NFC West: 2012 NFL draft

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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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.

First Down

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.


Second Down

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.


Third Down

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.


Fourth Down

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.

 
Former San Francisco 49ers receiver A.J. Jenkins could compete with former St. Louis Rams receiver Donnie Avery for a starting spot in the Kansas City Chiefs' offense.

That coincidence illustrates the high level of turnover at the position around here.

The San Francisco 49ers' Michael Crabtree and the Seattle Seahawks' Percy Harvin suffered serious injuries this offseason. The St. Louis Rams decided against retaining 2012 starters Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson. The Arizona Cardinals still have Larry Fitzgerald, of course, and they're excited about Michael Floyd. But even they have remained on the lookout for supporting players at the position, including the recently signed Mike Thomas.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Jenkins
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY SportsA.J. Jenkins was one of just two receivers the 49ers drafted before the fifth round between 2009 and 2012.
The chart below provides some context. It shows every wide receiver NFC West teams have selected in the past five drafts. I've shaded the 49ers' selections to show why they're scrambling at the position after losing Crabtree indefinitely and deciding Jenkins wasn't worth keeping for a second season. Crabtree and Jenkins were the only wideouts San Francisco selected in the first five rounds from 2009 until the team used a 2013 fourth-round pick for Quinton Patton, who recently returned from a finger injury.

We should have expected the 49ers to get more from their wideouts as their quarterback situation has improved. That happened for the Seattle Seahawks last season as Russell Wilson gained momentum. Receivers Golden Tate and Sidney Rice began producing at levels they had not achieved in Seattle previously.

Crabtree seemed to benefit from the 49ers' improved quarterback play last season. Jenkins didn't earn or otherwise receive sufficient chances. That helps explain why 2010 sixth-round choice Kyle Williams has ranked as the leading contender to start opposite 2013 trade acquisition Anquan Boldin while Crabtree and 2012 free-agent addition Mario Manningham remain on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.

Williams has outperformed his sixth-round pedigree, but the 49ers never planned for him to be a starter. Jon Baldwin, acquired from the Chiefs in the Jenkins trade, can only improve the dynamic in the short term after Jenkins failed to factor.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid said his team felt comfortable with Jenkins after consulting with quarterback Alex Smith and assistant head coach/receivers David Culley. Smith played with Jenkins in San Francisco. Culley ran Jenkins through a workout before the 2012 draft. Reid said the Chiefs liked Jenkins' speed, hands and smarts.

"Alex was very positive about it," Reid told reporters in Kansas City.

Reid's comments regarding Avery and Baldwin might also be of interest:

  • On Avery: "We know that A.J. is going to have to come in here and learn, so we had to feel comfortable that Donnie was a legitimate starter, and we felt that. We felt that when we brought him here and since he’s been here, that he could be a quality starter on our football team. Donnie has tremendous speed, and he’s got a lot of experience and he's shown in this offense that he can do some nice things."

  • On Baldwin: "I'll always take responsibility for putting the guys in a good position to get them open and for the time that Jon was here, he did nothing but work his tail off for me. I’m not going that direction. I wish I could have helped get him open a little more than we did. ... This presented itself. I think it's good for Jon. They lost a big, powerful receiver, Crabtree, and Jon fits in that role. We needed extra kick in there and we'll see if A.J. can give us a little extra speed."


While Baldwin's 6-foot-4 and 230-pound frame surely appealed to the 49ers, I don't think they necessarily went into the trade seeking a receiver more closely matching Crabtree's physical dimensions. More likely, they were cutting their losses with Jenkins and figured Baldwin, a first-round choice in 2011, would be better than any other receiver the team was likely to receive in a trade. The fact that Baldwin has excellent size factored into their thinking, too, particularly after the smaller Jenkins struggled getting separation against physical corners. But the 49ers knew about Jenkins' size when they drafted him.

"He was the best player available when we picked," general manager Trent Baalke said on draft day 2012. "His card was above all others. That was a big reason in why we made the decision. Not only do we feel he has the skill sets we're looking for -- explosive playmaking ability -- but like we've always talked, he's our kind of guy. He's a football guy. He loves the game. He's very passionate. He lives for the games. He lives in the building. He loves the game. It was an easy decision when it came time to make the pick."

Chart note: I did not include the Seahawks' Jameson Konz because he was drafted more as a utility player than as a receiver, and he has changed positions more than once.


Last week, we considered whether 35 offensive snaps and 16 pass routes were enough for the San Francisco 49ers to fully assess second-year wide receiver A.J. Jenkins.

Turns out it was enough.

The 49ers traded Jenkins to the Kansas City Chiefs for receiver Jon Baldwin, another disappointing first-round draft choice. This move is good for the 49ers in that it shows they'll move on from a disappointing player without carrying him on their roster just to keep up appearances. The move is also bad for the 49ers in that Jenkins' departure after making zero regular-season receptions reflects poorly on the team's decision to draft him.

