By Benoit & Staples
April 21, 2015

 

2015 NFL Draft: Projecting the NFC West’s problems and solutions. 2015 NFL Draft: Projecting the NFC West’s problems and solutions.

 

 

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Cardinals’ Problems

 

 

By Andy Benoit

 

Antonio Cromartie has followed Todd Bowles to New York, leaving the Cardinals in the same position they were in last spring: in need of a cornerback to play opposite Patrick Peterson. The current projected starter, Jerraud Powers, is better suited for the slot. New defensive coordinator James Bettcher won’t be able to continue the aggressive approach that Bowels so expertly employed if the corners can’t be trusted in man-to-man and matchup zone coverage.

 

There’s also a dire need at inside linebacker, where Larry Foote appears to be headed for a coaching role. Free agent pickup Sean Weatherspoon is injury-prone and has never played 3-4 inside backer; Kenny Demens is an unknown; and 2013 second-round pick Kevin Minter has been a huge disappointment. Given that Arizona plays so much dime D—leaving just one inside linebacker on the field—they might not necessarily address this position early in the draft. But they do need to address it.

 

The same goes for nose tackle, where Alameda Ta’amu is being asked to replace Dan Williams. Perhaps he can, but it’d be wise to groom an immediate backup and possible down-the-road starter at this spot. And it wouldn’t hurt to find a pass rusher (though the nature of this scheme’s pressure packages makes that less important than people might think).

 

But more important are the issues along the offensive line. Mike Iupati’s arrival only solves one position (left guard). There are still questions at right guard—2013 first-rounder Jonathan Cooper, who missed his entire rookie season with a fractured fibula, couldn’t even beat out the likes of Ted Larsen and Paul Fanaika for a starting job last year—plus center and right tackle. Bruce Arians uses empty sets (nobody but the QB in the backfield) more than any coach in the league. That requires blockers who can win one-on-one.

 

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More NFL Draft Projections

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Cardinals’ Solutions

 

 

By Andy Staples

 

Picking at No. 24, the Cardinals will have to choose if they want to address their cornerback or offensive line need first. There are a few options at corner, and one of them has a high risk/reward factor. There are more options along the line, and that might be the safer route in the first.

 

If the Cardinals want a corner, they’ll probably have the same internal debate as several front offices picking in this zone. Is Washington’s Marcus Peters, who is perhaps the most physically gifted prospect at corner worth a first-round pick even though he got thrown off his college team mid-season? Other options include Connecticut’s Byron Jones, whose stellar combine numbers shone a light on a good player from a bad team, and Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson, another good player from a bad team.

 

 

 

At offensive line, the Cardinals could have a plethora of options available. If Stanford’s Andrus Peat is still around, he could develop into a franchise left tackle. Florida State’s Cam Erving can play all five positions and could be plugged into the area of most glaring need. LSU’s La’el Collins might be gone, but if he’s still on the board the Cardinals could pick up a mauler who excels in the ground game to play either tackle or guard.

 

 

 

If the Cardinals go with a cornerback and wait on the lineman, they might be able to grab South Carolina guard A.J. Cann or Florida tackle D.J. Humphries in the second round. If they go with a lineman in the first and then opt for a corner later, they could find themselves deciding between Florida State’s P.J. Williams, whose recent arrest on DUI charges is akin to a failed intelligence test, or fellow Seminole Ronald Darby.

 

 

 

There is value to be found at inside linebacker in the middle rounds. If he’s still there, Arizona should snap up Miami’s Denzel Perryman in the third. If he’s gone, Georgia’s Ramik Wilson, Baylor’s Bryce Hager or Kansas’ Ben Heeney should be available. All can tackle in the box, but Hager and Heeney might be better suited to being the only linebacker on the field after spending their college careers in the pass-happy Big 12.

 

 

 

There won’t be many space-eating defensive tackles available after the first two rounds, so the Cardinals will have to take a risk in the later rounds and hope they unearth a gem. UCLA’s Ellis McCarthy is a 338-pounder who came out of high school as a star recruit, but he didn’t even start for the Bruins and surprised everyone by declaring for the draft. McCarthy should be available very late, and some team likely will take a flyer on him.

 

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49ers’ Problems

 

 

By Andy Benoit

 

The Niners’ biggest need is at inside linebacker—by far once their strongest position. The retirements of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland have left a hole that, as of now, only NaVorro Bowman is equipped to help fill. (Though to be fair, Michael Wilhoite played very well when called upon to start off the bench last year.) Of course, that’s taking the optimistic outlook on Bowman, who is coming off a serious leg injury and likely won’t be the player he once was.

