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01 Jun 2012

Four Downs: NFC West

by Rivers McCown and Danny Tuccitto

Arizona Cardinals

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Left tackle

The Cardinals came into the offseason with the idea that they would get failed left tackle Levi Brown under contract at a cheaper rate, then move him to right tackle where his dreadful pass blocking wouldn't be quite as big of a liability. Arizona had a chance to draft Iowa's Riley Reiff at No. 11 overall, but instead went with Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd to help bolster a receiving corps that has been in need of a solid second option since Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston were both sent packing.

We're not necessarily saying that drafting Floyd was the wrong move -- if the Cardinals felt he was the best player on their board, then selecting him was the best they could do at the spot. But in the short term, this is a team that finished 27th in Adjusted Sack Rate last offseason. Arizona drafted multiple offensive linemen, but only seventh-rounder Nate Potter projects as a left tackle -- fourth-rounder Bobby Massie played right tackle at Ole Miss.

One would think that, especially given Kevin Kolb's shaky pocket awareness, Arizona would have pushed much harder for an option like Demetress Bell or the injury-prone (but effective) Marcus McNeill. Instead, Brown is back at left tackle despite the fact that he has consistently been one of the worst pass-protecting tackles in the NFL over the past few seasons. The cascade effects of that decision will leave the similarly weak Jeremy Bridges at right tackle and leave Kolb scrambling for his life again. It's likely that Kolb isn't going to be the franchise quarterback the Cardinals hoped he was when they acquired him -- but by declining to make even the slightest move towards masking his greatest weakness, the Cardinals have set themselves up for another sack-tastrophe.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

The University of Houston's Marcus McGraw was one of many talents from a 12-1 team that nearly busted the BCS to go undrafted, but he may be the one with the best chance to make an NFL impact. Inside linebacker has become a position that is often ignored in the draft with the increased emphasis on safety play, pass-rushing ability, and more teams moving to a 3-4 defense. The Cardinals have had problems inside next to Daryl Washington, where Stewart Bradley and Paris Lenon are nothing more than stopgaps at this point, and it's not hard to envision a scenario where the all-time Cougars leader in tackles cracks the roster and gets a shot inside. Also keep an eye on Sacramento State's Zack Nash, who could get a chance to shine if Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield don't show a little more aptitude rushing the passer this season.

St. Louis Rams

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Letting the cream rise

As a result of the Robert Griffin trade and some aggressive moves in free agency, the Rams have put themselves in a position where improved offensive line play, better receivers, and some growth from Robert Quinn could put them on the path to respectability. They signed former Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan, who allowed the fewest yards per pass of any starter by our game-charting statistics last year. They also reeled in former Packers center Scott Wells to help right the ship in the middle of their line after Jason Brown was surprisingly poor last year.

So while they've attacked their main holes aggressively, they now desperately need to see results. The Rams have four different receivers under contract that they've drafted in the first four rounds of the last two drafts, as well as Danario Alexander, Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, and free-agent rebound candidate Steve Smith. The re-shuffled offensive line will be given one more chance to prove that Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith can be an effective tackle combination. Finnegan and fellow free-agent signings Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Kendall Langford will join up with first-round pick Michael Brockers to help solidify a run defense that finished 29th in DVOA in 2011. They will have extra first-round picks from the Redskins in each of the next two drafts.

This is a team that spent the offseason patching its holes very efficiently. This season will be about seeing which of those patches are temporary and which of them are long-term solutions.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

The Rams brought in a staggering 23 UDFA's, and the one of most renown is probably LSU center T-Bob Hebert, who gets big bonus points for being named T-Bob. Houston pass rusher Sammy Brown could stick in a defensive end rotation, and Jake Long's brother Joe, who was Division II's lineman of the year, might make for a nice developmental tackle on a roster that doesn't have much behind its top two.

San Francisco 49ers

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Veteran Defensive Depth

When a 13-3 team returns 19 of 22 starters the following season, it's going to be tough to find holes on the roster. That's especially the case when the new starters are likely upgrades over their predecessors. Aldon Smith began last season as a situational pass rusher, but by season's end it was clear he should be starting over Parys Haralson at right outside linebacker. Regardless of whether Randy Moss or Mario Manningham start across from Michael Crabtree, both would be an improvement over the five-headed monster that did so last year. Even at right guard, where the 49ers will have a training camp battle to see whether Alex Boone or Daniel Kilgore join the starting lineup, the 49ers are confident that either one would be an upgrade over Adam Snyder and Chilo Rachal, who they allowed to walk in free agency.

The only real limitation of San Francisco's roster at the moment is a stunning lack of experience on their defensive bench, mostly at defensive line and in the secondary. We say "stunning" because, according to Football Outsiders' adjusted games lost (AGL) metric, the 49ers defense was the second-healthiest in the league last season, a feat even they know they won't repeat in 2012.

