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Arizona Cardinals Fly Around the NFC West

So I’m not sure if most of you know, but the NFL had it’s annual draft this last weekend. It’s fine if you weren’t aware of it, the league generally does a bad job of showing it on TV and ESPN ignores it on Sportscenter. However, it is important for every team in the NFL and this draft was especially important for the NFC West. St. Louis had the top pick in the draft, while Seattle and San Francisco both had 2 picks in the first round. Going into the draft I was hoping both Seattle and San Francisco would blow this chance to improve their teams, but for the most part I was disappointed (although I did love the Cardinals draft class this year and that gives me hope).

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers were a good, but inconsistent, team last year and are the team most likely to challenge the Cardinals next year for the division title. To start, they had the 13th pick and the 17th pick in the draft. After the first ten picks the Niners knew who they wanted: tackle Anthony Davis out of Rutgers. The pick was not surprising but the trade to get him was: they gave up a 4th rounder to move up two spots to the 11th pick to select him. Davis has a lot of potential and is projected to be a very good tackle, especially in the run blocking department. He’s a big guy at 6’5" and 323 lbs and is a mauler in the running game. His pass blocking is solid, but nothing to write home about. The actual pick wasn’t very surprising, but trading a 4th rounder in a deep draft to move up 2 spots was. It was unlikely Miami was going to select Davis and the only thing the Niners really had to fear was another team moving up to select him. Even so, with Davis and Brian Bulaga still on the board, this felt like an unnecessary move up. After Davis, the next lineman selected this year was Mike Iupati, the top rated offensive guard taken by the Niners with the 17th pick. While Davis is far from a sure thing (offensive tackles rarely are), Mike Iupati will most likely have a 12 year career in the NFL, with a few Pro-Bowls tossed in, barring injuries. Much like Davis, Iupati is a huge lineman at 6’5" and 330lbs and has a won’t-quit mentality you like to see in football players. Like Anthony Davis, Iupati is a much stronger run blocker than pass blocker. Both Davis and Iupati fortify the weakest aspect of the Niners last year and give us an indication that coach Mike Singletary wants to pound the ball up the middle instead of going to a more spread attack which Alex Smith would prefer. Luckily for the Cardinals, our run defense (and pass defense for that matter) will be solidified by Dan Williams.

In the second round the Niners were able to pick USC safety Taylor Mays, a player with many mixed scouting reports. Mays was projected to be a top 5 pick last year but his stock fell significantly after a down season from USC and a weak showing at the Senior Bowl. Mays is a physical specimen and there was not a safety in the draft with his physical skills. However, he is overaggressive as a hitter and this leads to missed tackles, a huge red flag for NFL DBs. He also is not the best in pass coverage and may struggle guarding receivers one on one during blitz situations. Mays believes his stock fell after his own college coach, Pete Carroll, took S Earl Thomas over him in the first round, but going into the draft he was rated as the 3rd best safety so I doubt many coaches rated him down for that. Given the Niners erratic pass coverage last year, Mays is a good pick, but I question whether he’ll be the player many Niners’ fans think he will be: he’s more Roy Williams than Adrian Wilson.

The Niners used their 3rd round pick on Penn State LB Navorro Bowman, a second round talent who fell due to character issues. Bowman is a good player and will be surrounded by class acts such as Patrick Willis and Manny Lawson, so this should be a good situation for him. He is a versatile player and can play multiple LB positions. The Niners didn’t have another pick until the 6th round, where they had 3 selections: RB Anthony Dixon from Mississippi State, TE Nate Byham from Pittsburgh, and WR Kyle Williams from ASU. Of the 3, Kyle Williams is the most interesting prospect. He is a dynamic receiver with a terrific yards per catch average and a great punt/kick returner. However, the Niners did just trade for Ted Ginn Jr., so I’m wondering where Williams will fit. He’s a good talent, but might not end up making the team.

Lastly, the Niners had a number of agreements with undrafted free agents, the most notable of which was Oregon RB LeGarrete Blount. Blount was a dynamic talent at Oregon, but was suspended most of this last year for throwing a punch at a Boise State player. He agreed to terms with the Niners, but ended up signing with Tennessee after they shipped out RB Lendale White (more on that later). I saw Blount play at Oregon and am glad he won’t be with the Niners, but there was a good chance he was going to be cut anyway after competing with Anthony Dixon.

Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks draft was the most interesting one for me. Being a Cal fan who’s team lost to Pete Carroll every year and a Cardinals fan who wants the Hawks to fail, I was sincerely hoping Carroll would bomb this draft and pick CJ Spiller and Taylor Mays in the first round. Instead they selected Oklahoma State OT Russell Okung (who I believed was the best tackle in the draft) and S Earl Thomas out of Texas. Okung, at 6’5" and 300lbs, is not as big as Niners tackle Anthony Davis but is a much better athlete. He is a great pass blocker, which will help QB Matt Hasselbeck (or Charlie Whitehurst). He is not the run blocker that Anthony Davis is, but that area of his game vastly improved throughout college. With the impending retirement of Walter Jones, the Hawks can plug in Okung into their offensive line seamlessly and he has the potential to anchor that line for the next 10 years. With Earl Thomas, the Hawks get a player who is good at pretty much everything, and elite at pass coverage. He is a great cover safety and is good at making a big play on the ball, so good that some projected him to be an NFL corner to make use of those skills. He is also a physical hitter and does not miss many tackles, an important trait in a safety. This is also his biggest downside as he is not the biggest player out there and may have trouble with injuries, a la Bob Sanders of the Colts (on a sidenote, I hate comparing draftees to current Pro-Bowlers, but this comparison seemed fair in my eyes). I’m sad to say that with their first two picks, Seattle picked two good players who fit needs and will most likely be starters on their opening day roster.

