Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
06 Apr 2010
by Doug Farrar
Perhaps no team was as gutted in the offseason as the Cardinals. Between retirement, trades, and the vagaries of free agency, the 2008 NFC champs lost their starting quarterback (Kurt Warner), possession receiver (Anquan Boldin), star inside linebacker (Karlos Dansby), and free safety (Antrel Rolle). Still, with replacements on the way for most positions, the primary needs now reside on the interior of Bill Davis' gap-control defense.
The Cardinals ranked 10th in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards last season, but starting nose tackle Bryan Robinson and backup Gabe Watson proved to be inconsistent holding the point. Alan Branch hasn't been a factor. Darnell Dockett could be even more dynamic if Arizona could get a reliable big man to soak up blockers. That big man is the mainstay of any great 3-4 defense, and he's still crucial when the Cards bring a fourth man to the line and move Dockett from end to 3-technique. FO measures Stop Rate, the percentage of a player's tackles that stop the offense short of a successful play. Watson's Stop Rate was 75 percent, Robinson's 74 percent -- both decidedly average for defensive tackles. Robinson is an unrestricted free agent and will be 36 in June.
The Cards can use this deep draft of defensive tackles to find their next gap-plugger. Replacing Dansby will prove more problematic. Right now, they've got Reggie Walker and Ali Highsmith, two former undrafted free agents, as their stopgap solutions. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt, who used to serve as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator, tried to sign Larry Foote, but he chose to return to the Steelers after a year with the Lions. It's not a great draft for inside linebackers, especially three-down players, which is why the Miami Dolphins went so hard after Dansby in the first place, signing him to a five-year, $43-million contract.
Arizona's strategy was more about patching holes than improving, at least in the short term. They traded a fourth-round pick in 2010 and a seventh-round pick in 2011 for Jets safety Kerry Rhodes, who will replace Rolle. Rhodes was benched by Rex Ryan last season, and he's already taken parting shots at his former team. He may not be Rolle, but the Cards didn't have to sign him to a $37-million contract, as the Giants did with Rolle. To push Matt Leinart, they signed former Browns Pro Bowler Derek Anderson, who has more recently combined his big arm with woeful inconsistency. Anderson will cost the team $3.25 million guaranteed over two years, with incentives in place if he starts a bunch of games.
The acquisition of edge-rusher Joey Porter was questionable in that a three-year, $17.50-million deal for a 33-year-old pass rusher is an iffy proposition at best. Replacing Dansby is the major issue, but at least the Anderson deal took the Cards off the list of 25 possible destinations for Donovan McNabb (which seemed to change whenever the guys on NFL Network tired of talking about Brett Favre and Tim Tebow).
When a team wins a total of six games in three seasons, and the win total decreases every year, it's safe to say that personnel needs are going to pop up just about everywhere. Veteran quarterback Marc Bulger was set to make $8.5 million in base salary in 2010, and that's a lot of money for a guy who hasn't played all 16 games in a season since 2006. Now that Bulger has been released, and Sam Bradford impressed America with a private workout in which 62 of 63 passes were completed, conventional wisdom has the Oklahoma quarterback going to St. Louis with the first overall pick.
On the off-chance that the Ndamukong Suh/Gerald McCoy choice proves too tempting for head coach (and former Giants defensive coordinator) Steve Spagnuolo, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick (or a Vick type in the draft, like Appalachian State's Armanti Edwards) would be an interesting option. Tackle Jason Smith is still more comfortable in a two-point stance and blocks better out of the shotgun, and the Rams could use a backup who knows how to run an option offense with the quarterback and running back as its primary weapons.
The next question: Who will the Rams' 2010 quarterback throw to? In 2009, no Rams receiver ranked higher than 80th in our DYAR metric. That will happen when your wideouts are catching balls from Kyle Boller and Keith Null for half a season, but the problems transcend backup quarterbacks. Donnie Avery and Brandon Gibson each caught less than half of the passes thrown to them, and Danny Amendola impressed more as a return man than a receiver. It's amazing what Jackson has been able to do on the ground during the last few years with major offensive line transitions and few complementary playmakers, but it's time to get him (and the quarterback du jour) some help.
All along, GM Billy Devaney strenuously denied rumors of a trade that would have sent the 33rd overall pick in 2010 and safety Oshiomogho Atogwe to Philly for Donovan McNabb. Initial versions of that rumor had McNabb going to St. Louis in a hurry, which made little sense -- why would the Rams do anything until they saw Bradford throw? Overall, the team hasn't made too much of a splash in free agency -- between changing owners and the specter of paying Bradford or someone else $30 million to $40 million guaranteed for the first overall pick, the franchise has other things to think about.
