Off-Season Report Cards: NFC West
Sizing up the off-season moves of the Cardinals, Rams, 49ers and Seahawks, and how they’ll influence the 2017 campaign.
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2016: 7-8-1, second place in NFC West.
Significant additions: S Antoine Bethea, LB Karlos Dansby, K Phil Dawson, QB Blaine Gabbert, OLB Jarvis Jones, LB Haason Reddick (R1), S Budda Baker (R2), WR Chad Williams (R3), G Dorian Johnson (R4)
Significant losses: DE Calais Campbell, TE Darren Fells, S Tony Jefferson, LB Kevin Minter, OLB Alex Okafor, S D.J. Swearinger, LB Daryl Washington, G Earl Watford
The Cardinals—featuring the ultra-talented RB David Johnson and potential Hall of Fame WR Larry Fitzgerald on Bruce Arians's chance-taking offense, and dynamic playmakers like Deone Bucannon, Tyrann Mathieu and new rookies Budda Baker and Haason Reddick on one of the NFL's more unique defensive rosters—should be one of the NFL's most entertaining teams in 2017. But the big question here—will Arizona be any better than their 2016 selves?
There are reasons to believe they will, not the least of which is their recent, pre-2016 track record—the Cardinals played in the 2015 NFC title game and chalked up a combined 34 victories from 2013 to ’15. Even with WR John Brown scuffling through injury last season and QB Carson Palmer unable to drum up any consistency, the offense ranked in the top 10 in both points and yards.
The front office and coaching staff must trust that the points will come. Aside from swapping OT Jared Veldheer from the left side to the right to accommodate D.J. Humphries, the Cardinals' additions on offense were mostly limited to the draft: Williams, Johnson, Logan and OT Will Holden. All could contribute, but it's possible none plays an expansive role this coming season.
The status quo might be good enough to keep the offense in rhythm. The defense, on the other hand, has undergone some changes.
Where it gets most interesting (read as: exciting or dicey, depending on your personal confidence level) is at defensive end and safety. The Cardinals let longtime D-line stalwart Calais Campbell walk in free agency this off-season, and then decided to look in-house for solutions. When asked at the combine how the Cardinals planned to make up for Campbell's loss, Arians replied, “We hope we've done that in the draft the last two years, with Rodney [Gunter] and Robert [Nkemdiche].”
If it turns out that the Cardinals do improve this season, they will be able to thank their commitment to versatility on defense. That's specifically true at the safety spot, where the Cardinals lost two players to free agency: D.J. Swearinger, who saved his career with his play in Arizona, and the wholly underrated Tony Jefferson. Competing for their spots in the desert will be ex-Colts veteran Antoine Bethea and rookie Budda Baker. They’ll join incumbent star Tyrann Mathieu and others in what could be a deep secondary.
There is a bit of a challenge in how to utilize all of those safety pieces (plus Tyvon Branch and CB convert Harlan Miller).
Mathieu’s role could be the key to unlocking everything else. Currently working his way back off a season-ending shoulder injury, Mathieu initially was expected to transition back to his old spot as a hybrid corner, playing close to the line of scrimmage—he spent significant chunks of last year at free safety. However, Bethea, despite having extensive experience at free safety himself, is more of a strong safety at this point in his career; and Baker tells SI that the Cardinals are prepping him for a nickel safety/slot corner role, too.
“At the end of the day, [Tyrann’s] a safety and he [also] has all the tools to be all the other things” Baker says. “They just wanted to get another one in me, I feel like it’s going to be beneficial, you’re getting a player who can play any position.”
The Cardinals have leaned into this approach of “draft first, figure it out later” as much as any team in the league. They've moved Mathieu all over their secondary, and Bucannon is a safety turned linebacker. This year, Arizona will add in Baker and first-rounder Haason Reddick, who played DE at Temple but projects to be a linebacker in the NFL. They also return OLB Chandler Jones, a pass rusher and then some.
As a result, Arians's team has an enviable ability to dictate matchups on their terms, rather than try to adjust to what an offense throws at it.
“I think it's important to have hybrid players at all levels, whether it is your defensive line, your linebackers or secondary” Cardinals GM Steve Keim said at the combine. “Because when you do things like we do—multiple fronts, multiple coverages—you have that position flexibility where you can play inside, you can play outside. … To have a guy like Tyrann Mathieu who can invert, play in the slot, play in the nickel for you, the more flexibility you have, the more you can do.”
