COWER IN FEAR, MERE MORTALS!
In the Know Your Enemy posts, we usually link to various stories from the blogs of our divisional rivals. Not so this time, as instead I'm going to look at the off-season moves of the St Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals and estimate whether they improved...or not. Of course, observations of a non-fan/beat writer on a team are always a bit limited, I don't know these teams as well as local blog writers do, so check out Turf Show Times for the Rams, Niners Nation for the 49ers and Revenge of the Birds for the Cardinals.
The FA period is hardly over, but players who can come in and immediately contribute seem to mostly be gone. Anyone teams are going to add from now on will mostly be guys coming in as depth or camp bodies, though there'll be some surprises, especially as teams pare down to 75 and then 53. Braylon Edwards is actively being courted by the Cardinals and 49ers, and where he lands will have an impact on our division.
St Louis Rams
The St Louis Rams have been favorites to win the NFC West for the duration of the lockout, mostly due to being the only NFC West team with a better-than-mediocre QB. They were well under the cap according to ESPN's numbers, but don't show up now in teams with over $20 million left. What did they spend the money on? I have absolutely no idea.
The Rams have been quiet but haven't exactly lost a ton of players. They lost TE Daniel Fells to the Broncos and the underperforming Laurent Robinson to the Chargers. Before the lockout, they lost safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, by far their costliest loss. Mr. Irrelevant David Vobora is back, while WR Mark Clayton is injured forcing the Rams to look elsewhere.
The Rams invested in quite a few offensive players but they're mostly supplemental talent. Former Jaguars WR Mike Sims-Walker is an interesting addition. He's a very talented, flashy receiver with a nose for the endzone, but has been very unreliable throughout his young career. They added ex-Falcons RB Jerious Norwood and ex-Buccaneers RB Cadillac Williams to their roster. Both are in their late 20s with injury histories (especially Caddy), but both have a lot to add to the offense spelling Steven Jackson. And a big piece to the puzzle is an offensive upgrade in adding offense guard and professional Mike Singletary-annoyer Harvey Dahl. They restructured OG Jacob Bell.
On defense they added some veterans in DTs Justin Bannan and Daniel Muir, who are placeholders on an understocked defensive line. They added former pro bowl CB Al Harris, who is well over the hill but might have something left to add. The biggest signing on defense is probably ex-Eagles safety Quintin Mikell. While he is 30, he is just coming from three all-pro/pro bowl years. He didn't start regularly until four years ago and doesn't have quite as much wear and tear on his body as most 30-year old safeties would. He is set to replace Atogwe and is a nice signing addressing a big need.
The Rams kept their core talent base together and while their additions aren't flashy they're immediately ready to contribute. The Rams didn't stand out this off-season but of all the NFC West teams they probably had the least needs at important positions. They could still do with a WR or more interior defensive line talent, but it's likely too late for that, as they reportedly have no cap space left (seriously, what did they spend all that money on?). The Rams were a contender and while they didn't add much to that status, they didn't derail the train either, and should still go into the season as favorites for the division.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers seem to have been asleep for most of the off-season. Like the Seahawks, they had over $35 million in cap space per ESPN, yet the PFT source put them at still having over $30 million left two days ago. Under Singletary, the 49ers looked like the most talented team in the NFC West, which made them regular off-season favorites, but under Harbaugh, they seem to be actively shedding talent.
They lost their starting NT Aubreyo Franklin, starting OLB Manny Lawson, PKs Joe Nedney and Jeff Reed, starting C David Baas, staring ILB Takeo Spikes, and cut long-time starting (but injured last season) C Eric Heitmann and starting CB Nate Clements. They also seem to have little interest in re-signing starting free safety Dashon Goldson. That's a lot of starters to shed in one off-season, especially if no obvious replacements are available. The 49ers were connected with some top-tier free agents, including CB Nnamdi Asomugha, but they missed out there.
Who did they add? Well, there's QB Alex Smith on a one-year contract, which guarantees the 49ers will once again have the most consistently mediocre play at the quarterback position. They re-signed DE Ray McDonald to a five year $20 million contract with $7 million guaranteed even though he hasn't started a game for them in two years. They picked up OLB Antwan Applewhite, who started 13 games for the Chargers last season, though I'm guessing the first candidate to replace Lawson is 1st-round draft pick Aldon Smith. They also signed PK David Akers to replace Joeff NedReed. They added 32-year old pro bowl center Jonathan Goodwin from the talented Saints interior line, a very valuable addition after they lost two centers.
