All good things must come to an end and, thus, we have reached that point with our Best and Worst series. Our final installment takes on the NFC West. There hasn’t been too much change at the top, but a cellar-dweller seems poised to make some noise in 2021 and a former contender suddenly has a need to retool.
Best and Worst of Free Agency: NFC West
Best Move: Nuking the Competition
The best trade of the offseason may be up for debate. Rob Gronkowski to Tampa has made it interesting. But the Arizona Cardinals trade (see: fleecing) with the Houston Texans for stud wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins might take the cake. Not only did they get arguably the best receiver in the game today, but they also moved the massive contract of running back David Johnson.
Murray, the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, got through last season with the ageless Larry Fitzgerald as his top option. Fitz is a Hall of Famer without a doubt, but at this point, Hopkins is undoubtedly the better receiver. At least one writer thought Kyler Murray would be the MVP next season. That number is sure to rise now.
Worst Move: Not Protecting the Franchise
It just wouldn’t be a Best and Worst installment without lamenting an organization’s failure to address a porous offensive line. Murray tied with Matt Ryan and Russell Wilson for the league-lead with 48 sacks taken. Sure, some of that could be attributed to rookie struggles. But the Cards line was just as much of an issue in 2018 with Josh Rosen.
Murray mobile to say the least so it’s also not a stretch to say he covered up some of the deficiencies of the line. Arizona re-signed Marcus Gilbert, who didn’t see the field in 2019, and has starting center A.Q. Shipley sitting in limbo. He’s started every game for the last three years. With four picks in the first four rounds (but no second-rounder) watch for a couple of linemen to land in the desert.
Next Move: Stop…Anybody
Arizona’s offense should be very formidable next season. Murray, Fitz, Nuk, and the re-signed Kenyan Drake can be as good as any other group in the division. But the defense needs a LOT of work. They finished 2019 ranked 24th in rushing yards allowed and 31st in passing yards allowed.
They were in the top-10 in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win-Rate metric and had Chandler Jones’ 19.5 sacks (2nd) so the issue isn’t the pass rush, though Jones could use a running mate. Rookie cornerback Byron Murphy had a rough season opposite Patrick Peterson who was involved in trade rumors last season. The biggest issue is a lack of playmakers; Arizona ranked 27th in takeaways.
Los Angeles Rams
Best Move: Ummm…
This offseason has been…interesting for the Los Angeles Rams with not much of it being in a good way. They’ve had to cut their high-priced running back due to injury concerns. Cap issues have forced them to watch pass rusher Dante Fowler (who had 11.5 sacks) head to Atlanta. They also managed to retain Michael Brockers after his deal with Baltimore fell through.
Los Angeles did add A’Shawn Robinson from Detroit and Leonard Floyd from Chicago. So maybe that’s the best thing for the Rams this offseason. That they were able to add anyone (they’re currently $6 million over the cap) is remarkable. They even took advantage of the halt in physicals to keep Brockers and Floyd on hold while deciding who to keep or how to keep both.
Worst Move: Lack of Foresight
This might be the most obvious of all the sections so far. The Rams were a sub-.500 team just four years ago and deserve credit for their quick turnaround from that to appearing in Super Bowl LIII. But the cost has been immense and the bill has finally come due. Now they will have to navigate the next couple seasons with financial constrictions and no first-round picks.
Bears fans will tell you how much that lack of picks in the first round hurts. You can’t readily remedy a poor selection from the year before. And if you do, you have to hamstring yourself in future drafts; if you survive, that is. Luckily for L.A. they still have talent on the roster and who they believe is the franchise in Jared Goff under center.
Next Move: Practice Patience
Patience might as well be a four-letter word in the sports world. Almost no one is in favor of slow, drawn-out processes and the Rams were no different. Their mortgaging of the future paid off with that Super Bowl berth. Now, though, they might need to shift their focus. They were able to take advantage of Goff’s rookie deal and his extension has tightened the purse strings.
That isn’t a bad thing, or at least it doesn’t have to be. They should use this time, and the lowered expectations, to figure out who they really are. Most teams will look good when stacked like the Rams were. But when the onus has to be on the quarterback (second contract status), you get to see the truth. Goff is flawed and benefitted heavily from his head coach. They have to see if he can be more.
