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  • In Arizona, expect a much more aggressive defense with Steve Wilks now in as head coach, while Los Angeles hopes their big-ticket players pay off. In San Francisco, a new era with Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan is about to being, while a defensive rebuild (but not an overhaul) is underway in Seattle.
By Andy Benoit
June 28, 2018

Arizona Cardinals

2017 record: 8–8
Crucial veteran additions: G Justin Pugh, RT Andre Smith, WR Brice Butler, CB Jamar Taylor
Crucial veteran losses: OT Jared Veldheer, WR John Brown, WR Jaron Brown, LB Karlos Dansby, S Tyrann Mathieu, CB Justin Bethel, DB Tyvon Branch
2018 NFL draft picks and grades

What improved?

Right guard. Yes, that’s a narrowly defined improvement, but having former Giant Justin Pugh inside not only gives the Cardinals a mobile-enough interior run-blocker, but it also boosts their interior pass protection, which has been spotty at best the past few years. When a team has pass-blocking deficiencies inside, it becomes especially prone to designer pass-rushing tactics like stunts, twists and disguised blitzes. The hope is that the addition of Pugh in free agency, and a long-overdue recalibration from Mike Iupati, Arizona’s big free-agent signing of three years ago, will allow for a more consistent passing game.

What needs work?

The receivers. Larry Fitzgerald is back for another season (possibly his last?), but his veteran leadership can only do so much. The Cardinals will lean on second-round pick Christian Kirk and last year’s third-rounder, Chad Williams, to become regular contributors. If the team can make it work, J.J. Nelson can stay in a speed specialist role, making for a deeper receiving corps for whichever quarterback—Sam Bradford, Mike Glennon and first-round pick Josh Rosen are all on the roster—wins the starting job.

What can we expect?

A team that relies on big plays defensively. New head coach Steve Wilks, who came over from Carolina, blitzed more than any other defensive play-caller in football last season, at least on early downs. With a shutdown corner in Patrick Peterson—something Wilks didn’t have in Carolina—expect plenty of blitzes on third down, too. This defense did that a lot under James Bettcher, and they have young, talented, diverse players to feature in Budda Baker, Haason Reddick, Markus Golden and Deone Bucannon.

Fact/tidbit/piece of news learned from OTAs/minicamp

Hopes are high for left tackle D.J. Humphries. It took the 2015 first-round pick a few years to become NFL-ready, and then he missed three games in ’16 and 11 games in ’17. By getting rid of Jared Veldheer, who could play the left or right side, Arizona bet heavily on the talented-but-still-unproven fourth-year tackle.

Best offseason tweet from a team’s player or coach

GRADE: C


Los Angeles Rams

2017 record: 11–5
Crucial veteran additions: WR Brandin Cooks, DT Ndamukong Suh, CB Marcus Peters, CB Aqib Talib
Crucial veteran losses: WR Sammy Watkins, WR Tavon Austin, DE Robert Quinn, OLB Connor Barwin, ILB Alec Ogletree, CB Trumaine Johnson
2018 NFL draft picks and grades

What improved?

The Rams spent $14 million to put an enforcer (Suh) alongside Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald to improve their defensive playmaking. Behind him, their secondary now boasts football’s two most aggressive route-jumping corners. When Suh and Donald collapse pockets, Peters and Talib will have chances to go after rushed throws.

What needs work?

Edge rushing and linebacker. Peters and Talib take chances, but their gambles can backfire if quarterbacks have time to throw. Quinn was dealt to Miami for essentially a fourth-round pick (the used it on center Brian Allen), and no immediate replacement was brought in. With the departure of Connor Barwin, who often aligned on the edge opposite Quinn, the Rams have no proven everydown outside rushers to lean on. Factor in that no proven replacement was acquired for Ogletree (unless you count ex-Chief Ramik Wilson) and you’re left with major questions on pass defense.

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What can we expect?

This was the highest-scoring team in football last year thanks to an ascending, innovative offense, plus defensive and special teams units that generated several return scores. Such big plays will be relied on heavily in 2018. This is a boom-or-bust, power-hitting lineup, particularly on defense.

