Every NFL offseason brings new free agents and draft picks to all 32 teams, so players are competing to reach the top of their respective depth charts all around the league. With OTAs already under way and minicamps approaching, here are the top position battles to keep an eye on for all four teams in the NFC West:
Arizona Cardinals: Kevin Minter vs. Lorenzo Alexander vs. Kenny Demens vs. Larry Foote vs. Ernie Sims for ILB
Last season the Cardinals defense was one of the best in the NFL, and against the run they were the best defense in the league. This was largely due in part to the excellent inside linebacker play of Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington, arguably the best duo in the league over the last twelve games of the 2013 season. But the Cardinals let Second Team All-Pro Dansby leave in free agency, and Washington has been suspended for the season after yet again testing positively for banned substances. Arizona also declined to resign Jasper Brinkley, so they are suddenly without their top three inside linebackers from last season. They play a 3-4 base defense, so they need not one but two guys to fill in their shoes. Kevin Minter is nearly a lock to win one of the two starting jobs. The LSU product was selected in the second round last year but only had the chance to play one snap for the Cardinals. Now, he’ll get his chance to shine. The real question is, who is likely to start beside him? The Cardinals signed Alexander before last season with high hopes for him, but his season ended due to injury in Week 3. Demens is another second-year player, while Foote and Sims are both veterans who were brought into Arizona recently to compete for the job. In my opinion, Foote will begin the season as the other starter. Head coach Bruce Arians is familiar with him from their time in Pittsburgh together, and his leadership will help stabilize the defense. But Foote has certainly lost a few steps, so do not be surprised if one of the other linebackers on the roster takes his place for passing downs or eventually his place altogether.
San Francisco 49ers: Jimmie Ward vs. Chris Cook for Nickel CB
The San Francisco 49ers defense has been a staple among the league’s best for the past few years, but that could potentially change with their cornerbacks in flux. Two of their top three cornerbacks from last season, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, are now with the Raiders. Tramaine Brock is still in San Francisco, and he will become the team’s top cornerback after his impressive 2013 campaign when he led the team with five interceptions. Starting across him is projected to be Chris Culliver, who is strong when healthy but coming off of a torn ACL injury. After those two, there is no set order whatsoever. The 49ers used their first round pick on Jimmie Ward, a safety out of Northern Illinois. But Eric Reid played exceptionally at safety last season as a rookie and they signed Antoine Bethea in free agency, so Ward might not see much time at his natural position. He is a great talent, so the 49ers will play him at nickel cornerback this season just to get him on the field. While he might have the job now, he will have to fight to hold onto the starting gig. The recent news of Eric Wright’s retirement helps Ward’s case, but Chris Cook will give him enough competition on his own. Cook did not amount to much during his time with the Vikings, but the 49ers are high on his potential and are hoping he can capitalize on it in his new home. Ward figures to get the nod as the starting nickel cornerback, but do not be surprised if both him and Cook play their way into becoming every-down players by season’s end.
Seattle Seahawks: Bruce Irvin vs. Malcolm Smith for OLB
It is not so often that position battles are for a starting slot on an all-time great defense, but that is the case at outside linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks. Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright have two of the linebacker positions on lock, but the other spot is up for grabs between Bruce Irvin and Malcolm Smith. Irvin was drafted in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft as a defensive end, yet he was moved to outside linebacker after his rookie year. He was suspended for the first four games of the 2013 season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, but he came back and played an important role in Seattle’s quest to the Super Bowl. His opponent in this position battle, however, was named MVP of the Super Bowl. Football fans may know Malcolm Smith for his huge performance on the NFL’s biggest stage, but before that he emerged as a key player in the Seahawks defense. Both Irvin and Smith underwent offseason surgery and have missed OTAs, but they are expected to be back to full health for the beginning of the season. Smith is projected to start the season at weakside linebacker, as he is the better player in coverage and against the run. Irvin, at the very least, will come in as an extra rusher on passing downs. But with his talent, there is a chance he will improve as a linebacker and overtake Smith for the starting role. For now though, the job looks like it will go to the Super Bowl MVP.
The passing game of the Rams has been stagnant for years, and St. Louis is hoping that one of these three wide receivers can step up to give Sam Bradford another legitimate weapon to work with. The Rams have beefed up their offensive line and solidified their running game, so now a complete wide receiver corps is all that the offense needs to take the next step. Chris Givens regressed last season in his sophomore campaign, but his talent is still there and he remains the best outside receiver on the roster. Tavon Austin shined during the second half of his rookie season in 2013, but with his size and speed he will play almost exclusively out of the slot. That leaves a gap at the second outside receiver position, and the Rams have a few potential options who are qualified for the job. Austin Pettis is entering his fourth year with St. Louis, but he is a long shot to win the job after failing to impress the team thus far. Second year player Stedman Bailey seemed poised to take over the position, but his four-game suspension to start the 2014 opened the door for other players on the roster. Brian Quick is entering his third year with the Rams, and he is a freakish athlete with great size. He suffered from inconsistency during his first two years in the league, but all reports out of St. Louis are saying that he is looking better than ever. Still, he is going to have to beat out Kenny Britt if he wants to enter the starting lineup. Britt played like one of the best receivers in the league at times during his five years with the Tennessee Titans, but injuries and off-the-field issues prevented him from reaching his full potential. The Rams brought him in on a one-year deal, so he is going to have to prove himself if he wants to stick around. I think Britt will now that he is back with his old head coach Jeff Fisher, but I’m still going with Quick to win the job. The Rams really like him, and I think this is the year that he finally makes the most of his ability.