2021 NFL Draft: Team Needs - NFC West
Andrew Cooper takes a look at the NFC West division and breaks down the needs for each team ahead of the NFL Draft that is ONE WEEK AWAY!
Team Needs: NFC West
San Francisco 49ers
Picks: 3, 43, 102, 117, 155, 172, 180, 194, 230
Set: Defensive end, tackle, center
For anyone not familiar with this series so far here is what we’re doing. We tell you where we think the team is “set” in terms of positions they are LEAST LIKELY to use meaningful draft capital. That definition can be different depending whether the team is competing or rebuilding, how many picks they have, how impactful those picks are, etc. Then we discuss what we think their “immediate” needs are, which pertains to impact players drafted with early picks. After that we touch on what picks could be used on “depth”. So, a team like the Jacksonville Jaguars with five picks in the top 65 might have a lot of draft “needs” listed and they have a lot of picks to fill them. The entire NFC West combined has six picks in the top 65 so not quite in the same position.
Anyway, let's look at the 49ers. Teams could always use depth at the positions they value heavily and there is no question Shanahan values the trenches of the offensive and defensive line. But the Niners have Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa under contract for big money through 2025 and 2024 respectively so seems highly unlikely that they use an early pick on the position (especially considering they only have two top 100 picks and one is already spoken for, as we’ll discuss). They have eight defensive ends under contract so they are ready to rock for this year though the other six after the top dogs do expire after this year, so an argument could be made that the position belongs under “depth”. I think given the other needs though, it’s also hard to argue that you aren’t doing well when you have two studs starting and locked up for two years.
The 49ers are in a similar boat at offensive tackle and center. Per PFF, the number one graded run blocking tackle was Trent Williams . Number two was Mike McGlinchey . Those are their starting tackles. Alex Mack has been a high end center in the league for years, including playing for Shanahan in Atlanta, plus they have Weston Richburg recovering from surgery as a backup. Again, you could make the argument that depth would be nice and I’d tell you that I’d agree but these spots don’t need to be prioritized with high end capital. Especially compared to these next two.
Immediate: Quarterback, cornerback
This one doesn’t really need to be explained but lets do it quick anyway. You don’t trade three first round picks to move up to the third overall pick in a draft like this if you aren’t drafting a quarterback. Their actions are telling us they are getting a new quarterback. No need to overthink it. The assumption right now is that Trevor Lawrence goes at one then Zach Wilson goes at two but the betting favorite with Vegas for SF has now changed multiple times so the 49ers front office is doing a good job of not showing their hand, at least.
The first pick is obvious so that leaves them with one more top 100 pick. Only one cornerback on the roster is signed beyond this season - Emmanuel Moseley is also signed for 2022. Everyone else’s contract expires after this season. Despite missing a good chunk of time in the middle of last season, Akhello Witherspoon was the highest graded corner on the team last year. He left in free agency for rival Seattle. Emmanuel Moseley missed some games himself last year but he did not grade out well - PFF had him as the #122 ranked cornerback last year with QBs having a passer rating of nearly 100 against him. The 49ers only have two top 100 picks and I believe that pick 43 is best used at cornerback.
Depth: Wide receiver, tight end, running back interior defensive line, guard
The 49ers might not have a ton of high end picks but they have 9 total so, unlike the Seahawks with only three total picks, they are a threat to trade back into the first couple rounds. Regardless, these are the positions I’d focus on next.
At wide receiver they did a good job of moving guys around but they primarily used Brandon Aiyuk (75.8% of snaps split wide), Richie James (73%), and Deebo Samuel (67.2%) on the outside. Kendrick Bourne (220 slot snaps) and Trent Taylor (100) manned the slot. Both Bourne and Taylor are now gone. They could go either way at this position, moving Samuel into the slot or drafting a slot guy, but I’d personally consider drafting a bigger split end (like a Nico Collins type out of Michigan). Having another big player that can beat the jam with his foot tethered to the line accomplishes two goals. One, it frees up Aiyuk and Samuel to play flanker/slot with a step back off the line as a buffer where they can go in motion at any point and get creative. Two, it gives you that second tethered player opposite George Kittle so that you don’t need to rely on many two tight end sets.
