Four Downs: NFC West
Biggest Need: Cornerback
For a franchise that has won only seven playoff games since 1940, the Cardinals have had a lot of good defensive backs. That includes three Hall of Famers: safety Larry Wilson, who made four All-Pro teams in the 1960s and another in 1970; cornerback Roger Wehrli, who made three straight All-Pro teams in the 1970s; and Aeneas Williams, who made two All-Pro teams as a cornerback with Arizona in the 1990s and a third as a safety with the Rams in 2001. Patrick Peterson, however, may be the best of the bunch, with three All-Pro appearances so far (including one as a punt returner) at age 30. Peterson is a free agent, however, and is unlikely to return. The Cardinals will need to replace his team-high 1,096 defensive snaps last year, as well as the 750 of Dre Kirkpatrick, their other starting corner, who is also a free agent.
So, who's left? The top corner on the roster is now Byron Murphy, who started 16 games as a rookie in 2019 before moving down to third corner last season. His charting numbers were decent enough—per Sports Info Solutions, he gave up 7.1 yards per target last season (30th out of 79 qualifying cornerbacks) with a 47.4% success rate (54th)—but that was as a nickelback, not matched up against top wideouts. And … that's it. No other corner under contract played a single defensive snap in 2020. The other starter would be veteran Robert Alford, who missed all of 2019 with a broken leg and all of 2020 with a torn pec. He also turns 32 in October. The battle for nickelback comes down to a pair of undrafted free agents with fantastic names: Picasso Nelson Jr. (Southern Mississippi, 2019) and Jace Whittaker (Arizona, 2020). Whittaker at least made appearances on special teams in four games last year; that gives him a leg up on Nelson, who has yet to see action in the regular season.
Major Free Agents: Patrick Peterson, CB; Dre Kirkpatrick, CB; Haason Reddick, ER; Markus Golden, ER; Corey Peters, NT; Kenyan Drake, RB; Larry Fitzgerald, WR; J.R. Sweezy, G; Kelvin Beachum, T
Since we've talked about the corners already, let's go over the rest of the defense, which stands to lose three starters in the front seven: edge rushers Haason Reddick and Markus Golden and nose tackle Corey Peters. Reddick is pretty much gone after the signing of J.J. Watt. He had 12.5 sacks last year after amassing only 7.5 in his first three seasons, but he has shown pass-rush potential before; in 2018, he had 4.0 sacks and 13 hurries in only 94 pass-rush snaps, per SIS. Golden has had a mercurial career, going from 12.5 sacks with Arizona in 2016, to 2.5 total over the next two seasons, to 10.0 with the Giants in 2019, and finally to 4.5 sacks last year, when he was traded back to Arizona in the middle of the season. Peters has started 121 games in the NFL for the Falcons and Cardinals; he missed seven games last year with a knee injury.
On offense, Larry Fitzgerald—second only to Jerry Rice in career catches and receiving yardage—remains undecided about returning for an 18th NFL season. Fitzgerald's deep speed is pretty much gone—he averaged only 7.6 yards per catch in 2020, and none of his 54 receptions gained more than 18 yards—but he still fit in as a third receiver behind DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk. Kenyan Drake had a career-high 955 rushing yards in 2020, but it's not a good sign that he has failed to top 1,000 yards in five NFL seasons now. Finally, two starters on the offensive line—J.R. Sweezy and Kelvin Beachum—are also about to hit the open market. Both are journeymen; since 2015, Beachum has gone from the Steelers to the Jaguars to the Jets to the Cardinals, while Sweezy has gone from Seattle to Tampa Bay and then back to Seattle and at last Arizona.
Los Angeles Rams
Biggest Need: Secondary
Really, the biggest need here should read "cap space" (the Rams are more than $34 million over the cap, per Over The Cap) or "draft picks" (after trades for Jalen Ramsey and Matthew Stafford, the Rams don't have another first-round pick until 2024), but on the field, general manager Les Snead is charged with rebuilding a secondary for new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. Three of the four L.A. defensive backs who played at least 800 defensive snaps last year will soon be free agents.
