2020 NFL Draft: NFC West Team Needs - Sports Illustrated

2020 NFL Draft: NFC West Team Needs

In what may be the NFL's deepest division here's who the Cardinals, Rams, 49ers and Seahawks could target to strengthen their rosters.
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Team needs by Andy Benoit; draft targets by Gary Gramling.

More Divisions: NFC East, NFC North, NFC SouthAFC East, AFC North, AFC South, AFC West

Arizona Cardinals

Last season head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who loves to play with four wide receivers, learned that in the NFL, you need at least one, and preferably two, quality tight ends. In Arizona’s case, those quality options must factor as run-blockers, too, since the ground game was largely why Kingsbury eventually eschewed some of his four-receiver sets in favor of more traditional personnel packages. And considering that DeAndre Hopkins and especially Larry Fitzgerald so often operate near the middle of the field, the Cardinals don’t necessarily need a versatile stud tight end. A serviceable receiver with sharp blocking tools (like what the Ravens have in Nick Boyle, for example) could do the trick. Incumbent tight end Maxx Williams is really more of a No. 2.

More important than rounding out the offense is improving a defense that last season gave up the most yards in the league. The quickest fix for a defense is almost always to add pass rushers. The Cardinals already have a great one in Chandler Jones, and they added a good one in free agent defensive tackle Jordan Phillips. But after that, things drop off. Getting the right pass rusher will require an early-round pick, but one route the Cards may want to consider is drafting a mid-round linebacker and moving incumbent backup linebacker Haason Reddick into a full-time pass-rushing role. Reddick played off the edge at Temple and has struggled with play recognition as an NFL linebacker, especially against the run.

Another fast way to improve the defense is to add either a versatile safety or a pure man-to-man corner. Both methods create more options for coverage disguises and blitz packages. Arizona has space available here, too, as Jalen Thompson should be challenged for his starting job, as should nickel corner Robert Alford, who showed hints of decline in 2018 with the Falcons and missed all of 2019 with a fractured tibia.

Top-100 Targets (Arizona owns picks 8 and 72): If there’s a scenario where Ohio State CB Jeff Okudah or Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons falls to 8 (due to three QBs and three OTs going in the top seven), that would be ideal. Otherwise they’ll likely have to reach for a speed rusher like LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson (who might be a force down the line but enters the league quite raw). When they come up again in Round 3, the defensive backs should be enticing. One of the Utah safeties—raw but rangy Julian Blackmon and polished, versatile Terrell Burgess—could upgrade the secondary. Undersized CB Javaris Davis of Auburn, who can play inside and possibly the boundary, could be on the board. If they prefer a big corner to complement Byron Murphy long-term, Cameron Dantzler of Mississippi State and Florida State’s Stanford Samuels would fit.

Los Angeles Rams

The Rams’ approach to roster-building is very NBA-like. They allocate huge dollars for superstars at the top and then fill in the rest. It has mostly worked out well, but the challenge with the model is it’s difficult to keep second-level stars like linebacker Cory Littleton, defensive lineman Michael Brockers, edge man Dante Fowler and slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman—all of whom got away in free agency. (Update: Actually Brockers is back.) The Rams also said goodbye to veterans Eric Weddle (retired) and Clay Matthews (released). And poof, just like that, most of their defense has changed.

Free agent signings A’Shawn Robinson and Leonard Floyd can at least fill the gaps of Brockers and Fowler. Littleton’s replacement is also, theoretically, on the roster (athletic ex-Raven Kenny Young, acquired in last season’s Marcus Peters trade), but considering Young didn’t get on the field defensively for the 2019 Rams, GM Les Snead will certainly want to find more options at this position. Linebackers are critical in new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley’s scheme, which is built on subtly disguised matchup zone concepts. Safety is another important position, which is why it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Rams snag one early and stay committed to playing with three safeties and one linebacker like they did under Wade Phillips. Last year’s second-round pick, safety Taylor Rapp, showed very encouraging flashes when aligned as a dime linebacker. If the Rams do go safety, ideally it’d be a rangy centerfielder since strong safety John Johnson is at his best when used as a versatile piece near the box.

It’s almost a given that L.A.’s draft capital will be spent predominantly on defense. It’ll be interesting to see how much (if any) goes into the offense. The team’s biggest problem last season was the inconsistency along the interior O-line. However, the Rams added left guard Austin Corbett midseason and might have reason for optimism in center Brian Allen, who was starting to turn a corner before tearing his MCL in Week 10. And with right tackle Rob Havenstein back, the Rams now have a utility piece in 2019 third-rounder Bobby Evans, who had some bright moments filling in. Given that the Rams can be optimistic about their O-line bouncing back, and given that most of their skill position players are set, it’s possible they could spend all of their draft picks this year on defense. The only thing that could prevent that is wide receiver Cooper Kupp is scheduled for free agency in 2021. Knowing they likely can’t afford him, Robert Woods AND Brandin Cooks, the Rams may want to tap into this year’s deep receiver draft class.

