NFC West: 2013 predraft positional rankings revisited

Our pre-draft and post-draft NFC West positional breakdowns invited criticism from St. Louis Rams fans expecting higher marks for a team that went 4-1-1 in division play last season.

"The Rams added more starters from the draft than the other teams in the division," Matt from Idaho wrote to the NFC West mailbag. "If division records are the same next year, will you still rank the Rams low in all categories?"



John from Redding, Calif., struck a similar tone: "It amazes me that you praise Les Snead and Jeff Fisher for their draft savvy and yet it seems like within the division their post-draft rankings have gone down across the board. You won't give teams credit for drafting a position because we don't know until we see them play, and then praise every other team for their great positional drafts with non-proven players. Too much contradiction."

Matt and John aren't alone.

"I've noticed that there is not a lot of love for St. Louis in any of these ratings," @larry_dupre wrote. "Rams have better defense than your rating"

Matt Williamson, the NFL scout for ESPN.com, went position by position when putting together the rankings. The first thing he said to me upon looking at a chart with the rankings was, "It just dawned on me Seattle has a one or two on my list at every position but tight end. San Francisco actually has a couple fours. Some are debatable."

The Rams fared well in division play last season, but they were clearly the third-best team in the NFC West. The moves they have made this offseason were mostly geared for the long term. Jake Long and Jared Cook figure to provide immediate upgrades. While I applaud the Rams for selecting Tavon Austin, Percy Harvin will be a better football player in Week 1, and perhaps for a long time. The Rams arguably lost ground to the Seahawks at wide receiver in the short term this offseason even though they upgraded the talent level.

I would have ranked the Rams' defensive line higher than Williamson ranked it. But I also see his point about Seattle having superior quality depth at the position.

The No. 3 ranking for Jeff Fisher among NFC West head coaches seems too low. Fisher did get the better of Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, in my view. He did more with less. Williamson gave Harbaugh and Carroll credit for their team building, not just their on-field coaching. Fisher hasn't had enough time to measure up in that category, but he is well on his way after acquiring those first-round picks from Washington last offseason.

In the end, we know the 49ers and Seahawks are good. We think the Rams are going to be good, and we respect the way they represented themselves in NFC West play last season. If we were to replace the numerical rankings in the chart with arrows pointing up, down or sideways, the Rams would come out better. We chose another course and there was simply less projecting to do when ranking more established rivals.
Our post-draft amendments to pre-draft positional rankings continue with Matt Williamson, NFL scout for ESPN.com.

Up next: safeties.

NFC West teams drafted two of them, both in the first three rounds: Eric Reid to the San Francisco 49ers with the 18th overall choice, and T.J. McDonald to the St. Louis Rams (71st overall). The Arizona Cardinals used the 69th choice for Tyrann Mathieu, a slot cornerback they plan to use at safety in some situations.

We pick up the conversation there.

Sando: NFC West teams will have turned over five of eight starting positions at safety this offseason. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor remain in Seattle. Donte Whitner remains in place with the 49ers. Teams from this division picked up two potential Week 1 starters in the draft, but I notice you haven't changed the overall order for the position.

Williamson: Seattle is No. 1 by far. San Francisco is a pretty clear No. 2.

Sando: The 49ers and Rams were naturally excited about the safeties they drafted. Analysts on the outside seemed underwhelmed. That was my perception, anyway.

Williamson: I thought that was early to take Reid, but if you look at the top safeties, he is the true free safety of the group, which is what they needed. They felt like they had to get their guy. And if Craig Dahl is your three, that is not terrible. McDonald is not enough to get the Rams out of the cellar. Look at all their safeties and I can't say any of them is a really good player. I like Darian Stewart. He is serviceable. I hope McDonald is serviceable.

Sando: The Cardinals talked about playing Mathieu at weak safety, but I'm thinking we'll notice him most as a slot corner. Steve Keim, the Cardinals' general manager, recently compared Mathieu to Antoine Winfield, suggesting both get more than most from their physical abilities.

Williamson: I think Mathieu is more of a corner, but it depends what they say. His best role is a slot corner. That isn’t a starter, so if they are looking at him as one of their four best DBs, then he will be a free safety in their base package. Then he is equal parts. If the fifth guy in is a safety and Mathieu walks down to slot corner, then I don't know what we label him, but I guess it is a safety. That is one more more reason to give the safety edge to Arizona over St. Louis. Mathieu is a better football player than McDonald, and Arizona was ahead of St. Louis at safety to begin with.

