Tuesday, March 16, 2010

NFC West Draft Outlook

Over the next few weeks in the run up to the NFL Draft on April 22-24, we will be previewing the draft needs of all 32 teams. We start today in the NFC West. We want to give some big-time shout outs to the folks at Rams Herd, Seahawk Addicts, Matt Maiocco from the Inside the 49ers, and Raising Zona for helping us out with these previews. As of right now, compensatory draft picks have not yet been awarded, so exact pick numbers after the 3rd round are not known. Our nomenclature for denoting picks works like this: (Round-Pick #). So (1-1) means First Round, First Pick. For the first three rounds, since the exact pick numbers are known, we give you the pick numbers too.

2009 Record: 10-6
NFC West Champion, Lost 45-14 to New Orleans in NFC Divisional

Draft Picks: 26 (1-26), 58 (2-26), 88 (3-25), 89 (3-26), (4-25), (6-26), (7-26)

Is there any team that lost more than Arizona did this past offseason? In addition to the retirement of Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner, they traded away WR Anquan Boldin to the Ravens, and lost LB Karlos Dansby and FS Antrel Rolle to the Dolphins and Giants in Free Agency. With Matt Leinart due to step in at quarterback, the Cardinals will likely move to a more run-oriented offense next season. With the 26th pick in the draft, it's a guessing game as to who will be available for them to take.

Scott from Raising Zona, who should win an award the Coen Brothers reference, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the Cardinals for us. We decided to play nice and not ask him anything about Super Bowl XLIII. For more info on Pittsburgh West, give him a shout on Twitter.

1. What do you see as the biggest need(s) for your team to address this offseason?

They've started to address it already in free agency, however the draft is going to hopefully fill the holes left void by free agency. Those holes are in the secondary, they picked up Kerry Rhodes from the Jets after losing Antrel Rolle a day earlier. The biggest void is quarterback, however is it really a void? Matt Leinart is about to start his sixth season in the NFL. Coaches aren't convinced he's the guy though, no matter what is said publicly. They offered a contract to Charlie Whitehurst, but I think the answer may come in the draft. I just hope they stay away from Tim Tebow. He most definitely is NOT the answer.

2. Have they addressed any of these so far in Free Agency? Which do you think are better addressed in the Draft?

I may have just answered some of this in the previous question, but quarterback and holes at linebacker and secondary may be addressed. They will also most likely try to find an offensive lineman to fight Jeremy Bridges for a spot that was vacated by Mike Gandy's departure.

3. Who is on your draft wish list?

If we are filling holes, I like S Taylor Mays from USC, CB Devin McCourty from Rutgers, and QB's Max Hall from BYU, Colt McCoy from Texas, and Dan LeFevour from Central Michigan. It would be nice to see a good third or fourth round QB choice.

Our Take:

Larry Fitzgerald is one of the top 2 receivers in the league. You really can't differentiate between Andre Johnson and Fitz. They're 1a and 1b in our book. However, you need someone who can get him the ball. Matt Leinart will get his shot, but the Cards are going to have to help Leinart out with a solid run game as well. Beanie Wells can be a feature back in this league, and the formula that has worked for the Cardinals (throwing 85% of the time) won't work next year. The Whiz and Russ Grimm will have no problem running the ball out West, and Arizona will likely still have the best offense in the division. To beef up their run game, taking a look at some offensive linemen in the draft would be a smart move.

On defense, the Cards need help. After losing Rolle and Dansby, the Cards need playmakers that play both the run and the pass well. Inside linebacker, safety, and pass rushers (either DE or LBs - depending on if they play more of a 3-4 or 4-3 this year) will be the prime targets for the Cards. Their defense represents a serious weak point for the team, and this division could be wide open next year with Arizona's offense due to take a few steps back with the losses of Warner and Boldin.

2009 Record: 8-8

Draft Picks: 13 (1-13), 17 (1-17), 49 (2-17), 79 (3-16), (4-15), (5-14), (6-13), (7-17)

The 49ers have been a team on the verge of breaking through for more or less the last 4 years. In that time, they have posted two 7-9 records and an 8-8 mark. Will this finally be the year they get over the hump? The NFC West will likely be the worst division in football next year, and with Arizona on the decline, it could be theirs for the taking. San Francisco has built a strong team through the draft, and we like the way Mike Singletary manages the team. The biggest question is at quarterback, where they now have two #1 picks on the roster - Alex Smith and David Carr, who are always in the discussion of the biggest busts of the last decade. Frank Gore and Glen Coffee make up a formidable tandem at RB and with Michael Crabtree on the outside, the offense has playmakers at the skill positions, if someone can get them the ball.

