Four Downs: NFC West

Four Downs: NFC West

by Vincent Verhei

Welcome back to our offseason series of Four Downs. We'll be reviewing each division one-by-one, looking at each team's biggest hole going into free agency as well as the most important players who may be on the market (provided they aren't franchise tagged or re-signed before March 5).

Arizona Cardinals

Biggest Hole: Offensive line

Woe be to him who played upon Arizona's offensive line in 2018. The sorrows began in the week leading up to the Cardinals' first preseason game, when starting center A.Q. Shipley tore his ACL and was lost for the year. From that point, nobody was safe -- none of Arizona's projected starting linemen started more than 10 games, and by the first week of December, every one of them had been released or put on IR. Now, the Cardinals' first-string offensive line includes Shipley (33 this year and coming off a torn ACL), left tackle D.J. Humphries (who has missed 21 games in the past three seasons), and right guard Justin Pugh (who has missed 22 games the past three seasons), with question marks at left guard and right tackle. The only backup of note is Mason Cole, a third-round rookie out of Michigan who started all 16 games in Shipley's absence last year, but he is slated for the bench -- shortly after Shipley's injury, the Cardinals extended the veteran for $2 million in 2019, ensuring the starting job would be his to lose. Kliff Kingsbury's offense is usually busy -- in his six years at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders ran 6,148 offensive plays, second only to Baylor in the Big 12 -- which means the Cardinals won't just need quality starters on the line, they're going to need a bevy of reliable backups as well.

Major Free Agents: Mike Iupati, LG; Phil Dawson, K; Deone Bucannon, LB; Tre Boston, S; Benson Mayowa, DE; Markus Golden, DE

The Cardinals stopped their biggest free agent from leaving when they signed Larry Fitzgerald to an extension in January, ensuring the best player in franchise history will spend at least one more year with the team. Arizona voided the final year of Iupati's contract, making him a free agent; he had signed a deal worth up to $40 million in 2015, but played in only 39 of 64 games since then. Dawson went on IR in November with hip problems and turned 44 in January; even for a kicker, that's a troubling combination of age and injury. Boston and Golden started a combined 24 games last season. Bucannon, one of the league's original moneybackers, was relegated to special teams duty for large chunks of 2018. Mayowa, a journeyman, is coming off one of his best seasons, with 4.0 sacks and a career high 11 QB hits.

Los Angeles Rams

Biggest Hole: Edge rusher, probably

The Rams went all in on 2018, and it almost resulted in a Lombardi Trophy, but they now face the likelihood of a major overhaul. Beyond a massive number of impending free agents (which we shall get to shortly), they could also see some significant cap casualties (Michael Brockers, Mark Barron, and Marcus Peters, for example), as well as the potential retirement of left tackle Andrew Whitworth. With so many puzzle pieces left out of place, it's hard to predict just what weaknesses the roster will have by the time free agency begins. Based on the players under contract right now, though, it's clear the Rams need help on the perimeter of the defensive front.

Defensive tackle Aaron Donald led the league with 20.5 sacks -- exactly half the Rams' total of 41.0, which was one more than the league average of 40.0. Interior defenders Ndamukong Suh and Cory Littleton were second and third on L.A. in sacks; no edge player had more than the 3.0 of Samson Ebukam. If Donald's play slips even a bit in 2019 -- say, he is merely an All-Pro instead of Defensive Player of the Year -- L.A. could have a very hard time putting opposing quarterbacks on the ground.

Major Free Agents: Ndamukong Suh, DT; Lamarcus Joyner, S; Rodger Saffold, LG; Dante Fowler, OLB; Dominique Easley, DE; Matt Longacre, OLB; Sam Shields, CB; Ethan Westbrooks, DE; C.J. Anderson, RB; Cory Littleton, ILB (RFA)

Where to begin? This list of free agents, which is by no means complete, includes a critical starter on the best run-blocking line in the league; more than 4,000 combined snaps on defense last season; and over $62 million in guaranteed money in their last contracts. Suh signed a one-year deal for $14 million to join the Rams a year ago; he will likely want more money and more years this time around. The Rams used the franchise tag to keep Joyner around for an $11 million price tag last season; they're unlikely to franchise him again. If Whitworth retires and Saffold signs elsewhere, that would scuttle the best run-blocking line we've ever measured in a hurry. Multiple sources have speculated that Fowler could be franchised tagged, but will the Rams really want to guarantee $15 million or more for a player with just 16.0 sacks in his last three years? Anderson might have been the team's best offensive player in the postseason. The only good news here is that some of these players (Longacre, Westbrooks, Easley) made a bigger impact on the payroll than they did on the field, and L.A. will be better for getting out of those deals.

UPDATE: Whitworth announced on Twitter today that he would return in 2019.

San Francisco 49ers

Biggest Hole: Secondary

Casual observers might blame San Francisco's 4-12 record on the injuries that knocked their starters at quarterback and running back out for most of the year, but that's overlooking the fact that the defense was terrible too. In fact, the 49ers actually ranked higher in scoring offense (21st) than they did in scoring defense (28th). The pass coverage was particularly weak. San Francisco ranked 19th or worse in coverage against all five receiver positions we track -- No. 1 wide receivers, No. 2s, all other wideouts, tight ends, and running backs. The 49ers were 27th against short passes, 30th against deep passes, and dead last on throws to the offense's left -- also known as the side of the field opposite of Richard Sherman.

