NFC West Draft Needs: Can San Francisco Shore Up the Secondary?
It seems only yesterday we were talking about how the NFC West was the undisputed top division in the NFL.
In 2013 the NFC West was hands-down the best division in the league. They had a collective 42 wins -- five more than the second place AFC West. Three of those teams had records of 10-6 or better, with the St. Louis Rams not too far behind at 7-9.
Fast-forward a year, and while the Seattle Seahawks still reign supreme as 2014's NFC Champions, it seems the division as a whole took a step back. After a ridiculous start to this year's offseason that saw big name players both leaving and joining the NFC West, let's take a look at each team's remaining biggest draft needs that could help get them back to their former pristine level.
St. Louis Rams
Biggest Need: Offensive Tackle
Participating in one of the many blockbuster trades that happened this offseason, the St. Louis Rams acquired quarterback Nick Foles in a trade that parted them with their former first overall pick Sam Bradford. Last year's first-round pick, Auburn's Greg Robinson -- even with a lackluster performance -- was an improvement on the St. Louis offensive line, but the unit as a whole needs a big injection of youth and talent. The Rams are now committing Robinson to left tackle after the failed Jake Long experiment, but they need another bookend on the right side to help their new franchise quarterback stay upright.
The Rams offensive line allowed the 10th most quarterback hits and the eighth most sacks last year. These are figures that should give Foles the shivers after leaving Philadelphia, who ranked 25th and 18th respectively in those two departments. Foles may not be the most agile quarterback, but he has the ability to make plays with his legs or escape the pocket when flushed. He just may need to utilize it more on the fly this year than his previously schemed runs in Philadelphia.
St. Louis also needs help getting the most out of running back Tre Mason in 2015. Out of the 43 running backs last year that eclipsed 100 or more carries, Tre Mason ranked 35th in Rushing Success Rate -- rushes that contributed to positive Net Expected Points (NEP) -- at 35.2%. NEP is one of our signature metrics. It quantifies a player's production given down-and-distance and other on-field variables to identify just how efficient a player is on a given play. You can read more about it in our glossary.
Mason is a young, explosive back that finished in the 90th percentile at the NFL Combine last year in the broad jump, vertical jump, and 10-yard dash. Part of his explosiveness is his impressive 10' 6" broad jump that's only been topped seven times since 2010 among running backs. The Rams need to add a versatile offensive lineman that can help create lanes for Mason to utilize these traits and be a day-one starter.
Using the 10th overall pick this year could very likely present the Rams with the opportunity to take the first offensive tackle off the board. There are several offensive linemen that have first-round talent, and general manager Les Snead would be wise to invest in one. The Rams have an NFL-low five picks this year, and hitting on them in 2015 is essential. Both their passing and running games depend on it.
Potential Picks: OT Andrus Peat (Stanford), OT Brandon Scherff (Iowa)
San Francisco 49ers
Biggest Need: Cornerback
The San Francisco 49ers just watched Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver leave via free agency creating two big holes in their secondary. After starting for most of the 2014 season together, the 49ers need to find two capable replacements. They re-signed Chris Cook and took a flier on Shareece Wright, but adding a top-end talent via the draft could be just the shot in the arm this defense needs following its mass exodus of players this offseason.
The 49ers defense took a step back in 2014. Their pass defense could've used an upgrade even before the vacated spots by Cox and Culliver, as they ranked a middling 14th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP, their lowest ranking since 2010. Subtracting two starting caliber cornerbacks only exacerbates this downward trend and finding at least one suitable replacement has become a necessity in this year's draft.
General manager Trent Baalke's last two drafts both started with first-round defensive backs, as they've drafted their safeties for the future in Eric Reid and nickel back/safety Jimmie Ward. Could Baalke invest in his secondary for a third year in a row?
The 49ers have already had multiple cornerbacks in for pre-draft visits, and considering the pedigree of several of them -- Washington's Marcus Peters, UConn's Byron Jones, and LSU's Jalen Colins -- there's a very real possibility of them acquiring one with the 15th pick. It's also worth noting that dating back to when Baalke was first given the lead role overseeing San Francisco's drafts (2010), they've had five of their six first-rounders in for pre-draft visits.