Sando: That's going to wrap up this series, Matt. Thanks for running through all the positions the first time and then revisiting select ones after the draft. We've heard from some fans upset to see their team ranked fourth at a specific position, but sometimes there's very little separation from one to four. This is also a tough division. The fourth-best defensive line in the NFC West could still be among the better ones anywhere.

Williamson: No doubt about it. This is going to be a highly competitive division for years to come.
Our post-draft amendments to pre-draft positional rankings continue with Matt Williamson, NFL scout for ESPN.com.

Up next: linebackers.

NFC West teams drafted six of them if we count the San Francisco 49ers' Corey Lemonier and the Arizona Cardinals' Alex Okafor as 3-4 outside linebackers, which we will do for the purposes of this exercise. We probably should have counted Seattle Seahawks seventh-rounder Ty Powell with the defensive linemen given that he projects to the "Leo" position, but there is some crossover with the linebackers as well.

The six draftees: Alec Ogletree (30th overall pick) to the St. Louis Rams; Kevin Minter (45th) and Okafor (103rd) to the Cardinals; Lemonier (88th) and Nick Moody (180th) to the 49ers; and Powell (231st) to the Seahawks.

Matt and I pick up the conversation from there.

Sando: I see you're keeping the rankings at linebacker in the same order even though the Rams added a potentially dynamic player at the position in Ogletree.

Williamson: The 49ers have to stay No. 1, of course. They have the best linebackers in the league and they added Lemonier. He is a fast, long, skinny edge guy who doesn’t hold up real well against big guys. He gets off the ball well, not real fluid, doesn't change direction great, but beats you with speed and eats up space with long strides. A good looking prospect.

Sando: The race for No. 2 has to be closer after this draft.

Williamson:
Those three are pretty close now. You look at the Rams vs. Seattle. I look at two of the Rams' three starters as being strong, even Pro Bowl types now. James Laurinaitis and Ogletree vs. Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. I would give the edge to Seattle because I think Wagner is the best of the bunch and we do not yet know whether Ogletree will be a Pro Bowl-type player.

Sando: The Cardinals are fourth?

Williamson: It’s not easy. Minter compliments Daryl Washington extremely well. He is a real heady, tough guy and a leader. He stuffs the run better than average and looks like a two-down player who could possibly play more than that. I could see him on the field as an every-down guy while Washington is suspended. Ideally, though, he comes off. Washington is a total stud if he can stay out of trouble. Those two could form one of the better inside linebacker pairings in the league, but I still put them four.

Sando: It gets back to what you think of their outside linebackers.

Williamson: We have to operate under the assumption Arizona is a 3-4 team and they are still light as 3-4 outside linebackers. Nobody there scares me. They have a bunch of No. 2s. I liked Okafor as a late-second or third-round prospect, but not as a real difference maker. If you are going to be a 3-4 team, your outside linebackers are still a negative.

Sando: There is some uncertainty as to how the Cardinals are going to tweak this defense. It really could be more of a 4-3.

Williamson: If they trend to a 4-3, two of their three starters are very strong, like with the Seahawks and Ramss. If we pretend Seattle, St. Louis and Arizona all line up in a base 4-3, each would have two really good starters. I would rank those players in order as Washington, Wagner, Laurinaitis and Wright, then Ogletree and Minter. All six could go to the Pro Bowl, although it is a stretch to say that with Minter right now.

Sando: Earning league-wide honors as a linebacker from the NFC is tough duty. The 49ers had four linebackers earn spots on the Associated Press All-Pro teams last season. Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman were first-team selections. Ahmad Brooks was a second-team choice. The Cardinals' Washington was a second-team choice. I noticed you left off the Rams' Jo-Lonn Dunbar when listing the six non-49ers linebackers you liked.

Williamson: I like Dunbar -- not a ton, but he is serviceable. That position is not a hole for them.

Sando: We alluded to some uncertainty with how the Cardinals will play defense. I think Seattle is in transition at linebacker to some degree as well. The Seahawks appear likely to give Cliff Avril and possibly Bruce Irvin work at strong-side linebacker, in which case Wright would shift to the weak side. We'll have a better idea what Seattle and Arizona have in mind once training camps get going.
Our post-draft amendments to pre-draft positional rankings continue with Matt Williamson, NFL scout for ESPN.com.

Up next: defensive linemen.

NFC West teams drafted four of them if we count the San Francisco 49ers' Corey Lemonier and the Arizona Cardinals' Alex Okafor as 3-4 outside linebackers, which we will do for the purposes of this exercise.

The four draftees: Tank Carradine (40th overall choice) and Quinton Dial (157th) to the 49ers; and Jordan Hill (87th) and Jesse Williams (137th) to the Seattle Seahawks.

