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.
Biggest Need: Secondary pass-rusher
The Cardinals finished 23rd in defensive DVOA and 28th in points allowed, but they have quite a few reasons for optimism on that side of the ball. The secondary should get a full season of Patrick Peterson and improved play from youngsters Byron Murphy, Jalen Thompson, and Budda Baker. Linebacker Jordan Hicks finished third in the league in tackles. And of course there's Chandler Jones, second in the NFL with 19.0 sacks.
Unfortunately, when it comes to pass rush, there's only Chandler Jones. The Cardinals were in the middle of the pack with 40 sacks, but if you take the leading sacker away from every team, they fall to the bottom five. Arizona must find a bookend pass-rusher to exploit the double-teams that Jones is drawing.
As it turns out, some of the top edge rushers in free agency played for Arizona's rivals in the NFC West. The Rams' Dante Fowler broke double-digit sacks for the first time last season; so did the 49ers' Arik Armstead, another first-round draft pick in 2015. The Seahawks' duo of Jadeveon Clowney and Ezekiel Ansah had only 5.5 sacks between them, but each was more productive in Houston and Detroit, respectively. All four will be available to the highest bidder; any could flourish playing across from Jones. The Cardinals also have the eighth pick in the draft, and could have their choice of any rookie edge rusher not named Chase Young.
Major Free Agents: Damiere Byrd, WR; A.Q. Shipley, C; Kenyan Drake, RB; Rodney Gunter, DE; Cassius Marsh, DE
The Cardinals biggest questions this offseason are both at running back -- how can they get David Johnson's $14-million cap hit off the books, and how can they retain Kenyan Drake? The former is going to be complicated, but the latter is simple: Drake cannot be allowed to sign elsewhere, and the Cardinals can use the franchise tag to retain him if necessary. Drake joined the Cardinals in Week 9 following a trade with the Dolphins. He debuted with 110 yards against San Francisco, and in the last 9 weeks of the season, he led the NFL with 230 rushing DYAR.
Otherwise, the Cardinals have few free-agency concerns. A.Q. Shipley has started each of his last 48 games for Arizona, but he turns 34 in May. Rodney Gunter's three missed games last season were the first of his career, but he has been a backup more often than a starter. Damiere Byrd was Arizona's third receiver last season; his absence would open playing time for 2019 draftees Andy Isabella and KeeSean Johnson.
Los Angeles Rams
Biggest Need: Offensive line
The Rams led the league in adjusted sack rate, but that's deceptive -- they were just 24th in pressure rate allowed. Their run-blocking stats were poor too -- 19th in adjusted line yards, 26th in stuff rate. Now they could lose a pair of starters as left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Austin Blythe are entering free agency. Whitworth turned 38 in December and has talked about retirement in the past. He has already said he will play in 2020, but it remains to be seen whose uniform he'll be wearing. Blythe is not the player Whitworth is, but he gives the Rams valuable versatility with the ability to start at either guard or center.
Replacing one or both of those starters could be difficult. The Rams are 24th in cap space according to Spotrac. And they don't have a first-round draft pick this year -- they traded it Jacksonville to acquire Jalen Ramsey. A reliable offensive line has been a key to L.A.'s success in the Sean McVay era, but the coach may need to find a different way to win going forward.
Major Free Agents: Andrew Whitworth, LT; Austin Blythe, RG; Michael Brockers, DL; Dante Fowler, EDGE; Cory Littleton, LB; Eric Weddle, S (retired)
The Rams face the possibility of losing two starting linemen on offense, and things are even worse on the other side of the ball. The Los Angeles defense is at risk of losing its two leading tacklers (Cory Littleton and Eric Weddle) and leading edge rusher (Dante Fowler), as well as an interior lineman who started 16 games (Michael Brockers). Aaron Donald might be surrounded by some unfamiliar faces in 2020 … but as long as he remains Aaron Donald, things may still work out fine.
