The NFC West features a team that made it to the Super Bowl last year, a team that has been to two of the last five Super Bowls, and two teams that each held one of the top two overall picks. There was more moving and shaking in this division than any other, and each of its teams made strong strides toward addressing their weaknesses.
The Rams went 13-3 and attacked free agency as well as the draft to become even deeper than they were in 2018. The Seahawks went 10-6, returned to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus, and are primed to go as far as Russell Wilson and the changing defense can take them. The 49ers went 4-12 but were more competitive than their record indicated while rotating through quarterbacks like they were the Browns of old. Finally, the Cardinals finished 3-13, then played a game of highly-drafted quarterback musical chairs – this division had it all this off-season.
Opposing defenses won’t be able to key in on David Johnson as much as last year in light of the Cardinals’ revamped offense. The Seahawks added a trio of young wideouts to give Russell Wilson more targets to sling the football to. The Rams added defense and an insurance policy for their most important offensive weapon. The 49ers added weapons through both free agency and the draft to run Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
KYLER MURRAY, QB OKLAHOMA (ROUND 1, PICK 1)
By the time the first round rolled around, this pick was basically a foregone conclusion and new head coach Kliff Kingsbury selected his franchise quarterback.
Murray was the first player selected in the first round of both the MLB and NFL drafts in history. He spurned baseball to join the Cardinals. There were questions about his height and some immaturity displayed in off-season interviews, but the raw talent and playmaking ability were ultimately too much to pass up.
Murray started one year at Oklahoma and showed he could make every throw asked of him in the process of winning the Heisman trophy. He makes throws to all levels and displays great touch, throws well on the run, and his playmaking when the play breaks down is one of his strongest attributes. Murray showed maturity in reading and anticipating throws as well as using his eyes to bait defensive backs – a trait many college quarterbacks can’t easily grasp. There are a few downsides: the aforementioned lack of maturity, the risks he takes that he often got away with in Norman, and his size, which will always be a question for some.
Kingsbury recruited Murray while he was in high school and finally got the quarterback he wanted to run his system. Murray will lead an exciting attack in Arizona and should be a fantasy option from day one.
THE JOSH ROSEN TRADE
With Murray’s selection it then became a waiting game for when Rosen would be traded. He was selected in the first round last year and had an up-and-down rookie season – although the down seemed more prevalent. He played behind a patchwork offensive line (which Murray now inherits in nearly the same condition) and never appeared to get settled into a rhythm running the Cardinals’ offense.
Teams in need of a quarterback didn’t call. Washington, rumored to be one of the main Rosen suitors, selected Dwayne Haskins at pick 15. Ultimately, the Dolphins traded down in round two, then sent pick 62 and a 2020 fifth-rounder to secure the services of the young signal caller. Rosen will now be the face of a rebuild in South Beach after his short stint in Arizona.
ANDY ISABELLA, WR MASSACHUSETTS (ROUND 2, PICK 62)
With the first pick from the Rosen trade, the Cardinals brass chose the fiery wide receiver from the University of Massachusetts. Isabella was immensely productive in 2018 – catching over 100 balls for 1,698 yards and 13 scores.
He projects to be a slot receiver due to his size at 5’9” and 190 pounds, and he could quickly become Murray’s best friend in the desert. Isabella operated out of the slot in college but still averaged over 15 yards a catch for his career. He has the ability to switch gears and create immediate separation, running routes at a frenetic pace, making him extremely difficult to guard. Isabella needs to work on catching the ball more consistently with his hands, and he doesn’t have an immense catch radius because of his size.
HAKEEM BUTLER, WR IOWA STATE (ROUND 4, PICK 103)
Another extremely freakish athlete, Butler experienced a slide many had not expected, selected early on the third day. A huge player who has the prototypical size of an X receiver, he seemed to be a throwback to what teams often looked for in their top wideout.
