by Vince Verhei
Arizona Cardinals: Who will rush the passer?
The Cardinals had 33 sacks last season, which isn’t too bad -– they were tied with the Saints for 18th in the league. However, they didn’t have any dominant individual pass rushers. Team leader Calais Campbell finished 39th in the NFL with just 6.0 sacks. As a result, the Cardinals were forced to blitz to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and that left their defense vulnerable to big plays. Only six teams gave up more 20-yard pass plays, and only the Broncos gave up more 20-yard runs.
Second place on the 2010 Cardinals in sacks? Try Darnell Dockett. That made Arizona the very rare 3-4 team that gets more sacks from its ends than from its outside linebackers. The Cardinals need to get more pressure from the outside, but had no luck filling the gap in the post-lockout frenzy. Joey Porter and Clark Haggans will be a combined 68 years old this year, and had only five sacks apiece last year. There’s nothing behind them but inexperienced late-round draftees like O’Brien Schofield and Will Davis. There’s not much left on the free agent market either, unless they want to add another senior citizen like Julian Peterson. It’s a safe bet that the Cardinals will grab a pass rusher early in the 2012 draft.
St. Louis Rams: Who will be the No. 1 receiver?
The Rams have managed to cobble together a staff of competent possession receivers who won’t embarrass themselves against the weaker nickelbacks or softer zone defenses of the NFL. However, they still lack the dominant wideout that can dictate double-coverage, or the home-run threat who can change a game in one play.
Oh, the Rams tried to upgrade the position, signing Mike Sims-Walker away from Jacksonville and drafting Austin Pettis out of Boise State and Gregory Salas out of Hawaii. But it’s not likely that any of these players will crack the starting lineup, let alone fix the problem. The Jaguars are not particularly stacked at the wide receiver position, but they made little effort to retain Sims-Walker. And there’s a reason Pettis lasted into the third round, and Salas into the fourth.
The returning Rams wideouts combined for only 22 20-yard catches last year, fewer than either Mike Wallace or Brandon Lloyd had by themselves. If there’s a secret weapon here, it’s Donnie Avery, who had 17 20-yard plays between 2008 and 2009, but missed all of last season with a torn ACL. However, word out of Rams camp is that Avery has been missing practices with a sore hamstring.
San Francisco 49ers: What if Gore can’t bounce back?
Running back Frank Gore staged a mini-holdout after the lockout ended, but soon happily returned to camp, saying the 49ers had promised to sign him to an extension that will keep him in San Francisco after this season. The 28-year-old needs fewer than 1,000 yards to become the franchise’s all-time leading rusher.
But will he get there? Nobody seems to be mentioning that despite a rebuilt offensive line featuring two highly drafted blockers, Gore averaged 4.2 yards per carry last year, the lowest rate of his career. And that was before the broken hip that ended his season in Week 12. Gore says he’s back at 100 percent, but what if he’s not? What if he gets hurt again?
The 49ers have a lot of options at backup running back, but none of them are very good. Anthony Dixon was a sixth-round choice in 2010, Kendall Hunter a fourth-round pick this year. Xavier Omon has spent three seasons bouncing on and off rosters of the Jets, Bills, and Seahawks. The most well-known backup may be undrafted rookie Jeremiah Masoli, the former quarterback at Oregon and Mississippi.
If Gore returns to pre-injury levels, this will be a non-issue. If he’s hurt again, though, the 49ers will be in deep trouble, because they have no Plan B.
Seattle Seahawks: Who will cover opposing wideouts?
According to our defensive numbers, the Seahawks were 14th against opposing team’s No. 1 receivers, but dead last against No. 2s and 28th against all other wideouts. There’s a severe lack of secondary depth here, but Seattle added no cornerbacks in the draft or free agency (unless you count sixth-rounder Byron Maxwell, a longshot to make the team) and actually lost a valuable contributor when safety/nickelback Jordan Babineaux signed with Tennessee.
The Seahawks go into the 2011 season with a depth chart consisting of Marcus Trufant (one of two players remaining on the roster from the 2005 Super Bowl team), Kelly Jennings (a disappointing former first-round pick who has come off the bench in three of his five seasons), Walter Thurmond (a fourth-round rookie who played surprisingly well in 2010), and journeymen Roy Lewis and Kennard Cox. This was probably the deepest position in free agency, but the Seahawks missed out on all the big names. Ellis Hobbs and Lito Sheppard both remain unemployed. Either would have been a fine option in, say, 2007.
(This article previously appeared at ESPN Insider.)