PFW roundtable: 5 key offseason questions, NFC West
PFW editors Bob LeGere, Eric Edholm, Greg Gabriel and Arthur Arkush answer five key offseason questions regarding the NFC West.
1) Who will be the biggest impact rookie?
BL: Seahawks RB Rashaad Penny
Since the plan is for the Cardinals to start with veteran QB Sam Bradford and allow first-round pick Josh Rosen to ease into the job, it has to be Seahawks top pick Penny, who led the nation in rushing in 2017 at San Diego State. No NFL team got less production in the ground game from its running backs than the Seahawks. QB Russell Wilson had more rushing yards than Seattle’s top two running backs combined.
EE: Cardinals WR Christian Kirk
The Cardinals’ first-round pick, Josh Rosen, clearly has a chance to be a franchise-changer in years to come, and he might start that clock at some point during his rookie season. But with Sam Bradford blocking him (for now) to the path toward starting, we’ll go with the Cardinals’ second-rounder in Kirk. A do-it-all playmaker in college, Kirk figures to wear a lot of hats right away as a rookie. He was working with the first-team offense (inside and out) and should be used as a returner and occasional runner from the get-go. Despite lacking game-breaking speed, Kirk is quick and shifty with underrated toughness and will win over Arizona fans soon, we believe.
GG: 49ers RT Mike McGlinchey
I’m sure some of you will have Josh Rosen — and he very well could be the guy if he has to start. The 49ers drafted McGlinchey because they felt they were only going to get one or two more strong seasons out of Joe Staley and then McGlinchey will move over to the left side. In the meantime, he has already replaced Trent Brown at right tackle who they traded to New England during the draft. McGlinchey was a three-year starter at Notre Dame, one at right tackle and two at left tackle, and was very consistent.
AA: Cardinals QB Josh Rosen
Not getting too cute with this one. The Rosen era in the desert beginning this year feels imminent thanks to Sam Bradford’s injury history. And the polished former UCLA standout finding early success feels quite possible if not likely because of, well, Rosen’s polish in a pro style system and QB-friendly elements on offense including Mike McCoy, Larry Fitzgerald, David Johnson and an improved line. The Cardinals’ long search for QB stability is over, and, big picture, that’s as much impact as Arizona, or any team in QB flux, could hope to receive from a rookie.
2) Best under-the-radar addition?
BL: 49ers RB Jerick McKinnon
The 49ers are moving on from Carlos Hyde, who led the club with 938 rushing yards and 59 receptions last year. They’re relying on McKinnon to step into that role, after he spent the past four seasons as the Vikings’ third-down, complementary back. McKinnon caught 94 passes over the past two seasons, but he’s never carried more than 159 times in a season. He should have an excellent opportunity for more work, because there isn’t much behind him on the 49ers’ depth chart.
EE: 49ers C Weston Richburg
It was a bit odd that the 49ers extended former center Daniel Kilgore only to trade him (for little in return) the day after they went out and signed Richburg to a massive contract. But even with that oddity, and with the big price tag, Richburg’s addition hasn’t received enough fanfare. The addition makes sense: You lock in your franchise QB in Jimmy Garoppolo and then pair him with a tough, smart and agile center to protect him. Kyle Shanahan raved about Richburg, who has battled injuries but has good upside, in March: “When you have a center of the level of Alex [Mack] or Weston, it changes a lot of things, things that people don’t totally realize sometimes … you’ve got a center who can get [to the second level] on his own and doesn’t need the help. It allows you to do a bunch of different stuff.”
GG: Cardinals OG Justin Pugh
Pugh was a solid starter for the New York Giants. The Cardinals were able to sign him in free agency, and with his addition, the Cards hope to solidify the offensive line. Pugh can play guard or tackle but will most likely line up at right guard for Arizona, which bet 5 years and $45M on Pugh being the addition it needs.
