NFL Offseason Preview: NFC West

By: Nick Rose

The NFC West has arguably been the best division in football over the past few seasons. The division has produced the NFC Champion for three years straight, with the Seahawks winning it all in 2013. Two seasons ago, the Cardinals finished with a 10-6 record and still only placed third in the division. This year, the 49ers, who played in three straight Conference Championships, only managed a 2-4 record against divisional opponents. The NFC West is truly cut-throat, and each team will have to carefully calculate their offseason moves in order to not yield ground to their foes.

St. Louis Rams (6-10)

Estimated Cap Space: $-1,403,619 (Sportrac)

The Rams showed some promise in 2014, winning games against both the Broncos and Seahawks. That being said, they still only managed six wins, and they are going to have to make a big splash this offseason in order to keep pace with the rest of the NFC West. Without question, their biggest decision will be what to do with Sam Bradford. He has shown some decent potential when he plays, but he is incredibly injury prone. In the past two seasons, he’s played a mere seven games. Early speculation by various media outlets suggested that the Rams would try to trade Bradford, but head coach Jeff Fisher made it clear when he took the podium at the NFL Combine that Bradford would remain atop the Rams depth chart for 2015. However, he also stated that the team would have to address the quarterback position due to Bradford’s history with injuries. So, the front office will have to take that into account along with a myriad of other decisions.

Top Free Agents:

  1. Rodney McLeod (FS) (Restricted)
  2. Joe Barksdale (T)
  3. Kenny Britt (WR)
  4. Shaun Hill (QB)
  5. Austin Davis (QB)

Positions of need:

– Quarterback

As Fisher said, the Rams need a solid quarterback to back up Sam Bradford. They don’t feel like the unproven Austin Davis or the 35 year old Shaun Hill are adequate insurance policies, so they will have to either explore a free-agent market that is weak at the quarterback position or target one in the draft.

Possible Acquisitions- Mark Sanchez, Brian Hoyer, Colt McCoy

– Wide Receiver

With Kenny Britt set to hit the market, St. Louis will be losing their top receiver from 2014. Tavon Austin has shown that he has the speed and agility necessary for an NFL receiver, but he’s still developing his route running ability. The Rams will need to add an established receiver to complement him if they want to have a more successful passing game.

Possible Acquisitions- Torrey Smith, Eddie Royal, Cecil Shorts

– Tackle

This position is important to the Rams for two reasons. The first is that they might lose Joe Barksdale, who was arguably their best lineman this season. The second is that Sam Bradford is susceptible to injuries as it is, so he will need all the protection he can get.

Possible Acquisitions- Michael Roos, Jeremy Parnell, King Dunlap

 

San Francisco 49ers (8-8)

Estimated Cap Space: $1,577,484 (Sportrac)

The 49ers fell from grace after three straight appearances in the NFC Championship game and a trip to Super Bowl XLVII. 8-8 is still a somewhat respectable record, but compared to the success they became accustomed to, it is unacceptable. The turmoil of this past season led head coach Jim Harbaugh to part ways with the 49ers and accept a job to coach at the University of Michigan. San Francisco replaced him with long-time defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who already has a great knowledge of the team’s defense. The coaching change will likely be accompanied by a slew of roster moves, as the 49ers have an abundance of big names set to leave for free agency.

Top Free Agents:

  1. Mike Iupati (G)
  2. Frank Gore (RB)
  3. Michael Crabtree (WR)
  4. Perrish Cox (CB)
  5. Chris Culliver (CB)

Positions of need:

– Cornerback

Cox and Culliver were the 49ers two starting corners this season, and they accounted for a combined nine interceptions. That’s a lot to lose, so San Francisco will probably try to keep at least one of them. However, keeping both would be difficult. Thus, they will have to add a great player in order to maintain their fifth- ranked pass defense.

Possible Acquisitions- Byron Maxwell, Kareem Jackson, Tramon Williams

– Wide Receiver

The 49ers haven’t been that deep at receiver in a while, but it used to not matter due to Vernon Davis’s freakish athleticism at tight end. However, after this season, it’s apparent that he has lost a step. Add that to the impending departure of Michael Crabtree, and all of a sudden, the 49ers aerial attack is in serious trouble.

Possible Acquisitions- Jeremy Maclin, Torrey Smith, Eddie Royal

– Running Back

It would be a no-brainer for San Francisco to say good-bye to Frank Gore. He will be 32 by the time next season starts, and at just under $6.5 million, he would be the team’s biggest cap hit. Aside from that, he just rushed for over 1,100 yards for the fourth straight season and has been the focal point of the 49ers offense since 2006. That’s a huge void to fill. Carlos Hyde might be capable of taking on some of that responsibility, but given the NFL’s gravitation towards running back committees, it would be wise for the 49ers to pad their backfield.

