Thursday, April 28, 2011

NFL Draft Preview: NFC West

Welcome to part seven of our eight-part preview of tomorrow's NFL draft (ESPN, 8 P.M.). After focusing on the AFC for the first two days, we will take a look at the NFC over the last two days in four division-by-division increments. We continue our analysis with a preview of the NFC West.

Yes, yes, the NFC West was atrocious. It was terrible. It was the laughingstock of the NFL. For the first time in the history of the league, a team won the division with a 7-9 record. The Cardinals went from first to worst after Kurt Warner retired and nobody stepped up to replace him. San Francisco cut Mike Singletary halfway through the year and brought in Jim Harbaugh to rebuild a team trying to find its identity. Even the division winners, Seattle, have huge question marks. Who's their future quarterback? Do they have any offensive weapons? How do they fix their defense? The lone surprise and possibly the only team on an upswing are the St. Louis Rams. Rookie Sam Bradford led the Rams to one game short of a playoff berth. They have a young offense with lots of talent and a defense with some pieces to build around. So how do the Rams build on their success? How does the rest of the division try to catch up? Let's take a look at what they may do in the draft.

Arizona Cardinals 
2010 Record: 5-11 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 5th, 38th, 69th
Team Needs: Quarterback, Tackle, Guard, Outside Linebacker, Cornerback

The Kurt Warner era is now one year gone and the Cardinals are still nowhere near finding their solution. Former USC star Matt Leinart (career: 3893 yards, 57.1 completion percentage, 14 TDs, 20 INTs, 70.8 QB rating) was the epitome of a draft bust before being shipped to Houston and neither Derek Anderson (2,065 yards, 51.7%, 65.9 QB rating in 12 starts) or John Skelton (662 yards, 47.6%, 62.3 Qb rating in four starts) showed much promise. Still, the Cardinals have plenty of pieces in place to regain their prior form and make another run at the playoffs. Larry Fitzgerald (90 catches, 1137 yards, 6 TDs) is still the focal point of a relatively young offense. The defense, once a weakness in the Warner years, has more weapons, despite a lackluster year (30th in points allowed and rushing yards).

The key to the Cardinals success in future years is what they do at quarterback in the draft, and they have to get one this year. Prior to the NFL lockout the red birds were heavily rumored in dealing for Eagles backup Kevin Kolb (1197 yards, 60.8%, 76.1 QB rating). With the lockout suddenly lifted does Arizona swing a deal for Kolb during all the labor chaos or do they look for help in the draft? Cam Newton likely will be gone at number five, and Blaine Gabbert may or may not be the best fit. If they wait, there will be options early in the second round at QB with Jake Locker and Ryan Mallett likely available. If they don't go QB in the first, it's too early for the Cardinals to get help on the offensive line, so Von Miller or Patrick Peterson would be the best bets. Miller is a stud outside linebacker, a weakness for years in Arizona and Peterson would be the perfect game changer to complement their potentially explosive offense. But again, this all depends on where they want to go at QB.

San Francisco 49ers
2010 Record: 6-10 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 7th, 45th, 76th
Team Needs: Quarterback, Center, Wide Receiver, Defensive Tackle, Linebacker

San Francisco is another team looking for a signal caller after the disaster that was Alex Smith (career: 9399 yards, 57.1%, 51 TDs, 53 INTs, 72.1 QB rating). Outside of quarterback it seems the only two positions that are solidified on the roster are running back, with Frank Gore (853 yards, 4.2 ypc, 3 TDs), and tight end with Vernon Davis (56 catches, 914 yards, 7 TDs). The Niners are clearly rebuilding with rookie coach Jim Harbaugh so it's important for the coaching staff to find the foundation pieces of their roster. The defense, which finished sixth in rushing yards allowed, has three cornerstones already in linebacker Patrick Willis (128 tackles, 6 sacks), defensive end Justin Smith (70 tackles, 8.5 sacks) and free safety Dashon Goldson (80 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT).