Speaking of which, Jordan Reed decided to retire instead of returning which leaves them a little thin at tight end. Ross Dwelley is a serviceable backup but they could decide to go the route of teams like the Patriots, Ravens, Eagles, or formerly Vikings (now Giants with Kyke Rudolph joining Evan Engram ) and invest in a second tight end. Trying to find a guy who can block well and also catch a bit like a Dallas Goedert or Jonnu Smith could ease up the workload on Kittle and keep him healthy. Kittle himself was a fifth round pick and guys like Travis Kelce , Mark Andrews , Austin Hooper and Jonnu Smith were all third round picks so it’s not a crazy notion that one of the picks in the 100s is a tight end. Just as we mentioned above, more two tight end sets means less need for a third elite pass catcher - if you have five lineman, two tight ends, a QB, a running back, and Kyle Juszcyk on the field then you actually only need one WR in that formation.
You look at this roster and you have one of the best offensive lines in the league. You have one of the best tight ends in the league (especially at blocking). You have one of the best fullbacks in the league. Yet you don’t have a marquee name at running back. You can apply all the buzz words to Kyle Shannahan when it comes to RB: “mix and match”, “hot hand”, “one-two punch” etc. Undrafted Jeff Wilson is a beast but a bit of a plodder. Raheem Mostert is lighting fast (literally recording the two fastest on field speeds last season) but he’s also 29 and injury prone. Wayne Gallman is a journeyman, Jamycal Hasty is a project. They have enough to get it done but a high end running back sure would be fun behind these blockers.
Interior defensive and offensive lines are honorable mentions here because they have so many later picks and so many expiring contracts - they could go any direction. Contracts for all six of Laken Tomlinson (who is a stud at guard), Daniel Brunskill , Shon Coleman , Isaiah Williams , Dakoda Shepley, and Corbin Kaufusi expire after this season while Justin Skule becomes a free agent after next season. Same goes for the defensive interior really - the only one signed beyond this year is Javon Kinlaw. The 49ers draft is going to be fun because, in my opinion, they draft a QB and a corner and then they can do whatever they want with seven picks - trade up, trade down, take best available, chase needs.
Picks: 56, 129, 250
Set: Quarterback, running back, safety, linebacker, defensive end
Unless they mortgage the future a bit, the Seahawks only have three picks this year. So they are going to have to be “set” at a few positions. Quarterback is one, with Russell Wilson locked in and a couple backups on the roster. They also brought back Chris Carson (which was a mortgage in itself as they had to use the dreaded “void third year” to make it work) to go with five other RBs, four of whom are signed for next year as well.
They are pretty loaded up at safety with Jamal Adams , Quandre Diggs , Marquise Blair and company so they are good to go there. At linebacker they have two more years at least of Bobby Wagner , Ben Burr-Kirven , and Jordyn Brooks (Brooks they have through 2025). And they have quite a bit of money invested in defensive end with all of Carlos Dunlap , LJ Collier, Benson Mayowa , and Kerry Hyder making a minimum of $2.5 million dollars a year. So, with three picks, I don’t see them going with any of these spots.
Immediate: Offensive line
Duane Brown has been a beast for Seattle and he once again graded out as one of the top tackles in the league. But he’s also 36. The other players along the line were not exactly “amazing” last year. If you recall from our AFC North team needs article, pretty much the whole Cleveland Browns line graded out within the top-eight at their position per PFF. No one besides Duane Brown on this line graded out within the top 20 at theirs. They just traded for Gabe Jackson who was guard #52 on the list. I know those grades can be subject and aren’t the end all, be all but, with a quarterback who was supposedly discontent with the direction of the team, you would be best served to help give him the time he needs so beefing up the offensive line would be a step in the right direction there. As of now, they have ONE pick in the top 100. This is where I’d use it.