The flexibility, that athleticism may have to be enough. The Cardinals did not aggressively chase any upgrades at cornerback, nor did they nab a legitimate fallback option should Palmer falter (no, Blaine Gabbert does not count). It was an off-season of minor, if intriguing, tweaks for a team that finished below .500 a year ago.
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LOS ANGELES RAMS
2016: 4–12, third in NFC West
Significant additions: Head coach Sean McVay, DE Connor Barwin, RB Lance Dunbar, CB Nickell Robey-Coleman, C John Sullivan, DT Tyrunn Walker, CB Kayvon Webster, OT Andrew Whitworth, WR Robert Woods, TE Gerald Everett (R2), WR Cooper Kupp (R3), S John Johnson (R3), WR Josh Reynolds (R4)
Significant losses: C Tim Barnes, WR Kenny Britt, S T.J. McDonald, DE Eugene Sims
The best news about Jared Goff’s rookie year is that it’s over. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2016 NFL draft looked lost and overwhelmed during his seven starts last season, games in which the Rams finished 0–7 with a combined scoreline of 221–85. Los Angeles finished the season with the league’s worst offense, both by points and yardage.
The Rams earnestly began their attempt to solve their production woes (and to reverse course on Goff’s trajectory) by hiring new coach Sean McVay, a 31-year-old wunderkind who helped Kirk Cousins play his way into back-to-back franchise tags. In free agency, Rams GM Les Snead revamped his offensive line with the signings of center John Sullivan and outstanding veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth. And then he attempted to find Goff some help via the skill positions by signing free agent Robert Woods and drafting rookies Cooper Kupp, Josh Reynolds and move TE Gerald Everett.
“I don’t think you can ever have enough playmakers,” McVay said during a press conference following Day 2 of the draft. “And if those guys merit it by the way that they compete in practice, then those guys will be on the field, as well.”
Without question, there are more options for Goff this season. Will they be effective options, though?
Lacking, for the moment, is a clear-cut No. 1 receiver—perennial source of frustration Tavon Austin doesn’t fit that bill, nor does Woods, who served as Sammy Watkins’s sidekick in Buffalo and is cut from a complementary-WR cloth. Kupp was the go-to guy on his Eastern Washington offense, but he doesn’t necessarily have the physical or athletic traits to project as an NFL lead dog. The likeliest candidate is Reynolds, a lanky 6' 3" wide receiver capable of making big plays downfield—at the very least, he could step in as Goff’s preferred target in the red zone. Last year’s team leader in touchdowns (as well as receptions and yards), Kenny Britt, signed a free-agent deal with Cleveland.
How rapidly any development occurs from the newcomers will go a long way in dictating Goff’s chances this season. In reality, though, the recent additions on offense are as much about the future as they are about the ’17 season. L.A. drafted a combination of three tight ends and receivers in 2016 (WRs Pharoh Cooper and Mike Thomas, TE Tyler Higbee), then matched that number last month.
The benefit, in theory, is that all of these fresh faces can mature together, headed by Goff. Woods, Austin, Whitworth and Sullivan all have been around the block enough times that they should be able to offer some guidance.
But growing pains are inevitable.
For one, McVay still has to decipher exactly how mesh Goff’s skill set with RB Todd Gurley’s game. The former comes from a West Coast-scheme, shotgun-heavy background; the latter is better suited to attack in downhill fashion, with his QB under center.
McVay put both concepts to work in Washington, and he figures to do so again. The additions of Whitworth and Sullivan up front should help the Rams across the board up front, while the overstocked roster of receivers and tight ends will allow McVay to spread the field when he so chooses.
Again, though, this is going to be a steep uphill climb for a bit, which will shift a great deal of pressure onto the Rams’ defense. Helping the cause there is new coordinator Wade Phillips, who brings decades of experience to supplement McVay’s youthful energy. In tune with the transition from their base 4–3 defense to Phillips’s more flexible, 3–4 plan, the Rams picked up Barwin to add a little pop off the edge. They also added D-line depth in Smart and Walker.
The defense kept the Rams in several games last season, only to crumple down the stretch under the weight of the offense’s issues. McVay’s presence, another off-season’s worth of development for Goff and the free-agent/draft additions to the Los Angeles attack should help a bit in 2017.
But expecting too much, too soon would be a mistake. Repairing Goff will be a substantial challenge for McVay, and Goff can be only as good as the unproven talent around him.
