Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC West

Four Downs: NFC West
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Riley

Arizona Cardinals

Biggest hole: Running back

The Cardinals are still expected to cut veteran Edgerrin James, although they have not yet done so. Rookie Tim Hightower, who replaced James in the starting lineup for part of last season, was the second-worst running back in the league (minimum 100 carries) in both of Football Outsiders' advanced statistics, DYAR and DVOA. (Only Cincinnati's Chris Perry was worse.) Third-down back J.J. Arrington has left for Denver. Suffice to say, the Cardinals have a need at this position.

The 2009 draft is not particularly stocked with running-back talent, especially compared to last year's phenomenal class -- but that may actually work in the Cardinals' favor given that they will be picking at the end of the first round. Chris "Beanie" Wells clocked around a 4.40 40-yard dash time at his Pro Day and is shooting up draft boards, so the Cardinals will have to trade up if they want him. That leaves the two other "elite" backs in this draft: Knowshon Moreno of Georgia and LeSean McCoy from Pitt. Moreno possesses Barry Sanders-like lateral quickness, and although he lacks elite speed, the Cardinals should snap him up if he falls to them. As for McCoy, he has great hands, but he is undersized and struggles with pass protection. The Cardinals already tried this experiment with Arrington, and there's no reason to try again.

Free Agency Recap

As always, the Cardinals were relatively quiet in free agency. After dithering around for a few weeks on Kurt Warner's new contract, the front office managed to add cornerback Bryant McFadden to help shore up the secondary and play across from rookie phenom Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The team also added journeyman running back Jason Wright, who should enjoy his year playing lots of special teams, where he will likely be joined by former Rams tight end Anthony Becht.

As for depatures, the Texans' signing of defensive end Antonio Smith was probably the biggest loss, though certainly not a devastating one by any stretch. The Cardinals also won't miss Arrington, linebacker Monty Beisel, or cornerback Eric Green (now of the Miami Dolphins) either.

St. Louis Rams

Biggest hole: Wide receiver

Quick quiz: Can you identify a single Rams wideout not named Donnie Avery? After the release of Torry Holt and Drew Bennett, the current roster consists of the following receivers under contract: Keenan Burton, Derek Stanley, Joel Filani, Travis Brown, Nate Jones, and Chad Lucas. These six players have 24 career catches combined. No wonder Rams general manager Bill Devaney has joked about bringing back the wishbone offense. (At least, we think it's a joke.)

Given this desperate shortage of receiving talent, the Rams were rumored to be pursuing Nate Washington and Brandon Jones in free agency, but these players signed with the Titans and 49ers instead. The remaining big name free-agency options are geriatric -- the Rams really don't want Marvin Harrison, Amani Toomer, or Marty Booker -- but St. Louis could consider Eagles wide receiver Hank Baskett, a restricted free agent. This will come as a shock, but Baskett managed to post 89 DYAR and 8.6% DVOA last year, good for 23rd in the league and ahead of guys like Brandon Marshall, Terrell Owens, and Santana Moss. Even more shocking, Baskett is married to Kendra Wilkinson, one of Hugh Hefner's former concubines on "The Girls Next Door." Yes, really.

As for the draft, virtually everyone agrees that Devaney will use the second overall pick on a left tackle to replace Orlando Pace (filling one of the many other holes on this roster). Thus, although Michael Crabtree is a tempting possibility, the Rams will wait until the later rounds to find someone to pair with Avery. Maryland's Darrius Hayward-Bey has the size and the speed to create all sorts of matchup problems at the next level, but the Rams will have to trade up if they want to grab him. Another possibility is Brian Robiskie of Ohio State, who is also big (6-foot-3), but the Buckeyes haven't exactly produced a lot of offensive stars in the NFL lately, have they? A better option is Oklahoma's Juaquin Iglesias, a strong possession receiver who won't be afraid to go over the middle when Avery goes deep.

