You are here
Home > Sports > Barnwell’s NFC West report cards: 49ers’ rebuild on schedule?

Barnwell’s NFC West report cards: 49ers’ rebuild on schedule?

It’s time to reflect on the 2017 offseason. There are a few stray veterans left in the free-agent pool, and teams could still execute something unexpected if injuries arise, but organizations have mostly closed their checkbooks and built the rosters they will take onto the field in September.

Of course, we can know only so much right now. This time last year, there was no way anybody knew that the Cowboys had drafted a franchise quarterback. Kyle Shanahan was lucky to survive the offseason in Atlanta as an offensive coordinator, let alone be considering head-coaching roles.

At the same time, we can look at what each team’s goals were (or should have been) heading into March and gain a sense of whether teams did enough to address those concerns. In most cases, we also can plot what they have to do before Week 1.

It’s time for our last divisional breakdown (see above for links to the others). Let’s head to the NFC West, where everyone is still chasing the Seahawks.

To go directly to your favorite team, click the link below:

Cardinals | Rams | 49ers | Seahawks


What Went Right

They re-signed Chandler Jones. The Cardinals were exceedingly likely to hold on to Jones, but there’s a huge difference between franchising their star pass-rusher and signing him for years to come. Even better, the deal they signed him to is actually reasonable, given what other edge rushers are getting. Jones racked up $51 million over the first three years of his new contract. That’s $1 million less than interior penetrator Kawann Short got in the first three years of his deal and narrowly more than the $49.3 million Jason Pierre-Paul picked up from the Giants. Given that JPP is older, less productive and has far more of an injury history (even without considering the fireworks incident), the Jones deal should be considered a victory for Cardinals general manager Steve Keim.

Carson Palmer is returning. While Palmer, 37, couldn’t follow up his career-best 2015 season, he is still clearly the best quarterback on Arizona’s roster and the only realistic option for a team built to win now. Had Palmer retired, the Cardinals might have been forced to rebuild, given that they would have owed a staggering $30.8 million in dead money on their 2017 cap after extending Palmer last August. Now, if Palmer retires or moves on after this year, Arizona would instead owe $6.6 million in dead money in 2018.

They did a reasonable job of piecing together defensive replacements, given the offseason exodus. The Cardinals were never going to be able to keep their defense together, given that six of their top seven defenders in terms of snap count from last season were unrestricted free agents. They prepared for losing Calais Campbell by drafting Robert Nkemdiche in the first round last year, although Nkemdiche spent most of his rookie year in Bruce Arians’ doghouse. D.J. Swearinger and Marcus Cooper were always likely to leave. The only question was whether the Cardinals would be able to hold on to Tony Jefferson and Kevin Minter. In the end, both left town.

It’s not easy for a defense to replace five starters overnight, but the Cardinals have viable options across the board. Arizona signed Antoine Bethea away from San Francisco, where Bethea was excellent in 2015 before slipping at age 32 last season. He could start next to Tyvon Branch. The Cardinals recruited Karlos Dansby to make his third stint with the team at inside linebacker. Arizona gets more out of these veterans under Arians than just about any other team in the league.

Arizona also took a pair of typically freakish athletes in the top two rounds. Linebacker Haason Reddick and safety Budda Baker are versatile enough to play a variety of spots around a defense. Baker might take over as Arizona’s free safety by the end of the season, and Reddick should combine with Deone Bucannon to give the Cardinals a pair of relentless blitzers capable of holding up in coverage at linebacker on passing downs.

By mostly avoiding free agents who weren’t cut by other teams, the Cardinals also racked up compensatory selections. Arizona is projected to receive the maximum of four compensatory picks in the 2018 draft, including a third-rounder for Campbell and a fourth-rounder for Jefferson.

What Went Wrong

Cornerback is still a major problem. The Cardinals have Patrick Peterson locking down one side of the field, and Tyrann Mathieu is more likely to spend his season back in the slot after being forced to play free safety for long stretches while recovering from his torn ACL last year. When healthy, those are two great cornerbacks.

The third cornerback spot, though, is likely to be the most obvious weakness on Arizona’s defense. The Cardinals started Brandon Williams in the 2016 season opener, only to have the Patriots ruthlessly exploit the third-round rookie in a 23-21 victory. Williams was sent to the bench shortly thereafter. Cooper spent most of the year as the starter, but he left for Chicago in free agency. Special-teams dynamo Justin Bethel has been badly exposed at corner, with Arians calling him a failure in progress.

Williams, Bethel and sixth-round pick Johnathan Ford will be competing for an every-down spot at corner. It would hardly be a surprise to see Keim add a veteran during training camp.

The Cardinals misread the market on tight ends. Jermaine Gresham is a perfectly competent, if not dominant, tight end. He’s spent the past two years in Arizona on one-year deals, earning a total of $6.6 million over that time frame.