For a while as the off-season progressed I was mystified by their lack of moves in the secondary, but now they've finally added CB Carlos Rogers on a one-year contract, as well as former Vikings safety Madieu Williams. Those aren't bad moves, Rogers is basically a better Kelly Jennings and Williams is an older but talented safety they can plug in and play. Still, the secondary of Shawntae Spencer, Carlos Rogers, Madieu Williams and Taylor Mays isn't exactly noteworthy for talent or youth.
It's pretty hard to figure out what the 49ers are doing. They shed a lot of starters, so one could figure Jim Harbaugh is rebuilding. Most of the talent they brought in aren't very young or very talented, so perhaps they're looking to compete for a weak NFC West again this year? Then again, their top draft picks Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick aren't exactly plug-and-play contributors. So, your guess is as good as mine as to what the plan is here. Not a lot went well for the 49ers this off-season, such as being hit by some injuries (including WR Michael Crabtree) and having their starting RB Frank Gore hold out (though he's back now). I have a hard time seeing them contend any time soon.
The Arizona Cardinals off-season is the darling of the NFL media for exactly the reason the Seahawks off-season is not. They added a quarterback! A franchise quarterback! Or not. That's grading for you. Graders don't like teams rebuilding, and the biggest considerations for grading are "is this a big name" and "is this a quarterback". Thus the two teams involved in the Kevin Kolb trade are grading high everywhere; the Eagles with Asomugha and the Cardinals with Kolb.
And honestly, the Kevin Kolb trade defines this free agency period for the Cardinals now and for years to come. They traded 25-year old CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2nd for Kolb. DRC gets some flak and he's not the complete package at the corner spot, lacking tackling skills and physicality, but he's as good in coverage as any CB in his age group. In my opinion, trading a proven 1st-round talent like that is much more costly than trading a 1st rounder. To add insult to injury, they gave Kolb a five-year $63 million contract, with $20 million in guarantees.
All this for a guy with uneven performances through seven starts in an excellent offensive system. This trade isn't bad because Kolb lacks upside, it's bad because Kolb is unproven and you're getting a fairly unknown quantity at such a steep price. While I'd have been happy if the Seahawks had landed Kolb, I would have been very unhappy to see them pay that price. Consequently, I'm happy to see the Cardinals pay it.
Their other moves are less ambiguous. They lost DE Alan Branch to us and WR Steve Breaston to the Chiefs, and traded away Tim Hightower to the Redskins. Valuable players to lose, especially Steve Breaston's departure making their WR depth look suspect (hence chasing Edwards, and plugging in Chansi Stuckey as a stopgap if that falls through), but not insurmountable.
Starting RG Deuce Lutui flunked the Bengals physical by being overweight, which considering the problems Bengals offensive linemen have with weight is impressive. Reportedly 380 pounds heavy, Lutui returned to the Cardinals, who had already signed his replacement at right guard in Pork Chop Womack. Lutui's weight has always been a concern and he's not guaranteed to get his starting job back, but with the addition of Womack and his return to the Cardinals they have some nice depth.
Continuing on offense, they added former Panthers TE Jeff King and former Ravens TE Todd Heap. Heap is entering his 11th NFL season at 31 years of age. He played for the Ravens his entire career, logging two all-pro/pro bowl years early on. He's on the wrong end of his career now but should still be a big contributor to the Cardinals offense. They also added talented young LB Steward Bradley, physical corner Richard Marshall to replace DRC as a better fit for the Steelers-esque play Whisenhunt wants on defense, and former Packers LG Daryn Colledge to plug in as a starter, though they'll have to make some adjustments to have him fit in the offense.
Again, the only move that will matter down the line here is Kevin Kolb. But the Cardinals didn't lose a lot of talent, added a talented young QB and a nice mix of experience and talent in their free agency additions. Kolb was already practicing with Larry Fitzgerald before the lockout ended, and the Cardinals will be hoping he hits the ground running, in which case they are probably the most serious challenger to the Rams for the NFC West crown this year.