Four Downs: NFC West
by Bryan Knowles
Biggest Hole: Quarterback
Carson Palmer has called it quits after 15 seasons, meaning the Cardinals currently have no quarterbacks under contract. Unless new head coach Steve Wilks wants to experiment with a David Johnson-based single wing attack, Arizona is going to need to add multiple quarterbacks this offseason.
The Cardinals will have to decide if they're looking a veteran quarterback to build around, or simply a bridge while they develop a long-term quarterback of the future. With the return of Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald on offense, and the fourth-best defense by DVOA, there's certainly an argument for plugging in a veteran and trying to compete. They only have $22.2 million of cap space, though, which makes them heavy underdogs in the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes. That might make someone like AJ McCarron, Josh McCown, or Whichever Quarterback Minnesota Doesn't Re-Sign a solid option for a couple years while they develop someone with more potential.
The Cardinals were too good for their own good in 2017. They're stuck with the 15th selection in the draft; all the top quarterbacks will likely go off the board long before they get to pick. That means they're likely going to have to settle for the next tier down of college prospects -- Washington State's Luke Falk or Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph, perhaps -- to groom someone for the long-term.
Major Free Agents: Jaron Brown, WR; John Brown, WR; Troy Niklas, TE; Earl Watford; T, Alex Boone, G; Frostee Rucker, DT; Karlos Dansby, LB; Kareem Martin, LB; Justin Bethel, CB; Tramon Williams, CB; Tyvon Branch, S.
Tyvon Branch was having a career year before he tore his ACL in Week 10 against Seattle. While he he is recovering well from all reports, Branch is the platonic ideal of injury prone. He has only played all 16 games once in the past five seasons, missing 44 games with knee, groin, leg, and foot injuries. The emergence of rookie Budda Baker may make him expendable, but he's worth bringing back for the right price to play in Arizona's three-safety looks in Wilks' new defensive scheme -- at least, when he can stay on the field.
Tramon Williams had something of a bounceback season at age 34, starting nine games and finishing with a 60 percent success rate (subscription required) after a couple poor seasons in Cleveland. With his age, a long-term deal is out of the question, but he'd be both cheaper and more effective than the other free agent corner, Justin Bethel.
Kareem Martin ended up starting 10 games after Markus Golden tore his ACL. He was third on the team with 14.5 pass pressures (subscription required) and could move back to defensive end in Wilks' 4-3. In the battle of receivers named J. Brown, Jaron had the higher DVOA in 2017, but both were deep into the negatives. John had a fantastic 2015, but injuries and sickle cell concerns have put his future in jeopardy.
Los Angeles Rams
Biggest Hole: Edge rusher
For all the praise the Rams' defense received in 2017, they found themselves struggling, at times, to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Their pressure rate of 31.2 percent (subscription required) was firmly in the middle of the pack -- and that can be attributed mainly to Aaron Donald. Donald had 52 pass pressures (subscription required) on the year, but no one else on the team even hit 20. Robert Quinn used to be one of the top edge rushers in the game, but he hasn't hit double-digit sacks since 2014. Blame it on the lingering effects of injuries that ended both his 2015 and 2016 seasons, or the shift to a 3-4 outside linebacker in Wade Phillips' scheme, but Quinn hasn't been the consistent terror he once was.
There's reason to hope that Quinn could bounce back. He still flashes the explosiveness and electricity that made him an All-Pro in 2013, so another year removed from injury and another year in the system could help. The Rams think highly enough of him that they declined to include him in the Marcus Peters trade. Even if Quinn were to bounce back, however, the Rams still need help. Connor Barwin is a pending free agent and is aging into a more situational player -- he's still a solid support piece, but doesn't shed blockers like he did in his 20s. No one else on the roster keeps opposing offensive tackles up at night.
There isn't exactly a bumper crop of free-agent pass-rushers on the market this year, so keeping Barwin on a short-term cheap deal might make sense. The Rams could then pair him with a first-round pick like LSU's Arden Key or a mid-tier free agent like Aaron Lynch. Let's be honest -- the Rams' biggest need is, by a wide margin, the least crucial need in the division. We're talking about shoring up a team that finished fifth in adjusted sack rate last year, after all. Adding more pop to the pass rush could take a frightening defense and make it absolutely unstoppable.
Technically, the Rams' biggest need remains in the secondary, with Lamarcus Joyner, Trumaine Johnson, and Nickell Robey-Coleman as free agents. Johnson is almost assuredly expendable after the Marcus Peters trade, but the Rams would really like to bring the other two back. Add Joyner to the list of players suffering from the Curse of Jeff Fisher. After being awkwardly miscast as a nickel corner for years under Fisher and Gregg Williams, he was moved to safety and blossomed into one of the elite players at the position. He's the leading candidate for the Rams' franchise tag. Robey-Coleman finished fourth in success rate in 2017 and is vital to bring back, especially if Kayvon Webster's ruptured Achilles keeps him out when 2018 begins.
If the Rams don't use the franchise tag on Joyner, they may well use it on Sammy Watkins. Watkins was lost in the shuffle at times in an offense that placed a high priority on shorter routes, resulting in a down year in terms of raw stats. He was still very efficient when he was targeted, ending up sixth in DVOA at 24.0%. If he's not tagged, the soon-to-be 25-year-old wideout is likely to find a very competitive market, especially if Allen Robinson is tagged by Jacksonville.
The Rams ranked third in adjusted line yards up the middle, and center John Sullivan was a big part of that. He'll be 33 in August, but still played at a high level and provided a veteran presence. The Rams do like his backup, Austin Blythe, but this is probably an "if it ain't broke" situation; he's likely to be re-signed.
