In 2010 no team in this division finished over .500; the Seattle Seahawks beat the St. Louis Rams, 16-6, in the final game of the regular season to finish 7-9 and win the tiebreaker for the division title. That season gave the division the reputation of being a laughingstock. With two more seasons come and gone, the NFC West is now the most interesting and most competitive division in football. The San Francisco 49ers, led by Colin Kaepernick, not Alex Smith, represented the conference in Super Bowl XLVII and nearly came back to beat Baltimore in the fourth quarter. The Seattle Seahawks have also found the quarterback of their future, Russell Wilson, and are hoping to show San Francisco that going to the Super Bowl one year doesn’t guarantee a team will win their own division the next. The St. Louis Rams were revitalized under new head coach Jeff Fisher and are a few pieces away from becoming a legitimate playoff contender. The Arizona Cardinals managed to beat the New England Patriots in Week Two of last season, despite having the worst quarterback situation in the NFL. It’s always anybody’s ballgame, but this division is proof of why.
Arizona Cardinals (Last Season: 5-11; First Pick: 7th Overall; Number of Picks: 7)
Arizona received Carson Palmer from the small-scale quarterback carousel that took place this offseason, so any thoughts of Arizona reaching for USC QB Matt Barkley at number seven can be thrown away. Could they take him with their second-round pick? Yes, and I wouldn’t be totally surprised, because Palmer is only a short-term solution and Barkley should still be around at number 38. Florida State QB EJ Manuel and Syracuse QB Ryan Nassib are also good second-round choices at quarterback. But what of their first-rounder? For all the troubles Arizona had on offense last year, particularly at quarterback, their defense was not all peaches and cream either. The Cards gave up 137 yards per game on the ground, fifth worst in the league. A linebacker like BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah or Oregon’s Dion Jordan would be able to rush the pass as well as help stuff the run. The Cardinals might get similar value by trading down and targeting LSU LB Barkevious Mingo. An offensive tackle in an early round would help as well – if they decide to look for a first-rounder, Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson is their man; if they wait till even the third round, Tennessee’s Dallas Thomas or North Carolina’s Brennan Williams would be good-value picks.
St. Louis Rams (Last Season: 7-8-1; First Pick: 16th Overall; Number of Picks: 8)
The Rams can afford to take some chances early in the draft; in addition to number 16 overall, they also have the Redskins’ former first-round pick (number 22) and a total of five picks in the Top 115. At least one of their two first-rounders has to be spent on a wide receiver, someone that can develop into a future number one wideout. With the loss of Danny Amendola to New England in free agency, the Rams are left with Chris Givens, Steve Smith and Austin Pettis at wide receiver. Cordarelle Patterson from Tennessee makes the most sense for the Rams. I think he is more likely to develop into a number-one kind of guy than Tavon Austin is, and Austin might not be available anyway. Former Dolphins’ first overall selection OT Jake Long was signed in free agency, but it will take more than just him to keep Sam Bradford off the turf. A guard such as Jonathan Cooper, or perhaps Chance Warmack if he is available, should be the Rams’ other consideration in Round One. The Rams other biggest need is at running back, now that Steven Jackson is in Atlanta; of all the running backs who have the Rams interested, Marcus Lattimore of South Carolina is the most intriguing match.
San Francisco 49ers (Last Season: 11-4-1; First Pick: 31st Overall; Number of Picks: 13)
The San Francisco 49ers have more picks than they’ll know what to do with come draft time. Thirteen picks, most of any team in the league this April, will be more than enough to fill the few holes they did not fix in free agency. The Niners’ biggest needs are in the secondary. The team’s cornerbacks are aging (see: Carlos Rogers) and smaller (see: all of them) compared to the cornerbacks of their rivals, the Seahawks. Now, the 49ers have the number of picks it would take to trade up into the top ten and draft one of the two elite corners available, Alabama’s Dee Milliner or Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes. If they don’t choose to do that, they can try to take 6’2 CB Johnthan Banks from Mississippi State. Taking a safety in the first round would be just as smart for San Fran; FIU’s Jonathan Cyprien would be a great match. Despite the emergence of Colin Kaepernick, don’t be surprised if San Francisco spends one of their myriad picks on a quarterback, now that Alex Smith has been traded to Kansas City. All teams need a viable backup QB, and none moreso than a team who lets Kaepernick run around the field the way he does. Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson would fit this read-option style of offense the best, should anything happen to Kaepernick.
Seattle Seahawks (Last Season: 11-5; First Pick: 56th Overall; Number of Picks: 10)
Seattle will be watching the first round of the draft on Thursday, April 25, without a selection. However, the front office will be sure they got the best value for their first-round pick. They sent that pick and others to Minnesota last month to acquire WR Percy Harvin, who is a much surer bet than any of the prospects who will be available at number 25. This makes Seattle one of only two teams (Washington being the other) without a first-round pick in 2013. Not that they mind; this is a team many experts are already calling a Super Bowl contender, and they have relatively few holes to fill after a free agency period that also saw the signings of DEs Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. When their second-round pick rolls around, however, it is clear the Seahawks should focus on the offensive line. Whether they look for a tackle or a guard (they aren’t completely solid at either), O-linemen that should be available around their 56th pick include Kyle Long of Oregon (Seattle likes Oregon players because their geographical proximity lends to increased scouting), Justin Pugh of Syracuse, and Brennan Williams of North Carolina. Four of the Seahawks’ ten picks come in the seventh round, so they don’t have as many valuable picks as it seems, but look for them to use their mid-rounders efficiently. Their front office always does. Richard Sherman was a fifth-round pick.