After he caught 37 passes for 391 yards and two touchdowns last year, though, the Cardinals locked Gresham up for the long term. In doing so, they spent far too much. Gresham signed a four-year, $28 million deal before free agency opened in March to stay in Arizona, one that offers him $21 million over its first three seasons. That’s identical to what Martellus Bennett picked up from the Packers. Most teams would rather have Bennett, even with his injury concerns.

What’s Next?

Sign John Brown to an extension. With Larry Fitzgerald‘s contract expiring after this season and Michael Floyd released after an alleged DUI, the Cardinals are suddenly awfully thin at wideout. Brown had a lackluster 2016 season, but the team has placed the blame on injuries, most notably a cyst on his spine. If Arizona really thinks Brown will get back on the path to stardom this year when he’s healthier, it would behoove the Cardinals to make him a buy-low offer in the hopes of locking in a discount before he breaks out again this season.

Grade: C+

What Went Right

They made drastic changes to their coaching staff. Jeff Fisher was technically fired before the season ended, but I’m going to lump him in as part of the wholesale changes the Rams made. Teams often (at least anecdotally) try to hire the polar opposite of the head coach they’ve just fired, so it’s no surprise the Rams followed Fisher, a defensive-minded retread with a long history of middling teams, with Sean McVay, a 31-year-old offensive whiz kid taking his first head-coaching job at any level. McVay would be only the third-oldest player on this team, and he’s the youngest head coach in NFL history.

Hiring McVay is a high-risk, high-reward move. Think about the Broncos hiring Josh McDaniels, then 32, and how that revitalized the organization before things fell apart. It’s a welcome risk, given the franchise’s mind-numbing mediocrity over the past half-decade. It’s also worth noting that McVay (and not Kyle Shanahan) was the one who actually presided over Kirk Cousins‘ sudden leap from turnover-prone problem to franchise quarterback in Washington, which could come in handy, given the organization’s investment in 2016 first overall pick Jared Goff.

The Rams also deserve credit for bringing in a veteran to work with McVay, hiring former Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Phillips leaves Denver having led the Broncos to the league’s best DVOA each of the past two seasons. Phillips’ defenses have finished in the top six in DVOA four out of his past five seasons in the league and in the top 10 seven out of the past nine tries. The Rams fell from seventh to 15th in DVOA last year during Gregg Williams’ final year with the team. Phillips should be able to take a defense that often seemed to underachieve and quickly mold it into a dominant unit.

They signed Andrew Whitworth. The Rams kept Goff on the bench during the first half of his rookie season, but when they unleashed him for seven starts, the results were … awful. Pro-Football-Reference.com adjusts quarterback statistics for the era in which they played. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, 53 first-round picks have thrown 200 passes or more during their rookie seasons. Here’s how Goff ranks out of those 53 players in several era-adjusted statistics:

No quarterback since the merger has posted a worse adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A+) in a 200-attempt season than Goff’s mark of 47 last year. Much of it can be blamed on Goff being sacked on an unreal 11.3 percent of his dropbacks last year. Only Russell Wilson, who was playing behind a Swiss cheese line, was pressured more frequently. Getting to play Goff and sack him three times probably tipped the sack title Vic Beasley Jr.’s way.

Part of this is unquestionably Goff’s fault, given that Case Keenum was sacked on only 6.7 percent of his dropbacks over nine starts. It’s also true that the Rams have had a porous offensive line for a while now, having struck out on both high draft picks (Jason Smith, Greg Robinson) and free agents (Jason Brown, Scott Wells, Jake Long). Goff might end up as a failure, but he’s guaranteed to disappoint if the Rams don’t build any infrastructure to support their second-year quarterback. You can’t evaluate a quarterback who expects to run for his life before every snap.

Andrew Whitworth is a bit of an incongruous signing for a team far from contention, given that he’s 35 years old. He also has been one of the best left tackles in football over the past few years, and the only exceptions during that stretch came when he kicked inside to play guard. Whitworth’s three-year, $33.8 million deal can realistically be a one-year, $12.5 million pact, and while there are no guarantees the Rams will somehow manage to get the most out of this offensive lineman, Whitworth is the best chance they have at protecting Goff’s blind side.

What Went Wrong

They didn’t do anything else with the offensive line. The only other addition the Rams made up front was center John Sullivan, who missed all of the 2015 season and took only 98 offensive snaps with McVay in Washington last year. They’re going to shift everyone else around and hope the line sticks, with Rodger Saffold in at left guard, Rob Havenstein moving inside from right tackle to right guard, and the wildly frustrating Robinson shifting from left tackle to right tackle.

