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NFC West: A Pre-Draft Look

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The NFC West could be a "jump ball"?
The NFC West could be a "jump ball"?
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NFC West is going to be a dread for any outside team crossing their path. Tough, physical, and down right relentless on defense, the West is simply going to batter the opposition each and every Sunday...

But the real contest for Arizona, San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis resides within the division itself. In 2014, these four teams bludgeoned each other every time they played, and by the end of the year they all felt the pain. Seattle lost a Super Bowl due to their famous "Legion of Boom" secondary being hobbled by injuries. St. Louis, Arizona and San Francisco all had issues as the season wound to a close. But how are they looking as we head toward the 2015 NFL Draft? Let's take a quick look at each team, and their needs...

The Arizona Cardinals have some troubling issues in the run game. While I think Georgia's Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon are getting all the headlines at running back, I think Indiana's Tevin Coleman is the perfect fit for the desert birds. Picking at #24 overall, Bruce Arians may decide to hold pat on his defense, especially if linebacker Daryl Washington is allowed to return from suspension. The Indiana star could very well be a draft day surprise in the first round.

The Cardinals don't have the salary cap room to acquire Adrian Peterson, who they've been rumored to covet. It would also take at least a second day draft pick to get Minnesota to part with a player - who I think - has only a couple years left at a high level. Also, don't forget Peterson has been away from the game for quite a bit of time. Even though he's a workout warrior, and knee injury healing phenom, I have serious doubts about his ability to last an entire season of multiple NFC West games.

Arizona hinges on Carson Palmer's return to full health, and staying that way throughout the entire 2015 season. Not something I'd bet the ranch on...

San Francisco is harder to figure out than I would have thought after all the off season turmoil. Losing a great coach in Jim Harbaugh, the retirement of Patrick Willis - arguably one of the best linebackers to play in the NFL in the past decade - and the sudden retirement of Chris Borland after only a single season in the NFL is downright ugly. I have a sneaking suspicion Borland's retirement IS the result of an injury, though he claims it wasn't. A bay area bird whispered his thoughts to me regarding something that transpired with Borland after a game. He claims Borland experienced a few neurological symptoms that frightened him enough to seek outside opinions. After weighing the advice he received, he made a life choice that I respect.

So where does all this off season carnage leave the 49ers? For a while, it began to look like rats leaving a sinking ship after Harbaugh's departure and Jim Tomsula took over. Frank Gore is gone, as is the aforementioned Willis. The leadership value of both of these players can't be overstated enough. If defensive load-stone Justin Smith retires too, the 49ers are in real trouble. Tomsula has really only said he plans on letting quarterback Colin Kaepernick do what he does best, which means run instead of passing the ball. I don't doubt that "The Colin" can rush for quite a few yards outside the red zone, where he has room to use those long legs. But his undoing will come in the confines of the red zone, where blood thirsty linebackers and defensive ends are going to shorten any hopes of a long career for Kaepernick. I think Harbaugh had the right idea in grooming Kaepernick: teach him to be a pocket passer, then let the run be the surprise option.

The 49ers front office has gone from being a highly respected one, to a group few players have confidence in. I think they're going to throw Kaepernick to the wolves, and his recently signed contract makes it seem this is more than true. "The Colin" needs a new agent, because the contract he signed doesn't really give Kaepernick any real security.

The 49ers need to replace the loss of guard Mike Iupati in free agency. Joe Looney isn't the answer, and right tackle Alex "I'll hold out" Boone only has a year left on his contract. Their once - best in the NFL - offensive line is crumpling. Taking a guy like Florida State's Cameron Erving at #15 might be a stretch, but the versatility he brings with him may hold the key to keeping this unit from falling completely into disarray. They desperately need wide receiver help, especially with the failed Michael Crabtree experiment finding its end. Arizona State's Jaelen Strong seems like a perfect fit here...

