Four Downs: NFC West
by Bryan Knowles
Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Quarterback of the Future
It was perhaps a blessing in disguise that three teams traded up ahead of Arizona to pick first-round quarterbacks. The run on players in a mediocre quarterback class allowed the Cardinals to replace some of the 5,000-plus defensive snaps they lost in free agency instead -- losses that included Kevin Minter, Tony Jefferson, D.J. Swearinger, Calais Campbell, Marcus Cooper, and Alex Okafor -- with players like Haason Reddick and Budda Baker. Those two draftees fit Arizona's mold of versatile defenders who can be moved around as the situation warrants.
Unfortunately, that means the Cardinals enter 2017 with no significant replacement plan for Carson Palmer. Palmer will turn 38 in December and is coming off a below-average season, finishing 21st in DYAR. Behind him are the 33-year-old Drew Stanton and practice squad vet Zac Dysert, neither of whom constitute a long-term plan. The list of quarterbacks who have performed at a high level past their 38th birthday is very short, and Palmer is unlikely to buck that trend. It's obviously not a pressing need for 2017, but the sooner the Cardinals plan for life after Palmer, the better off they will be.
Notable undrafted free agents: Receiver Krishawn Hogan overwhelmed his competition at Marian, an NAIA school. He scored 56 touchdowns over the last two years, and was the Mideast League's offensive player of the year. The jump to NFL competition will be a culture shock, but he has ideal size and good athleticism. The Cardinals also added Ricky Seals-Jones, a receiver transitioning to tight end. If he can add weight and power to offset his lack of speed, he could be a useful player when the injury bug inevitably hits the Cardinals' tight end corps. Sojourn Shelton is an athletic defensive back with very solid cover skills, with 12 passes defended and four interceptions last year at Wisconsin. His lack of size and special teams value pushed him out of the draft, but he could play in the dime package this season. Ironhead Gallon (Georgia Southern) fits the same linebacker/safety mold the Cardinals have in Deone Bucannon, and could find a spot on the practice squad as insurance at that hybrid position – plus, his name is Ironhead, which has to be worth something.
Los Angeles Rams
Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Offensive Line
Down a first- and third-round pick due to the Jared Goff trade from last season, the Rams did what they could to provide Goff with some tools. Three of their first four picks went towards building a receiving corps, but that leaves the protection up front in question. The Rams allowed the second-most sacks last season while finishing 29th in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate. It's hard to develop as a quarterback when you have no time in the pocket.
The Rams added to the position in free agency, with Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan coming on board, but the rest of the line is a series of question marks. Greg Robinson has been hugely disappointing as 2014's second-overall pick; he is being shunted to right tackle. That moves previous right tackle Rob Havenstein, who had 22 blown blocks in 2016, in to right guard. Left guard Rodger Saffold had 24 blown blocks himself per Sports Info Solutions, though it was a marked improvement over his 2015 campaign. The Rams hope the deck chair shuffling will provide something positive in 2017.
Notable undrafted free agents: Colorado State linebacker Kevin Davis shined on special teams in college, and had consecutive 100-plus-tackle seasons as starter. He's probably too small to be an NFL inside linebacker, and lacks the speed to move to the outside, but could be a useful situational player in Wade Phillips' defense. USC running back Justin Davis might make the 53-man roster, considering the lack of depth the Rams have behind Todd Gurley and Lance Dunbar. Missouri cornerback Aarion Penton could find some snaps, too, with Lamarcus Joyner reportedly moving to safety. Both Jake Eldrenkamp (Washington) and Anthony McMeans (New Mexico State) will get a look at center, according to general manager Les Snead.
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San Francisco 49ers
Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Right Tackle
The 49ers finished last in adjusted line yards and 30th in adjusted sack rate last season, so it's safe to say the offensive line could stand an overhaul. They added Jeremy Zuttah in a pre-draft trade, but the projected starting lineup still includes three players with at least 21 blown blocks, per Sports Info Solutions: Trenton Brown at right tackle, Joshua Garnett at right guard, and Zane Beadles at left guard.
Of the three, Brown is the most concerning. Brown was an utter liability at right tackle a season ago, and the 49ers have never truly replaced the retired Anthony Davis. Ex-Seahawk Garry Gilliam will compete for the job, but even lineman-strapped Seattle wanted no part of Gilliam in 2017. The 49ers are going through a multi-year rebuilding process, and had too many holes to fill in one draft. None of their ten draft choices were used on the offensive line; they'll have to limp through 2017 before they undergo a major overhaul.
Notable undrafted free agents: With a bare roster, the 49ers' UDFA class could actually end up playing a significant role in 2017. Louisville tight end Cole Hikutini was targeted as a move tight end; he led Louisville in receptions last season. San Francisco also added receiver Victor Bolden (Oregon State) to bolster a weak receiving corps. On defense, St. Francis safety Lorenzo Jerome had six interceptions last season and two each in the Senior Bowl and NFLPA all-star game, and is an accomplished kick returner as well. With the 49ers passing on safety in the draft, Jerome could find his way onto the field this season. West Virginia edge rusher Noble Nwachukumu is an explosive talent with size limitations.
San Francisco's strangest UDFA move, though, was the catch-and-release of wide receiver K.D. Cannon. After gaining more than 3,000 yards receiving in three seasons at Baylor, Cannon skipped his senior season to enter the NFL draft. And he had some legit credentials -- his 86.4% Playmaker Rating showed he had tantalizing gifts -- but his tendency to drop passes knocked him out of the draft. The 49ers were quick to scoop him up, and guaranteed him $45,000, making him one of the highest-paid UDFAs this year. And then, following weekend minicamp, they cut him. In the big picture, $45,000 in cap space is not significant. But still, something drastic must have happened after two days of running in shorts for the 49ers to change their minds so quickly.
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Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Offensive Line
Going into the draft, needs 1 and 1A in Seattle were offensive tackles, and then they could start improving at guard. The Seahawks added Ethan Pocic in the second round and Justin Senior in the sixth, so they didn't ignore the offensive line entirely. However, Pocic's most logical fit in the NFL is at center, where the Seahawks already have Justin Britt. The Seahawks announced Pocic as a tackle at the draft, but all but one of his college games came in the interior. It remains to be seen just how he'll fit on this line.
This is an offensive line that has allowed 40 or more sacks in each of the last four seasons, so if this need feels like déjà vu, there's a reason for that. The Seahawks, from a very basic philosophical level, refuse to invest in the offensive line position. They have ranked in the bottom three in cap spending on linemen in both 2015 and 2016. Time after time after time after time after time, the lack of talent on the offensive line gets ignored, and the Seahawks still manage to be successful. Imagine how good this team would be if Russell Wilson didn't have to run for his life every other snap.
Notable undrafted free agents: Purdue offensive lineman Jordan Roos benched 41 times at his Pro Day, which dwarfed the numbers of anyone actually invited to the combine, so he has strength for days. He needs technique work and to learn to finish his blocks, but that can be taught; you can't teach strength. West Virginia quarterback Skyler Howard has a good chance to make the roster, as the Seahawks only have two quarterbacks under contract. Howard is mobile and the Seahawks have praised his big arm, though his downfield accuracy leaves something to be desired. Tyrone Swoopes is moving from quarterback to tight end in the pros; he was already used as a short-yardage specialist in goal-line situations at Texas. USC receiver Darreus Rogers was rated by Playmaker Score -- specifically, he had a 0.0% rating. Seattle hopes that his size and ball skills can be developed in the pros.
(Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)