NFC West: Around the NFC West

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In what has become a day-after draft tradition over the past 30 years, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. handed out his grades for this year's edition in the wee hours Sunday morning.

It probably comes as no surprise given the early returns but the St. Louis Rams earned honor roll caliber gradesInsider from Kiper for their 2014 haul. Kiper gave the Rams an A-minus, making them one of three teams to earn that mark and placing them behind the only two teams to get an "A," the San Francisco 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Kiper listed the Rams' key needs as offensive tackle, safety, wide receiver and cornerback. All of those received attention relatively early in the draft except for wide receiver. The Rams used their first pick, No. 2 overall, on Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, grabbed Florida State corner Lamarcus Joyner and Missouri corner E.J. Gaines in the second and sixth rounds, respectively, and finally doubled down on safeties in Day 3 with fourth-round choice Maurice Alexander of Utah State and sixth-rounder Christian Bryant of Ohio State.

As for wide receiver, perhaps the "minus" in the grade comes from the team's decision not to address the position. But as we discussed in this space plenty in the time before the draft, the Rams were unlikely to spend a pick, early or otherwise, on a wideout if it wasn't a player like Clemson's Sammy Watkins. As it turns out, Watkins was not really in the mix for the No. 2 pick when all was said and done though the Rams did like what he brought to the table. If the Rams were to add a receiver, it needed to be a potential No. 1-caliber wideout. Once Watkins went off the board, there weren't any other to fit that bill for the team. I thought they might add one later simply because they had so many picks, but it's clear they're going to stick with what they have and allow their young wideouts to develop.

Overall, I agree with Kiper's general thoughts on this draft but for a little different reason. I like that the Rams didn't spend most of the weekend trading down, adding picks and looking for bodies. They had 12 picks to start the draft and used 11 of them. They sat where they were and let things fall to them. In the end, they added a lot of quality to a roster that needs it.

Time will tell if the promise from the weekend will turn into wins on the field. At first glance, anyway, this looks like a class capable of providing help now and in the future.

Around the NFC West: 'A cheap shot'

August, 28, 2013

The hits keep coming for San Francisco 49ers backup guard Joe Looney after his low block left Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams with an injured knee.

We discussed the block Monday and I concluded that Looney did not violate playing rules when he struck Williams in the knee during the third quarter of an exhibition game Sunday night. There was no penalty flag on the play. The NFL has no plans to fine Looney.

The question was whether Looney had violated unwritten rules. Williams' teammates are predictably standing up for their guy. Looney is predictably saying he meant no harm. I give more credence to what retired offensive lineman Jeff Saturday said while serving in his role as NFL analyst for ESPN. We might normally expect one offensive lineman to stand up for another, but Saturday did not do that in this situation.

"It's definitely a cheap shot," Saturday said. "There was no reason to go low on a guy whose back is turned toward you. ... I've pulled off many a day on a cut block or when you think it's even questionable. You just don't do it. Everybody knows we're here to earn a living for our families and represent more than barbaric play on the field. As a player and as a man you have to have higher principles than even sometimes the rules."

49ers coach Jim Harbaugh used the word "unfortunate" to describe the play.

"I don't think it was a dirty play, don't think it was intentional, don't think there is any malice in the heart of Joe Looney," Harbaugh told reporters.

Williams suffered a hyperextended knee with a bone bruise and postular capsular strain, but no ligament damage. It's not yet clear how quickly he might return.
A potential competition for the San Francisco 49ers' No. 2 quarterback job might have dissipated before it really began.

Colt McCoy is the guy behind the No. 1 guy, coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters Sunday night following a 34-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings at Candlestick Park.

A chronology provides some context:

March 12: The trade sending backup Alex Smith to Kansas City becomes official.

April 2: The 49ers acquire McCoy to be their presumed No. 2 quarterback.

Aug. 8 and 16: McCoy performs unconvincingly in the 49ers' first two exhibition games.

Aug. 22: The 49ers sign free-agent quarterback Seneca Wallace.

Aug. 24: McCoy accepts a reduced salary. The news comes out a day later, at which point McCoy confirms that he accepted the reduction on Saturday night, the 24th.

Aug. 25: McCoy completes 11 of 15 passes for 109 yards and an interception during the 49ers' preseason game against Minnesota. Wallace hardly plays. After the game, Harbaugh tells reporters he "feels real good about Colt as the backup quarterback."

The timeline suggests Wallace's signing helped the 49ers secure a pay reduction from McCoy while providing insurance. That may or may not be the case. We know Colin Kaepernick is the starter and McCoy is the heavy favorite to serve in the No. 2 role, and that Wallace could have some additional time to learn the offense -- perhaps so the 49ers could turn to him later if a need arose.

