Free agency shuffles the NFC West, shifts the balance of power

Apr 11, 2018, 5:55 AM | Updated: 10:23 am
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The NFC West underwent a changing of the guard during the 2017 NFL season. For the first time since 2003, the Rams won the division crown.

But the changes don’t stop there.

With the 2018 NFL Draft just over two weeks away, here is how the Arizona Cardinals’ opponents in the NFC West fared as free agency winds down.

Los Angeles Rams

2017 record: 11-5, first playoff appearance since 2004

At 31 years old, Sean McVay made quite a first impression as the youngest head coach in NFL history by leading the Rams to the NFC West title, the franchise’s first division crown since 2003.

With the balance of power in the division shifting toward Los Angeles, general manager Les Snead was a busy man this offseason in an effort to keep his team at the top.

Last season, the team surprised some people in making the playoffs. The Rams won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time around.

Biggest Newcomer

Wide receiver Brandin Cooks

(AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

A big part of what made McVay’s offense effective in 2017 was the presence of a vertical threat. He utilized a downfield weapon that opened up space underneath and gave running back Todd Gurley more room to operate out of the backfield.

Last season, the Rams had Sammy Watkins in that position and have since upgraded to the more durable Cooks. The former New England Patriot is coming off his third straight 1,000-yard season and possesses the breakaway speed and hands necessary to fit McVay’s system.

Key Additions

Cornerback Marcus Peters (Traded from Kansas City)

Cornerback Aqib Talib (Traded from Denver)

Cornerback Sam Shields (Signed out of retirement)

Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (Signed from Miami)

Biggest Loss

Defensive end Robert Quinn (Traded to Miami)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

This was difficult.

Quinn, in addition to cornerback Trumaine Johnson and linebacker Alec Ogletree, were key defensive cogs for the Rams in previous years.

However, the selection of Quinn is based on what Los Angeles received in return.

The Rams swapped Quinn for a mid-round pick.

Although LA didn’t technically receive anything for Johnson because he signed with the Jets, the anticipation of his departure led to the Peters and Talib acquisitions.

In trading Ogletree to the New York Giants, the Rams were able to free up space needed to trade for Peters.

Key Losses

Inside linebacker Alec Olgletree (Traded to New York Giants)

Wide receiver Sammy Watkins (Signed with Kansas City)

Cornerback Trumaine Johnson (Signed with New York Jets)

X – Factor: Suh

(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

Ndamukong Suh, Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald: This is the group defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can use on the defensive line of his 3-4 scheme.

Yes, Suh didn’t post gaudy numbers in Miami, finishing with 15.5 sacks and 181 total tackles in three seasons. But his impact goes beyond numbers.

Suh frequently ate up double teams, freeing up teammates. With Suh and Donald in Los Angeles, offenses will have a tough decision choosing which player to double.

San Francisco 49ers

2017 record: 6-10, won six of seven to close the season

For nine games, 49ers general manager John Lynch was proving his doubters to be right. A disastrous 0-9 start under the new regime of Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan had San Francisco in the hunt for the No. 1 overall pick.

Enter Jimmy Garoppolo.

Lynch maneuvered a deal to acquire Garoppolo from New England at the trade deadline. In five starts, he went 5-0 with six touchdowns and five interceptions, sparking the idea that the 49ers could compete sooner than some expected.

As a result, Lynch has been aggressive in his first full offseason at the helm.

Biggest Newcomer

Cornerback Richard Sherman

(AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Before an Achilles tear cut his season short, Sherman had never missed a game of his seven-year career.

Now 30 years old, Sherman has a fresh start in the Bay after being released by Seattle.

His 32 interceptions are the most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2011 and he is a vocal leader on the field.

If nothing else, you’d have to imagine he’s going to get pretty fired up to the play the Seahawks twice a year.

Key Additions

Defensive lineman Jeremiah Attaochu (Signed from Los Angeles Chargers)

Running back Jerick McKinnon (Signed from Minnesota)

Linebacker Korey Toomer (Signed from Los Angeles Chargers)

Center Weston Richburg (Signed from New York Giants)

Biggest Loss

Running back Carlos Hyde (Signed with Cleveland)

(AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith, File)

Hyde gets the nod here for being the only key contributor gone from last season’s team, albeit a decent sized hole to fill.