Potential early round picks: Landon Dickerson (Alabama),Jackson Carman (Clemson), Quinn Meinerz (Wisconsin-Whitewater), Liam Eichenberg (Notre Dame), Wyatt Davis (Ohio State), Creed Humphrey (Oklahoma)
Depth: Wide receiver, cornerback
These positions might be considered “needs” on other teams with different compositions or more draft picks but this team doesn’t have a whole lot of capital. If you look at their wide receivers, they basically have two stars on the outside in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett . Conventional wisdom says you need a guy to play the slot but you also have the option of rolling with two tight end sets. Not only will they be bringing back Will Dissly , 2020 draft pick Colby Parkinson, and blocking specialist Luke Willson , but they brought in pass catching tight end Gerald Everett from the Rams. The Seahawks could do a lot to appease Russell Wilson by using their second highest pick on a slot pass catcher but they could get by with a mix and match of the tight ends and the receivers they have.
Beyond that, they are fairly thin at CB. As we mentioned in the 49ers write up, they brought in Ahkello Witherspoon but they lost Shaquill Griffin which is likely a slight net negative. If they don’t draft someone, they will likely have to patch things up using one of their safeties in an interior CB type role in nickel and dime patches - most likely Marquise Blair .
Los Angeles Rams
Picks: 57, 88, 103, 141, 209, 252
Set: Quarterback, wide receiver, running back, tight end
The Rams may have more total draft capital than the Seahawks but they also don’t have a first round pick. They traded it as part of the deal for Jalen Ramsey . They also traded their 2022 and 2023 first-round picks as part of a deal for Matthew Stafford . They are set at QB but we’ll discuss cornerback a little bit later.
The Rams have Robert Woods (2026) and Cooper Kupp (2024) locked up for multiple years - those two typically mix and match at slot/flanker. They drafted Van Jefferson last year but also brought in speedy field stretcher DeSean Jackson so they should be alright at wide receiver. Maybe they make a depth pick late but they don’t really have enough picks to be making big splashes here.
The same could be said for running back. Cam Akers proved to be “as advertised” as a multi-down back. Darrell Henderson is an effective satellite back and a supplemental piece in the pass game. They also have Xavier Jones and Raymond Calais under contract. Perhaps they could add someone to the group but they could certainly get by with what they have. Same goes for tight end. Even after losing Gerald Everett in free agency, they have starter Tyler Higbee , Brycen Hopkins replaces Everett as an extra pass catching tight end, and they retained Johnny Mundt as an extra blocker. Kendall Blanton is also signed. None of these are an immediate need and Matt Stafford is a tide that lifts all boats on the offense.
Immediate: Center, secondary
Center right now for the Rams is a tricky position. Brian Allen is currently slated to be the starter but he hasn’t played since 2019 after suffering a brutal knee injury. If he’s ready to go by September of this year, that will be a year and nine months between the day he got hurt and him playing another football game. After giving up all of that capital for Matthew Stafford , I personally wouldn’t trust going into the season without knowing exactly who is the quarterback of the offensive line. The play, in my opinion, is to use your earliest pick (which happens to be in the second round) on the best possible interior offensive lineman who can potentially play either center or guard depending on Allen’s health. It’s not the flashiest pick by any means but your offensive line is the foundation of your team. Matt Stafford is no stranger to injuries so keeping him upright is paramount. We just mentioned that the Seahawks could use an O-line as well and their first pick is pick 56 - the pick right before the Rams first pick at 57 - so we could certainly see some posturing there between the two rivals.
If they are able to assess Allen as ready to go and have decided they are comfortable with the line, the next biggest holes they need to fill are in the secondary. Safety John Johnson and slot corner Troy Hill were both signed away to the Cleveland Browns and they didn’t exactly bring in equal caliber talent to replace them. Compared to most teams, corner is exceptionally thin for Los Angeles as, in this era of nickel and dime packages, a lot of teams currently have double digit CBs signed. The Rams currently have four. No question in my mind that they take a corner or even two at some point - it’s just a matter of when.
