Arizona Cardinals: NFL Nation: 4 Downs
By almost everyone’s estimation, the rough and rugged NFC West was the best division in the NFL in 2013. It had the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, two teams in the NFC Championship Game (Seattle and the San Francisco 49ers) and another 10-game winner in the Arizona Cardinals. The St. Louis Rams were 7-9 but likely would have had a winning season in any other division.
And now? Other than adding Godzilla and three superheroes to the four teams, they could not get much better. It looks like the big boys on the NFC block will remain out west.
Most experts believe the Rams had one of the best drafts in the NFL, adding Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson and Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, giving St. Louis four first-round picks on what is arguably the best defensive line in football.
The 49ers had 12 draft picks, including seven in the first four rounds, and made a trade during the draft for talented Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson.
The Cardinals signed gigantic left tackle Jared Veldheer and blazing kick returner Ted Ginn in free agency. They also added a vicious hitter, Washington State safety Deone Bucannon, with their first draft pick.
As always happens with Super Bowl champs, the Seahawks lost a few key players to free agency, but they kept the man they really wanted to keep in defensive end Michael Bennett and locked up "Legion of Boom" stars Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman to long-term deals.
Believe it or not, the best division in the NFL just got better.
As usual, the Seahawks drafted some players other teams would have taken later, if at all. Should people question their choices, or have they earned the benefit of the doubt?
Terry Blount: Have we learned nothing from the past? Questioning Seattle's draft strategy, along with undrafted signees, now seems a little foolish. Shall I name a few who stand out that other teams passed up or the experts questioned? Sherman, Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin and Malcolm Smith, for starters. The Seahawks bring in players with specific traits -- unusual athleticism, driving competitiveness and obvious intelligence. Where those players rank on another team's draft board means nothing to them. And at first glance from rookie camp, they found some winners in receivers Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood, along with defensive end Cassius Marsh.
Josh Weinfuss: A little leeway should be given to the Seahawks because, first, they are the reigning NFL champions, and second, their personnel department has been able to piece together a pretty good roster with players who were not highly rated. With that being said, good will should only go so far. Sometimes a general manager and coach think they have the secret recipe and get cocky about their ability to find talent. When that happens, bad decisions are made. Obviously, the Seahawks have a reputation for picking good players, but they won't be right every time. Every team has an off draft and picks who don't pan out. It is also too early for us to know if some of their "rogue" picks will do anything. Their picks should definitely be questioned until they have a chance to show us their stuff.
Bill Williamson: The glue to the Seahawks is general manager John Schneider. Yes, coach Pete Carroll is a tremendous fit for the franchise and is a big part of the team's success. But Schneider is the architect of this franchise. He built this roster. There is little doubting the way he has drafted. Look at the core of the team -- they were all great value choices by Schneider. The tie goes to Schneider. You can doubt him if you choose, but it would be a lousy idea. Expect these Seattle rookies to develop into players. Schneider always wins.
@TerryBlountESPN No. People questioned Russell Wilson immediately after 2012 draft. We all know how that turned out! Takes time.- Tina Metcalf (@girlinseattle) May 27, 2014
Do the additions of Johnson and Carlos Hyde give the 49ers the most dangerous offense in the division?
Blount: Both players will help, but the real key for the 49ers is quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Having enough weapons wasn't really the problem. Using them effectively on a consistent basis and cutting down on mistakes is the issue. Kaepernick's extraordinary talent is unquestioned. But can he be the same type of team leader that Wilson is and make the big play in the most difficult moments? He couldn't do it last year in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game. If he shows he can do that consistently when the big game is on the line, watch out.
Weinfuss: It is certainly looking like the 49ers have one of the most dangerous offenses in the division, if not the most dangerous. San Francisco has the right pieces at every position, from quarterback to running back to wide receiver to tight end. But the first question that came to mind when going through San Francisco's offensive depth chart is this: Will one football be enough to go around? This might turn into a case of the 49ers being better on paper than they are on the field, which has happened many times throughout the NFL. The Cardinals bolstered their skill positions during the offseason, giving themselves a lot of talent at wide receiver and tight end to complement two young running backs and a veteran quarterback who finds ways to win. A team can have all the ammunition in the world, but if the coach doesn't know how to use it, it will be stockpiled for naught.