Along the line, the primary backups are Ricky Jean-Francois, Demarcus Dobbs and Ian Williams. Dobbs played mostly on special teams last season and Williams primarily did not play, so Jean-Francois's two career starts easily make him the most experienced of the three.

At cornerback, starters Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown have played a combined 165 games in their careers, but Chris Culliver -- highly regarded as he might be -- is still only a second-year nickel cornerback. After Culliver, the depth chart concludes with 24-year-old Tramaine Brock (14 games played in two years) and Perrish Cox, who will be nearly two years removed from his last NFL game by the time the 2012 season starts.

The depth issue is most glaring at safety, though. After choosing to not re-sign both backups (Reggie Smith and Madieu Williams), San Francisco is left with a career special teams player (C.J. Spillman) and a sixth-round rookie (Trenton Robinson) behind starters Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner.

So what will the 49ers do about this? The most likely answer is, "not much." Preferring to build through the draft and undrafted rookie free agency, the youth on their defensive bench is by design. Furthermore, much of the inexperience detailed here involves promising young defenders like Culliver, Dobbs, and Robinson, so the problem is more one of timing than talent. Namely, an increase in defensive injuries to starters could force these inexperienced reserves into meaningful action before they're ready, and that could derail San Francisco's title hopes.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

In 2011, only two of San Francisco's undrafted free agent signings (Dobbs and Williams) made it past final cuts -- and that was coming off a 6-10 season -- so it would be a real surprise if any of this year's group of 17 has much impact in 2012. That includes Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu, who tied for the fastest 40-yard time among wide receivers at the combine. Multiple concussions destroyed his draft stock, but being reunited with Jim Harbaugh means he'll get every chance to succeed, and having at least six wide receivers ahead of him on the depth chart means he can avoid big hits for a season or two while on the practice squad.

Seattle Seahawks

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Offensive Line Growth

The Seahawks, like the Rams, also worked hard on addressing their issues this offseason. Pass rush was a problem behind Chris Clemons, so Seattle brought in West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin with their first-round pick. The Tarvaris Jackson/Charlie Whitehurst combo held the Seahawks offense back in 2011, but general manager John Schneider brought in a pair of solutions to remedy that. Green Bay backup Matt Flynn will presumably keep the seat warm, and Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson, who had such an amazing Lewin Career Forecast projection that we had to mention him with an asterisk, will be groomed for the long-term role.

To make the jump to an elite offense though, the Seahawks will need some better blocking from their offensive line. They have a quartet of highly-drafted players slated to start in Russell Okung, Max Unger, James Carpenter, and John Moffitt. Despite that, they finished 24th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and 19th in Adjusted Line Yards. There were certainly high points on the line, but as a whole it was still a bit inconsistent. Carpenter, in particular, did not show enough in the eyes of our offensive line guru, Ben Muth. Additionally, they released Robert Gallery this offseason and the left guard spot is currently slated to be a competition between career backup Paul McQuistan, Bears castoff Frank Omiyale, and Cardinals washout Deuce Lutui.

The Seahawks have done much to make themselves a threat to San Francisco this offseason, but just how far they'll ultimately go this year probably depends solely on what they get out of their offensive line.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

Seattle inked just 10 UDFA's, and perhaps the most important of those is Cal (Pennsylvania) guard Rishaw Johnson, who was invited to the combine but fell out of the draft due to character concerns. Namely, the fact that he was kicked out of Ole Miss for multiple rules violations. He moves well for his size and could stick as a developmental guard or long-term backup.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 01 Jun 2012

33 comments, Last at 05 Jun 2012, 11:33pm by BigCheese

Comments

1
by Dean :: Fri, 06/01/2012 - 11:16am

Rams biggest need – Linebacker. Their LB corpse (pun intended) can be fairly described as Laurenitis and nothing else. Admittedly they had a ton of more important needs than outside linebacker, but this is almost Andy Reid esque. When Jo Lon Dunbar is your solution, well, that’s really bad.

2
by Rupps (not verified) :: Fri, 06/01/2012 - 11:43am

"The only move Arizona made to fortify the line all offseason was drafting Nate Potter in the seventh round."

Man, at least research a little. Thay also drafted 4th rounder Bobbie Massie is an OT, 5th rounder Kelemete as OG. A quick google search could have told you that. Granted, neither projects as a LT but almost half their draft was olinemen.

10
by Rivers McCown :: Fri, 06/01/2012 - 4:12pm

Error fixed, regretted.

