The NFC West should form its own splinter league. NFL Elite, perhaps. Or NFL Extreme, or NFL Insane. Or maybe the First Team to Score 14 Points Wins Football League (FTS14PFL).
The NFL's rich got richer on Thursday and Friday. The black and blue got blacker and bluer. The NFC West was already the toughest division in professional sports. Over the past week, it has become something else. Something beautifully brutal.
NFC West powerhouses do not necessarily have to draft anyone during the draft to have a great time. The 49ers acquired former Bills go-to receiver Stevie Johnson on Friday afternoon in exchange for a conditional 2015 pick. Other teams exchange this year's picks for next year's stars. The 49ers exchange next year's picks for current stars. And they don't trade future picks because they are out of current picks. Quite the contrary: They had more picks than they knew what to do with on Friday.
Late in the second round, they traded down with the Broncos to retrieve a 2015 pick, then traded up moments later for Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde, a tremendous college power runner who may start his career on the fifth string. Then they materialized on the clock, then mysteriously traded again, some league minion possibly deciding to just guess it was always the 49ers' turn to pick again until told otherwise.
The Seahawks did not even bother drafting in the first round, trading down instead so the Vikings could select Teddy Bridgewater. The Seahawks did not have time to do all of the pre-draft rumor mongering and smoke blowing, because they were busy locking the best cornerback in the NFL into a fiscally responsible (yet hefty) multi-year contract. Richard Sherman's contract came on the heels of Earl Thomas' new deal, and the Seahawks traded down at the start of the second round as if they were plum tuckered out from locking up their outstanding players of drafts past for the next 20 years.
Eventually, the Seahawks got around to drafting Paul Richardson, a twiggy blur of a receiver who has the one skill you cannot teach (causing a cool breeze from a standing start) and few of the ones you can. He's the kind of player you draft when you are paying $11 million to keep Percy Harvin bagged and boarded like Action Comics No. 1. The Seahawks can splurge on one-big-play-per-game guys, because they are so stacked at most positions there is little room for anything else. They later beefed up their offensive line by selecting Mizzou's Justin Britt, who seems like a reach now but will be signing a lucrative extension in 2018.
The 49ers gained on the Seahawks on Friday. Johnson was a pass-dropping, easily distracted source of frustration for the Bills in recent seasons. But he can be impossible to cover when he is healthy and focused. Move him from a go-to role to supplemental duties behind Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, and Johnson becomes a matchup nightmare. He will play the role Randy Moss played a few seasons ago, only better, because Johnson is not fried. The 49ers also drafted Jimmie Ward in the first round, an incredibly active, tough, versatile safety who slipped to the end of the first round because he is an inch too short. Hyde adds outstanding value at a position of zero need, while third-round linebacker Chris Borland is just your garden-variety tackle machine who could start for 12 seasons. The 49ers are on the verge of stocking a Triple-A affiliate.
The Rams and Cardinals also gained on the 49ers, and by extension the Seahawks. The Rams kicked things off by drafting Greg Robinson, who plays with the force and subtlety of a semi with a snapped brake line, followed by defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who is as wide as he is tall and as ornery as he is wide. Running back Tre Mason is also squat and as tough as differential calculus. He carried the ball 5,000 times at Auburn -- 317 in 2013, actually -- making him perfect for coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's master plan to reintroduce 1986 tactics to the NFL.
Because some downfield passing is bound to happen against even the best defensive line -- opposing quarterbacks can take the snap and treat the football like a live grenade, for example -- the Rams added cornerback Lamarcus Joyner. Joyner is built like a G.I. Joe action figure but strikes like an elite task force. Donald, Mason and Joyner illustrate that short and mean has replaced tall and mean in St. Louis. Their perfect Day Three selection will be a mongoose.
The Rams may not score many points this season, even with Robinson and Mason aerating the middle of the field, but they won't allow many either. Out-of-division opponents will suffer lots of 27-6 losses, while divisional games will devolve into 0-0 soccer draws. But then, that has been the case for two years.
The Cardinals contributed to the defense-for-defense's sake vibe in the NFC Best by drafted Washington State safety Deone Bucannon, who hits like a collapsing roof. The Seahawks and 49ers like to be big and scary, like a T-Rex, while the Rams are more of a short-and-squat Stegosaurus in a bad mood. The Cardinals are the velociraptors in this movable feast of a division. Bucannon and Tyrann Mathieu strike suddenly and with a sense of glee, like they think you are having as much fun being torn to shreds as they have tearing.
In a nod to trying to block the other three defenses and score the occasional point, the Cardinals added Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas. In the NFC West, even the offensive players are defensive players: Niklas began his college career as a pass rusher. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians likes to use three-tight end sets to force opposing defenders to cope with multiple gaps. It's the NFC West equivalent of holding a chair up to a lion so it will confusedly swat at all four legs. In this division, lion-taming tactics are the most viable tactics.
And so it goes. The Seahawks and 49ers represent a two-ply indestructible windshield, and the Rams and Cardinals are developing heavy-duty weapons to penetrate it. Everybody else, particularly in the NFC, is just watching the limo drive past right now. In a league where the Seahawks can live indefinitely off the fruits of past drafts and the 49ers can scrounge quality players from a dozen different sources, just coming away from draft weekend with a few good players is not enough. Unless the NFC West literally forms a league of its own, everyone else must keep hustling, not to catch up, but to keep from falling further behind.