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
Terms haven’t been announced, but the Seahawks obviously wanted Rice back bad enough to outbid the Jets.
Rice sent out this tweet Wednesday night:
It appeared the Seahawks' chances of re-signing Rice were in jeopardy when he visited the Jets on Wednesday. But apparently Rice already had an offer from Seattle and simply was testing the waters.
Rice had a connection in the Jets organization with general manager John Idzik, who spent six years in Seattle as the vice president of football operations before taking the GM job with the Jets in January 2013.
But Seattle was able to work out a deal for Rice to return for 2014. He was released by the Seahawks on Feb. 28 for salary-cap reasons; he would have counted $7.3 million against the cap.
Rice missed the second half of the 2013 season after tearing an ACL in a game at St. Louis, but was given clearance by his doctor to begin running and cutting drills on Monday.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has said all along they were interested in bringing Rice back if the price was right. By re-signing the 6-foot-4 Rice, it could mean the Seahawks go in another direction with their early picks in the NFL draft next month -- possibly selecting an offensive lineman or defensive end.
Seattle brought in Indiana receiver Cody Latimer on Tuesday. Latimer has zoomed up the draft boards in the recent weeks and is seen as a late first-round or early second-round pick.
Rice, 27, caught 15 passes and scored three touchdowns before his injury last season. He caught 50 passes for 748 yards and seven touchdowns in 2012.
Rice has a connection in the Jets organization with general manager John Idzik, who spent six years in Seattle as the vice president of football operations before taking the GM job with the Jets in January of 2013.
Rice was released by the Seahawks on Feb. 28 for salary-cap reasons. He would have counted $7.3 million against the cap. He missed the second half of the 2013 season after tearing an ACL in a game at St. Louis, but was given clearance by his doctor to begin running and cutting drills on Monday.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has said they were interested in bringing Rice back, but the price may become too high if the Jets have a serious interest in him.
Rice, 27, caught 15 passes and scored three touchdowns before his injury last season. He caught 50 passes for 748 yard and seven touchdowns in 2012.
These issues, of course, have clouded his future with the 49ers as they must now make a decision about his future with the team by May 3. Because he was a first-round pick in 2011, Smith will become a free agent following the 2014 season should the 49ers decide against exercising an option for 2015.
Prior to the latest arrest, it appeared the 49ers would clearly give Smith the option, but that's now in question. NFL.com reported Monday night that the 49ers are not likely to exercise the option because they won't have all the information on Smith's legal issues by then.
However, others have -- including former Green Bay salary cap man Andrew Brandt -- opined the 49ers will likely exercise the option because there is little risk involved. Unless Smith suffers a major injury in 2014 that would affect his status in 2015, the 49ers have no risk. They can allow him to become a free agent next year if they don't feel they want to proceed with Smith.
But, by exercising the $9.754 option, the 49ers can lock in Smith rather than giving him the franchise tag in 2015, which will likely be more than $12 million or let him walk as a free agent.
If San Francisco doesn't exercise the option, it will be a clear sign that the team has many questions and possibly little faith in Smith. Watching this decision unfold will be fascinating.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Seattle Seahawks have $15.8 million left in cap space -- that’s more than $10 million more than the next most cap space in the NFC West, which belongs to the St. Louis Rams.
Here’s a look at how the four teams stack up against the salary cap:
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Rams were tied with Green Bay and New Orleans as the least active teams in free agency. St. Louis signed just three free agents who played on a different team in 2013, adding quarterback Shaun Hill, defensive lineman Alex Carrington and wide receiver Kenny Britt.
All of those moves came well after the initial, most expensive wave of free agency and none of those deals are longer than a single season. The Rams' biggest move was the one they intended to make all along, signing offensive lineman Rodger Saffold to a lucrative five-year contract extension after his deal with Oakland fell apart for a failed physical.
It's been long-held NFL dogma that the best teams build through the NFL draft rather than spending big in free agency and the Rams made it clear early on that they intended to be patient if not silent in free agency. They followed through on that promise but what's most interesting is the company they kept among the other teams that were least active in the market.