San Francisco 49ers
Biggest Need: Wide receiver
Deebo Samuel had established himself as San Francisco's top wideout by the end of 2019. Even after the 49ers traded for Emmanuel Sanders, Samuel led his new teammate in receiving DYAR, 146 to 119. And in the playoffs, Samuel joined Marcus Allen and Joseph Addai as the only rookies ever with 100 yards rushing and 100 more receiving in the postseason. His outlook for 2020 and beyond looks bright. Behind him, though, the 49ers need help. Sanders is a free agent, and the 49ers may lack the cap space to re-sign him. They also need to re-sign third receiver Kendrick Bourne -- he's a restricted free agent, so the 49ers control his fate, but their cap situation is going to make his contract tricky. Marquise Goodwin will likely be cut to clear cap space, allowing him to pursue a berth in the Olympics in Tokyo this summer. Dante Pettis and Richie James, a pair of 2018 draftees, combined for only 17 catches in 27 games last season.
The 49ers lack second- and third-round draft picks this year, having given them up in trades for Sanders and Dee Ford. That makes them a strong candidate to take a wide receiver in the first round. In a draft that is loaded with wide receiver prospects, they could also trade down and hope to land a quality receiver later.
Major Free Agents: Emmanuel Sanders, WR; Arik Armstead, DE; Jimmie Ward, DB
The good news for the 49ers is that they have very few starters hitting free agency. If they let Emmanuel Sanders leave, they should receive a good compensatory pick down the line. Arik Armstead, a first-round draft pick, had only 9.0 sacks in his first four seasons before breaking out with 10.0 last year. Both he and the 49ers have acknowledged that he is a good candidate for the franchise tag. Jimmie Ward, another former first-round pick, started 13 games last season for the first time in his six NFL seasons. The 49ers reportedly have enough faith in 2018 draftee Tarvarius Moore that they'll stick him into the starting lineup rather than overpay to keep Ward.
Biggest Need: Defensive line
Seattle's defensive line struggled against the run last year, ranking 21st in adjusted line yards. And they were even worse against the pass, ranking 30th in adjusted sack rate and next to last in pressure rate. And most of the players on that line are about to hit the market; eight linemen played at least 300 defensive snaps for Seattle in 2019, and six are about to become unrestricted free agents. The only two under contract are 14-game starter Poona Ford and Rasheem Green, who led the Seahawks with 4.0 sacks.
The first priority is re-signing Jadeveon Clowney. According to Spotrac, Seattle has nearly $60 million in cap space, far more than any other 11-win team from last season. However, when they traded for Clowney last season, they had to agree that they would not use the franchise tag on him in 2020. They will have to win a bidding war for Clowney's services. It's fair to question how much they should pay for a player who has never recorded 10 sacks in a season, even if he did lead the team with 41.0 pass pressures, nearly twice as much as any of his teammates.
Major Free Agents: Germain Ifedi, RT; Mike Iupati, LG; Joey Hunt, C; Jadeveon Clowney, DE; Jarran Reed, DT; Quinton Jefferson, DE; Ezekial Ansah, DE; Mychal Kendricks, OLB
Germain Ifedi has been a rock for Seattle, starting 60 games in four seasons since he was a first-round draft pick in 2016. Unfortunately he has been the kind of rock that draws a lot of flags, leading the league in penalties in 2017 and also ranking in the top 10 in each of the last two years. Mike Iupati started 15 games in his first (last?) season in Seattle. Joey Hunt started 10 games at center (including the playoffs) in place of Justin Britt, though Britt should return this season. Jarran Reed and Quinton Jefferson join Clowney as starting defensive linemen hitting free agency. Ezekial Ansah has only 6.5 sacks in his last two seasons, but could draw interest as a former double-digit-sack producer. Kendricks started 14 games and played 600-plus snaps for a Seattle defense that used a heavy dose of base formations; he tore his ACL in Week 17 against San Francisco and is still awaiting sentencing for his guilty plea in an insider trading case, so his demand in the open market shouldn't be high.