NFC West: 2012 blogger mock draft
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
The latest: I selected Stanford tight end Coby Fleener for the Seattle Seahawks with the 31st overall choice, aquired from New England as part of a trade involving the 12th overall pick.
My rationale: The Seahawks landed a defensive end four picks earlier (in this mock, anyway). Once Fleener slipped past the 49ers at No. 30, I figured Seattle could use him as a replacement for John Carlson, who signed with Minnesota in free agency. This was a bit of a luxury pick, admittedly. But the salaries for first-round picks have become relatively modest. Pairing Fleener with Zach Miller would give new quarterback Matt Flynn welcome options in the passing game. Seattle likes its depth at wide receiver enough to raise questions about Mike Williams' job security. But the depth at tight end could use reinforcement. The Seahawks considered veteran Visanthe Shiancoe, but they would prefer to go with younger players. Fleener would add another dimension to the offense. However, concerns about a back injury suffered in college do raise questions about the safety of this choice.
The latest: I selected North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins for the San Francisco 49ers with the 30th overall choice.
My rationale: The 49ers have a strong head coach, a strong locker room and one of the best defenses in the NFL. Justin Smith and Patrick Willis give the 49ers impeccably strong leadership. This team appears to be in good position to take a chance on a player with clear off-field concerns, particularly if scouts are right about Jenkins' raw talent. I considered Stanford tight end Coby Fleener, but the 49ers love their current tight ends. They could easily extend Delanie Walker's contract, knowing he fits in their offense and brings great additional value on special teams. The 49ers could have taken a guard in this slot, but that's a position they should be able to fill later in the draft, or with Daniel Kilgore. Cornerback is a more valuable position. The 49ers face a long list of top quarterbacks in 2012. Jenkins gives them needed depth. Scouts say he can play man or zone well.
What's next for the NFC West: The Seattle Seahawks hold the 31st overall choice.
The latest: I selected Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones for the Seattle Seahawks with the 27th overall choice, acquired from New England as part of a deal involving the 12th pick.
My rationale: The Seahawks like defensive players with unusual physical characteristics. Jones has freakishly long arms and would upgrade a pass rush that was lacking in 2011. "Highly athletic, vine-armed, havoc-wreaking pass-rusher with rare dimensions and a developing frame to fill out and become a pass-rushing force," Nolan Nawrocki writes in his annual draft guide for Pro Football Weekly. Seattle still needs help at linebacker, but this draft is deep at that position, according to Seahawks general manager John Schneider. The team landed starting linebacker K.J. Wright in the fourth round a year ago. Finding an impact pass-rusher later would be more difficult. Jones fills a primary need, and he does so 15 selections later than the Seahawks were originally scheduled to select. That seems like a welcome development for the Seahawks, who get another chance to help themselves at No. 31.
What's next for the NFC West: The San Francisco 49ers hold the 30th choice.
The latest: I selected Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd for the Arizona Cardinals with the 13th overall selection.
My rationale: Tackle Riley Reiff was available and would have filled the greater need. The scouting reports on Reiff suggested he might not be a great value choice at No 13, however. The Cardinals have learned their lesson drafting an offensive tackle for need, having selected Levi Brown fifth overall in 2007. Floyd has the physical dimensions generally associated with receivers drafted among the top three overall selections. He also comes with question marks, but Larry Fitzgerald should be the perfect mentor. Floyd steps into the starting lineup and gives the Cardinals a player scouts consider ideally suited for the "Z" receiver role. With this pick, the Cardinals finally find a No. 2 receiver to succeed Anquan Boldin. Early Doucet is ideally suited for the No. 3 role. And if Andre Roberts takes another step in his development, all the better.
What's next for the NFC West: The Seattle Seahawks are scheduled to pick 27th, followed by the San Francisco 49ers at No. 30 and the Seahawks again at No. 31, following a trade with New England.
The latest: I traded Seattle's first-round pick, 12th overall, and fourth-round pick, 106th overall, to the New England Patriots for the 27th and 31st selections.
My rationale: The Seahawks could use a starting middle linebacker. Luke Kuechly would have been a strong consideration, but he did not last past the ninth pick. Trading back became an appealing option. Bill Williamson of the AFC West blog reached out about possibly having San Diego move from 18th to 12th for a shot at Melvin Ingram. That was a consideration until the AFC East blogger, James Walker, moved up to take Ingram at No. 10 for the New York Jets. Walker wanted that 12th pick for New England, however, so I was in luck. The draft value chart said our exchange -- Nos. 12 and 106 for Nos. 27 and 31 -- matched up well. And so I made the move. The Patriots moved up for safety Mark Barron, a difference-maker for their defense. Seattle was already set at safety, having placed two of them in the Pro Bowl this past season. Two first-round picks were better than one in the absence of a player Seattle absolutely had to have.
What's next for the NFC West: The Arizona Cardinals are on the clock with the 13th overall choice.
The latest: I just selected Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon for the St. Louis Rams with the sixth overall choice.
My rationale: The Rams need a No. 1 receiver. Blackmon is widely considered to be the best receiver in the draft. Matt Kalil, Trent Richardson and Morris Claiborne were not available. I considered drafting a defensive tackle, but none of the available ones seemed more appealing than Blackmon. Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd was a consideration with this selection as well. However, making an off-the-wall selection at No. 6 would have risked sending the mock into turmoil unnecessarily and unrealistically. The choice was going to be Richardson, Claiborne or Blackmon. Blackmon was the only one of the three still available in this mock. He was the logical choice under the circumstances.