Nine teams added just three or four outside free agents in the first month of free agency. Of those nine teams, only the Rams with their three additions and Dallas (four) did not make the playoffs in 2013. Joining Green Bay and New Orleans on the list, Seattle, San Francisco, New England, Kansas City and Indianapolis each signed only a quartet of players.
It stands to reason that teams who are mostly happy with their rosters and have won plenty of games wouldn't be looking to spend big money in free agency. While Dallas and the Rams' presence on that list could also be attributed to limited salary-cap space, in the Rams' case it's also indicative of a front office and coaching staff that believes in the ability of its young talent to ascend in 2014.
Rams general manager Les Snead has indicated multiple times that the thing his young team needs the most is experience and there's apparently a strong belief that the young talent in place can all take the necessary steps forward to help the Rams improve in 2014. Whether that happens remains to be seen but at least in terms of free agency, that faith in the team's young players clearly isn't just lip service.
Even though Smith, 24, is one of the NFL’s best pass-rushers, his future could be clouded. Until Sunday, the 49ers’ greatest needs were cornerback and receiver. I do think those areas are still bigger needs than pass-rusher. But I could also see the 49ers, who have an NFL-high six picks in the top 100 in the May 8-10 draft, using a premium pick at the position.
I spoke with ESPN draft analyst Steve Muench about potential fits in the second or third round. Here is a look:
Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State:
“He will likely be gone and they may not want to take a player who has been suspended three times over the past two seasons but he has the length, quickness and flexibility to develop into an effective edge rusher in the NFL.”
The Sacramento Bee reports Lawrence will visit the 49ers.
Kyle Van Noy, BYU: “He doesn’t bend as well as Lawrence and he has shorter arms but he can beat tackles with speed to power, he uses his hands well and he closes well.”
Muench mentioned these pass-rushers would be taken in the third or fourth-round: Texas’ Jackson Jeffcoat, Alabama DE/OLB Adrian Hubbard and Stanford’s Trent Murphy all project as late third- or early fourth-round picks.
Murphy played for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Both ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have Martin pegged to the San Francisco 49ers in their most recent mock drafts. They both have Martin going to the 49ers in the second round, where the 49ers have two picks. Let’s take a closer look at Martin:
Size: He’s 6-foot-3, 320 pounds.
Experience: He moved to center in 2013 and played there for the first time. He was a starter at guard for his first two college seasons.
Known for: Great size and athleticism. He’s a bright player. However, some scouts question his toughness. Still, many scouts think he can be an instant starter.
Do 49ers need him? Daniel Kilgore, who just signed a three-year extension with the 49ers, will get the first crack to replace Jonathan Goodwin in the starting lineup. The 49ers are excited about Kilgore. However, if Kiper and McShay are right, Martin would certainly look like both an immediate and long-term option. Martin could also interest the 49ers because of his experience at guard. Mike Iupati is entering the final year of his contract, and it is no sure thing the 49ers will re-sign him.
Former Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin told Sirius XM Radio that he will visit the 49ers this week. Colvin tore the ACL in his knee during Senior Bowl week in January, but he could be ready to play toward the end of the season.
The 49ers have shown they are willing to wait for a good player, even if he's injured. Last year, they drafted defensive lineman Cornellius "Tank" Carradine in the second round and running back Marcus Lattimore in the fourth round after both had suffered ACL injuries.
However, drafting Colvin may come with more overall injury risk than Carradine and Lattimore. ESPN draft analyst Steve Muench said Colvin is a talented player, but his injury history is worrisome. Colvin missed almost all of the 2011 season with a shoulder injury. Muench also points out Colvin's weight -- he was listed at 192 pounds at Oklahoma, but weighed 177 at the combine.
“If he can regain the weight once he’s healthy and can stay healthy, he’s got the tools to be an effective No. 3 corner,” Muench said. “He’d see the field a lot with how often teams line up with three or more receivers. He’s instinctive, he has above average cover skills and he tackles well.”
