NFC West draft analysis

April, 30, 2011
4/30/11
6:25
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With Sam Bradford in place, the St. Louis Rams could sit back during the 2011 NFL draft and watch at least a dozen teams sweat over the available quarterbacks.

Counter to conventional wisdom, the rest of the division followed suit -- despite obvious, immediate and critical needs at the position.

The San Francisco 49ers were the only team in the division to target a potential starting quarterback, but they waited until the second round. Even then, Colin Kaepernick was only the sixth quarterback taken. The 49ers chose Missouri outside linebacker Aldon Smith seventh overall when Jake Locker (eighth to Tennessee), Blaine Gabbert (10th to Jacksonville), Christian Ponder (12th to Minnesota) and Andy Dalton (35th to Cincinnati) were available.

The Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks turned their backs on available quarterbacks round after round. The Cardinals took a running back in the second round, a pick no one saw coming. The Seahawks traded out of the second round entirely.

Hey, who needs a quarterback prospect when John Skelton and Charlie Whitehurst are under contract?

Of course, Skelton and Whitehurst might be better than the quarterbacks other teams drafted.

The Cardinals and Seahawks had too many needs to draft sketchy quarterbacks just because they needed players at the position. Everyone knows drafting quarterbacks is a risky proposition. Everyone also knows it's tough to develop a top quarterback without risking an early selection on one, at some point.

The Cardinals, Seahawks and 49ers will take their chances in free agency and/or through the trade market. San Francisco has a longer-term option in Kaepernick. The quarterbacks Arizona and Seattle passed up will have a fair amount to say about whether those teams come out looking good in the end.

BEST MOVE

The Cardinals didn't get cute when they were on the clock at No. 5 and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson was staring at them.

Arizona needed a quarterback and could have taken any of the three passers who came off the board between the eighth and 12th picks. They could have gotten cute and tried to trade back, adding picks to help patch holes elsewhere in the roster.

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesPatrick Peterson was considered by some analysts to be the best player in the 2011 draft class.
But in selecting Peterson, the Cardinals landed the player some analysts ranked as the most talented in the draft. Peterson will start right away at cornerback. He should liven up the return game as well. He is the type of prospect teams should select early without reservation.

Arizona's division rivals didn't do much, if anything, to improve immediately at quarterback. They did not add dynamic receivers in the early rounds. The Cardinals should be in position to control opposing passing games to a greater degree. Peterson gives them the potential to field one of the better secondaries in the league, provided Adrian Wilson returns to health and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie bounces back from a down season.

Seattle's big receiver, Mike Williams, caught 22 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown in two victories against Arizona last season. It's a big upset if a secondary featuring Peterson and Rodgers-Cromartie allows that kind of production in the near future.

RISKIEST MOVE

The 49ers passed over the available quarterbacks at No. 7 and selected pass-rush help instead.

Smith might become a good player, but if the available quarterbacks become significantly better than Kaepernick, the 49ers will be vulnerable to criticism.

The 49ers weren't blind to their need at quarterback. They traded up nine spots to select Kaepernick with the 36th overall selection. Second-round quarterbacks have a rough track record in recent seasons. Kaepernick faces a transition period as he adapts from a pistol scheme that doesn't resemble NFL offenses.

The selection of Kaepernick wasn't careless or ill-advised. Far from it. It's just that all quarterbacks carry heightened risk, and the 49ers passed over quarterbacks other teams saw as top-10 values.

The 49ers selected Kaepernick early enough to make him the heir apparent to whichever veteran they acquire, most likely. Kaepernick has the talent to reward the 49ers for the selection, particularly if coach Jim Harbaugh delivers on expectations that he can develop quarterbacks.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

The Cardinals ran away with this one when they used a second-round choice for Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt said the Cardinals had Williams ranked 15th on their draft board. They drafted him with the 38th pick.

Taking a cornerback in the first round and a running back in the second meant the Cardinals would not use early choices to target primary needs at quarterback and outside linebacker. Selecting Peterson was easy, but taking a running back in the second round went against expectations.

Arizona already has a crowded backfield with Beanie Wells, Tim Hightower and LaRod Stephens-Howling. Wells has not yet met expectations. Hightower's contract status is in question pending a new labor agreement. Stephens-Howling has emerged as a player Whisenhunt likes to use more and more.

Where will Williams fit?

"I think basically when you talk about [Williams] versus a pass-rusher or other perceived needs, what are you basically talking about?" Whisenhunt said. "Are you talking about getting a very good football player that a lot of people had ranked very high, as opposed to a player that maybe is not as good of a football player? We're looking for players that can help make an impact. That’s what is important to us, and we feel like that’s what Ryan is."

FILE IT AWAY

The 49ers, Seahawks and Rams have all invested heavily in their offensive lines over the last few seasons.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, haven't used higher than a fifth-round pick for an offensive lineman over the last four drafts. Left guard Alan Faneca is nearing the end and could retire. Right guard Deuce Lutui is without a contract for 2011. Right tackle Brandon Keith is coming off a season-ending injury and still must prove himself as a long-term starter.

Arizona had the oldest offensive line in the NFL last season, including backups.

Meanwhile, the Rams have young bookend tackles in Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith. The 49ers have used first-round picks for left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis. The Seahawks have first-round tackles Russell Okung and James Carpenter, both acquired since Pete Carroll became head coach in 2010.

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