Possible Acquisitions- Ryan Matthews, Mark Ingram, Justin Forsett

 

Arizona Cardinals (11-5)

Estimated Cap Space: $5,358,395 (Sportrac)

The Cardinals looked like the best team in the NFC until Carson Palmer got hurt. Then, even with Drew Stanton under center, they looked like legitimate contenders. Once he went down, though, the Cardinals lost all steam. They still made the playoffs because of their early season success, but failed to advance past the first round. In fact, their offense only mustered up 78 yards that game, which is the fewest gained by any team in postseason history. The bright side is that when they are healthy, they can go toe to toe with anyone, even in one of the NFL’s most rugged divisions.

Top Free Agents:

  1. Antonio Cromartie (CB)
  2. Dan Williams (DT)
  3. John Abraham (OLB)
  4. Tommy Kelly (DT)
  5. Larry Foote (MLB)

Positions of need:

– Outside Linebacker

In a 3-4 scheme, it’s crucial to have great pass-rushing outside linebackers. The Cardinals don’t, as evidenced by the fact that they ranked 24th in the league in sacks. Alex Okafor is a solid starter, but the other four outside linebackers on the roster combined for a meager three sacks.

Possible Acquisitions- Jason Worilds, Sean Weatherspoon, Justin Durant

– Cornerback

Arizona had the league’s fourth worst pass defense even with Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie on the roster. So, with him testing the market, they have to find some way to bolster their secondary this offseason. They do have an All-Pro corner in Patrick Peterson, so they don’t necessarily need a superstar. They do, however, at least need a proven starter.

Possible Acquisitions- Bryon Maxwell, Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver

-Defensive Tackle

The Cardinals might retain one of their two free agent defensive tackles, but the other will probably leave. They will need to restock.

Possible Acquisitions- Cedric Thornton, Jared Odrick, Damon Harrison

 

Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

Estimated Cap Space: $23,830,997 (Sportrac)

The Seahawks have been the most dominate team in the NFL over the past two seasons. Their defense has swept the board in nearly every category over that time span, not to mention their Super Bowl XLVIII victory and oh-so-close performance in Super Bowl XLIX. For them, this offseason is more about retaining what they have rather than trying to fix their roster. That will be a daunting task, though, as they have 23 impending free agents. Luckily for Seattle, only six of them receive regular playing time, but it will still be difficult to resign all six. Additionally, the Seahawks have to worry about their two best offensive players, Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson, even though they each have one year left on their contracts. They are set to make Russell Wilson the highest-paid quarterback in football, which makes their approximate $24 million in cap space deceptively small. Also, Lynch seems determined to not play for Seattle in 2015 unless they restructure his deal. This will surely be a headache for Seattle’s front office as they progress through the offseason.

Top Free Agents:

  1. Byron Maxwell (CB)
  2. James Carpenter (G)
  3. Kevin Williams (DT)
  4. Jermaine Kearse (WR) (Restricted)
  5. Malcolm Smith (OLB)

Positions of need:

– Guard

Seattle has been a run-first team throughout their period of success. They control the line of scrimmage, let Marshawn Lynch pound away at the opposing defense, and use Russell Wilson’s arm as a supplement. That’s not to say Wilson isn’t a franchise quarterback, because he is, but there’s no question that the focal point of the Seahawks offense is the running game. Since Lynch is a hard-nosed, between the tackles runner, it’s pivotal that Seattle has strong guards. So, if they are unable to resin Carpenter, they will need to find a high-level replacement.

Possible Acquisitions- Mike Iupati, Orlando Franklin, Clint Boling

– Wide Receiver

On most teams, Jermaine Kearse would not be a starting receiver. He’s never had more than 40 catches or more than 540 yards in any of his first three seasons. The only big-name receiver the Seahawks have had in recent memory is Percy Harvin, and they traded him away before he even played his seventh regular season game with the team. Seattle doesn’t seem to value the position as highly as most teams do, but it hasn’t mattered because of their outstanding rushing attack. However, with Marshawn Lynch’s uncertain future in Seattle, it might be time for the Seahawks to address the position with either a high draft pick or a talented free agent.

Possible Acquisitions- Demaryius Thomas, Randall Cobb, Jeremy Maclin

– Cornerback

The Legion of Boom is without a doubt the best secondary in the NFL. Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas III, and Kam Chancellor are all perennial Pro Bowlers that simply dominate opposing offenses. Those three players are locked in, but the remaining starting cornerback slot is a question mark. Bryon Maxwell, who started on the opposite side of Sherman this season, will likely leave for free agency. The next man up would be nickel-back Jeremy Lane, but offseason surgery might keep him on the sidelines for the first few weeks of 2015. Seattle could go two different routes with the situation. One solution is to find a replacement for Maxwell via free agency and put Lane back in the nickel slot when he returns. A different way they can approach it would be to find a quick-fix for the first few weeks and then insert Lane into the starting lineup when he heals. The first option is safer, while the second is cheaper and would free up more money to restructure the contracts of players currently on the roster.

Possible Acquisitions- Kareem Jackson, Tarell Brown, Walter Thurmond III

 

 

 

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