Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. Adam Maya examines the current makeup of the NFC West below.
Old team: Las Vegas Raiders
Signing J.J. Watt sparked more headlines, and understandably so. Watt was better last year than some have indicated, and his presence in the locker room could prove to be even greater. But trading for Hudson probably moves the performance needle a bit more. The three-time Pro Bowler is one of the best centers in football and instantly elevates what was a subpar offensive line in 2020. Arizona still has work to do there.
New team: Carolina Panthers
It took four years, but Reddick finally made good on his first-round selection. That delayed development explains why the Cardinals let him walk this offseason, and likely why he netted just a one-year deal in Carolina. Arizona boasted one of the better pass-rushing units in the league in 2020 and might have to replace Reddick's 12.5 sacks by committee. But between Watt, Chandler Jones, Isaiah Simmons and Markus Golden, those pieces already seem to be in place.
TOP DRAFT PRIORITY: Cornerback
Parting ways with Patrick Peterson seemed necessary, with the former All-Pro in obvious decline. The addition of Malcolm Butler is fine if it's for depth. There's a reason Tennessee moved on from him. The Cards brought back Robert Alford, who's yet to play for them since signing a three-year deal in 2019. Perhaps he'll be healthy this year. But Arizona should be in the market for multiple starters. With just two picks in the top 150 (Nos. 16 and 49 overall) and six total, the draft probably won't be the team's only avenue to upgrade.
The Cardinals are going for it. After their brush with making the playoffs, they needed to get better on offense. Perhaps they have, after reshuffling their O-line a bit and adding WR A.J. Green and RB James Conner. Should Larry Fitzgerald retire, it would be a bigger loss for the league than his team at this point. Whatever the future Hall of Famer decides, 2021 sets up to be a defining year for Arizona's head coach and quarterback. The Kliff Kingsbury-Kyler Murray combo has certainly made the Cards competitive. Their next step is making the offense more explosive. The rushing attack is efficient and sometimes dynamic, thanks to Murray. But he's not pushing the ball downfield enough, despite his deep-ball prowess, leaving Arizona in the middle of the scoring pack. Vance Joseph's defense usually does its part to win games, and the unit figures to improve this season. The same, if not more, will be expected in Year 3 of Kingsbury and Murray.
Old team: Detroit Lions
You could see players boarding the QB carousel before the regular season ended. What no one knew was that the ride would begin before the Super Bowl, and the Rams were first in line. Stafford can be a bit polarizing because he's only played for the Lions and doesn't have much of a playoff pedigree. But he's been objectively good, sometimes great, for most of his career. Here's guessing that will be better understood now that he's paired with an elite defense and (offensive-minded) head coach.
New team: Cleveland Browns
Johnson isn't a household name. He hasn't even been a Pro Bowler. But he's been one of the most important contributors to the unit that ranked No. 1 in the league last season. He proved to be an ideal fit, thanks to his ability to cover and tackle in the box. That versatility combined with Johnson's relative anonymity and ensuing departure is reminiscent of Cory Littleton's trek out of L.A. last year. A suitable replacement for Johnson might not be on the roster yet.
TOP DRAFT PRIORITY: Offensive line
L.A. got stouter line play in 2020 compared to 2019, which resulted in a stronger rushing attack. (The passing game was again middling. Hence, the Stafford-Jared Goff swap.) But things aren't exactly set in the trenches. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is giving it another go after missing nearly half of last season with injuries. He also turns 40 in December. Counting on him for a full season would be risky. The Rams are missing long-term solutions at center and right guard as well. Of course, they don't own a first-round pick in this draft (or 2022 or '23). But they have three opportunities on Day 2 to add depth that can be developed into starters for the future, or perhaps sooner.
The Stafford acquisition has already put the Rams a level up in every projection. Time will tell how the QB change manifests on the field. Coach Sean McVay has proven he can win in this league, leading the Rams to at least nine victories in all four of his seasons. The franchise hasn't been this consistent in three-plus decades. But how will the club handle high expectations? L.A. took a notable step backward when the bullseye ballooned in 2019 following its Super Bowl run. It's fair to say this year's roster is better, though there's a fair amount of turnover on defense for new coordinator Raheem Morris. Buttressed by a front office willing to remain all in, McVay hasn't been fazed by staff changes on either side of the ball in the past. His offensive system has been the star. Now he has a QB who can not only execute it but elevate it. The window to reach the top with this nucleus just might not be open for very long.
