NFC West Projected starters: Cards the team to beat?


With the NFL Draft in the rearview mirror, Around The NFL will project starting lineups with tasty position battle nuggets for all 32 teams. The NFC West is below.

Arizona Cardinals

Cardinals Projected Starters
  Offense Defense
  QB: Carson Palmer DL: Calais Campbell
  RB: David Johnson DT: Rodney Gunter
  WR1: Larry Fitzgerald DL: Frostee Rucker
WR2: Michael Floyd OLB: Chandler Jones
  WR3 John Brown ILB: Deone Bucannon
TE: Jermaine Gresham ILB: Kevin Minter
LT: Jared Veldheer OLB: Markus Golden
LG: Mike Iupati CB1: Patrick Peterson
C: Evan Boehm CB2: Justin Bethel
RG: Evan Mathis S: Tyrann Mathieu
RT: D.J. Humphries S: Tony Jefferson

» Of the seven offensive tackles on the current roster, only Jared Veldheer has played an NFL game. That's a huge concern for coach Bruce Arians. Last year's first-round pick, D.J. Humphries, is penciled in to start at right tackle, but the team could use more experienced options off the bench.

» The other trouble spot on this otherwise loaded roster is at cornerback. Justin Bethel will step up a few spots on the depth chart and looks like a starter. Barely anyone else on the roster has real NFL experience, and third-round pick Brandon Williams literally started playing the position one year ago. The team is almost certain to add some veterans.

» If Tyrann Mathieu isn't ready for Week 1, D.J. Swearinger and Tyvon Branch will have even bigger roles.

» For now, first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche seems likely to come off the bench to rush from the interior on passing downs.

San Francisco 49ers

Niners Projected Starters
  Offense Defense
  QB: Blaine Gabbert DL: Arik Armstead
  RB: Carlos Hyde DT: Ian Williams
  WR1: Torrey Smith DT: DeForest Buckner
WR2: Quinton Patton LB: NaVorro Bowman
  WR3: Bruce Ellington OLB: Aaron Lynch
TE: Vance McDonald OLB: Ahmad Brooks
LT: Joe Staley CB1: Trumaine Brock
LG: Josh Garnett CB2: Jimmie Ward
C: Daniel Kilgore CB3: Chris Davis
RG: Zane Beadles S: Antoine Bethea
RT: Trent Brown S: Eric Reid

» Gabbert has a head start in Chip Kelly's offense and doesn't have enemies in the front office like Colin Kaepernick. Logic dictates that Kaepernick's talent will win out over Gabbert eventually, but at this stage it appears the organization prefers Gabbert to win this job.

» Figuring out the 49ers' wideout depth chart after Torrey Smith is pure guesswork. Quinton Patton is the most productive option to start opposite Smith and he has 36 career catches in three seasons.

DeAndre Smelter is a fourth-round pick from 2015 that missed all of last season and he has the next best pedigree on the roster. Perhaps CFL escapee Eric Rogers will be a factor. Who knows? The passing game has less talent than any group in the NFC, and its not close.

» That's the bad news. The good news is that the defense has the talent to be very good right now. The front seven is dangerous after pairing college teammates Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner. The defensive line is deep enough to put Glenn Dorsey and promising youngster Quinton Dial on the bench.

» Cornerback is the clear weak point of the defense. Safety has strength in numbers, though. The 49ers are moving former first-round pick Jimmie Ward to safety, where he will also play inside the numbers on passing downs. The larger question is whether former Browns defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil has the chops to use all the talent.

» Michael Wilhoite and Gerald Hodges will battle for an ILB role, but I didn't include either as a starter because the 49ers figure to be in nickel defense with five defensive backs most downs. 

Los Angeles Rams

Rams Projected Starters
  Offense Defense
  QB: Jared Goff DL: Robert Quinn
  RB: Todd Gurley DT: Aaron Donald
  WR1: Tavon Austin DT: Michael Brockers
WR2: Kenny Britt DL: William Hayes
  WR3 Brian Quick LB: Akeem Ayers
TE: Lance Kendricks MLB: Alec Ogletree
LT: Greg Robinson LB: Mark Barron
LG: Rodger Saffold CB1: Trumaine Johnson
C: Tim Barnes CB2: E.J. Gaines
RG: Jamon Brown CB3: LaMarcus Joyner
RT: Rob Havenstein S: T.J. McDonald

» The Rams haven't had a receiver top 800 yards in eight seasons, a fact as mystifying and depressing as Pitbull's career. There's no particular reason to believe that will change this year because the Rams are mostly sending out the same wideouts and tight ends, minus Jared Cook. At least the team finally learned how to maximize Tavon Austin last year.

» The offensive line has room to improve, and it should with three starters 23 years or younger. They also have great young depth after selecting five linemen last season. If Greg Robinson doesn't play like a No. 2 overall pick this year, it's probably never going to happen.

» The Los Angeles front seven remains the team's strength, led by the NFC's best defensive player in Aaron Donald. The return of Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron's second season at his new position will transform the linebacker group.

» I listed three cornerbacks and one safety because there is no telling who will start at free safety. Cody Davis and Maurice Alexander are the candidates, but the Rams might have to find a starter from another team when rosters are cut down.

Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks Projected Starters
  Offense Defense
  QB: Russell Wilson DE: Michael Bennett
  RB: Thomas Rawls DT: Jarran Reed
  WR1: Doug Baldwin DE: Cliff Avril
WR2: Jermaine Kearse OLB: K.J. Wright
  WR3 Tyler Lockett ILB: Bobby Wagner
TE: Jimmy Graham ILB: Brandon Browner
LT: Garry Gilliam CB1: Richard Sherman
LG: Mark Glowinski CB2: Jeremy Lane
C: Justin Britt CB3: DeShawn Shead
RG: Germain Ifedi S: Earl Thomas
RT: J'Marcus Webb S: Kam Chancellor

» Jimmy Graham and Thomas Rawls are both written in pencil for Week 1 because they are coming off serious injuries. Rawls looks like the safer bet to be ready physically, although the Seahawks drafted two running backs (C.J. Prosise, Alex Collins) to make sure.

» The Seahawks can afford to be careful bringing Graham back into the mix off a torn patellar tendon. They have good depth with Luke Willson and third-round pick Nick Vannett.

» It's crazy how unsettled the Seahawks' line is. They will very likely start with five starters who are either new to the team or have changed positions. Garry Gilliam was a shaky right tackle and is now moving to the left side. Justin Britt is moving from guard to center. At least offensive line coach Tom Cable has lots of options to pick the best group. All five positions should have competition.

» The offensive line is a concern for Russell Wilson. The continuity at wide receiver is another story. Tyler Lockett could make the leap to star status this year, and the team gets Paul Richardson back from injury.

» Seahawks general manager John Schneider clearly wants second-round pick Jarran Reed to play early in his career. Ahtyba Rubin and Jordan Hill will also get snaps, but we listed Reed as the only defensive tackle starter because Seattle will be in nickel or dime defense most of the time.

» Coach Pete Carroll wants to use Brandon Browner as a safety/linebacker hybrid in the mold of Arizona's Deone Bucannon. Inspiring a yellow storm in New Orleans as a cornerback last year, this role should suit Browner's skill set better. The Seahawks coaches are great at maximizing strengths in their players and hiding weaknesses.