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Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Tackling key questions in the NFC West

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. joined me Wednesday morning to discuss key issues in the NFC West. I'll lay them out, one per team, following the order of the division standings.

1. San Francisco 49ers (3-2): What should we expect from Michael Crabtree and are the 49ers making the right decision to start him now?

Matt Williamson: I agree with it. I haven't seen him in practice, but he must be impressive. I thought he was the best player in the draft. I didn't have to try to sign him, sit down with him, know what kind of person he was, but from what I saw on tape in game situations, he was the best player available. He's an immense talent and probably already the second most talented player on their roster besides Patrick Willis, and they may be equal. He has a chance at some point to be their best offensive playmaker. Get him on the field. He's better than what they have had and the passing game hasn't been all that great.

Mike Sando: One question might be whether rushing him onto the field could lead to injuries.

Matt Williamson: I would bet there will be some fatigue for him. How many times has he run 40 routes in a game and blocked? You can try to do all that stuff in practice, but it isn't the same.

Mike Sando: What does Isaac Bruce have left? Are they making the right decision sitting down Josh Morgan?

Matt Williamson: In the long term, no. But they are a contender and they have as good a shot as anyone to win this division. There's a high trust factor with Bruce. Vernon Davis has improved, but he can still be erratic mentally and assignment-wise. They need somebody out there who can get 8 yards on third-and-7. I'm not sure how reliable Vernon Davis and Josh Morgan would be from that standpoint. When the quarterback gets in trouble, he knows where Bruce is going to be and he will not embarrass you. Morgan will see the field plenty, too, to spell Crabtree.


2. Arizona Cardinas (3-2): What should we expect from Arizona on the road against the Giants? Can the Cardinals win that game?

Matt Williamson: Normally I would say no, but I'm really on the fence about it. Anquan Boldin would be a big loss if he is out. I think New York's defense is very good, but I thought New Orleans really exposed them over the middle of the field and that is why I mentioned Boldin. C.C. Brown was awful for the Giants. Their safety play and linebacker pass defense is poor right now, mostly because of injuries but also because Antonio Pierce and Chase Blackburn aren't good in coverage. The Cardinals do not have a great tight end, but Boldin and Fitzgerald can have success over the middle.

Mike Sando: Will Warner have time to throw?

Matt Williamson: I think they are at a massive disadvantage in pass protection. I would take the Giants for that reason.

Mike Sando: Arizona stopped the Giants' running game last season, but Eli Manning lit up their secondary.

Matt Williamson: That could happen again. I think they are going to have a hard time getting to Manning. I do not like their pass rush.

Mike Sando: Unlike Seattle in Week 6, the Giants will not be starting Kyle Williams at left tackle. Manning has taken only three sacks all season. He has 11 touchdowns, three interceptions and an 8.4-yard average per attempt.


3. Seattle Seahawks (2-4). Seattle has lost twice at home already. Is it too early to write off this team?

Matt Williamson: I don’t think so. A week ago, I kind of felt like they were going to win the division, and then their line got so exposed and nothing went well. They are already 2-4 with a lot of road games ahead of them. They are not the type of team that can afford to lose at home. And can Matt Hasselbeck really play 10 more games for you? I have some doubts there. Are they a contender? No. Are they a drag, either? No.

Mike Sando: Nine wins should be enough to win this division, I think. If that is the case, Seattle probably must win its remaining four games at home -- against Detroit, San Francisco, Tampa Bay and Tennessee -- plus half of its six remaining road games. A victory over Dallas in Week 8 would seem pretty much essential because it's a stretch to think Seattle will win at Minnesota, Arizona or Green Bay. Can the Seahawks beat the Cowboys?

Matt Williamson: I don’t think Dallas is all that good, but I would certainly take the Cowboys right now based on what I have seen today. I don’t know how well they can protect Hasselbeck and Demarcus Ware is a beast. If Sean Locklear comes back, he would still be at a disadvantage, but at least it would be more competitive. Seattle's run game isn’t good enough, but when they are hot and can protect a little bit, they are good in the passing game. They could pick apart that Cowboys secondary. ... I know Lofa Tatupu is out, but David Hawthrone is not a terrible player. He has filled in OK. Aaron Curry is a stud in the making and I don’t think Dallas is all that dangerous. I could see it being competitive. I would really worry about Seattle's offensive line against that defensive front.

Mike Sando: What is Seattle's long-term outlook?

Matt Williamson: They need to fix that running game and draft a lineman or two and I think they could be back in a big way next year.


4. St. Louis Rams (0-6): What should we make of the Rams' decision to trade Will Witherspoon and their approach to rebuilding overall?

Matt Williamson: What was Witherspoon's contract situation?

Mike Sando: He had two years left. His deal was going to count $6.8 million against the cap in 2010.

Matt Williamson: That makes sense, then. That has to be the motivation, that they want him off the books. They are really happy with James Laurinaitis. If you look at the Giants' defenses, they never had a lot of money tied into linebackers. They were fourth- and fifth-round picks, journeymen. I don’t disagree with that, especially running a 4-3. That is the place you can get bargains. It wouldn't shock me if they took that money and got a killer defensive end, using the Giants' formula of, 'Let's beat your tail up front with our defensive line.' "

Mike Sando: What about the receiver St. Louis got from the Eagles for Witherspoon?

Matt Williamson: Brandon Gibson? I watched him at the Senior Bowl and thought he was very ordinary. He is a physical kid, not real fast, not real special, not great movement skills. He is a bottom-of-the-roster guy. Maybe that is the best guy they could get.

Mike Sando: Are they handling the rebuild properly, dumping so many older players?

Matt Williamson: I think so. That makes it such a big project. That is the problem. It is not going to be overnight or one year. You probably still need to find the quarterback. And if you draft him, he still is not going to be ready for two years. And by then, what does Steven Jackson have left? Your best player might never be a factor when you're good. How long can Jackson play given his injuries and how much they run him into a wall? Will he be serviceable in three years? Will he be on the team in five?

What I don’t have a great grasp of is, 'Where do they want to use their resources?' I have no problem with the Jason Smith pick, no problem with Laurinaitis. If you are going to get rid of Witherspoon, what are you going to do with it? If they harvest a bunch of defensive linemen, I'm cool with that. It's a terrific formula. Defensive linemen are gold. I tend to think Steve Spagnuolo thinks that as well.