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26 May 2011

Four Downs: NFC West

by Vince Verhei

Arizona Cardinals

Biggest post-draft hole: Quarterback

The Cardinals stuck to their guns, insisting they weren't in love with any of the quarterbacks in the draft, and that they would not reach for a passer they didn't firmly believe in. They turned down Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, and Christian Ponder, "settling" instead for LSU defensive back Patrick Peterson, the consensus best player in the draft.

For the long-term sake of the franchise, it was probably the best decision. In the short term, though, who will be throwing passes for the Cardinals? It sure won't be Derek Anderson -- he's scheduled to make almost $4.1 million in 2011, about 10 times the salaries of teammates Max Hall, John Skelton, and Richard Bartel. If the Cardinals played tomorrow, Skelton would probably be taking snaps.

Thankfully for their fans (and Larry Fitzgerald), the Cardinals don't play tomorrow. They've got plenty of time to acquire a veteran passer. It's believed that Kevin Kolb of the Philadelphia Eagles is their top choice. They could also try to steal Matt Hasselbeck, helping themselves while hurting the reigning division champion Seahawks. Kurt Warner has said that the team should go after Carson Palmer. Donovan McNabb was recently seen working out with Fitzgerald in Arizona. And the list goes on.

The Cardinals also have a hole in their offensive line. Although the retirement of Alan Faneca was expected, the Cardinals did not draft an offensive lineman. In fact, they haven't drafted a lineman since 2009, when they selected Herman Johnson and Trevor Canfield, neither of whom has ever played in a regular season game.

St. Louis Rams

Biggest post-draft hole: Wide receiver

The Rams went into the draft needing a receiver, and they left the draft needing a receiver. Oh, they took a couple of mid-round prospects (Boise State's Austin Pettis in the third round and Hawaii's Greg Salas in the fourth), and both have productive resumes (Salas ranked fifth among draft prospects in FO's Playmaker Score metric for projecting college wide receivers, and Pettis was seventh). But expecting either of those players to shine in 2011 is just wishful thinking.

The Rams won't find much help in free agency. The top player available, Vincent Jackson, was franchised by the San Diego Chargers. After that, the Rams are left taking chances on guys like Braylon Edwards (28 years old, never had a Catch Rate higher than 54 percent), Terrell Owens (37, given up on by five teams and counting), or Randy Moss (34, given up on by three teams last year alone).

If un-signed four-year-pros are unrestricted free agents under a new CBA, a few more names will become available: Steve Smith (Giants version), Sidney Rice, and Santonio Holmes. That's a younger set of players, but each missed at least four games in 2010. They could also try to trade for the Carolina Panthers' Steve Smith, but he reportedly wants to play on the West Coast.

The Rams' best bet may to be to go with what they have. Donnie Avery (torn ACL) missed all of last season and Mark Clayton (torn patella tendon) played only five games. If those two players can return to health in 2011, the Rams will upgrade the position without making a move.

San Francisco 49ers

Biggest post-draft hole: Secondary depth

The 49ers drafted Colin Kaepernick in the second round and Alex Smith should return, so they seem set at quarterback. That leaves their biggest hole in the secondary, particularly at cornerback. San Francisco ranked 30th in FO's DVOA metric against No. 1 wideouts last season, 31st against No. 2s, and 22nd against all other wide receivers. Nate Clements is 31 years old and scheduled to make more than $42 million over the next four seasons. The 49ers may be able to afford his $7 million salary this year, but there's no way he'll see the end of his deal. At the other cornerback position, Shawntae Spencer is signed for two more years for a little more than $6 million.

At safety, Dashon Goldson will be a free agent. With four years' experience, it remains to be seen whether or not he'll be restricted. Strong safety Reggie Smith will be a four-year free agent in 2012, while Taylor Mays was benched midway through his rookie season. It's possible none of last year's starters will be on the team next year.

