Finishing up the NFC West grades, I’ll address the offseason performance of the top teams in the NFL’s most competitive division. Before I start, I’ll take a minute to comment on the year-long suspension of Cardinals ILB Daryl Washington. When on the field, he is one of the best players in the league at his position, so it goes without saying that this is a massive loss for the Cardinals. It irks me quite a bit that this suspension is due to multiple failed drug tests for marijuana, while other players face no suspensions for behaviors such as assault and street racing. However, the NFLPA negotiated the terms of the current CBA, so they really have no one to blame for this but themselves. This is not the fault of the Cardinals, so it will not factor into their grade.
The Cardinals would have made the playoffs in all but one other division last year, with their solid 10 wins unfortunately staring up at the Seahawks and 49ers. Bad luck continued to hit them, as it seemed that allowing aging ILB Karlos Dansby to walk would not hurt them too much… until Daryl Washington was lost for the year.
Looking beyond this, the Cardinals still have plenty of hope this year; their o-line should be vastly improved thanks to the addition of LT Jared Veldheer, who represents a massive upgrade at the position. He missed most of last year due to injury, but is now healthy and ready to protect Carson Palmer’s blindside. Additionally, 2013 top-10 pick Jonathan Cooper will be ready to suit up at guard after missing the entire season with a broken leg. Throw in deep threat WR Ted Ginn, and the solid receiving TE John Carlson, and the Cardinals offense looks primed to be much improved in Palmer’s second year. The defense did suffer huge losses in the middle with Dansby’s departure and Washington’s suspension, but they also added CB Antonio Cromartie on a one-year deal for just $4 million. Cro! did not play very well last year, struggling through a hip injury, but will not have to cover #1 receivers anymore, now that he’s working opposite Patrick Peterson. If safety / slot man Tyrann Mathieu can return to form as well, the Cardinals will have one of the best sets of corners in the league.
The draft saw the Cardinals pick up SS Deone Bucannon, an impressive physical specimen at the safety position, near the end of the first. He is a very hard hitter, but doesn’t move as fluidly as you might like. While he doesn’t need to be a great player right away in such a talented secondary, this seems like a reach and one has to wonder whether this was a panic pick after Calvin Pryor and HaSean Clinton-Dix were taken earlier in round 1. Considering Jimmie Ward was still available and taken a few slots later, I am not a fan of this pick. With the 20th pick in the second round, they took TE Troy Niklas. He has great size for a tight end and will be an effective blocker right away. However, he is new to the position, and it is telling that he was used as a blocker more often than as a receiver. It may take some time before he contributes to the passing game. The Cardinals had two picks in the third, using them to select DE Kareem Martin and WR John Brown. Martin is another project player with good size and upside, but will need to spend a lot of time in the weight room. Brown had a very impressive combine with a 4.34 40, but he played at Pittsburg State in Kansas, and so we couldn’t find any film on him. In the fourth round they took yet another project player, QB Logan Thomas. He has a lot of raw potential with great size and arm strength, but his accuracy is not very consistent, with film revealing that he can often miss wide open receivers. I really like this Cardinals roster, but this draft leaves me scratching my head. Why take so many project players when you are capable of competing right now, especially with an aging QB? While their free agency was solid with the acquisitions of Veldheer and Cro!, the draft brings their grade down quite a bit. Grade: C
San Francisco 49ers:
Another solid playoff run ended a little earlier than San Francisco fans hoped, with the ‘Niners falling to the division rival Seahawks. Afterwards, the ‘9ers clearly felt the defense needed retooling, allowing both of their starting cornerbacks (Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers), as well as SS Donte Whitner, to walk in free agency. With almost 3,000 snaps in the secondary on the way out, the 49ers needed to sign some defensive backs, bringing in veteran SS Antoine Bethea and CB Chris Cook. Bethea is a solid player who may not be able to completely fill Whitner’s shoes, but will still provide a stabilizing presence for second-year safety Eric Reid. Chris Cook is a decent corner who will fit nicely into the ‘9ers defense, having played in a very similar cover-2 scheme for the Vikings. However, he does come with concerns, having played in only 29 games in four years. He also has some character issues, and he has not intercepted a pass in his career. That said, he will likely only be relied on as the #2 corner, as promising young CB Tramaine Brock looks primed to step into the #1 role. On the offensive side, WR Anquan Boldin was immediately re-signed after an impressive season that saw him play the #1 role quite effectively. They further bolstered the receiving corps, trading a conditional fourth-round pick in 2015 for WR Stevie Johnson. While Johnson’s numbers won’t impress many people at first glance, he is a savvy veteran whom most corners will struggle to cover bump-and-run style. Back when Darrelle Revis was with the Jets, Johnson was consistently able to beat him on simple slants and hitch routes using impressive footwork.
