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Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Mailbag: Best draft goes to Cardinals for now

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Greg from Redondo Beach writes: Mike, What I'd really like to read is an updated list of draft grades for the rookies this season in the NFC West. I'd like to know how my Seahawks fared against other teams in their division.

Mike Sando: Fair enough. I assigned an impact grade of high, medium or low for every player NFC West teams chose in the 2008 draft.

The Cardinals have two rookie draft choices starting on a division-winning team, with a third rookie draft choice, Calais Campbell, contributing regularly as part of a rotation. We can debate whether some of these choices should be high-impact or medium-impact players, but I think Arizona claims the title given that these rookies are contributing to victories.

I identified five high-impact rookies. Two are playing for the Cardinals (Tim Hightower and Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie). Two are playing for the Rams (Chris Long and Donnie Avery). One is playing for the Seahawks (John Carlson). Zero are playing for the 49ers, thanks in part to the groin injury Josh Morgan suffered.

I identified five medium-impact rookies. Two play for the 49ers (Morgan and the newly starting Chilo Rachal). One plays for the Cardinals (Campbell). One plays for the Rams (Keenan Burton, who is arguably a low-impact rookie). One plays for Seattle (Lawrence Jackson).

I identified 18 low-impact rookies. Five play for the Seahawks (Red Bryant, Owen Schmitt, Tyler Schmitt, Justin Forsett and Braydon Coutu). Five play for the Rams (John Greco, Justin King, Roy Schuening, Chris Chamberlain and David Vobora). Four were 49ers choices (Kentwan Balmer, Reggie Smith, Cody Wallace and Larry Grant, who is now with the Rams). Four were Cardinals choices (Early Doucet, Kenny Iwebema, Chris Harrington and Brandon Keith).

This is a conversation I'd like to continue. I'm sure some would differ with a few of my characterizations, but probably en route to the same overall conclusion.


Henry from Daly City, Calif., writes: Hey Sando, I was really impressed with Shaun Hill's 2-game winning performance last year and was a little surprised why he didn't get the starting position during training camp. Now, he's proving that he should have gotten it and is putting up great numbers, but I think he's severely underrated.

Why isn't he on the (ESPN's) QB statistics list when his passer rating through 5 1/2 games ranks him 5th overall behind Drew Brees while other QB's are on the list having played 5 games or less such as Brady Quinn, Daunte Culpepper, and Carson Palmer? Hill was overlooked at training camp, and now he's being overlooked on stat sheets as well, what gives?

Mike Sando: It's looking like the coordinator change hurt Hill's chances early. I woudn't necessarily fault Mike Martz for that, either.

The book on Hill seems to be that he's a poor practice player. Even if Martz had been predisposed to J.T. O'Sullivan, he couldn't realistically endorse a player who struggled in practice.

That might help explain why Hill didn't get a chance from the beginning. Also, Hill would not suit the offense as Martz planned to run it coming out of camp. That's why Mike Singletary deserves so much credit. He changed the quarterback and the approach.

As for stat leaderboards, sometimes they go on attempts rather than games. I'm not sure on Hill, but I wouldn't think anyone would purposely exclude a player with enough attempts to qualify.


Ken from Seattle writes: How about Brian Russell for falling stock? Last year, he and Deon Grant settled the secondary with great success. This year, he's not anticipating or tackling so well while his limited footspeed has aged another. He got embarassed by Welker on that decisive 4th quarter drive. I'd be shocked to see him starting next year.

Mike Sando: I think the Seattle defensive backs have looked as good as their pass rush a lot of the time. I have seen Russell go for hits instead of wrapping up, but there are a few hundred other NFL players doing the same thing. The Seahawks are happier with Russell's play than some who watch without knowing each player's specific assignment on a play. Experience has taught me to acknowledge my limitations in analyzing secondary play for that very reason. You'll sometimes hear analysts sound smart talking about coverages, but they don't sound as smart to the people on the inside.


Adam from Sacramento writes: Sando!!! Time to start the Shaun Hill for Pro Bowl campaign! jk... I have to say that I am both happy and upset with Hill's play since being thown into the lineup. I'm excited to see that he is performing well and doing it consistently; however, it is infuriating to m
e that the coaching staff waited so long to put him in. The 49ers could possibly be in the playoff hunt still.

That being said, do you think both he and Singletary have earned the right to come back next year as starting QB and HC respectively? I hear that the knock on Hill is that he doesn't wow anyone in practice but performs in games. Isn't that more of an indicator to go by? If so, do you think they keep Martz next year? He seems to be calling the games better lately. But I do get the feeling that he is just biding his time until the offseason to move on. What say you oh great one?

Mike Sando: Capital letters on Great One, please. Ha. One key is to differentiate between whether someone has "done enough" to keep his job and whether someone is the best fit. The 49ers under Mike Nolan won two of their final three games in 2006, with both victories in hostile environments (Seattle and Denver). Nolan "did enough" to keep the job. But was he the right man for the job? The 49ers ultimately concluded he was not.

That said, continuity needs to be a priority for the 49ers after all they've been through at offensive coordinator and quarterback. I would make changes only if I was sure I had clearly superior alternatives.


