The NFC West has been gaining on the two-time defending division champion San Francisco 49ers.
The Seattle Seahawks nearly caught the 49ers in the division race last season before adding Percy Harvin. The St. Louis Rams more than tripled their victory total from 2011 while going 1-0-1 against San Francisco. The Arizona Cardinals will almost certainly get better after acquiring quarterback Carson Palmer.
The 49ers, with arguably the NFL's strongest roster and best coaching staff, had nowhere to go but down. How general manager Trent Baalke used the 49ers' NFL-high 13 draft choices was going to be critical for the 49ers to maintain their standing atop the NFC West.
"Trent Baalke has to be on his 'A' game," coach Jim Harbaugh had said. "This could make you. You could be the next Bill Polian, the next Ozzie Newsome. It all hinges on this draft. So, it's exciting."
So, how did Baalke do? With all those picks and relatively few openings in the lineup, Baalke needed to be aggressive. He needed to move up for specific players when appropriate and parlay picks into 2014 capital.
Baalke did those things. He moved up 13 spots to select LSU safety Eric Reid with the 18th overall pick. There's more than one way to judge whether the 49ers fared well in getting the 18th pick from Dallas for the 31st and 74th selections. A rival executive told me he thought the 49ers got a great deal. In 1995, Jacksonville packaged the 31st, 97th and 134th picks with a future fourth-rounder to acquire No. 19 -- a higher price.
The 49ers had the capital to move around the board and target needs. San Francisco addressed its top three needs with its top three picks, landing a safety (Reid), defensive lineman (Tank Carradine) and tight end (Vance McDonald). Baalke acquired a 2014 third-rounder from Tennessee as well.
So, the 49ers got what they wanted now while planning for the future with that 2014 pick and Marcus Lattimore, the running back they hope can contribute in 2014. Carradine could be needed to take over for Justin Smith in another year. The 49ers added receiver Quinton Patton in the fourth round -- no big deal, perhaps, but with a decision on Michael Crabtree's contract looming, insurance at that position made sense longer term as well.
There were a few worthy candidates. A double move the St. Louis Rams pulled off in the first round stands out. We cannot say with any certainty whether the players St. Louis or any team selected will become outstanding ones, but we can evaluate the process, at least. The Rams had more at stake in the first round than any team in the NFC West. Their thinking and execution through that portion of the draft appeared sound.
Moving up eight spots to select wide receiver Tavon Austin delivered to St. Louis the skill that player evaluators were most excited about in this draft. The cost was high, however, and the Rams had lots of needs. Their move to recoup picks by trading back eight spots to No. 30 with their other first-round selection gave them the best of both worlds.
The Rams entered this draft with eight total picks and what seemed to be primary needs at safety, receiver, guard and outside linebacker. They needed depth at corner, too.
Sending the 16th, 46th, 78th and 222nd picks to the Buffalo Bills for the eighth and 71st picks left the Rams with just six selections in the draft. That wasn't going to be enough for coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead to build sufficient depth. But with Snead having come to the Rams from Atlanta, the second-year GM put to use his relationship with Falcons counterpart Thomas Dimitroff, restoring needed picks to St. Louis.
The Rams then sent the 22nd overall choice and a 2015 seventh-rounder to the Falcons for the 30th, 92nd and 198th choices. That left St. Louis with its original pick count, eight, and the same number of first-rounders. Note that the picks St. Louis wound up using in the first round -- Nos. 8 and 30 -- averaged out to the picks the Rams held originally (16 and 22).
The Rams emerged from the first round with the first skill-position player selected and the first 4-3 outside linebacker selected.
Risk can be good sometimes, and I'd say the Arizona Cardinals made a calculated one by using their third-round choice for Tyrann Mathieu, the LSU defensive back Bill Polian had called a "poor teammate and a poor risk" during ESPN's draft coverage. Polian, a six-time NFL executive of the year, made those comments before the Cardinals selected Mathieu (Polian and Cardinals coach Bruce Arians worked together in Indianapolis years ago).
Mathieu, nicknamed "Honey Badger" for his aggressive coverage tactics, had been kicked off the team at LSU for violating substance-abuse rules. He had admitted to having a problem eliminating marijuana use from his life. A strong endorsement from Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson helped Arizona feel better about selecting Mathieu. The two starred together at LSU and are looking forward to reuniting.
"We will probably start him at weak safety and then with our defense, with the way it’s structured, he can slide into the slot as a free safety -- basically playing with three corners, but one of them is also a safety," Arians said. "He gives that flexibility where we wouldn’t have to substitute."
Mathieu said he'll submit to regular testing, counseling or anything else the Cardinals might have in mind. He sounded sincere.
Meanwhile, general manager Steve Keim pointed to strong leadership in the Cardinals' locker room as another reason the team might be able to keep Mathieu on the right side of the NFL's policies. Keim singled out Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and Daryl Washington as players "you feel can help keep some structure in place."
Those players might indeed serve as fine leaders. However, the Cardinals did reportedly levy a six-figure fine against Dockett for insubordination last season. Washington is scheduled to serve a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
"We made two selections, our first two selections, with guys that have impeccable character," Keim said of Jonathan Cooper and Kevin Minter. "You don't want to build your locker room of 53 players with risk.
"If you feel like you have a strong core of solid veteran leaders -- guys like Dockett, Calais Campbell, Daryl Washington -- who you feel can help keep some structure in place, I think that you have a chance to occasionally take a risk. That's if you have that instinct or that gut feeling that this player is committed to making a change."
MOST SURPRISING MOVE
The Seattle Seahawks used the last choice of the second round to select running back Christine Michael even though the depth chart was stacked with Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin, both of whom are signed for the long term.
The Seahawks did not have glaring needs entering this draft. They had flexibility to make a move such as this one. They also had an opening at running back after releasing Leon Washington. Unlike Washington, however, Michael doesn't factor as an explosive kickoff returner. He doesn't qualify as a change-of-pace back. He would seem to give the Seahawks more of the power running they already have in abundance.
The most surprising move in the division could still be a good one. As coach Pete Carroll pointed out, the team used a third-round choice for quarterback Russell Wilson last year shortly after signing Matt Flynn to a three-year, $19.5 million deal. The team found a starting quarterback when no one thought it needed one.
FILE IT AWAY
The landscape at running back continues to change in the NFC West. Every team in the division selected at least one in this draft.
The clock ticks loudly for older backs in the NFL.
Steven Jackson was one established back to depart the NFC West this offseason, leaving the Rams in free agency after eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for the team.
St. Louis traded into the fifth round to select Vanderbilt's Zac Stacy, a power back standing 5-foot-8 and weighing 216 pounds. Stacy will join Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson in the committee setup Jackson resisted.
Frank Gore's time with the San Francisco 49ers is not yet up. He remains effective and hasn't shown obvious signs of slowing. He's one of the most productive and respected players on the team. He also turns 30 next month, a bad number for running backs.
The 49ers used a 2011 fourth-round pick for Kendall Hunter and a 2012 second-rounder for LaMichael James before using a 2013 fourth-rounder for South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore. The team is preparing for life without Gore.
The Cardinals already released 2009 first-round pick Beanie Wells. They signed Rashard Mendenhall before drafting Stanford career rushing leader Stepfan Taylor in the fifth round and another back, Andre Ellington of Clemson, in the sixth.
Michael's addition in Seattle wouldn't appear to change much over the next year or two. I wonder what it says, if anything, about the team's faith in Lynch holding up through the remainder of his contract, which runs through 2015.
Seattle added another running back, Spencer Ware of LSU, late in the sixth round.