There’s a new top team in the NFC West. Following years of relative dominance at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks, which included three division titles across the last four seasons, the Los Angeles Rams will hang a division championship banner for the first time since 2003. The Rams suffered a quick and disappointing exit in their first playoff appearance since 2004, getting upset by Atlanta at home in their wild-card game, but following an extremely busy offseason, there’s reason to be optimistic Los Angeles will stay competitive for years to come.
Seattle’s road back to the division title also got tougher after the San Francisco 49ers traded for Jimmy Garappolo last season, and carried the momentum of five straight wins into the offseason. The 49ers then added former Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman as part of the gearing up process. San Francisco also controls the highest draft pick in the division at No. 9 overall, giving the team the best opportunity to add an immediate impact player from the college ranks. With the 2018 NFL Draft just around the corner, we explore the needs across the NFC West.
Arizona Cardinals (8-8, 3rd in NFC West)
2017 snapshot: The Cardinals were perfectly average in 2018, finishing 8-8 overall and missing the playoffs for the second straight season. The offense struggled to run the football, and though a strong run defense helped balance that deficiency, the Cardinals were largely mediocre both throwing the football and defending the pass, statistically speaking. Injuries played a big role, especially on offense, as Carson Palmer suffered a broken arm in Week 7, did not return to the lineup, and announced his retirement in January. Head coach Bruce Arians also announced his retirement, and the franchise turned to Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks for a new direction.
Biggest needs: The Cardinals have been active in free agency. Arizona completely turned over the quarterback position by adding Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon to replace the departed trio of Palmer, Blaine Gabbert and Drew Stanton – but neither newcomer appears to be a long-term solution. Arizona also signed Justin Pugh and Andre Smith in an effort to reinforce the struggling offensive line, but both have injury concerns. The team parted with safety Tyrann Mathieu and lost cornerback Tramon Williams, so the secondary is a concern as well. Adding depth at receiver behind Larry Fitzgerald (who turns 35 in August) also needs to be considered.
First-round pick: No. 15 overall
Potential picks: Picking in the middle of the first round is rarely a straightforward exercise. It can be tempting to trade up a few spots for the opportunity to grab an elite talent, though there is also the potential to get lucky and see a coveted prospect drop. At No. 15, Arizona isn’t likely to land one of the top quarterbacks in the draft, though reigning Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield might still be on the board. If not, and if the Cardinals are intent to attempt to draft a future franchise cornerstone signal-caller, Lamar Jackson would likely be available – though most would consider it a reach to draft the 2016 Heisman winner in the first half of the first round. Elsewhere, UCF cornerback Mike Hughes or Iowa’s Josh Jackson would make sense, as would Texas offensive tackle Connor Williams or Mike McGlinchey from Notre Dame. Of course, if a uniquely talented player like Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea were available, Arizona could opt for the ever-popular “best player on the board” pick, regardless of the biggest needs on the roster.
Los Angeles Rams (11-5, 1st in NFC West, lost to Atlanta in wild-card round)
2017 snapshot: The Rams were one of the NFL’s biggest surprises in 2017 as the team posted a huge turnaround in its second season back in Los Angeles. First-year head coach Sean McVay brought new life to the franchise, and oversaw the jump from 4-12 in 2016 to 11-5 and an NFC West division title. The biggest improvement came on offense as the Rams went from worst to first, improving from an average of 14.0 points per game under Jeff Fisher and John Fassel to 29.9.
Biggest needs: McVay and his coaching staff had the magic touch on offense, though the offensive line has room to improve and could be addressed in the first round. The front office has been aggressive in adding big names on defense, such as Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, though bigger needs still exist at linebacker and defensive end. The Rams ranked 28th in the NFL in run defense (122.3 ypg) last season. And while the defense got after the quarterback, ranking fourth in the league in both sacks (48) and sack percentage (8.0 percent), the unit struggled against the run (122.4 ypg, 28th).
First-round pick: None. First pick No. 87 overall.