Free Agency Recap

We might have to stop making fun of the Rams' offensive line soon. By signing center Jason Brown, formerly of the Ravens, the Rams acquired the best lineman available in free agency this year -- and who cares if they had to make him the league's highest paid center to woo him to St. Louis, or that the NFL invalidated the initial contract he signed? With Brown anchoring the middle and someone like Virginia's Eugene Monroe at left tackle, Steven Jackson and Marc Bulger could be poised for breakout fantasy seasons, to say nothing of the real Rams team. Brown's signing also made centers Nick Leckey and Brett Romberg expendable (they signed with the Saints and Falcons, respectively).

By the way, the Rams still have an additional 13 unrestricted free agents on the roster, and most of them will not return. Devaney is clearly pursuing the "blow it up and start over" method of franchise building. It's somewhat refreshing, if long overdue.

San Francisco 49ers

Biggest hole: Quarterback

What a weird situation this is. Alex Smith, first overall pick of the 2005 draft, has become a case study in how not to groom a franchise quarterback (Hint: Try not to change offensive coordinators every year he's in the league) and yet, strangely, Smith reworked his contract to stay in San Francisco and took less money than he likely would have commanded on the open market. He has been promised the opportunity to compete for the starting job (again) but with a lifetime DVOA of -39.9%, Smith is pretty sure to join Akili Smith, David Klingler, and Ryan Leaf in the great Pantheon of First-Round Quarterback Busts.

And then there's Shaun Hill, the undrafted wunderkind out of Hutchinson Community College and the University of Maryland. Over the past two years, Hill has compiled a 7-3 win-loss record as a starter with a 64 percent completion rate, which is all the more impressive considering the 49ers' dearth of receiving talent. On the other hand, his -2.3% DVOA ranked 28th in the league last year, and the coaching staff still refuses to anoint him the starter, so Hill doesn't seem to be the long-term answer either.

So what about Jay Cutler? Without rehashing the Is-he-a-Pro Bowler-versus-is-he-a-whiner debate, there's no doubt Cutler would excite the fanbase and possesses the potential to be the "next great 49ers quarterback," something the team has been looking for since, oh, the 1990s. Would Denver accept the 49ers' 10th overall pick packaged with Hill (or Smith) as compensation? Who knows, but 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan would be crazy not to find out.

The other option, of course, is to use the 10th pick on USC's Mark Sanchez. There's a lot to like about the Trojans quarterback -- he has ideal size, terrific footwork, and reassuring accuracy -- but the 49ers simply cannot afford to take a risk on player with only one proven year as a starter. (By the way, Sanchez has only one year of starting experience because he couldn't beat out John David Booty for the job in 2006. Warrants mentioning.) And even though Georgia's Matt Stafford would appear to be a tremendous "value" pick if he fell to the 49ers, beware the first-round quarterback with a college completion percentage under 60 percent. Those players are well represented in the Pantheon of Busts too.

Alex Smith Career DVOA
Year DVOA Rank Note
2005 -89.4% 46 out of 46 Lowest ever for QB with min 100 passes
2006 -15.3% 35 out of 46 OC Norv Turner works his magic
2007 -49.4% 49 out of 52 OC Jim Hostler unworks it
TOTAL -39.9%

Free Agency Recap

Yawn. The biggest move the 49ers have made thus far in free agency, if it can be described as such, is signing former Titans wide receiver Brandon Jones. Memo to General Manager Scot McCloughan: If you are counting on a Titans receiver to revitalize your receiving corps, you may have a problem. Other signings include defensive end Demetric Evans and fullback Moran Norris. Blue chippers these guys ain't.

On the other side of the ledger, three-game wonder J.T. O'Sullivan decided to compete with Carson Palmer for a starting job with the Bengals, wide receiver Bryant Johnson signed with the Lions (yikes), and defensive tackle Ronald Fields joined the Broncos. Meanwhile, the entire FO staff is on pins and needles wondering if longtime whipping boy and unrestricted free agent DeShaun Foster will still have a job in 2009.

Seattle Seahawks

Biggest hole: Strong safety

The Seahawks have been busy this offseason. First, they wooed wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh by flying him around Seattle in Paul Allen's seaplane (paying him $7.5 million annually helped too). Then, after defensive tackle Rocky Bernard signed with the Giants, the Seahawks dealt Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson to the Lions for defensive tackle Cory Redding and a fifth-round pick, and the team added free agent tackle Colin Cole (formerly of the Packers) for depth.