The good news is the one that is staying is Jalen Ramsey, the two-time All-Pro cornerback. But the three who could be leaving include:
- Safety John Johnson, who led the team in defensive snaps (1,024) and tackles (105) and got our vote for the All-Pro team;
- Cornerback Troy Hill, a 16-game starter in 2020 who led the NFL in both yardage (119) and touchdowns (two) on interception returns and gave up only 24.3 yards per game in coverage, sixth-lowest among corners with more than 10 starts;
- and Darious Williams, who started 10 games at corner and finished third at the position in success rate (63.9%) despite seeing an average target depth of 16.8 yards, deepest in the NFL.
Williams at least will be a restricted free agent, which makes him the most likely to stay in town, but that's just going to add to the Rams' salary cap burden.
Major Free Agents: John Johnson, S; Troy Hill, CB; Darious Williams, CB; Leonard Floyd, ER; Samson Ebukam, ER; Josh Reynolds, WR; Austin Blythe, C; Gerald Everett, TE
As if losing most of their coverage men wasn't bad enough, The Rams could also lose their top two edge rushers in Leonard Floyd and Samson Ebukam. Floyd is the real prize here, with 10.5 sacks in his first year in L.A. after 18.5 in four years with the Bears. Ebukam started 14 games, but played less than.half of the team's defensive snaps in 12 of them.
The Rams also have three major contributors on offense hitting the market, but each plays in a position of depth. They have Van Jefferson, a second-round rookie last year, ready to step in for Josh Reynolds and his 52-618-2 statline. The departure of Gerald Everett should just mean more targets for Tyler Higbee, ninth in DYAR last season and top-20 in that category for three years in a row. Austin Blythe would be the biggest loss—he has started 47 of 48 games the last three years at both left guard and center—but the Rams also have Brian Allen, who started nine games at center for them in 2019.
San Francisco 49ers
Biggest Need: Secondary
The 49ers, as you may have noticed, were a complete mess last season. Fifty-three different players started at least one game for the injury-ravaged squad; 34 started four or more, while only 14 started 10 or more. With so many broken pieces falling in and out of the lineup, it can be a little difficult to determine who exactly was supposed to be starting at any given time. Consider these facts, however, about San Francisco's defensive backfield:
- Fourteen different defensive backs saw playing time in 2020—and that's just on defense, not even counting special teams.
- Those 14 players combined for 4,871 defensive snaps.
- 1,427 of those snaps (29.3%) went to five players under contract for 2021, mostly by safeties Jimmie Ward (849) and Tarvarius Moore (540). Only 11 of those snaps went to cornerbacks, all by a man called Ken Webster in Weeks 3 and 4.
- 846 of those snaps (17.4%) went to a pair of soon-to-be restricted free agents: Emmanuel Moseley (a one-time starter at corner who was largely relegated to special teams detail by the end of the season) and Marcell Harris (a backup safety who played in all 16 games but only started four times).
- The remaining 2,598 snaps (53.3%) went to seven players who are about to be unrestricted free agents. That list includes starting corners Richard Sherman and Jason Verrett, former starters K'Waun Williams and Ahkello Witherspoon, and top strong safety Jaquiski Tartt.
Even if we assume Moseley and Harris return, that still leaves the 49ers with just three safeties and one corner under contract with any real experience. General manager John Lynch has some money to spend, ranking right in the middle of the pack in effective cap space per Over The Cap, but he's got a lot of rebuilding to do here, plus plugging holes in his offensive line and front seven.
Major Free Agents: All of Those Players We Just Talked About, CB/S; Kendrick Bourne, WR; Kyle Jusczcyk, FB; Trent Williams, LT; Daniel Brunskill, G; Solomon Thomas, DT; D.J. Jones, DT
Trent Williams came to San Francisco on a one-year prove-it deal, and boy howdy did he prove it, with only 15 blown blocks and six sacks allowed in 14 starts. He may be the top offensive lineman available in free agency, and there will be a big bidding war for his services. Daniel Brunskill does not have the same pedigree—he was an undrafted free agent in 2017, while Williams was the fourth overall draft pick in 2010—but he has developed into a first-string player, with seven starts in 2019 and 16 last year. Kendrick Bourne was second on the team in both catches (49) and yardage (667) last year in only five starts. And it's hard to quantify the impact of multi-purpose fullback Kyle Juszczyk, but since he signed with San Francisco in 2017, only George Kittle and Bourne have caught more passes for the Scarlet & Gold.