Teams have until Tuesday to reduce their rosters from the 90-man limit to no more than 75 players. The mandatory reduction to 53-man limits is Saturday.
Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has been typically direct when assessing what's at stake for third-year running back Ryan Williams as the team approaches its third game of the 2013 preseason.

"Every evaluation is critical for him now," Arians told reporters. "He's missed so much that I want to see how he does in practice before I put him in a game. Hopefully, he’ll do as well as I think he will and be able to get out there and play full speed and get tackled."

Williams, the Cardinals' second-round choice in 2010, has played in just five games over his first two regular seasons. Knee and shoulder injuries were to blame. Related knee trouble sidelined him for long stretches of training camp. The team expects Williams to play against San Diego on Saturday night, but Williams' availability is very much a day-to-day situation.

The organization is rooting for him.

General manager Steve Keim, one of the people most excited about Williams' potential before the 2010 draft, recently delivered what Williams called a pep talk.

When I was at Cardinals camp, I noticed that Williams' locker was next to the locker for receiver Larry Fitzgerald. One day, Williams sat at his locker and waited while Fitzgerald conducted an interview at the next stall. The rest of the locker room had cleared out. Williams was waiting for Fitzgerald to finish so the two could grab lunch together.

A player could do worse than having the GM and the team's most iconic player in his corner. At this point, though, there can be no substitute for performance. Williams must play. He must play well. He must remain healthy enough to practice and play again. Time is running out.
Good morning, NFC West. We've got a couple items of note to cover this morning:

  • Carroll's overhaul: Alyssa Roenigk's piece for ESPN The Magazine on the Seattle Seahawks under Pete Carroll has been posted to Facebook more than 10,000 times, so perhaps you've seen it already. If not, be sure to check it out, even if you're not a Seahawks fan. She ties together many of the unusual (to the NFL) organizational tactics we've heard about only vaguely to this point, including daily meditation, mandatory yoga for players and institutionalized positivity. Roenigk: "It's only the beginning of what the Seahawks intend to be a total revamp of the way a football franchise approaches the physical and mental well-being of everyone in the organization." This is the sort of stuff found at places such as Google.
  • Strong words: ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski loves a strong-armed quarterback. The San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick isn't just any strong-armed quarterback. "I truly believe Colin Kaepernick could be one of the greatest QBs ever," Jaworski said. Those are strong words. Becoming one of the two best quarterbacks in franchise history would put Kaepernick in the all-time conversation. The quarterback has made only 10 starts to this point, of course, so there is much to prove. But there is also much to like.
Good morning, NFC West.

Some of you have asked about recent changes to the blog and what it means for the future. ESPN provided answers Monday with a news release announcing plans for a 32-team network to replace the current divisional structure.

"For the past five seasons,’s NFL Nation has utilized a network of eight divisional blogs with one writer covering four teams per division with additional contributions from NFL writers at ESPN’s major market sites in Boston, Chicago, Dallas and New York," the news release stated. "The new NFL Nation will combine these resources with 21 new reporters to be brought on board for the 2013-14 NFL season."

The news release announced three of the four reporters named to cover NFC West teams: Nick Wagoner, who has already been posting on the St. Louis Rams; Bill Williamson, who will shift from the AFC West blog to covering the San Francisco 49ers; and Terry Blount, who will cover the Seattle Seahawks. I'll be shifting to a newly created role as ESPN Insider NFL columnist.

I'll continue posting to the NFC West blog until the changes are in place. It's been a great run and our future coverage should only improve. Back in a bit with our regularly scheduled NFC West programming.
Retaining quarterback Alex Smith wasn't a realistic option for the San Francisco 49ers. The salary burden would have affected roster management. Smith's unhappiness as a backup could have affected team dynamics. Trading Smith allowed both sides to move forward. It felt like the right thing to do.

The team is set with Colin Kaepernick as its projected long-term starter. All goals appear to remain in reach as long as Kaepernick is healthy and available. But without Smith, there is no clear backup quarterback in San Francisco. It's a big change for a team that has won playoff games with multiple quarterbacks over the past two seasons.

Colt McCoy was the presumed favorite for the job when San Francisco acquired him from Cleveland. Neither McCoy nor Scott Tolzien has made a positive impression through two exhibition games.

Rookie seventh-round choice B.J. Daniels outperformed them against Kansas City on Friday night, completing 6 of 9 passes for 72 yards and a touchdown in his preseason debut. Coach Jim Harbaugh subsequently made it clear Daniels had fought his way into the competition.