Muench said Scouts Inc. had Colvin rated as an early third-round pick prior to his injury. Now, the group has him as an early fourth-round pick. The 49ers will likely add multiple cornerbacks and with a surplus of picks, they may feel like they can take a flier on Colvin.
Meanwhile, the Sacramento Bee reported the 49ers will visit with several rookie prospects this week including Clemson speed receiver Martavis Bryant. He could be a target in the second round.
Troubling times: The arrest is the latest in a string of legal issues for the team, considered a favorite to make a run at the 2015 Super Bowl. Two weeks ago, starting cornerback Chris Culliver was arrested after a hit-and-run accident involving a bicyclist. He has been charged with a felony and two misdemeanors. Thursday, it was reported quarterback Colin Kaepernick and receiver Quinton Patton are being investigated as part of an incident in Miami involving a 25-year-old woman. Kaepernick took to Twitter to deny any wrongdoing. Kaepernick and Smith are two of the 49ers’ best players and the team wants to keep both for the long haul. Seeing headlines like these has to be beyond worrisome for the club.
League discipline is in play: The 49ers may have to play without Smith for a portion of this season. This latest incident could trigger discipline from the NFL. The league did not suspend Smith after the September arrest on a drunk driving charge. In October, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the fact that Smith voluntarily sought treatment could play a role in him not getting a suspension. I’m sure the league office is not pleased to see Smith in custody again.
In the interest of keeping Rams fans from re-living the nightmares of drafts gone by, we'll limit our look back to drafts where at least one player remains on the roster.
With that, we turn our attention to the 2012 class.
What's left: The first draft class of the Jeff Fisher/Les Snead era, this is the group that, for better or worse, is the foundation of what this regime is hoping to build. So far, the results have been mixed but the Rams have found some pieces that they believe will be long term starters and contributors. From the original group, only Watkins and Brown are no longer on the roster.
Brockers, Jenkins and Johnson remain as projected starters and the Rams seem to have plenty of confidence in their ability to get the job done. Zuerlein looks poised to hold down kicking duties for the long haul.
After a promising rookie season, Givens took a step back in 2013 but still offers potential as a deep threat. Richardson looked ready to become Steven Jackson's replacement as the starting back but injuries prevented that from happening and he tumbled down the depth chart. The jury remains out on Quick and Pead entering their third year but so far they've been disappointments.
Best pick: The Rams rolled the dice a bit when they traded back twice before taking Brockers at No. 14 but so far the pick looks like a good one. An ankle injury slowed Brockers in his first season but he played all 16 games and was instrumental in the team's improved run defense in the final half of the 2013 season. Although he still has work to do as a pass rusher, he posted five and a half sacks despite regular double teams. When the Rams drafted Brockers, they knew they were getting an unfinished product but he looks headed toward reaching that potential.
Worst pick: While Quick hasn't made the strides many hoped he would in his first two seasons, it was at least clear early on that he would take some time. Which makes Pead the choice here. When the team drafted him in the second round, the expectation was that he would be the change of pace for Jackson and potentially his long-term replacement. He fell behind right away, missing the offseason program because of college rules and hasn't been able to get out of his own way since. Richardson claimed the change of pace role for Jackson and then the starting job when Jackson departed. Pead has meanwhile struggled with fumbling issues when he has played and hasn't earned many opportunities. Now, he's been relegated to a special teams role and will likely find himself battling for a roster spot come training camp.
What could have been: Many will point to the Rams passing on Alshon Jeffery in favor of Quick and based on results so far, that's a fair argument. But Jeffery was never really under consideration by the Rams so let's go to a scenario that was in play. Before the draft, the Rams showed interest in linebackers Bobby Wagner and Mychal Kendricks. Both were on the board for the Rams at No. 45 overall. But St. Louis wanted to recoup the fifth-round pick it traded for receiver Brandon Lloyd during the 2011 season. So the Rams made a deal with the Bears, moving down to No. 50 and getting their fifth-round choice in the process. Chicago took Jeffery with that No. 45 pick, Philadelphia selected Kendricks at No. 46 and Wagner went No. 47 to Seattle. Three picks later, the Rams took Pead and used the fifth-round choice on Watkins. Making matters worse, Tampa Bay's star linebacker LaVonte David was still on the board when the Rams picked Pead.
