Scouting the NFL: NFC West Players To Watch

With the regular season around the corner, Inside The Pylon reached out to former NFL scout and current Scouting Academy director Dan Hatman for a cheat sheet on who the pros are keeping an eye on – and who may be in danger of losing their job. Here, he identifies which NFC West players to watch in 2015.

Arizona Cardinals 

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Markus Golden Jonathan Cooper / Kevin Minter Larry Fitzgerald Tyrann Mathieu Sean Weatherspoon

The Cardinals were considered surprise contenders last season, somehow making the playoffs despite playing third and fourth string quarterbacks. The return of Carson Palmer from his second ACL injury is cause for celebration, if only because steady, unspectacular play from the QB might be all that is needed to elevate Bruce Arians’s club into serious contenders.

The team is mostly young and while very talented, they need Larry Fitzgerald to not be the Veteran Who May Be Ready To Decline. The future Hall of Famer has lost a step – or maybe two – but has remained productive with superior technique and guile. This season might be his last in Arizona, as his contract has clogged the cap for several seasons and they will need to pay the young talent. Fitzgerald, and Cards fans, then, will be hoping he’s got enough left in the tank to make another Super Bowl appearance in a Cardinals uniform.

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The receiving talent is nice, but keeping Palmer’s knees (and everything else) protected has to be job #1 for the offensive brain trust of the Cardinals: head coach Arians, offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, and assistant head coach/legend Tom Moore. Key here is third-year guard Jonathan Cooper, who missed his rookie year because of injury and struggled some more with injuries and mistakes last season. He Needs To Develop Quickly to validate the investment that Arizona made in him as the seventh overall pick in 2013.

Defensively, the Cards must overcome the loss of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and show that same kind of success under the leadership of promoted outside linebackers coach James Bettcher. The addition of recently retired Larry Foote to the coaching staff with veteran coach Bob Sanders should provide a good foundation for the troublesome interior linebackers spot. Getting Sean Weatherspoon back to health after missing 23 of the last 32 games would help a lot, as an Expanded Role for the talented tackling machine inside makes this defense more versatile and stout against the run. At his peak, he was a true three-down LB and a top five player at OLB. Now, post-injury and in a different front, Weatherspoon needs to re-establish himself for the Cardinals

Meanwhile, the other projected starter, Kevin Minter, Needs To Develop Quickly, having served his two-year apprenticeship since being selected in the second round. Reports from camp are encouraging, with the player having reshaped his body in the offseason and shown great strides in practice. With Dan Williams departed, the Cardinals linebackers figure to see more guards in the running game, and the ability to shed blocks will be crucial.

Minter’s former LSU Tigers teammate Tyrann Mathieu is the Most Intriguing Player To Study on film, as the Cardinals can play him all over the formation. His versatility and competitive toughness make him someone the opposition has to prepare for, and his rapport with All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson allows for some very interesting coverage schemes. His ability to defend the middle of the field in a variety of spots, including their four safety packages, is invaluable to making the defense versatile and effective.

LaMarr Woodley is the nominal starter at one of the outside linebacker spots, which means Markus Golden, second round pick out of Missouri, is the Rookie Needed Early. Golden is a relentless player with excellent competitive toughness. He needs to refine his technique and show better skill at getting off blocks. The Cardinals will be hoping he progresses quickly and can help make an impact on passing downs. Bowles was a master at generating a pass rush without a star pass rusher. Without the mastermind, and working under an untested DC, it is even more critical that Golden makes a year 1 impact.

San Francisco 49ers

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Arik Armstead Brandon Thomas / Carlos Hyde Anquan Boldin Jarryd Hayne Bruce Ellington

With so many names out the door, the 49ers and new head coach Jim Tomsula will be a radically different team than in recent seasons. Many positions need filling, none moreso than running back. Former Australian Rugby star Jarryd Hayne will be the
Most Intriguing Player to Study for lots of reasons. He was a two-time Daily M Medal winner (“best and fairest”) and a superstar in rugby but gave it up to try the NFL as a running back and kick returner. The 27 year old was given a three-year contract and earned his way onto the roster with a series of impressive plays during the preseason. It’s entirely possible that Hayne’s vision, skill, speed, and toughness translate perfectly to the NFL. Indeed, he could be the most exciting returner in the league this season as he learns the running back position.

