Our offseason Four Downs series continues with a division-by-division look at each team's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. In the NFC North, quality wide receivers and defensive backs are in short supply.
26 May 2011
by Vince Verhei
The Cardinals stuck to their guns, insisting they weren't in love with any of the quarterbacks in the draft, and that they would not reach for a passer they didn't firmly believe in. They turned down Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and Christian Ponder, "settling" instead for LSU defensive back Patrick Peterson, the consensus best player in the draft.
For the long-term sake of the franchise, it was probably the best decision. In the short term, though, who will be throwing passes for the Cardinals? It sure won't be Derek Anderson -- he's scheduled to make almost $4.1 million in 2011, about 10 times the salaries of teammates Max Hall, John Skelton, and Richard Bartel. If the Cardinals played tomorrow, Skelton would probably be taking snaps.
Thankfully for their fans (and Larry Fitzgerald), the Cardinals don't play tomorrow. They've got plenty of time to acquire a veteran passer. It's believed that Kevin Kolb of the Philadelphia Eagles is their top choice. They could also try to steal Matt Hasselbeck, helping themselves while hurting the reigning division champion Seahawks. Kurt Warner has said that the team should go after Carson Palmer. Donovan McNabb was recently seen working out with Fitzgerald in Arizona. And the list goes on.
The Cardinals also have a hole in their offensive line. Although the retirement of Alan Faneca was expected, the Cardinals did not draft an offensive lineman. In fact, they haven't drafted a lineman since 2009, when they selected Herman Johnson and Trevor Canfield, neither of whom has ever played in a regular season game.
The Rams went into the draft needing a receiver, and they left the draft needing a receiver. Oh, they took a couple of mid-round prospects (Boise State's Austin Pettis in the third round and Hawaii's Greg Salas in the fourth), and both have productive resumes (Salas ranked fifth among draft prospects in FO's Playmaker Score metric for projecting college wide receivers, and Pettis was seventh). But expecting either of those players to shine in 2011 is just wishful thinking.
The Rams won't find much help in free agency. The top player available, Vincent Jackson, was franchised by the San Diego Chargers. After that, the Rams are left taking chances on guys like Braylon Edwards (28 years old, never had a Catch Rate higher than 54 percent), Terrell Owens (37, given up on by five teams and counting), or Randy Moss (34, given up on by three teams last year alone).
If un-signed four-year-pros are unrestricted free agents under a new CBA, a few more names will become available: Steve Smith (Giants version), Sidney Rice, and Santonio Holmes. That's a younger set of players, but each missed at least four games in 2010. They could also try to trade for the Carolina Panthers' Steve Smith, but he reportedly wants to play on the West Coast.
The Rams' best bet may to be to go with what they have. Donnie Avery (torn ACL) missed all of last season and Mark Clayton (torn patella tendon) played only five games. If those two players can return to health in 2011, the Rams will upgrade the position without making a move.
The 49ers drafted Colin Kaepernick in the second round and Alex Smith should return, so they seem set at quarterback. That leaves their biggest hole in the secondary, particularly at cornerback. San Francisco ranked 30th in FO's DVOA metric against No. 1 wideouts last season, 31st against No. 2s, and 22nd against all other wide receivers. Nate Clements is 31 years old and scheduled to make more than $42 million over the next four seasons. The 49ers may be able to afford his $7 million salary this year, but there's no way he'll see the end of his deal. At the other cornerback position, Shawntae Spencer is signed for two more years for a little more than $6 million.
At safety, Dashon Goldson will be a free agent. With four years' experience, it remains to be seen whether or not he'll be restricted. Strong safety Reggie Smith will be a four-year free agent in 2012, while Taylor Mays was benched midway through his rookie season. It's possible none of last year's starters will be on the team next year.
The 49ers spent a third-round pick on Chris Culliver, who played safety and cornerback at South Carolina, but they need more help. There are some decent secondary options in free agency. Like all teams, the 49ers would love Nnamdi Asomugha, and they'd be happy with Carlos Rogers. Chris Carr started 16 games for the Ravens last year, his sixth season. Ike Taylor is also available; he started 15 games for the league's best defense last year.
After the draft, Seattle general manager John Schneider reassured his team's fans that the Seahawks knew what they were doing at the quarterback position. "We had a plan going in and we still have our plan," he said. "We just can't execute that plan right now."
Does that plan involve Matt Hasselbeck? Nobody knows for sure. On one episode of NFL Live, Mike Sando reported that the Seahawks had "reached out" to Hasselbeck during the brief interruption of the lockout, only to have Adam Schefter come on a few minutes later and says Hasselbeck was not expected back.
If we believe Schneider has a quarterback plan, then the biggest hole on the Seahawks is depth along the defensive line. The starting front four of Red Bryant, Colin Cole, Brandon Mebane, and Chris Clemons is very good when healthy, but only Clemons managed to play more than 12 games in 2010. When the others went down, the Seahawks had nothing behind them and were quickly overwhelmed. Mebane is unsigned, although he may or may not be unrestricted in free agency.
Finding linemen to fit Seattle's scheme is tricky, as they usually use 4-3 personnel in something of a 3-4 alignment. The Seahawks drafted just one defensive lineman, a seventh-rounder named Lazarius Levingston who is doubtful to make an impact this season. In free agency, they could target 317-pound Aubrayo Franklin from division-rival San Francisco. They may also go after Cullen Jenkins, whose experience in Green Bay's multiple sets would serve him well in Seattle's defense. Ex-Bears tackle Tommie Harris is also an option.
A version of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.
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