We're still plowing through our weekly installments of position by position breakdowns of the NFC West (check out previous stories here) and today we finish our look at the big uglies. The Arizona Cardinals guards will finish up the offensive line and, as with the tackles, the starters are returning at guard and the depth behind them is, quite possibility, just as talented. How do they measure up against the rest of the NFC West though?
Providing depth at the guard position is a host of characters including Brandon Keith, Elton Brown, Herman Johnson and Trevor Canfield. Keith was drafted as a tackle and most expect him to end up outside eventually but he's been working behind Lutui this off season. The conspiracy theory, championed by yours truly, is that the coaching staff is hoping that Keith will take the starting job from Lutui this year before moving to one of the tackle spots in 2010. Keith, last year's seventh round pick, has drawn raves reviews since being drafted and he's got the size, strength and quickness to provide an upgrade at the position. Elton Brown has been the Cardinals top backup on the inside for several seasons and after getting no interest on the free agent market, he's back on a one year deal. Brown has competed with Lutui at right guard for two straight seasons and he has quite a few fans who think he could be just as effective, if not more, than Lutui. Herman Johnson, this year's fifth round pick, is currently working at right tackle after spending nearly his entire college career at guard. He might stay at tackle this season but if injuries strike and he's needed, I'm sure he'd slide down. Trevor Canfield, this year's seventh round pick, is primarily a guard, although he might see some time at center as well. The deck is stacked against him based on the amount of experienced depth ahead of him but some scouts had a third or fourth round grade on him coming out of Cincinnati.
Overall this group has a ton of depth and would be able to withstand one or even two significant injuries, but they don't have any one guy who stands above the rest as a really good player. Based on the starters I'd lean towards a C but when I consider all of the depth, I feel like they are much closer to a B.
Although it's probably too soon to tell, the 49ers seem to be developing a solid pair of guards. In 2008 the team selected Chilo Rachal in the second round. After sitting on the bench during the tail end of the Mike Nolan era, Rachal was promoted into the starting lineup by newly minted head coach Mike Singletary. Singletary had been impressed with Rachal in practice and decided to throw him into the fire. Rachal had plenty of problems as a rookie, but he showed enough talent to secure a starting position in 2009, barring injury.
On the other side of the line, Dave Baas has also likely secured a starting spot for 2009. The former second round pick was on the bench behind Adam Snyder, but was promoted following the firing of Mike Nolan. Baas finished the season at left guard, while Snyder moved back over to his traditional tackle role. Snyder is likely going to battle Marvel Smith for playing time as a tackle this season. However, he can easily swing over to guard if there are any injury issues. Looking ahead, he might even get another crack to start at guard after this season. Baas is a free agent and 49ers GM Scot McCloughan has made it known that he is not a fan of investing large dollar figures in starting guards (see Smiley, Justin). However, for 2009, a healthy 49ers team would seem to be set at guard.
The 49ers have some undrafted free agents in camp, but in reality the only other backup option is Tony Wragge. Wragge is an all purpose backup who can play both center and guard. He won't win a job in training camp, but will provide solid support as a backup.
Overall, I'm going to go out on a limb and give the guards a B. Why higher than the tackles and first round talent Staley? Well, a lot of this depends on how Chilo Rachal continues to develop in his second season and I'm feeling quite optimistic about it. Baas will likely be starting from the get go meaning the line will have sufficient time to develop some solid chemistry, which is big for them. Consider this like the tackle position only rounding up from B-/C+ territory. Grade: B
Starting at left guard for the Rams is 2008's big free agent acquisition, Jacob Bell. Signed away from the Titans, Bell dealt with a hamstring injury and watched his play fade down the stretch, to the point where when combined with the Rams' undersized centers Nick Leckey and Brett Romberg the middle of the line became a real liability. Part of the problem was that Bell played at 280 lbs last season, well below his listed weight of 296 lbs. Whether that was due to the hamstring injury or poor choices in an offseason conditioning program is irrelevant now, and the team was most relieved when Bell showed up for spring minicamps at 300 lbs, thanks to the addition of a personal chef. We should all be so lucky. Bell had a solid track record with the Titans, and will benefit greatly with the addition of C Jason Brown to his right.