Adding Whitworth might not have been enough. The Rams did make a useful buy-low move in signing Connor Barwin after the Eagles released him, but they chose to spend big in adding Bills wideout Robert Woods on a five-year, $34 million deal with $15 million in guarantees. Woods is regarded as one of the best blocking receivers in football, but blocking receivers don’t get paid premiums in free agency, and Woods simply hasn’t been very productive as a wideout. Woods could still improve, given that he’s just 25, but this is money that would have been better served going to offensive line help.

They didn’t lock up Trumaine Johnson. The Rams took some flak last offseason for choosing to retain Johnson, their former third-round pick, as opposed to Janoris Jenkins, who had the best year of his career in New York. While there was nothing wrong with choosing Johnson, the Rams’ plan went sideways when they were unable to re-sign him and were stuck franchising him for a second consecutive season. Johnson will have the second-largest cap hit of any cornerback in the league behind Josh Norman, and his $16.7 million salary only serves to increase the pressure on the Rams.

It’s hard to imagine the Rams justifying a $24 million franchise tag for Johnson next year, so they need to make their move. Johnson reportedly refused to sign a long-term contract with the Saints this offseason, which prevented the Rams from seriously considering a trade that would have sent him to New Orleans for a second-round pick. Adam Schefter’s report suggested Johnson wanted to stick around in Los Angeles for the long term, so it should be possible to make a deal, but the contract hasn’t come together yet. Johnson’s leverage and inflation will allow him to top the $40 million Jenkins got over the first three years of his deal with the Giants.

What’s Next?

Sign Johnson. The Rams are already talking with All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who will probably become the highest-paid defensive player in football the moment he signs an extension to stay in Los Angeles, but there’s no rush in locking him up. Donald is still two years away from free agency, and even if the Rams need to franchise him in 2019, they would owe him something in the range of $24.3 million over the next three seasons. Contrast that with Kawann Short’s new deal, which will pay him $52 million over the next three years. Unless the Rams get a stratospheric discount, it behooves them to wait at least one year before re-signing Donald.

Grade: B-

What Went Right

They fired GM Trent Baalke and made a long-term commitment to a coach and general manager. It’s clear now that the 49ers were brutally wrong in choosing Baalke in a power struggle with head coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh has gone on to excel at Michigan, whereas Baalke presided over two coaches in two years before following Chip Kelly out the door.

After striking out with Baalke and en route to hiring their fourth head coach in four years, the 49ers had to make some level of commitment to the people coming in. No head coach in his right mind would want to take this job without a fair amount of security, given the lack of talent on the roster and the terrifying attrition rate for the head role. Likewise, any general manager was going to need time.

You can take issue with the people Jed York ended up choosing. John Lynch has no experience running a personnel department. Kyle Shanahan was nearly out of an offensive coordinator job this time last year before a stunning season with the Falcons. And yet, at the same time, John Elway has done just fine running football operations for Denver despite a lack of experience as an exec, and it’s often clear we have absolutely no idea what makes for a good head coach.

Shanahan and Lynch both picked up six-year contracts to take over in San Francisco, which is uncommon in the NFL, especially for first-timers. It was also probably the only way the 49ers were able to lure Shanahan away from Atlanta and Lynch out of the announcer’s booth.

They managed the draft very well. Most first-time general managers make a mess of their first drafts, falling in love with specific players and wasting picks to trade up and grab them. Lynch, to the contrary, handled his first draft like an old pro. He conned the Bears into moving up one pick to grab a quarterback he didn’t want, getting two third-round picks and a fourth-rounder while still coming away with the defensive lineman he wanted, Solomon Thomas, and saving $1 million or so in the process.

Lynch traded away the fourth-rounder he received to move up three spots and grab Reuben Foster at the end of the first round, which is one of the better trade-up decisions a team can make, given that picks at the end of the first round have a fifth-year option attached. Lynch followed by sending Chicago’s third-round pick to the Saints for a 2018 second-round selection, which could be in the upper half of the round. Lynch made two small trade-ups in the later rounds of the draft, but he got the big things right.

What Went Wrong

Many of their free-agent contracts raised eyebrows. While Lynch handled the draft well, it certainly seems like the 49ers paid too much for the guys they added in free agency. The most notable contract was the four-year, $21 million deal the 49ers gave to Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Juszczyk wasn’t the lead blocker in an effective running game, had just seven carries during his four seasons in Baltimore and was a checkdown machine when Joe Flacco‘s protection broke down, but the 49ers thought enough of Juszczyk to give him $15.5 million over his first three seasons in San Francisco. By contrast, Shanahan’s former fullback in Atlanta, Patrick DiMarco, became the second-highest-paid fullback in football this offseason by signing a four-year, $8.4 million deal with $6.6 million spread over the first three years of his contract.

