Four Downs: NFC West
by Brian McIntyre
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.
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.)