Seahawks, Rams Need Interior Help
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.
Biggest Need: Cornerback
We have been preaching all offseason that cornerback was Arizona's biggest need, and it remains their biggest need even after the draft and with most free agents off the market. Yes, the Cardinals signed Malcolm Butler away from Tennessee, but he is 31 and has been steadily declining for years now. From 2017 to 2019, he failed to make the top 40 cornerbacks in either success rate or yards allowed per target in coverage, per Sports Info Solutions. Last year, he gave up 829 yards on 111 targets, both the highest totals in the league. Robert Alford, the other penciled-in starter, missed all of 2020 with a torn pec after missing all of 2019 with a broken leg. His last healthy season was 2018, when he ranked next to last in both success rate and yards per target. He also turns 33 on Halloween. Nickelback Byron Murphy has failed to make the top 60 corners in success rate in either of his two pro seasons. No other corner on the roster has meaningful experience; the only depth to speak consists of a handful of special teamers and a trio of late-round or undrafted rookies.
Notable Undrafted Free Agents
One of those undrafted rookie corners will no doubt be a fan favorite: Lorenzo Burns, a three-year starter at the University of Arizona, where he earned multiple All-Pac-12 designations. The Cardinals also have a gaping hole at tight end, where Dan Arnold took his 400-plus yards and signed with Carolina. That means opportunity for North Carolina State's Cary Angeline, who put up a 61-960-12 statline in three years with the Wolfpack. That's better than 15 yards per catch, a good number for a wideout, let alone a tight end. Angeline made Gil Brandt's list of the top unselected players after the draft, and ESPN's Josh Weinfuss reports that he got a $30,000 signing bonus. Another tight end, Montreal native Bruno Labelle, is more of a blocker—he only caught 20 passes in four years at Cincinnati.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
Biggest Need: Inside Linebacker
For the moment, let's assume that either David Long (a third-round pick in 2019) or Robert Rochell (a fourth-round rookie) is ready to step into the third corner role. That would move the Rams' biggest need to inside linebacker, where they are desperate for some highlight-reel plays. L.A.'s inside linebackers produced only 28 defeats (plays that resulted in a turnover, a loss of yardage, or a stop on third or fourth down) last season, among the bottom five totals at that position in the league. For comparison's sake, Devin White and Lavonte David, two linebackers on Tampa Bay's Super Bowl-winning defense, each topped that number with 33 and 29 defeats, respectively. Micah Kiser had 77 tackles in only nine games, but not one of those tackles resulted in a loss of yardage. Kenny Young and Troy Reeder each played all 16 games but managed only eight tackles for loss between them. The only significant addition this offseason was Ernest Jones, a rookie out of South Carolina drafted late in the third round, 103rd overall.
Notable Undrafted Free Agents
The Rams signed 10 undrafted free agents, one of the larger classes this year. The star of that class was Iowa offensive lineman Alaric Jackson, who got a $20,000 signing bonus to come to L.A., per NFL reporter Aaron Wilson. Jackson, who grew up in Canada playing basketball and didn't play football until his junior year of high school, started each of his 42 games in a Hawkeyes uniform and has said he'd be comfortable at either tackle or guard spot. Another experienced lineman, Jordan Meredith, started every game for Western Kentucky in the last three seasons except for the 2020 bowl game against Georgia State. He played guard for the Hilltoppers, but the Rams have listed him at center. Also making a position switch is BYU defensive back Troy Warner who has experience at corner but is being listed at safety. You're probably familiar with his brother, Fred Warner, star linebacker for the division rival San Francisco 49ers. Speaking of whom…
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Biggest Need: Edge Rusher
Assuming everyone stays healthy this year, the 49ers have one of the league's more complete rosters, with no obvious weakness on offense or defense. The one spot where another proven starter would make the biggest difference may be edge rusher. Nick Bosa was named defensive rookie of the year in 2019 when he had 9.0 sacks in the regular season and 4.0 more in the playoffs, but he missed 14 games in 2020 after tearing his ACL. It's a similar story for Dee Ford—he had 6.5 sacks (in only 11 games) in the Super Bowl year but missed 15 games in 2020 with a back injury. Arik Armstead has only topped 3.5 sacks once in his six NFL seasons. San Francisco also signed Samson Ebukam away from the Rams, but he's a complementary piece, never getting more than 4.5 sacks in four seasons in L.A. Only two other edge rushers on the roster have ever sacked a quarterback in the NFL: Jordan Willis has 5.5 sacks in five years with the Bengals, Jets, and 49ers, while Arden Key had 3.0 in three years with the Raiders.
