Wideout Tavon Austin (with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell), should give the Rams another exciting offensive option. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
The emergence of the Seattle Seahawks in 2012 and the continued success of the 49ers turned the NFC West into one of pro football’s best divisions.
Now, after a big offseason in free agency and the draft, the NFC West may be the most talented and deep division, top to bottom, with the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals also capable of beating the Seahawks and 49ers in any matchup in 2013.
General manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh did an excellent job in the just-concluded NFL draft to address immediate needs (at safety, defensive line and tight end) while also picking up potential long-term help at running back with Marcus Lattimore, who may not even see the field in 2013. NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN gave the Niners an overall draft grade of B, which is solid.
But Kiper also liked the drafts of the Rams, Cardinals and Seahawks, and believes those three NFC West rivals have made themselves much better. A quick look at the 49ers’ NFC West rivals and what they did in the draft (in order of expected improvement through the draft):
St. Louis Rams: This team already was a difficult team for San Francisco to handle in 2012, when the Niners lost one and tied another. Now coach Jeff Fisher’s team has added two super-quick receivers for quarterback Sam Bradford in West Virginia teammates Tavon Austin (Round 1) and Stedman Bailey (Round 3). On defense, the Rams added inside linebacker Alec Ogletree in Round 1 and USC safety T.J. McDonald in Round 3. With Austin and Bailey on the field, the Sacramento Bee’s Matthew Barrows suggests the Rams’ offense might be ready to claim the title of “The Greatest Show on Turf, the Next Generation.” Kiper’s draft grade: A-.
Arizona Cardinals: This team, with a solid defense and a new quarterback in Carson Palmer, already was potentially much better for 2013. New head coach Bruce Arians now has the best guard in the draft, Jonathan Cooper, taken with the seventh overall pick, and another guard in Round 4 pick Earl Watford, to help protect Palmer and open holes for the running game. In addition, Arizona picks up a good linebacker in Round 2 in Kevin Minter of LSU and a potential game-breaking returner and versatile defensive back in Tyrann Mathieu, the “Honey Badger,” from LSU. Kiper’s draft grade: B.
Seattle Seahawks: Because of the trade for wideout Percy Harvin, the ’Hawks didn’t have a first-round pick, and their selection of running back Christine Michael in the second round seems odd, considering the team already has a workhorse in Marshawn Lynch. But Seattle made 11 picks (eight in the fifth round or lower), so it will bring in a lot of young talent to compete in training camp. Two defensive linemen who might earn big roles on Seattle's already terrific defense are Penn State’s Jordan Hill (Round 3) and Alabama’s Jesse Williams (Round 5). Kiper’s draft grade: B.