AA: 49ers C Weston Richburg
Considering he’s now among the highest-paid players at his position, Richburg leaving the Giants to sign with San Francisco might have flown under the radar of few. Still, it’s hard not to be reminded with this deal of Atlanta’s inking Alex Mack under then-Falcons OC Kyle Shanahan two years ago and the profound effect it had on one of the best offenses in NFL history. Richburg isn’t in Mack’s league — yet — but he’s an ascending blocker with the athleticism to ably anchor San Francisco’s new-look O-line, a potential strength in front of its fresh new backfield with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon.
3) Biggest offseason defection?
BL: Ex-Rams LB Alec Ogletree
The Rams had one of the NFL’s worst run defenses last season, but they still traded their leading tackler in Ogletree to the Giants, leaving a gaping hole they hope to fill mostly with unproven youngsters. Ogletree had 96 tackles last year, the lowest total in any of his four full seasons, and he’s forced 12 fumbles since the Rams drafted him in the first round in 2013.
EE: Ex-Seahawks DT Sheldon Richardson
The Seahawks lost as much talent this offseason as any in the NFL, with Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman, Jimmy Graham, Sheldon Richardson, Cliff Avril and Kam Chancellor leaving. It’s almost impossible to rank which individual loss here will cut the team deepest. But the one that already has stung the most, by virtue of the trade to land him initially, was Richardson. The youngest of the team’s big losses, Richardson came at an enormously steep price — a second-round pick and Jermaine Kearse — for what amounted to one sack on a one-year rental. Was Richardson not worth to Seattle the $8 million the Vikings signed him for? Even if he wasn’t, the trade looks bad as any of the three players drafted in that second-round slot and immediately afterward (TE Dallas Goedert, OL Connor Williams or WR Anthony Miller) fit the Seahawks’ mold as players and could have helped them immediately this season. So, too, could have Kearse as a steadying WR presence; he had a career season in 2017 for a Jets team that ranked 24th in passing yards.
GG: Ex-Rams WR Sammy Watkins
The Rams acquired Watkins in a trade with Buffalo just prior to the beginning of the 2017 season. He helped bring stability to their WR corps and finished the season with 39 receptions and 8 TDs. The Rams had a decision to make going into free agency by franchising either Watkins or safety Lamarcus Joyner. They chose Joyner, and by doing so lost Watkins in free agency to Kansas City. It took Watkins a while to feel comfortable in the Rams’ offensive system, but once he did he became a key target for Jared Goff and a key component to Goff’s improvement.
AA: Seahawks DT Michael Bennett
Take your pick in Seattle, right? We could highlight either of the two (perhaps three depending on the result of Earl Thomas’ holdout) Legion of Boom departures, or Russell Wilson’s second- and third-leading receivers, among others. But trading Bennett could compound the secondary turnover, if the Seahawks don’t capture lightning in their recalibrated pass rush. Credit Seattle for signing underrated Tom Johnson to help replace Bennett, but the latter can wreak havoc all on his own from multiple posts up front, while the former has always benefited from his supporting cast. With Cliff Avril and Sheldon Richardson also gone, the pass rush is Johnson, Frank Clark and a bunch of former first-round reclamation projects affixed with duct tape.
4) Heat check (hottest coaching seat)?
BL: Seahawks coach Pete Carroll
In 2017, the Rams’ Sean McVay was the NFL coach of the year in his first season, and the 49ers Kyle Shanahan also enjoyed an impressive rookie season, as his team tripled its win total of two from 2016. Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks enters his first season with low expectations, so that leaves – the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll? No one really believes Carroll has to worry about job security after leading Seattle to 65 wins in the previous six seasons, but he turns 67 in Week Two.
