Free Agency Primer: NFC West
In an NFL that becomes more and more competitive every year, the NFC West is the league’s nuclear roller derby — the division where every game is a huge battle for ultimate supremacy, and talent is plentiful across the board. The Seahawks survived this division of attrition to win the Super Bowl, but they had to get past the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, and the trailing Cardinals and Rams would be division champs in some other surroundings.
Now that all four teams are preparing to load up for the 2014 version of this particular go-round, let’s take a look at where each team stands with its own free agents.
• Key free agents: CB Javier Arenas, SS Yeremiah Bell, CB Antoine Cason, ILB Karlos Dansby, K Jay Feely, WR Andre Roberts, RB Rashard Mendenhall, DE Frostee Rucker, OT Eric Winston
• Players Arizona needs back: Bell, Dansby, Roberts
Bell was exposed in coverage enough to put him on the bubble, but he’s a decent short-term stopgap. Dansby, however, combined with Daryl Washington to create perhaps the most mobile inside linebacker duo in the league — he’s without question Arizona’s most important free-agent consideration. Roberts is a talented receiver with the potential to be Larry Fitzgerald’s second banana.
• Players Arizona should let walk: Arenas, Mendenhall, Winston, Rucker, Cason, Feely
Winston took a lot of snaps for the Cardinals in 2013, but that wasn’t a good thing — he gave up a team-leading 58 total pressures, and the Cardinals clearly need to reinforce their offensive line. Arenas and Cason are league-average players who can be replaced over time — clearly, the front office has a knack for identifying and deploying secondary talent. Feely’s leg is not as powerful as it once was, so it would be easy to see Arizona looking elsewhere.
• Outlook: It’s clear that with a few tweaks, the Cardinals will be ready to challenge the Seahawks and 49ers for supremacy in the NFL’s toughest division. They have enough cap room to do some things thanks to Larry Fitzgerald’s restructure. Moreover, Bruce Arians is the right man to be this team’s head coach, and general manager Steve Keim is one of the league’s more able executives. The arrow is definitely pointing up in the Valley of the Sun.
San Francisco 49ers
Key free agents: WR Anquan Boldin, S Donte Whitner, C Jonathan Goodwin, WR Mario Manningham, K Phil Dawson, CB Tarell Brown, RB Anthony Dixon, QB Colt McCoy, CB Eric Wright
• Players San Francisco needs back: Boldin, Whitner, Goodwin, Dawson, Brown, Wright
Boldin had yet another outstanding season for a new team — he’s getting up in age, but speed is not his game at this point. He’s a marvelous possession receiver who’s as tough in tight coverage as any other player in the league. Given the aggressive nature of NFC West secondaries, it would be very surprising if San Francisco made the same mistake the Baltimore Ravens made last year when they undervalued the veteran. Whitner isn’t quite the cover guy he once was, but he’s still aggressive enough (in a good way) in coverage to make a big difference, and he teamed especially well with rookie safety Eric Reid.
None of San Francisco’s free-agent cornerbacks are especially notable, but this franchise has had trouble grabbing legitimate starters in its last few drafts, so the best path to success may be to continue with the status quo and hope that the pass rush and linebacker play continues to shore things up. Goodwin is still a key cog in an offensive line that regressed to a degree in 2013, but remains one of the league’s best.
• Players San Francisco should let walk: Manningham, Dixon, McCoy
The 49ers were hoping for much more from Manningham, but multiple knee injuries have put his future in doubt. Dixon is a decent reserve player, but the team may be ready to unleash Marcus Lattimore in 2015. McCoy is a decent enough quarterback, but aside from his mobility, he doesn’t really fit the team’s current quarterback template.
• Outlook: Head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke have done an amazing job in creating a culture of success over the last three seasons. The question is when and whether the franchise will start paying the price for two very iffy drafts. The 49ers enjoyed historic performances from a lot of their defensive players, but the passing game fell sharply without receiver Michael Crabtree, and depth overall starts to look like a concern.