In the first month last season, Arizona went on a signing binge to restock a roster in the mold of then-recently hired coach Bruce Arians. They inked four full-time starters during the opening month, including Carson Palmer, Rashard Mendenhall, Yeremiah Bell and Jerraud Powers. During that haul, the Cardinals also signed Lorenzo Alexander, a starter until a Lisfranc injury sidelined him in Week 3, as well as his replacement, Matt Shaughnessy who started 12 games. Former linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who started three games in place of Daryl Washington, was also signed.
Last year's signings during the opening month of free agency helped fill out the roster. Despite the flurry of additions, Arizona went 10-6 and barely missed the playoffs. A lot of those signings also laid the foundation of this less aggressive, more pragmatic approach to 2014.
The Cardinals didn't need to fill a bevy of holes and were able to focus on their needs, hence just three major signings compared to the slew in 2013.
Each year provides a building block for the next and that's what the busy 2013 did for 2014.
Here's a list of new signings from the first month of free agency in 2013 and 2014.
2014: LT Jared Veldheer, WR/KR Ted Ginn, CB Antonio Cromartie, RB Jonathan Dwyer, OL Ted Larsen, CB Eddie Whitley, CB LeQuan Lewis.
2013: QB Carson Palmer (traded for), RB Rashard Mendenhall, QB Drew Standon, DE Frostee Rucker, CB Antoine Cason, DE Matt Shaughnessy, S Yeremiah Bell, CB Lorenzo Alexander, CG Jerraud Powers, G Chilo Rachal, P Will Batson, CB Bryan McCann, S Curtis Taylor, S Jonathon Amaya.
While concentrating on keeping their own free agents, the 49ers added just four veterans. They signed safety Antoine Bethea and cornerback Chris Cook and traded for quarterback Blaine Gabbert and tackle Jonathan Martin.
The small incoming veteran class is keeping in step with many of the winning teams in the NFL. Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, the chart includes the teams that added the fewest players this offseason and their 2013 record.
It's clear that many winning teams -- like the 49ers -- liked their roster and made some tweaks instead of wholesale changes.
For the first time since Arizona drafted Levi Brown in 2007, the Cardinals have promise on the quarterback’s blind side -- the only difference is that Veldheer is a proven commodity.
Compared to 2013, this free-agency haul was chosen to fill specific needs, where as last year the Cardinals were looking to quickly revamp a roster to fit then-newly hired Bruce Arians' style. After a surprising run last season to a 10-6 record and the brink of the playoffs, the Cardinals saw exactly where their deficiencies were and set out to address them.
Arizona signed seven players in the first month of free agency, but three will have instant and significant impacts on the field come September. Veldheer is one, as is Arizona’s second major signing of the season, wide receiver and kick returner Ted Ginn.
Ginn was a two-for-one signing, replacing third receiver Andre Roberts and kick returner Javier Arenas. While Roberts is younger, Ginn may be more dangerous than both of those players. His return skills alone was worth his signing, but he’s proven himself as a receiver throughout his career and won’t have the pressure of being a primary option with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd ahead of him on the depth chart.
The last major piece of the first month of free agency was the surprise addition of cornerback Antonio Cromartie. He instantly supplanted Jerraud Powers as the starter across from Patrick Peterson, giving the Cardinals one of the most formidable secondaries in the NFL.
Arizona also added two quality backups in running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen. Recently, the Cards signed cornerbacks LeQuan Lewis and Eddie Whitley to add competition to the cornerbacks room.
All told, Arizona’s signings put them in the thick of the 2014 playoff race. Yes, it’s April and yes, the NFL hasn’t even begun to practice yet. But on paper, the Cardinals filled needs that could be the difference between the seventh spot and a wild-card berth -- or even an NFC West crown should the chips fall in the right places.
The Cardinals only have a couple of needs left to fill before training camp begins, but with the way general manager Steve Keim combs through the waiver wire and is dedicated in his draft evaluations, finding a safety and right tackle is inevitable.