EE: We’ll assume Steve Wilks is not a one-year flameout. Young rock stars Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay are fixtures for years to come, we think. So yes, shockingly, it’s Pete Carroll. Do we believe Carroll is going to be forced out if the Seahawks suffer this season following a major exodus? No. But there were whispers late last year that Carroll might step down, and though he quashed those and scoffed at those who suggested the possibility of that happening, we believe he at least entertained the idea of it. At the very least, he thought about how he might leave the Seahawks one day before deciding on rejoining the team’s reshuffling this offseason. If things blow up, could Carroll walk into the sunset in six months? It wouldn’t stun us. Getting fired would, given everything the coach has meant to the franchise. But resigning? It’s not out of the realm of possibilities.
GG: I’m going to list two hear. One is Seattle head coach Pete Carroll. Seattle is going through a rebuilding stage and isn’t close to being the dominating club it was just a few years ago. The Seahawks lost three our of their last four in 2017, and if that trend continues, Carroll could be gone after the season.
The other is new Arizona QB Sam Bradford. The Cardinals gave Bradford a two-year contract worth $35M, but the way it was structured, the Cardinals can get rid of him after a year and have a $20M cap savings in 2019. Bradford is one of the most fragile players in the NFL and can’t be counted on to play anywhere close to a full season. That’s why the Cards drafted Josh Rosen with their first pick. Don’t be shocked to see Rosen as the starter by midseason and Bradford gone next year.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll
It’s Carroll, by default. Think the Rams or Niners are axing the Coach of the Year or Jimmy Garoppolo’s most important teacher, respectively? And the Bidwills aren’t firing rookie Steve Wilks in the same season that they traded up for Josh Rosen. Meanwhile, Carroll comes off his worst season since 2011 and responded by firing his talented coordinators and replacing them with “yes men.” What if Paul Allen decides that with Russell Wilson now the unquestioned face of the franchise, he wants to surround Wilson with a young up-and-comer after seeing what it did elsewhere in the division?
5) Predicted order of finish?
BL: 1. Rams 2. 49ers 3. Cardinals 4. Seahawks
The Rams have way too many young players who should still be ascending for them to suffer much of a drop-off after 2017’s breakout season, and the youthful 49ers could be on a similar trajectory. The Seahawks and Cardinals appear headed in the opposite direction, and it could be awhile before either is ready to challenge the Rams.
EE: 1. Rams 2. 49ers 3. Seahawks 4. Cardinals
The Rams’ wild offseason shopping spree certainly puts pressure on them to thrive again after a breakout 2017 campaign. Might unreal expectations, a tough schedule and Aaron Donald’s looming contract status derail their Super Bowl dreams? It’s absolutely possible. But we still feel they’re the toast of the division as the 49ers continue reloading. We love what San Fran is doing, but the picture isn’t quite complete yet — give the Niners another year, we say, before they’re true title contenders. The Seahawks won’t be as bad as many think, and the Cardinals were 8-8 last season, don’t forget. It’s a tough division, but someone has to finish last. We say it’s Arizona with a murky QB situation and a first-year head coach, but the team isn’t terrible either.
GG: 1. Rams 2. 49ers 3. Cardinals 4. Seahawks
The Rams could have one of the strongest defenses in the league this year, and Jared Goff has one more year of experience. The 49ers hope that Jimmy Garoppolo picks up where he left off last season, and if that happens, they’ll challenge the Rams for the West title. In Arizona, a lot will depend on two things: The health of Sam Bradford and how Josh Rosen fares if he has to play. New coach Steve Wilks is underrated, and I have no doubt that he’ll do an outstanding job. The glory days in Seattle are over. The once-strong defense and strong overall roster are things of the past. Pete Carroll could be gone at the end of the season.
AA: 1. Rams 2. Seahawks 3. 49ers 4. Cardinals
The Rams can (and will) take a step back and still win the division handily — the talent is undeniable but so are the obstacles that come with managing it. Seattle still has the West’s best coach and quarterback, so while others pen an obituary, we still envision a winning season. The Niners are obviously trending upward but to anoint them even quicker than the Seahawks have been buried seems premature. Arizona has enough talent to compete, but with three new schemes will come growing pains, and I think the decision to pass on James Bettcher might haunt Steve Keim.