NFC West Hypotheticals: Debating Potential Offseason Moves

Jan 6, 2013; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III (10) is sacked by Seattle Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin (51) during the fourth quarter of the NFC Wild Card playoff game at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 6, 2013; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III (10) is sacked by Seattle Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin (51) during the fourth quarter of the NFC Wild Card playoff game at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports /

While idly glancing through the headlines of the major sports “front pages,” there was one particular headline that instantly grabbed our attention. Bleacher Report’s Matt Stein posted “One Move Each NFL Team Should Make Before the Regular Season Begins,” which, as the name suggests, lists one item that each team should throw on their checklist for the upcoming season. Naturally, our focus was sent directly to the St. Louis Rams, followed by the rest of the teams in the NFC West. Some of the ideas were bold, while other were… less-than-bold. So, we thought it would be interesting to take those ideas and run with them…

Arizona Cardinals: Give Tyrann Mathieu the starting free safety job

Tyrann Mathieu was one of the top storylines of the 2013 NFL Draft, known primarily for his off-the-field troubles that led to his removal from the LSU Football program in 2011. As a result, Mathieu dropped drastically in the draft, despite being a Heisman candidate in his last season of college football for the Tigers. However, while Mathieu was known for his “big play” abilities, he was not known for his coverage abilities; a damning trait for a cornerback. Putting his extracurricular aside,  the reality of the matter  is that Mathieu is still a severely undersized slot corner, who is moderately athletic, in comparison to other players at his position, with slightly above-average speed. CBS Sports described Mathieu’s weaknesses as…

"“Lacks ideal height for the position and is quicker than he is fast, making him susceptible on longer throws. Highly aggressive and will bite on underneath routes… does not have the elite straight-line speed to recover against a well-executed double-move and accurate pass. Trusts his instincts too much and can put his teammates in difficult positions by drifting to where he anticipates the quarterback will be going with the football. As such, cerebral NFL quarterbacks will be able to manipulate him with their eyes and potentially beat him over the top with accurate deep passes…”"

When initial post-draft reports suggested the Cardinals would look at Mathieu as their starting safety, it raised some eyebrows. Converting an undersized slot corner who has been out of football for over a year into a free safety, despite the fact that “coverage” was a documented weakness… seems a tad counter-intuitive, right? Throw Tyrann Mathieu head-to-head with tight end hybrids like Jared Cook or Vernon Davis, against average-sized maulers like Anquan Boldin, shifty slot receivers in Tavon Austin or Percy Harvin, or speed-demons like Chris Givens or Golden Tate; he will lose them all, and that is just in the NFC West. Good luck in Arizona if Mathieu is your deep secondary gatekeeper.

San Francisco 49ersTrade Kendall Hunter

The first thought that might cross your mind is, “For what”?

Kendall Hunter will be heading into his third season in the maroon and gold, having played some significant snaps in the running back rotation thus far. In 2011, he took 122 carries for 519 yards, good for 4.3 yards per attempt. Hunter was off to hot start in 2012, but saw his year end on a torn Achilles’ late in the season. With both Marcus Lattimore and LaMichael James waiting in the helm, it could make sense to trade a rotational back in an offseason where running back talent has been relatively scarce. However, with Frank Gore likely to retire in the next two to three seasons and massive question marks surround Lattimore, would it really make sense to prematurely release Hunter?

Regardless, it is unlikely the San Francisco 49ers would get much in exchange for the young running back. In a best-case scenario, some team might offer a 2014 mid-round draft pick. What does that do for San Francisco? Trading Hunter would likely not effect anything next season, and would likely not yield much of a return. It is probably best for ‘9ers Nation to sit tight and see how he comes back from the injury.

Seattle SeahawksStart Bruce Irvin at outside linebacker

Last season, Bruce Irvin played well for the Seattle Seahawks in spurts. However, when the ‘Hawks needed Irvin to step into a full-time role towards the end of the season and into the playoffs, the raw pass rushing-specialist hit his “rookie wall,” grading out negatively in seven of his last eight games. With the departure of Leroy Hill, the Seattle Seahawks need to find some viable replacement to fill-in next to standout rookie middle linebacker, Bobby Wagner. However, with the less-than-experienced Malcolm Smith slotted to be the opening day starter, some reports are beginning to surface that the team will look to move Irvin to outside linebacker.

The move itself makes sense, logically; the Seahawks signed several “big name” defensive ends in the offseason, and Irvin does have some experience in the second level from his time as West Virginia. However, the move doesn’t necessarily make sense in the Seahawks’ defensive scheme or in terms of fitting Irvin’s unique skill set.

Even in college, there were concerns about Irvin’s abilities against the run, with Scouting suggesting

"“He is inexperienced as a three-down defender, and it remains to be seen if he can be a reliable option defending the run. He also, surprisingly, struggles when given the task of covering tight ends one on one, and up to this point has been widely considered a pass rush only option for the West Virginia defense.”"

That sediment was largely confirmed in his first season in the NFL, with Irvin grading out 53rd overall among 4-3 defensive ends against the run in 2012. To make matters worse, the departed Leroy Hill ranked 11th overall among 4-3 outside linebackers as a run stuffer last season, leaving a gaping hole for an inexperienced Irvin to attempt to fill.

Irvin might be perfectly suited for an Aldon Smith- or Clay Matthews-type role in the defense. However, with the Seattle Seahawks running primarily out of their 4-3 base defense, the concept of dedicating one of those linebacker spots to, essentially, a blitz-specialists seems less-than-ideal. Outside of requiring the innate ability to read blocking schemes, shed blockers, and maintain gap control, the 4-3 outside linebacker is also heavily relied on in coverage. Throwing an inexperienced player, with little-to-no coverage skills against dominating tight ends and slot receiver in the NFC West just seems like a bad idea. For the Rams’ sake, lets hope he is manned up on Jared Cook when he is shooting down the seam on a deep fade…

St. Louis RamsStart Zac Stacy at running back

Of the four hypothetical suggestions, this one might make the most sense. It was announced earlier this week that Daryl Richardson would be named the “starter” at the beginning of training camp, but it is openly known that the No.1 running back spot, left by the departed Steven Jackson, is up for grabs. The one-game suspension to Isaiah Pead has likely knocked him down a few pegs in the race, which means that it will likely be a battle between Zac Stacy and Daryl Richardson for the bulk of snaps at the start of the season.

Daryl Richardson played well for the St. Louis Rams during his limited “starting” stint last season, at one point nearly splitting the carries with Steven Jackson in the backfield. However, with reduced carries, Richardson numbers dwindled in the latter portion of the season, leaving some question marks to how he would perform in a true starting role. Zac Stacy comes out of college as the reining rushing leader in the SEC, and likely boasting one of the more “complete” resumes of an running back in the 2013 NFL Draft class. He was the every-down back at Vanderbilt, and had visibly quantifiable success both in on the ground and in the receiving game. Upon drafting Stacy, the assumption was that he would contribute as a third-down, or short-yardage running back, something that Richardson and Isaiah Pead do not appear to be built for, physically.

There is certainly a chance that Stacy could be crowned the “starter” for the Week 1 opener against the Arizona Cardinals. However, there will likely be no true feature back on the St. Louis Rams roster this season, especially with both Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson expected to see significant carries. While the move to name a starter in St. Louis might be the most logical of the four scenarios, it is likely the least meaningful, in terms of the effect it will have on the actual season.