Former Oregon defensive end Arik Armstead is the Rookie Who Needs To Develop Early, an unenviable task following the now-retired Justin Smith, one of the best 3-4 ends in recent memory. Armstead is adept at stopping the run, demonstrating good lateral movement and quick hands. However, he is too often neutralized when getting after the quarterback because of his tendency to be stood up, allowing opposing linemen to get their hands under his chest and arrest his forward momentum. Having himself played in a true 2-gap front in college where he learned to react and shed, it will be interesting to see how Tomsula – a former DL coach – new coordinator Eric Mangini, and scout-turned-coach Scott Brown refine Armstead’s game.

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Frank Gore’s departure leaves Carlos Hyde as a player who Needs To Develop Quickly. The second-year back from Ohio State has prototypical size and power, finishing runs with authority and drive. The question is whether he can adjust to the new zone blocking schemes preferred by new OL coach Chris Foerster. Unfortunately, the offensive line that made Gore so successful is in flux, and it remains to be seen if this new unit can be as effective at creating running lanes.

The 49ers hoped second-year guard Brandon Thomas would Develop Quickly, but he was beaten out by former New England Patriot Jordan Devey, who was acquired in a trade after training camp began. Thomas was considered a possible first round talent last season who slipped because of an ACL tear, his second such injury. Still, he lasted into just the third round before the 49ers pounced and gave him a redshirt year. With the departure of Mike Iupati and the surprise retirement of Anthony Davis, Foerster and Geep Chryst, the new offensive coordinator, will be looking to coach up Thomas but the “rookie” has a lot to learn. A quick-footed lineman with a strong punch, the knock on Thomas is a lack of power and aggressiveness at the point of attack.

It is a good thing Bruce Ellington is getting an Expanded Role, because Anquan Boldin may be the Veteran Ready To Decline. Ellington served mostly as a returner as a rookie, but the fourth-round pick in 2014 can bring an explosive, speed element to the field for Colin Kaepernick’s cannon arm. Ellington exhibits good competitive toughness and exceptional burst, and with improved technique should be able to consistently defeat jams and get downfield in a hurry.

On the other hand, the soon-to-be 35-year-old Boldin has slowed down for several seasons now, but it hasn’t mattered much because of his mastery of route running, body control, and guile in beating coverage in tight spaces. There’s no statistical sign yet of decline, but sooner or later, even Jerry Rice stopped getting open. Boldin continues to be the guy the 49ers want to find on 3rd down ‒ will he still be able to get open?


Seattle Seahawks

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Tyler Lockett Drew Nowak/Garry Gilliam Marshawn Lynch Cassius Marsh Jimmy Graham

The Seahawks, one play away from back-to-back Super Bowl victories, enter 2015 seeking an upgraded passing game to complement their terrific defensive talent and to mitigate the escalating cost of Marshawn Lynch’s contract. Because of a young and talented roster, Beast Mode is the only candidate for the
Veteran Ready To Decline – running back mileage is like dog years – and the 29-year-old broke the 2,000 carry barrier last season. However, the likelihood is that Lynch is not in decline and only the cost associated with extending a RB past his 30th birthday means this could be the final season for Lynch in Seattle.

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Whether it is a successful final season for Lynch is an interesting question, given Seattle’s offensive line overhaul. Only Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy return to the same positions they played last year. Justin Britt has moved from right tackle to left guard. Drew Nowak will play center, earning a promotion from the practice squad last season to replace the traded Max Unger. And Garry Gilliam takes over at right tackle; the second-year player who was a tight end at Penn State, only played 80 total snaps last season.

This group has only been together since the second preseason game and has not impressed so far. Offensive Line Coach Tom Cable has a difficult task getting this young squad to understand and execute the zone blocking scheme that the Seattle offense relies upon.

Nowak, in particular, was a defensive tackle at Western Michigan and only transitioned to center while in the NFL, having appeared in just two games since entering the league in 2012. Further, experienced depth on the line is thin. Seattle drafted two linemen last draft: guard Mark Glowinski, and center Kristjan Sokoli, who played defensive tackle in college (sound familiar?). This group will need to Develop Quickly as Seattle’s first week opponent, the St. Louis Rams, have a stout front seven that will exploit a disjointed group.