Williamson: I think so. There is nothing missing from this offense. We saw how dynamic it can be when Crabtree returned from a torn Achilles last December. Put Crabtree, the clutch Anquan Boldin and Johnson together and that is a great veteran group of receivers. Someone is always going to be open. Rookie Bruce Ellington was added to give the 49ers the ability to take the top off of defenses, an aspect they didn't possess last season. We didn't even mention Davis at tight end. Really, how is this offense going to be stopped? Kaepernick looked like a completely different quarterback when Crabtree played last season. Kaepernick with all of these weapons? Oh, and we didn't even mention the bread and butter of the 49ers' offense -- the running game. Hyde, Gore and a healthy Marcus Lattimore? How do you defend this group?
@BWilliamsonESPN sure does...how can you spy Kap now with 3 legit wrs + VD...Hyde taking on a 7 man front with our bulldozing line. #1- CDM (@CDM49er) May 14, 2014
After a narrow miss last season, have the Cardinals made enough of the right moves to get into the playoffs?
Blount: I don't think they needed to make many moves to reach the playoffs. Record-wise, they were a playoff team last season, but a victim of circumstances in the playoff structure. So the real question is can the Cardinals catch Seattle and/or San Francisco? And my answer is yes, especially the 49ers. Quarterback Carson Palmer will be better after having a full season in the Arizona offense. Bruce Arians might be the most underrated coach in the NFL. The team clearly is on the rise, while San Francisco's offseason turmoil could come back to bite it.
Weinfuss: The Cardinals have made enough moves to make the playoffs this season. They missed the postseason a year ago by a game, which might have been different if Arizona had been stocked with a better kick returner, left tackle, second cornerback and safety. The Cards addressed those issues in the offseason, which should make them better in 2014. Adding left tackle Veldheer to anchor the offensive line should ease Arians' concerns about Palmer's blind side. One thing Ginn has shown throughout his career is that he can return kicks with the best. But the biggest difference for the Cards will be their improved secondary. Signing talented veteran Cromartie gives the Cardinals two lockdown cornerbacks (along with Patrick Peterson) and drafting Bucannon gave Arizona an instant upgrade against tight ends and big receivers -- which there are plenty of in NFC West.
Williamson: I really like how well the Cardinals are coached. I think Arians is on to something. His players seem to respond to him. So the program will continue to rise under Arians. Also, I love the defense; it is nasty, aggressive and ball-hawking. Add great defense and a well-respected coaching staff and a team is going to win a lot of games. I think the bottom line with the Cardinals is quarterback play. Palmer had his moments last season, but I'm not a big believer in him. I think he will cost the Cardinals at some point. Maybe this is a playoff team, but I think the Cardinals are a couple of steps behind the Seahawks and the 49ers. The deficit starts at quarterback.
@joshweinfuss no. if o-line depth isn't addressed, look out for consistent pressure off the right side and more INTs from cardiac carson- Sean Kirchheimer (@stkirch) May 21, 2014
The Rams decided not to draft help at wide receiver and waited until the sixth round to add a young quarterback. Will their offense score enough to make up ground in the NFC West?
Blount: Sure, it would have helped to add a top receiver, but is there a bigger unknown in the entire division than Sam Bradford? What the Rams, and everyone else, have to find out is whether Bradford is an elite quarterback. Frankly, I have my doubts, but he did play well last season before his injury. Bradford's situation is much different than that of Kaepernick, who is as gifted a player physically as you will ever see. In Bradford's case, it's hard to know how good he really is or can be, because he hasn't had top talent around him. And it doesn't help that he has to play six games against three of the of the best defenses in the NFL. It's time for Bradford to step up, no matter whom he is throwing the ball to each week.
Weinfuss: The depth of the NFC West makes this the toughest question of the four. The Rams' additions weren't significant improvements to their offense, but will help. Bradford will come back with a vengeance and try to light up the scoreboard. He will have a talented group of receivers, but can they score enough to close the gap from the bottom of the West? Not sure that can happen. Rookie Robinson will take his lumps and bruises and might not come into his own until the second half of the season, so the Rams have to be hoping it's not too late by then. Points will be at a premium in the West, especially considering how good the three other defenses are, so the Rams will have to be even better than expected to make up ground, and I'm not sure they are ready for that just yet.
Williamson: Points scored? Who needs points with that defense. Man, the Rams' defense is getting silly good. Adding Donald to that defensive front should have been banned. It's simply unfair. The Rams are not going to allow many points this season. So the offense won't have to be overly dynamic. With that said, I am not a big Bradford fan. I don't think he is the answer. Until the Rams upgrade at quarterback, I don't think they will reach their full potential or be able to hang in the division race. But they will dangerous every week because of the defense.
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014