Top-100 Targets (Rams own picks 52, 84 and 104): Sitting outside the top 50, they’ll have trouble finding surefire contributors for 2020. Oregon’s Troy Dye and Colorado’s Davion Taylor are the best coverage linebackers among the second tier at that position, but both have shortcomings as run defenders. The safety class is interesting; California’s Ashtyn Davis and Utah’s Julian Blackmon are both rangy and have potential as centerfielders, but can you trust either on the back end as a rookie? (And will Davis even escape the top 50?)

San Francisco 49ers

When you reach the Super Bowl, your “needs” are usually more about handling logistics than correcting prior weaknesses. For example, the Niners need a guard because their 2019 starter, Mike Person, was released. Tom Compton was signed to fill that void but a more talented prospect to challenge for the job—or at least develop behind Compton—would be appropriate. They also need a wide receiver since successful rental starter Emmanuel Sanders is now in New Orleans. (Recent pickup Travis Benjamin is a “20 snaps a game” speed specialist type.) Kyle Shanahan values wideouts who have the change-of-direction quickness to run routes precisely and to separate.

On defense, the loss of defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is obviously significant, and Buckner’s dark horse replacement candidate, 2018 seventh-round pick Jullian Taylor, is coming off a late December ACL tear. Even if Taylor is back by September, it’s unreasonable to assume he will automatically play with the same outstanding leverage and short-area quickness that he showed in 2019. With unheralded nose shade tackle D.J. Jones also in a contract year, the Niners might invest multiple picks at defensive tackle.

Other players in contract years include cornerbacks Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon, K’Waun Williams and Emmanuel Moseley (RFA in 2021), as well as strong safety Jaquiski Tartt. Or, to put it more succinctly: the secondary. Re-signing versatile DB Jimmie Ward was very wise; the next move is finding young guys for Ward to play with in the coming years. San Francisco’s secondary aligns in a lot of subtly blurry looks, but once the ball is snapped, the scheme is pretty straightforward. That’s because the Niners want to play fast. Whoever they draft in the early rounds will almost certainly have above average speed.

Top-100 Targets (San Francisco owns picks 13 and 31): Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy is a perfect schematic fit, though they can’t go wrong with Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb at 13, with LSU’s Justin Jefferson a solid option if the top two are gone. They’re a prime candidate to trade down with one of their first-round picks considering they have no selections between 31 and 156. If they stay at 31, they’ll have a good shot at a disruptive DT (TCU’s Ross Blacklock or Texas A&M’s Justin Madubuike), or a long, fast cornerback (Alabama’s Trevon Diggs, Clemson’s A.J. Terrell or LSU’s Kristian Fulton).

Seattle Seahawks

Seattle’s offense has become steadier since Pete Carroll and coordinator Brian Schottenheimer firmly committed to the ground game two years ago. A run-first approach better lends itself to the downfield deep shots that Russell Wilson throws so well, and it still leaves room for Wilson to go into sandlot mode, where he’s most magical. A strong offensive line is critical for keeping this intact. Ex-Jet Brandon Shell is a decent option at right tackle but would be a No. 3 tackle on many teams. And the same sort of mantra applies to ex-Steelers guard B.J. Finney, whom the Seahawks signed for two years, $8 million ($4.5 million guaranteed). Finney will compete with 2017 second-rounder Ethan Pocic for playing time, but if the Seahawks came across a prospect they love, they should pounce—especially given that they’ve put six offensive linemen on the field more than any team in each of the last two years.

Before that, though, more firepower must be added to a pass rush that bordered on anemic at times last season. Defensive coordinator Ken Norton did a nice job camouflaging this with select pressure packages, but Seattle’s preferred style is still to play fundamentally sound zone coverage, which only works if edge rushers can disrupt the quarterback. Bruce Irvin is back after four years in Oakland/Atlanta/Carolina, but ideally you want him in a situational role. Opposite Irvin, last year’s first-round pick, L.J. Collier, is somewhat of a mystery after injuries stunted his initial development as a rookie.

Seattle must also search for a cornerback, preferably one who can play the slot, which would bring back the nickel sub-package that Norton and Carroll often eschewed in favor of playing in base 4-3 personnel. Keeping three linebackers on the field when the offense goes with three receivers all but compels a defense to play zone coverage. Zone coverage is the Seahawks’ foundation, yes, but this D in recent years has been at its best when it steadily mixes in snaps of man-to-man.

Top-100 Targets (Seattle owns picks 27, 59, 64 and 101): John Schneider, of course, trades down every year, but if they stay at 27 there’s a good chance one of the edge rushers, Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos or Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa, will be on the board. Neither is a true edge burner, but Gross-Matos is excellent on twists and stunts and Epenesa can reduce inside on passing downs. The “Seattle-style” long corners available late Day 1 and early Day 2 are Alabama’s Trevon Diggs and Virginia’s Bryce Hall (and Auburn’s Noah Igbinoghene is close, with arms that fall a quarter-inch short of the 32-inch barrier). The late second round will have zone-blocking options for the offensive line, when prospects like Louisiana’s Robert Hunt, LSU’s Saahdiq Charles and Temple’s Matt Hennessy should be available.

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