Notable Undrafted Free Agents
Per Aaron Wilson, the 49ers gave Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard $125,000 guaranteed, making him the most likely UDFA to stick with the team. Like so many other 49ers players, he has a troubling health history, getting six years of eligibility with the Buckeyes due to a series of biceps and Achilles injuries. Louisiana-Monroe tight end Josh Pederson is best known for being the son of Doug Pederson, who won a Super Bowl as head coach of the Eagles not that long ago. The younger Pederson posted a 99-1,191-11 statline in four years with the Warhawks. Wide receiver Austin Watkins went over 1,000 yards receiving and 19 yards per catch for Alabama-Birmingham in 2019; he added 468 more yards in the Blazers' five-game season in 2020.
Biggest Need: Center
Between trades, free agency, and the draft, Seattle managed to find potential new starters at wide receiver (D'Wayne Eskridge), guard (Gabe Jackson), edge rusher (Kerry Hyder), and cornerback (too many to list here). The one spot they failed to address was center. Yes, they re-signed Ethan Pocic, last year's starter, but only after allowing him to test the free-agent waters. And they got him back for peanuts (effectively a one-year, $3-million contract) because nobody else felt he was worth even that weak commitment. Before the draft, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll made it clear that Pocic would have to win a camp battle against Kyle Fuller to maintain his grip on the starting job. Fuller, a seventh-round draft pick by the Texans in 2017, has appeared in 20 NFL games (including three starts) for Houston, Washington, and Seattle. It's hardly a ringing endorsement for Pocic that Carroll has openly said that a player with so weak a resume as Fuller may be the better option.
Notable Undrafted Free Agents
The Seahawks only had three picks in the 2021 draft. Afterwards, general manager John Schneider said that lack of rookie competition would make them an attractive option for undrafted free agents. That's a little like skipping out on the porterhouse to leave room for White Castle sliders, but Schneider wasn't wrong. Seattle signed 13 UDFAs, including nine players (!) from Gil Brandt's list of the top post-draft rookies available. Many of those players were successful in 2019 (or earlier) but fell out of the draft after disappointing 2020 seasons. Louisiana-Monroe running back Josh Johnson ran for nearly 1,300 yards as a junior but only 321 as a senior due to a hamstring injury and terrible team around him (the Warhawks went 0-10 and were outscored by more than 25 points per game). Cade Johnson (South Dakota State), Tamorrion Terry (Florida State) and Connor Wedington (Stanford) could stick on Seattle's wide receiver depth chart, which is paper-thin behind Eskridge, DK Metcalf, and Tyler Lockett. Johnson was a two-time All-Missouri Valley Football Conference first-teamer and a 2019 FCS All-American, totaling 2,554 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2018 and 2019. The Jackrabbits canceled their fall season due to COVID, and Johnson went pro rather than play their spring season. Terry was second in the ACC in total yards (1,188) and yards per catch (19.8) in 2019; his nine touchdown catches that year averaged 57.9 yards apiece. A knee injury limited him to five starts in 2020, but he still had a fourth-round projection from Scouts, Inc. Wedington played high school ball in Sumner, Washington, less than an hour's drive from Seattle. He may stick with the Seahawks as a kickoff returner; he averaged 28.1 yards per return in 2019. Offensive linemen Jake Curhan (California), Greg Eiland (Mississippi State), and Jared Hocker (Texas A&M) were all multi-year starters at their respective schools. Arizona State safety Aashari Crosswell started 13 games as a sophomore in 2019 but was demoted in 2020, then played just one game before being suspended, then opting out, and finally declaring for the draft. North Carolina Central cornerback Bryan Mills led the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference with five interceptions in 2019, including three in one game against Morgan State, earning him FCS National Player of the Week honors. The Eagles canceled their fall season, and Mills played in the Senior Bowl after skipping his senior season.
That's just the players from Brandt's list. Other intriguing prospects include:
- Pier-Olivier Lestage, a center from the University of Montreal (go Carabins!) who was the 10th overall selection in the CFL draft in May.
- Jon Rhattigan, an Army linebacker who was a semifinalist for the Bednarik award. Gregg Bell of The News Tribune, a West Point graduate himself, has an intriguing look at how Rhattigan will balance military service with a pro football career.
- Aaron Donkor, a German linebacker, doesn't technically count as a UDFA, but he was allotted to the Seahawks in the NFL's International Player Pathway program and participated in rookie minicamp. Donkor played at Arkansas State in 2019; his 4.46s 40 and 39-inch vertical jump would have made the top five among linebacker prospects in this year's draft class.
Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN+.