Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC West

Four Downs: NFC West
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Vincent Verhei

Arizona Cardinals

Biggest Need: Offensive line

It's a funny thing about the NFC West -- largely, the biggest holes we identified for each team going into the offseason remain unfilled even after the draft. In February, we wrote about how the Cardinals' offensive line was ravaged by injuries last year, with every starter on IR or cut by the first week of December. Arizona's solution to this problem was to trade for Pittsburgh's Marcus Gilbert (who missed 11 games last year and nine in 2017) and sign J.R. Sweezy (who missed all of 2016 with a back injury and couldn't stick with Tampa Bay or Seattle since then) in free agency. That duo will start along with D.J. Humphries and right guard Justin Pugh, who have each missed more than 20 games over the past three years, and A.Q. Shipley, who is 33 and coming off a torn ACL. The draft produced little help save for a pair of late-round flyers. Kyler Murray may soon face the same pressure that pushed Josh Rosen out of Arizona.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The Cardinals added a dozen rookies after the draft. Rutgers offensive tackle Tariq Cole was an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention in 2016 and 2017. William Sweet started 10 games at left tackle for a North Carolina offense that surrendered only ten sacks in 2018. Wofford defensive lineman Miles Brown led the Terriers in tackles for loss (9.5) and sacks (5.0) last season, making the All-Southern Conference team. Dante Booker, a five-star recruit out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, was the state's Mr. Football in 2013; he couldn't stay healthy at Ohio State, playing only 29 games in five years in Columbus.

Los Angeles Rams

Biggest Need: Edge Rusher

The Rams were paper-thin on the defensive perimeter coming out of the Super Bowl and failed to add a pure edge rusher in either free agency or the draft. That sentence does come with an asterisk; the Rams signed veteran linebacker Clay Matthews away from Green Bay, and Matthews has split time between edge rusher and inside linebacker over his career. He will be 33 this season, however, and had only 3.5 sacks in 16 games last season. Mind you, that's still more than either of L.A.'s returning edge rushers, Samson Ebukam (3.0) and Dante Fowler (2.0). Fowler remains an enigma; he has only 16.0 sacks since Jacksonville drafted him third overall in 2015, but he added 1.5 in the playoffs last year, and he doesn't turn 25 until August. The Rams re-signed him to a one-year, $14 million prove-it deal. Ebukam, who has only 5.0 sacks in 32 NFL games, will be out until training camp following knee surgery.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The Rams signed 14 undrafted free agents. A pair of tight ends might have the best chance of making the club, given that it's one of the few weak spots on the L.A. offense. Texas State's Keenan Brown was third in the nation at the position with 51 catches last year, amassing 577 yards and five touchdowns. Houston's Romello Brooker could be an effective red zone weapon; he had seven touchdowns in only 33 receptions as a senior, and his 4/45/1 statline was good for the MVP award in the Armed Forces Bowl. Offensive lineman Chandler Brewer started 50 games in four years at Middle Tennessee State, making the first-string All-Conference USA team. Texas A&M linebacker Landis Durham has one of the best records pass-rushing production of anyone on the Rams roster, collecting 17.5 sacks in his last two seasons in College Station. Wide receiver Nsimba Webster joins fellow Eastern Washington alums Cooper Kupp and Ekubam on the Rams roster; he had a monster senior season in Cheney, with 84 catches for 1,379 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Later, the Rams added another five UDFAs. The most accomplished of that group was Alabama-Birmingham offensive lineman Justice Powers, a first-team All-Conference USA player last year.

