The most competitive division in football will continue to make for "must-see TV" in 2014, with the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams significantly upgrading their respective rosters this spring. Each team added or re-signed blue-chip players during free agency to fill glaring holes while enhancing their physicality and toughness -- two traits that are needed to win the hard-hitting games this division regularly features. As all four squads also have upper-echelon defenses, the decision-makers of the NFC West had little room for error when it came to drafting well enough to keep up with the competition.
NFC West notables
Credit Niners general manager Trent Baalke for landing arguably the top running back in the draft on Day 2. Hyde inexplicably slipped to the bottom of the second round despite displaying a game that's ideally suited for the power-based schemes that are prevalent in the NFL. Hyde's downhill running style is a perfect fit for San Francisco; he could take over for Frank Gore when the veteran slows down, perhaps in a year or so.
Donald's inclusion at this spot isn't meant as a dismissal of his talent. Rather, it's an acknowledgement of the reaction at Radio City Music Hall upon NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's announcement of the pick. Most observers expected Donald to be drafted in the middle of the first round, but few had pegged St. Louis as a possible landing spot for the standout from Pittsburgh. Not that this was a bad move for the Rams; in a division ruled by physical defenses, it's crucial to build a dominant front line. Still, choosing to add the disruptive defender here meant St. Louis missed out on the blue-chip safeties that remained on the board at that point.
One year after finding a sneaky good ball carrier (Zac Stacy) on Day 3 of last year's draft, Jeff Fisher might've discovered another gem in the form of Mason. The Heisman Trophy finalist is a hard-nosed, physical runner with impressive vision, quickness and body control. He slithers in and out of tight holes while displaying the balance and burst to run away from defenders at the second level. Although Mason will likely share the load with Stacy as a rookie in St. Louis, I can envision the third-rounder developing into a Marion Barber-like runner for the Rams.
Note: Click on team names to see complete draft classes.
Silver: Spirit of St. Louis
ST. LOUIS RAMS: Head coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead have built a squad that's primed to compete for a playoff berth in 2014. No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson is a big (6-5, 332), physical offensive tackle who can be plugged into the lineup as a Day 1 starter. As he isn't quite ready to play left tackle, the Rams could ease his transition to the pro game by following the Tyron Smith model (Dallas had Smith start at right tackle as a rookie before moving him to the left side prior to his second season). Donald is a disruptive penetrator with the first-step quickness and burst to wreak havoc on the interior. With him in the fold, the Rams have a devastating front line possessing the collective size, strength and power to overwhelm opponents at the point of attack. Lamarcus Joyner (Round 2) is a hybrid safety-corner with the potential to contribute as a sub-package defender on obvious passing downs. Michael Sam has garnered a lot of attention as a pioneer; the Rams are counting on the Missouri standout to make the squad as a situational pass rusher/special-teams star to shore up the bottom third of the roster. GRADE: A+
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: The 49ers entered the draft with enough ammunition to make some major moves, and while Baalke didn't do as much wheeling and dealing as many anticipated, he did assemble an impressive haul that included a number of blue-chip prospects. Jimmie Ward is an ideal nickel defender with the instincts, awareness and ball skills to be a difference-maker in the secondary. Although he was slightly over-drafted at No. 30, there is little doubt Ward will be a key contributor to the 49ers' defense from Day 1. As I mentioned previously, Hyde is a fantastic match for the Niners' attack. Third-round picks Marcus Martin and Brandon Thomas will add size, strength and athleticism to an offensive line that's already loaded at every position. Linebacker Chris Borland lacks ideal size, but he's a tackling machine with the potential to become a fixture on special teams. Overall, the 49ers upgraded their roster with a collection of talent that should keep them in contention for the next few seasons. GRADE: A
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Since the beginning of the Pete Carroll/John Schneider era, the Seahawks' draft classes have routinely earned initial low marks -- and yet, their roster is regarded as one of the best in the NFL. Thus, observers should really reserve judgment until the team's plan for each prospect is revealed. Looking at this year's collection of rookie talent, I see a number of height-weight-speed athletes with ultra-competitive personalities. Receiver Paul Richardson (Round 2) is a blazer with exceptional straight-line speed and burst. He's an unpolished route runner, but his ability to get past the defense on vertical routes could make him a legitimate home-run threat in the Seahawks' offense. Richardson and fourth-round selection Kevin Norwood give Seattle a pair of young pass-catchers with tremendous potential. Fourth-round pick Cassius Marsh is an underrated pass rusher with the size and length to create problems off the edge. Overall, the Seahawks' class lacks sizzle, but Carroll and Co. will surely find a way to develop these new additions into key contributors down the road. GRADE: C