21
by Cdub (not verified) :: Sun, 06/03/2012 - 4:04am

Wow, what horrible analysis... I expected better.... first you said the Cardinals only drafted 1 Olineman, that shows the kind of knowledge you have about the team. Second, you bring up how bad Levi has been, but mention nothing of the fact that over the last 8 games last season, he played great, borderline elite. Then you say keeping Levi means we have to keep bridges at RT? HUH? Didnt we just draft a RT who everybody is calling a steal, that had a 2nd round grade by most everybody? That had a great college career? But we have no options besides Bridges right?

And Sam Acho needs to show something in the pass rush department that he didnt show last year? Your kidding right? A 4th round rookie came in, gave us 7 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and played extremely well in coverage and against the run. He outplayed almost every rookie OLB in the league minus Von Miller and Aldon Smith. SMH. Just horrible writing dude, Im not gonna speak on the other teams, Ill leave there fans to do so....

25
by AJ (not verified) :: Sun, 06/03/2012 - 5:48pm

Full disclosure, i didn't watch much of the cards last season but here's what pff rated both levi brown and sam acho. Acho actually had a very respectable pass rush grade so you're probably right on that but levi brown had one of the worst grades as a tackle last year. I don't have their week to week grade breakdowns in front of me, but given that he accumulated such a terrible score, its highly unlikely he played "great" for most of the 2nd half of the year.

26
by Dan :: Sun, 06/03/2012 - 7:49pm

PFF sides with CDub on Levi Brown. He had a +8.9 grade over the second half of the season, after getting a -26.5 during the first half. So even though he was in the bottom quartile of offensive tackles for the season, and next-to-last in pass blocking, he did well during the second half of the year (with positive grades in both run blocking and pass blocking).

29
by AJ (not verified) :: Sun, 06/03/2012 - 10:03pm

Ah ok then. Could be a small sample size for levi brown and we shouldn't trust it, but it does give a positive spin to levi.

30
by jimbohead :: Mon, 06/04/2012 - 4:31pm

As a 49ers fan, I strongly encourage everyone, and especially Cards FO types, to uncritically believe all information indicating Levi Brown is a legitimate starter. I would particularly encourage the Cardinals to stay the course and continue to start him at LT, but if that is not possible, I would make sure that they do not miss the opportunity to play him at RT.

More seriously, Brown has years of underperforming behind him. That a group like PFF calls 8 games moderately positive doesn't really change my mind about him. Here are a couple reasons why PFF's numbers could be misleading. First, sample size; 8 games is really not that significant when weighed against years of suckitude. Second, and this is important, PFF has an opaque grading process that probably does not account for scheme. It's entirely plausible that the Cardinals made a schematic adjustment around midseason that ended up arbitrarily minimizing the number of negative plays that PFF associates with Brown without increasing his true level of play. Remember, PFF's numbers are to used, but not believed.

3
by BigWoody (not verified) :: Fri, 06/01/2012 - 12:16pm

Recurring theme in this Four Downs: Success is all about the offensive line. So true.

* The 49ers chewed up the division and the league with a mediocre QB and few offensive weapons because they had a good, young, improving O-line that STAYED HEALTHY. Well, and a hell of a defence.

* The Cardinals can't bring themselves to draft linemen.

* The Rams draft poor linemen too highly (though I think Saffold will rebound)

* The Seahawks have perhaps the most o-line talent in the division but they can't stay healthy. Okung, Unger, Carpenter and Moffitt have all landed on IR in their very young careers. Yes, health is a valuable talent in the NFL.

4
by tuluse :: Fri, 06/01/2012 - 12:24pm

On the other hand the Giants just won a superbowl with a non-ideal line, and the Steelers went to the Superbowl the previous year with a very weak oline.

5
by BigWoody (not verified) :: Fri, 06/01/2012 - 12:25pm

Oops, sorry Rupps, I didn't see your post before I posted. Let's change that to:

* The Cards can't bring themselves to draft tackles. OK, they drafted Brown but by now they should know that was a mistake.

6
by Rupps (not verified) :: Fri, 06/01/2012 - 12:53pm

Actually the problem with Arizona is they want to find all of their Oline in the 6th and 7th rounds. Russ Grimm is a good coach but still... AZ hasn't drafted an Olineman in the first four rounds since 2007 or basically since drafting Levi Brown

8
by ChuckC (not verified) :: Fri, 06/01/2012 - 1:23pm

The 49ers definitely didn't have a "good" offensive line last year. The left side was probably above average. The right side was very bad at pass protection.

18
by MosesZD (not verified) :: Sat, 06/02/2012 - 7:51pm

Goodwin is hardly young and he was hardly good or improving last year. Davis had a decent second-half of a season at RT, but has yet to prove he can play ROT in the NFL on a consistent basis. And, of course, RG is still a toss-up with Boone and Kilgore fighting it out.

So, I'm still thinking the line, from OC to ROT is a big question mark.