Dominique Easley missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL -- his third tear of his career after blowing out both ACLs in college. He played well in 2016, but his injury history is concerning; he has ended three of his four NFL seasons on injured reserve. The Rams would love to bring him back, but probably won't get into a huge bidding war.
San Francisco 49ers
Biggest Hole: Interior offensive line
The 49ers have plenty of issues to address if they want to be competitive in 2018. Their starting cornerbacks finished in the bottom seven in success rate (subscription required) among qualified players. They ranked just 22nd in defensive pressure rate (subscription required) and could use some more talent at edge rusher. They could use a true No. 1 receiver to open up the offense. But if you've just spent more money than anyone in history on a quarterback, your top priority has to be keeping him upright, and so we'll focus on the offensive line. They allowed 43 sacks and 116 quarterback hits in 2017, and while Jimmy Garoppolo did a better job at avoiding pressure than Brian Hoyer or C.J. Beathard, those numbers have to go down.
The 49ers gave center Daniel Kilgore a three-year extension, which is a head-scratcher. Kilgore is, at best, serviceable, and has a difficult time dealing with complicated stunts or pressures up the middle. He's good for at least one baffling blown block a game, and really should be a swing backup as opposed to the starter at center. At guard, former first-round pick Joshua Garnett missed all of 2017 with a knee injury and wasn't winning a camp battle with Brandon Fusco before he went down. Fusco's a free agent who struggled at times when right tackle Trenton Brown was out, though he was far from the weak link on the line. That would be left guard Laken Tomlinson, whose lack of mobility made him both a bad fit for the 49ers' outside zone scheme and an easy target for interior pass-rushers. All three spots could stand to be upgraded.
The 49ers still have the third-most cap room in the league, even after the Garoppolo deal, so they'll be attached to every free agent lineman available. Andrew Norwell, Justin Pugh, and Josh Sitton sit atop their wish list. Alternatively, they could hope Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson falls to the bottom of the top 10 in the draft; on paper, he's a great fit for the system.
[ad placeholder 3]
It would not be stunning if the 49ers let every single one of their notable free agents walk. Carlos Hyde has done yeoman's work behind some terrible offensive lines in his San Francisco career, but he's not an ideal fit for Kyle Shanahan's system; UDFA Matthew Breida earned more and more reps as the season went along. Hyde is likely worth more to another team than he is to the 49ers. The 49ers briefly experimented with moving Eric Reid to linebacker before Jimmie Ward broke his arm, which tells you how much he fits into their plans in the secondary moving forward.
Both Aaron Lynch and Tank Carradine were, at one point, hyped as the answer to San Francisco's pass-rush problems. Lynch had 12.5 sacks in his first two seasons but hasn't done anything of note since, while Carradine has been lost in the shuffle thanks to all the first-round picks filling San Francisco's line. The 49ers will likely re-sign one or two of these names just to fill out a 53-man roster, but they have already taken care of their most pressing free agents-to-be.
Biggest Hole: Offensive Line
We have now highlighted offensive line as the Seahawks' biggest weakness in every season stretching back to 2014. We'll probably be here saying the same things in 2019. The Seahawks, on a very basic philosophical level, do not invest in the offensive line position.
The Seahawks ranked 31st in pressure rate, forcing Russell Wilson to dodge defenders on 36.7 percent of offensive plays in 2017 (subscription required). They ranked 26th in adjusted sack rate and 31st in adjusted line yards. For the fifth straight season, they gave up more than 40 sacks. Their 121 QB hits allowed were third-most in the league. All of this is with Wilson, who may well be the best quarterback in the league at avoiding pressure, so if anything, the raw numbers are flattering the line. The Seahawks did finally move on from Tom Cable, which has to help -- the Seahawks gave up an even 300 sacks in Cable's six-year run as offensive line coach. Perhaps now the Seahawks will try to draft offensive linemen to play offensive line, rather than hoping converted tight ends, defensive ends, and basketball players can protect their MVP-caliber signal caller.
The Seahawks need to add multiple players to their line this offseason. Acquiring Duane Brown at midseason to shore up the left tackle position was a great start. They need to repeat that on the right side, where Germain Ifedi led the league in penalties and is terrible in space. They may be able to get more value out of Ifedi by moving him back inside to his original guard position, though he was terrible there as a rookie in 2016. None of Luke Joeckel, Oday Aboushi, or Ethan Pocic was at all acceptable inside in 2017, though Pocic might improve if the Seahawks pick a position for him and stick with it. No matter what, an immediate talent infusion is needed.
[ad placeholder 4]
The Seahawks are fairly tight up against the salary cap, with only $14.1 million available, which will force some difficult decisions.
Sheldon Richardson didn't quite live up to his billing this season; he was excellent in run defense but failed to generate much pressure up the middle. He's still one of the ten best defensive tackles in football and could command as much as $10 million a year on the open market, making him a tight squeeze for the Seahawks.
Jimmy Graham's yards per reception fell off a cliff in 2017, tumbling from 14.2 to 9.1. At 31, his skills are beginning to fade, but that drop-off is also due to him being poorly used by former offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. A fresh start in a new location is probably best for Graham, and the Seahawks can't afford to compete in a bidding war for him, anyway. They can instead look to lock up Paul Richardson, who is still raw, but broke out in a big way as Seattle's big playmaker in 2017.
Bradley McDougald and Byron Maxwell's deals will depend on who Seattle gets back in the Legion of Boom in 2018; the availability of Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor remains in doubt for at least the start of 2018.