Fact/tidbit/piece of news learned from OTAs/minicamp

Head coach Sean McVay has coveted Brandin Cooks since the wideout came out of Oregon State in 2014. This offseason was not the first time McVay had looked into trading for him. Cooks has the type of raw speed that can make the offense right on plays where the defense made the better call. After the first OTA, McVay and his staff were buzzing about how their new perimeter receiver looked even faster than expected.

Best offseason tweet from a team’s player or coach:

GRADE: B+


San Francisco 49ers

2017 record: 6–10
Crucial veteran additions: C Weston Richburg, RB Jerick McKinnon, CB Richard Sherman
Crucial veteran losses: RT Trent Brown, CB Rashard Robinson, CB Dontae Johnson, S Eric Reid
2018 NFL draft picks and grades

What improved?

The passing game, on two fronts. First, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has had an offseason to learn Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. Second, that scheme emphasizes running backs in the passing game, and the Niners signed what they believe is a terrific receiving back in McKinnon. Shanahan will shift and motion McKinnon all over to feature him in various formations.

What needs work?

The cornerback group… potentially. There are a lot of questions. Can Richard Sherman, coming off surgery on both Achilles’ tendons, handle the left corner job? Can last year’s third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon, who is moving to right corner, build on the flashes he showed as a rookie? If the answer to either question is no, then who steps up behind them? This roster is bereft of proven perimeter corners outside of Sherman.

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What can we expect?

A challenging offense that will beat teams through design and illusory complexity. And, the 49ers hope, a defense whose young front seven takes a big enough step forward to mask any deficiencies in coverage. The Niners don’t have a true edge bender other than Jerry Attaochu (a 2014 second-round pick never fully developed for the Chargers), but they’re strong up the middle with youngsters DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster.

Fact/tidbit/piece of news learned from OTAs/minicamp

The 49ers view Thomas the way we viewed him coming out of Stanford: as a passing down 3-technique. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh told me Thomas can rush off the the edge, but his natural nickel position is unequivocally at defensive tackle. If Thomas gets significant snaps as a wide-9 defensive end on passing downs, it means San Francisco’s work-in-progress edge rusher rotation didn’t make enough progress.

Best offseason tweet from a team’s player or coach:

GRADE: B


Seattle Seahawks

2017 record: 9–7
Crucial veteran additions: WR Brandon Marshall, G D.J. Fluker, OLB Barkevious Mingo
Crucial veteran losses: WR Paul Richardson, TE Jimmy Graham, DE Michael Bennett, DE Cliff Avril, CB Richard Sherman, SS Kam Chancellor (Status still unknown due to injury)
2018 NFL draft picks and grades

What improved?

The level of competition on defense, which head coach Pete Carroll, the eternal optimist, has trumpeted. With the mass exodus of veteran defensive stars, there are now reps to be had. Ideally, those position battles not only generate new stars, but also propagate depth.

What needs work?

That defense… hence the spots open for competition. Also, the running game—this offense is at its best as a run-first unit, where Russell Wilson’s unique quarterbacking mobility can be a dynamic complementary asset for this offense, rather than its inconsistent backbone. To shake up the ground game, the team changed offensive line coaches (Tom Cable out, Mike Solari in) and, presumably, running backs, with late first-round pick Rashaad Penny expected to eventually become The Guy.

What can we expect?

A team that has had extreme highs and lows offensively to now also have extreme highs and lows defensively. This is not necessarily a franchise overhaul, but we’re at the beginning of a multiyear rebuilding process in Seattle. No shame in that. The Seahawks had a great six-year run, but it couldn’t last forever.

Fact/tidbit/piece of news learned from OTAs/minicamp

The Seahawks believe that left corner is a more valuable position than right corner, and for years, Richard Sherman held down the left side. Now, rising second-year stud Shaquill Griffin is moving there, opening a competition at right corner.

Best offseason tweet from a team’s player or coach:

GRADE: C

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