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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
2016: 2–14, fourth in NFC West
Significant additions: GM John Lynch, Heach coach Kyle Shanahan, QB Matt Barkley, RB Kapri Bibbs, OLB Brock Coyle, WR Pierre Garcon, OT Garry Gilliam, WR Marquise Goodwin, K Robbie Gould, RB Tim Hightower, QB Brian Hoyer, FB Kyle Juszczyk, DT Earl Mitchell, TE Logan Paulsen, WR Aldrick Robinson, OLB Malcolm Smith, C Jeremy Zuttah, DL Solomon Thomas (R1), LB Reuben Foster (R1), CB Ahkello Witherspoon (R3), QB C.J. Beathard (R3), RB Joe Williams (R4), WR Trent Taylor (R5), TE George Kittle (R5)
Significant losses: S Antoine Bethea, CB Tramaine Brock, K Phil Dawson, RB Shaun Draughn, LB Gerald Hodges, QB Colin Kaepernick, OL Marcus Martin, WR Quinton Patton, WR Torrey Smith
The 49ers have not exactly been a model of stability recenty, so making any long-term assumptions about the organization may be a mistake. Nevertheless, one could assume that rookie GM John Lynch and rookie coach Kyle Shanahan will be afforded a little leeway as they attempt their rebuild of a struggling team.
Two storylines central to that project’s rate of completion are underway: 1) What Lynch has done in an attempt to fix the league’s worst defense; 2) What he does next to address the 49ers’ quarterback position. At of the start of free agency, the 49ers had exactly zero quarterbacks on their roster—Colin Kaepernick opted out of his contract, and Lynch chose not to re-sign Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder or Thad Lewis.
“A lot people look at it like, ‘Oh my gosh. You don’t have any quarterbacks,’” Lynch said at the time. “But that also is somewhat liberating in that you can create this thing in that position, that is so critical, in the way that you want it.”
The immediate path he and Shanahan took: signing Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley out of free agency, then trading up in Round 3 of the draft for Iowa’s C.J. Beathard. The plan as of now is for Hoyer—most experienced of the three with 31 career starts—to handle the No. 1 gig, followed by Barkley and Beathard, in that order, on the depth chart.
That’s an acceptable strategy if Lynch already has his sights set on 2018 quarterback targets, be they Kirk Cousins (who played under Shanahan from ’12–13) or an intriguing crop of potential draft picks. It is less encouraging if the 49ers believe they are in solid shape at QB for the long term. To that end, Shanahan raved to The MMQB’s Peter King about Beathard: “He processes the game so well,” Shanahan said. “Tough as s---. Got a chance. He reminds me a lot of Kirk Cousins.”
A GM can tweak a roster as many times as he’d like, but there is little success to be had without getting things right at the quarterback spot. Hoyer did hold his own as a starter for the Browns during the 2014 season, with Shanahan as his coordinator. He at least offers experience in Shanahan’s system, an element that should ease the transition into 2017. Eventually, though, the 49ers likely are going to need an upgrade at the game’s most important position.
They’re not exactly set throughout the rest of the offensive roster, though, hence Hoyer’s status as an adequate "bridge QB." San Francisco trotted out arguably the NFL’s worst collection of receivers last season, a group that should be better in 2017 thanks to the arrivals of Garcon, Goodwin and Taylor. Shanahan will try to recreate some of the magic he revealed in Atlanta’s attack last year, but he of course does not have Matt Ryan or Julio Jones (among others) at his disposal.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is facing a similar challenge. He spent three seasons as a Seahawks assistant and then another three under Gus Bradley in Jacksonville, and the 49ers are planning to implement a version of the Bradley-inspired Seattle defense. But Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman aren’t walking through that door.
Which brings us back to point No. 1: Lynch’s moves to repair the defense. A year ago, the 49ers were ghosts when the opposition had the football, allowing a ludicrous 165.9 yards per game on the ground.
So, Lynch spent his first three draft picks on that side of the ball: DL Solomon Thomas, LB Reuben Foster and CB Ahkello Witherspoon. It’s not fair to say the success of Lynch’s tenure hinges on Thomas and Foster—it would be more fair to say the quarterback situation will be the driving force. However, for Saleh and the 49ers to take steps forward on defense, both Thomas and Foster need to be everything they’re promised to be.
Thomas stands to occupy a critical inside-out role along the defensive line, perhaps not all that dissimilar from how Seattle has used Michael Bennett. Foster, meanwhile, could be the fast-flowing anchor of San Francisco’s linebacking corps. If he’s healthy, that is—shoulder surgery has his 2017 status in limbo.
If Thomas and Foster are All-Pro talents, the defense could be formidable in short order. If Foster labors in getting on the field and Thomas’s development plateaus, well ...