San Francisco 49ers

Biggest Need: Secondary

When we listed the secondary as San Francisco's biggest hole in February, we got feedback from 49ers faithful who insisted that no, the team needed pass-rushers more than anything else. Well, after the big-ticket acquisitions of free agent Dee Ford and second overall draft pick Nick Bosa, the pass rush ain't a problem no more, but we're still left wondering what's going to happen when opposing quarterbacks don't hit the turf. The 49ers have only added two defensive backs since the season ended, a pair of corners: free-agent signee Jason Verrett, who has missed 39 of 64 games since the Chargers took him in the first round in 2014, and Tim Harris, a sixth-round rookie out of Virginia who was the 24th corner off the board. It could be another long year for Ahkello Witherspoon and K'Waun Williams, and a real catastrophe if Richard Sherman's play starts to slip at age 31.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The 49ers added ten free agents after the draft. The most interesting among them might be quarterback Wilton Speight. He'll have a hard time sticking on a team that already has Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens, and C.J. Beathard, but he's got some distant connections with the team, having played for one ex-49ers coach (Jim Harbaugh) at Michigan and another (Chip Kelly) at UCLA. Other undrafted rookies to keep an eye on include Wyoming tight end Tyree Manfield, Florida Atlantic linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, and Wake Forest safety Cameron Glenn, but most observers believe Iowa guard Ross Reynolds is the best bet to make the final roster.

Seattle Seahawks

Biggest Need: Defensive line Safety

This was Seattle's biggest hole even before Frank Clark was traded to Kansas City; after the deal, it wasn't just a hole, it was a chasm, a crevice, an abyss, maybe the biggest weakness on any of last year's playoff teams. First-round draftee L.J. Collier will help somewhat, but he still needs development -- he never had more than 6.0 sacks in a season at TCU. It's not clear who will line up on the other side, but the quartet of candidates on hand -- Quinton Jefferson, Rasheem Green, Branden Jackson, and Cassius Marsh -- have a total of only 18.0 career sacks between them, and never more than the 5.5 Marsh had last year with San Francisco. Detroit free agent Ezekiel Ansah visited Seattle in April but left without a contract.

It's also a mystery who's going to line up next to Jarran Reed inside. With Shamar Stephen returning to Minnesota in free agency, the Seahawks will have to get by with the trio of Nazair Jones, Poona Ford, and Jamie Meder, formerly of the Cleveland Browns.

UPDATE: Since this piece originally ran on ESPN+, the Seahawks have signed a pair of new starters. Ansah did finally sign a one-year deal worth up to $12.8 million, with $6 million in guarantees. They also signed journeyman tackle Al Woods to a one-year, $2.3 million deal. Woods has played for five NFL teams (including Seattle in 2011), starting 24 games for the Colts the past two seasons. With those two players under contract, Seattle's biggest need is probably safety. Bradley McDougald, originally signed to back up Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, has been a pleasant surprise at one spot, but the other starter will come down to a battle between 2017 draftees Delano Hill and Tedric Thompson. Thompson started 10 games last year after Thomas broke his leg and is likely the favorite. Second-round draft pick Marquise Blair out of Utah is also in the mix.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Appropriately enough, the Seahawks added 12 rookie free agents after the draft. That includes quarterback Taryn Christion, the all-time passing leader at South Dakota State, whose only competition for the backup job behind Russell Wilson is Denver washout Paxton Lynch. Ohio State guard Demetrius Knox was a third-team all-Big Ten player despite a foot injury that knocked him out of the conference championship game. At 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds, Texas cornerback Davante Davis has the size Seattle likes at the position. Speaking of big players, the exquisitely named Jazz Ferguson was listed 6-foot-5, 228 pounds. The Northwestern State wide receiver (who began his collegiate career at LSU) caught 66 passes for 1,117 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, being named the Southland Conference Offensive Player of the Year.

Portions of this article originally ran on ESPN+.


2 comments, Last at 22 May 2019, 8:51pm

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

I'm glad someone else noticed that the Cardinals' draft ignored O-line. All those WRs they drafted aren't going to be much use while Murray's running for his life.

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC West

RE: The back-up QB spot - Seattle signed Geno Smith a week ago.

Just as an FYI - fully aware that covering back-up QB battles doesn't have the glamour it once had.