Sherman played well in his first season in San Francisco -- he was among the NFL's top 10 cornerbacks in success rate, according to Sports Info Solutions (subscription required) -- but the 49ers should be looking to upgrade most everywhere else in their defensive backfield. There's plenty of room for improvement over right corner Ahkello Witherspoon (39th in success rate) and slot corner K'Waun Williams (60th). Injuries knocked first-string safeties Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert out for half a season each. Tartt produced nine defeats, quite good considering he only played eight games (only seven safeties last year managed 18 defeats over a full season), but Colbert only had two. Jimmie Ward, Antone Exum, and Greg Mabin are free agents, and John Lynch should just thank them for their time and let them walk.

The good news is that San Francisco has more than $65 million in effective cap space, according to Over The Cap, so they can be aggressive in acquiring talent. Go sign Earl Thomas and Landon Collins. Add Morris Claiborne, then trade for Patrick Peterson. With the second pick in the draft the 49ers should also get a quality edge rusher such as Ohio State's Nick Bosa, Kentucky's Josh Allen, or Michigan's Rashan Gary. That will make any secondary look better.

Major Free Agents: Garry Gilliam, RT; Robbie Gould, K; Jimmie Ward, CB; Mike Person, RG; Antone Exum, S; Bradley Pinion, P; Elijah Lee, LB.

The biggest news here is that San Francisco could be replacing both specialists. Gould led the league in field goal percentage, with just one miss in 34 tries. The year before he was first in the NFL with 39 made field goals. In three years since leaving the Bears, he has gone 82-of-85 (a 96.5 percent conversion rate) when kicking for three. Pinion, on the other hand would be no great loss -- he ranks 32nd out of 35 qualifying punters in gross average since he joined the 49ers four years ago. Garry Gilliam was released earlier this month; the 49ers paid him $4.9 million over the past two years, in which he played a total of 132 offensive snaps in 24 games. Person is a journeyman (he has played for five different teams in the past five seasons) and turns 31 in June, but he did start 16 games for the first time in his career.

UPDATE: The 49ers placed the franchise tag on Gould today. He will make about $5 million in 2019, the league's second-highest-paid kicker behind Baltimore's Justin Tucker.

Seattle Seahawks

Biggest Hole: Defensive line

That is not a typo. As I live and breathe, the biggest hole on Seattle Seahawks is the defensive line, not the offensive line. If you're new to this site or not familiar with the Seahawks, you may not realize how monumental this is. We write two Four Downs pieces about each team every year, and the most reliable fixture in those pieces has been that Seattle needed to fix its offensive line. The last time we identified anything else as the Seahawks' biggest weakness, they were fresh off a 43-8 win over Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII. But consider this: the Seahawks offense ranked sixth in passing and seventh in rushing last season, and while they do have question marks at guard, they return their center and both starting tackles.

Consider, then, the state of line on the other side of the ball. At this precise moment, the defensive lineman with the highest 2019 cap hit on Seattle's roster is Malik McDowell, the 2017 second-round pick whose career ended in an ATV accident before his first official training camp. The Seahawks currently have one reliable lineman under contract: defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who had 10.5 sacks in 2018. The next three linemen they have locked up -- Rasheem Green, Poona Ford, and Nazair Jones -- had just a single sack between them last year.

This is all somewhat disingenuous, because one way or another Frank Clark will also be playing for Seattle in 2019, whether under the franchise tag or with a long-term extension. Clark, a second-round draft pick in 2015, has 32.0 sacks over the past three seasons, making him a top-10 pass-rusher over that timeframe, and he'll be just 26 years old in 2019. Quinton Jefferson is also a restricted free agent and unlikely to leave. Still, Clark needs a dynamic bookend rusher on the other side of the line, and the Seahawks could also use more interior beef on a defense that finished 22nd in adjusted line yards allowed last year.

Major Free Agents: (Deep inhale…) Earl Thomas, S; K.J. Wright, OLB; Justin Coleman, CB; Shamar Stephen, DT; Sebastian Janikowski, K; Dion Jordan, DE; Neiko Thorpe, CB; D.J. Fluker, RG; J.R. Sweezy, RG; Mike Davis, RB; Frank Clark, DE; David Moore, WR (ERFA); Quinton Jefferson, DT (RFA); George Fant, T/TE (RFA)

The Rams have bigger names entering free agency than Seattle, but the Seahawks have more players with expiring contracts than just about anyone else. That starts with Thomas, who has had one finger out the door since breaking his leg against Arizona in September. Wright turns 30 in July and was limited to five games in 2018 with a knee injury. Should he and Sweezy follow Thomas out of town, that would leave Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin, and Bobby Wagner as the only players left from that 2013 championship squad. Sweezy and Fluker started 24 total games at guard last year. Moore was Seattle's third receiver by default. Fant played 371 offensive snaps last year, usually as a sixth lineman/colossal tight end.


2 comments, Last at 04 Mar 2019, 5:27pm

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

Good analysis of the Seahawks and Niners in particular; minor detail, I think Fant is a Seattle RFA.