceptional run defender, but the Cardinals won't get anywhere in the NFC West if they cannot pressure Mark Bulger and Matt Hasselbeck with their front four. Assuming that Darnell Dockett builds upon his success in the second half of last season and Russell Davis holds up as the run stopper, and this is an above average D-line. In the NFC West, "above average" could mean Arizona has the top D-line in the division.

Draft Report

We know what kind of player Green wants at running back. He's pursuing a trade for Henry: a short running back with a tough style, great open-field ability, and a rep for fumbling, and he's reportedly interested in drafting California's J.J. Arrington: a short running back with a tough style, great open-field ability, and a rep for fumbling.

Arrington rushed for 2,000 yards in 2004 and is a good receiver out of the backfield, but his height, fumbling, and reputed lack of speed initially had him projected into Day Two of the draft. A fine Combine, where he ran the 40 in 4.4 seconds and was measured at a hair under 5-foot-9, elevated his status. The Cardinals may jump on Arrington in the second round, assuming the Henry deal is dead (as it appears to be).

Look for the team to pursue a cornerback in the first round. Antrell Rolle of Miami may not last until the Cardinals No. 8 pick, but West Virginia's Adam "Pac-Man" Jones might still be on the board. Jones is a top cover corner and an excellent return man; he's similar in many ways to Atlanta's 2004 rookie, DeAngelo Hall. With Duane Starks gone (in a trade to New England), the Cardinals need a player who can play immediately: Rolle, Jones, or LSU's Corey Webster all fit the bill, though Webster would be a reach with the eighth pick.

Later selections depend on what the Cardinals do in free agency in the upcoming weeks (the team is still pursuing linebackers, and Baltimore free agent Ed Hartwell has expressed an interest in playing for them). The team needs a tight end, depth at defensive tackle, and more than one body in the secondary. Arizona acquired a third round pick for Starks; don't be surprised if a player like Shelton is traded at a bargain-basement rate (for example, to move up in a round).

Recent Draft History

Let's start with who's not here: Andre Wadsworth, #1 pick in 1998, gone after a major injury. David Boston, #1 pick in 1999: gone, his promising career buckling under personal issues. Thomas Jones, #1 pick in 2000: gone, embarking on a journeyman's career through the NFC. Wendell Bryant, #1 pick in 2002: gone, or at least he probably will be after three awful seasons.

You can also stock a pretty good defensive line out of the players the Cardinals let get away. Mario Fatefahi, a fifth-round pick in 2001, played well for the Broncos last year. Darwin Walker, a third-round pick in 2000, has been a starter for the Eagles for three seasons. Throw in Simeon Rice, a #1 pick in 1996 that the team couldn't re-sign in free agency, and you get three-fourths of a playoff quality defensive line. Meanwhile, the Cardinals were starting Peppi Zellner last year.

All of the first round disappointments (2003 first-rounder Calvin Pace will soon be added to the list) are the key to the Cardinals' failures in recent years. Year in, year out, they have an early draft pick, but they either take a bad player (Bryant), or they fail to develop the player they pick (Jones, Rice), or they get a bad break with a player who could be good (Wadsworth). Even if the Cardinals were great at finding mid-round steals, they wouldn't be able to compete if all they have to show from recent first rounds are some decent linemen (Davis and Shelton) and some guys who are still developing. And the Cardinals aren't great at finding mid-round steals.

The good news is that the last two drafts look very solid. The Cardinals got not just receivers Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson, but OT Reggie Wells in 2003. The defensive starters from 2004 -- Karlos Dansby, Darnell Dockett -- were real starters, not guys who were thrown into the lineup by default. Alex Stepanovich looks like an excellent prospect at center. In a good division, the Cardinals would be two drafts away from making noise. In the NFC West, one or two impact rookies could make a difference.

San Francisco 49ers

A Big Signing

Jonas Jennings is an above average left tackle who is adequate in all facets of the game. He has a rep for giving up too many sacks because he protected a quarterback with no feel for the rush (Drew Bledsoe) and played most of his career for coordinators like Kevin Gilbride, who didn't believe in extra protection on passing downs and left the tackles on an island.