 

The Niners also have needs at defensive end, where Justin Smith is nearing his football mortality and where depth became a concern after backup Tony Jerod-Eddie was promoted to starter in the wake of Ray McDonald’s release last season. New defensive coordinator Eric Mangini has long been a 3-4 acolyte; most likely the Niners will pursue a man-eating end who has the strength to play two gaps on first and second down.

 

Improvements can be made at your cornerback when Shareece Wright is in contention for serious playing time. (He’s not a bad player, just very average.) Incumbents Tramaine Brock, Dontae Johnson and Chris Cook are in the mix, and Jimmie Ward figures to be a long-term solution for the slot. But if a talented corner falls to pick No. 15 or even to San Fran’s No. 46 second-round slot, GM Trent Baalke should jump.

 

On offense, Baalke knew long ago that the Niners wouldn’t be able to afford Pro Bowl left guard Mike Iupati’s second contract. That’s why Baalke drafted Brandon Thomas in the third round last year. Thomas joins center Marcus Martin—another second-year third-rounder—in a front five that has no immediate needs aside from depth.

 

There are needs at wide receiver. Baalke obviously believes Torrey Smith, the team’s $22 million (guaranteed!) free agent is a legit star. But he’s not. Stiff hips prohibit Smith from running parts of the route tree. While his hands have improved, he’s still not a natural catcher, which is reflected most glaringly in his inability to snag contested balls. Smith is at least more effective alongside his old Ravens teammate Anquan Boldin, the consummate possession target. But “Boldin-Smith” is not a duo that can define an offense. At least one more weapon is needed, and probably two, given that Boldin turns 35 in October.

 

It’d make sense to also have a discussion here about the tight end position, given Vernon Davis’ perplexingly awful 2014 campaign and the fact that his contract expires after this season. But unfortunately this year’s tight end class is very weak.

 

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More NFL Draft Projections

AFC East ... AFC North ... AFC South ... AFC West

NFC East ... NFC North ... NFC South

 

 

 

49ers’ Solutions

 

 

By Andy Staples

 

Since Benoit has ordered the 49ers to grab a great corner if he falls to them at No. 15, let’s give them Michigan State’s Trae Waynes if he’s still available. If he’s not, let’s get them a defensive end. There could be temptation to take Oregon’s Arik Armstead at this spot. He’s a 6-7, 292-pound freak with desirable measurables. He also is a risky pick, because Armstead never put all those excellent attributes together in college. A more productive version of Armstead is former Oregon teammate DeForest Buckner, who still has one more year in Eugene. The problem for the 49ers here is that the better ends who could still be available here fit better into a 4-3. Could Kentucky’s Bud Dupree carry more weight? Maybe. But he’s pretty fast at 270, and adding more bulk could negate what makes him so tough to block. The 49ers might want to wait until the middle rounds and pick up Stanford’s Henry Anderson, who fits what they’re looking for at this position.

 

San Francisco will have plenty of chances to upgrade its wide receiver corps. Ohio State’s Devin Smith is a burner who can take the top off a defense. USC’s Nelson Agholor is an all-purpose weapon who can also return kicks. Each might be available in the second round. So might Michigan’s Devin Funchess, who could be paired with Vernon Davis to create huge matchup issues for defenses. The 49ers can also grab a slot receiver in the middle rounds. East Carolina’s Justin Hardy and Duke’s Jamison Crowder are sure-handed targets who know how to get open.

 

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Seahawks’ Problems

 

 

By Andy Benoit

 

Contrary to what Doug Baldwin might think, Seattle’s receiving corps is resoundingly mediocre. Baldwin himself helped verify this by catching just one ball in Super Bowl 49. If the Seahawks find a steal at this position, they should jump—even after taking Paul Richardson (second round) and Kevin Norwood (fourth round) a year ago. But only jump if it’s an absolute steal; this offense has shown that it doesn’t need dynamic receivers in order to win because of the system and Russell Wilson’s style of play. Plus, don’t forget about the addition of Jimmy Graham.

 

Graham’s arrival dictated the departure of Pro Bowl center Max Unger, who is now a Saint. Projected replacement Lemuel Jeanpierre doesn’t have the suddenness and range to be a 16-game starter. One must be drafted, preferably sometime in the first two days. There’s an equally notable need at left guard now that James Carpenter has signed with the Jets.

 

On defense, Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider can draft for depth, as there are no major holes in the starting 11—with the possible exception of Byron Maxwell’s old right corner spot, which Seattle hopes can be filled by free-agent pickup Cary Williams. If not, there’s the long-armed Tharold Simon, who is built to play along the boundary. Though picked on at times, Simon performed well when cast into the starting lineup last season. But at the very least, depth at this position is somewhat of a concern with slot man Jeremy Lane rebounding from serious arm and knee injuries that he suffered on his Super Bowl interception of Tom Brady.