Seattle somehow lucked into New Orleans giving away tight end Jimmy Graham. That's all fine and dandy, but few may have noticed just how little Graham did against tough NFC West defenses? Add in the fact he won't be a "plus" blocking asset in the run game, and the acquisition of the talented pass catching tight end looks more like something Pete Carroll wants against teams the Seahawks will face outside the division. The return of Marshawn Lynch is HUGE for the Seahawks. If he hadn't, I honestly don't see the Seattle being much of a threat on offense. Russell Wilson can only do so much, and without any kind of play action fake to a running back the caliber of Lynch, he would be looking at a tough 2015...

The Seattle defense is looking at a tough salary cap situation looming on the 2016 and 2017 horizon. Their defense is going to dissolve away in the next few years without serious NFL Draft late round gold being found. They've done it before, and their front office is one of the best in the NFL. In this draft, they're without a first round pick, but that hasn't bothered the Seahawks in the recent past. They need to replace center Max Unger, who was a part of the Graham trade. Oregon's Hroniss Grasu could be a great 3rd round pick up? He wouldn't be a plus in run blocking, but he's as smart as they come... If Dorial Green-Beckham falls far enough in the second round, don't be surprised if Carroll rolls the dice and moves up to snag the talent, red-flag-filled wide receiver... Nelson Agholor would be a perfect day 2 selection as well if Carroll wants to play the USC card...

The St. Louis Rams have the NFL media world buzzing once again. NFL reporters are hedging their dark horse bets as they constantly mention the Rams as a potential playoff contender. Their roster is FILLED with former first and second round picks: 10 by my count? They moved on from quarterback Sam Bradford to Nick Foles... Meh... OK, but at least they aren't standing with the offensive status quo, right? OK, maybe not, but at least there's slightly less potential injury angst for St. Louis fans headed into the 2015 season.

Offensive line woes aren't going away any time soon. Head coach Jeff Fisher is going all-in with 2014 #2 overall draft pick Greg Robinson at left tackle. The Rams released Jake Long in a salary cap move, so the depth behind Robinson is quite literally not there.

They desperately need help at guard, and right tackle too if a solution isn't found for free agent Joe Barksdale. They may be forced to pay Barksdale's asking price if they don't use high value draft stock to find a replacement. I think the right tackle's agent is playing Russian roulette with his client's future the closer the Rams get to the draft in April. I don't see general manager Les Snead, or team COO Kevin Demoff, blinking as they happily spin the chamber... The only thing Barksdale has going for him, is that his value is predicated on his only being better than anyone currently on the Rams' roster. Game film isn't going to get him big money elsewhere, simply because for every game he showed up well, there are cards  - like the debacle against Kansas City - to play on the bargaining table. After 2015 NFL Draft day(s), Barksdale's value drops to low to middle $$$, so...

Solutions in the draft aren't as hard to find as some may think. Late round talent among guard prospects is surprisingly strong in this draft. In the 4th through 7th rounds, guys like Utah's Jeremiah Poutasi and McNeese State's Antoine Everett are solid guard prospects. Tackle value is less deep in later rounds, so don't be surprised if Jeff Fisher looks really hard at T. J. Clemmings, D.J. Humphries, Cameron Erving or Eric Flowers at #10 overall. Clemmings would be the natural right tackle fit to replace Barksdale, but it would give the Rams a second year man on the left, with a rookie on the right... Eeek! Can St. Louis fans stand another year of  "development"? Can Nick Foles? Can Fisher and Snead afford another dismal offensive showing, and keep their jobs?

*****

There's a lot going on in the NFC West this off season, and how teams will move their chess pieces across the board will be interesting to say the least... So how do I see the 2015 NFC West shaking out at this point - prior to the NFL Draft in April? Have a look:

#4 - San Francisco 49ers: The problems for this team run so deep it's hard to see where they could possibly bottom out. Then again, they could be the 2015 version of the 2014 Dallas Cowboys, who many - including myself - thought were in for a dismal season. Anyone who doesn't see this team has some quality depth is a fool. But then again, depth players are really only a bad coin toss if a team has to hinge their season's hopes on them alone. If this team falls hard this season, I'd peg the Patrick Willis departure as the turning point toward a rebuild. Colin Kaepernick is not enough to carry this team, and running back Carlos Hyde has some big "Gore sized" shoes to fill. Based on what I see so far, I see the 49ers as a 6 -10 team in 2015.

