Draft Preview: NFC West


The draft is a beautifully crafted system of sporting equality which has the power to dramatically shift the fortunes of a franchise for many years to follow. It’s an event that fills fans with hope, angst, anger and elation year after year (alright, exclude that last one if you’re a Jets fan). An event which has been catapulted to such heights that it’s all we read and talk about the second the clocks hit zero at the Super Bowl, three months prior. Mock drafts have become the source of so much discussion and debate that you’d swear we all actually know a thing or two about evaluating – “His handspan is only 9 inches? You’d be crazy to pick him!” Despite all these expert takes, year-in, year-out, fans, analysts and the teams themselves are consistently proven wrong. Therein lies the beauty of it. If Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Tom Brady were easily identifiable, where would the fun be? And after the year that the world has gone through, the level of unpredictability in this draft is going to be greater than ever.


Now that I have laid down my foundation of excuses, let’s check in with where things stand in the NFC West. It’s been a crazy off-season thus far in the Wild West. We’ve seen three blockbuster trades - Stafford to L.A., Hudson to Arizona, and the No. 3 pick of the 2021 draft to San Francisco - and one blockbuster trade rumour involving Russell Wilson in Seattle. Throw in a plethora of big name additions (I’m looking at you JJ Watt) and big name subtractions, and we’re left with a whole new landscape and a lot of questions in the NFC West. The draft should answer some of these questions, with each team having key needs across their rosters and the draft class having some intriguing prospects on offer. Let’s dive in.


Arizona Cardinals

Off-Season Thus Far

There are those that believe that Arizona underachieved last season, starting out 6-3 only to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs by a game. Kliff and Keim will be feeling some desert heat under their collars entering year three of Kyler’s rookie deal. So far, the off-season has seen a number of positional needs being filled, with JJ Watt arriving to the defensive trenches, the aforementioned Rodney Hudson bringing some much needed experience to the interior of the offensive line, and AJ Green being added as the potential answer out wide opposite DeAndre Hopkins – because Christian Kirk seems a bit hesitant to truly grab that spot for himself.


These signings clearly show it was a priority to bring leadership into the locker room, something which Keim has said himself. However; signing seasoned vets to achieve this will always raise a few questions. Can Watt return to his elite form? Will he remain healthy? Does Green still have more left in the tank? Can Malcolm Butler fill Patrick Peterson’s shoes? Is Fitz going to make his retirement decision before 2030?


Coupled with this are areas which have yet to be fully addressed this off-season. Dan Arnold has taken his services to Carolina, leaving behind a bare tight end room led by primary-blocker Maxx Williams. Robert Alford, the currently assumed starting corner opposite Butler, has re-signed but hasn’t played a live snap in over two years. James Conner will be a welcome addition to the backfield alongside Chase Edmonds, but with each back on one-year deals they must be questioned as long-term answers.

Predictions

  • Round 1: No. 16

  • Round 2: No. 49

  • Round 5: No. 160

  • Round 7: No. 243, 247

It’s reduced ammunition for Keim and company this year – the stomachable side-effect of bringing Hopkins and Hudson to the desert. Arizona’s first round pick at 16 is a tough one to predict: it will all depend on what happens ahead of them. Don’t rule out a trade-back to recoup some of the ammo if a guy they like isn’t there at 16. There have been rumblings of a trade-up to nab Kyle Pitts if he slides, but that’s about as likely as Kliff Kingsbury having a bad hair day. Look to see them address corner or receiver if they stick with pick 16, but don’t rule out more help for the defensive line. If they trade back, I could see anything from inside linebacker to running-back. Travis Etienne has, after all, cited the Red Birds as his most desirable destination. Much remains to be seen, with Arizona being one of the tougher teams to predict heading into this draft.