Jennings has a rep for struggling against speed rushers. In fact, he generally blocks well against Jason Taylor. John Abraham gives him trouble, and Jennings has trouble reading the rush against the Patriots' multiple alignments. Top defenders like Abraham can take him wide, then work back into his inside shoulder. But there aren't a lot of elite defensive ends to deal with in Jennings' new division, so he should keep his quarterback alive.

With Jennings starting at left tackle, the pressure is off Kwame Harris, who did not fair well in seven starts last year. Harris will move to right tackle, where Scott Gragg is at the end of his career. The Jennings signing adds size and experience to an offensive line that was too small and too young last year. San Francisco seems cool on re-signing young guards Kyle Kosier and Eric Heitmann, so expect the team to be active throughout the offseason in remodeling the offensive line.

Draft Report

Aaron Rodgers will be the Niners' new quarterback. There are rumors that the team is higher on Utah's Alex Smith, but they smell like a pre-draft smokescreen. Rodgers will be the man.

Incumbent starter Tim Rattay, meanwhile, will be trade bait, though it's not clear what the Niners hope to get for him now that every passer from Kurt Warner to Mike McMahon has found a new home. The Niners spoke to the Seahawks about Trent Dilfer before he was traded to Cleveland. The goal, of course, is to find a mentor for Rodgers, one who can start a few games while the rookie develops.

What the Niners do in later rounds is anyone's guess. The team needs everything. Despite the loss of WR Cedric Wilson, wide receiver is the lowest priority: there are several young players on the roster, and the team has had preliminary talks with David Boston's agent. With the 33rd pick in the draft, the Niners will select the best available athlete: possibly a defensive lineman like Wisconsin's Antaaj Hawthorne (a stud prospect whose stock is falling), possibly a running back or cornerback who slips out of the first round.

Recent Draft History

The Niners went 4-12 in 1999, their worst season (at the time) in two decades, and then-GM Bill Walsh took drastic steps to solve the team's salary cap problems, cutting loose expensive veterans like Ken Norton and Irv Smith while trading down in the 2000 draft to get extra picks. The resulting draft, a collaboration between Walsh, Steve Mariucci, and (possibly) Terry Donahue, was excellent: Julian Peterson, Ahmed Plummer, Jason Webster, John Engelberger, Jeff Ulbrich, Tim Rattay. All of these players would become starters.

As Walsh's influence waned, the drafts became less productive. In 2001, with Walsh still part of the loop, the team selected players like Andre Carter, Jamie Winborn, and Kevan Barlow. By 2002, Donahue and Mooch were starting to squabble, and the Niners were drafting the likes of Mike Rumph, Saleem Rasheed, and bust kicker Jeff Chandler. The jury is out on more recent drafts, but players like Brandon Lloyd and Rashaun Woods have so far brought more headaches than highlights.

The drafts of the past few years have been defense-intensive, which is why the Niners find themselves with no real starter at quarterback, an enigma at running back, and lots of inexperienced receivers. Attempts to patch the offense with players like Rattay, Barlow, Ken Dorsey and Cedric Wilson, all mid-to-late round picks, contributed to the 2004 disaster.

No one in the revamped front office had any significant input in the San Francisco drafts prior to 2004, so the 49ers are starting with a relatively clean slate. Scot McCloughan, Paraag Marathe, and Terry Tumey will be under scrutiny to draft a whole new core for the team. It's not something they can expect to do in one year.

Seattle Seahawks

Free Agent Update

For a team that experienced major upheaval in the front office a month ago, the Seahawks did a fine job of taking care of their in-house free agents. Matt Hasselbeck, Walter Jones, and Itula Mili were all signed. Shaun Alexander was franchised; more on him in a moment. The team lost starters like Chike Okeafor and Ken Lucas on defense while waving Anthony Simmons, but Okeafor is the only player who will be difficult to replace.

The Seahawks have taken care of much of their housecleaning, but they haven't attracted many free agents from outside the organization. Former Browns LB Kevin Bentley signed with the team and is expected to start on the strong side, allowing coordinator Ray Rhodes to use Chad Brown as a situational pass rusher. But while Bentley is a solid addition, Seattle has been used as a whistle stop for other free agents: Derrick Burgess, Kelly Herndon, Jeff Garcia and Anthony Thomas all visited Seattle but left with no offers (Burgess and Garcia quickly signed elsewhere). The Seahawks were originally the top suitors for Patrick Surtain, but Surtain now appears to be headed for Jacksonville. Rod Gardner's name has come up as a potential replacement for Koren Robinson; the Redskins reportedly want a mid-round pick for Gardner, but the Seahawks are yet to make an offer.

