Four Downs: NFC West
by Rivers McCown and Danny Tuccitto
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.
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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
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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.
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.