Potential picks: The Rams have few major weaknesses, especially after a busy start to the offseason. The latest trade Los Angeles made, acquiring speedy receiver Brandin Cooks from the New England Patriots, cost the team its first-round pick. Now without a pick until the third round, the Rams appear likely to add depth with a pass rusher, or on the offensive line. Alabama's Da'Shawn Hand, Rasheem Green from USC, or Dorance Armstrong from Kansas could help at defensive end, and lightning-quick and all-around great story Shaquem Griffin or Iowa All-American Josey Jewell are potential options at linebacker. The Rams might also get lucky and snag a one-time potential first-round pick like Oklahoma tackle Orlando Brown or Mississippi State's Martinas Rankin, who have dropped down mock draft boards in recent weeks, or Arkansas center Frank Ragnow, who missed a large portion of the 2017 season with an injury.
San Francisco 49ers (6-10, 4th in NFC West)
2017 snapshot: It was a tale of two seasons for the 49ers. The team started 0-9, losing twice in overtime, and sat 1-10 when Jimmy Garoppolo took over at quarterback. Garappolo, acquired midseason from the Patriots, finished 5-0 as a starter (improving to 7-0 in his career) and then signed a $137.5 million contract extension. After the QB position was settled, and with the momentum of a five-game winning streak, the 49ers entered the offseason with high expectations.
Biggest needs: In an effort to surround Garoppolo with more talent, the 49ers added versatile running back Jerick McKinnon to the fold, and also signed center Weston Richburg and guard Jonathan Cooper. On defense, the San Francisco added Sherman to a revamped unit that finished in the bottom 10 in the league in total defense (351.6 ypg) and 25th in scoring defense (23.9 ppg). San Francisco could still use help on the offensive line, and right tackle is the biggest area of need up front. Linebacker is an area of concern given Reuben Foster’s off-field troubles and the 2017 trade of NaVorro Bowman. Safety is another position to watch, especially with Jimmie Ward entering the final year of his contract.
First-round pick: No. 9 overall
Potential picks: It’s not the biggest need, but if a premium safety like Derwin James or Minkah Fitzpatrick fell to San Francisco at No. 9, he would be hard to pass up. Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds has elite physical tools, and though Georgia star Roquan Smith is slightly undersized, his production at the college level is impossible to ignore. Either would be an instant impact performer. Denzel Ward is widely considered the top cornerback available, and the 49ers could be tempted to pair him with Sherman if he were still on the board. Right tackles don’t often go in the top 10 of the draft, so expect the 49ers to address that position in later rounds.
Seattle Seahawks (9-7, 3rd in NFC West)
2017 snapshot: The Seahawks spent the majority of the 2017 season jockeying for playoff position, but three losses in the final four games, including a 42-7 embarrassment against the Rams and a 26-24 letdown against the Cardinals – both at home – resulted in a 9-7 final record. It was the first time Seattle failed to reach the postseason or win 10 games since 2011.
Biggest needs: Seattle’s biggest need is along the offensive line. Not only could the Seahawks use an upgrade in run blocking as the team ranked 23rd in rushing offense (101.8 ypg) and 21st in yards per carry (4.0) last season, the unit also surrendered 43 sacks and a 7.2 percent sack rate. However, it’s obvious the Seahawks took a step back defensively in 2017. After leading the league in scoring defense from 2012-15 and finishing third in ‘16, the unit fell to No. 13 (20.8 ppg) last year. Losing Richard Sherman to a division rival gets the majority of the headlines across the league, but Seattle must also look to upgrade at defensive end after trading Michael Bennett. The passing game needs attention as well after Paul Richardson and Jimmy Graham signed elsewhere as free agents. Earl Thomas’ future is uncertain, making safety a position the team would like to address sooner rather than later too.
First-round pick: No. 18 overall
Potential picks: Drafting at No. 18, Seattle is likely to find its best value at defensive end. Several analysts have pointed to UTSA up-and-comer Marcus Davenport as a natural fit if he’s available, though the fallback option could be the aforementioned Landry or Hubbard. If the front office prioritizes offensive line, Isaiah Wynn played left tackle at Georgia but projects as a guard, and would be a versatile option. At cornerback, the Jackson, who led the nation in interceptions with eight last season, could be the answer.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.