Williamson moved up the 49ers from fourth to second in his defensive line rankings following the draft. Seattle remains No. 1. The St. Louis Rams and Cardinals each dropped one spot to accommodate the 49ers' rise.

Then as now, the rankings are close. There's no shame in having the fourth-best line in the NFC West. We pick up the conversation from there.

Williamson: I love Tank Carradine. Dial, the kid from Alabama, is a worthy addition. Carradine seemed like a really curious fit to me at first because I thought of him more as an outside linebacker, an edge player. But people were calling me out during our draft chat and saying he is going to be a defensive end for them.

Sando: Yeah, Carradine is in that 275-pound range. Justin Smith and Ray McDonald were in that range, and they projected to defensive end with the 49ers. All 3-4s are not the same and we know defensive coordinator Vic Fangio likes an active defensive front.

Williamson: Smith and McDonald are not a whole lot different. The 49ers' defensive ends aren't like Aaron Smith was in Pittsburgh. Justin Smith was 4-3 end. I buy that, but I also think like we talked about before, it wouldn't blow me away if we saw more 4-3 from them.

Sando: Yeah, when they added Glenn Dorsey, the first thought was that he would be best suited in a 4-3 defense, not a 3-4. And I know the 49ers move around their guys up front. I know they play with a four-man line a decent percentage of the time.

Williamson: They don't have the pure nose on the team any more. We will see more multiple fronts, which gets more bodies involved. One problem with that defense is they played only 12 guys, 13 guys most of the time. That hurts them late in the season with too many people worn down.

Sando: That was the case late last season. It's why the 49ers addressed their front seven more than they addressed their cornerback situation. They think the corners can be fine if the front is healthy and deeper. Shifting gears, you left Seattle at No. 1 along the line. The Seahawks also added two defensive linemen in this draft.

Williamson: Jesse Williams can be a great player. If his knee had checked out better, I had him penciled in for the 49ers in the first round. Hill is a shorter guy, a leverage and quickness player. I'm not sure they really have anyone else like him. Brandon Mebane is bigger and stronger. Hill plays the Mebane position or is just an interior pass-rusher. I think Hill is an energy guy. Get him out there 20-30 snaps a game. He is like a curveball. You're used to playing against power with Mebane and then they change it up. Mebane would be much stouter.

Sando: Hill was drafted before Williams, but he's getting a lot less attention.

Williamson: Williams is the wild card of this draft. On tape, he is a later first-round player. Big, really strong, moves really well. There have to be legitimate concerns about his health, but we don't always find out the extent of those before the draft. Every year, guys fall two or three rounds further than they should. We sit there saying all these teams should take Jesse Williams, but then after a while, something must be wrong with Jesse Williams.

Sando: The Seahawks did not sound concerned, but teams don't really express concerns on draft day, either.

Williamson: Alabama plays a 3-4 and Williams was a defensive end for them when they had Josh Chapman. He can play all over the line. He played the nose, but he is not a Casey Hampton. He can be Red Bryant, but he could also be Alan Branch and maybe Mebane, too.

Sando: The Rams and Cardinals did not draft defensive linemen given that we're counting Okafor at linebacker for now. The Cardinals said they could add a defensive tackle in free agency. Some in the media have linked them to Sedrick Ellis.

Williamson: If they do sign Ellis, that is yet another indication we’ll see more 4-3 there as well. The guys they are adding are not true 3-4 guys. Calais Campbell can do both. Darnell Dockett is better in a 4-3. Frostee Rucker and Matt Shaughnessy don't really have 3-4 experience. They are better as 4-3 ends. Okafor can be as much 3-4 outside linebacker as 4-3 end if Campbell is your heavier 4-3 end, Dockett is your three-technique and then Dan Williams or Ellis would be your one-technique. Okafor would be your open-side guy.

Sando: The scheme uncertainties in Arizona could lead us to revisit the rankings as we learn more and get a better feel for how specific players fit.
Our post-draft amendments to pre-draft positional rankings continue with Matt Williamson, NFL scout for ESPN.com.

Up next: offensive lines.

NFC West teams drafted seven players at the position: guards Jonathan Cooper (seventh overall pick) and Earl Watford (116th) to the Arizona Cardinals; interior lineman Barrett Jones (113th) to the St. Louis Rams; guard Ryan Seymour (220th), defensive tackle-turned-guard Jared Smith (241st) and tackle Michael Bowie (242nd) to the Seattle Seahawks; and tackle Carter Bykowski (246th) to the San Francisco 49ers.

We pick up the conversation there.

Sando: The 49ers were a clear No. 1 in your rankings before the draft.

