Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC West

Arizona Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

For this May round of Four Downs, we will be looking at each team's biggest remaining need as well as notable undrafted free agents who will be going to camp with each franchise.

Arizona Cardinals

Biggest Need: Cornerback

Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has made it clear that Isaiah Simmons, Arizona's first-round draft pick, will be a linebacker in the NFL … while making it equally clear that he's open to using Simmons in the secondary in certain matchups. That can only help a team that gave up a league-worst 73.5 yards per game to tight ends last season, but will it be enough to turn around an Arizona defense that ranked 27th in our pass efficiency rankings? Only six of the 88 qualifying cornerbacks in Sports Info Solutions' charting numbers had a worse success rate in coverage than Byron Murphy, and third corner Robert Alford turns 32 during the season and missed all of 2019 with a broken leg. There's no reason to worry about Patrick Peterson in 2020, but he is set to hit free agency in 2021.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was busy after the draft, adding 21 free-agent rookies. The biggest name in Phoenix is an in-state product, University of Arizona cornerback Jace Whittaker, who played in 49 games with 32 starts for the Wildcats, including starting all 12 games as a senior in 2019. Keim also brought in several offensive linemen. Jake Benzinger started 27 games at right tackle and 13 at left tackle for Wake Forest, earning honorable mention All-ACC honors as a senior. Findlay offensive lineman Drew Dickinson was a three-time Greater Midwest Athletic Conference selection with 46 starts for the Oilers, playing at left tackle, left guard and right tackle. Steven Gonzalez finished his career at Penn State by making 39 consecutive starts, including all 13 contests at left guard in 2019. He was named second-team All-Big Ten as a senior after receiving honorable mention accolades following his junior season.

Los Angeles Rams

Biggest Need: Offensive line

With left tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard/center Austin Blythe entering free agency, general manager Les Snead had an opportunity to inject some badly needed fresh talent into his offensive line. Instead he has opted to maintain the status quo, re-signing both players to new deals and bringing back every starter from an offensive line that frequently struggled in both run blocking and pass protection last season. Whitworth's position at left tackle is set, but the rest of the line is in flux. Blythe will join a battle royal for the guard and center spots along with Brian Allen, Austin Corbett, David Edwards, and Joseph Noteboom. Veteran Rob Havenstein lost the right tackle job to youngster Bobby Evans last season, but Evans underwhelmed and may let Havenstein win the job back this year.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: L.A. needed to load up on cheap talent, and they did so after the draft, signing 20 UDFAs. The two most notable might be quarterbacks Josh Love from San Jose State and Bryce Perkins from Virginia. With only John Wolford (himself a UDFA in 2018) under contract behind Jared Goff, the Rams have a clear need for a backup quarterback, and it's possible that Love and Perkins will both end up making the team. Last season, Love was the Mountain West's offensive player of the year, an award previously won by Alex Smith, Andy Dalton, and Derek Carr. Perkins was a dual-threat player for the Cavaliers, throwing for 47 touchdowns and running for 20 more in the last two seasons. He led the ACC last year in passes, completions, and interceptions. At running back, you may remember Kansas State's James Gilbert running for 105 yards and a touchdown on only 13 carries in a win over Oklahoma. Another running back, Xavier Jones, put up monstrous statistics at SMU last year, running for 1,276 yards with 25 total touchdowns. He was a semifinalist for the Doak Walker award.

San Francisco 49ers

Biggest Need: Safety, particularly depth

Between defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, the 49ers found a pair of first-round draft picks to fill the holes left in their Super Bowl lineup left by the departures of DeForest Buckner and Emmanuel Sanders. They also swung a trade during the draft for Washington tackle Trent Williams, who will step in for the now-retired Joe Staley. With the rest of the roster virtually unchanged (17 of 22 starters from Super Bowl LIV will return this season), it's difficult to find a weakness on this roster. That said, it would be nice if safeties Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt made more of an impact next season. The 49ers were the only team in the NFL last season whose safeties failed to record an interception, and they were in the bottom five in tackles at that position too. And though defensive coordinator Robert Saleh often leaves his safeties deep to take away big plays, they are only moderately successful at that, ranking 12th in open-field rushing yards allowed and 10th in coverage against deep passes. And then there's the matter of durability. Ward has only started 10 games twice in six NFL seasons; Tartt has done it once in five. Neither has ever started more than 13 games.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The San Francisco 49ers signed 11 rookie free agents. Fresno State fullback Josh Hokit notched 303 carries and 25 receptions in four years with the Bulldogs -- notable for an offense that relies so heavily on its fullbacks. Alabama safety Jared Mayden led the Crimson Tide with four interceptions in his one year as a starter, finishing fourth on the team in tackles. North Central (Illinois) quarterback Broc Rutter started four years for the Cardinals, setting most of the school's passing records, earning first-team All-CCIW (College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin, but of course you knew that) honors, and leading the team to a Division III championship last season, guiding an offense that scored 227 points in five playoff games. Washington running back Salvon Ahmed earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors as a junior in 2019 after starting 13 games and rushing for 1,020 yards and 11 touchdowns on 188 carries. He played high school ball for the Juanita Rebels in Kirkland, Washington, where my sister Ashleigh was one of his teachers. When reached for comment, she described Ahmed as "incredibly nice," adding that "he had lunch in my office for most of his senior year."

