NFC West: 2012 Camp Watch
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
Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:
One thing I'm certain of: Dashon Goldson's unsigned status is a temporary inconvenience. The team can get through any camp practices and exhibition games Goldson might miss. Given that rules prevent Goldson and other franchise players from signing long-term deals at this point, the 49ers know their Pro Bowl safety will sign in time for the season. They need to develop depth at safety and will have additional chances to do so if Goldson stays away for any significant period.
Unsigned franchise players have until Nov. 13 to sign their one-year qualifying offers. Goldson would forfeit nearly $365,000 for every regular-season game he missed. That is a significant sum for any player and particularly for Goldson, who earned $1 million last season and less than $600,000 per year previously, on average.
One thing that might happen: Competition at running back, wide receiver and backup quarterback could shift attention away from Alex Smith during camp and the preseason, a big change from recent seasons. Smith returns to the team entrenched as the starter. It'll be news if Smith struggles, of course, but it's inconceivable to envision another quarterback winning the starting job in camp. That could be an underrated positive for the 49ers.
I do wonder, still, how well Smith will fare in distributing the ball to receivers Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss in particular. Moss, Crabtree, Ted Ginn Jr. and rookie A.J. Jenkins give the 49ers four first-round draft choices at wide receiver, the most in the league. How will Crabtree and Moss react if the passing game falters and their stats suffer?
One thing we won't see: The same old thing at right guard. Former starters Chilo Rachal and Adam Snyder signed elsewhere in free agency. The 49ers were ready to move on without them. Alex Boone has become a strong favorite to start after converting from tackle. Daniel Kilgore is another option. Rookie Joe Looney could project as the long-term starter once he recovers from a foot injury. Whatever the case, change is on the way.
Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:
One thing I'm certain of: Free-agent addition Jason Jones will fit much better at defensive tackle in Seattle than he did as a defensive end with Tennessee last season. The pass rush should improve as a result. Jones' addition on a one-year contract holds promise because the Seahawks seem excited about him. The team's leadership has been right on just about every defensive player it has targeted by trade (Chris Clemons), the draft (see the secondary in particular), unrestricted free agency (Alan Branch), street free agency (Brandon Browner) and position changes (Red Bryant).
Jones had a career-low three sacks for Tennessee last season. That matched the total for Anthony Hargrove, the player Jones is replacing in Seattle. Doubling that total seems to be a reasonable expectation for Jones if all goes to plan.
One thing that might happen: The confidence Seattle has exhibited in its young receivers could prove too optimistic. I'm going to have it both ways on this one. A month ago, I pointed to receiver as a position where the Seahawks might have "hidden treasure" on their roster. That could be the case, but some skepticism appears warranted. Seattle has so far proven more adept at building on defense than on offense.
Mike Williams' recent release left the team with a roster spot for a veteran receiver heading toward training camp. Antonio Bryant, who participated in minicamp practices on a tryout basis last month, could get another shot. The team needs Sidney Rice in particular to become more durable. The same is true to a lesser extent for Kris Durham. Doug Baldwin's presence gives the team a proven target from the slot and on third down. Golden Tate appears on the upswing. Ricardo Lockette's blazing speed intrigues. There are still quite a few variables and unknowns at the position.
One thing we won't see: The offensive line coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider envisioned when the team used a 2011 first-round draft choice for tackle James Carpenter. The team expects Carpenter to miss training camp and open the season on the physically unable to perform list following surgery to repair a serious knee injury suffered last season. John Moffitt, a third-round choice in 2011, is also returning from knee surgery. Left tackle Russell Okung, the sixth overall choice in 2010, is returning from surgery to repair a torn pectoral.
Breno Giacomini has proven to be more than adequate as Carpenter's replacement, to the point that he could remain at right tackle for the long term. Deuce Lutui's addition helps depth. However, another significant injury to Okung would set back the line tremendously.
Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:
One thing I'm certain of: The defense won't be hurting for swagger this summer. These guys think they're good after finishing strong last season. They should have the upper hand in practice against an offense with question marks on the line and at quarterback.
The aggressive, brash tone coordinator Ray Horton sets reflects his roots as a longtime NFL cornerback. Horton marked his introductory news conference last offseason by vowing to blitz on the Cardinals' first play. He hadn't lost anything in the attitude department when I visited the Cardinals' mandatory minicamp last month. On the field, Patrick Peterson and O'Brien Schofield are outwardly confident young players. Darnell Dockett and Adrian Wilson are veterans with swagger.
One thing that might happen: Injury concerns at running back could linger, renewing questions about how the Cardinals handled the position this offseason. The top two backs, Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams, are coming off knee surgeries.
Durability was a concern for Wells when the team drafted him in 2009. Wells suffered an ankle injury during his first camp practice as a rookie. In 2010, a knee injury suffered during the final exhibition game sidelined Wells for the first two weeks of the regular season. Wells missed both Seattle games last season. He topped 1,000 yards anyway, but Wells' knee clearly limited him late in the season. His average yards per carry fell from 4.7 yards in September, October and November to 3.1 yards in December.
Williams, meanwhile, has made great progress in his return from a torn patella. He might not be ready to contribute extensively in the short term, however. The injury he suffered was a serious one.
It'll be interesting to see how the Cardinals divide their carries for running backs during camp and the preseason.
One thing we won't see: A quick resolution to the quarterback situation. Coach Ken Whisenhunt was ready with a quip when asked when he wanted clarity at the position. Two years ago, he answered. The race between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton appears too close for one player to suddenly earn Whisenhunt's endorsement early in camp.
Whisenhunt said he wants an honest competition. That seemingly can't happen without both quarterbacks getting ample reps during preseason games.
Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:
One thing I'm certain of: The offensive line will remain a work in progress. The Rams feel good about new line coach Paul T. Boudreau. They think he can help tackle Jason Smith and other young linemen realize more of their potential. Adding Pro Bowl center Scott Wells in free agency also should help.
This group will need time together on the field, however, and personnel-related question marks persist. Can Rodger Saffold rebound from a rough, injury-shortened season at left tackle? Does the team have a viable left guard? Is Smith the answer at right tackle? A realistic best-case scenario would not produce the preferred answers overnight. Expect a few bumps in the road, at least.
One thing that might happen: Defensive end Chris Long taking more of a leadership role. Long has become more productive in each of his first four NFL seasons. He collected 13 sacks in 2011 even though the Rams rarely faced favorable pass-rushing situations (they held fourth-quarter leads in only three games). Long, only 27, became the oldest defensive lineman on the team once the Rams parted with veterans Fred Robbins, James Hall and Justin Bannan.
Those personnel changes and Long's on-field credentials enhance his profile. The Rams now have three relatively recent first-round draft choices projected as starters on their defensive line. Robert Quinn (14th overall choice in 2011) and Michael Brockers (14th this year) would do well to follow Long's lead.
One thing we won't see: Gregg Williams. The Rams aren't listing Williams among their defensive coaches while the would-be defensive coordinator serves an indefinite NFL suspension. They have not named a coordinator in Williams' place.
Williams' suspension has faded from prominence among NFL storylines in recent months. That figures to change some once the Rams and their coaching staff are on the field for practices. Seeing how the staff operates will provide a better feel for how the Rams plan to proceed this season. Coach Jeff Fisher probably becomes more directly accountable.