Williamson: They still are, and I'm not going to change the order from before the draft, but there is a lot to discuss at the position.

Sando: I promise we'll change the order for one of these post-draft rankings pieces.

Williamson: I think Arizona's offensive line is much improved from a year ago, much improved from before the draft, but I still have to keep them at No. 4. I think the Rams have improved too.

Sando: A day or so before the draft, Cooper suddenly became a popular projection to Arizona with the seventh pick, ahead of the other top guard, Chance Warmack. Either way, the Cardinals had their choice of guards in the draft.

Williamson: I love the Cooper pick. Guard was a bigger need than tackle. I thought they would go with Warmack because Bruce Arians has a history with huge and powerful linemen, downhill guys. It shows us how the league is going that so many of these linemen that got picked so high are good athletes. The days of the fat-guy linemen, the slow-footed maulers, are going by the wayside.

Sando: Cooper was seen as the more mobile of the guards relative to Warmack. He makes the Cardinals more athletic up front. Better yet, his selection prevents us from saying any longer that the Cardinals did not select an offensive lineman in the first three rounds since the 2007 draft. Finally, we can put to bed that reminder and focus on things such as ... just how athletic Cooper appears to be.

Williamson: All these teams are implementing up-tempo offenses. You can't have the offensive linemen huffing and puffing as the fattest guys out on the field. Cooper is the better pick over Warmack. They are equal prospects, but very different. Carson Palmer isn't getting out of the way of any interior rush. Cooper should be better in protection. Cardinals fans might not want to hear it, but Cooper might have been the best pick in the whole draft for their team. He does more for them than Luke Joeckel or Eric Fisher.

Sando: We saw the Cardinals and Rams take offensive linemen in the fourth rounds. Of the two, the Rams' pick, Jones, would appear to have the clearest path to a starting job. He could factor at left guard. He could also project as a future center. At the very least, Jones should back up multiple spots.

Williamson: If you are an offensive lineman and you are tough and smart and that is all you can be, you'll probably play 10 years in the league. That is Jones. He's a typical Alabama guy who has gotten the crap beaten out of him for four years, but he is smart as hell, he will play three positions and maybe even get you through a game at left tackle.

Sando: What do you think of the Rams' line overall with Jake Long, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl and Rodger Saffold?

Williamson: They've got some nasty guys. Dahl is nasty, Jones is nasty, Wells has some of that, Long has some of that. Jeff Fisher is looking for a big, physical, nasty group that will take a shot or two after the whistle. They have gone finesse elsewhere on their roster, but not on the offensive line. Most teams are looking for speed and athletes on the line, but the Rams are going for nasty.

Sando: Seattle wants to play that way as well. The Seahawks drafted more offensive linemen than any team in the division, but each was a seventh-round selection. Bowie could be an interesting tackle prospect. Russell Okung helped recruit him to Oklahoma State, but Bowie violated team rules, left the program and wound up at Northeastern (Okla.) State. Smith projects as another J.R. Sweezy-type conversion project for Seattle line coach Tom Cable. The 49ers could use a swing tackle and took a candidate in the seventh round. But the Cardinals were the only NFC West team to address the line in a serious way.
Our post-draft amendments to pre-draft positional rankings continue with Matt Williamson, NFL scout for ESPN.com.

Up next: wide receivers.

NFC West teams drafted five of them: Tavon Austin (eighth overall pick) and Stedman Bailey (92nd) to the St. Louis Rams, Chris Harper (123rd) to the Seattle Seahawks, Quinton Patton (128th) to the San Francisco 49ers and Ryan Swope to the Arizona Cardinals (174th).

We pick up the conversation there.

Sando: Matt, you had Arizona first last time, followed by Seattle, San Francisco and St. Louis. What has changed?

Williamson: I have to keep the order the same for now, but it's harder now. Swope would have been a much higher pick without the concussion problems. His timing for being eligible is terrible, but I keep Arizona No. 1 for sure. Nobody got better enough to take the top spot. Michael Floyd is a really good player. Larry Fitzgerald is a stud. Andre Roberts, you could do way worse than him for a No. 3 and Swope might even challenge him.

Sando: Swope ran 40 yards in the 4.3-second range at the NFL scouting combine. He is 6 feet tall and about 200 pounds. The speed he brings gives the Cardinals something they didn't really have previously. That is something I like about the way NFC West teams drafted wide receivers. Harper gave Seattle a 230-pound presence. Austin gave St. Louis arguably the most electric player in college football last season.