Doc from Seattle writes: Why do you think that the two of the most productive members of the Seahawks; Shaun Alexander and Mike Holmgren are such polarizing figures. One is the only MVP in Seahawks history and the other will be the only Hall of Fame coach to possibly be a Seahawk.

Mike Sando: Some of it is the nature of the business. With Alexander, I think some people didn't appreciate his carefree personality and running style. With Holmgren, people didn't like him when the team had losing records. Some do not like his conservative nature when things go wrong. Few coaches are more loyal to their philosophies and critics are going to see that as stubbornness.


David from Scottsdale writes: Mike, Is Dominique Rogers-Cromartie making a late push for Defensive Rookie of the Year? There seems to be no clear cut front runner out there -- three INTs with one returned for a TD is a good showing. If he adds one more interception over the final three and plays well in the playoffs -- he has to be considered.

Mike Sando: The fact that he wasn't a starter for much of the season would work against him. The 99-yard return for a touchdown and two interceptions at Seattle work in his favor. He has an opportunity to raise his profile in upcoming games against the Vikings and Patriots. Those games should provide a better stage for him.


Scott from Couer d'Alene, Idaho, writes: Mike, The Seahawks' O line seemed to play one of its best games all year with mostly backups in the game. What does this mean for the future? Did the line just over perform or is there more of a depth of talent at that position than expected?

Mike Sando: Having a healthy Seneca Wallace and dialed-in Deion Branch surely helped. Also, the Patriots' defense was in shambles. Ty Warren missed the game. Vince Wilfork played six snaps. Rodney Harrison was out. James Sanders was limited. Tedy Bruschi did not finish the game. Adalius Thomas was out. The Seahawks did seem to be fired up and aggressive, but this was not a great Patriots defense. Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau played half the snaps less than a week after signing with New England.


Julian from Frankfurt, Germany, writes: Hey Mike. So the Cards finally are the division champs, the result of Sunday's game was what you would expect of a good team clinching its division, but there are still some questions. The most obvious, what do you think is the biggest problem about our running game? We ran all over them in St.Louis and were pretty much contained at home yesterday. What stood out to me was bad play-calling. Why run ten more draw plays when the first one got nowhere? I don't know what numbers an Adrian Peterson would put up in our system. Second, Kurt Warner played a good, accurate game, except for that one pick. Almost a classic Kurt Warner moment, hanging with the ball and trying to make a play at any cost. Seems he is falling back into his old scheme there or is it just because of the late season and his age? Your thoughts on this?

Mike Sando: Warner is always going to fight those tendencies. I do think people revert to their true identities under pressure. That will be a test for Warner in the playoffs. An interception like the one he threw against the Rams could turn a playoff game for good.

The Cardinals' approach to the running game suggests they know they can't run the ball. They're running end-arounds and draws and all sorts of gimmicky runs, and they've been doing it for weeks. Their identity is in the passing game and it seems clear they can't escape that. I've thought Arizona might be able to line up from traditional personnel and throw to set up the run, but Warner isn't most comfortable in that setting.

The Cardinals are playing to Warner's strengths and exposing their shortcomings in the ground game along the way.


Tanner from California writes: Mike, as a Seahawks fan I cannot wait for the off-season. It's obvious that Seattle's secondary has struggled this season. Do you think we will possibly release Brian Russell or Deon Grant? Also, who are some possible free agents the 'Hawks could pick up after the season? Oh yeah, and have you heard anything about Nate Burleson and his injury? P.S. You still got the best blog on the block.

Mike Sando: Thanks, Tanner. Deon Grant and Brian Russell are both under contract at reasonable salaries next season. I see no reason to cut them unless you've got someone demonstrably better to replace them. If I'm Seattle, I fix the pass rush and then watch the defensive backs prosper. I'd rather draft a safety than overpay for a veteran.


Sean from Jackson, Miss., writes: I hope you're doing well. I found an autographed card of WR Robert Jordan (California) and found out he WAS on the 49ers but left of his own accord over the summer, hopefully to come back. Any news on this guy? Thank you for your time. Sean Campbell

Mike Sando: I've lost track of him. Hopefully someone else out there has heard something.


Deric from Twin Falls, Idaho, writes: Well Sando, Mike [Holmgren] did it again, and I'm going to re-argue that he cares less about the fans in Seattle and more about his all time win/loss record. In the fourth quarter when Branch made what wa
s called an incomplete catch and Holmgren didn't challenge showed that he was more concerned about playing it safe. The catch was obvious, and for a first down nonetheless. Mike's vanilla play style, even when it doesn't matter any more, proves that he still wants to win his way, he hasn't "opened up the playbook", he hasn't taken risks to the delight of the fans, he just does the same 'ol crap he's done all season. I am one Seahawk fan that would gladly lend a boot to his butt to make him leave now.

Mike Sando: You are probably in the minority on that one. You're right about Holmgren wanting to do things his way. On that Branch play, didn't Seattle use its second timeout right before the play? Challenging would have risked the final timeout. I could be wrong on that, but a quick look at the gamebook suggests I'm right.


Charlie from parts unknown writes: Hey Mike, I would like to know why the 49ers dont run when they get in the redzone?

Mike Sando: The 49ers rank eighth in the NFL in goal-to-go percentage. They have scored touchdowns on 11 of their last 17 red-zone trips. I don't have their run-pass ratio in the red zone handy, but those figures are pretty good.