Four Downs: NFC West

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

by Bryan Knowles

Arizona Cardinals

Biggest Need: No. 2 Cornerback

Arizona did a good job matching early-round picks to their most significant needs. Josh Rosen is the first early-round quarterback the Cardinals have drafted since Matt Leinart in 2006. Christian Kirk may one day replace Larry Fitzgerald as Arizona's top receiver. Mason Cole could see some playing time on the interior of the offensive line. There just weren't enough picks to solve all their needs; something had to slip through the cracks.

Patrick Peterson remains one of the best corners in the game, but there has been an ongoing struggle to find someone to pair him with. Justin Bethel was not the answer last season; he was replaced in Week 7 by Tramon Williams and wasn't really seen again. Both are gone, so it's back to Square 1. The top two options -- Bene' Benwikere and Brandon Williams -- combined for 11 defensive snaps last season. Then there's Marcus Williams, who bounced between the Jets and Texans last season, and sixth-round pick Chris Campbell. There isn't a high-quality starter here, so it will remain the largest hole on an otherwise solid defense.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The Cardinals have loaded up their UDFA pool with first-team small conference stars. Toledo's Brant Weiss only had one full season as starter, but he made it a good one -- he was the first-team All-MAC right tackle, helping lead the way for a running game that averaged 5.2 yards per carry last season. San Jose State linebacker Frank Ginda led the nation with 173 tackles last season and was first-team All-Mountain West. Ginda excelled at his pro day less than a week after being T-boned in a nasty hit-and-run, so he's got grit and heart and any of those other buzzwords you give to a guy who doesn't have exceptional athletic talent.

Safety Ezekiel Turner from Washington will rejoin former teammate Budda Baker in the desert. He played both safety and linebacker last season, with 55 tackles and an interception, and was a very valuable and willing tackler on special teams. The Cardinals also picked up a pair of intriguing wide receivers -- Vanderbilt's Trent Sherfield, who ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, and Corey Willis, who passed Antonio Brown as the all-time leader in touchdowns in Central Michigan's history.


Los Angeles Rams

Biggest Need: Edge Rusher

Rams fans got to celebrate their draft haul months ago. Rather than wait until draft day proper, the Rams used their 2018 draft picks as trade fodder, acquiring Brandin Cooks, Marcus Peters, and Aqib Talib.

The downside to all that talent coming in is that the Rams didn't really have the opportunity to fix any more needs in the draft. With Robert Quinn in Miami and Connor Barwin still unsigned, the Rams' leading returning edge rusher is Matt Longacre, with just 15.5 pressures last season according to Sports Info Solutions charting (subscription required). Longacre's really more of a rotational piece, someone who slides in and provides solid play while your actual weapons get some rest on the sideline. He'll be joined by last year's fourth-round pick, Samson Ebukam, and this year's fifth-round pick, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, as Wade Phillips tries to turn top-tier athletic traits into on-field production. It's actually not that bad of a group; it just pales in comparison to the All-Star squad Los Angeles has built on the defensive line and in the secondary.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Indiana inside linebacker Tegray Scales is lacking in both size and speed, but he makes up for it with fantastic instincts and a penchant for taking optimal angles to the ballcarrier, resulting in 36 TFLs and 13 sacks over the last two seasons. The Rams are a little thin inside with Alec Ogletree gone and Mark Barron not yet healthy, so Scales has a great shot at making the 53-man roster. So, too, does Colorado safety Afolabi Laguda, a solid tackler who could be an instant contributor on special teams.

Quarterback Luis Perez of Texas A&M-Commerce won the Harlon Hill trophy -- the Division II equivalent of the Heisman -- and led the Lions to a national championship last season, putting up gaudy numbers against limited competition. USC receiver Steve Mitchell can be a big-play threat with blazing speed, but three knee injuries in college mean he has spent more time in the rehab room than in the lineup. Steven Parker out of Oklahoma has experience at both safety and nickel corner, though he needs to improve his tackling if he wants to stick on special teams.


San Francisco 49ers

Biggest Need: Edge Rusher

The 49ers did draft an edge rusher -- Kentavius Street in the fourth round. However, he'll miss the 2018 season with an ACL injury, so the 49ers will have to cobble together a pass rush for this season with pre-existing pieces. Their 2017 pressure rate of 29.4 percent, according to Sports Info Solutions charting (subscription required), ranked 23rd in the league. Their sack rate of 5.2 percent was 27th, and no individual pass rusher hit 30 total pressures. Their leading outside pass-rusher, Elvis Dumervil, is still an unsigned free agent. There's a fair amount of work to do.

