ESPN Draft Blog's look at how free agency may have affected NFC West draft outlook
Will Cards be forced to reach for a QB?
March, 19, 2013
3:33 PM ET
By Steve Muench
Offseason moves -- both trades and free-agent signings -- can significantly change a team's draft needs and strategies.
Teams have a much easier time picking need over value when they have already addressed their most glaring weaknesses before draft weekend. On the flip side, organizations that fail to fill big roster holes are more likely to reach to fill needs, and those picks are more likely to backfire.
So what's happened so far in the NFC West that will impact the way its teams approach the 2013 draft? Here's a look at the big moves all four teams have made and how they affect early draft strategy.
The Cardinals have not been sitting on their hands this offseason. They signed CB Antoine Cason to replace cap casualty William Gay as a starter opposite Patrick Peterson, and free-agent signing Jerraud Powers is capable of holding up in the slot if he can stay healthy.
Arizona has also signed RB Rashard Mendenhall to soften the blow of losing Beanie Wells, and added DE Matt Shaughnessy. However, the Cards failed to make a splash where it matters the most: at quarterback.
John Skelton, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Lindley and Kevin Kolb (released) all struggled last season, and there's little reason to believe any of the three who remain on the roster will right the ship under new head coach Bruce Arians. Free-agent signing Drew Stanton is familiar with Arians' scheme after backing up Andrew Luck in Indianapolis last season, but Stanton hasn't appeared in a game since 2010.
All of that means taking West Virginia QB Geno Smith with the seventh overall pick makes sense, even if Smith is a reach there. He isn't nearly as polished as Luck coming out, but Smith has the arm strength and touch to develop into an effective starter in Arians' scheme.
If they decide to pass on Smith in the first, the Cardinals could target an offensive tackle like Central Michigan's Eric Fisher or an edge rusher like LSU's Barkevious Mingo. After all, LOT Levi Brown missed all of last year with a triceps injury, and OLB Quentin Groves was lost to Cleveland in free agency.
St. Louis Rams
The Rams did well to sign 2008 No. 1 overall pick LOT Jake Long away from Miami, a move that will shift Rodger Saffold to the right side and give QB Sam Bradford more time to scan the field and locate the open man. The addition of TE Jared Cook's ability to stretch the field and make plays over the middle is also a plus, and should help offset the loss of free-agent WR Danny Amendola, who led the team in receiving last year.
St. Louis has the 16th and 22nd overall picks this year, and given that Brandon Gibson also left in free agency the Rams could target a receiver at No. 16. Dynamic West Virginia playmaker Tavon Austin is a definite possibility with his versatility and elite combination of speed and quickness. However, 2012 fourth-rounder Chris Givens is coming off an encouraging rookie campaign, 2011 third-rounder Austin Pettis can contribute, and 2012 second-rounder Brian Quick still has upside, so St. Louis could go in another direction.
If they do, Texas S Kenny Vaccaro should be tough to pass on if he falls to 16. The Rams cut Quintin Mikell and lost Craig Dahl to free agency, so Vaccaro would fill a big need. And forget about his average 40 time at the NFL combine.
Vaccaro shows above-average range in zone coverage and quality man-to-man cover skills on film, and he is tough and aggressive supporting the run. Getting him with the 16th pick would allow the Rams to target a pair of talented Tennessee wideouts -- Justin Hunter or Cordarrelle Patterson -- at No. 22.
San Francisco *****
The Niners have kept the nucleus of their Super Bowl team intact, and even made some improvements with the trade for WR Anquan Boldin and the signing of DE Glenn Dorsey. They also acquired the 34th overall pick in the trade that sent QB Alex Smith to Kansas City.
However, the losses of S Dashon Goldson and TE Delanie Walker in free agency hurt, and San Francisco could still use some help at nose tackle.
One of the best-case scenarios for the ***** would be seeing massive Georgia NT Johnathan Jenkins slips to them at No. 31 overall, and then have Stanford TE Zach Ertz available at No. 34. That would allow them to then pick up value at safety late in the second, with FIU's John Cyprien a possibility there.
If Jenkins is off the board late in the first, keep an eye on Missouri Southern NT Brandon Williams, who carries a second-round grade but could have more value to the Niners than other teams because of his ability to plug the middle of the field.
If that's the case, pulling the trigger is the right move because the value at safety and, to a lesser degree, tight end might not be the same at the end of the first round.
The Seahawks gave up a total of three draft picks -- including the 25th overall pick this year -- to get WR Percy Harvin from Minnesota, but it could prove well worth it if Harvin stays healthy and continues to produce at a high level.
Seattle also landed another talented edge rusher in free-agent DE Cliff Avril, and DL Jason Jones is the only Seahawks free agent who has signed with another team as it stands now.
The Seahawks won't come on the clock until the 26th pick of the second round (56th overall) where a defensive tackle like Akeem Spence of Illinois could be a good fit. Spence has the talent to push for immediate playing time as the No. 3 tackle, and the potential to develop into a productive interior pass-rusher.
On the other hand, weakside linebacker is arguably their greatest need, considering the fact that 30-year old Leroy Hill is an unrestricted free agent, and there should be good value at that position late in the second. If Connecticut's Sio Moore falls that far he would be ideal with his range, closing burst and coverage ability.
Moore is likely to be gone at that point, but Kansas State's Arthur Brown might be available, and Brown has the talent to push for a starting role as a rookie. And the idea of Pete Carroll coaching Brown alongside other young talents like 2012 second-rounder Bobby Wagner and 2011 fourth-rounder pick K.J. Wright is too good not to consider.