The NFC West has been an up-and-down division for the past decade. The division has gone from a laughingstock to one of the NFL’s powerhouses. Yet, heading into the 2015 season, the West is at a crossroads.
The San Francisco 49ers, once a bastion of innovative offense and punishing defense, finished 2014 a disappointing 8-8 and saw head coach Jim Harbaugh—and the majority of his coaching staff—depart for new locales. The Seattle Seahawks reached the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year, but not without injuries ravaging their entire vaunted secondary. The St. Louis Rams, trending upward at least on defense, swapped quarterback Sam Bradford for Nick Foles. And the Arizona Cardinals managed an 11-win season with a carousel at quarterback after Carson Palmer’s knee injury.
For all the talent that the division boasts, that does not mean each team is without significant roster needs. Luckily, the 2015 NFL draft is fast approaching, and with it should come at least some help to the positions these teams lack. Here is the dream draft scenario for each NFC West team this year.
Though quarterback Carson Palmer last year sustained his second ACL tear to the left knee, Arizona is not in the draft market for a quarterback. One may come in the later rounds, but for now they are set when it comes to a starter.
Where they need help on offense, however, is at running back. The Cardinals averaged a collective 3.3 yards per carry in 2014 and had a total of just six rushing touchdowns. They were led by Andre Ellington, who had 660 yards on his 201 carries and a team-leading three scores. To say this is an area of need is an understatement.
Luckily for the Cardinals, the 2015 draft class is deep at running back—so deep, in fact, that they could avoid the position altogether in Round 1, passing on the likes of Todd Gurley or Melvin Gordon in favor of Duke Johnson or Ameer Abdullah in Rounds 2 or even 3. Consequently, that would free the Cardinals to take a much-needed pass-rusher with their first pick—24th overall.
The Cardinals totaled 35 sacks in 2014, but without a starting-caliber edge rusher, then-defensive coordinator Todd Bowles relied heavily on the blitz. The Cardinals defense ranked second overall in blitzing percentage, doing so on 42.5 percent of opposing quarterbacks’ dropbacks according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The addition of linebacker LaMarr Woodley can only help so much. Landing one of the draft’s better edge-rushers, like Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, Kentucky’s Alvin “Bud Dupree” or Virginia’s Eli Harold, would immediately put the defense in a better position to pressure the passer, especially since Arizona is without Bowles’ blitzing schemes this year, as he’s now the New York Jets head coach.
Rounding out the Cardinals’ ideal draft would be help in the trenches, particularly at the interior of both the offensive and defensive lines. An improved offensive line will help keep Palmer protected just months after his injury and help open holes for a rookie running back. Defensive tackle help, meanwhile, will allow better production out of the Cardinals’ would-be pass-rushers by occupying opposing blockers.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers are at a crossroads. Not only did they finish the 2014 season with an 8-8 record that was far below expectations, they also lost most of their coaching staff in Harbaugh and both coordinators. The defense also experienced a spate of high-profile retirements, including linebackers Chris Borland and Patrick Willis; Justin Smith may not be far behind. At the moment, that side of the ball is the team’s biggest area of concern and the one the Niners would be wise to focus on in this year’s draft.
Though linebacker seems to be the most glaring vacancy, the 49ers should focus early resources on the secondary, most notably the cornerback position. San Francisco let two starters leave as free agents in 2014 and promoted Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox, but both players left in free agency this year. Given that the 2015 draft is top-heavy at cornerback, it would be a better use of the 49ers’ resources to grab a corner early and address the linebacking corps later. With the Niners picking 15th overall in Round 1, they should have multiple options including Michigan State’s Trae Waynes and Washington’s Marcus Peters.
Inside linebacker is still a concern, but it’s one that can wait until the second round, with most of the Round 1 linebacking attention paid to pass-rushers. Given their loss of up to three inside ‘backers, this could be a position the 49ers address more than once.
The same can be said for the offensive line, which suffered a number of injuries last year and had insufficient depth to make up for them. Tackle Anthony Davis played just seven games in 2014. Guard Brandon Thomas tore his ACL. Guard and center Daniel Kilgore sustained a broken leg. If even one of the three re-aggravates his injury or succumbs to another, the Niners’ line will struggle yet again.
There are a variety of guards the Niners can target in the middle rounds of the draft, and the same goes for center. But should San Francisco want to address right tackle, it will require creativity. For the Niners to fully address their issues on defense as well as offensive line, it may require trading picks.
St. Louis Rams
The St. Louis Rams have moved on from quarterback Sam Bradford and replaced him with Nick Foles, but the same issue persists: They need to improve their offensive line. This year, three spots—right tackle, right guard and center—are up for grabs, partially because the team cut Jake Long and Scott Wells earlier this offseason.
If the Rams can shore up their line, that will make Foles’ job a lot easier. Otherwise, it could end up like the Bradford years, with a porous line leading to numerous injuries behind center. Trading one quarterback for another gunslinger is quite the move and quite the commitment to make. The Rams must deepen that commitment by addressing the offensive line numerous times in the 2015 draft.
The Rams have done an impressive job with their defensive line, to the extent that it may be the NFL’s most intimidating group. That can mask a multitude of sins in the secondary. But the Rams must also add to their cornerback depth in this draft. Cornerback is a tricky position, with a similar steep learning curve like wide receiver. Thus, the Rams should not consider it a failure if they snag a coveted cornerback and it takes that player a while to adapt to the speed of the NFL. It’s a position of need and if they develop it right, they can find at least one player to boost their secondary this year.
The Seattle Seahawks are a curious case. For two straight years they have reached the Super Bowl, with one win. They have one of the most well-rounded rosters in the NFL, but like any team, they also have glaring needs that must be addressed in the draft. The most obvious need for the Seahawks this year is offensive line.
Seattle traded center Max Unger to the New Orleans Saints in order to add top-flight tight end Jimmy Graham, and left guard James Carpenter is now with the Jets. These are the two key positions the Seahawks must focus on early in this draft. The sense of urgency is even greater, given that Seattle doesn’t make its first pick until Round 2.
The Seahawks also need to add to their vaunted secondary, since both the cost of keeping their veterans around for the long-term and the numerous injuries their “Legion of Boom” sustained at the end of the 2014 season. Seattle at least has the luxury of taking developmental players and getting them ready for the future rather than having to start them right away. Still, with the spate of injuries, they need to bring on at least one cornerback who has the capacity to play well as a rookie.
With the trade for Graham giving the Seahawks one of the best receiving weapons in the league, the need to round out the receiving corps is less of a pressing issue this year. Still, with a deep draft class at the position and the Seahawks needing to infuse a bit of home-grown youth to the offense, they should and could easily bring on another weapon for quarterback Russell Wilson.
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