The upgrades to the passing game come in the form of former All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, whose Expanded Role in the offensive scheme will greatly help quarterback Russell Wilson. A superb pass catcher, Graham has an excellent catch radius, wins contested balls, and is a dynamic threat in the middle of the field, drawing lots of attention from defenders. This is great news for the Seahawks wide receivers, especially Tyler Lockett, the Rookie Who Is Needed Early. The electrifying third-round pick posted several highlight reel plays in the preseason and his exceptional speed will stretch the field and create defensive headaches. The new weapons spread the field for Wilson, creating more passing game options in the open field and in the red zone.

Defensively, the name to know is second year LEO pass rusher Cassius Marsh, who saw few snaps last season but has flashed the Most Intriguing To Study talent this season. A high-energy, high-motor player, Marsh plays through the whistle on every snap. He has competitive toughness oozing from his pores and shows good work with his hands on tape. He has needed to add functional strength and refine his technique, something new defensive line coach Dwaine Board will focus on as they integrate Marsh into the outside linebacker rotation. This will be Bruce Irvin’s final season with the club, and it would not be a surprise to see the fiery Marsh taking snaps from him as the season progresses.

St. Louis Rams

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Rob Havenstein Jamon Brown / Tavon Austin Chris Long Nick Foles Akeem Ayers

St. Louis hopes that Nick Foles, finally, is the answer at quarterback. The former Philadelphia Eagles signal-caller posted a terrific season in 2013, showing accuracy and efficiency with a superlative 27:2 touchdown to interception ratio. But 2014’s results were not as clean and Foles was then injured. Not wanting to commit to him long term, the Eagles swapped QBs with the Rams, who saw Foles as a better long term bet. Whether it was a mistake or not will be the
Most Intriguing Thing To Study this season. If Foles is capable of bringing his 2013 game, the Rams and their all-world defensive line will challenge for a playoff spot. But if Foles is not the player St. Louis thinks he is, they could be squandering a talented roster with an overpaid, ineffective quarterback.

It would help Foles tremendously if several of the young Rams offensive players were to also show some NFL worthiness. Rookie right tackle and second-round pick Rob Havenstein is Needed Early, while fellow tackle and third-round pick Jamon Brown also needs to Develop Quickly. Havenstein is a mauling, nasty tackle from Wisconsin where he paved the way for many Melvin Gordon runs over the last few seasons. He needs work on his pass block technique and footwork, and his athleticism limits him to the right side.

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Brown will start the season at right guard, and with a new center as well and the inexperienced Greg Robinson at left tackle, this is a unit with significant question marks. Another massive human being, Brown needs much more work than Havenstein, struggling with many technical fine points of play. However, his upside is also higher if he receives the proper coaching and overcomes concerns about his conditioning.

Another player who needs to Develop Quickly is diminutive receiver Tavon Austin, the eighth overall pick of the 2013 draft. His first two campaigns have been disappointing, as he has as yet to translate the dynamic playmaking ability he flashed in college to the NFL. But the potential remains, as he is one of the quickest and most elusive players in the league when in space. New offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti is not as ball control oriented as the departed Brian Schottenheimer, and surely has been instructed to find a way to get Austin more involved in the offense.

Free-agent signing Akeem Ayers is the player to be Excited About In An Expanded Role, joining a linebacking corps that benefits tremendously from the dominant individual talents in front of them on the line. Ayers escaped Tennessee in the final year of his contract, landing in New England in a midseason trade. There, Ayers proved his ability to do more than rush the passer, showing an ability to set the edge and play in coverage as well. Moving to a Rams defense where any pass rush he is asked to execute will result in a one-on-one matchup, Ayers has the potential to be a real impact player because the talent surrounding him commands attention, most likely allowing him to slip under the radar.

One of those excellent defensive lineman surrounding Ayers is Chris Long, a Veteran Who May Be Ready To Decline. The now 30-year-old missed 10 games last season because of injury and it remains to be seen if he will recover the form that that produced four consecutive seasons of more than 8.5 sacks. The problem for Long is that the competition is fierce, with strength-in-depth up and down the line, with wunderkinds Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald leading the way. Long’s decline may be masked by the presence, and talent, of his linemates, who will ensure he gets plenty of one-on-one matchups.

Follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Hatman

Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking down matchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.

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