Baldwin, chosen 26th overall in 2011 by the Chiefs' previous leadership, has 41 receptions for 579 yards and two touchdowns in 26 regular-season games. Jenkins, the 30th overall choice in 2012, played in three games without making a reception. He becomes the 49ers' highest-profile personnel misfire since Trent Baalke became general manager and Jim Harbaugh became head coach.

The 49ers had hoped Jenkins would provide a needed vertical speed element to their offense. They could seemingly still use that element as they look to create better matchups for receiver Anquan Boldin, who beats defenses with strength, not speed. Tight end Vernon Davis does provide the 49ers with a deep threat and he has gotten practice reps at wide receiver, but Jenkins was seen as a key player the team hoped to develop this offseason.

Baldwin is a different type of player. He stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 230 pounds and had a 40-yard dash time in the 4.5-second range. Jenkins is 6-0 and 192 pounds with a 40-yard time in the 4.4-range.

The 49ers and Chiefs played one another in a preseason game Friday night. The Chiefs' big and physical starting corner, Sean Smith, roughed up Jenkins and shut him down. The 49ers will face similar cornerbacks in NFC West play. Jenkins was not going to match up well against them unless he could get off the line of scrimmage and put his speed to use.

Davis, safety Donte Whitner and other 49ers players polled this offseason said they thought Jenkins would be the young wide receiver to emerge as the preseason unfolded. Jenkins lost a fumble after his lone reception against Denver in the preseason opener. A penalty against an offensive lineman for holding wiped out a 21-yard reception Jenkins made against the Chiefs' backups.

LaMichael James, Joe Looney, Darius Fleming, Trenton Robinson, Jason Slowey and Cam Johnson were the other players San Francisco drafted in 2012. Fleming suffered a season-ending injury this offseason. Slowey is no longer with the team. James is fighting for playing time at running back. Looney, Robinson and Johnson are backups.

Last offseason, Harbaugh defended Jenkins from media criticism. The defending appeared justified, in my view, because Jenkins was just getting started. One training camp generally isn't enough to evaluate a player. Thirty-five regular-season snaps generally isn't enough, either. This move by the 49ers validates outside criticisms of Jenkins. The team wouldn't be moving on from a 2012 first-round draft choice if it thought Jenkins would have factored.
Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts combined to catch four passes for 77 yards and a touchdown during limited action in the Arizona Cardinals' exhibition opener at Green Bay. It was an encouraging start for the Cardinals' receivers in their first game with new quarterback Carson Palmer.

Of particular interest: where Floyd fits into the equation entering his second season. The scouting reports on Floyd, chosen 13th overall in the 2012 draft, applauded him for handling with maturity a series of alcohol-related incidents earlier in his career. Floyd caught 45 passes last season, the fifth-highest total for a rookie wide receiver. He ranked fourth within that group in routes run and seventh in offensive snaps played, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"He gets it, he understands it," Palmer said earlier in camp. "He has had a natural feel for getting open in zones, which is something you're not taught. You just sit there and watch film with a guy forever and you either have it or it's something that takes years to develop. Phenomenal player."

Palmer, addressing reporters Monday, affirmed what the scouting reports said of Floyd, who turned 23 in November.

"He is still young -- that is what you don't realize about Mike because he is very mature for his age," Palmer said. "He seems like he is in Year 4 or 5 instead of going into Year 2, and he didn't play a whole bunch in Year 1. He is still working, he is learning from one of the best [Fitzgerald] and we expect Mike to have a big year."
An NFL-high five of the Seattle Seahawks' 11 draft choices from 2013 played in the Southeastern Conference.

Christine Michael, Jesse Williams, Tharold Simon, Spencer Ware and Ryan Seymour joined K.J. Wright, Pep Levingston, Kris Durham, James Carpenter, Winston Guy and Jaye Howard as Seattle draft choices since 2010 from college programs currently aligned with the SEC.

The unusually large SEC haul left Seattle with a league-high 11 players selected from the conference since 2010. But in an indication that the results could be largely random, the Seahawks selected zero SEC players in 2010. New England led the way with six that year, but the Patriots selected none in 2013.

The chart shows current conference affiliations for NFC West teams' draft choices over the past four years. The four-year window appealed because 2010 was the year the Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers' current general managers took control of their teams' drafts.

The leaguewide totals since 2010: SEC 203, Big Ten 136, ACC 128, Pac-12 127, Big 12 100, Big East 68, Mountain West 42, C-USA 32 and Sun Belt 22, followed by 27 other conferences with between one and 19 selections.

NFC West teams have selected eight players from LSU over the time period in question, including first-rounders Patrick Peterson (Arizona Cardinals), Michael Brockers (St. Louis Rams) and Eric Reid (49ers).
Kent Somers' piece about NFL rookies combining to start more games than in the past caught my attention Friday.

I wanted to know how many games NFC West players have started as rookies in recent seasons. I wanted to break down the numbers by team and position.

The charts provide answers on those fronts. Weaker teams select earlier in the draft order and should have more openings in their lineups, inflating their numbers. That has been the case to a degree in the NFC West, one reason quotation marks surround the word "leads" in the headline above.

