Four Downs: NFC West

Four Downs: NFC West
Four Downs: NFC West
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Brian McIntyre

Arizona Cardinals

Biggest offseason holes: Offensive Tackle, Outside Linebacker

In Kurt Warner's final three seasons as the Cardinals starting quarterback, the offensive line ranked among the top 10 in Adjusted Sack Rate. For the second consecutive season with a quarterback other than Warner in the pocket, the Cardinals ranked 27th in Adjusted Sack Rate, a decline that can be attributed both to Warner's pristine pocket presence and the shuttling of 2007 first-round pick Levi Brown from right to left tackle. Brandon Keith and Jeremy Bridges manning the right tackle position did the team no favors either.

Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Brown's cap number will swell to nearly $17 million, a figure the Cardinals are not going to carry in 2012. Brown will either be re-signed for the long-term –- and perhaps moved back to right tackle -– or released. That should put the Cardinals in the unfamiliar position of being in the market for an offensive tackle in the draft. Of the team's 30 draft picks since 2007, only three have been used on an offensive lineman. Just one of those picks, Keith, has contributed in a meaningful way, and he is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March. With the No. 13 pick in April's draft, Matt Kalil, Riley Reiff and Jonathan Martin could be long gone and the top tackles available in free agency -– Demetrius Bell and Jared Gaither –- could be retained by their current clubs.

The Cardinals have used fourth-round picks in back-to-back drafts on pass-rushing outside linebackers O'Brien Schofield (2010) and Sam Acho (2011), who combined for 11.5 quarterback sacks in 2011. The Cardinals defense ranked 20th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and with Clark Haggans and Joey Porter scheduled for unrestricted free agency, defensive coordinator Ray Horton would certainly like to add another pass-rushing linebacker to his arsenal.

San Francisco 49ers

Biggest offseason hole: Wide Receiver

To identify the largest hole on the 49ers' roster, one shouldn't have to look further than the final game of their 2011 season. In the NFC Championship Game, 49ers wide receivers accounted for one catch: a three-yard reception by Michael Crabtree with six minutes remaining in regulation. Crabtree's production is improving, as he ranked 41st in receiving DVOA last season. Still, that's not the production expected out of a top-10 pick, let alone one who remained unsigned into October of his rookie season when he was looking to be paid as if he were a top-5 pick.

The main problem with the 49ers receiving corps is that after Josh Morgan went down with a season-ending ankle injury, they had no adequate starter opposite Crabtree. The 49ers attempted to improve the receiver depth by signing Braylon Edwards to a one-year, incentive-laden deal last August, but he had more knee operations (one) than touchdowns (zero) last year, and was waived in the final week of the regular season. Backup receivers Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn were nice gadget players for Jim Harbaugh to tinker with, but most of their value and contributions were on special teams.

Williams is entering the final year of his contract, but his pair of miscues on punt returns in the NFC Championship Game could jeopardize his roster spot. Ginn took a pay cut before the start of the 2011 season and will be an unrestricted free agent. He’ll be joined by Morgan, who posted negative DVOA ratings in 2009 and 2010, but was on his way towards turning that around with 15 receptions for 220 yards and a touchdown in the first five weeks of the 2011 season. Morgan is expected to re-sign with the 49ers, but legitimate competition at the No. 2 receiver spot and building quality depth at the position should be a priority.

Seattle Seahawks

Biggest offseason holes: Defensive End, Quarterback

Since taking over in 2010, Pete Carroll and John Schneider have done a good job of retooling the Seattle defense. The Seahawks defense ranked 29th with a DVOA of 15.0 percent in 2010, a figure that improved to -3.1 percent in 2011, good enough to rank in the top 10. The secondary has been completely overhauled and placed three players in the 2011 Pro Bowl. 6-foot-4, 320-pound Red Bryant, an inherited and under-utilized defensive tackle, was moved to defensive end. That move, along with the re-signing of defensive tackle Brandon Mebane and addition of defensive tackle Alan Branch, helped bolster the run defense. Using a heavy front to stop the run comes at the expense of the pass rush though, with the Seahawks ranking 28th in Adjusted Sack Rate in each of the last two seasons with nearly identical figures of 5.3 percent (2010) and 5.5 percent (2011).