 

Lastly, don’t be surprised if the Seahawks take someone from the enticing pile of defensive ends in the early rounds. They may not be able to re-sign Bruce Irvin next year, and they lack a third edge rusher to rotate with Irvin and Cliff Avril.

 

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More NFL Draft Projections

AFC East ... AFC North ... AFC South ... AFC West

NFC East ... NFC North ... NFC South

 

 

 

Seahawks’ Solutions

 

 

By Andy Staples

 

Because the group of receivers is fairly deep, the Seahawks might want to use their first pick (which comes late in the second round) on another edge rusher. Pete Carroll tried to recruit Owamagbe Odighizuwa to USC, but Odighizuwa chose UCLA. Now Carroll can get his chance to coach the Portland, Ore., native if Odighizuwa lasts.

 

 

 

The receivers I mentioned as potential second-round targets for the 49ers also apply for the Seahawks, as do the slot receivers who could be available in the middle rounds. If center is the more pressing need along the offensive line, then perhaps Erving would be available and the Seahawks could look for pass-rushing depth later. But there are quite a few quality centers available. Auburn’s Reese Dismukes and Kansas State’s B.J. Finney handled quality competition weekly in college, and they’ll be around in the middle rounds. Even later, Florida’s Max Garcia is another potential longtime starter.

 

 

 

Several quality guards should be available in the middle rounds. The Florida State combo of Tre Jackson and Josue Matias, Alabama’s Arie Kouandjio and Missouri’s Mitch Morse have proven themselves against excellent defensive linemen in college and should be able to handle starting jobs in the NFL.

 

 

 

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Rams’ Problems

 

 

By Andy Benoit

 

Given the paucity of quality quarterbacks in this year’s draft, Nick Foles can be considered “Jeff Fisher’s guy—for now.” Foles is in the final year of his rookie contract, and one could argue that the most intriguing piece for the Rams in packaging Sam Bradford and a fifth-round pick to Philly was the 2016 second-round pick they got in return. For now, Fisher and GM Les Snead will set their sights on other positions, most likely along the offensive line. Their first string currently features an unknown center (Tim Barnes) and right tackle (Brandon Washington….or Garrett Reynolds, who was a significant liability at this position for the Lions last season). Right guard Barrett Jones is also untested, though having been a fourth-round selection just two years ago, he’s still worth putting through a prolonged trial run. It’s not a great draft for true centers and guards, so this position could wait to be addressed late on the second day or even early on the third.

 

With their first-round pick, the Rams should consider a receiver who can win on the outside. Tavon Austin, whom they traded up to draft eighth overall in 2013, is built almost exclusively for the slot. You don’t get his full value if you’re weak at the other receiver positions. Kenny Britt was a pleasant surprise here last year, but he’s not a pillar to build on. The jury is still very much out on Stedman Bailey, and Brian Quick missed the final nine games in 2014 with a shoulder injury. Quick actually looked very good at times in Weeks 1-8, particularly when he lined up as an “X-iso” receiver (alone on the weak side). If the Rams defy expectations and don’t select a wide receiver early, it will be due to the on-field progress they’ve seen from Quick.

 

The Rams have no defensive needs. They’re young and supremely talented on all three levels—front line, linebacker and, though to a little lesser extent, even in the secondary. They’re also becoming more comfortable in Gregg Williams’ system. The complexity of that system makes it unlikely that a rookie would make an immediate impact anyway (though E.J. Gaines did last year). And the Rams should be considering immediate impact when making this year’s selections.

 

* * * * *

More NFL Draft Projections

AFC East ... AFC North ... AFC South ... AFC West

NFC East ... NFC North ... NFC South

 

 

 

Rams’ Solutions

 

 

By Andy Staples

 

The receiver the Rams want is West Virginia’s Kevin White, who could be paired with fellow former Mountaineer Tavon Austin to create a formidable coverage challenge. White is fast (4.35 seconds in the 40 at the combine), strong (23 bench reps at 225) and fantastic at using his body to win 50/50 balls. If the Rams add White to a receiving corps that already includes Austin and Stedman Bailey, don’t be shocked if a Tudor’s Biscuit World also opens in St. Louis to add to the Morgantown feel.

 

 

 

All those guards and centers I mentioned in the Seahawks section also could be mid-round targets for the Rams. Also, add Oregon center Hronnis Grasu to the list in round two.

 

 

 

Because of Foles’ contract situation, a developmental quarterback could be a second- or third-round target. Baylor’s Bryce Petty might be available early in the third, and he could provide huge dividends for a team patient enough to let him learn how to work with NFL protection schemes and route concepts. Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson might be a more game-ready option in the middle rounds, but he also might not have a ceiling as high as Petty’s.

 

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