A strong argument could be made that the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. In fact, there were three teams that held winning records. Seattle was 13-3 while securing the top seed in the NFC, San Francisco finished 12-4 while securing a wild-card spot and the Cardinals were on the outside looking in despite an impressive turnaround from last year and getting to 10-6. In addition, the Rams were able hold things together with a 7-9 record, despite the loss of quarterback Sam Bradford, and they have a bright future as a young and talented roster continues to gain experience.
With that said, here is a look at the positions and prospects each team could be targeting in the final division of our league-wide series the past two weeks. As usual, draft-eligible non-seniors are denoted with an asterisk.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (10-6)
Draft Position: No. 20 overall
Needs: Offensive tackle, outside linebacker, cornerback
The Cardinals were much improved along the offensive line this year even without their 2013 first-round pick, guard Jonathan Cooper, who missed his entire rookie season because of a broken leg suffered in the preseason. While Arizona did well to cut down their sacks total from 2012, where they gave up a league-worst 58 sacks, they still allowed 41 sacks on the year and there is a need to upgrade the offensive tackle position. In addition, RT Eric Winston is slated to become a free agent in March.
If general manager Steve Keim elects to address the position in the back half of the first round, Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio, Notre Dame's Zack Martin and Virginia's Morgan Moses could all be in the mix. While on Day 2, Ohio State's Jack Mewhort, Tennessee's Ja'Wuan James and Miami's Seantrel Henderson could all be viable options.
On the defensive side, there is a need to find another young outside linebacker and add some depth to the cornerback position. OLB John Abraham is coming off another productive season (11.5 sacks), but he is scheduled to be a free agent in 2015 and will be 37 years old then. Missouri's Kony Ealy and Clemson's Vic Beasley could be in the mix in the first round while Texas' Jackson Jeffcoat and South Florida's Aaron Lynch would be fits on Day 2.
Arizona is set to have three reserve cornerbacks hit the free-agent market in Antoine Cason, Javier Arenas and Bryan McCann. FS Tyrann Mathieu, who injured his knee late in the season, has experience at cornerback but has been very productive at safety and at the nickel, so adding a cornerback here makes sense. Options in the first round could include Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard. If electing to wait until Day 2, Florida's Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy along with TCU's Jason Verrett could all be in play.
Finally, QB Carson Palmer is near the end of his career and will be 36 years old when his contract expires in 2016. Don't be surprised if the Cardinals elect to draft a developmental quarterback to try and groom as Palmer's replacement. Arizona will be looking for a bigger quarterback who can push the ball vertically in head coach Bruce Arians' system. LSU's Zach Mettenberger, Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas and Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo could be strong fits in the Day 2 range. Thomas is the most intriguing, as Arizona would be an ideal situation for him. He has one of the highest ceilings of any quarterback in this class, and taking a few years to refine his skill set without having the pressure to play right away would serve him very well.
OTs: Kouandjio*, Martin, Moses, Mewhort, James, Henderson, Clemson's Brandon Thomas
OLBs: Ealy*, Beasley*, Jeffcoat, Lynch*,
DBs: Gilbert, Dennard, Roberson*, Purifoy*, Verrett, Virginia Tech's Antone Exum
ST. LOUIS RAMS (7-9)
Draft Position: Nos. 2 and 13
Needs: Offensive tackle, safeties, strong-side linebacker
The Rams once again are in great shape from the 2011 RG III trade with Washington. St. Louis holds the Redskins' pick, No. 2 overall this May (the final of the three first-round picks they received in the trade). Interesting enough, the Rams are again sitting in prime position to potentially move back and acquire more picks, which is something general manager Les Snead has been masterful at the past two drafts. The Rams are the only team in the top five that don't have a pressing need for a quarterback or a pass-rusher such as South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, a position and a player teams will be coveting.
If the Rams do elect to hold on to the pick, Texas A&M OT Jake Matthews makes sense here. Matthews fills a pressing need, and at this point, appears to be the clear-cut No. 1 offensive tackle, although Auburn's Greg Robinson could make a push as we get further into his evaluation. Furthermore, Jake Long has dealt with durability issues the past few seasons and continuing to bolster protection for Sam Bradford, who will return from a season-ending knee injury this year, makes sense here.
The Rams could also go value here and take a player such as Clowney if they are comfortable with his character and believe he is an elite talent while addressing offensive tackle with pick No. 13. DE certainly isn't a pressing need with Robert Quinn and Chris Long locked up for the next two years, but adding Clowney to the mix would instantly give the Rams a scary pass-rushing front line.
Finally, don't count out UCLA's Anthony Barr from being in the mix, whether they take him at No. 2 or move back a few slots and take him. With SLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar and backup Will Witherspoon set to hit free agency, Barr has the length and athleticism to fill the void while also adding another pass-rushing element to the mix.