Schneider acquired Chris Clemons from the Philadelphia Eagles and has been rewarded with 22 quarterback sacks over the last two seasons. Another veteran acquisition, Raheem Brock, had nine sacks in 2010, but just three last year. Whether it's in free agency or the draft, the Seahawks need to find a pass rusher to create pressure opposite of Clemons in the short term, and potentially replace him in the long term since Clemons’ contract only runs through 2012.

To address the quarterback position, Carroll and Schneider have tried trades (Charlie Whitehurst) and free agency (Tarvaris Jackson), but still do not have the franchise quarterback that will ultimately define their regime. Whitehurst is a free agent and is not expected to return. Playing despite a pectoral injury, Jackson passed for 3,000 yards with 14 touchdowns, finishing the season 20th in passing DYAR. With a good defense and a strong running game, Seattle doesn’t necessarily need to chase Jackson’s replacement this offseason. In fact, unless they're willing to roll the dice again on a free agent (Matt Flynn), or mortgage their future by trading a bounty of picks for Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, they may have no choice but to stick with Jackson in 2012.

St. Louis Rams

Biggest offseason holes: Wide Receiver, Outside Linebacker

It's difficult to pinpoint just one area of need on the roster of a franchise that has won three games or less in four of the last five seasons, fired its general manager, and hired its third full-time head coach since 2008. On the offensive side of the ball, the Rams have their franchise quarterback (Sam Bradford) and a Pro Bowl-caliber running back in Steven Jackson. They’ve used a pair of high-round choices on offensive tackles Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold in two of the last three drafts, and though the Rams line didn’t protect well at all last season, it’s probably too soon to give up on the line after it looked so promising in 2010. One component that is still missing from that mix is a true No. 1 receiver.

St. Louis traded what turned out to be a 2012 fifth-round pick to the Denver Broncos to acquire Brandon Lloyd, who caught 51 passes for 683 yards and five touchdowns in 11 games with the Rams. Lloyd is an unrestricted free agent, turns 31 in March, and could be in demand on the market. Brandon Gibson is a serviceable complimentary receiver and Danny Amendola was Wes Welker-Lite in the slot before tearing his triceps. Neither of two 2011 draft picks –- Greg Salas and Austin Pettis -– appear capable of filling that No. 1 role (and Pettis will open the 2012 season on the suspended list), and Danario Alexander's injury history has hurt his chances of being an answer there as well. The Rams could pursue Marques Colston, DeSean Jackson, or Dwayne Bowe (if either of the latter two avoid the franchise tag) in free agency. Or they could use the No. 2 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft on Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon.

The Rams have a true quarterback on defense in middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, who is on the cusp of being a perennial Pro Bowler despite playing with a constantly revolving cast of outside linebackers. Na'il Diggs, David Vobora, Bryan Kehl, and Chris Chamberlain started games alongside Laurinaitis in 2010. Ben Leber, Brady Poppinga and Zac Diles were brought in for 2011. Free agent options in 2012 could include Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who recorded 76 tackles while playing for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in New Orleans, and a pair of Seahawks –- David Hawthorne and Leroy Hill -– who would be solid additions to the Rams that also weaken a division opponent.

(This article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)


23 comments, Last at 02 Mar 2012, 11:10am

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

I don'tdo watch the Rams a lot, is Laurinitas really that good?

Even if he is, it's going to be tough to unseat Willis and Urlacher.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Yeah. He's that good. He's not elite yet, but he's still ascending. He didn't deserve to go to the pro bowl this year, but not because he didn't play at a high level, rather because other players played even better. But it's only a matter of time.

Having seen the success Keith Bullock had playing for Jeff Fisher, I'm really intrigued to see just how good Laurenitis can be. The sky's the limit.

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

I have to disagree, he's a very good player but is a bit of a throwback to the days when middle linebackers were inside thumpers.

