By Nick Shook
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Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2018 NFL Draft. Nick Shook examines the current makeup of the NFC West below.
Many a song has been written about the passage of time, and the fleeting nature of success. The NFC West could inspire a similar musical creation.
We’d become accustomed to the Seahawks being the guardians of the NFC West crown, with annual challenges coming from the Cardinals, while the Rams and Niners lingered on the outskirts of true contention. Then 2017 (and Jimmy Garoppolo) arrived and flipped that on its head.
Los Angeles rose from offensively inept to explosive under first-year coach Sean McVay, and the 49ersripped off five straight wins to close the season on the back of Garoppolo. As a result of those developments and an entertaining offseason, we have a changing of the guard at hand. The Ramsreturn as the division champions with even more power (at least on paper), and for the first time since the Harbaugh days, the Niners are actually an intriguing team to watch.
Seattle is in the early stages of a rebuild, though not a complete teardown, while Arizona is in a gray area of sorts, replacing one of the franchise’s best quarterbacks in its history with a $20 million signal-caller who’s struggled to stay on the field. A bevy of other mainstays have departed the desert, leaving the Cardinals in an interesting and potentially calamitous position under new head coach Steve Wilks.
Time to recap how this all went down, and where we go from here.
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The Rams have made the most offseason noise, more so in the trade market than free agency, but capped a productive stretch that built quite an on-paper defense by signing Suh. Pairing the five-time Pro Bowler with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, Los Angeles figures to have the best defensive line in the league. Add in a defensive backfield that now includes Marcus Peters, Aqib Taliband Lamarcus Joyner, and you’re looking at quite a unit. What will be interesting, though, is how the Rams adjust without linebacker Alec Ogletree, who was dealt to the Giants. Whoever replaces Ogletree should expect to be a clean defender more often than not, thanks to the double-team-commanding Suh and havoc-wreaking Donald up front.
I’ll acknowledge this right off the bat: The magnitude of this loss might not end up being as large as it seems now, because new head coach Steve Wilks doesn’t prioritize safeties like his predecessor. But I’m writing this in here from a pure talent perspective, because there are few safeties in the NFL with the talent of Mathieu. Additionally, to cut Mathieu due to money but hand Sam Bradford $20 million for one season just doesn’t feel like a wise move. Much like Seattle, Arizona seems to be in an odd place where it wants to contend, but might be lacking the personnel to do so. Cutting Mathieu didn’t help. There is some positive news, though …
Over the past two seasons, the offensive line has been a massive problem in Arizona. Carson Palmer was essentially hurried into retirement thanks to two years worth of constant contact. Cards GM Steve Keim proved he was aware of the need by signing the former Giants guard, who is coming off a down year but is still a solid signing for a team that was desperate up front. Paired with fellow free-agent addition Andre Smith on the right side, Pugh looks to lead the revitalization of one half of the offensive line, while veteran guard Mike Iupati highlights the other half. This is by no means saying the situation there is fixed, but it looks better on a depth chart than it did at any point last season.
Arizona Cardinals: How many games will Bradford start? Mike Glennon? Quarterback C? The Cardinals did themselves a solid with the Pugh signing, but Larry Fitzgerald has to be looking around in that locker room and questioning why he returned. Arizona lacks weapons at receiver after watching both Browns (John and Jaron) leave and has a multitude of areas where it could turn in the draft — including (but not limited to) receiver, cornerback, defensive tackle (a 1-technique next to Robert Nkemdiche) and quarterback. On the clock at No. 15, this could be a case of taking the best player available within those needs. Credit is due to Keim for at least attempting to patch up that line with Pugh and Smith, creating a decent group on paper when joined with Iupati and center A.Q. Shipley. Even with the low-risk, medium-reward potential of wideout Brice Butler (signed to a two-year deal Monday), there’s plenty more work to be done.
Los Angeles Rams: In unavoidably biting a line from John Cena, we’re declaring the time is now for the Rams. Last season was grand, a dream for Rams fans who slogged through their first campaign back in SoCal only to be rewarded with a division crown in Year 2. Victory and success are fickle beasts, though, and with winning comes heightened expectations, multiplied by playing in the nation’s second-largest media market. The various additions are great, in theory. Imagine what Wade Phillips will be able to cook up with such a loaded secondary, and with Suh slotting in next to Donald and Michael Brockers. And the majority of the offense is returning for Year Two under Sean McVay. How could this possibly fail?
L.A. did have a couple of key departures: Ogletree and wideout Sammy Watkins. GM Les Snead filled the receiver void with a trade for Brandin Cooks on Tuesday, but with the young speedster currently only under contract for one year, the pressure is only increased by the move. Expect the Rams to address the linebacker position if the right prospect is there in the first round, and then move to bolster areas currently filled by veterans (left tackle, for example) with players who could use some development in later rounds. Filling one of the middle linebacker spots will be a lot to ask of a rookie, but the Rams have experience putting a lot of responsibility on a green player’s plate (SEE: Samson Ebukam).
San Francisco 49ers: John Lynch has talked about being selective in who he signs, but some of his additions have the feel of the “al dente” test, with Lynch throwing possibilities at the wall and seeing what sticks. It worked with Marquise Goodwin last season, and could be in play again with a defensive assortment of newbies led by Richard Sherman. The idea has to be to look beyond 2018 with this draft, meaning Lynch will likely go defense early, selecting either a defensive back (still a need, despite the addition of Sherman) or a linebacker to team up with Malcolm Smith and Reuben Foster (though Foster’s off-field troubles have already put his standing with the team in jeopardy, underscoring the LB need even more). Ohio State corner Denzel Ward could very well be the pick at No. 9. From there, the Niners will turn back to offense to surround Jimmy G with weapons.
Seattle Seahawks: This seems to be the year in which John Schneider will undoubtedly use Seattle’s first-round pick instead of trading out of the draft’s opening night. (Yes, I’m aware he took Germain Ifedi31st overall in 2016 — don’t ruin my narrative.) Schneider essentially has to use the No. 18 slot. We encounter the Seahawks in the beginning stages of what appears to be a fluid rebuild, indicated by the release of Richard Sherman, trade of Michael Bennett and signings of a handful of lesser players (Tom Johnson and Barkevious Mingo, for example). Not all is lost in this transitional year, though, especially if the Seahawks can maximize production from the likes of Ed Dickson, Jaron Brown and Maurice Alexander. Seattle sure doesn’t seem to pack as much punch, though — at least not on paper.
As for the draft, Cliff Avril‘s status is still uncertain, so the ‘Hawks have multiple holes on the defensive line. Seattle has also struggled to protect Russell Wilson in recent years, though it seems to have its best situation along the line since 2015. Edge rusher seems to be the go-to in the first round, and thanks to trades, Seattle will have to wait until the fourth round again for more action (the Seahawks also have six combined picks split between Rounds 5 and 7). There have been brighter offseasons than this one in the Pacific Northwest.
Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.