Matt Maiocco from the SF Press Democrat detailed the 49ers offseason needs on his blog. The full post can be found here, and you can follow Matt on Twitter here. Here are some excerpts from his post:

As I see it, the 49ers must improve two spots. They need to find two players to fill roles to provide the team with an immediate improvement. As I see it, the 49ers' two biggest needs are:
1-Offensive tackle: With two picks in the middle of the first round, it would be surprising if the 49ers do not select an offensive tackle with one of those selections. The 49ers can still try to re-sign Tony Pashos, the player who would've been the right tackle for the bulk of the season if he had not gotten injured. But they need to add a young offensive tackle in the first round to take over, more than likely, on the right side, where Adam Snyder did not play at a high level.
2-Return specialist: The 49ers did not have a return specialist. Their lack of production, and turnovers, in the return game were big factors in losses at Houston and Seattle. The 49ers must add a player to make an immediate impact in the return game. It could be via free agency or a trade. Or it might take a second-round pick to get a player who fits that description in the draft. Arnaz Battle, who struggled with punt returns, is not expected back next season. And the 49ers need to find someone other than a starting wideout to return kickoffs.
After the top two priorities, it gets a little hazy as to where to arrange the 49ers' offseason needs...
Secondary- Depth in the secondary is always important. Shawntae Spencer will be back as a starter. Nate Clements is under contract, but after missing the final nine games (after being demoted for the game against the Colts), it's not a slam dunk the 49ers will opt to pay his $6 million salary to bring him back. Dre' Bly is an unrestricted free agent with an uncertain future. The 49ers should add a young cornerback. The addition of a player who can supply immediate help would also assist the 49ers at safety, where Michael Lewis is still very good when he's playing close to the line of scrimmage. Maybe the addition of a young cover corner would enable the 49ers to sub out Lewis on passing downs. Lewis and Dashon Goldson are a very good tandem, with their strengths and weaknesses working as a nice complement to each other. But Lewis had several scares last season with concussion problems. Goldson has good range and is a playmaker. I like the idea of keeping Lewis on the field for base downs and bringing in another cornerback in nickel situations.
Outside linebacker/defensive end: When the 49ers go to their nickel defense, their outside linebackers become defensive ends. So that's the position I'm listing. This position was a high priority - top 2 or 3 - until Ahmad Brooks moved into the 49ers' "starting role" in nickel situations. He played just six games in that role and finished the season with six sacks. The rotation of Brooks, Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson on third downs proved to be successful. Still, teams can never have too many pass rushers.

Are the 49ers set at Quarterback? No. But we're now waiting for the second part of Urban Meyer's prediction to occur. Remember, he said Alex Smith would really struggle until he knows a system inside-and-out. But Meyer also said once Smith "gets it, he gets it." So, now, we'll see. It appears as if Smith will be the starting 49ers quarterback in 2010.
The 49ers will try to figure out their offensive identity in the offseason. I think they're back to where they were a year ago. I don't see the 49ers investing much in another wideout (unless, he has amazing return ability). I saw Crabtree run some nice routes late in the season and get wide open down the field. The 49ers have good, young receivers who are only going to get better. At Running Back, Frank Gore is the prototype, and Glen Coffee is a no-nonsense No. 2. But, just as I noted with the receivers, ability in the return game is what could inspire the 49ers to take a running back in the first couple rounds.

Our Take:

With two picks in the middle of the first round, San Francisco might be very active in the trade market. If someone like Dez Bryant or Joe Haden slips out of the top 10, the 49ers phones might be ringing off the hook of teams looking to trade up. Given their needs, you have to believe that there will still be a stud offensive lineman available at 17. I highly doubt they draft CJ Spiller just for his return abilities. It's more likely they take someone like Dexter McCluster in the second round. The 49ers are solidly in the O-line market and they may take a look at adding some talent to their secondary early in the draft.