Trade considerations: I received no trade offers for the sixth overall choice.
What's next for the NFC West: The Seattle Seahawks are scheduled to select with the 12th overall choice. I've made it clear to the other bloggers that Seattle would like to deal this choice. A deal will go down before I'm on the clock for Seattle. Preliminary discussions with the AFC East's James Walker and the AFC West's Bill Williamson point to New England and San Diego as suitors for this pick. Williamson has Melvin Ingram in mind for the Chargers. Walker appears to be the aggressor in trade talks to this point, though.
We've become accustomed to reading NFL mock drafts as finished products, usually from a single author.
Process trumps product when our eight divisional bloggers, myself included, gather Monday at 1 p.m. ET for a live mock draft allowing on-the-clock trades.
I'll post a link when I have one.
We're setting aside a two-hour window for this mock, allowing not quite 4 minutes per pick on average. The hope is for the format to promote urgency and discussion. This will be interactive to the extent the "Cover It Live" module allows.
I'm making picks and trades for the NFC West teams, whether they like it or not. Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon will be a consideration for the St. Louis Rams at No. 6 despite concerns raised on the blog and in the ESPN video above.
Note: Follow our live mock on Twitter with the ESPNbloggermock hash tag.
Not seeing many hands out there. Not seeing any hands, actually.
OK, let's try this again.
Raise your hand if you had the Seattle Seahawks selecting James Carpenter at No. 25.
Hmmm. Not seeing many hands out there. Not seeing any, actually.
Do not feel bad. Even if you knew which 32 players would become first-round picks in a given NFL draft, there would be more than 263 decillion possible combinations.
The number looks like this: 263,130,836,933,693,530,167,218,012,160,000,000.
With that in mind, our 2012 NFL Blog Network mock draft comes guaranteed not for accuracy but for its ability to promote conversation, a process that has already begun here on the NFC West blog.
"Kendall Wright pick makes no sense" CHI-TOWN-BULLS protested upon seeing the Baylor receiver projected for the49ers at No. 30.
More on that in a minute.
We penciled in Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III at the top with a reasonable degree of confidence. Matt Kalil, Trent Richardson, Morris Claiborne and Justin Blackmon fell third through sixth. Most choices seemed logical, but somewhere among the top five or 10 selections, an NFL team breaks from projected form, tapping into those 263 decillion combinations.
Two years ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars obliterated mock drafts by selecting Tyson Alualu with the 10th pick. Last year, four quarterbacks went among the top 12 choices, with Christian Ponder a surprise choice for Minnesota at No. 12.
My thinking for the NFC West was rather straightforward:
- Rams at No. 6: Blackmon was an easy choice. The team has an obvious need for a wide receiver. Blackmon is widely regarded as the highest-rated one in this draft class, to the point that some question whether he will be available to the Rams. Going in another direction for this mock would have represented over-thinking a simple situation. Sure, St. Louis could trade back or select a player at another position. Richardson or Claiborne would carry appeal if available. But when Blackmon was available, I turned in the imaginary card right away.
- Seahawks at No. 12. I wondered going into the mock whether Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly might be available for Seattle in this slot. Would the team take an inside linebacker that early? San Francisco fared well taking Patrick Willis with the 11th pick in 2007. Scot McCloughan, now a top Seahawks personnel executive, was the driving force behind the Willis decision. Would the Seahawks see Kuechly in a similar light? They do need help at linebacker, after all. The thought became a fleeting one when Kuechly went to Carolina at No. 9. That made it easier to focus on the highest-rated pass-rushers. Quinton Coples was the choice because he seemed to be the most talented one available, based on scouting reports.
- Cardinals at No. 13. This choice was tougher than the previous two. I went with Alabama's Courtney Upshaw, figuring he might fit the profile for a pass-rushing outside linebacker in the Cardinals' 3-4 scheme. He's on the shorter side at not quite 6-foot-2, and there is no clear consensus on whether Upshaw projects as an outside linebacker. The height factor seemed less important given that Arizona patterns its defensive scheme after the one Pittsburgh has used under Dick LeBeau. The Steelers' LaMarr Woodley (6-2) and James Harrison (6-0) get the job done. Could Upshaw enjoy situational success the way Smith did as a rookie for San Francisco last season? Receiver Michael Floyd was a consideration for Arizona. I thought the Cardinals needed improved quarterback play more than they needed improved receiver talent.
- 49ers at No. 30. Wright was the choice simply because he appeared to be the highest-rated receiver available, but the 49ers could easily go in another direction. Quite a few mock drafts have linked Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill to the 49ers, but he was not available to them in this mock, having gone 22nd to Cleveland. I was drafting more for position than for the specific player. The 49ers could use another cornerback. Perhaps Janoris Jenkins would have been a better value choice. He went 31st to New England in our mock. The 49ers could use a starting right guard, but they might already have one in Daniel Kilgore, a 2011 draft choice. Besides, how many first-round picks can one team use for offensive linemen? Current starters Joe Staley, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis were first-rounders. Ultimately, the 49ers are picking this late for a reason. They don't have as many clearly defined needs as less successful teams. They're in good position to keep an open mind.
I used ESPN's 2012 NFL Draft Machine to make selections and keep general track of which players remained available as the mock unfolded. Toggling between the overall list and specific position lists made it easier to balance value with need.
This conversation is to be continued.