The 49ers spent a third-round pick on Chris Culliver, who played safety and cornerback at South Carolina, but they need more help. There are some decent secondary options in free agency. Like all teams, the 49ers would love Nnamdi Asomugha, and they'd be happy with Carlos Rogers. Chris Carr started 16 games for the Ravens last year, his sixth season. Ike Taylor is also available; he started 15 games for the league's best defense last year.

The top free agent safety is Philadelphia's Quintin Mikell. Donte Whitner and Michael Huff are also free agents, though both are five-year pros and could be restricted.

Seattle Seahawks

Biggest post-draft hole: Defensive line depth

After the draft, Seattle general manager John Schneider reassured his team's fans that the Seahawks knew what they were doing at the quarterback position. "We had a plan going in and we still have our plan," he said. "We just can't execute that plan right now."

Does that plan involve Matt Hasselbeck? Nobody knows for sure. On one episode of NFL Live, Mike Sando reported that the Seahawks had "reached out" to Hasselbeck during the brief interruption of the lockout, only to have Adam Schefter come on a few minutes later and says Hasselbeck was not expected back.

If we believe Schneider has a quarterback plan, then the biggest hole on the Seahawks is depth along the defensive line. The starting front four of Red Bryant, Colin Cole, Brandon Mebane, and Chris Clemons is very good when healthy, but only Clemons managed to play more than 12 games in 2010. When the others went down, the Seahawks had nothing behind them and were quickly overwhelmed. Mebane is unsigned, although he may or may not be unrestricted in free agency.

Finding linemen to fit Seattle's scheme is tricky, as they usually use 4-3 personnel in something of a 3-4 alignment. The Seahawks drafted just one defensive lineman, a seventh-rounder named Lazarius Levingston who is doubtful to make an impact this season. In free agency, they could target 317-pound Aubrayo Franklin from division-rival San Francisco. They may also go after Cullen Jenkins, whose experience in Green Bay's multiple sets would serve him well in Seattle's defense. Ex-Bears tackle Tommie Harris is also an option.

A version of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.

Posted by: Vincent Verhei on 26 May 2011

16 comments, Last at 04 Jun 2011, 9:56pm by Mike Singletary


by hbh_uk :: Thu, 05/26/2011 - 11:56am

"The 49ers drafted Colin Kaepernick in the second round and Alex Smith should return, so they seem set at quarterback."

Well played, sir.

by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 05/26/2011 - 12:22pm

How is Mikell the best FA safety? Other than the fact that he played for the Eagles and therefore must be really good right?

by Dean :: Thu, 05/26/2011 - 12:46pm

I read it and figured that it's probably not a strong year for free agent safties. Mikell is actually a pretty good player. Not a pro bowler or anything, but an average starter at least. Atogwe was a little better, but he's not available anymore.

by Mr Shush :: Thu, 05/26/2011 - 3:32pm

I think it's actually a pretty damn good year for free agent safeties. There may not be a superstar, but Mikell, Landry, Sensebaugh, Weddle (the best of the lot, for my money), Manning, Whitner and Huff are all at least solid starters. That's pretty good depth.

by Dean :: Thu, 05/26/2011 - 4:43pm

You're right. That is surprisingly good. I hadn't looked at the class when I made the observation - I had just read the opinion that Mikell was the best out there and figured that there can't be that many. Plenty of options out there. As for who's the best of the bunch, it depends on your preference. Landry's a big hitter. Mikell is solid all around, and Weddle is no chump either. I can't say I've seen enough of Sensebaugh to really offer much opinion there.

by bubqr :: Thu, 05/26/2011 - 4:13pm

Q.Mikell is a good safety, probably top 5-10 in the league. Doesn't give up many plays, sound tackler (not a big hitter though, despite his crazy FF total in college), durable. I really love him (and PFF too btw).

by Raiderjoe :: Thu, 05/26/2011 - 9:15pm

Yes, MIkell better than Osiomogho atogwe. Mikelwl good alla round safety. tackling, coverage, all.

by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 05/27/2011 - 2:19pm

PFF is just awful, they're a bunch of idiots. A little bird told me that he asked an agent if their stats were accurate, the agent said they were a joke and that even their participation stats were out by up to 25%.

by Raiderjoe :: Fri, 05/27/2011 - 5:00pm

yes, PFF is sloppy. Mikell pretty good though with wo withotu PFF backign

by Jeff M. (not verified) :: Thu, 05/26/2011 - 4:24pm

In previous years these things were already completely obsolete by the time the two-week (or however long) Insider embargo cleared.