2009 Record: 5-11

Draft Picks: 6 (1-6), 14 (1-14), 40 (2-8), (4-6), (5-8), (6-7), (7-6)

After being the undisputed kings of the NFC West for 5 years running in the middle of the decade, the Seahawks bottomed out with 4-12 and 5-11 seasons the last two years. Both seasons were highlighted by Matt Hasselbeck injuries, rendering the Seahawks offense toothless. Coupled with the loss of Pro Bowl RB Shaun Alexander, the Seahawks lacked playmakers - and it showed. They had a top 10 offense 4 of the 5 years of their streak. The last two seasons they finished 28th and 21st in Total Offense respectively. The Seahawks are a team in need of playmakers. They started that process last year by drafting Aaron Curry on defense, but now the offense needs a boost.

Chris from Seahawk Addicts, which has one of the best blog logos you will ever see, was kind enough to give us his two cents on the 'hawks. Chris covers the 'hawks on their blog and on Twitter better than the Seahawks corners covered Hines Ward in Super Bowl XL.

1. What do you see as the biggest need(s) for your team to address this offseason?

The Seahawks are in a big time of transition about three years too late. There are few positions that don't have at least some level of need, but the glaring elephant in the room is Left Tackle. The Hawks must replace outgoing future Hall of Famer Walter Jones this year, so Left Tackle is at the top of the list. Matt Hasselbeck is getting older, has been injury plagued, and is entering the final year of his contract, so Quarterback is a pressing need as well. With two of the worst starting safeties in the NFL, pretty much everyone in Seattle is hoping to add at least one body in the secondary. Other needs include Defensive End WR, Guard, Running Back, DT and Cornerback. Gulp.

2. Have they addressed any of these so far in Free Agency? Which do you think are better addressed in the Draft?

The Seahawks' recently fired GM Tim Ruskell tried hard to built his team in free agency. He went after the big guns and usually got them, albeit with someone else's money. That led to 10-6, 9-7, 4-12, 5-11... In 2010, new GM John Schneider appears to be taking a very cautious approach in the mold of his mentor Ted Thompson in Green Bay (who has signed something like three free agents since 2001). There have been a lot of interviews, but to our knowledge, no offers made to a free agent.

These positions will be filled in the draft. I would be surprised if they don't bring in a backup quarterback prior to the draft, but whether that person will be on the 53-man come September is a different question. Carroll seems to think that many of the needed positions are less talent needs than coaching needs, and we're just praying he's right. Jim Mora was an unmitigated disaster.

3. Who is on your draft wish list?

If I were to find one person to fill each of the needs above, it would be these guys: Tackle - Charles Brown, USC; QB - Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame; Safety - Eric Berry, Tennessee, or Earl Thomas, Texas. This is a great draft for offensive and defensive tackle talent, terrible for QB and DE talent, and pretty solid throughout for the secondary. Not sold on many of the WRs, but if RB Ben Tate of Auburn somehow slipped to the fourth, I would jump for joy if the Hawks grabbed him.

Our Take:

Chris hit the nail on the head with his draft analysis. This draft is weak at the QB and DE spots, and pretty deep in the secondary and at the tackle spots. With no 3rd round picks, the Seahawks may miss out on a run on Safeties. The best bet for them might be to take a shot at someone like Morgan Burnett (S-Georgia Tech) at the top of the 2nd round.

The best case scenario for Seattle would be if either Russel Okung (OT-Oklahoma St) or Eric Berry (S-Tennessee) would slip to them at #6. If neither of them are available, the Seahawks may entertain some trade offers, knowing that they have another first round pick sitting behind them. Tackle is the biggest need, and there will certainly be a tackle available at #14, which means the Seahawks could take Jimmy Clausen at #6 to be their quarterback of the future. If they have the inkling to do this, they might find their phones ringing with calls from Buffalo looking to trade up. CJ Spiller is definitely in play for the Seahawks. As Chris Johnson has shown in Tennessee, a game-breaking running back can go a long way to turning a team around.

2009 Record: 1-15

Draft Picks: 1 (1-1), 33 (2-1), 65 (3-1), (4-1), (5-1), (5-24), (6-1), (7-1), (7-19)

After going 1-15 last year, Rams fans are hoping they have seen their team hit bottom. To be honest, it couldn't be much worse than what they've seen the last few years. The Rams haven't had a winning season since 2003, haven't been to the playoffs since 2004, and are an almost unimaginable 6-42 over the last 3 seasons. Besides Stephen Jackson at RB and James Laurinitis at ILB, the Rams really need help everywhere. In theory, the Rams have done everything right in the draft the last few years, investing in a franchise DE (Chris Long, 2008) and LT (Jason Smith, 2009). That being said, they passed on Matt Ryan and Mark Sanchez, meaning there is increased pressure for the Rams to take a QB this year.

