The NFC West projects to be considerably more competitive next year than it has been in a while. The San Francisco 49ers are fresh off of a 14-4 season that saw them get within a field goal of the Super Bowl, the Arizona Cardinals won seven of their final nine games after a 1-6 start, the Seattle Seahawks certainly look to be gelling around a young nucleus, and the St. Louis R-- well, look, there's a fourth team in the division and we'll just leave it at that for now.
To be honest, I thought that the 49ers were a true-talent 10 or 11 win team last year and I expect that regression in their outrageous turnover-differential (and record-setting kicking season, and stupendous success in close contests) will keep them from winning 13 regular season games again. The Rams, in full rebuild mode, are likely to be afterthoughts next year, meaning I fully anticipate that the Cardinals will enter the final game or two with a legitimate shot at winning the division.
While I'm not a subscriber to the belief that momentum built during the end of one season will necessarily transfer to the next, I do look at the way the Cards played over their last nine games and see things that are likely to carry over / improve in 2012. Their defense, for example, only allowed 18.3 PPG down the stretch after giving up 26.1 through their first seven games. Beanie Wells finally showed that he was capable of living up to his promise (assuming his knee holds up) and his straight-ahead running style makes him a perfect fit in what is slowly becoming the NFL's new "black and blue" division.*
*Take a minute and think about the type of running backs that are in this division. Steven Jackson, Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs, Marshawn Lynch, Beanie Wells (plus what we could see from rookies LaMichael James, Robert Turbin, and Ryan Williams)... Linebackers best not be shy in the NFCW.
The Cardinals also discovered an absolute star-in-the-making with their first round pick, cornerback / returner-savant Patrick Peterson and still employ the most talented wide receiver I've ever seen in Larry Fitzgerald. In short, they managed to win eight games with sub-par quarterback play that is likely to improve at least somewhat this season.
That said, this post isn't about what they did last season (for a more holistic look at the Cardinals, check out Kenny's article here), it's about what they did in the draft to get ready for 2012. Jump with me.
Round One, 13th Pick: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame -- I summarized my feelings on the pick HERE, but for those of you too lazy to click, I'll just say that I think Floyd is the best "skill position" player in the draft behind Trent Richardson. Big, strong, exceptional ball skills; Floyd has Anquan Boldin potential and you know that makes Fitzgerald smile.
Round Three, 80th Pick: Jamell Fleming, CB, Oklahoma -- After striking gold with Peterson last year, the Cardinals used their second pick to grab a corner to compliment him. Despite the emergence of PP, the Cardinals still need a replacement for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who was shipped to the Philadelphia Eagles along with two draft picks for Kevin Kolb (honestly how crazy does that trade look now? I mean, it looked bad at the time, but now we're talking about the football equivalent of a Jell-O pudding, string cheese, and PB&J swap for a packet of Gogurt).
At Oklahoma, Fleming was something of a ball hawk (19 passes defended and five interceptions in 2011), showing above average ability to get to the ball before the receiver. Perhaps the most impressive of Fleming's skills are his ability to change direction without too much of a dip in speed. Fleming isn't especially fast, per say, but his ability to cover receivers out of their breaks is a talent that is likely to cross over to the NFL, as he should be fairly competent at staying with them underneath.
One thing you'd like to see from a corner taken 80th overall is his willingness/ability to cover the opposition's #1 guy. Unfortunately, as Mocking The Draft's Dan Kadar points out, Fleming often liked up to the short side of the field, limiting his exposure to open field coverage. Still, it's possible that his role was more a product of Bob Stoop's defensive scheme than an indictment of his coverage acumen, so the jury will be out on that (like everything else, I suppose) until we see him isolated against NFL WRs.
Round Four, 112th Pick: Bobbie Massie, T, Mississippi -- For the fifth straight year, the Cardinals have avoided using a top-three-rounds choice on an offensive lineman, making them something of an anti-Seahawks in that regard. Still, with their 4th-round pick, they got a guy that many viewed as a second-or-third-round pick going into the draft. Massie cut his teeth guarding his backfield against the gnarly beasts that inhabit the front sevens of SEC teams.
