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Divisional needs: NFC West preview

Kenny Vaccaro
Could the 49ers try to deal to land Kenny Vaccaro?
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Brian Billick

Brian Billick served as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens from 1999-2007, winning Super Bowl XXXV. He has also authored books, including More Than A Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL. Follow him on Twitter.

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It is hard to imagine that we are just three seasons removed from the 2010 Seattle Seahawks representing the NFC West in the playoffs with just a 7-9 record and therefore ensuring the division as the laughingstock of the entire NFL. Now, the NFC West houses two of the favorites to not only win the conference but also the Super Bowl.

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The 49ers were just a few plays away from winning the Super Bowl last season while the Seahawks were just a few plays away from playing the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game — and both look to be even better entering the 2013 campaign. While Seattle is without a first-round pick, it was able to acquire Percy Harvin to add to Russell Wilson’s arsenal and he should not only be a huge contributor in the passing game, but also could be a change-of-pace back in the read-option running scheme.

As for the 49ers, they've added Anquan Boldin to not only contribute, but also to mentor Michael Crabtree, who is on the verge of becoming a superstar in this league. They have also added depth with the signings of Glenn Dorsey and Nnamdi Asomugha but it will be the draft that proves to be critical in the growth of the 49ers this offseason. They currently hold five draft picks in the first three rounds, and that is inevitably where you grow as a franchise.

While I think the 49ers and Seahawks are in a class of their own in the division, I tend to think the Rams will be better than people are suggesting. They must get better at both wide receiver and running back in this draft, but they possess the foundation to build a solid team. It just may not be as early as this season. As for the Cardinals, they are starting over with a new regime, and it looks like that will be on the shoulders of Carson Palmer. That should tell you enough about what they think of this year's quarterback class.

San Francisco 49ers
Finished:
11-4-1, lost to Baltimore in the Super Bowl
Drafting: 31st (also hold the 34th overall pick)
Needs: S, WR, OLB, NT, CB

The 49ers weren’t all that vulnerable anywhere last year, but if at all, it was at the safety position. Of last year's starters, Dahson Goldson left via free agency and Donte Whitner gave up more touchdowns than any other safety in the NFL last season. They have signed Craig Dahl during the free agency period and while he is serviceable, they will most likely look to upgrade the safety position with one of their first few picks in the draft.

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They not only hold the 31st overall pick in the draft, but because of the Alex Smith trade, they also now maintain the second pick in the second round, or the 34th overall pick, as well. That is significant for two reasons. They could stay put and take a second-tier safety in Eric Reid, Jonathan Cyprien or Matt Elam or because of their wealth of draft picks, they could package a deal and move up if they covet Kenny Vaccaro that much more.

Looking beyond the first two picks, the 49ers still have three additional picks in the first three rounds, five total. They will most likely look to address long-term additions at the wide receiver position. Mario Manningham had little to no impact last season and is coming off an ACL and PCL tear and may even be cut, while Randy Moss was used as more of a decoy than anything else last season. Even with the addition of Boldin, another veteran receiver on the tail end of his career, the 49ers need to get younger and have a long-term outlook for the position. Last year, the 49ers took a flier on A.J. Jenkins as their first-round pick, No. 30 overall, but he has yet to look the part of an impact receiver. Still it typically does take an additional year for a wide receiver to mature in the NFL.

Another position to keep an eye on is tight end. They lost Delanie Walker during the offseason and may look to fill that void early in the draft. They obviously still have Vernon Davis as an elite talent, but Walker filled a hybrid motion player spot that was an inline blocker, fullback and slot receiver. If they target that type of player in the second round, whether it be the 34th pick or their original second-round pick, they could look at Vance McDonald out of Rice. He has a similar skill set to Walker and is probably an even better athlete.

Seattle Seahawks
Finished:
11-5, eliminated by Atlanta in the Divisional round
Drafting: No first-round pick
Needs: DT, OT, LB

The Seahawks may have become the most improved team this offseason as they have added starters in Percy Harvin on offense and Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril at defensive end. Bennett is a solid yet underrated defensive end that can play all three downs and is just as effective against the run as he is a dynamic pass rusher. Avril will most likely be a rush specialist in this defense, much in the way Bruce Irvin was used last year, but Avril can anchor down against the well a lot better and still get after the quarterback. Not to mention, the team will eventually return a healthy Chris Clemons at the position as well. The Seahawks also added depth in what was already considered the best secondary in the NFL with the signing of Antoine Winfield and he will be a valuable asset in nickel situations even at the age of 36.