Malcolm Smith, who wasn’t very good in Oakland and plays nearly as fungible a position as Juszczyk, signed a five-year, $26.5 million deal with $11.5 million in guarantees. Pierre Garcon, who turns 31 in August and was disenfranchised enough last season to request a trade away from Washington, signed a deal that amounts to a three-year, $29 million pact. Marquise Goodwin, who played a bit part in the Bills’ passing game, picked up $4.5 million guaranteed on a two-year, $6 million deal.

While the 49ers probably had to pay premiums to bring in the players they wanted, it’s also fair to wonder if those players will make much of a difference. Lynch and Shanahan might have wanted leaders who they felt were going to set a tone, and that’s fair. At the same time, there are probably fullbacks bouncing around who could be leaders at a fraction of the cost. Wideouts such as Anquan Boldin are still out in the free-agent market. These aren’t huge mistakes, but the deals raise questions about how the 49ers will value talent going forward.

What’s Next?

Work on trades for RB Carlos Hyde and TE Vance McDonald. It appears the 49ers don’t have much interest in holding on to two of the holdover playmakers from the Baalke era. They’re reportedly in love with rookie fourth-round pick Joe Williams at halfback and have leaked their interest in trading McDonald. It would cost the 49ers an additional $3.5 million in dead money to move on from McDonald this year, but he would be off their cap in the years to come.

With Hyde a free agent after the season, the 49ers are better off trading him for the best draft pick they can find, especially given the likelihood they’ll invest in free agents during the 2018 offseason and make themselves ineligible for a comp pick. The only problem is that there aren’t many teams in need of a running back; Detroit and Washington are two of the few who could have interest in acquiring a back at this point of the offseason.

Grade: B-

What Went Right

They didn’t trade Richard Sherman. After a bizarre series of months that saw the Seahawks publicly shop a 29-year-old future Hall of Famer, Seattle wasn’t able to find the sort of haul it wanted and decided to hold on to its superstar cornerback. There was never really a strong case to trade Sherman, at least at this point of his career, given the lack of cornerback depth on the Seattle roster.

It’s more plausible that the Seahawks do something about Sherman in 2018, given that he’ll be a year older and entering the final season of the four-year, $56 million extension he signed in May 2014. Seattle drafted three defensive backs in the first four rounds of this year’s draft, including UCF corner Shaquill Griffin, so it’s clear they’re at least preparing for a future after the Legion of Boom. With Kam Chancellor an unrestricted free agent after this season, it’s likely this could be the final year we see this version of the Seahawks’ defense do its thing.

The Seahawks amassed all kinds of draft picks. What was once one of the deepest rosters in football had been shredded by retirements, free agency and trades, so Seahawks general manager John Schneider went to work during the draft weekend. He repeatedly traded down in what was widely regarded to be a deep draft. In the end, Schneider dealt the 26th, 131st and 225th selections for picks 35, 95, 111, 147, 187, 243 and 249. That’s getting paid $1.50 on the dollar, per the Chase Stuart draft model. Racking up a ton of third-, fourth- and fifth-round picks doesn’t seem exciting on paper, but when you consider the Seahawks have turned those selections into guys such as Sherman, Chancellor, K.J. Wright, Tyler Lockett and Russell Wilson, the trades might seem more appealing.

What Went Wrong

The low-reward deals Schneider handed out in free agency. It’s hard to see the logic in the Seahawks handing out one-year deals to stopgaps, especially ones who might not be very good. Seattle badly needed offensive line help after seeing its line decay over the past two seasons, but the one-year, $8 million deal the Seahawks gave Luke Joeckel defied belief. Joeckel was one of the league’s worst left tackles during his time in Jacksonville and, contrary to what Tom Cable says, wasn’t very good in three games at guard before suffering a catastrophic knee injury. Seattle plans to move him back to left tackle, which seems like a passive-aggressive way of expressing anger at Wilson.

Eddie Lacy was effective last year after losing weight in Green Bay, but he also missed most of the season with a serious ankle injury and came in on a one-year, $4.3 million deal. Putting aside the obvious health risks with Lacy and Joeckel, if they actually do well, the Seahawks won’t have them under contract for any future seasons, preventing Seattle from reaping any long-term benefits unless it outbids the market again.

What’s Next?

Re-sign Justin Britt. Britt has been the lone Seahawks lineman to actually look interested in protecting Wilson at times over the past few seasons. His versatility and effectiveness at the pivot make him a valuable part of the Seattle offense. The Seahawks used a second-round pick on Ethan Pocic, who played center at LSU, but positions are an arbitrary construct on the Seattle offensive line. Pocic is going to compete for a spot at tackle, and by this time next year, Britt might be outside and Pocic might be back on the interior. It’s not worth moving on from a talented player solely because the Seahawks appear to have drafted a replacement. Britt is worth keeping around.

Grade: C

Similar Articles

Top