Butler has an enormous wingspan, using his size to box out defenders. He high-points catches better than any other wideout in this class. He clocked a 4.48 40-yard dash at the combine but doesn’t really have the gear to speed by defensive backs – his stride is long and it takes him time to build up speed. The biggest knocks against him are that he sometimes dropped easy passes and his route-running is very mechanical and not smooth.
Regardless of the concerns, Butler’s upside in a fast-paced high-scoring offense cannot be denied. He will provide a safety valve if Murray needs to chuck up a deep bomb and a threat in the red zone as well.
KEESEAN JOHNSON, WR FRESNO STATE (ROUND 6, PICK 174)
The Cardinals continued to stockpile weapons for their new quarterback in the sixth round, grabbing who I consider to be the top route-runner in the class. Johnson produced for four years at Fresno State and followed in the footsteps of Davante Adams. They both attended the same high school as well, and Johnson broke most of the marks set by Adams.
He’s a smooth, athletic receiver and creates separation with sudden footwork, then maintains separation between his defender and the catch point. He doesn’t have elite speed or an elite gear. He is a solid overall athlete and will not be an immediate difference maker for the Cardinals. Johnson will be a possession receiver, a solid complement to the big play ability of Butler and the slot fierceness of Isabella.
Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald are still the starters in Arizona. I could see Kirk moving outside and Fitzgerald mentoring all of these young wide receivers.
CALEB WILSON, TE UCLA (ROUND 7, PICK 254)
Grabbing a tight end from this talented class was the icing on the offensive weapon cake, and Wilson is a strong option to grow with the offense. He is a pass-catching tight end first, with strong hands and good speed to create mismatches. He will need more seasoning to become complete and refine aspects of route-running as he wasn’t asked to do much while at UCLA.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
DARRELL HENDERSON, RB MEMPHIS (ROUND 3, PICK 70)
The Rams focused mostly on defense but finding a more explosive and talented running back with the health of Todd Gurley was a need, a need now filled by Henderson. The 2018 season he had at Memphis was crazy productive. He rushed for 1,909 yards (8.9 ypc) and 22 touchdowns and then chipped in 19 grabs for 295 yards and another three scores in receiving. He was in discussion for the Heisman most of the season but ultimately missed getting an invite to New York City.
Explosiveness is Henderson’s calling card, every run has the chance to be something special. His vision isn’t the greatest but his movement is so good, he makes the most out of every run regardless. He accelerates quickly, keeps his feet moving and plays through contact, playing with a little more physicality than most running backs of his stature. Henderson has some other questions – he does run upright and seemed to make most of his plays due to wide-open running lanes – but the talent makes him an intriguing prospect. Henderson will help spell Gurley and fill in admirably if Gurley misses any extensive time.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
DEEBO SAMUEL, WR SOUTH CAROLINA (ROUND 2, PICK 36)
Mobile, Alabama was close to being renamed Deebo, Alabama after the Senior Bowl. Samuel absolutely owned the week and improved his draft stock immensely. His college tape was impressive although he didn’t have the prolific stats of some highly regarded prospects. He grabbed 11 touchdowns in 2018 and then really showed what he was capable of in the draft process.
Samuel is a tough receiver, refusing to back down from a challenge. Not the rawest talent, but he works hard and it really shows in the little things he does well. He adjusts well in routes, sets up moves, has great fakes and hip movements, and plays with a competitive urgency that makes it difficult for a defender to get to the ball when it’s coming Samuel’s way. He needs to work on technique and consistent separation. Health was also an issue in college as 2018 was his only fully healthy season.
I have been aggressively targeting Samuel in rookie drafts. He fits the offense perfectly in San Fransisco and will likely be a slot receiver but could also move to the outside as well. He will be a reliable target for Jimmy Garapollo and a solid WR2 option for years.
JALEN HURD, WR BAYLOR (ROUND 3, PICK 67)
One of the more intriguing prospects in the draft, Hurd was a five-star recruit at running back who initially attended Tennessee. He requested to change positions to receiver and his coaches scoffed, so he transferred to Baylor. He only has one season as a wideout and he is a big target – 6’5” and 226 pounds. He is still learning the position but there are traits to love.