Williamson: The Rams might be going back to their Greatest Show on Turf days. They got so much faster over the weekend. They are a dome team. That is interesting in two regards. The team has had success in the past being fast and multiple on both sides of the ball. Remember, Alec Ogletree is fast, too. But they compete against the two most physical teams in the whole league. Is that the approach to take as the third-best team in the division? Seattle and San Francisco are bangers. You are fighting Tyson here. But the receiver moves were very Sam Bradford friendly.

Sando: One worst-case scenario from a Rams standpoint during the draft was that the team might stay in the 16th overall slot, miss out on Austin and draft a receiver just to draft a receiver. The fact that they moved up to get Austin, then recouped picks in the move back with their second first-round choice gave them the best of both worlds, to a degree.

Williamson: They can use Austin in a lot of ways. Bailey is very NFL ready and they got him with one of the picks they received in the trade with the Atlanta Falcons. They did well.

Sando: Receiver is one of those positions in the division where the gap between No. 1 and No. 4 isn't nearly as much as it was a while back.

Williamson: Yeah, I'll keep the Rams No. 4 for now. They don't have a Percy Harvin or a Larry Fitzgerald. They might not even have a Michael Crabtree in that group yet, and maybe Anquan Boldin would be the best receiver in St. Louis right now. But we will revisit this one.

Sando: No question. The Rams are so different. As we discussed on the blog earlier, they are replacing 46.9 percent of their offensive snaps from last season. And that assumes every returning offensive player still with the team remains on the team.

Williamson: The line is better. They have weapons. This really could be Bradford's make-or-break year.
Matt Williamson, NFL scout for ESPN.com, is back with post-draft thoughts regarding the recently published NFC West positional rankings.

We won't cover every position. Some haven't changed enough. But with the four NFC West teams combining to draft six running backs, Matt and I will begin the discussion there.

Sando: We figured the St. Louis Rams would draft a running back. They ranked fourth at the position in your pre-draft rankings. I was not expecting the Seattle Seahawks to pad their top-ranked backfield with second-round choice Christine Michael and sixth-rounder Spencer Ware. No one can say they reached for need.

Williamson: I really like Michael. He and [San Francisco 49ers fourth-round pick] Marcus Lattimore were the best backs in the draft, I thought. They just have massive red flags.

Sando: To review, Michael was suspended for violating team rules, supposedly overslept at the NFL scouting combine and fell out of favor with the new coaching staff at Texas A&M. Lattimore remains perhaps a year away from playing after suffering a gruesome knee injury while at South Carolina.

Williamson: I thought it was odd for Seattle to draft a back that early. My first thought was that they must think Marshawn Lynch is starting to break down. But he certainly isn't showing it. Look at the Seahawks at this point. It's like my dad. What do you buy him for Christmas? He has everything. Just take what is available.

Sando: And then Seattle followed that up with another back. The Seahawks are saying Ware can project as a fullback and special-teams contributor. Perhaps he replaces Michael Robinson some day.

Williamson: Ware is a very good runner, though. Those LSU backs are hard to gauge because nobody gets enough carries. Stevan Ridley was a third-round pick and everyone was like, "Who?" Ware is a banger. He reminds me a lot of Chris Ivory moreso than a fullback.

Sando: So, I take it the rankings aren't changing for running backs, at least at the top.

Williamson: The Seahawks are still No. 1 and the 49ers are No. 2. Arizona stays third and St. Louis fourth. San Francisco is the perfect team for Lattimore. Nobody is shocked he went there. They've got three guys ahead of him. There is no rush. But Frank Gore is not long for the league. They don't have a lot of other needs.

Sando: We haven't covered Zac Stacy yet. He could wind up playing more than Michael and certainly more than Lattimore this coming season. The Rams needed a power back.

Williamson: I liked Stacy too. Everyone thinks of him as a little guy because he's 5-foot-8, but he is powerful, he gets downhill, he doesn't screw around. It wouldn't blow me away if he led the team in carries. He looks every bit of 215 pounds.

Sando: In Arizona, I'm not taking anything for granted as to how the team plans to play its backs. Mendenhall and Williams have to show they can stay healthy. The Cardinals drafted Stepfan Taylor at No. 140, 20 spots before the Rams took Stacy. But I'm not sure how much they'll ask him to play as a rookie. Arizona also added Andre Ellington in the sixth round. The overall depth appears much improved, at least.

Williamson: It's interesting that Arizona added two backs. They lost two and added three this offseason. With Mendenhall and Williams, you are happy if one of these two is always healthy. The Cardinals are going to be a lot better on their offensive line, which should help all the backs.

Sando: We'll revisit the lines and other positions as the week progresses.

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