For a more in-depth look, we turn to our buddy Will from Rams Herd, who was awesome enough to answer a few questions about the Rams for us. For up-to-the-minute info from Will, follow him on Twitter.

1. What do you see as the biggest need(s) for your team to address this offseason?

Honestly, the Rams simply need impact players all over the field. They should not be approaching the draft as a “need”-based draft (i.e. “They need a quarterback of the future”) because they have every kind of need you can have, except at running back, and to a lesser extent, on the offensive line. They must get the best player available at every pick, and if possible, acquire more picks via trade. Last offseason, the Rams intentionally cut veteran players and went from one of the oldest teams in the league to one of the youngest. They’ve intentionally hit bottom, in other words, and in this draft they absolutely must rebound and generate upward momentum, by adding impact talent.

2. Which positions of need do you think would be better addressed in Free Agency? In the Draft?

Free agency doesn’t look good for many of the team’s needs, really for many teams period. It’s going to be a very slim year. That said, I think the Rams should aggressively target Aaron Kampman. The Rams’ entire defensive scheme is predicated on pass rush, and they didn’t get it last year. A D-line of Kampman, Suh, Cliff Ryan/NT rotation, and Chris Long could immediately transform the team on defense. I think we could also acquire depth on the O-line, particularly at guard; a pass-rushing Spagnuolo project at DE; and veterans at CB and WR would not be bad ideas. Chad Pennington as a backup QB would be a nice replacement for Boller, and insurance policy for whoever the next QB is.

The positions that the Rams should be most active in trying to acquire via trade are at Quarterback, weakside LB. The Rams should be gung-ho after Kevin Kolb, a Pat Shurmur protégé who is ready to make his mark on the league. If not him, then a lesser QB that fits the West Coast system, such as Jason Campbell, would be smart (if not exciting). Michael Vick is not an option, unless the goal is to simply have a circus and try to bring fans that way. At linebacker, I’d like to make a run at Kansas City’s Derrick Johnson.

In the draft, I look for the Rams to draft Suh first overall, and follow up with playmakers on offense in the next few rounds. Ideally, we could get a pass-catching TE, or a tall WR who can go up for balls — both integral threats in the West Coast offense, and both things the Rams have been missing.

3. Who is on your draft wish list?

Suh, obviously. And I harbor a huge crush on Mike Iupati, but there’s no way he drops to the Rams at #33. Same with TE Jermaine Gresham. I’m not really a draftnik, so I can’t give you a full accounting of my top-3-round guys, but I wouldn’t mind seeing WRs Arrelious Benn or Brandon LaFell, LB Sean Weatherspoon, TE Aaron Hernandez (potential Dallas Clark clone), and even (as a late round pick) big, tall & raw WR Danario Alexander. I also have an irrational desire to see a pure playmaker like Dexter McCluster in a Rams uni, but he doesn’t really fit the gameplan.

There is a small but vocal contingent that is pushing hard for Jimmy Clausen, especially if the Rams were to broker a trade down a couple slots to #3 or #4. Depending on the package of picks we get back, I’d be willing to sacrifice my #1 guy to see this happen.

Most importantly, though, the Rams need this draft to produce starters. Ideally, our still-young, still-unproven coaching staff finds one or two players with the tools to have a breakthrough year and become signatures of our commitment to player development.

Our Take:

The pressure is on for the Rams staff. They basically have 3 choices.
1. Draft Sam Bradford and hope he doesn't get killed behind their O-line that gave up 44 sacks last year. Remember, Bradford is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury.
2. Draft Suh. Suh, along with Eric Berry, seem like the most "sure thing" players in this draft. Suh can be an Albert Haynesworth-type that just clogs up the middle. The Rams were 27th in run defense last year and can use all the help up the middle they can get.
3. Trade down. This doesn't seem too likely unless there is a team out there that so desperately wants Suh that they feel the need to trade ahead of the Lions to take him.

If it were us, we would draft Suh. Bradford is enticing and the fact that he would have Steven Jackson alongside him in the backfield would take some of the pressure off. Chances are, the Rams will take Sam Bradford because of the increased pressure to win and win now in the league, and a franchise passer like Bradford would increase ticket sales, which is always something losing teams want to do. With 9 picks in the draft, the Rams can keep getting younger and better. The new management definitely has the right ideas behind how to build a competitor, and they very well may have the Rams competitive within the next few years.

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