Old team: Atlanta Falcons
Injuries were by far the biggest reason the 49ers tumbled in 2020. But offensive-line play might have been first runner-up. Re-signing Trent Williams was non-negotiable, as his hefty contract demonstrates. San Francisco, in fact, was exemplary this offseason in keeping much of its core intact. But the offensive line needed shaking up. Enter Mack, who starred in Cleveland (2009-2015) and Atlanta (2016-2020) before, during and after current Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for the Browns (2014) and Falcons (2015-16). Mack should be a perfect fit for a unit that needed to plug some holes this offseason.
New team: Unsigned
The 49ers haven't been strong at cornerback for years. Losing Sherman, whose 2019 campaign was one of the franchise's best at the position in the last decade, is a blow to not only the secondary but the locker room. He's easily been one of the better signings of the current regime. While age (33), recent injury history (Sherman appeared in just five games in 2020) and expected pay foreshadowed his exit months ago, the Niners still haven't replaced him. The hole at CB thus remains glaring.
TOP DRAFT PRIORITY: Quarterback
A George Kittle-Kyle Pitts pairing at tight end would be tantalizing, for sure. But the 49ers have no choice but to draft a QB after trading three first-round picks for the No. 3 overall selection. They're simply in too deep. They've also seen two of the past three years (2020 and 2018) sabotaged by injuries to Jimmy Garoppolo. A closer look will reveal Garoppolo wasn't particularly good in those partial seasons when healthy. While his time as the Niners' starter is nearing its end, two questions consume the fan base: Which QB will they select, and will he take the baton from Garoppolo immediately?
Even if you give them a mulligan for 2020, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch are heading into a prove-it year. They've mortgaged a sizable chunk of the future to acquire a franchise QB. It's a move that only became necessary after they pushed the wrong button at the game's premier position so many times. Since parting ways with Colin Kaepernick upon their arrival in the Bay, the 49ers brass signed Brian Hoyer to be a bridge starter, passed on drafting Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in 2017 and traded for Jimmy G. While that was a great transaction, obviously, they then made him the highest-paid player in the league (for a time) and reportedly turned down Tom Brady last offseason. The results? A Super Bowl run in 2019 sandwiched by two six-win seasons and a four-win campaign. The current roster is too good for the 49ers to miss the playoffs in 2021. It will again come down to QB play. But judgment for all of that will fall on the team's decision-makers more so than its starter.
Old team: Las Vegas Raiders
The trade that sent Jackson to the Seahawks in exchange for a fifth-round pick was overshadowed by the Raiders' swap of center Rodney Hudson to the Cardinals on the same day. But if Jackson's arrival pacified Russell Wilson enough to stay in Seattle for another season, it would stand as one of the biggest acquisitions across the sport. At the very least, he provides exactly what his new QB is asking for. Jackson has allowed one or fewer sacks and two QB hits or less in five of the past seven seasons, including 2020. The Seahawks now must continue restocking their offensive line.
New team: Jacksonville Jaguars
The price tag for Griffin (three years, $44.5 million) seemed excessive and was ultimately out of Seattle's budget. But his departure still stings. He was easily the best corner in a secondary that was a mess in pass defense for a good chunk of last season. (Its improvement down the stretch coincided with facing a string of underwhelming QBs.) Given the expected improvement from other signal-callers within the division, upgrading the CB room is a serious need for the Seahawks. It's just not the biggest.
TOP DRAFT PRIORITY: Offensive line
Ah, the object of Wilson's ire. While none of the game's other elite quarterbacks are as responsible for as many of their sacks as Wilson, Seattle needs better line play regardless of who's cooking. The rushing offense has been trending downward for two years and pass protection remains porous. It's not a total lost cause, however. Left tackle Duane Brown is still solid as he enters his age-36 season, and guard Damien Lewis is coming off a promising rookie campaign. With Jackson holding down the other guard position, the Seahawks have two spots that need immediate attention and just three draft picks to work with. They could also target Brown's successor.
It's hard to make the case for Seattle being as good as it was a year ago, much less better. Then consider the perennial contender hasn't actually been in title contention in six years. That must have partly contributed to Wilson's passive-aggressive demonstration prior to free agency, aside from whatever off-the-field pursuits that might be pulling at him. While there's been no indication of late that Wilson could still be on the move and the practicality of parting ways this year has never been there, it's interesting that neither he nor team brass have spoken of a reconciliation. The silence underscores the frustration felt by the two most prominent members remaining from the franchise's recent glory. In some ways, Wilson and Pete Carroll are victims of their own success. Making the playoffs every year just isn't good enough. And the longer they're together, the more each might see the other as the reason they haven't won it all again.