In a case of addition by subtraction, guard Richie Incognito left for Miami, taking his sometimes addle-minded and penalty-prone play with him. Veteran Hank Fraley was added to the line as a depth replacement. Likewise, quarterback A.J. Feeley and defensive tackle Fred Robbins are rotation/depth guys at best.
It's been a dramatic offseason in San Francisco, with longtime general manager Scot McCloughan reaching a "mutual agreement" to leave the team on March 18. With two first-round picks and less than a month before the draft, the 49ers will turn to director of player personnel Trent Baalke to run the draft board.
Targeting San Francisco's primary personnel need is far less complicated than the recent front office issues. In 2009, the team finished dead last in the NFL in Adjusted Line Yards, Stuffed ranking, and 2nd Level Yards. Barry Sims, who re-signed with the team as a backup, started seven games at left tackle last year after Joe Staley suffered a knee injury. With a long line of good-but-not-great tackles in this draft class, expect the 49ers to spend one of those early picks at that position.
Another graphic deficiency is in the return game. Last season, San Francisco's punt returns were worth an estimated 17.5 points of field position worse than NFL average -- the worst figure by our measurements since the 2002 Green Bay Packers. Arnaz Battle managed an unbelievable 2.9 yards per return -- a grand total of 61 yards on 21 returns, and 10 fair catches. His longest return was 18 yards, which left him with a 2.15 YPR on the other 20.
Going into free agency, the 49ers made all the right noises about staying the course with the current roster, believing that they have what it takes to unseat the Cardinals as division champs. After trading backup quarterback Shaun Hill to the Lions for a seventh-round pick in 2011, the team signed David Carr to replace him. The biggest move the team made was to franchise tackle Aubrayo Franklin, proving the worth of true 3-4 nose tackles in the modern NFL. Battle signed a three-year, $3.9-million contract with the Steelers, which could put Pittsburgh's slapstick special teams on an entirely new comedic path.
Last year, Seattle's defense ranked 30th against the pass in Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings. You would expect more from a general manager who never hesitated to draft cornerbacks high, not to mention a head coach whose supposed specialty was the secondary. Then again, that pass defense is one very big reason for the departures of that GM (Tim Ruskell) and head coach (Jim Mora).
The problems went from top to bottom, starting with veteran cornerback Marcus Trufant. Even at his best, Trufant was never a true lockdown -- he was more of a quality zone corner. This season, Trufant was absolutely torched after coming off the Physically Unable to Perform list with a back injury. He led the league with seven pass interference penalties in only 10 games, and he was brutally embarrassed by Texans receiver Andre Johnson in a December loss. After signing him to a $50-million contract in 2008, the Seahawks can only hope that 2009 was an outlier season based on a lingering injury.
Veteran safety Deon Grant, who has reached the point in his career where he seems to be more interested in appearing at the end of tackles than actually making them, was released and signed with the Giants. Jordan Babineaux, Seattle's other starting safety in 2009, is more of a valuable corner/safety 'tweener than a pure playmaker at his position. Ruskell's predilection for smallish cornerbacks netted the Seahawks Josh Wilson, who has some potential, and Kelly Jennings, who appears to be destined for a future as a nickel corner. That would be fine had the Seahawks not drafted Jennings in the first round in 2006. The Seahawks have many offensive needs as well, but it's a scathing indictment of the Ruskell era that the biggest hole still exists after so much attention.
In perhaps the most curious move of the 2010 offseason, the Seahawks dropped 20 picks in the second round and sent a third-round pick in 2011 to San Diego for quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, whom they signed to a two-year, $8-million contract with $2 million more available in incentives. While this probably speaks to the uncertainty many teams share about the quarterback draft class after Bradford, it's still a strange transaction. Whitehurst has never thrown a pass in a regular-season NFL game, and there were questions about him coming out of college. Guard Rob Sims doesn't fit the profile for Alex Gibbs' blocking scheme, and thus was traded to the Lions for a fifth-round pick.
The other major Seahawks acquisition is the one they haven’t made yet. They are by far the team most interested in the services of Denver receiver Brandon Marshall, who currently has a first-round tender on his head. The likely scenario has Denver and Seattle playing chicken right up to draft day, and Denver lowering its price for a player it doesn’t seem to want anymore.
(Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com Insider.)
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