In the second round, the Seahawks selected Notre Dame WR Golden Tate. Seattle’s need for a new receiver was dire after Nate Burleson’s departure. Deion Branch, who the Hawks traded a first round pick for, has not panned out and is much better as a slot receiver. Tate is a great athlete who was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks out of high school, but elected to play at Notre Dame instead. He is a converted running back, great at running after the catch and possesses terrific hands, but his routes do need some work. Despite his lack of elite speed (he ran a 4.42 40) he was probably the most athletic receiver in the draft and will be great in Wildcat formations. In addition to his sloppy route running, he is not a great blocker and will need to work on that.

In the 4th round the Hawks decided to make a pretty big trade, where they gave up little and gained a lot. They swapped 4th and 6th round picks with the Tennessee Titans for RB Lendale White and DT Kevin Vickerson. White was a feature back for the Titans before Chris Johnson’s emergence last year and his playing time took a hit. He played for Pete Carroll at USC and was a big part of the 2005 team which lost to Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns in the National Championship game. The Seahawks needed to improve their running game this year as Julius Jones was just not getting it done. Justin Forsett had some very good games for them last year, but he is too small to be a feature back at the NFL level. A combination of Lendale White (assuming he stays off the tequila and stays in shape) and Justin Forsett can be a good 1-2 punch (once again, I am ever so thankful that Dan Williams fell to the Cardinals). Add in RB Leon Washington, who was traded by the Jets for a mere 5th rounder, and Seattle was able to improve their running game and return game significantly.

All in all, I really liked (disliked?) the Seahawks draft. They were able to walk away with the best offensive tackle, one of the best defensive backs, and one of the best receivers while significantly improving their running game (then again, they did have 3 of the top 60 picks). Of course, all this is speculation, and we won’t know what will happen until these picks play in the NFL.

St. Louis Rams: The Rams started off the draft with Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford. After passing on Matt Ryan and Mark Sanchez in the last two years, the Rams decided to pick a face of their franchise QB in Bradford. Like all first round QBs, questions remain about Bradford which we won’t know the answer to for a few years. He does have a history of injuries, although Dr. James Andrews, one of the best orthopedic surgeons in the world, says his shoulder is as good as new and there is absolutely no residual damage from those injuries. He also ran a spread offense at Oklahoma, and our good friends over at Niners Nation know what can happen when you pick a spread offense QB with the first pick in the draft: 5 years later and they’re still deluding themselves that Alex Smith can be a good NFL QB (if he has a Pro-Bowl year, I’m going to feel like an idiot). I personally liked Jimmy Claussen more, partly because he did run a pro-style offense at Notre Dame under Charlie Weiss (say what you will about Weiss, but he is a great offensive coordinator), but I’m going to assume the Rams braintrust knows how to rate QBs better than I do, especially since I haven’t seen more than 10 seconds of film on either QB.

After Day 1, the Rams apparently received a large amount of trade offers for the first pick. One rumor had the Panthers sending their 2011 1st rounder for the first pick in the second round so they could pick Jimmy Clausen. Instead, the Rams used that pick on OT Rodger Saffold so they could have some protection for Sam Bradford. I don’t know much about Saffold since he didn’t play at a big football school, but they did address their offensive line woes. Saffold can replace Alex Barron on the line and he gives the Rams a player they can pair with former first round pick Jason Smith on the offensive line. While Saffold was not the best player available at the time, and many analysts didn’t like the pick, I think I understand the thinking. They’re going to invest around $50 million in Sam Bradford and they’re not going to compete this year. Instead of getting a player who will help their team immediately, they decided to go for someone who will help their new franchise QB. One potential downside is that Saffold and Smith both play left tackle, so one of them will have to make the tricky conversion to right tackle, but I’m guessing the Rams are hoping both players will be able to protect Bradford starting week 1.

Beyond the first 2 picks, the Rams draft was unexciting. They did select WR Mardy Gilyard, a small, speedy WR out of Cincinatti in the 4th round, but other than that they picked no big names. Of all 4 NFC West teams, I believe the Rams had the weakest draft class, but I have absolutely no qualifications to make that judgment (then again, I’m not sure anybody does).

The NFC West seems to have had a very good draft this year, but it’s still too early to tell. A team’s draft class is graded by how well their 3rd-5th round picks end up playing as much as their 1st and 2nd rounders and it will take at least a couple of years to judge that. I’m excited to see how all of these rookies will play starting week 1, especially the Cardinals’ own draft picks.