#3 - Arizona Cardinals: I'm one of the few who think highly of Carson Palmer. But even I doubt his heath quotient going into this season. The truth is, Bruce Arians needs a top flight replacement for Palmer to ensure a successful season, and this draft isn't where he'll find any quick answers. Daryl Washington may come back, but he's had waaaay to long off to think he'll instantly return to form if he's re-enstated by Rodger Goodell. Oddly enough, the departure of Darnell Dockett may very well be the razor's edge the Cardianls have been walking on. If they can land a day 1 defensive starter in the draft to replace him? Hmm.... 8-8 is where I see the Cardinals in 2015, with a high side of 9-7, and third in the NFC West...

#2 - St. Louis Rams: Do you know who I think this entire season's shoulders rests on? If you guessed offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, Jr., you'd be right. What's more, I think the "catch phrase spouting" NFL rookie coordinator has the highest "boom or bust" factor I've seen in a long, long, time... Saying "I want to set players up for success" a million times to anyone who interviews him is all fine and dandy. But make no mistake: This guy has the weight of an entire franchise on his shoulders, and a bus ready to run over him if he fails at season's end... Here's the thing: If Cignetti can find a way to move away from Jeff Fisher's offensive scheme mind set, and find his own way, he very well could succeed. If he doesn't, fans may start yearning for a guy named Schottenheimer by week #8... But let's take the glass is half full angle, since few can argue the Rams have some nice weapons on the offensive side of the ball...

First, the St. Louis wide receiver corp is actually pretty solid, even without a true #1 pass catcher. It's not a "home-run" wide receiver corp, but it is capable of flashing at times, and at least moving the first down chains when called upon. In fact - I may be alone in this belief - I think this set of receivers is actually more talented on the whole than those Nick Foles had in Philadelphia. Stedman Bailey vs Jeremy Maclin? That's a wash, and I might even give the nod to Bailey due to his durability versus a spotty injury history for Maclin. Kenny Britt vs Jordan Matthews or Riley Cooper? I'd give the nod easily to Britt here, though Matthews intrigues me. Tavon Austin? There isn't anyone on their roster to compare him to right now. The Eagles' Zach Ertz and Brent Celek get the nod over Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks, but not by much... See what I mean? The Rams are giving Foles a decent set of tools to "succeed" as a player... Danm, now I'm doing it? Curse you Cignetti!

The tipping point for the Rams is their defense, and they do this by a wide margin. This is going to be a special group to watch in 2015. I'd like to see James Laurinaitis gets some depth behind him, and if Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney is there in the second round I'd leap at the pick. A true pass rushing outside linebacker would be the icing on the cake for this defense, but I don't see it happening in this draft unless a guy like Paul "Can do it all from sideline to sideline" Dawson somehow falls to round #3...

The Rams are in it until Week #17 And once again, they.... You know how it goes, right? Still, a 10-6 season will get the Rams into the playoff in 2015.

Seattle Seahawks: Can I just say "11-5", and leave it at that? You know I can't, don't you? But in truth, this season has its unique perils for Pete Carroll and the Seahawks. The injuries suffered in 2014 by their secondary could prove to be pivotal. Shoulder and arm injuries aren't something that feature fast or long term recovery. The loss of center Max Unger is big, big, big, and the portent to sign Oakland free agent Stephan Wisniewski could be key. They can ride their defense for another year, but offensive line titches are getting to be a problem. Like every team in the NFC West, offensive guard is an issue for the NFC champs. Duke's Laken Tomlinson could be there when Seattle picks in the second round, but I doubt it. They do have two #4-s they could use to move up, and I won't be shocked if they do.

You know what Seattle really needs most as well as I do: A top flight wide receiver. I mentioned earlier I think Dorial Green Beckham could be an option here if he continues to worry teams with his off field issues and work ethic. If there's anyone who can get through to Beckham, it's Pete Carroll...

The NFC West ends up like this:

Seattle Seahawks 4-2
St. Louis Rams 4-2
Arizona Cardinals 3-3
San Francisco 49ers 1-5