On the right side is Richie Incognito, who earned a reputation as a bit of meat head last year thanks to some unpopular comments and gestures directed toward Rams fans...or the lack thereof. Meathead or not, Incognito is one of the nastiest players in the game and a tough blocker. He came apart mentally last year, racking up more than his share of dumb, costly penalties as his attitude unraveled along with the team's play. The coaching change should really benefit a talented Incognito, who constantly needs a hot burning fire under his posterior. He is, arguably, the Rams best lineman.
Behind those two, the Rams have some solid depth at G. John Greco, a third round pick from the 2008 draft, did nothing to hurt his standing with the team in nine appearances last year. Greco uses his size and athleticism well, but could stand to play a little tougher. Mark Setterstrom returns this season after having missed the entire 2008 season with a knee injury. Setterstrom was pressed into starting duty late in 2006, and played well enough to earn a starting job out of camp the next year before getting hurt in week 3. Prior to the 2008 season, he was expected to compete for the starting center job before a camp injury ended his season before it began. He's reportedly at 100%, but his injury history is a huge concern. Greco and Setterstrom are the primary backups at G, and the team is very happy to have them should injury again befall the middle of the offensive line. There's also the versatile Adam Goldberg (see our OT write up), who has filled in nicely at times on the left and right over the last few seasons.
The Rams also helped themselves by signing a couple of very interesting guard prospects among this year's crop of undrafted rookie free agents. Many were surprised when Western Missouri G Roger Allen was not drafted this year. An injury that prevented him from working out at the Combine, a rare invite in the first place for a Missouri Western State player, likely contributed to that. All Mountain West Conference guard Ray Feinga, from BYU, will also be competing for a spot on the depth chart, and has looked good in the no-pad practices of spring. Hopefully, these guys give the Rams that nice to have problem of too much of a good thing.
All in all, I give the Rams a B at guard. If Bell can play to expectations, this could be one really good unit.
Seattle has no starting guards. It instead has the field. Let's twitterize them.
Mike Wahle: Once good and can still run block, but bad in pass-pro and broken down. Shoulder might fall off.
Rob Sims: Pec goes pop, Seahawks flop, this semi-promising guard fails to develop. Good pass-block, bad feet.
Mansfield Wrotto: Mean ass brother used to play DT and blocks like it. Tech coming, but until then: Smash.
Steve Vallos: Upside: Tom Ashworth.
Ray Willis: More valuable at tackle, but beggars can't be choosers.
Max Unger: Oh please God yes.
The best combination for Seattle would be Sims at right and Unger at left, with Willis filling in where necessary. Unger isn't very strong at the point, but he's extremely skilled and employs that skill to be viciously opportunistic. He times his blocks well to upend unbalanced opponents and for someone that rarely looked strong in pass pro, he gets a good number of knockdown blocks. He is, simply, good at football. He's also a pretty good athlete and should take well to Seattle's zone system. Sims may or may not. He had a nasty habit of tripping over his own feet in 2007. That earned the ire of Mike Holmgren and helped earn him a bad reputation among fans. He's very good in pass protection and at right guard maybe won't need to be terribly agile. He could also develop, because he's young, but boy could he have used last season, because on the move he's raw, raw, raw.
It's a less than the sum of its parts bunch, because there's very little stability and each has some fatal flaw that could prove their professional doom. Still, it's a talented bunch, with better, deeper talent than you'll find on many rosters, and that alone keeps this from being an "F". I'll grade them "D" knowing they could gel and be better, or they could flunk in shifts, giving Seattle a revolving door of failure the holiday season through.
The rankings were relatively easy with the only contention being the middle two slots. In the end we practically flipped a coin so consider the second and third teams in the rankings nearly interchangeable.
Overall every team sounds like they have their own question marks and only the Rams are truly set at starter. How would you rank the Cardinals and do you agree that Keith could take the starting job from Lutui? Would that change your opinion of the position grade?