Names to Watch: Jaylen Waddle (WR), Jaycee Horn (CB), Travis Etienne (RB), Christian Baramore (DT)


Los Angeles Rams

Off-Season Thus Far

A new conductor is behind the line for L.A. in Matt Stafford, with Goff being shipped to Detroit and the lovable Doug Flutie John Wolford returning to the bench. I’m willing to bet that Stafford, who has experienced playoff football just three times since entering the league in 2009, has yet to be seen without a grin on his face since the move in January. This marriage of QB and coach should have L.A. fans drooling for years to come. 34 year-old DeSean Jackson was also added in free agency to help aid Stafford, although how much he has left to give at this injury-plagued stage of his career is questionable.

But this roster is not without its flaws, as Green Bay managed to exploit in January. On the defence, star players like Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd and Aaron Donald perhaps have the ability to mask some needs which exist on that side of the ball. The four-year extension which L.A. struck with Floyd should not be overlooked. He’s coming off 10.5 sacks in 2020, and L.A. came dangerously close to losing that production before closing the deal right as free agency commenced. Michael Brockers of course has also been moved to Detroit (after trashing Goff, no less… awkward), so the D-line is now lacking in depth.


Predictions

  • Round 2: No. 57

  • Round 3: No. 88, 103

  • Round 4: No. 141

  • Round 6: No. 209

  • Round 7: No. 252

Another year, another draft with no first round picks for the Rams. Their last first round pick was for Jared Goff all the way back in 2016, and after the Stafford deal it will be 2024 at the earliest before their next. With Les Snead making such a large investment for a quality QB, look to see him do his best to bolster that side of the ball at some stage in the draft. Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods are great reliable options for Stafford but adding a quality, young receiver to the position could make a solid group a great group (no disrespect to DeSean Jackson, who can still stretch a defence). Receiver may be a luxury early on however, as centre and tackle are more in need of a youthful injection with Andrew Withworth surely surrendering to father time sooner rather than later and centre Brian Allen not playing a down in two years.


That said, the priority must lie on the defence for the Rams this year. This unit was tremendously coached by Brandon Staley last year, so much so that they led the league in scoring and he now finds himself running the show down the road for the Chargers. However, new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris will have his work cut out for him if more talent can’t be added. The loss of Brockers and no real standout at OLB means depth is an issue in the defensive front. L.A. has relied on winning this battle for the past number of years. For if the D-line have an off day, the linebackers in the second level don’t fill one with an abundance of confidence when it comes to making a play.


Names to Watch: Joseph Ossai (Edge), Jalen Mayfield (G), Tutu Atwell (WR), Tommy Tremble (TE)


San Francisco 49ers

Off-Season Thus Far

One of the most injury-riddled seasons in recent memory destroyed any hopes San Francisco had to return to the Big Game this past year. Unfortunately this means Jimmy Garoppolo’s airball over Sanders in their final drive of SB LIV has had an extra year to marinate in the minds of Niner fans. John Lynch must have been included in this group, as he executed a major swap with Miami to move all the way from twelfth to third in the pecking order this Thursday.


You would be hard pressed to find anyone talking about anything other than “who will they pick at QB” coming into this draft, and for good reason. The roster still stands out to me as one of the strongest in the NFL if the players returning from injury can also return to their previous level of play. Two major O-line moves saw the Niners re-sign Trent Williams and bring in veteran Alex Mack at centre. Add in a five-year extension for Kyle Juszczyk and Shanahan’s men are looking well set to keep dominating on the ground. Defensively, the 49ers managed to bring back cornerbacks Jason Verrett, Dontae Johnson and Emmanuel Moseley as well as adding edge-rusher Samson Ebukim, formerly of the Rams.