As a result, the Seahawks are left with one obvious problem, and he goes by the name of "Brian Russell, strong safety." Seattle's pass defense posted a pathetic DVOA of 29.8% last year (29th overall), and while some of the breakdown may be attributed to a poor pass rush, a lot had to do with Russell whiffing on tackles, and occasionally screening his teammates out of a play (such as when he ran Deon Grant off of Ted Ginn, Jr., in Week 10, allowing Ginn to make a 40-yard shoestring touchdown catch).

For these reasons, the Seahawks would be foolish not to take a hard look at Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins with the fourth overall pick. Not only does Jenkins satisfy two of Seahawks' general manager Tim Ruskell's drafting prerequisites -- high character and big-program graduate -- he also has great size, something that is sorely lacking in Seattle's diminutive backfield. The only knock on Jenkins is his not-quite-elite speed, which is why he projects as a safety at the next level.

Most teams, however, don't want to invest a top-five pick in a safety. As a result, the Seahawks may turn to their second-round pick and take Oregon's Patrick Chung or Alabama's Rashad Johnson. Chung is strong, has great intangibles, and is stout against the run, and although he doesn't have ideal size, that's never stopped Ruskell before (as cornerbacks Kelly Jennings and Josh Wilson can attest). If Chung is not available, Johnson has essentially the same skill set, and Ruskell is known to have a bit of a SEC fetish.

Free Agency Recap

The acquisition of Houshmandzadeh, Redding, and Cole should help offset the loss of seven players in free agency (the most of any team in the league). In addition to losing Bernard, the Wide Receiver Formerly Known as Third-Down Machine Bobby Engram signed with the Chiefs; the Lineman Still Known as Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack joined the Browns; the nickname-less tight end Will Heller and running back Maurice Morris departed for Detroit; fullback Leonard Weaver signed with the Eagles; and defensive tackle Howard Green traded Seattle's green-and-blue for the Jets' green-and-white. Whew.


33 comments, Last at 02 Apr 2009, 12:23am

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

You must realize neither Jason Wright nor Anthony Becht is practice squad-eligible, right?

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Did I miss the departure of Dane Looker? I thought I had that Rams question nailed...

Meanwhile, the Seahawks' Free Agency Recap is merely a recap (or in this case, exact copy of) the Seahawks' first paragraph.

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Uhh, major mistake in the article. Take a second look at the Seattle section. You have the same first paragraph for Biggest Hole and Free Agency Recap.

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

(For the record, one of the Seahawks free agency paragraphs gets repeated.)

Speaking of the Hawks, not too much talk of the WR shoes remaining to be filled. Are we just hoping that half of last year's wounded come back and survive pre-season?

I did like FO's mock draft choice of a T in the #4 slot and then follow with DBs. Their receiving corps(e) says to me, "get Hasselbeck more time in the pocket."


Better to have watched the game and lost than never watched at all.

10 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Housh, Branch, Burleson sounds like a pretty good top 3 to me. Adding a middle rounder to compete with Obamanu et al for the #4 slot (if Robinson doesn't return) sounds like a good plan, but I don't really think there are "WR shoes remaining to be filled"--aren't there 10-12 WRs on the roster right now?

24 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Hold up a minute, didn't you read the Football Outsiders' Adjusted Games Lost report? Obamanu was above Burleson on the depth chart, and when Seattle signed Robinson, Football Outsiders stopped counting Burleson's missed games. This means that Burleson was no better than 5th.

Anyways, click name, Pro Football Weekly says Robinson is done.

11 WR's on roster according to NFLCOM; Michael Bumpus, Marquis Floyd, Mike Hass, Jordan Kent, Billy (f'ing) McMullen, Logan Payne, Courtney Taylor.

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

"But the Buckeyes haven't exactly produced a lot of offensive stars in the NFL lately, have they?"

Santonio Holmes?