Potential early round picks: Landon Dickerson (Alabama), Quinn Meinerz (Wisconsin-Whitewater), Wyatt Davis (Ohio State), Creed Humphrey (Oklahoma), Jevon Holland (Oregon), Aaron Robinson (UCF), Kelvin Joseph (Kentucky)
Depth: Front seven
Honestly, the Rams could fall into one of those teams that just ends up going “best available” with most of their picks. And that’s typically the best overall strategy. So I would not be surprised to see them make a pick at any one of these positions along the front seven as well. Their inside linebackers, Troy Reeder (LB #66), Kenny Young (LB #148), and Micah Kiser (LB #152), did not grade out well last season per PFF and they did little to improve the group. And, beyond their biggest splash signing of Leonard Floyd to go along with the incumbent mega-star Aaron Donald , there is some weakness along the defensive front. So I wouldn’t be surprised if some picks were allocated to this group - even high end picks potentially.
They’ll have to make the decision to a certain degree on whether they want to use their luxury picks to surround Matt Stafford with more weapons or surround Aaron Donald with more help. Defensive coordinator Brandon Staley crossed town to be the head coach of the Chargers so, if I’m Sean McVay and Les Snead, I give Raheem Morris what he needs to build his defense and trust that McVay can make things work with the weapons the offense has in place.
Picks: 16, 49, 160, 223, 243, 247
Set: Quarterback, offensive line, interior linebacker
Like some of their NFC West counterparts, the reality for this team is that they essentially have two meaningful picks in the first two rounds then nothing until the fifth-round. This team used the 10th overall pick in 2018 and the first overall pick in 2019 in pursuit of their quarterback and they found him in Kyler Murray . They currently have four on the roster. I can assure you that they will not be taking a QB with picks 16, 49, or 160 at the very least.
They have star left tackle DJ Humphries and solid right tackle Kelvin Beachum locked up for both this year and next so tackle isn’t an immediate issue (though Beachum does have an out in his contract after this year). Guard Justin Pugh is also signed through 2023. They acquired Rodney Hudson via trade with the Raiders then immediately restructured his contract to free up space to sign free agents for the current year. Then, after the dust settled a bit, they went back and restructured his contract once again to likely keep him around through 2023. That essentially leaves a battle for right guard but I believe they have enough bodies to solve that equation. People will always tout on using draft capital to bolster the offensive line but you have to remember that they already used their 2021 third round pick to acquire Rodney Hudson . Unless they acquire more picks, they have two picks in the top 50, one more in the fifth, and then two stabs.
We’ve mentioned the proliferation of nickel and dime on here multiple times so it’s time to provide some hard stats. Per Sports Info Solutions, teams throughout the league were in nickel (five DBs on the field) 62.4% of the time in 2020. They were actually in dime (six DBs) 19.5% of the time which is actually more than teams lined up in base sets (four DBs at 16.2% of snaps). So the league-wide trend is to have more defensive backs on the field than ever. The NFL is a copy-cat league which means the Cardinals have some catching up to do.
In 2020 they primarily used the legendary Patrick Peterson as one wide CB, Dre Kirkpatrick as the other, and Byron Murphy in the slot. Peterson moved on after a decade with the team and the 31-year old Kirkpatrick is currently a free agent but not necessarily expected back. They have Murphy in the slot and brought in free agent Malcolm Butler to play one outside role but they currently only have five total corners under contract and only one of them is signed beyond this year. In my opinion, they are highly likely to use their first round pick here or, at the very least, use the pick at 49 because they need an impact player. In fact, it’s not necessarily crazy for them to use both high end picks at the position given their lack of depth and league trends. They are competing now and they can’t afford to miss. There are multiple CB needy teams out there including the Cowboys and Eagles who draft ahead of them so they may need to move up if they want one of the top talents.
