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Wednesday, February 8, 2012
2012 NFC West draft primer, Take One

By Mike Sando

Welcome to the 2012 NFL season. The games are not yet here, of course, but most teams have long since shifted their mindsets forward.

Tuesday brought a first look at free agency for NFC West teams. Now comes a first look at the draft, to be revisited as teams add and subtract players in free agency.

Thanks to those who left comments suggesting topics for this space. I've targeted a few for future items and drawn on the general thrust — more free agency and draft stuff, please — for this one. The comments affirmed how much we look forward to NFL offseasons.

Steve Muench of Scouts Inc. offered general thoughts on potential considerations for each team.

Here we go ...

St. Louis Rams

First-round position: second overall.

Three primary needs: WR, OLB, OL

In the spotlight: Matt Kalil, OT, USC

Mocking it up: Kiper has the Rams selecting Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon. McShay has them selecting USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil.

Muench's thoughts: "The first thing that jumps out at me is the value at No. 2. Blackmon is the best receiver in the group, but No. 2 is way too rich to take a receiver in this draft, especially Blackmon, who is not Julio Jones or A.J. Green. The Rams need help at outside linebacker, but the value is not there. This defensive tackle class is very poor. When you look at those offensive tackles and what the Rams have already spent on the position, I understand the hesitation, but going after Kalil or Iowa's Riley Reiff, depending on which one they like, would make sense. Reiff is more balanced and fundamentally sound. Kalil has more talent. Blackmon would make sense if the Rams traded back, but if they are stuck at No. 2, offensive tackle makes the most sense."

Sando's follow-up: The top two needs listed are the same ones I listed in a similar item one year ago, but there are new needs sprouting up. Defensive tackle was the third need one year ago, and it remains a big need for St. Louis. The situation on the offensive line is unsettled enough to give that position a priority. Using another early choice for a tackle would not inspire much excitement in St. Louis. The need for playmakers appears paramount. Whatever the Rams do, they absolutely, positively must give quarterback Sam Bradford a fighting chance. Another season filled with sacks and injuries could inflict long-term damage to his career. Coach Jeff Fisher and coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will gear the offense toward the ground game in an effort to protect Bradford.

Seattle Seahawks

First-round position: 11th or 12th overall

Three primary needs: QB, DE, LB

In the spotlight: Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina

Mocking it up: Kiper has the Seahawks selecting South Carolina defensive end Melvin Ingram. McShay thinks Alabama running back Trent Richardson could be the choice.

Muench's thoughts: "The Seahawks are not in a great spot given their needs. Quinton Coples from North Carolina could be the edge rusher who starts from Day One and is more than just a situational player, but I do not think he'll be there when Seattle picks. He is almost 6-foot-6 and weighs 281 pounds. A lot of guys with his talent protect themselves during the offseason, but Coples worked his butt off at Senior Bowl practices and had a great game, too. Ingram does not have great size, but he is explosive enough and strong enough to play defensive end. At quarterback, there's a big drop after Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Ryan Tannehill could go at the end of the first round, but No. 11 or 12 is way too rich. Brock Osweiler moves very well for a quarterback of his height. These are interesting guys and all it takes is for one team to fall in love with them, but you are reaching if you do it at No. 11 or 12. The reality is that there are so few good quarterbacks in most drafts. It usually doesn't work out when you force the issue."

Sando's follow-up: Finding a long-term quarterback remains the top priority for the Seahawks, but once again the planets appear reluctant to align for them. Parting with Matt Hasselbeck and passing over Andy Dalton have left Seattle with Tarvaris Jackson and developmental quarterback Josh Portis. Chasing after Peyton Manning could make sense for the Seahawks. They have good young players. Adding a front-line quarterback could put them over the top in the division. Linebacker has replaced the offensive line as a primary need for the Seahawks. That should not be the case, in theory, because the team had so much invested in a couple of relatively young linebackers. Aaron Curry and Lofa Tatupu are gone, however, and David Hawthorne is a free agent. The team could move K.J. Wright into the middle.

Arizona Cardinals

First-round position: 13th

Three primary needs: OT, LB, WR

In the spotlight: Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama

Mocking it up: Kiper has the Cardinals taking Stanford tackle Jonathan Martin. McShay has them taking Martin's teammate, guard David DeCastro.