Luckily this year nothing's happening to change the analysis.

by commissionerleaf :: Thu, 05/26/2011 - 6:27pm

49ers: Kaepernick and Alex Smith fighting it out is going to be interesting. I'm far from certain that that is a more compelling quarterback competition than Leinart vs. D. Anderson or Max Hall vs. John Skelton, so saying the 49ers are set is a bit much. This is a team in flux.

Cards: Donovan McNabb or Kevin Kolb, I think, with the latter clearly being the preference of the team but the former coming cheaper. The Cardinals aren't a playoff team unless they get Kurt Warner, though - only an absolutely top-tier quarterback would permit them to contend immediately - so it probably doesn't matter. If McNabb, they replace him before they contend. If Kolb, he's either still good enough in 2014, or they replace him too.

Hawks: Charlie Whitehurst? It seems like Pete Carroll intends to give him a shot to take over, and that's interestingly awful. Of course, he's throwing to a few has beens and a lot of nobodies, unless Golden Tate steps up, and the Carpenter pick means a run first team, unless it just means the Hawks front office is stupid.
No bets taken.

Rams: Suddenly looking like the division powerhouse. Mark Clayton was a serviceable WR1 when healthy, and Donnie Avery should be back to play his annual game-and-a-half competently before he is placed on IR. Receiver isn't as bad as people say. And the defense could be getting competent again after ages of mediocrity and worse. This is a .500 team that could be spotted four wins against Skelton and Whitehurst, which means 10-6 and an opportunity to watch that defense be embarrassed by New Orleans or Green bay in the playoffs.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Thu, 05/26/2011 - 7:09pm

The Rams look the prohibitive favorites, but the 49ers are no longer actively trying to defeat their own offense via coaching, and even a replacement-level QB elevates the Cards to at least average. And let's not forget that the Hawks actually won the conference last year. The Rams could get substantially better and do worse in the standards.

by commissionerleaf :: Fri, 05/27/2011 - 11:29am

A replacement-level QB elevates the Cards to the level of the Seahawks or Colt McCoy Browns last year, which is probably average. The 49ers problem has never been coaching; it has always been lack of talent, particularly in the places commentators forget you need some (offensive line, safety). The Hawks are a worse team than last year (Hasselbeck is either a year older or done, no obvious improvements to the defense, relying on Bills castoffs at RB).

So I don't see anyone challenging Bradford's second year stats in the division; don't get me wrong I am not arguing that Bradford is all world (although he -may- be). But he is a legitimate West Coast passer in a division that has no other legitimate passers (and only one or two legitimate receivers). If Arizona gets McNabb, we can reevaluate, but in the meantime, this is the Rams division to lose.

by Rhombus (not verified) :: Fri, 05/27/2011 - 11:41am

The 49ers problem has never been coaching? It has ALWAYS been coaching. The team has been getting steadily better, talent-wise, for the last few years, and now has enough talent and playmakers to certainly win the NFC West. That isn't saying much, but that is saying they have at least average talent. For the last two years at least, the only thing holding them back has been terrible coaching. Anyone who watched the Niners get out-coached at every single turn last season would know they have the talent to be a good team.

by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 05/27/2011 - 2:27pm

I totally agree, the niners coaches were just awful. Remember the Chiefs game where they ran straight up the middle over and over again despite KC having nine men lined up between the tackles. There is statistical evidence for this too, Alex Smith's stats (both passer rating and DVOA) massively improved once Jimmy Raye was gone but even then the niners were running a scheme that they hadn't had the chance to practice in training camp.

by Mike Singletary (not verified) :: Sat, 06/04/2011 - 9:56pm

Singletary: "I don't know how badly we got out-coached, I'll have to take a look at the videotape."