Unlike last season, when after the first month of free agency, there were still a lot of question marks about how the roster was going to shape up, the sense around the Cardinals’ 2014 edition is that free agency made Arizona better.
Four years ago, this would be a different conversation.
It would be about millionaires versus billionaires, about how one document will shape the course of professional football for the next decade and how Eric Winston would be the face of the future of the sport.
Fortunately for Winston, the former Arizona Cardinals right tackle who was recently elected president of the NFL Players Association, he doesn't have to worry about that. He doesn't have to worry about his constituents being locked out by the owners or sitting down at the negotiating table to hammer out a collective bargaining agreement. His two-year tenure begins amid labor peace, allowing Winston to spend most his time this offseason on specific issues that face the players and the game.
Timing is everything.
"Yes and no," Winston said. "I think in those negotiations, that's where you're going to accomplish a lot. I think that's where you're getting, whether it's benefits, whether it's salary, whether it's health and safety, all those are up for grabs at that point.
"With a lot of that stuff being settled I can focus in on some topics, and focus on and find out what's hurting our players today and what are the few things we can do right now that can improve the lives of all of our players. I think that's kind of my mission, so to speak."
Winston's mission, to serve as the collective voice of the players, came about with a simple question, he said: "Would you be interested in running?"
He was at the biannual NFLPA meetings when the question was posed. If he was nominated, Winston said, he'd run. It didn't take long for someone at the meetings to follow protocol. A speech later and Winston was the new face -- clean-shaven after a season of growing out a hockey playoff-like beard -- of the players' association.
"It happened fast, that's for sure," Winston said. "I'm happy it happened. I'm eager to try to make a difference."
Cardinals linebacker Lorenzo Alexander knew Winston but never spent much time around the hulking right tackle. After spending last season with him, Alexander, who has been an NFLPA player rep and was voted onto the current association's executive committee, believes the NFLPA has the right leader.
"He has great leadership qualities and I think a great grasp on the vision he has for the PA," Alexander said. "I think all those things really help him as far as moving forward and strengthening our union as a whole and the perception, I guess, internally and externally from the players."
The perception of Winston was built two years ago, when he was protecting Matt Cassel's strong side for the Kansas City Chiefs. Winston showed everyone -- thanks to countless replays -- that he's more than a big, burly blocker. After Cassel was knocked out of a game against Baltimore and booed by Chiefs fans, Winston verbalized his frustration with the fans and his disdain for their gesture. As Winston's voice rose, his passion for the sport filled the locker room.
Troy Vincent, recently appointed NFL executive vice president for football operations, is also a former NFLPA president. He thinks Winston's passion is only part of the reason he will succeed.
"That says a lot about who an individual is," Vincent said. "I think he's going to be a great leader.
"I know what it takes to be elected. That's not a given and I think he's going to be a fine leader. He's very thoughtful. I think Eric is also very reasonable. I think at that position it has to be balanced to get things done, where you're not always going to agree on everything but you've got to find a common ground that works for everybody and I think, with his experience, I think with his values, I think he's going to be a very good leader for the union."
Assuming the presidency at a time of labor peace gives Winston the opportunity to focus on the players. Winston can lean on the experience of eight NFL seasons of serving as part of three different organizations and apply it to make the difference he's seeking.
The question Winston has to answer first: Where to start?
His overarching goal is to improve the day-to-day lives of the nearly 2,000 players in the NFL, but to do that, Winston understands he has nearly 2,000 different sets of issues to tackle. Each player has his own concerns about the direction of the league and his own career, but Winston has narrowed his first set of priorities to three areas: health and safety, financial literacy and working conditions.
When it comes to health and safety, Winston, who's second among active tackles in consecutive games played and started, thinks looking toward the future can help players now. Continuing to invest in technology and research is a priority, Winston said, because it'll help the league and its players learn more about the health and safety issues that they face on a daily basis, namely head injuries.
Having watched thousands of players come and go during his career, Winston is also placing an emphasis on teaching players -- young and old -- the importance of taking care of their finances.
