NFC West rookie grades: Aaron Donald led Rams' stellar crop


As coaches and general managers prepare to make potentially franchise-altering decisions in the 2015 NFL Draft, now is the perfect time to look back and see how the choices made last year played out on the field. Bucky Brooks is reviewing and grading each team's rookie class from 2014, as well as highlighting what organizations should hone in on at this month's NFL Scouting Combine -- continuing with the NFC West below. CLICK HERE FOR THE OTHER DIVISIONAL BREAKDOWNS.

Arizona Cardinals

The draft can be the ultimate crapshoot, with players routinely outplaying their draft positions early in their respective careers. The Cardinals certainly benefitted from an unheralded third-round selection enjoying a stellar rookie campaign as the team's designated WR3. John Brown not only added speed and explosiveness to the passing game, but he became one of the team's clutch playmakers at critical moments, as evidenced by his knack for coming down with winning touchdowns. Deone Bucannon was a key member of Arizona's exotic "Big Nickel" package that befuddled opponents around the NFL. The big-bodied safety thrived as a hybrid linebacker near the line of scrimmage, exhibiting outstanding instincts, awareness and physicality as a box defender. The Cardinals are still in "wait and see" mode on tight end Troy Niklas, defensive end Kareem Martin and quarterback Logan Thomas. That said, the fact that several rookies, including undrafted free-agent kicker Chandler Catanzaro, contributed to a playoff push merits a solid overall grade. Grade: B

Combine focus: Despite losing coordinator Todd Bowles, who became the New York Jets' head coach, the Cardinals have the ingredients to continue fielding an elite defense, provided they can shore up the linebacker position. Arizona could use a top-notch pass rusher and could stand to solidify inside linebacker with an instinctive tackling machine, so the team should spend the bulk of its time in Indy eyeballing the top defenders in the 2015 class. At outside linebacker, Clemson's Vic Beasley, Kentucky's Bud Dupree and Virginia's Eli Harold will draw interest as potential edge rushers. With the Cardinals in need of a playmaker in the middle, the team could put Mississippi State ILB Benardrick McKinney in the crosshairs, to see if he is athletic enough to man the position. UCLA's Eric Kendricks and Miami's Denzel Perryman will also draw significant interest from Arizona.

St. Louis Rams

The Rams have assembled a deep and talented collection of players since general manager Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher arrived in 2012. In particular, St. Louis' roster is chock full of potential Pro Bowlers on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive Rookie of the Year Aaron Donald emerged as a dominant force on the interior as a rookie; the tackle should be a perennial All-Pro player, based on his combination of strength, power and explosiveness at the point of attack. Although defensive backs E.J. Gaines and Lamarcus Joyner aren't all-star players at this point, they made solid contributions as rookies and have the potential to grow into difference-makers in coordinator Gregg Williams' aggressive scheme. Offensively, lineman Greg Robinson was a bit of a disappointment, but he's too athletic at the point of attack to fail as a franchise player. Tre Mason looks like a solid bet to become the team's workhorse back of the future. Grade: A-

Combine focus: The Rams must address their quarterback situation if they want to become legitimate contenders in the NFC. Whether former No. 1 pick Sam Bradford ultimately succeeds at long last or St. Louis lands a franchise signal-caller in the draft, the team's playoff hopes rest on the play under center in 2015. Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Florida State's Jameis Winston are viewed as the only franchise quarterbacks available, but the Rams could be intrigued by a "diamond in the rough" like UCLA's Brett Hundley, Baylor's Bryce Petty or Colorado State's Garrett Grayson as a developmental prospect.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers didn't live up to expectations in 2014, and their struggles could partly be attributed to scattershot performances by the rookies. Yes, it's tough to count on first-year players to make a significant impact on a team that reached three straight NFC title games, but high hopes surrounded the Niners' first three picks: safety Jimmie Ward, running back Carlos Hyde and center Marcus Martin. Hyde flashed the potential to grow into a full-time role as a feature back, but Ward and Martin were mild disappointments. Receiver Bruce Ellington (six catches for 62 yards and two touchdowns in 13 games) also qualifies as a disappointment, considering San Francisco desperately needed a young receiver to emerge as a home-run threat to help quarterback Colin Kaepernick reach his potential as a passer. On the bright side, the 49ers landed a pair of steals in linebackers Chris Borland and Aaron Lynch. Borland and Lynch both outplayed their respective draft slots, delivering the kind of production that has many thinking they'll be solid starters going forward. Grade: C+

Combine focus: With several veteran receivers possibly departing during free agency, this team must find a WR1. Thus, San Francisco will take extended looks at West Virginia's Kevin White, Louisville's DeVante Parker, Missouri's Dorial Green-Beckham and Michigan's Devin Funchess as lead-receiver candidates. The team also needs to look long and hard for possible upgrades at cornerback. Michigan State's Trae Waynes, Washington's Marcus Peters and LSU's Jalen Collins possess the size, length and cover skills to intrigue as possible rookie starters.

Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks have built what is arguably the best roster in the NFL through exceptional player development on the practice field. Coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have received an excellent rate of return on their late-round picks and undrafted free agents, which is a testament to the coaching and teaching that takes place in Seattle. On paper, the Seahawks' rookie class didn't make many contributions to the team's run to Super Bowl XLIX. Justin Britt was a solid starter at right tackle for most of the season, but he went through a series of ups and downs in pass protection that kept quarterback Russell Wilson on the run in the pocket. Paul Richardson was finally starting to make his mark as a WR3 prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury in the NFC Divisional Round. Defensive end Cassius Marsh and receiver Kevin Norwood rarely got on the field, but the Seahawks are hopeful each can become a contributing member down the road. Grade: C

Combine on NFL Network
In advance of the draft, Marcus Mariota and others will look to showcase their skills at the combine (Feb. 17-23), only on NFL Network. SCHEDULE

Combine focus: The uncertainty surrounding stud running back Marshawn Lynch should prompt the Seahawks to consider finding his long-term replacement. Georgia's Todd Gurley, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Boise State's Jay Ajayi are big-bodied runners with the size, speed and physicality to possibly fill that role. Seattle will attempt to determine if each possesses the mindset to carry the team as a feature back. The team also will scour the receiver market, to see if there's an underrated pass catcher out there capable of developing into a WR1 in their system. Expect the 'Hawks to kick the tires on prospects like USC's Nelson Agholor, Stanford's Ty Montgomery and ECU's Justin Hardy, to decipher whether they have the requisite chip on the shoulder to fit into the program.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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