The 49ers do appear to have a plan in place, which is more than could be said for the ill-fated Chip Kelly era. The results probably won’t come in 2017—the roster Lynch inherited was a mess. Whether or not the turnaround takes hold in ’18 or ’19 hinges in large part on the Thomas/Foster tandem and what else Lynch has planned at QB.
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2016: 10-5-1, first in NFC West, lost in divisional round
Significant additions: OT Oday Aboushi, DE David Bass, LB Arthur Brown, RB Mike Davis, OL Luke Joeckel DE Dion Jordan, RB Eddie Lacy, S Bradley McDougald, K Blair Walsh, DT Malik McDowell (R2), C Ethan Pocic (R2), CB Shaq Griffin (R3), S Delano Hill (R3), DT Nazair Jones (R3), WR Amara Darboh (R3), S Tedric Thompson (R4),
Significant losses: OLB Brock Coyle, OT Garry Gilliam, K Steven Hauschka, DT John Jenkins, TE Brandon Williams
From 2012–15 the Seahawks rushing attack ranked as follows, in terms of yards: third, fourth, first, third.
Last season: 25th.
QB Russell Wilson’s injury woes (ankle, knee, pectoral) played heavy in the tumbling production. So, too, did the seemingly ever in-flux offensive line (more on that group in a moment). Above all, though, the Seahawks just flat out missed Marshawn Lynch.
Or rather, missed the “Beast Mode” version of Lynch that tore apart defenses during the 2014 season. Lynch wasn’t anywhere close to the same during an injury-plagued 2015, and he “retired” ahead of 2016, leaving the Seahawks to pick up the pieces. His expected replacement, Thomas Rawls, then missed seven games last season himself to a fractured fibula.
Without their bruising run game, the Seahawks lacked any tangible identity of offense. A priority for GM John Schneider this off-season, then, was to find a big back capable of wearing down opposing defenses.
Eddie Lacy, welcome aboard.
“We want to work really hard about regaining the mentality about running the football,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said on ESPN710’s The John Clayton Show, shortly after Lacy signed. “That’s something that’s really important to us. We knew that we lost that edge last year when Russell [Wilson] was hurt and when Thomas [Rawls] was hurt.”
Is Lacy the right guy to bring it back? The answer all depends on which version of Lacy the Seahawks will get.
When the 2013 second-round pick has been in shape and motivated, he has been among the NFL’s toughest backs to tackle—according to Pro Football Focus, only Lynch, DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy broke more tackles between 2013 and ’16. But his effectiveness, like his weight, has waxed and waned during his four-season NFL career. After shedding pounds last off-season, Lacy played just five games (and scored zero touchdowns, despite 5.1 yards per carry) before landing an ankle injury planted him on I.R. He also has not had a 25-carry game since 2014.
As for the weight, Lacy just claimed a bonus for checking in below the 255-pound mark, and Carroll said upon Lacy’s signing that he wants his back in the 240s.
The truth is that Lacy is not so much a Lynch successor as another dart for the Seahawks to toss as they dream of a reinvigorated run game.
“I’ve been asked that for 15 years, if it’s better to have two running backs or one,” said Carroll at February’s combine. “I’ve always thought that it’s really valuable when you can have two or three guys that you can work in. ... If there’s a guy that’s so dominant that nobody else deserves the playing time, then you’ve got a great one.”
Keeping Wilson healthy would provide a natural boost to the entire offense. He averaged better than 600 yards rushing over his first four seasons but was limited by his injuries to 259 yards and a career-low 72 attempts a year ago.
Then there’s the offensive line. An annual rite of off-season passage has been to discuss Seattle’s moves (or lack thereof) up front. It’s rather stunning that this continues to be such a bugaboo for the Seahawks, year in and year out. This time around, the Seahawks acquired Luke Joeckel and Oday Aboushi via free agency and drafted versatile LSU product Ethan Pocic. Joeckel figures to be in the starting lineup for Week 1, either at guard or tackle, and Pocic could join him at a to-be-determined spot.
The line, on paper, still does not stand to be anywhere near dominant, but Pocic’s arrival alone is reason for optimism. The Seahawks at least have better O-line depth than they did.
That’s also true in the secondary, another area ravaged by injuries a year ago, namely to safety Earl Thomas. As a safeguard—and to start planning for the future—GM John Schneider drafted Hill, Griffin, Thompson and DB Mike Tyson. The reinforcements along the D-line include second-rounder Malik McDowell and third-rounder Nazair Jones.
Provided Sherman isn’t dealt, the defense should be formidable, as always. The offense will go as the run game does, and the run game really could use the Lacy of old.
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