I don't think he has great range and isn't great in coverage either. He arrived in the league as a very heady and NFL ready player in terms of both his technique and mental preparation. He seems to me to be the type of player that will be the lynchpin of his defense for a decade but lacks the athleticism to transcend his position. As for the Pro bowl, Urlacher is still better and Bowman was so good that many people who have been watching the niners very closely regularly confuse him with Willis (myself included). I'd expect that by the time Urlacher declines there will be another young linebacker, perhaps Brown or Keuchler (spelling?), who will overtake him.

For me, Bullock was more athletic and so more able to make more of an impact in a greater number of plays. Laurenitis reminds me more of an improved Derek Smith, who was a really good player for a long time, a leader and valuable asset but unlikely to be a perennial pro bowler.

Just my $0.02

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

We can agree to disagree here. It seemed to me like he struggled in coverage a bit as a rookie (then again, most do), but improved that aspect of his game significantly a last year.

I don't get the Derek Smith comparison at all. That seems to sell Laurenitis absurdly short. Not to mention that Smith played the outside, not the middle. The guy he reminds me of most is actually pre-injury Stewart Bradley. In '07 or so, Bradley was an absolute beast, should have made the pro bowl, and the general consensus was that he was on the verge of greatness when he tore up his knee. He recovered enough to resume his career, but he's a fraction of the player he used to be.

To suggest that Willis is a better player simply states the obvious. Bowman also strikes me as a good young player, but I'd take Laurenitis (but I admit I have the opposite problem - I've seen much more of Laurenitis than Bowman).

To suggest that a couple kids in the combine are going to magically leap frog him when we don't even know if they're going to be drafted by an NFC team yet let alone actually, you know, play a game, I mean that's just absurd.

6 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Derek Smith was an inside linebacker, I can promise you that. He's also one of my favourite 49ers and one of their best free agent signings alongside guys like Ron Stone and Justin Smith.

As for the young players, I'm just suggesting that I think it's likely that with the young players entering the league every year there is likely to be a pretty good one at some stage, it might not be this year but I think Urlacher ha a couple of years left before Laurenitis surpasses him. As for Bowman, he's really, really good. Remember that he fell in the draft because of drug issues and being too small to play 3-4 OLB like he did in college, he was a first round talent that was regarded as such by the Cowboys when they inadvertently revealed their draft board that year.

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

I went back and looked it up. I stand corrected. Somehow, I was confusing him with Shawn Barber of the Redskins, Chiefs, etc - who was a solid weakside linebacker but nowhere near a pro bowl talent. How I got him and Derek Smith confused remains a mystery.

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

The Rams have a big need at OLB, yes, but they have an even bigger need at DT. Fred Robbins was solid, but unspectacular, last year and next to him was a gaping void. Last year, 17 teams played predominantly 4-3. Those DTs combined for 91 sacks. 59 of those sacks came from a teams "#1" DT and 32 came from the other starter and the reserves combined. The Rams got 3 from their top guy (tied for 11th of 17 teams) and only one sack from the rest of their DTs combined (tied for 13th of 17). Looking at tackles, 4-3 DTs made 1020 tackles last year. The Rams DTs made 41 (16th of 17). "#1" DTs made 22.8 tackles and Fred Robbins had 19, so roughly average. All other DTs made 37.2/team. The rest of the Rams DTs made 22 tackles - dead last among 4-3 teams.

The single biggest reason why the Rams fell apart last year was because they couldn't stop the run. As a team, they gave up 3 (4?) 200 yard games. Guys off the street were setting team records against them. And the biggest problem was the complete and utter void at DT aside from Robbins.

14 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Yeah I completely agree. WR and OLB are massive needs but a big run stuffing defensive tackle has got to be found, a complimentary one would probably help as well because Robbins isn't getting any younger.

15 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

If I were the Rams, I would look to fix the offense first. To find out what you've got with Bradford - and to avoid ruining him if his is a good talent - you need to put him in a position to succeed. Jason Smith may yet come good, but the concussions have to be a serious worry and even when he has got on the field he's hardly dominated. I think relying on him would be a major, major risk. The Rams don't look like a contender in 2012 regardless, so don't worry too much about the odd hole on defense for now, especially at a position like DT where you can both live with mediocrity and find useful players later in the draft. Follow something like the Manning-era Colts model of team construction.