12 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Ted Ginn has potential, as does Anthony Gonzalez.

But yeah, most of the draft picks from Ohio State since 2000 seem to be either defensive players or linemen.

Sports talk radio and sports message boards are the killing fields of intellectual discourse.

6 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

I apologize for the lax editing on this one; I've tried to make corrections above.

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

49ers picked up Marvel Smith to play RT with an incentive laden contract.
Their previous fullback was a converted qb...

16 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

iirc, Robinson wasn't the primary fb. They were using Zak Keasey originally, who was a converted linebacker (who they chose over Norris in training camp) until he got injured.

14 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

This article neglects to mention David Carr as another 1st-round-bust comparable to Alex Smith. The DVOA differences the two have (Carr having a far better DVOA than Smith) can probably be attributed to Carr having an elite WR. Even with Andre Johnson, Carr developed a horrible case of the yips and Smith looks to have the same problem. I wonder if Smith will be able to overcome the bad tendencies that develop when a QB is under constant heavy pressure.

Also, it's clear to me that the reason the 49ers aren't pursuing Jay Cutler is that he doesn't fit their old is new smash mouth football style that Singletary has been crowing about. Is it too late too dump Singletary and offer the job to Shanny and Cutler?

15 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

"Is it too late too dump Singletary and offer the job to Shanny and Cutler?"

Yeah, that was bad timing when we offered Samurai Mike the job.

17 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

They did go after warner. My impression is that the niners are pursing Cutler, just like 10 other teams, but don't want to talk about it publicly (or even let it leak) because of how they got screwed over with tampering charges a couple years back. The only thing they've said about it is: "we can't discuss players currently under contract with another team."

18 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

I don't think Warner or the 49ers were really serious about it. It was probably just to drive up the price on a division foe.

19 Brian Russell is a free safety

though the positions are pretty interchangeable in Seattle's scheme. He screened Marcus Trufant on Ginn's touchdown reception, not Deon Grant. The catch also wasn't "shoestring", but up and over the shoulder. You can see our man at work here.

Seattle's deal with Houshmandzadeh was five years, $40 million.

If Jenkins is drafted by Seattle and plays free safety, as the story hypothesizes, he would replace a taller player: Brian Russell. I think that's picking nits, though.

21 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Hey John, thanks for posting to the link of Russell's fine work screening off Trufant (not Grant). As an aside, my definition of "shoestring" is a catch where the receiver just barely gets his feet in bound (and Ginn was inches away from stepping out). As for Houshmanzadeh, it's a pet peeve of mine that journalists report the nominal value of contracts rather than the likely amount the player will get paid (guaranteed + first two or three years salary, adjusted for age and position).

As for Puyallup, Washington's favorite native son (Dane Looker), I've heard/read conflicting reports as to whether the Rams are interested in bringing him back. Given the state of the receiving corps, they should be.

22 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Sorry to nitpick Ben, but your definition is wr-wr-wr--incorrect. A shoestring catch is of a ball so close to the ground it is literally off the shoestrings. A carryover from baseball (which probably explains the old-timey "strings" rather than "laces").

armchair journeyman quarterback

25 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Hey, I reserve the right to arbitrarily redefine phrases so that I can justify my incorrect usage of them after-the-fact. Now excuse me while I go inhale some iocane powder.

As for the Buckeye defenders, I'll give you Anthony Gonzalez, though it's a little hard to separate his performance from Manning's and Wayne's brilliance. As for Santonio Holmes, let's not forget he ranked 60th in DYAR and DVOA last year -- a mere five slots ahead of Ginn Jr. (65th in both categories) -- before his outstanding Super Bowl.

27 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Dangit, your rebuttal wasn't there when I loaded the page. Me and my stupid slow braiiiiiins.

And how the hell am I supposed to CAPTCHA "28 3/8". Man, I need to register.

31 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

santonio was ranked 11th and 6th by dyar and dvoa in 2007 and 17th and 12th in 2006. it's very possible his mediocre 2008 regular season was a fluke.