Because of the Harvin trade, the Seahawks surrendered their first-round pick, but with the way Pete Carroll has drafted the last two years, he can most likely target the same players in the second round. His first-round pick in 2011, James Carpenter was considered by many to be a second- or third-round prospect and then followed that with the Bruce Irvin pick in 2012 that may not have been the same type of reach, but still very surprising with the 15th overall pick.

Because of the lack of a first-round pick, I will withhold my speculation as to whom they may target, but much like the 49ers, the Seahawks have very few holes to fill. They may look to add depth along the defensive line with their second-round pick or add to a very young line backing unit. Either way, the Seahawks will enter 2013 with a very solid roster.

St. Louis Rams
Finished:
7-8-1
Drafting: 16th, 22nd
Needs: WR, S, LB

Everyone wants to talk about San Francisco and Seattle as maybe being the best two teams in the NFC, and rightfully so. Both have been strategic and effective in free agency. However, the improvement in St. Louis is what has most people now saying that the NFC West is the best division in the NFL.

The key is Sam Bradford and the fact that he will be operating in the same offensive system for the first time in his career. Bradford had his best season, but head coach Jeff Fisher passed up the chance to take RG3 last year because of his faith in Bradford, and that has to be rewarded. The problem is the loss of Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola, the two best offensive players on the 23rd-ranked offensive team in the NFL. The only silver lining is that both of them were often injured and marginal contributors last season compared to previous years. The pickups of Jared Cook at tight end and offensive tackle Jake Long will certainly help, but they are still void of talent at the skill positions. Having four picks in the first 78 should help to address that.

They desperately need an impact player at the wide receiver position and this is a relatively deep class for the position. They can’t rely on Brian Quick, who they thought would mature into a more consistent role last season, and may even use two early picks on the need. At No. 16 or 22, Cordarrelle Patterson, Tavon Austin, Keenan Allen or Justin Hunter all start immediately on this team.

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They would most likely pair the two first-round picks to also address a key need on the defensive side of the ball, safety. They could target Kenny Vaccaro at 16 and then target one of the four aforementioned receivers with the 22nd. With the Cowboys at 18 and the Bengals at 21, Vaccaro wouldn’t last until 22, so they would need to do it in this order, if desired.

The wildcard in all of this would be at the running back position. After losing Steven Jackson, do they take the first running back off the board with Eddie Lacy? Some tend to think it’s an option, but I’d prefer to address the devalued position, also a deep position in this draft, in later rounds. Players like Johnathan Franklin from UCLA and Giovani Bernard from UNC offer just as much upside and won’t require as high of a pick.

Arizona Cardinals
Finished:
5-11
Drafting: 7th
Needs: OT, OG, QB

I will keep this short. The signing of Carson Palmer, much like the Raiders'  acquisition of Matt Flynn, should tell you as much as you need to know about the opinion of this quarterback class. While Palmer is far from ideal, he is the best quarterback they have had in Arizona since Kurt Warner and if anyone can turn around his career, it is Bruce Arians. In the very least, Larry Fitzgerald should finally produce the hall of fame numbers he deserves.

That’s all assuming Palmer can stay healthy behind this atrocious offensive line. The Cardinals need a left tackle and they need it yesterday. The Cardinals starting tackles finished Nos. 1 and 2 in sacks given up for any offensive lineman last season. Lane Johnson is the obvious pick with both Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher gone at this point. There is a chance that even Johnson is gone by No. 7 and that means they will have to decide if D.J. Fluker is worth pulling up this high or they take an interior lineman that would be a nice upgrade as well. Jonathan Cooper or Chance Warmack are both future Pro Bowl players in my opinion and are also well worth the high pick, even if it has historically been a reach to take a guard this early.
 

Tagged: Falcons, Titans, Raiders, Rams, 49ers, Seahawks, Cardinals, Carson Palmer, Steven Jackson, Delanie Walker, Jake Long, Percy Harvin, Michael Bennett, Sam Bradford, Bruce Irvin, Cliff Avril

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