San Francisco is counting on a pair of first-round talents to provide more oomph in 2018. Solomon Thomas made plenty of tackles in the backfield in the running game as a rookie, but had some growing pains as he transitioned to the outside in his first year in the NFL. Arik Armstead was beginning to show serious pass-rushing promise before a broken hand ended his season after just six games. The 49ers will likely need career years out of both players -- or from last year's midseason pickup, Cassius Marsh -- if they're going to be a serious playoff contender in 2018.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: It's a little shocking that Florida State corner Tarvarus McFadden wasn't drafted -- he's the sort of tall, long-armed, disruptive press corner that is all the rage in the NFL these days. He was a finalist for the 2016 Bronko Nagurski Trophy for best defender in college football and was once considered a potential first-round pick, but a subpar 2017 and a terrible 40 time at both the combine and his pro day sent him plummeting down the draft board. In a San Francisco cornerback group that was almost entirely devoid of depth by the end of last season, McFadden has every chance to make a splash.

Washington center Coleman Shelton made the All-Pac-12 team twice, starting at every position along the line at one point or another. Tennessee's Emmanuel Moseley is another potential contender in the cornerback race; he had a 4.42-second 40-yard dash, a 38.5-inch vertical leap, and a 10-foot, 6-inch broad jump at his pro day. Steven Dunbar had 76 receptions for 1,070 yards as a senior at Houston, and is now the tallest receiver on the team. He joins teammate Terrell Williams, an honorable mention All-AAC safety who had four interceptions last season.

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Seattle Seahawks

Biggest Need: Offensive Line

Seattle's failure to find a developmental quarterback behind Russell Wilson means … oh, who are we kidding, it's the offensive line. Again.

All we really need to do is update what we said at this point last year. Seattle has now given up 40 or more sacks in each of the past five seasons, the longest active streak in the NFL. They finished 31st in adjusted line yards and 26th in adjusted sack rate last season -- and that's with Wilson's Houdini routine making them look better than they were. And yet, they waited until the end of the fifth round before drafting a lineman, Jamarco Jones out of Ohio State. That's too late to really project him as an impact starter as a rookie -- and Seattle really could have used a pair of new starters in this draft class.

To be fair, the Seahawks haven't entirely ignored the offensive line this offseason. They added D.J. Fluker -- depth for most teams, an upgrade at guard for Seattle -- and replaced offensive line coach Tom Cable with Mike Solari. They'll also get a full season from Duane Brown, acquired midseason in a trade with Houston. Another year of experience can't hurt Ethan Pocic and Germain Ifedi, either. Still, there's every reason to expect we'll be here next year, with Seattle once again needing to beef up the offensive line to keep Wilson upright and healthy.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: It would not be at all surprising if Poona Ford ends up making a splash in 2018. The Texas star doesn't have your prototypical nose tackle size, at just 5-foot-11, but his leverage and power more than made up for that at the college level. Ford will be a zero in the pass rush, but his 20.5 tackles for a loss show potential to be a significant run-stuffer at the next level. The only real obstacle he has to beat out is 33-year-old Tom Johnson, so the opportunity is definitely there.

Seattle grabbed a couple other front-seven possibilities in their UDFA class. Missouri end Marcell Frazier was one of the best pass-rushers in the SEC for two years, though a torn quad hampered him in 2017. With a bit more consistency, he could eventually be a starting NFL pass-rusher. Oklahoma linebacker Emmanuel Beal led the Sooners in tackles and works best in space; he's a potential candidate to convert to strong safety. Chris Hawkins played both safety and cornerback at USC -- he may be caught in between positions at the next level, but his ability to quickly read and react on the field gives him a fighting chance. And then you have Marcus Martin, fullback, Slippery Rock. Martin is the all-time college football sack leader with 56, as well as the D-2 record holder for tackles for a loss with 92.5. He's moving to the offensive side of the ball full time now, making him a definite project -- but a 6-foot-2, 255-pound fullback who's used to shedding linemen is worth a kick of the tires.

Portions of this article originally appeared as ESPN Insider.


4 comments, Last at 15 May 2018, 4:08am

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

If the Rams defensive line and secondary lives up to their billing, all the edge rushers are going to have to do is clean up the terrified quarterbacks who are running for their lives. As long as the guys lined up on the edge are disciplined enough to keep contain and hardworking enough for chasedown sacks, they should be enough to keep the defense humming. That's probably the reasoning behind shipping Quinn out of town; he's the kind of guy to run himself 10 yards behind the QB on an attempted speed rush and open up a big escape lane for the QB.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

This is more or less my thought as well; the Rams don't have a lot of glaring positional weaknesses. Their biggest questions for 2018 are sustainability, but that's not really a position per se.

3 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Poona Ford is another excellent name for a nose tackle. This is a strong year for interesting names.

4 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Love Poona Ford. Hope to hear it a ton on gamedays.

This is also the second time I've hyped up Marcus Martin as a sleeper rookie. Hopefully this Martin plays better for Seattle than San Francisco's version did from the 2014 class -- a player who I said "will [possibly] be the player who has started the most games for the 49ers [in the 2014 class]".

The moral, as always, is I'm an idiot.