Potential early round picks: Jaycee Horn (South Carolina), Greg Newsome II (Northwestern), Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech), Asante Samuel Jr. (Florida State), Aaron Robinson (UCF)
Depth: Front seven, safety, wide receiver, tight end, running back
This team really only has the one truly glaring need at corner. After that, they can use their other high end pick and the fifth rounder on a number of positions. So don’t go crazy with me not listing these other spots as “needs” because they quite frankly could use all of them. But they don’t have five high end picks like the Jaguars, they have two.
After figuring out that Kyler Murray was “the guy”, the Cardinals did a lot to shift into “win-now” mode. It started with trading for DeAndre Hopkins and has since accelerated by trading for Rodney Hudson and signing older guys like JJ Watt, Matt Prater , and Andy Lee . Across the board the defense could be looked at as a place where they “have enough but could use a little more”.
For pass rush, they lost Haason Reddick but they should be more than capable of getting to the QB with Chandler Jones , JJ Watt, Markus Golden , Dennis Gardeck etc. The same goes for interior linebacker. They lost tight-end cover specialist De’Vondre Campbell to free agency (though he’s still out there in free agency) but he was more of a bridge player while Isaiah Simmons got up to speed. Jordan Hicks restructured to remain with the team and they have Tanner Vallejo and Ezekiel Turner under contract. At safety, Budda Baker is a star but Jalen Thompson struggled with injuries and they had to use patchwork at the other safety position. We saw how much the pass rush struggled when Chandler Jones got hurt last year and the other positions would be similarly thin if Simmons or Baker were to get hurt. So, while they have “enough” on paper, it would not at all surprise me to see their other high end pick used here.
On the other side of the ball, Kliff Kingsbury’s famous “Air Raid” offense uses a heavy dose of wide receivers - often four at a time. In fact, per Sharp Football, they used four WRs on 20% of their snaps last year. The Bills also used a fairly historically high 15% but, after that, the next highest was five-percent. But here’s the crazy part about those numbers; Sharp Football seems to group players by what position they “typically” play so Dan Arnold is categorized as a tight end for their database. But Arnold lined up in the slot or split wide on 44% of his snaps or 206 snaps combined. Chase Edmonds lined up wide or in the slot on 141 snaps. So how many snaps did they actually use some sort of four wide configuration? They have DeAndre Hopkins , Christian Kirk , Larry Fitzgerald , and AJ Green but Fitzgerald is 37 and Green will be 33 when the season starts so this organization can honestly never have too many wideouts. That’s also assuming Larry Fitzgeral decides to play - otherwise, this position likely jumps right up to “need”.
When you consider the info from the last paragraph, it helps you understand a widely held misconception about the Cardinals for this draft - that they NEED a high end tight end. They don’t. There was a time where pretty much every team had a fullback or every team had a tight end that played every down and that’s simply no longer the case. For instance, after trading Anthony Sherman to the Chiefs in 2013, the Cardinals went half a decade without a fullback and don’t have one on the roster right now. That doesn’t make fullback a need for them - they don’t heavily utilize it. So, if your base set is going to be four wide receivers with two split ends tethered to the line, you don’t need to have a tight end tethered to the line. They COULD add one if they want but they have three blocking tight ends on the roster including Maxx Williams who played more in-line tight end snaps than Dan Arnold so they don’t HAVE to invest heavily at the position if they don’t want to. Everyone thinks in the mindset of typical NFL offenses whether it be the West Coast or Air Coryell or modified Erhardt Perkins but the Air Raid is fairly new and unconventional compared to those.
Finally, a lot of people had running backs as a need as well after Kenyan Drake signed with the Raiders. But adding James Conner gives them a one-two punch of the bigger Conner for early downs and the shifty Chase Edmonds on passing downs. With five other RBs currently rostered, they don’t necessarily need to make a play at running back if they are comfortable with what they have. Only 10 teams totaled more than 2,000 yards on the ground last season and Kyler Murray had 819 yards and 11 touchdowns himself so the Cardinals could easily get to that number again even if neither Conner nor Edmonds are 1,000 yard rushers on their own.