San Francisco: The 49ers have had the toughest offseason so far within the division. They lost their number-one QB in Jeff Garcia (cut; signed with Cleveland); traded away number one WR Terrell Owens (Eagles) and lost WR Tai Streets to free agency (Lions); and cut two of their starting offensive lineman in Derrick Deese(signed with Tampa Bay) and Ron Stone (signed with Oakland) in salary cap moves.
But, by all accounts, San Francisco had a very solid draft. The Niners moved down and acquired more picks but still got a solid WR in Rashaun Woods (Oklahoma State) with the 31st selection and the top guard prospect in Justin Smiley (Alabama) with the 14th selection in the 2nd round. They were able to supplement their already solid defense with fourth-rounders DL Isaac Sopoaga (Hawaii) and ILB Richard Seigler (Oregon State) and S Keith Lewis in the sixth round. Seventh-round selection QB Cody Pickett (Washington) is a developmental pick, who head coach Dennis Erickson will take under his wing.
Arizona: The Cardinals have quietly had a very solid offseason. Usually the Cards' offseason begins in late September, but 2003 saw them develop some solid young talent in rookie WR Anquan Boldin, third-year OL Leonard Davis, rookie DE Calvin Pace, and second-year DT Wendel Bryant. Acquiring DE Bertrand Berry (signed away from Denver) during free agency will upgrade the pass-rush, something that has been lacking for several seasons.
Help for the Cardinal offense came in the form of first-round WR Larry Fitzgerald (Pittsburgh). He should help Boldin stay out of double-teams and give young QB Josh McCown another home-run target. Second-round LB Karlos Dansby (Auburn) fills a need on the outside with his pass-rushing ability and third-round DT Darnell Docket (Florida State), as long as he is motivated, will help get push in the middle of the line.
Possibly the biggest move the Cardinals made this offseason was getting head coach Dennis Green to come aboard. Green puts a face on a moribund franchise long known as the "red-headed stepchild" of the NFL. A new stadium in under construction and the team feels as if it may be turning a corner.
St. Louis: Ram fans were left with a bitter taste in their mouth, when the team fell in the playoffs to eventual Super Bowl participant Carolina in OT at the Edward Jones Dome. Free agency saw the departures of DE Grant Wistrom (signed with Seattle), DT Brian Young (signed with New Orleans) and S Kim Herring (signed with Cincinnati). QB Kurt Warner could possibly be cut as early as June 1st and the team's number one threat, RB Marshall Faulk, is aging. WR Isaac Bruce is still effective but will turn 32 in November. Young QB Marc Bulger will be pushed by veteran signal-caller Chris Chandler in camp.
Most experts feel the Rams had a solid draft. Their first round selection, RB Steven Jackson (Oregon State), was the best player available and the Rams traded up to get him. He will be the eventual replacement for Faulk and could see significant time in 2004 if Faulk misses time because of an injury (Faulk has started only 21 games in the last two years). DE Tony Hargrove (Georgia Tech) was a risk in the third round since he didn't play in 2003. He sat out last season because of academic issues but until that point he was a very productive player. With the legal troubles of Leonard Little, Hargrove may be pushed up the depth chart quicker than he expected. The Rams may have gotten the steal of the draft when S Jason Shivers (Arizona State) fell to the fifth round. He will immediately upgrade the Rams' special-teams with his speed and hard-nosed attitude, and he could see time at free safety once he learns the system. Sixth-round selection Jeff Smoker (Michigan State) has good tools and is a winner…he will be Martz's project.
Check in next week for more info on the Seahawks' division rivals.
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