The defense, meanwhile, has to rebuild on the front end as well as the back. Both starters at defensive tackle— Solomon Thomas and D.J. Jones—are free agents. Both were drafted in 2017, Thomas in the first round, Jones in the sixth, and they have had similar production: Thomas has 95 tackles and 6.0 sacks in 48 games (30 starts), while Jones has 70 tackles and 5.0 sacks in 44 (with 29 starts). Thomas missed 14 games in 2020 after tearing his ACL but should be ready to go for Week 1 this fall, for whichever team he is playing.
Biggest Need: Cornerback
For a team that won 12 games and finished fifth in DVOA last season, the Seahawks sure have a lot of holes on their roster. As their own quarterback will tell you, they need help on the offensive line … and in the very unlikely but not entirely impossible event that quarterback is traded, his position becomes their biggest need by far. The pass rush also has room to improve, even after the trade for Carlos Dunlap. As it stands, however, if there's one position where a lack of talent is likely to cost them football games (and provide a convenient unifying theme for this article), it's cornerback. The Seahawks were among the 10 worst defenses last year in yards allowed to No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers, and they also gave up 77.3 yards per game to "other" wide receivers, 10 yards more than any other defense. And now their two projected starters from last season are about to be free agents.
Both Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar will soon hit the open market. Griffin, who has been Seattle's top corner since the Legion of Boom dissolved, failed to make the top 40 corners in either success rate or yards allowed per target. Dunbar, acquired from Washington to start across from Griffin, missed 11 games (including the playoff loss to the Rams) due to knee injuries; he turns 29 in July and has never started more than 11 games in a season. Tre Flowers took Dunbar's spot in the starting lineup but failed to make the top 60 corners in either success rate or yards allowed per target; he missed four games in December with a hamstring injury, and when he returned he was almost exclusively a special teamer. D.J. Reed and Ugo Amadi, a pair of converted safeties, had the best per-target numbers at the position, but they remain untested with only 16 NFL starts between them, including the postseason. The top three corners right now would be a pair of question marks in Reed and Amadi with Flowers desperately trying to save his career.
Major Free Agents: Chris Carson, RB; Ethan Pocic, C; Poona Ford, DT; Bruce Irvin, ER; Benson Mayowa, ER; K.J. Wright, LB; Shaquill Griffin, CB; Quinton Dunbar, CB
Seattle actually has a ton of unrestricted free agents, 24 in all, but most were role players or depth pieces. The biggest name among starters is K.J. Wright. He was drafted in 2011, making him the longest-tenured player on the team and one of three (along with Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner) remaining from the 2013 championship roster. But the Seahawks drafted Jordyn Brooks last year and Wright has bluntly said he will not take a hometown discount (nor should he), so his time in college navy has probably come to an end. Wright, Griffin, and Poona Ford (a Tasmanian Devil of a defensive tackle, weighing 310 pounds at less than 6 feet tall) are the defensive starters here; Benson Mayowa was coming off the bench by season's end, while Irvin's season ended after.a torn ACL in Week 2.
On offense, the Seahawks must replace four starters—the two listed here, plus guard Mike Iupati and tight end Greg Olsen, who both retired. Ethan Pocic made 14 starts in 2020 after starting only five of 14 games over the prior two seasons, but made little positive impact in those 14 starts. He looked a lot better—as did all Seahawks linemen—because of the remarkable consistency of Chris Carson, who gained more yards than expected based on his blocking 48.9% of the time according to Next Gen Stats, second-best in the league. That's a big reason Carson led all running backs with a success rate of 65%, which is among the top 10 on record for runners with at least 100 carries. Carson is nearly unstoppable when running between the tackles (182 DYAR, most in the NFL), but lacks any kind of speed to get to the outside (-42 DYAR on runs to left/right end, worst in the NFL).
Seattle is in the middle of the pack in cap space, and they'll need to spend their money wisely there—with no first- or third-round picks in the draft due to the Jamal Adams trade, they are unlikely to get many rookie starters this year.