This is a big first year for the new staff in San Francisco. Harbaugh has the same questions to answer as his rival Cards, do they go QB in the first or hold off? At number seven, it's a risk Gabbert might be gone to Buffalo, Cincinnati or Arizona. There also may be options in the second round, or they could hope for some luck in free agency or via trade to grab a vet. If the 49ers can't or don't go with a QB in the first things get interesting. It all depends who gets taken before them, and that's the big dilemma. If A.J. Green or Julio Jones falls to them, do they go with a luxury pick without a franchise QB? If one of the defensive tackles, Nick Fairley or Marcell Dareus, falls do they shore up their line? Do they reach for  a Robert Quinn or take a defensive end? Or do they trade down and try and get more picks? With all their needs and the time they will need to build a contender, trading down might be the best bet.

Seattle Seahawks
2010 Record: 7-9 (Lost in NFC Divisional Playoff)
Early Picks: 25th, 57th, 99th
Team Needs: Quarterback, Offensive Line, Linebacker, Safety

Seattle set the record for most abysmal division winner, becoming the first team to win their division with a sub-.500 record. Former USC general Pete Carroll gutted this team last year. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (3001 yards, 59.9%, 12 TDs, 73.2 QB rating) hasn't been the same since the Shawn Alexander days and their run at a Super Bowl several years ago. The offense has few weapons, despite Marshawn Lynch's breakout run against the Saints in the Wild Card round. The defense is a little better off, with linebacker Lofa Tatupu (88 tackels, 1 sack) the mainstay and young safety Earl Thomas (76 tackles, 5 INTs) and Aaron Curry (73 tackles, 3.5 sacks) proving they have NFL talent. But if Carroll and company are going to defend their division title, they are going to need to add more impact players in this draft.

Carroll made it obvious last year that Hasselbeck's time is running out after trading for Chargers' backup Charlie Whitehurst. Whitehurst hasn't shown he's ready yet, so Hasselbeck is still the man in charge and there is now a possibility the Seahawks draft a replacement. Andy Dalton might be here. He's being compared to Drew Brees, so that can't be a bad thing. If they don't like Dalton, or Jake Locker if he's still available, they may miss out on the run of offensive lineman, a huge weakness. Another option might be UCLA stud linebacker Akeem Ayers. But my sleeper pick here is Mark Ingram. I don't think Lynch was impressive enough to warrant consideration as a long term starter. Ingram will be the star of a weak running back class, and if Seattle doesn't feel comfortable with the other options they could use a sure-fire bet like him.

St. Louis Rams
2010 Record: 7-9 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 14th, 47th, 78th
Team Needs: Wide Receiver, Tight End, Guard, Defensive Tackle, Linebacker

The Rams struck gold with Sam Bradford (3512 yards, 60%, 18 TDs, 76.5 QB rating) and it appears he'll be the face of the franchise for the next decade. Bradford took a cellar dwellar to one win short of the division crown. But Bradford has all the pieces to build a contender around. Steven Jackson (1241 yards, 6 TDs) is a lock at running back every year and Danny Amendola (85 catches, 689, 3 TDs) showed fantastic chemistry with Bradford. On defense, linebacker James Laurinaitis (114 tackles, 3 sacks) is the foundation with defensive end Chris Long (29 tackles, 8.5 sacks) a close second. A few more good picks by the Rams front office and this team could be a playoff threat for many years.

The Rams could use more weapons on offense, but with the way Bradford played last year, they have the luxury of holding off until later rounds to find sleepers at wide out and tight end. The defense needs the most help across the board. Illinois defensive tackle Corey Liuget would be an immediate starter and strengthen a huge weakness. Temple star Muhammad Wilkerson could also go here. If Robert Quinn falls, the Rams can't miss him. He shores up a linebacker corp immediately that needs a duel threat. Prince Amukamara is also an option as a ball hawk, something St. Louis could use to get the ball back in Bradford's hands. If they don't go defense the Rams have a slew of options at offensive line as the run on blockers starts around them. They could go with Tryon Smith, Mike Pouncey, or Anthony Constanzo.

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