San Franciso had a rough offseason, and the team now faces multiple holes it needs to address. Finding an impact cornerback that can play significant snaps should be a priority.
Potential Picks: CB Marcus Peters (Washington), CB Trae Waynes (Michigan State)
Biggest Need: Pass Rusher
One could argue that running back could be the biggest need for the Arizona Cardinals after finishing 31st in rushing last year. It is certainly a fair point considering Andre Ellington put up some terribly inefficient numbers. Let me rephrase. Ellington put up the worst Rushing NEP in the entire league last year with a score of -28.34 -- about six points worse than Darren McFadden (-22.48).
While I'd be remiss to acknowledge that Ellington faced multiple injuries throughout the year, it's fair to question whether Ellington will ever be a lead back. Given the incredible depth of efficient running backs in the 2015 class and the Cardinals' shrewd move picking up run-blocking extraordinaire Mike Iupati, drafting a running back on day two of the draft could help Arizona alleviate one of its other high concerns -- their lack of a pass rush.
A year after having the sixth-most sacks in the league (47), Arizona had one of the worst pass rushes in 2014. They had the seventh worst sack percentage in the league, reaching the quarterback on only 5.7% of their opponents' drop backs. After parting ways with longtime standout Darnell Dockett and their big man in the middle Dan Williams, the Cardinals find themselves in an even deeper hole generating pressure from the interior of their 3-4 defense.
Over the last 10 years, the Cardinals have only had one pass rusher -- a 35-year old John Abraham in 2013 -- reach double-digit sacks. New defensive coordinator James Bettcher needs to bring in someone who can consistently turn the heat on opposing quarterbacks. This incoming class has some very adept pass rushers, and Arizona should make a move if any start to slide in the draft.
Bettcher -- the Cardinals' former outside linebackers coach -- could use help generating pressure from both the interior and the outside, but there could arguably be greater value at outside linebacker with the 24th overall pick. Bringing in LaMarr Woodley may not be a long-term solution, as he failed to collect a sack last year with Oakland, but he could serve in a mentor-type role and as a situational pass rusher. Finding an upgrade over outside linebacker Matt Shaughnessy, who is still working back from injured reserve, to pair with Alex Okafor (eight sacks) would be in the best interest of the franchise.
Remember, these Cardinals started 2014 out with a 9-1 record before injuries became too much for them to overcome. Arizona has added some smart, impactful players this offseason, and with the help of a few rookies, they could return to the playoffs for the first time in back to back years since 2008 and 2009.
Potential Picks: OLB Bud Dupree (Kentucky), DE Shane Ray (Missouri)
Biggest Need: Guard/Center
After trading away center Max Unger in the deal that brought them Jimmy Graham, the Seattle Seahawks are left with a glaring need on the interior of their offensive line. Letting offensive guard James Carpenter walk this free agency and sign with the Jets only compounds their problem of finding help upfront.
The Seahawks boasted the league's top Adjusted Rushing NEP and the 12th highest Adjusted Passing NEP in 2014. If they want to sustain that success, they'll need to invest in the trenches when they finally can make a selection on day two of the draft. The high price the Seahawks paid in getting Jimmy Graham also cost Seattle their first-round pick, leaving them without a first-rounder for the third year in a row. Ouch.
Even though the Seahawks have given up their early first-round draft capital, Seattle still has 11 draft picks as of now with five of their picks between rounds two and four. Seattle has plenty of ammo to move up and make trades they see fit.
With the 63rd pick overall, Hobart's Ali Marpet is a hot name picking up steam. A Division III prospect, Marpet's draft buzz began growing after a strong showing at both the Senior Bowl and the combine. Marpet put up numbers in the top percentile of nearly every category among offensive lineman. Oregon's Hroniss Grassu is another interior offensive lineman the Seahawks may be interested in. Grassu has good initial quickness, but an injury in his senior season may cause a draft slide. He'd be a good fit translating from Oregon's zone blocking scheme into Seattle's and fill the void left by Unger.
Having 11 picks gives Seattle a ton of room for general manager John Schneider to help his team return to the Super Bowl for the third year in a row. It'll be exciting to see if he can pull it off.
Potential Picks: C Ali Marpet (Hobart), C Hroniss Grassu (Oregon)