Although he has yet to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, Hyde was able to parlay two healthy seasons into a three-year contract with Cleveland.

This leaves the newly acquired Jerick McKinnon as the likely starter. A versatile ball carrier, McKinnon can work out of the backfield but has never been a full-time starter and is certainly not as strong a downfield runner as Hyde.

Key Losses

Linebacker Aaron Lynch (Signed with Chicago)

X – Factor: Richburg

(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

When Shanahan was an offensive coordinator in Atlanta, the dynamic of his offense changed once center Alex Mack came to the Falcons in 2016.

The presence of Mack tremendously impacted the run game in Atlanta with an increase in yards per carry (3.8 to 4.6) and rushing yards (1,606 to 1,928) on just one more attempt.

Signing Richburg feels like Shanahan trying to replicate the success he had with Mack in Atlanta. Coming off of a season-ending concussion in Week 4, the move is a bit of a risk but could pay dividends if Richburg can stay healthy.

At 6-foot-3 and 298 pounds, he has good quickness out of the snap which fits Shanahan’s outside zone-blocking scheme nicely. The addition of Richburg should also benefit a unit that gave up 43 sacks.

Seattle Seahawks

2017 record: 9-7, missed postseason for first time since 2011

Five seasons removed from one of the more dominant Super Bowl performances in NFL history, the Legion of Boom has reached its end, replaced by a rebuild that few could have foreseen.

What was once a firm grip on the division has become a last-ditch attempt to salvage the roster.

After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011, Seattle has taken a step back to analyze its future.

The result?

Releasing some faces of the franchise.

Biggest Newcomer

Tight end Ed Dickson

(AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

The name might not pop off the page here, but the production certainly does. Coming to Seattle from Carolina, Dickson isn’t an athletic pass-catcher like Jimmy Graham but has proven himself as a blocker.

Pro Football Focus ranked Dickson as the top pass-blocking tight end in 2017.

Reaching 50 targets once in eight seasons, Dickson has blocked on 29 percent of passing plays over the past three years.

Last season, Seattle’s offensive line was in the bottom 10 in sacks allowed (43) and third-worst in quarterback hits (121). Adding Dickson to the blocking scheme should help alleviate those numbers.

Key Additions

Wide receiver Jaron Brown (Signed from Arizona)

Linebacker Barkevious Mingo (Signed from Indianapolis)

Biggest Loss

Cornerback Richard Sherman (Released – signed with San Francisco)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

It’s never easy to cut ties with a player that is considered by some to be a face of the franchise.

It stings a little more when that player chooses to sign within the same division.

General manager John Schneider chose to play it safe by releasing Sherman, who was due to make $11 million in 2018 and continues to recover from a ruptured Achilles.

Aside from being a leader in Seattle, Sherman had also played in 105 consecutive games prior to his injury.

Key Losses

Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (Signed with Minnesota)

Defensive end Michael Bennett (Released – signed with Philadelphia)

Tight end Jimmy Graham (Signed with Green Bay)

Wide receiver Paul Richardson (Signed with Washington)

X – Factor: Mingo

(AP Photo/Don Wright)

One of the overlooked signings of the offseason is the former LSU product. Mingo hasn’t lived up to the billing as a top-10 draft pick but instead has a more defined role in the NFL.

When he was drafted by Cleveland in 2013, the initial expectation of Mingo was for him to become a dominant outside linebacker but he never developed as a pass rusher. He’s got nine sacks in five seasons.

Instead, Mingo has retooled his game.

Still an athletic linebacker, he is productive in getting to ball carriers quickly against the run and also contributes on special teams. He forced three fumbles and recovered three more throughout the season.

While a mid-career surge seems unlikely, his effectiveness as a role player makes him easy to coach and plug into different defensive scenarios.

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Free agency shuffles the NFC West, shifts the balance of power