16 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

I think receiver is a bigger need than offensive line for the Rams. Assuming Lloyd leaves, I think any of the top 3 receivers for the Bears would be the #1 guy in St Louis just to put in perspective how bad I think they are.

18 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

I agree that receiver's a bigger need, but they're nicely placed to take one at #33 (perhaps moving up a couple of slots if necessary), and this is a strong free agency class at the position, the best in years. Elite offensive tackles, on the other hand, can only be found at the top of the draft. If they can possibly wangle a way to trade down and then back up to take Kalil, I think they should consider it.

I'm also not 100% sold on Blackmon as high as #4. I think that's a risky proposal, with less chance of getting a truly dominant player than a lot of people think. I'm not saying he's a bust, just that I think there's a good chance he'll be over-drafted.

17 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Well they could probably live with mediocrity but when the run stopping in the middle is atrocious I think it needs fixing with pretty quickly. Having to play from behind the entire time is and making Bradford throw 40 times a game isn't going to help him either.

I'm not advocating taking a DT with the 2nd pick of the draft, if they stay put they should take Kalil, but assuming they trade down they could target a DT later in the first round, particularly if they get the 22nd pick from the Browns, or in the 2nd/3rd.

The WR talent in free agency looks pretty deep and they're getting Amendola back and hopefully Kendricks will develop a bit. So unless when they pick WR is clearly the best player available, as in they move down to four and Kalil's gone I would take Blackmon, I think they should go after a DT if one is at all plausible at the point in the draft.

19 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

I think the interior of the OL is as big of a need. I think we can tough it out at OT with Smith and Saffold (unless with Kalil is the next Pace), but on the interior we only have Dahl who is worth a damn of the players we had last year, and I doubt Jacob Bell and Jason Brown will be back.

I make it that there are 4 positions that we don't need to improve on: QB, HB, DE, and MLB. We can probably get by with the OTs and Safeties that we have, and I think our CBs are fine, although most people don't seem to. We also need to start thinking about adding a good HB to take over for Jackson eventually. Maybe not this year though.

But basically the Rams biggest need is to have a draft where we get decents on at least half the picks that we take. Forget value, just pick guys who can play. I'd honestly be happy with us taking pretty much anyone in the first 3 rounds if they can step in and be an improvement on the guys we have at the moment, even if we took positions that are of lower value and came out of the 1st 3 rounds with 2 OLBs and a Center.

20 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

You've got years to find good pieces at most positions, but dominant OTs and WRs are overwhelmingly found at the top of a draft, and if you've got the right coach and quarterback you shouldn't have many more picks in that range. If you don't get Kalil now, for example, you'll never get a player like him. That may be a sacrifice worth making for a whole load of extra high picks, but not so you can stand pat and take a 4-3 OLB or some such. Draft for the next decade, not the next season.

21 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Kalil looks awesome but I don't really see him slipping past the Vikings, so unless its the Vikings trading up there's not really any chance of getting Kalil without trading back up to 3 which would probably cost something pretty similar to what they get for the 2nd pick. Basically the question is whether the Rams are better off taking Kalil or trading the pick, with some of the reports of what teams are willing to give up I think tradings the better option when you've got a team with as many holes as we do.

22 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Just a FYI on where the most productive receivers last season were taken.

"Of the 17 wide receivers that had over 1,000 yards last year, seven weren’t selected among the top 118 picks in the draft. In fact, that group included six first-round picks and six wideouts who were either picked after the fifth round or weren’t drafted."

The full list is in this Eric Branch article:

23 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

17's a lot. I'm not denying that you can find good receivers elsewhere.

My point is that most people would say the three best receivers in football are Johnson, Fitzgerald and Johnson. They were all top three picks. You can get a good receiver anywhere, but one with elite physical skills and no significant flaws won't fall far. It's not as true of WR as it is of OT, but they're the two positions where I think this phenomenon is most striking. I'm just not entirely convinced Blackmon is in that category.