Prediction

  • Round 1: No. 3

  • Round 2: No. 43

  • Round 3: No. 102

  • Round 4: No. 117

  • Round 5: No. 155, 172, 180

  • Round 6: No. 194

  • Round 7: No. 230

San Fran are by far the most loaded team when it comes to draft capital this year in the NFC West, so their selections could go any number of ways. Receiver could be a position they look at, as a standout third option to join Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk (not forgetting George Kittle) could help their passing attack become almost as fear-instilling as their ground game. On the other side of the ball, the defensive back room looks solid, but the loss of Richard Sherman means a little more depth would be welcome. So don’t rule out a selection here. Along the D-line, some youth across from Bosa and in the middle wouldn’t go astray, but overall I think the roster is sitting in such away where the best-player available will be the way the team approaches this draft. That is, after pick number three of course.


QB with this pick is all but guaranteed, despite many fantasies of Kittle and Pitts lacing up for the same team (imagine!?!). I will not bore you with my personal preference on these quarterbacks – mainly because, well, what do I know? What I will say is that John Lynch and co. must be confident that their future guy will be ready and waiting. By default, this means they have at least three guys in their mind who they believe are worthy of that pick, and more importantly worthy of that trade. Mid-season assumptions had Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields pegged as the top two, but now? I still can’t see the Jags passing up Lawrence, but Zach Wilson has seemingly soared up the pecking order as the off-season has moved along, with Fields dropping to as low as sixth on some experts’ rankings. Strange how that works. Either way, this decision could either push the team over the line in their quest for that elusive sixth franchise ring, or it could set them back for years to come. No pressure, John…


Names to Watch: Trey Lance (QB), Justin Fields (QB), Mac Jones (QB), Asante Samuel Jr. (CB)


Seattle Seahawks

Off-Season Thus Far

It’s been an eventful off-season for Seattle, with talk of Wilson wanting out dominating the news waves early on. It seemed only to be a matter of time before this boiled over, with L.A.’s defensive domination resulting in a swift Wild Card exit for Carroll’s side this past season. They managed to hold onto their guy of course, for now at least, as well as a few others. Tyler Lockett inked a four—year deal, ensuring the duo of himself and Metcalf will be terrorizing secondaries into the foreseeable future. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap returns on a two-year deal having initially being released by the team – some John Schneider magic which saved Seattle considerable cap space. Punishing running-back and fan favourite Chris Carson will also be returning.


In terms of additions, Arizona weren’t the only team to make a deal with Raiders for an interior lineman, as the Seahawks acquired guard Gabe Jackson from Las Vegas in exchange for a fifth-round pick. This solid veteran should be a great addition to the O-line, one which was necessary with Mike Iupati’s retirement. They also acquired defensive end Kerry Hyder, who’s coming off a strong 2020 season for San Francisco, and tight end Gerald Everett formerly of the Rams. Ahkello Witherspoon, a young corner who has shown flashes for San Francisco, rounds out the NFC West musical-chairs additions for Seattle, putting the roster in decent shape heading into Thursday night.


Predictions

  • Round 2: No. 56

  • Round 4: No. 129

  • Round 7: No. 250

Just the three picks for Seattle in this year’s draft. Lowest in the entire league, so not a whole lot of opportunities to fill their remaining needs. As well as this, the 2021 draft class isn’t considered the deepest, so the seventh-round selection might be worth even less than usual. If there is a decent offensive lineman available at 56, be it interior or tackle, I believe this has to be the play for Seattle. Wilson has made his grievances clear with the organisation and the media this off-season, and they won’t disappear if Seattle fails to make a move to improve the situation. On defence, cornerback stands out as one of the bigger needs after the loss of Shaquill Griffin to the Jaguars. The addition of Witherspoon is far from a sure thing so look to see Schneider address this if possible. There’s not much else to say, with the team only having three selections, but don’t rule out an addition at receiver for depth.


Names to Watch: Liam Eichenburg (OT), Walker Little (OT), Quinn Meinerz (C), Elijah Molden (CB)


Despite just two teams in the NFC West having a day-one selection, it should be an eventful few days in Cleveland for the division, starting Thursday. I, for one, can’t wait. I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise in advance to my employer for my energy-levels (or lack thereof) on Friday morning. But for now, it’s over to you, Jacksonville!