Needs Must..Part 7: NFC West
Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson was a third-round steal, and comes to represent the face of the franchise following an astounding debut season that fashioned an impressive 100.0 passer rating, and twenty-six touchdown passes to ten interceptions.
Pass-rushing outside Linebacker Bruce Irvin was equally impressive in his debut season in Seattle, racking up eight sacks and seventeen tackles (10 of which solo) in the process, thus further highlighting the sound transformation being articulated by coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider.
Contractual Concerns: Besides entertaining offers for backup triggerman Matt Flynn, the Hawks must decide whether to retain or wave goodbye to 10th-year slot cornerback Marcus Trufant and eighth-year linebacker Leroy Hill. An area they’ll look to upgrade is defensive tackle, although reputed target Henry Melton recently accepted a franchise tender from the Chicago Bears, and will sign it soon according to his agent Jordan Woy.
Despite missing out on Melton, Seattle made some pretty astute acquisitions in free agency, especially on the defensive side of the ball, signing Cliff Avril from the Lions, and Michael Bennett from Tampa Bay.
Although, when they signed Bennett to a one-year deal worth around $5 million, most assumed the bargain signing was due to a depressed free agent market that has been downright brutal on cornerbacks, defensive tackles and defensive ends. It transpires that the discount was induced by a torn rotator cuff, as reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
However, Bennett did not miss a game in 2012, logging 88.68 percent of the Buccaneers' defensive snaps, according to official playing-time data. In any case, there is no chance the Seahawks were not aware of the injury when they signed Bennett, and careful rehabilitation will no doubt ensure Bennett will be ready come the start of the campaign.
Regardless, the combined contracts of both players only count for $8.55 million against the cap in 2013, sound business for two players who combined for 18.5 sacks in 2012.
Although Seattle could stand to lose both Jason Jones and Alan Branch, as Jones recently signed a three-year deal with the Detroit Lions and Branch remains on the market….
On the other side of the ball, Russell Wilson was also a major benefactor of the free agency period, acquiring a big play making target in the form of Percy Harvin, signed from the Minnesota Vikings. Although, despite the renowned dynamism, will he prove adequate compensation for the loss of a first-, third- and seventh-round pick; especially when through 2012 he contributed only 3 touchdowns over 9 games, and has a history of clashing with coaches?
That being said, history tells us that the Seahawks have been a relatively good destination for players who arguably had personality conflicts in the past. Marshawn Lynch, a case in point.
Draft selection: With the 25th overall pick, the Seahawks will most certainly look to upgrade at defensive tackle, (as mentioned previously) and receiver, though it’s quite possible that the acquisition of Harvin may lessen the requirement; even if Seattle possessed the 27th-ranked pass attack in 2012, despite outscoring opponents 170 - 43 over it’s last four regular season games. Either way, you can guarantee Seattle will push a San Francisco team they annihilated 42 - 13 in week 16, all the way for the division title.
San Francisco 49ers
Coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke have constructed a deep, versatile roster set for multiple Super Bowl runs. Unlike most teams, they don’t stand to lose much in the offseason.
Contractual Concerns: With Alex Smith signing a three-year contract worth $10 million, $5 guaranteed, with the Kansas City Chief’s, the onus on former backup Colin Kaepernick to take the team to deliver the holy grail grows ever greater, especially in the light of San Francisco’s agonising 34 - 31 loss to Baltimore in Super Bowl 47, where they came within 5 yards of pulling of what would have been a highly improbable comeback from what was at one stage, a 22-point deficit.
However, Kaepernick and the Forty Niners have been handed a major boost in their bid to go that one stage further, by acquiring free agent Anquan Boldin, signed on a one-year contract worth $6 million, from the Baltimore Ravens. Boldin may not come to represent the rapidity of a Mike Wallace, but he brings a physicality that played a major part in the receiver putting over 100 yards (from a total of 380 in the post season) on his new employers in that epic encounter in ‘The Big Easy’, thus allowing Kaepernick to extend the play making envelope still further.
However, despite not standing to lose much as suggested earlier, they have lost some key players from their team. Safety Dashon Goldson moved to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a deal reportedly worth $41.5 million over five years, and tight end Delanie Walker is heading to the Titans.
On the defensive side of the ball, linemen Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois have both gone. Sopoaga is now an Eagle and Jean-Francois departed for Indianapolis.
General Manager Trent Baalke has made several moves to build the 49ers' roster. He has brought in defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey, who will minimize the loss of Sopoaga and Jean-Francois.
In addition to Dorsey, the 49ers just signed safety free agent Craig Dahl, who will compete for the starting safety job. Dahl is also a solid special team’s player. Although his signing significantly weakens his former employers, division rivals, the St. Louis Rams.
The addition of free-agent linebacker Dan Skuta provides depth and also a top special team’s performer.
San Francisco have also expressed an interest in cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, but any move to recruit a man who was once one of the hottest commodities on the free agent market following his departure from Oakland, would represent a substantial risk, as in his two season’s as an Eagle, has done little to justify the $60 million deal he signed with Philadelphia in 2011.