"Yes, going into what he did the other night, it was very positive," Harbaugh told reporters Sunday. "And as far as how the reps will go, this week in practice, I plan on it being even with Colt and Scott and B.J. ... When somebody does a good job, you give them a little more."

McCoy has completed 6 of 13 passes for 76 yards and two interceptions in two preseason appearances. The numbers for Tolzien are similarly unconvincing: 18-of-34 for 188 yards, one pick and three sacks.

Harbaugh limited Kaepernick to four snaps against the Chiefs. He said he shortened Kaepernick's night based on feel and was hoping to avoid "anything freakish" happening. The 49ers did juggle their offensive line in the first half, with Adam Snyder getting reps at left tackle. The Chiefs were playing their starters extensively.

The plan is for Kaepernick to play more extensively at home against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. The plan for the backups is evolving. McCoy, Tolzien and Daniels have two games to earn the No. 2 role. It's difficult to imagine the team keeping three quarterbacks on its 53-man roster, particularly based on the way each has played to this point.
Yes, the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks sat atop the NFC West last season.

Yes, oddsmakers have listed them among the Super Bowl favorites this season.

That doesn't mean the other teams in the West have to care.

Back in March, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher used the "they've gotta play us, too" line when asked about moves Seattle and San Francisco made this offseason. Now, Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is questioning conventional wisdom about the division.

"I don’t see the dominance that everybody else talks about," Arians said. "One of those teams may be. It still has to be played on Sunday."

Arians is new to the division. His teams have posted a 100-44 record and won two Super Bowls over the past nine seasons, never finishing below .500 in any of those years. Arians has compared the NFC West to the AFC North, where he coached with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He has used the word "difficult" to describe NFC West opponents. But he has not prepared a concession speech.

"I've always said if you win your home games and scratch out a few on the road, you are in the playoffs," Arians said earlier this offseason. "We have to be dominant in our stadium and then go out and play those guys on the road and see if we can win."

Arizona is a six-point underdog at St. Louis in Week 1.

NFC West chat kicking off at 1 p.m. ET

August, 15, 2013
Consider this a formal invite to participate in our NFC West chat scheduled for 1 p.m. ET Thursday. Here's the link. Hope to see you there.

Around the NFC West: No QB debate

August, 15, 2013
The Alex Smith stories naturally are flowing as the San Francisco 49ers' Friday night exhibition game against their former longtime quarterback approaches.

Smith's eight-year run with the 49ers was the most compelling, maddening, affirming and ultimately confounding story surrounding the team during that time.

Now that Smith will be on the opposite sideline for the first time, reporters covering the 49ers are focusing on Smith's adjustment to life with the Kansas City Chiefs and the feelings he has for the 49ers. There is very little if any focus on whether the 49ers made the correct decision when they permanently benched an injured Smith despite his 19-5-1 starting record over a 25-game span under coach Jim Harbaugh.

Isn't that telling?

Colin Kaepernick took the 49ers to the Super Bowl, one game further than the team went with Smith a year earlier. Kaepernick's talent, productivity and 7-3 starting record (counting playoffs) was enough to kill what had been fierce debate over the decision to leave Smith on the sideline following his return to health from a concussion.

The assumption is that Kaepernick will pick up where he left off, and that he'll be better than Smith for the long term. I think that is likely to be the case. It's an angle that won't be relevant again until we see how these players' careers play out from here.

Around the NFC West: Breaking 'camps'

August, 14, 2013

Good morning, NFC West.

I'll be heading over to Seattle Seahawks headquarters Wednesday for the final training camp practice open to the public. The team plans to break "camp" following another practice Thursday.

The quotation marks apply because our traditional definition of training camp no longer holds in most cases.

Seattle, like most teams, no longer goes away for camp. Two-a-day practices are a fading memory. The team has been holding practice sessions at its facility, and that will not change just because "camp" has broken.

The Arizona Cardinals are the only NFC West team still holding camp away from their team headquarters, but their new camp setup at University of Phoenix Stadium is only a 30-minute drive from the team facility in Tempe.

Arizona is scheduled to break camp Aug. 22. The date is Aug. 21 for the St. Louis Rams. The San Francisco 49ers released a camp schedule showing the final practice as Wednesday, but the timing doesn't mean as much for fans because their facility is off-limits to the public during construction of the team's new stadium across the street.

Good morning, NFC West.

We're taking the divisional conversation to ESPN's Mark Schlereth and Freddie Coleman this week as part of the "Schlereth's NFL Summer" series covering five hot topics.