Muench's thoughts: "Kalil and Reiff are the highest-rated tackles. I doubt either one will be there at No. 13. Martin makes sense because of his upside more than anything, but he is not a mauler. He could be gone at 13 if there is a run on tackles, but he might be a reach that early, anyway. There is another dropoff after him, too. This is not a great tackle class. Thirteen is a little early for Kendall Wright, the Baylor receiver, even if he has a good combine. Wright's stock is rising, but because of his size (5-10, 194), he won't win as many one-on-one battles. There was a big jump from 2010 to 2011 in his consistency with his hands and his route running. Adding a pass-rusher is more interesting for me because Ingram and Alabama's Courtney Upshaw could fit. Upshaw doesn't have that idea closing speed, but his initial burst and power are impressive. He can get off blocks. He will be a productive edge rusher. Some 3-4 teams prefer taller outside linebackers, but Arizona and Pittsburgh have gotten away with shorter guys. Ingram and Upshaw are both in that 6-1 or 6-2 range. Neither will be great in coverage, but that has been overrated a little bit. Basically, he has to be able to hold up in underneath zone."

Sando follow-up: The Cardinals haven't drafted an offensive lineman early since selecting Levi Brown fifth overall in 2007. If Brown returns, it will be at a reduced rate. Upgrading the pass protection seems important, in my view, because quarterback Kevin Kolb has not shown great pocket awareness. He has also had injury problems. Landing Manning would obviously change those dynamics. Manning has succeeded for years without top talent across the line. The depth at receiver could use stabilizing, particularly if Early Doucet becomes the latest secondary Arizona target to depart. But with Larry Fitzgerald on the team, the position is in good hands. Very good hands. Some Cardinals fans have pointed to strong sack numbers as evidence Arizona doesn't need to make significant upgrades in that area. Have you ever met a defensive coordinator satisfied with his pass rush? O'Brien Schofield and Sam Acho have shown promise. They are not good enough for the Cardinals to lean back in their chairs and feel great about their outside rush for the next few years.

San Francisco 49ers

First-round position: 30th

Three primary needs: WR, CB, OL

In the spotlight: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama

Mocking it up: Kiper points to South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery as a possibility. McShay goes with Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.

Muench's thoughts: "Blackmon, Michael Floyd and Wright will be gone. That is your top tier of receivers. In a perfect world, you hope Wright or Floyd slips to you. Floyd makes sense in that scheme because of his ability to stretch the field, which could help Michael Crabtree underneath and Vernon Davis over the middle. Wright has speed, but he is not the traditional target to win one-on-ones. After that, we have three receivers with second-round grades. LSU's Rueben Randle, Jeffery and Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu are all vertical threats who must work on their route running. Randle might fit the Jim Harbaugh offense because he is quicker off the line. Jeffery must work on his release. Sanu might be the best for that scheme because he is a better route runner and is more consistent with his hands, but he has not shown the same kind of big-play ability. Jeffery's stock has fallen; he doesn't separate particularly well. He did have a good game against Dennard, who is a solid second-round prospect, but he is much bigger than Dennard. Sanu's size is insane and he has great body control, but can he keep his weight down? I do like Dennard at corner. He didn't have a great Senior Bowl week and he is small, but he is tough and I think that is going to go a long way to slow down receivers at the line of scrimmage. He has a short memory and that is so important. Janoris Jenkins and Kirkpatrick are two corners to watch. Both have off-field concerns. I think someone will fall in love with Jenkins and take him before the 49ers pick. Kirkpatrick is a bigger, longer corner. He can be physical. There is a good chance neither makes it that far, but if they do, it would be hard for San Francisco not to snatch one. More than likely, that would offer more value than any receiver they could get in that spot."

Sando follow-up: The 49ers have few obvious, immediate needs. That is a credit to their personnel department and to their coaches. Smith's expected return puts off for at least one season the need for San Francisco to pursue a quarterback. It probably removes the 49ers from the Manning conversation. I think the 49ers have tremendous flexibility picking this late in the draft. They do not need to target a receiver even though the position could use reinforcing after injuries knocked out Josh Morgan and diminished what Braylon Edwards could offer. Re-signing Carlos Rogers would stabilize the cornerback position, as well. The 49ers could justify going in just about any position with this pick.