San Francisco 49ers
Best Move: Adding Another 1st
Trading away a key member from a unit that was your biggest strength is rarely a good idea but that’s where the San Francisco 49ers find themselves after flipping defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick. Buckner and linemate Arik Armstead were reminiscent of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud in their heyday.
Buckner’s trade aided the Niners in retaining Armstead, who just re-signed for five years and $85 million with $48.5 million guaranteed. But more important, San Francisco didn’t get jobbed like many of the deals we saw go down; Arizona’s robbing of Houston comes to mind. Not only did they get a good deal, getting a first-rounder back moves this deal to ‘great’ territory.
Worst Move: Not Getting WR2
The not-so-subtle implication here is that the 49ers already have a top option at the wide receiver position. That option would be Deebo Samuel who, as a rookie, caught 57 balls for 802 yards. He showed versatility, too, toting the rock 14 times for 159 yards. He had 6 total touchdowns. But after him, the 49ers are banking on a lot of unrealized potential.
Emmanuel Sanders (36 receptions, 502 yards) is now in New Orleans. Kendrick Bourne had just six fewer catches than Sanders and only had 358 yards. They all fall in behind tight end George Kittle, but that doesn’t mean ignore the position altogether. Teams will be better prepared for the run game in 2020 and Jimmy Garoppolo will be forced to answer the challenge. Make it easier for him, San Francisco.
Next Move: Plan for the Future
Aside from another receiving threat and offensive line depth, the 49ers offense is largely set. And despite their defensive dominance, that side of the ball could be worth a look. They will likely replace Buckner with an incumbent and/or draft pick, but they might need to look at EDGE too with rumors they were looking to move pass rusher Dee Ford and linebacker Kwon Alexander.
But their biggest need might be cornerback. Richard Sherman is a three-time All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler, and Super Bowl Champ. He’s also on the wrong side of 30 and had a poor game in Super Bowl LIV, reminding everyone of his struggles with speedy receivers. Well, receivers won’t be getting slower and Sherm isn’t getting any younger. The 49ers should be proactive in finding his successor.
Best Move: Letting the Market Play Out
It wouldn’t have shocked anyone if the Seattle Seahawks ponied up and paid Jadeveon Clowney. They didn’t give up much for him, but the three-time Pro Bowler was thought to be one of the premier pass-rushing threats in free agency, if not the entire NFL. Seattle, not exactly flush with cap space, didn’t move too quickly and might benefit from that.
We are less than two days away from the NFL Draft and Clowney is still a free agent. This despite being linked to multiple teams in rumors. Perhaps his extensive medical history played a role as teams are wary of paying big money for an injury risk without the ability to conduct a physical. But Clowney only had three sacks last season. That wee production could be to Seattle’s benefit.
Worst Move: Living DangeRuss
Is it possible the Seahawks offensive line got worse? A group that is far better executing the run game than the passing attack. Seattle also lost Germain Ifedi (16 starts) and George Fant (seven starts) to free agency. They did retain Mike Iupati and added Cedric Ogbuehi and B.J. Finney. Ifedi and Fant weren’t setting the world on fire, but Ogbuehi and Finney had all of four starts in 2019, all by Finney.
Wilson is a wizard at the quarterback position. His ability to extend plays and improvise when the play breaks down is unmatched. But Seattle has never protected him commensurate to his value. That has to change and the draft is a great place to do so. They have tackle Duane Brown but he, along with Iupati, is on the older side. By any measure, the Seahawks need to address this.
Next Move: Find the Pass Rush
The Seahawks tied for 31st in sacks in 2019 with 28. That is the lowest ranking and total in the Pete Caroll era. Their top sack artist, Rasheem Green, had a grand total of four. This is part of the reason why letting Clowney (and Ezekiel Ansah for that matter) sit in limbo while they weigh their options. There isn’t a ton of production on the line.
That isn’t to say they wouldn’t welcome either back, just at the right price. But there is also the avenue of the draft. Some mocks have them targeting Yetur Gross-Matos of Penn State in the first round. That would be a good start but don’t be surprised to see them double down on the position. They need all the help they can get with or without Clowney and Ansah.