As for Alexander, he and Edgerrin James are caught in a supply-and-demand bind. Right now, there are more potential franchise running backs than there are franchises, thanks to the emergence of players like Lamont Jordan and the impending arrival of Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, and others. Agents for Alexander and James both announced last week that their clients were available on very easy terms, a sure sign that interest is cool. If Alexander is dealt, it may be on draft day: once Brown, Benson, and Cadillac Williams are off the board, a team with a need at running back may package picks for Alexander.

Draft Report

Having failed to sign Burgess, the Seahawks must replace Okeafor in the draft. Players like Matt Roth or Marcus Spears would fit best: Roth is a high-motor type, while Spears is a DT-DE who would solidify the run defense. David Pollack of Georgia could also be on the board when the Seahawks pick. If they wait until the second round, the Seahawks will have to take a developmental player like Troy State's Demarcus Ware. They cannot afford to wait on a prospect or settle for a one-dimensional pass rusher; even a hard-nosed player like Pollack may be too much of a liability in run defense.

In later rounds, the Seahawks will pursue a cornerback (assuming they are out of the Surtain running), a wide receiver, and possibly a running back. The team is in the market for a fullback and tried to sign Fred McCrary, who re-signed with Atlanta instead; they may spend a Day Two pick on a player like Combine star Keith Joseph of Texas A&M, who can run, block, and catch. The Seahawks got very little out of their return game last year, so don't be surprised if they place high value on a player like Darren Sproles, who can serve as both a kick returner and change-up running back.

Recent Draft History

When Mike Holmgren arrived in Seattle in 1999, he immediately tried to prove his genius rep by drafting players like Lamar King, Brock Huard, and Karsten Bailey. Holmgren stumbled into a good defensive end in Antonio Cochran, but the draft was a bust, and suspicions that Ron Wolf was the mastermind behind the great Packers drafts of the 1990s were confirmed.

In subsequent years, Holmgren became a better drafter. Dual first round picks in 2000 and 2001 helped, as Holmgren stocked much of the current Seahawks offense in those seasons: Shaun Alexander, Koren Robinson and Darrell Jackson, guard Steve Hutchinson. Unfortunately, as Holmgren's draft-day acumen improved, his power within the organization slipped. Recent drafts reflect the unrest in the Seahawks front office, as Holmgren, team VP Ted Thompson, and GM Bob Ferguson engaged in turf wars over the makeup of the roster.

The 2002 draft yielded nothing but question marks: Jerramy Stevens and Maurice Morris, departed Anton Palepoi and overmatched Terreal Bierria. The 2003 haul looks better -- starters Marcus Trufant and Ken Hamlin, kicker Josh Brown, some good role players -- but the Seahawks haven't drafted a true impact player since Hutchinson (though Trufant still has potential).

The Seahawks drafts of recent years look better than they really are because the team has doggedly stuck with the players it has drafted, particularly on defense. Players like Bierra and Orlando Huff earn starting jobs, but they aren't particularly effective in them. The Seahawks have drafted well enough on defense to tread water, but that's all.

St. Louis Rams

Draft Report

The Rams are getting bigger on defense. Undersized LB Pisa Tinoisamoa may move to safety. DT Damione Lewis is moving to defensive end. New linebacker Chris Claiborne, a 260-pounder, will replace 235-pound Robert Thomas in the middle.

The goal is to improve a run defense that allowed 2,188 rushing yards and 4.6 yards per carry last year. GM Charley Armey expressed this philosophy before the Combine: "I like the idea of having a bigger, stronger football team and being able to stop up the run a little bit," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Of course, the Rams pass defense was lousy last year, too, though the raw stats don't look as bad. The Rams ranked 28th in the NFL in DVOA in both pass defense and run defense, but teams were content to run the ball when they were blowing the Rams out, so the passing stats look better to the naked eye.

