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Two out of the four NFC West teams continued to improve via the 2020 NFL draft. I went into great detail on the San Francisco 49ers draft class here, but where does that put the reigning NFC Champions within the division? Taking a look at the other three teams in the division and what they did over draft weekend tells us that the 49ers should be in great position to repeat as NFC West Champions, if not Super Bowl winners.
Taking a look at the four teams’ additions below, you’ll see that the NFL’s hardest division might actually turn into a two-team race by the end of the season. Although it’s impossible to know whose draft class is going to have the largest impact before teams have even entered practices, let’s take a look at who did the best (on paper) in the NFC West.
Drafted Players: Javon Kinlaw, DT; Brandon Aiyuk, WR; Colton McKivitz, OL; Charlie Woerner, TE; Jauan Jennings, WR.
Analysis: The 49ers only had three starters from the 2019 Super Bowl runner ups to replace: defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, and right guard Mike Person. The 49ers replaced Buckner and Sanders with their two first round picks (Kinlaw and Aiyuk) while McKivitz is a possible replacement for Person. Trading for Trent Williams to replace the retiring Joe Staley at LT was a coup, especially when we all found out the Washington Redskins turned down a first-round draft pick for him at the trade deadline last year and accepted a fifth and future third on the third day of the draft this year. People might argue that the 49ers didn’t improve, but they did the best job of plugging in young players with possibly higher ceilings than their veteran predecessors.
Drafted Players: Isaiah Simmons, LB; Josh Jones, OT; Leki Fotu, DT; Rashard Lawrence, DT; Evan Weaver, ILB; Eno Benjamin, RB.
Analysis: The Cardinals got absolutely destroyed by opponents tight ends (enter George Kittle), and so they looked to fix that problem by drafting Simmons out of Clemson at eighth overall. A year after drafting skill offensive and defensive players round after round last year (quarterback Kyler Murray, cornerback Byron Murphy , safety Deionte Thompson, and receivers Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler, and Keesean Johnson) on their way to 11 draft picks, the Cardinals focused on the first two levels of the defense and the offensive line, before taking Benjamin, their only offensive skill position player in the draft, in the seventh round. Simmons and Jones are expected to contribute immediately, with Simmons lining up as a starting linebacker and Jones transitioning to right tackle after playing left tackle in college. Jones was a bit of a steal in the third round, as some had him ranked in the top 32 players in the draft. Fotu is an athletic ex-rugby player who will contribute immediately on the defensive line on running downs, while helping keep the Cardinals’ starting defensive tackles fresh to rush the quarterback on passing downs. Lawrence and Weaver add some good depth to the Cardinals’ defense. It wouldn’t be a big surprise to see Weaver stealing some snaps at ILB by the end of the season. A solid draft that did what the Cardinals needed, added depth and physicality to a struggling Cardinals’ defense.
Los Angeles Rams
Drafted Players: Cam Akers, RB; Van Jefferson, WR; Terrell Lewis, LB; Terrell Burgess, S; Brycen Hopkins, TE; Jordan Fuller, S; Clay Johnston, LB; Sam Sloman, K; Tremayne Anchrum, G.
Analysis: I have to be honest: I think that the L.A. Rams are one of the worst run franchises in the NFL. I feel like I have to tell you that for full transparency here, but the way they have fumbled the salary cap and draft picks in an attempt to put out a sellable product in LA has been a total failure (even if they were in the Super Bowl two years ago). The Rams’ 2020 draft feels like a kid fumbling through seven minutes of heaven with the janitor’s mop. If you watched the virtual draft, you saw that even Rams’ head coach Sean McVay looked upset at the draft choices. Akers was drafted to replace Todd Gurley at RB and will share the load with Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown. Jefferson was drafted to replace Brandin Cooks, and Jefferson is not the same receiver that Cooks is. Some might see that as a good thing, but that leaves the Rams’ offense without a burner to stretch the field with, and Jefferson didn’t put up huge numbers in college. Lewis is an outside linebacker who will be used to replace Dante Fowler Jr. and Clay Matthews as a primary edge rusher. I actually really liked Jordan Fuller as a mid-round safety, but the team seems to be collecting safeties after drafting Taylor Rapp last year and drafting Fuller and Burgess. The drafting of Sloman now puts three kickers on the team’s roster, and Hopkins was a head scratcher when tight end was already one of the Rams’ stronger positions. The draft wasn’t a complete fall-on-your-face event, but even McVay is trying to figure out what to do with these draft picks.
Draft Additions: Jordyn Brooks, LB; Darell Taylor, DE; Damien Lewis, G; Colby Parkinson, TE; DeeJay Dallas, RB; Alton Robinson, DE; Freddie Swain, WR; Stephen Sullivan, TE.
Analysis: Truth Purge number two: I’ve always disliked Seahawks head coach Pete Carrol and how he does things. I disliked him when he was a coordinator for the 49ers, and I can’t stand him since he took over the Seahawks’ head coaching position. The truth of the matter here is that the Seahawks seem to bungle their early draft picks year-in and year-out, before picking up a solid player or two in rounds three or four. This could be a similar draft for them. Brooks was not even a top three linebacker in the draft on many draft analysts’ boards, but the Seahawks drafted him over the consensus top LB Patrick Queen. Taylor and Robinson will fight for snaps at the team’s LEO position, but neither will probably make a big contribution to the team’s sack total this season. Drafting an interior offensive lineman in Lewis, plus two tight ends, was mind-boggling when they have over 20 percent of their 90-man roster now designated as offensive lineman, and Greg Olson, Will Dissly, Jacob Hollister, Luke Willson, and Justin Johnson already under contract at TE. That’s nearly 30 percent of their 90-man roster between OL and TE. Wide receiver, a position of need, wasn’t addressed until the last pick of the sixth round, and Swain will have a tough time making the roster, even with a less-than-stellar group coming back. Dallas might make the biggest contribution to the team in year one depending on how the infirmary running back group comes back from 2019’s season ending injuries. Even if returners Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny come back strong, Dallas could have a place as the pass catching back, as he started his college career as a WR. He also returned kicks so he could help the team out on special teams as well.
So Who Won the Draft?
The 49ers and the Cardinals were the only teams who seemed to have a plan to replace players into their systems and got the ones they were looking for. The Seahawks always seem to trade back or wait and see who drops to their position, and the Rams at this point seem completely lost in the process of team building – like that friend who is borrowing money from his mom to pay off his brother. The 49ers were the only team to walk away with three for-sure starters (including Williams) with the Cardinals getting two. The Rams confused even their own coach, and the Seahawks pulled off a very Seahawk-fashioned draft.
Winning the draft doesn’t always mean winning the division (The Cardinals knocked it out of the park last season, but took fourth in the division), but when you are returning from the Super Bowl and have a draft like the 49ers, it’s pretty darn hard not to be excited.
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