Hurd is physical and not afraid to initiate contact after catching the ball as well as when blocking. He shows a lot of the little nuances you wouldn’t expect from a running back recruit with limited experience at his new position. He uses fakes well and uses his size to create the advantage in leverage situations. He has a limited route tree and doesn’t vary speed within routes, and he’s not a natural pass-catcher yet, which is to be expected and something he works hard at.
It seemed like a reach with some of the options on the board, yet the 49ers have a system in which Hurd could carve out a role and be a productive WR2/WR3 with some development and refinement.
KADEN SMITH, TE STANFORD (ROUND 6, PICK 176)
Tight ends hailing from Stanford have become mainstays in the NFL and Smith is the latest in the long lineage. He’s a strong tight end, not the greatest technician, but he plays tough and fights hard with his hands, running routes with physicality. Smith has the ideal size for a tight end but lacks the traits to be more than a TE2, especially with George Kittle on the roster. Smith will need to work to be a better run blocker and should also be able to grab a few passes here and there, filling in if Kittle goes down as well.
DK METCALF, WR OLE MISS (ROUND 2, PICK 64)
If Mobile was almost named Deebo, then Indianapolis could have been changed to DeKaylin. Metcalf destroyed the combine and really cemented his status as a receiver to draft this year. He came in after not really being able to string together much collegiately due to injuries and tested off the charts in certain areas.
Metcalf brings a unique skill set and with his size it’s tantalizing what he could be if he is able to string it all together and stay healthy. His breakaway speed makes him dangerous, he has the size to box out defensive backs, and he has phenomenal hands. The route tree and agility are the big questions. His route repertoire is limited. He doesn’t adjust well in-route due to wooden movements and lack of fluidity. All this led to a fall in the draft despite the insane testing numbers and Adonis-like physique.
Metcalf enters a great situation in Seattle. The depth chart is thin and if Doug Baldwin is unable to play, Metcalf will get tons of reps right off the bat. He has a chance to develop with Russell Wilson and be the WR1 there for a long time.
GARY JENNINGS, WR WEST VIRGINIA (ROUND 4, PICK 120)
Joining Metcalf in the receiver corps is another impressive athletic receiver. Jennings never put together a consistently impressive campaign at Morgantown, but it’s all there on tape. He caught 97 passes in 2017 to show the possession receiver role. He then caught 13 touchdowns in 2018, showing a nose for the end zone.
Jennings blazed to a 4.42 40-yard dash at the combine, but the speed doesn’t show as much in games. He needs to play faster as well as hone his route running skills, and he could stand out for the Seahawks. He is a reliable receiver who catches everything thrown his way, outmuscles defensive backs for the ball, and is tough to bring down after the catch.
Both of these wide receivers fit well with Tyler Lockett’s skill set to offer Wilson a corps of pass-catchers he hasn’t had in Seattle yet.
TRAVIS HOMER, RB MIAMI (ROUND 6, PICK 204)
Homer is an electric change-of-pace back with home-run hitting ability, excels on outside runs, and could be a factor as a third-down receiving threat. He had issues with fumbles at Miami, doesn’t have good vision, and sometimes tries to take on tacklers when he should be trying to elude them. Homer fits in a crowded backfield which features Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny, but gives the Seahawks a unique and explosive option.
JOHN URSUA, WR HAWAI’I (ROUND 7, PICK 236)
A slot receiver at Hawai’i with a skillset similar to Lockett’s, the Hawks grabbed Ursua in the final round to add some depth at a thin position. He was primarily used on go routes and slant routes, catching 89 balls for 1,343 yards and 16 touchdowns in his 2018 junior season for the Rainbow Warriors. Ursua has the opportunity to make the team and fill in as a deep threat or possibly returning kick and punts.
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