The signing of LB Dexter Coakley to start on the weak side will improve the pass coverage: he can cover running backs much better than Tommy Polley could, and the Rams had real trouble with receivers out of the backfield. But Coakley will soon turn 33, and the linebacking corps was only partially to blame for the team's woes. The team needs to address both the secondary and the defensive line if it hopes to improve the pass defense.

Armey said that he was impressed with the depth in the draft pool at both cornerback and offensive tackle. Tackle is an obvious need, and there's a chance that Oklahoma's Jammal Brown will be on the board when the Rams pick. He'd be a tremendous fit: he's a natural right tackle and a polished pass protector. The depth in the cornerback pool could allow the Rams to select a player like Michigan's Marlin Jackson or Nebraska's Fabian Washington in the second round.

The Rams have an extra third round pick as a result of the Lamar Gordon trade, and they should get some compensatory picks for lost free agents like Grant Wistrom. Armey needs to make a commitment to the special teams. The team signed gunner Michael Stone and is looking at nickel defender Michael Hawthorne, both of whom could help the coverage units. But the Rams will spend at least one Day Two pick on a player who can step in and shine in the kicking game.

Recent Draft History

The 2001 draft may have been a turning point for this organization. Coming off a season in which the Rams finished first in the league in points and worst in points allowed, the Rams spent three #1 picks on defensive players: safety Adam Archuleta, and linemen Ryan Pickett and Damione Lewis. The team spent their second and third round picks on Tommy Polley and Brian Allen.

The Rams would reach the Super Bowl in 2001, but they would come to be disappointed by their 2001 haul. Archuleta is a Pro Bowler. Pickett played well in 2002 but started to have ankle problems. Lewis battled injuries for much of his career, though he had five sacks last season. Polley has been in and out of the lineup because of inconsistent play and may be released. Allen is in Carolina.

That 2001 draft set the tone for later efforts. In 2002 and 2003, the Rams spent their first two picks on defensive players. The results: an adequate starter (Tinoisamoa), some mediocre starters (Travis Fisher and Robert Thomas), and a potential bust in DT Jimmy Kennedy. The Rams were 18th in the league in Line Yards in 2003, 25th in 2004, despite a healthy investment in the defensive front. In fact, three years of defense-heavy drafts have left the Rams with a unit filled with high picks who aren't very good, players that the team is reluctant to replace or bench because of their draft pedigree.

While drafting for defense, the organization has ignored the offensive line, an odd decision for a pass-oriented team. As reported in the last NFC West Four Downs, the team hasn't drafted an offensive lineman on Day One since John St. Clair in 2000, and he was a bust. The Rams were forced to start players like Chris Dishman in 2004; they have to address the line this year.

Just Business

Mike Martz quotes don't sound like other coach's quotes. Most coaches speak in broad generalities when talking about player relations, contracts, and the like. Martz lets it all hang out.

At the start of the Combine, the St. Louis Dispatch reported that the Rams and Giants had some preliminary talks about Orlando Pace. Martz tried to squelch the rumor that Pace was on the trading block, but then vented his frustration -- at length -- about Pace's constant contract squabbling:

"We'd love to keep Orlando here. But I'm getting frustrated. This is the third year in a row that we don't have any contact with him. He doesn't return any calls. And he doesn't have an agent. So my frustration is increased. And at this point, I'm very impatient with the situation." Martz when on to say that Pace's late arrivals to camp and absence from minicamps have affected his play.

Meanwhile, the team made a three-year offer to safety Antuan Edwards, but Edwards decided to test the free agent market. Martz's remarks: "We feel like with what we've got out there for him, that he'd be motivated to get this thing done. I don't know what the reasons are. But I'm concerned that we can't get this thing done right away. I'm not sure how badly he wants to be a Ram. So I guess we move on."

The Pace situation has festered for years, but players like Edwards leave contracts on the table all the time while they test their market value. Considering the problems Martz has had with personnel relations lately -- see "Turley, Kyle" -- the Edwards comments come across as somewhere between petulant and inflammatory. Edwards may want more money, but he doesn't necessarily want to burn bridges in St. Louis. And if he does want to burn bridges, he may not want to do so publicly.

Sonny Corleone has some advice for Martz: this is business; you can't take things too personally.

Next week: NFC North by Michael David Smith

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 15 Mar 2005

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