I came up with the topics. Schlereth and Coleman took it from there.

Up first: whether the Seattle Seahawks will regret the Percy Harvin trade following the wide receiver's injury, and what the Carson Palmer acquisition will mean for the Arizona Cardinals.

A sampling:
  • Coleman on the Harvin trade: "Yeah, a case of buyer's beware, but I think if you asked Seattle if they knew then what they knew now, they would still make that trade every day of the week and twice on Sunday."
  • Schlereth on Palmer: "They're going to have to run the ball better. They're going to have to protect Carson Palmer. But this is going to be a wide-open offense, an aggressive offense, and Carson Palmer can throw the ball down the field in that style of offense."

Thanks to Steven Ceruti of ESPN Radio for offering up the full audio running more than six minutes. This series continues with three additional key storylines as the week progresses.

Around the NFC West: Successful start

August, 12, 2013
Good morning, NFC West. The first round of exhibition games for 2013 were a success around here for two reasons. One, teams from the division avoided season-altering injuries. Two, three-fourths of the division remained a safe distance from Bernie Kosar.

Most of the injury news has been positive or better than feared.

St. Louis Rams right tackle Rodger Saffold (shoulder) and Seattle Seahawks left guard James Carpenter (foot) are expected back after another couple weeks or so.

The San Francisco 49ers activated incumbent No. 2 running back Kendall Hunter from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Hunter was already counting against the 90-man roster limit. His activation from PUP means Hunter passed a physical examination. It means he won't be eligible for PUP consideration during the regular season and will count against the 53-man limit once it goes into effect Aug. 31. That was the plan all along for Hunter.

In Arizona, the Cardinals remain short-handed at running back, but they suffered no new injuries of note at the position while generally leaving a positive overall impression during a 17-0 victory at Green Bay.

None of the division's on-field opponents inflicted as much punishment as Kosar delivered against the Rams from his seat in the Browns' preseason broadcast booth Thursday night. The performance was harsh enough for Browns president Joe Banner to issue an apology. Kosar called Rams coach Jeff Fisher separately.

This should be the last we hear from Kosar in the NFC West. The Browns conclude their preseason schedule with games against Detroit, Indianapolis and Chicago.
Good morning, NFC West.

The three division teams with exhibition openers Thursday night appeared to come through without season-altering injuries to key players.

The St. Louis Rams are hopeful right tackle Rodger Saffold suffered only a minor shoulder injury. Saffold left the Rams' opener against Cleveland after just two plays. That injury stood out as a concern simply because Saffold has had a hard time staying healthy in general.

Rams receiver Chris Givens picked up where he left off last season with a 59-yard reception and a 3-yard scoring catch. Another second-year player of note, running back Isaiah Pead, lost a fumble on one of his three carries. I thought quarterback Sam Bradford was sharp while completing 5 of 8 passes for 102 yards and a touchdown.

The San Francisco 49ers sounded pleased with first-round pick Eric Reid, who is fighting for the starting job at free safety. I thought the 49ers' second-round pick, tight end Vance McDonald, also made a positive impact despite dropping a short pass at one point. The team is going to need more from receiver A.J. Jenkins, who fumbled following his lone reception.

The Seattle Seahawks, meanwhile, showed off their depth at wide receiver and cornerback. Stephen Williams and Jermaine Kearse each caught touchdown passes, validating the progress they have shown in camp. Tarvaris Jackson's 128-yard, two-touchdown passing performance left the impression Seattle has the best backup quarterback in the division.

Next up: The Arizona Cardinals' exhibition opener at Green Bay.

Good morning, NFC West.

The division has three exhibitions on the schedule Thursday night, giving us something to assess beyond training camp practices. The Thursday night lineup -- St. Louis at Cleveland, Denver at San Francisco and Seattle at San Diego -- comes one day before Arizona opens its exhibition schedule at Green Bay.

Our new Rams reporter, Nick Wagoner, will have you covered on the St. Louis game, which begins at 8 p.m. ET. I'll take it from there with the San Francisco (9 ET) and Seattle (10 ET) games.

NFL teams somewhat controversially charge full price for exhibitions, requiring season-ticket holders to buy tickets to 10 home games instead of just the eight meaningful ones. The preseason games have value for those interested enough to follow position battles throughout the roster. Mostly, though, fans are left to hope key players avoid significant injuries.

I'll be back in a bit with a look at notes of interest for the Broncos-49ers and Seahawks-Chargers games. Nick will take a look at Rams-Browns.