"Guys need to understand how to budget, guys need to understand what it means to have a mortgage, what it means to pay something like that, what does the typical cost of living [look like]?" Winston said. "It sounds clichéd but those checks are going to run out at some point. They're not always going to be there and what is really enough, so to speak, to retire on? And, in a way, [I want to] get that word ‘retire' out of the lexicon. You play 10 years and you're 32. There's other things you could do, but it doesn't mean you shouldn't have a nest egg, you shouldn't have something you can fall back on if you can't play that long."
Winston also wants to address workplace conditions, especially when it comes to the locker rooms.
A year ago at this time, Tampa Bay's locker room hadn't been infected by the MRSA outbreak, which occurred in October, nor had the situation in Miami involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin been exposed. Both will help shape the way Winston approaches changes in the locker rooms, albeit in extremely different ways.
"Working conditions are something that's going to be coming up, and we have to do something," Winston said. "I think there needs to be some standardization throughout the NFL and of course, you never know what's going to happen around the corner."
When it comes to approaching the locker room culture, which has come under siege since the reports of bullying in the Dolphins' organization were revealed in November, Winston believes his experience in the league is a bonus. But he's careful to warn that what happened in Miami isn't permeating through the NFL.
"I always think you're going to have something that's out of your control," Winston said. "You're always going to have a 'bad apple,' something that just happens. For whatever reason it happens and obviously it needs to be fixed.
"It's a challenge for all of us," Winston added. "We're professionals now. We got to act professionally. We can't be doing immature things."
Vincent wants to make sure he and Winston work together to "preserve our game."
"Have we forgotten the art of sportsmanship?" Vincent asked.
Vincent foresees working together to educate "all audiences" on eliminating facets of the game that either lead to injury or cast a negative light on the league, such as "harmful" plays.
Another one of Winston's priorities is curbing fines, an interesting dynamic since Vincent is the man responsible for assigning the fines. Winston would like to see fines eliminated for first-time incidental offenses. He thinks they should be levied for a second or third offense.
"They understand the value of money and what it means to them. To get the fines going up at a rate, it doesn't make sense. It seems much more punitive more than sending a message."
Winston will also help usher in a new era for the NFL when it welcomes its first openly gay player; Missouri's Michael Sam is expected to be drafted in May. The league, Winston said, is more ready than it gets credit for, mainly because this generation of players -- even on the older side -- is more accepting than previous generations.
One issue Winston said the players won't accept, though, is an 18-game schedule.
"I just don't see how that would ever make sense for us," Winston said.
"I don't think there's a need for it. I don't think there's a want for it. There's not a lot of scenarios that I'd say, 18 games in that context make sense. I just don't understand why that would make sense for our players and our guys."
While it's still early, there's an outside chance Winston may not play in any of the 16 games next season. He's been a free agent since March 11. But he's not fretting. Last season, Winston didn't sign with the Cardinals until the first day of training camp.
If Winston isn't signed for the 2014 season, he'll still hold onto his role as president. He'll just have more time on his hands to advocate for the players. Vincent would know. He was the NFLPA president for a year after retiring following the 2006 season and spent it crisscrossing the country, meeting with players, listening to their issues and helping them when called upon. Winston is ready for the responsibility if his career should go that way, but he'd rather be on the field.
Winston admits he has plenty to learn. He's served on NFLPA committees and understands the politics and policies, but has never held a role comparable to this.
Even though Vincent has crossed over to the league, he still offered a piece of advice to Winston: Listen. Vincent told him he doesn't need to have every answer, but he needs to be a great listener.
The more he listens, the more Winston will learn about his constituents. And the better president he'll become.
"You got to have balance," Vincent said. "There's a reason you have to be able to make sure that you're hearing all arguments, all positions, all opinions and then be able to come back to your group and properly inform the player on what is taking place and what has happened. That itself is one of the responsibilities for that position.
"When you watch him, when you look at his demeanor, you see how he answers questions, he's very thoughtful. He's not jumping out there. Frankly, I think he's going to do a phenomenal job as a leader."