An absolute beast of a run blocker, Massie was capable of eliminating whoever lined up against him when the ball was kept on the ground. It's a skill that makes him attractive to Arizona, as head coach Ken Whisenhunt showed a willingness to run last year that has been absent from their gameplan for a while. The perceived weakness in Massie's game is exactly what you'd expect a devastating run-blocker's weakness to be: speed-rushing ends. The knock on Massie is that he's too willing to rely on his outstanding athletic ability to stay with edge rushers, resulting in inconsistent technique that will get him swallowed up in the pros.
If the Cardinals get the Massie whose occasional on-field brilliance and scintillating Pro Day made him a rising star in some evaluator's eyes, then they may have a cornerstone to build around. If they get the Massie that struggled with guys like Courtney Upshaw, their backfield could be in some danger. Chances are that he ends up being somewhere in between, which would justify his 4th-round selection.
Round Five, 151st Pick: Senio Kelemete, OL, Washington -- Husky fans oughta be familiar with Kelemete, a 301-pound defensive lineman that transitioned to the offensive side of the ball before the 2009 season. Like most offensive lineman coming out of college, many scouts see him as a better fit at guard than at tackle.
Kelemete is quick and strong, but his footwork is the sticking point in a number of scouting reports. For the majority of NFL-caliber players, superior athleticism is something they've always had and, as a result, tend to rely on. Kelemet doesn't seem to be any different. Players that are not only highly-talented, but athletic, disciplined, and fundamentally sound as well are something that's extremely difficult to come by, and for a 5th-round hybrid lineman to lack some of those traits is not shocking. The danger for Arizona, however, lies in picking too OLs with the same tendencies.
Round Six, 177th Pick: Justin Bethel, CB, Presbyterian -- Arizona's string of selections from tradition-rich FBS programs ends with their first sixth-rounder. Bethel was, as many draft picks from smaller schools are wont to be, a do-it-all that helped his time in a number of areas. Bethel lined up at both corner and safety and was a special teams maven, blocking nine kicks in his career and returning two of his three career punts for scores.
At 5'11, 200 lbs, it's unlikely Bethel plays safety in the NFL, and his lack of experience against elite talent may make for a steep learning curve at the next level. Still, he strikes me as a player that could be a good fit as a nickelback, which, if he sticks, would be a nice find near the ass end of the sixth round.
Round Six, 185th Pick: Ryan Lindley, QB, San Diego State -- Likely a depth pick, Lindley will probably battle Max Hall for the right to clean up the scraps left over from the Kevin Kolb / John Skelton jumbalaya that' was forced down the collective throat of Cardinals fans last season.At 6'3", 229, Lindley's certainly got NFL size, but a relative lack of efficiency at SDSU (55.5 career Comp %, 7.3 YPA) combined with regression (53.0 Comp %, 7.1 YPA) as a senior don't bode well for his chances to seize the starting gig.
Round Seven, 221st Pick: Nate Potter, T, Boise State -- The third OL taken in the draft by Arizona, Potter is in some ways the opposite of the first two. Where Massie and Kelemete use outstanding athleticism to occasionally mask technique deficiencies, Potter lacks elite or even above average talent, he's very fundamentally sound.
Potter was rarely beaten during his college career, but he didn't consistently beat his guy either. It's probable that his leaner build ('6", 300 lbs) and relatively underwhelming strength keep him from being an impactful lineman in The League. Since he wasn't the type to overpower opponents in college, it's somewhat unreasonable to expect that he will in the NFL
All told, the Cardinals' draft looks pretty standard: potential star in the first round, productive, upside-laden players taken with the next two picks, and raw fringe-types filling out the class. As far as the Seahawks are concerned, Floyd is the only guy I can see causing real trouble, but Fleming and Massie could be solid additions if used right.
Let me know what you think in the comments, or holler at me on Twitter.