If the Forty Niners do the sensible thing and pass on Asomugha, they may well go after another free agent in the form of Atlanta’s John Abraham, although San Francisco would face competition from Denver for a man who in 2012, Abraham recorded 10 sacks, despite battling injuries toward the end of the season. Abraham also forced six fumbles and defended seven passes, helping the Falcons claim the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Draft selection: Baalke has for the most part, lived in Harbaugh’s shadow, but he’s quietly gone about his business of loading with impact players, starting up front on both offensive and defensive lines, including drafting right tackle Anthony Davis and Mike Lupati in the first round. Though former Niners coach Mike Nolan (2005- 08) had a telling impact on the development of this team with sixteen players remaining from his three-year tenure, San Francisco have fifteen players who were first round selections.
St Louis Rams
Jeff Fisher achieved his remit of making the Rams competitive (the 45 - 7 decimation at hands of New England aside) in 2012, and 2013 represents the opportunity to continue the re-building process and make a more telling impact on the NFC West title race, thus giving the team the best possible opportunity to make the post season for the first time since 2004.
Contractual Concerns: The Rams have made enough noise to warrant some attention this offseason. The team has acquired some big names in free agency to an offense that really sputtered at times in 2012. In the heat of the moment, sometimes the low-key signings go unnoticed among the headline-stealing transactions, so here is a look at just what the Rams have done thus far in free agency and what may be on the horizon in the near future.
The Rams added both tight end Jared Cook and Jake Long in free agency, two of the biggest prizes on the open market. Cook signed a five-year, $35.1 million deal that could reach $38.1 million depending on incentives while Long’s deal is for four years, $34 million. The two are expected to greatly improve an offense that ranked in the bottom quarter of the league last year in nearly every statistical category. With the departure of long-time running back Steven Jackson, who left for Atlanta on a three-year deal worth $12 million, the emphasis may be shifting more towards a more pass orientated offense.
On the second-tier of signings, the Rams had two very important re-ups with players who played critical roles on a young, improving defense a year ago. Defensive end William Hayes re-signed for $10.25 million over three years and considering his sack total of seven last season in his first year with the team, the Rams got quite a bargain for the 27 year old. Jermelle Cudjo was also re-signed for two years, $1.8 million and he provided some much needed depth at defensive tackle behind Kendall Langford and first rounder from a year ago, Michael Brockers. The defensive line is the strongest part of the Rams’ defense, and it got even stronger with these signings.
One area of concern that has yet to be addressed is the safety position, The Rams released veteran Quintin Mikell prior to free agency due to his gargantuan $9 million scheduled cap hit in 2013. It has been reported that the team would like Mikell back at a reduced rate and at 32 years of age, the team may get its wish.
According to Head Coach Jeff Fisher from via NFL.com: “We have interest. He played very well for us last year. It’s just one of those things that you have to do once you get in the process (of free agency) and you start making moves. But we have interest. The defensive staff was really happy with him last year.”
While the Rams have been the big movers and shakers this offseason, they still have some holes to fill on a very young roster. It remains to be seen if the team will bring in another running back to challenge their youngsters, or rely on second-year starters Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead. That may well signal and end to free agency thus far, but doesn’t necessarily signal the conclusion of their offseason activities.
Draft selection: This is where Fisher and general manager Les Snead have the ability to add key pieces not acquired through free agency. Priorities include guard and tackle upgrades. Aside from the 16th overall pick, the Rams are in possession of the 22nd selection from Washington as part of the deal to move up and secure the services of Robert Griffin 111 with the second overall pick.
There is a new brain trust in the desert, where general manager Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians will attempt to prevent a mirage of last season which reached it’s nadir with a 58 - 0 massacre against division rivals Seattle.
The most pressing issue of course is to find the missing piece of the quarterbacking puzzle, since Kurt Warner’s retirement in 2009. Kevin Kolb has started a grand total of fifteen games since receiving a gargantuan $63 million deal two years ago.
Kolb is due to make $9 million in 2013, but there’s every possibility that Arians will want to put his own stamp on a team that fell away alarmingly after a 4 - 0 start, and he may chose to start at quarterback. Alex Smith was in contention, but he opted to Join Andy Reid in Kansas, although West Virginia’s Geno Smith could be the franchise quarterback Arizona has been searching for since Warner walked away from the game.
Contractual issues: A lot of movement, signifying little. The Cardinals swapped cornerback Greg Toler for Antoine Cason. They swapped Beanie Wells for Rashard Mendenhall at running back (as to whether this resembles any sort of upgrade, time will ultimately tell).
They switched Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes for Yeremiah Bell. Drew Stanton is the projected Week 1 starting quarterback. He represents a cheaper option to Kevin Kolb, but does he really represent a more effective alternative?
Matt Shaughnessy was a worthwhile one-year gamble. There are other similar moves, but it’s hard to see this team mounting a serious challenge to two vastly superior outfits in San Francisco and Seattle, who represent the best in the West.
Draft selection: Before addressing the quite significant problem at quarterback, the Cardinals need to upgrade a seriously deficient offensive line that allowed a preposterous 58 sacks through the 2012 campaign.
image: © Neal D