Seattle Seahawks

Biggest Need: Edge rusher

This was Seattle's biggest weakness during the 2019 season and is still their biggest weakness after the draft, and it will remain their biggest weakness at least until Jadeveon Clowney puts his name on a Seahawks contract -- assuming that ever happens. If not, Seattle's top options will include journeyman veterans Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa, each of whom is on his fourth team in the last four years; Rasheem Green and L.J. Collier, early-round draft picks in 2018 and 2019 who played in a combined 29 regular-season and playoff games last year, but with only eight starts (all by Green); and second-round rookie Darrell Taylor, the third edge rusher taken in this year's draft. Barring a late acquisition for another veteran (trading for Jacksonville's Yannick Ngakoue, signing free agent Everson Griffen), these are the weapons the Seahawks will trust to overwhelm Kyler Murray, Jared Goff, and Jimmy Garoppolo.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The Seahawks signed 17 rookies after the draft. Most notable among them is Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon, who at this point is the only quarterback on the roster aside from Russell Wilson, though there have been rumors of Seattle re-signing former backups Geno Smith or B.J. Daniels. In his senior season at Pullman, Gordon completed 493 passes, most in the country; his 5,579 passing yards and 48 touchdowns were second behind Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow. Aaron Fuller is another in-state product, catching a combined 117 passes for 1,576 yards and 10 touchdowns (plus another score on a punt return) in the last two years at the University of Washington. Florida International running back Anthony Jones has some NFL family ties. You may have heard of his nephew, Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook.

Portions of this article originally appeared at ESPN+.


7 comments, Last at 20 May 2020, 6:26pm

1 WRT the Rams, I actually…

WRT the Rams, I actually think inside linebacker is by far the biggest need. While the OLine started last year beyond horrible, about halfway through the year they started playing league average, which is reflected both in PFF grades as well as just the eye test. On top of all that, in 2018 the rams spent a third on OT Joseph Noteboom, and a 5th C Brian Allen, and in 2019 they spent a third on OT Bobby Evans, and a 5th on OT David Edwards. On top of that, they picked up G Austin Corbett for a 2021 5th rounder from the Browns. Ultimately, you have to develop the young players you have spent capital on, and we can already see that Edwards played really well in his rookie season, along with Corbett. On top of all that, Havenstein was injured the whole year, before finally being sidelined for good with a knee injury, and was nowhere near his 2018 form while playing. So while I think the 2018 dominant Rams Oline was partly a McVay scheme mirage, I'm not afraid of a repeat of the horrible OLine showing of 2019.

On the other hand, I don't even know who's starting at ILB for the rams, and I'm a huge fan. I guess 5th round sophomore Micah Kiser? Maybe 6th round rookie Clay Johnston? Hell, they might even put a safety down in there just to get actual talent on the field. At least with a 4-3 we only have one of them.

2 Yeah I'd imagine the Rams…

Yeah I'd imagine the Rams offence will be fine overall, unless Goff collapses. 

The defense OTOH, I'm struggling to name any players beyond Donald and Jalen Ramsey. And Wade Phillips is not around any more. 

4 Well Brockers, ID has been…

Well Brockers, ID has been around forever, and we picked up A'Shawn Robinson, ID and Leonard Floyd, EDGE in FA. John Johnson III is a pretty good safety. Still, point taken. Truthfully, a defense full of average players plus Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald might actually be a top 5 defense, but it's hard to assume average when even I struggle to name the starters at at least one position.

6 Rams are done.

Based on the lack of talent and seeming inability to balance a budget, merely fielding a full NFL team might be the Rams' greatest challenge this year.

I look for them to severely regress and sink to the cellar in the West.

It will be the Cards and Niners for the division with Seattle on the outside looking in.



3 very strong division

When all the weaknesses have a couple of options behind them.   I feel sorry for the AFC and NFC East, they have to play this four headed monster.   Three playoff teams would not surprise me.

Other thought is that there are still FAs available for all the weaknesses except corner.



5 Yeah, the AFC East is not…

Yeah, the AFC East is not going to be good this year, with them facing this division and the AFC West.  Maybe Buffalo makes it to 10-6.  The Jets play the Niners early, I expect them to be beat down bad that game.  Then again, that game is at 10 am San Francisco time.