Whichever way St. Louis goes at No. 2 will dictate the direction they take at 13. Michigan's Taylor Lewan or Kouandjio could be in the mix here if they don't address the offensive line with their first pick. While Buffalo OLB Khalil Mack would be a great fit and bring strong value if still on the board at 13, Alabama's C.J. Mosley could also be in the mix at this point.
Finally, the Rams will also be on the lookout to add a playmaker at the safety position. Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could be an option at No. 13, while in the second round, Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner's versatility and knack for coming up with big plays would be appealing. If St. Louis elects to wait until later, Western Kentucky's Jonathan Dowling and Florida State's Terrence Brooks may be viable options in early Day 3 range.
OT: Matthews, Robinson*, Lewan, Kouandjio*, Notre Dame's Zack Martin, West Virginia's Curt Feigt
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (12-4)
Draft Position: Between Nos. 25-32 (to be determined by playoffs)
Needs: Wide receiver, cornerback, defensive line
The 49ers have a strong pair of possession-type receivers in Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree. Boldin is slated to be a free agent and general manager Trent Baalke must make a decision on whether to bring back the 33-year-old who is still giving strong production. Even if the 49ers do bring Boldin back, there is still a need to add a true vertical threat to accommodate QB Colin Kaepernick's strong arm and stretch the field.
Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin and potentially Penn State's Allen Robinson (who still needs a full evaluation) could be viable options in the late-first-round range. LSU's Odell Beckham, Clemson's Martavis Bryant and Rutgers' Brandon Coleman would be nice fits in the Day 2 range. Bryant is very interesting and we still need to do a full evaluation on him, but he has loose hips, an extra gear and a very wide catching radius. He comes with some drops and a little bit of baggage, but his game resembles that of the late Chris Henry from the Cincinnati Bengals.
On defense, San Francisco may look to find help in the secondary at the cornerback position. CBs Tarell Brown and Eric Wright are slated to be free agents, and decisions will need to be made on keeping them. Chris Culliver should return next season from a preseason knee injury that kept him out this year, but his play has been up and down and his contract expires in 2015. A few options who would be strong fits early on include Dennard, Roberson and Ohio State's Bradley Roby.
Finally, the 49ers could do well to infuse some youth along the defensive line. DE Justin Smith is still playing at a high level but will be turning 35 years old at the start of next season. Adding a space eater to help protect ILBs NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, but who can also dial up some pass rush makes sense here. Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt would be a strong fit here, while Virginia's Brent Urban and Oregon's Taylor Hart could be options later on.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (13-3)
Draft Position: Between Nos. 25-32 (to be determined by playoffs)
Needs: Wide receiver, offensive line, cornerback
The Seahawks will likely be in the market to add a playmaking target for QB Russell Wilson. WR Golden Tate will be an unrestricted free agent and Doug Baldwin will be a restricted free agent. While Percy Harvin, who Seattle traded last year's first- and seventh-round picks along with this year's third-rounder to Minnesota for, has played in just one game this season while dealing with a hip injury. When healthy, Harvin is one of the most electric playmakers, but durability has been an issue for him, and adding another quality receiver to the mix makes sense here.
Seattle will have few options late in the first round that include Benjamin, Robinson or Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews, and even Oregon State's Brandin Cooks would be a nice fit. That said, it appears to be turning into a very deep receiver class and the Seahawks could find a great value in the second round with LSU's Jarvis Landry and Fresno State's Davante Adams. Also, don't rule out a tight end here as an option, as this year's class has ample talent at the top.
In addition to finding a few weapons, general manager John Schneider may also look to bolster the offensive line to improve protection for Wilson. This unit struggled toward the end of the season and their 44 sacks allowed ranked 13th overall. In addition, RT Breno Giacomini and LG Paul McQuistan are set to be unrestricted free agents. Infusing young talent makes sense here and there could be a few offensive tackles in the mix late in the first round, including Alabama's Kouandjio, Notre Dame's Martin and Virginia's Moses.
If Schneider goes in a different direction in the first round, some options in the second round could include Tennessee's James or Antonio Richardson at tackle, or UCLA's Xavier Su'a-Filo, Baylor's Cyril Richardson and Stanford's David Yankey could be quality fits on the inside at guard.
There are big questions regarding CB Brandon Browner's future with the team. He is currently serving a suspension as a repeat offender of the NFL's substance-abuse policy and will be a free agent this year. In addition, Walter Thurmond is also set to hit the free-agent market and also served a four-game suspension this season for violating the substance-abuse policy. CB Byron Maxwell has stepped in and played well down the stretch, but he is only under contract through 2015.
That said, Schneider could be in the market to add depth with a physical, press-man cornerback. Dennard and Roberson could be fits early on while Utah's Keith McGill would be a viable option later on.
WRs: Benjamin*, Robinson*, Matthews, Cooks*, Landry*, Adams*, South Carolina's Bruce Ellington*
OL: Kouandjio*, Martin, Moses, Su'a-Filo*, Richardson, Yankey, Penn State OG John Urschel
DCs: Dennard, Roberson*, McGill, Liberty's Walter Aiken