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Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Draft Watch: NFC West

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

NFC Recent History: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: Recent history.

Arizona Cardinals

Seven of the nine players Arizona has drafted among the top 50 picks since 2005 project as starters for the upcoming season. That's not bad, although one of the seven -- Antrel Rolle, selected eighth overall in 2005 -- will do so for the Giants.

The Cardinals have generally done a good job in recent years finding and developing players throughout the draft.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (first round), Beanie Wells (first), Deuce Lutui (second), Calais Campbell (second), Early Doucet (third), Greg Toler (fourth), Steve Breaston (fifth), Tim Hightower (fifth), Ben Patrick (seventh) and LaRod Stephens-Howling (seventh) have become building blocks or at least promising prospects. All were drafted in the past four years. All but Lutui were chosen since Ken Whisenhunt arrived in 2007.

Two potential mistakes -- drafting Levi Brown fifth in 2007 and Matt Leinart 10th in 2006 -- could significantly affect the team this season now that Kurt Warner's quick release and accurate throws aren't around. The Cardinals aren't set at either position. Another mistake -- selecting nose tackle Alan Branch 33rd in 2007 -- could lead the team to address that position early in 2010.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers have drafted four players among the top 11 picks since 2006, and three of them -- Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Patrick Willis -- are either stars or heading in that direction. It's the fourth guy -- Alex Smith, selected first overall in 2005 -- whose fate could determine whether the 49ers realize the fruits of recent draft classes.

San Francisco headed into the 2009 draft needing an offensive tackle and a pass-rushing outside linebacker. The team drafted neither, pouncing on Crabtree when he was available unexpectedly at No. 10. Tackle in particular remains a need heading into the 2010 draft. It's an upset if the 49ers, with two first-round choices, let another draft pass without addressing that position in a meaningful way.

The 49ers have gotten old in the secondary, particularly at corner; they haven't used a first- or second-round choice on a defensive back in any of the past five drafts. Of course, it's tough to draft players in that range when sitting out the second round. The 49ers have selected only twice in second round since the 2005 hiring of Scot McCloughan, who was promoted to general manager before the 2008 season. San Francisco used both second-rounders for guards.

Seattle Seahawks

Success through the middle of the decade left the Seahawks picking later than their NFC West rivals. The team has selected only one player -- Aaron Curry, the fourth overall choice in 2009 -- among the top 25 overall picks since 2005.

Unlike the Colts, who have consistently drafted well late in the first round, the Seahawks have come away with Chris Spencer, Lawrence Jackson and Kelly Jennings with selections made in that range. Trading away a 2007 first-rounder for Deion Branch stands as another misuse of prime draft capital. No wonder the organization is starting over.

For all of the failures on the offensive and defensive lines, no Seattle draft choice since Shaun Alexander in 2000 has become a dynamic threat to score touchdowns. Coach Pete Carroll has lamented the lack of offensive firepower. The Seahawks must reverse that trend starting in the 2010 draft. They need playmakers.

Whether the Seahawks land Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall as a restricted free agent will largely determine how much flexibility the team has on draft day.

St. Louis Rams

The Rams haven't selected a quarterback in the first five rounds since using a 1996 second-rounder for Tony Banks (update: they did take Joe Germaine in the fourth round of the 1999 draft).

Lucking into Warner more than a decade ago stands as one of the great stories in NFL history. It's not very repeatable.

The Rams know this. They also know the value of drafting a quarterback in the first round, even though risks can be high.

St. Louis has gone the safe route in recent drafts, using four of their last five first-round choices to build their lines. Too many of those early picks -- Alex Barron, Tye Hill, Adam Carriker -- haven't worked out as planned. Chris Long and Jason Smith, linemen selected second overall in the last two drafts, do not appear to be dynamic talents even though both should start for years to come.

The Rams absolutely, positively need to find a difference-maker with the first overall choice.

No position affects a team the way quarterback does, one reason Oklahoma's Sam Bradford could be tempting. It's not like the Rams can count on finding a quarterback later in the draft, particularly this year. The question, really, is whether Bradford is promising enough to warrant such a high pick.