Also, while I'm hopeful Mannningham and Moss upgrade the receiving corps, every WR they've brought in has been a failure: Jackson, Lelie, Johnson, Bruce (he was ok his first year), Ginn, Edwards, etc... So, I'll, as a fan, will just wait-and-see.

7
by Jonadan :: Fri, 06/01/2012 - 12:58pm

This is a little nit-picky, but why is the picture for this "NFC West" column a Titans player (the .jpg even labels him as Cortland Finnegan)? That's neither NFC, nor West.

---
"When you absolutely don't know what to do any more, then it's time to panic." - Johann van der Wiel

9
by ChuckC (not verified) :: Fri, 06/01/2012 - 1:24pm

The Rams signed Cortland Finnegan a couple months ago.

11
by Rivers McCown :: Fri, 06/01/2012 - 4:17pm

Our photo server doesn't have any Finnegan press conference pictures, or we would've gladly gone with a Rams photo.

12
by Dangerdonkey (not verified) :: Fri, 06/01/2012 - 7:24pm

Even stil... You couldn't use a photo of a player in an NFC West uniform?

16
by Theo :: Sat, 06/02/2012 - 3:43pm

How do photos get on your server?

13
by AJ (not verified) :: Fri, 06/01/2012 - 7:31pm

Man,

What a difference a year makes. Last year the 49ers felt like they had holes all over the place, now its like there are no holes. Of course I don't believe that and just like turnovers, wins in close games, and all those special teams plays are unlikely to repeat themselves, so to is it likely that the 49ers won't be 13-3.

I still feel like the offensive line is not good, the receivers are still a huge bunch of question marks, we know about alex smith, and of course, its not as if their pass defense was impregnable last year. I could easily see massive regression from their safeties and carlos rodgers(there was a reason the redskins let him go). Not trying to come off as a 49er hater, but i think people really need a proper perspective about teams that surprise people. How many different times have we seen surprise teams that crash and burn the next year. Remember how tony sparano and eric mangini were both highly touted for their surprise turn around and then subsequently pilloried for being terrible coaches? I guess a year later really does make a difference.

14
by DEW (not verified) :: Fri, 06/01/2012 - 8:14pm

"Bears castoff Frank Omiyale"

...Let's all just pause for a moment to contemplate the truly epic level of awful you have to be that you get cut from the *Bears* OL.

15
by tuluse :: Fri, 06/01/2012 - 9:07pm

He's as bad as you would think and worse.

27
by Random Guy (not verified) :: Sun, 06/03/2012 - 8:13pm

Doesn't matter, Omiyale wasn't brought in to start. This article forgets about Breno Giacomini, who was an upgrade at RT after Carpenter went down and probably pushes Carpenter to LG. I also wouldn't rule out Lutui, who almost certainly weighed more than 400 pounds last year but is below 350 now and has shown decent ability when he keeps his weight down. Omiyale is fighting for a backup spot with people like Alex Barron and a couple of rookies (JR Sweezy and Rishawn Johnson).

33
by BigCheese :: Tue, 06/05/2012 - 11:33pm

That's what Bears fans said two years ago... luckily, Omiyale wasn't brought in to start. Didn't stop him from quickly making us learn to absolutely fear his name.

- Alvaro

Phil Simms is to analysts what Ryan Leaf is to NFL QBs

17
by Owen (not verified) :: Sat, 06/02/2012 - 7:40pm

Interesting article, and worth noting that Goldson hasn't signed his franchise tender yet - so the 49rs could be (though unlikely) incredibly thin at safety! It's Trenton Robinson though, not Richardson...

19
by Danny Tuccitto :: Sat, 06/02/2012 - 8:47pm

Fixed. Although, you have to remember I'm the guy who called the Saints' cornerback "Terry Porter" in our NFC Championship preview.

20
by Intropy :: Sun, 06/03/2012 - 2:41am

What position does Tracy D'Brickashaw play?

28
by Danny Tuccitto :: Sun, 06/03/2012 - 8:41pm

He played Billy Crocker for Trenton Cole back in '34, no?

22
by Mr Shush :: Sun, 06/03/2012 - 10:22am

Incomprehensible drunken rambling deleted.

23
by Karl Cuba :: Sun, 06/03/2012 - 11:05am

Jubilation?

24
by Devid1 :: Sun, 06/03/2012 - 4:48pm

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31
by sundown (not verified) :: Mon, 06/04/2012 - 5:27pm

This is fortuitous because I had just about written off my trip to Singapore for lack of affordable lodging. That's what I love about this place: Come for the football, but stay for the travel deals!

32
by chemical burn :: Mon, 06/04/2012 - 6:27pm

I have the opposite problem - I'm looking for reeeaaally fancy hotels in Singapore and just can't find a website directing me to them.