Four Downs: NFC West

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

by Scott Kacsmar

Arizona Cardinals

Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Tight End

It was not a strong draft or free-agency period for tight ends. Regardless, coach Bruce Arians loves his wide receivers, and thankfully Arizona has one of the league's best trios in Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd. However, if this offense were missing another dimension, it would be a prolific pass-catching tight end. Troy Niklas, a second-round pick in 2014, has simply not worked out, leaving the team to roll again with Jermaine Gresham and Darren Fells. The two combined for only 39 catches in 2015, but Fells did rank third in DVOA, compared to 38th for the slower Gresham.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions: Alabama quarterback Jake Coker is the big name here, but while he is big and has a strong arm, he lacks the top-end talent of a typical Arians quarterback (such as Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, and Carson Palmer). With Drew Stanton and Matt Barkley on the roster, Coker is unlikely to turn his national championship into a job in Arizona this season. Fresno State punter Garrett Swanson could challenge Drew Butler after Arizona's very ineffective season of punting in 2015.

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Los Angeles Rams

Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Pass-catchers

Much like the Browns, the Rams are trying to revitalize a passing game with an unproven quarterback and a suspect receiving corps. Jared Goff should be a Week 1 starter, but Tavon Austin is still an unusual starting receiver, relying too heavily on short passes and yards after the catch. The Rams are the only team in the NFL without an 800-yard receiving season in the past eight years. Kenny Britt may be the one to break that streak, or perhaps Goff can establish something with Brian Quick, who received no help from last year's quarterbacks. Fourth-round rookie Pharoh Cooper is a dark horse to be this year's Stefon Diggs.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions: In addition to Cooper, the Rams added two other wide receivers covered in this year's Playmaker Score, but neither has a strong projection. Nelson Spruce (Colorado) caught the most passes (294) in Pac-12 history, but he would have to be the Rams' new Danny Amendola to catch on in the NFL. His Playmaker Rating of 13.4 percent is barely half that of the 25.3 percent for Tennessee receiver Marquez North, who has size (6-foot-3) and speed (ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at his pro day), but is coming off an injury that limited his production. The Rams are also giving Junior Seau's nephew Ian Seau (Nevada-Reno) a shot, but it is a loaded front seven for this team.

San Francisco 49ers

Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Pass catchers

The defenses are still strong in the NFC West, and San Francisco's defense is clearly ahead of its offense. While the quarterback situation looks like a mess, let's just assume Chip Kelly will come to his senses and give Colin Kaepernick another shot instead of wasting everyone's time with Blaine Gabbert. Regardless of whom Kelly makes his quarterback, that player is going to have limited receiving options. Torrey Smith is a great vertical threat, but he has never caught more than 65 passes in a season. Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton have combined for only 55 catches in their careers. The 49ers drafted only one receiver this year, taking Michigan State's Aaron Burbridge late in the sixth round. Kelly's offense has worked wonders at getting receivers open before, but that was with great talent such as DeSean Jackson (2013) and Jeremy Maclin (2014). Maybe bringing back Anquan Boldin is a necessity.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions: Stanford receiver Devon Cajuste was recruited as a tight end, but became a trusted wide receiver in the Cardinal offense. His production is low -- just 27 catches for 383 yards in 2015 -- but that seems to be a prerequisite for this 49ers' receiving corps. Cajuste's Playmaker Rating (25.7 percent) is one of the best for the receivers projected to go in the seventh round or undrafted. Kicker Phil Dawson is 41, but remains reliable. John Lunsford's strong leg could challenge him, but the Liberty kicker was just 13-of-24 on field goals last season.

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Seattle Seahawks

Biggest Post-Draft Weakness: Offensive line

The offensive line has been a growing weakness for the Seahawks. Quarterback Russell Wilson, who has led the league in scrambles four years in a row, often does a fantastic job of compensating for that weakness, but two quick pressures led to two interceptions and a 24-0 hole in Carolina in January's playoff loss. Now you subtract Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy from this line and the prospects look even worse for 2016. Sure, a few draft picks were added, including Germain Ifedi to close the first round, but this unit is very much a work in progress for one of the few legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions: Heading into the season, it appears that Seattle's top running back (Thomas Rawls), starting two wide receivers (Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse), left tackle (Garry Gilliam), and outspoken stud pass-rusher Michael Bennett were all acquired as undrafted free agents. Can this team strike gold again? While there is still time for another annual late signing of Tarvaris Jackson to back up Russell Wilson, similarly-skilled TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin should have a good shot to win that job this season. Colorado State cornerback DeAndre Elliott has also drawn comparisons to Jeremy Lane in how he fits the mold of a Seattle corner at 6-foot-1. Given that the Seahawks brought Brandon Browner back, there are definitely some openings in the Legion of Boom. Ohio State safety Tyvis Powell was another player general manager John Schneider was surprised to get given the high grade the team had on him.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Portions of this piece were previously published on ESPN Insider.

Comments

12 comments, Last at 09 Jun 2016, 3:27am

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Michael Bennett was -originally- acquired as an undrafted free agent, but then released after a few games. He was later signed as an unrestricted free agent. Point being, I don't think he belongs on your list of current Seahawks acquired as a UDFA.

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

"The Rams are the only team in the NFL without an 800-yard receiving season in the past eight years."

... How is that even possible? Even this year, in the worst passing season for GB since 2008, both Cobb and Jones broke 800.

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

That does seem amazing in this current age.

I guess six games against the 49ers, Seahawks, Cards defenses over the past 4-5 years would knock down a team's offensive stats but even so.

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Case keenum, nick foles, kellen clemmens, austin Davis, shaun hill, aj feeley, sam bradford, kyle boller, keith null and marc bulgers corpse.

That might have something to do with it.

10 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

You could argue the wideouts have been worse than the quarterbacks. Since Sam Bradford was drafted first overall in 2010, the Rams' leading wideout in receptions is Danny Amendola -- who has been in New England for three years now. In second place is Brandon Gibson -- who just spent two years in Miami. And then in third place is Tavon "Just Play Me At Running Back" Austin, who has only been there three years.

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

I was shocked by that also. The last time the Packers didn't have a player reach 800 receiving yards was 2003, which was the year Ahman Green ran for 1800+ yards.

8 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Torry Holt finished with 796 yards one year, and in two seasons, the Ram's leading (and 3rd leading!) receiver by yardage did so while missing half the season.

Oddly, they don't pass poorly, they just don't have any prolific receivers.

They tend to have two kinds of seasons:
1. No #1 WR, but a lot of #2s.
2. A good #1, who was hurt for half the season.

9 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

3. Receivers with extremely low yards per catch averages. Danny Amendola's 2009 and 2010 are the two lowest YPCs for any wide receiver in NFL history (minimum 40 catches).

12 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Oddly, they don't pass poorly, they just don't have any prolific receivers.

?

They have been in the top half of the league in passing DVOA one time since 2002 -- and that year they were 13th.

They have been last or next to last five times in the last nine seasons.

11 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

It's quite easy for a team to do worse than Aaron Rodgers' worst year. He's been the best QB in the league for years now.

And I say that despite a having a man-crush on Russell Wilson that almost made me question my heterosexuality.