Even after trading for Johnson, the ‘9ers still had a whopping twelve draft picks. I really liked their first two selections, SS Jimmie Ward and RB Carlos Hyde. Ward is a very good strong safety, with good instincts against both the run and pass. Although 49ers fans may have preferred a cornerback here, Ward will allow the defense to play in more big nickel packages, which works out nicely for a team that likes to play so much zone coverage. Carlos Hyde is an impressive runner with good receiving skills and effective pass blocking technique thanks to great upper body strength. He gives the ‘9ers an effective running back tandem and eventual replacement for Frank Gore. As much as I liked these first two picks, the 49ers’ three third-rounders may be even more impressive value. C Marcus Martin and OT/G Brandon Thomas are solid values. Martin is a good two-way player capable of starting right away, while Thomas is an upside pick who would have been selected earlier if not for a pre-draft ACL tear that will keep him off the field for most of this year. The real gem here is ILB Chris Borland, a do-it-all player. He was a stud for the Wisconsin defense against both the run and pass. I was quite shocked to see him fall out of the second round, but it would seem that his short stature (only 5’11”) scared off many teams. As for the rest of the draft, other than fourth-round WR Bruce Ellington, the ‘Niners chose to select mostly project players.
With their good drafting in the earlier rounds and their just-good-enough free agent class, I’m pretty satisfied with the approach they took. A solid veteran team will continue to be solid, as they are led by superstar QB Colin Kaepernick, who just signed a massive six-year extension worth over $120 million, with $61 million guaranteed. While I would have liked to see them sign another cornerback in free agency, the future continues to shine very bright for this team. Grade: A-
The Seahawks are coming off a 13-3 season and a Super Bowl win where they thrashed one of the greatest offenses of all time. Considering that they played most of the year without WR Percy Harvin, Seattle management might feel like they don’t have much to worry about. As a result, the Seahawks were very quiet in free agency, avoiding new players and choosing to re-sign a few of their own guys, such as DE Michael Bennett and WR’s Sidney Rice and Doug Baldwin. However, they did allow many of their own starters to walk; CB Brandon Browner, DE Chris Clemons, DT Red Bryant, CB Walter Thurmond, WR Golden Tate, and OT Breno Giacomini all found new homes this offseason. While the core of the Seahawks remains intact, quite a few quality players who played a great number of snaps just walked out the door. While the team only had marginal cap room to sign some free agents, it would seem that Seattle is saving up to give their core players contract extensions. FS Early Thomas was signed to a 4 yr $40M deal, and CB Richard Sherman received a 4 year deal worth $56M. On the table next is QB Russell Wilson, who is certain to wind up with a deal bigger than that of Colin Kaepernick.
Moving onto the draft, the Seahawks traded down a couple of times, ending up with two second-rounders and three fourth-rounders. In the 2nd round they took WR Paul Richardson and OT Justin Britt. Richardson is a burner in all senses of the word, displaying amazing straight line speed and decent hands. I don’t love this pick with Cody Latimer and Jarvis Landry still on the board, but it seems that Seattle has a plan to put incredible speed at wide receiver, while forgoing big-body possession targets, perhaps due to the flexibility fast receivers will give Wilson to improvise. OT Britt is the real head-scratcher here, as his pass protection is quite poor at times. Pull up the tape against Georgia and you will see him get thrown off balance quite a bit and give up numerous pressures. The athleticism to be a starting tackle is definitely there, as he does display good movement and decent run-blocking skills. However, Britt looks like a definite reach, and this is not the first time Seattle has made a questionable pick of of an offensive lineman early (see former first-round pick James Carpenter). The fourth round yielded some better selections: DE Cassius Marsh, WR Kevin Norwood, and OLB Kevin Pierre-Louis, all of whom have good potential and aren’t so raw that they can’t contribute something right away this year.
With how much the team spent on Percy Harvin last year in both draft picks and money, it would have been tough for the Seahawks to make any sexy moves. When you’re the defending champs, though, no one is going to second guess anything you do. I don’t like their draft too much, but the Seahawks’ overall offseason approach seems fine. Grade: C+
St. Louis Rams:
You can see my at-length analysis of the Rams offseason here. To give a short recap, I hated all of it. They invested money in an offensive tackle, and then selected another one with the #2 overall pick, passing up on superior prospects. Despite having eleven picks in a deep wide receiver draft, they refused to address their gaping holes at the position, with the lone addition being Kenny Britt, a player who might be washed up or unable to move beyond his off-field problems. They made some decent draft picks, but with eleven picks and such a high draft slot, that is to be expected. The division rival 49ers had a far better draft with a similar amount of picks and a much lower draft slot. Grade: F