26 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

AJQ is correct, Ben. You're referring to a "toe tapper" or as I like to call them when actual toe dragging is involved,
"A Snyder's Folly"


23 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

As for the draft, virtually everyone agrees that Devaney will use the second overall pick on a left tackle to replace Orlando Pace (filling one of the many other holes on this roster)

Well everyone except for FO's 2009 mock draft.

Other draft-related points:

1. I'm not a big Robiskie fan, but I still think he'd be a better bet than Iglesias, and as others mentioned, recent 1st round OSU receivers Holmes, Ginn, and Gonzalez haven't exactly been schlubs.
2. I don't really buy the Malcolm Jenkins to safety stuff, particularly not if you're talking about him as a top 5 pick. Plenty of corners with similar size/speed have been successful NFL corners (see Barnwell's comment on Jenkins in the mock draft).
3. A lot of teams probably have Donald Brown ahead of McCoy at RB. I'm not sure Wells will go ahead of Moreno, but I doubt either will be there when the Cards pick.
4. Signing Hank Baskett would require giving up a 2nd round pick, assuming the Eagles don't match. I like Baskett as much as the next guy, but the Rams would be crazy to give up an early 2nd round pick for him.

28 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Alex Smith and #10 to the Broncos for Jay Cutler? Even though Mike Nolan isn't running the show in Denver, Smith's history with Nolan seems to preclude such a swap from happening.

29 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

I didn't get any sort of answer the last time around, so I'll post this concerning Lewin's forecast of Matt Stafford, one more time: (originally posted in the NFC North Four Downs which first looked at Stafford's Lewin forecast)

Is there any reliable comp to Stafford, and is there any consideration to a player's year when he posted certain numbers? Here's what I see when I look at the 5 players given in the article:
- Patrick Ramsey actually regressed from Sophomore to Senior season in terms of accuracy, going from 60.4% to 58.9% to 57.1%.
- Jake Plummer started 4 years, but never had a high completion %, as he turned in totals of 51.3%, 54.1%, 57.5%, and 57.2%. Note that he also played his SR season.
- You say you weed out the unique system guys, but you include Shaun King, who was drafted thanks to a successful season with Rich Rodriguez as his OC. Rodriguez hardly runs a conventional pro system. King also played his SR season.
- JP Losman as a JR completed 57.4% and as a SR completed 59.8%.
- Matt Ryan topped 60% twice in his career and played 4 years.

The reason I bring these year-by-year stats up is that I think it paints a bit of a different picture. Discounting Shaun King's spread offense stat numbers, we've got just 3 seasons of 60% or better. One was Patrick Ramsey's sophomore effort, and as the team got further removed from the Rich Rodriguez years, his completion rates dwindled. The other two belonged to the one success story in the bunch, Matt Ryan. Not all career 57% rates are the same, in other words. Some players, like Ramsey, regress. Some players, like Plummer, pretty much stay the same. Some players continually get better. Matthew Stafford is in the latter group, and much like Carson Palmer, got thrown into the fire before he was ready and suffered a low career completion % as a result. Stafford, if you compare the two, is actually further along, accuracy-wise, than was Palmer when he was a Junior. Palmer's completion % was 58.7 his JR season and 63.2% as a SR.

Is there really a great comp for Matthew Stafford? You compared him to 5 players who all played their Senior seasons, and of the 5, only Matt Ryan ever had a single season completion % as high as Stafford's 61.5% in 2008. Can you find a QB who started from his true freshman to junior season and consistently improved his completion % each season, culminating in a 60%+ season as a JR, while playing in a pro system? I'm not suggesting he's the first, but I do think it's a bit shortsighted to use raw career completion % as the tool when there seem to be some obvious trends that separate players within that accuracy range (notably the presence of a 60%+ season on their resume).

32 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

the point you are ignoring is that one season's stats aren't particularly telling, regardless of when they happened in a player's career.

30 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

"A shoestring catch"
It's a tip toe catch, a circus catch, a bone crushing tackle, shoestring tackle, a laser throw or a rocket arm.
The adjectives arent interchangable. Well, they are, but then it makes no sense anymore.