Seattle is an interesting study, however. The Seahawks have been pretty competitive while amassing more rookie starts than any team in the division, with those starts distributed rather evenly across offense and defense. That affirms perceptions about Seattle drafting well recently despite using relatively few early picks. Of course, the 16 starts Seattle got from rookie quarterback Russell Wilson last season were disproportionately valuable. Having two first-round picks in 2010 helped the overall numbers.

The San Francisco 49ers have fielded a dominant, veteran defense. They've gotten -- "needed" might be a better word -- only seven starts from rookies on defense over the past three seasons. While Aldon Smith played in a situational role, the 49ers rank a distant fourth among NFC West teams in defensive snaps played by rookies. Seattle leads with 4,536 snaps, followed by Arizona (3,090), St. Louis (2,965) and San Francisco (1,565).

The 49ers could get rookie starts from 2013 first-round pick Eric Reid, a favorite to start at safety.

The Rams have gotten 4,593 snaps from offensive rookies over the three seasons. The Cardinals are next with 3,568, followed by the Seahawks (3,280) and 49ers (2,858).

Offensive linemen have made the most starts as rookies. That makes sense because there are at least five of them on the field every snap. NFC West teams have also drafted four offensive linemen in the first round over that span, plus one with the first pick of the second round. The Cardinals relied heavily on rookie tackles last season out of necessity.

The Rams' rookie starts are distributed more evenly across the specific positions in the chart below. That makes sense. They've had the weakest roster. They've had earlier picks.

Each team in the NFC West has had two rookies start all 16 games: Patrick Peterson and Bobby Massie for Arizona; Wilson and Earl Thomas for Seattle; Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis for San Francisco; and Sam Bradford and Rodger Saffold for St. Louis. Bobby Wagner (15 starts for Seattle) and Janoris Jenkins (14 for St. Louis) were the only others with more than 12 starts as rookies.

K.J. Wright (Seattle), Michael Brockers (St. Louis), Chris Givens (St. Louis), Daryl Washington (Arizona), Sam Acho (Arizona), Richard Sherman (Seattle), Okung (Seattle) and Lance Kendricks (St. Louis) started between 10 and 12 games as NFC West rookies since 2010.

Jonathan Cooper (Arizona), Kevin Minter (Arizona), Jesse Williams (Seattle), Tavon Austin (St. Louis), Alec Ogletree (St. Louis) and T.J. McDonald (St. Louis) appear best positioned among NFC West rookies to start in 2013. Cardinals cornerback Tyrann Mathieu could figure prominently in sub packages if he does not start.

Earlier: Late-round picks with a shot at playing in 2013.
You might recall our March discussion from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference regarding NFC West team-building strategies.

St. Louis Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff, addressing conference attendees, noted that his team expected to stock its roster with young, affordable talent.



"When we did the RG III trade a year ago, we looked out and said, 'In 2014, we will have 12 players who were first- or second-round picks under the new rookie wage scale,' " Demoff said at the conference. "Twelve of our best players will make less than $25 million combined in 2014, which meant on the remainder of our team, we could overpay a few guys in free agency, we could make a few mistakes here or there and we would have a pretty good nucleus."

The thinking is sound. And as the chart shows, the Rams have selected eight players in the first two rounds since the wage scale went into effect for 2011. That figure ranks tied for the NFL lead with the Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots.

The Rams' plan to have 12 such players on their roster in 2014 requires a slight revision. The team is scheduled to have 11 such players on its roster after trading its 2013 second-round choice to the Buffalo Bills in the move to acquire Tavon Austin with the eighth overall choice.

I find it interesting to see the Seattle Seahawks listed so low in the chart, with only four players selected in the first two rounds since 2011. They're known for building effectively through the draft, but they have selected players with only two first-round picks and two second-rounders under the new labor agreement.

Seattle has used a league-high 26 picks in the final five rounds during the period in question. Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright and Russell Wilson were among the players they selected with those choices.

Can a team beat the system by stockpiling later-round picks? I don't know if that's a sustainable strategy. It might not even be a strategy in this case. The trades Seattle made could have appealed to the team for unrelated reasons. Either way, it's pretty tough to question the Seahawks' drafting results.

Whatever the case, the contrast between Seattle and two of its division rivals, St. Louis and San Francisco, has been pronounced.

The 49ers have still managed to use 21 picks in the final five rounds over this span, allowing them to have it both ways, in some respects. The Rams have used 17 picks and the Arizona Cardinals 19 of them over the final five rounds since 2011.

Seattle traded its 2013 first-rounder to the Minnesota Vikings in the Percy Harvin deal. The Seahawks traded their 2011 second-rounder to Detroit with the 157th and 209th picks for the 75th, 107th, 154th and 205th choices. They took John Moffitt, Kris Durham, Sherman and Pep Levingston with those selections.

We'll think through this one a little more. First, though, a diversion courtesy of Sherman, who has outlived his fifth-round status on the field and on Facebook.
One year ago, a visitor to the NFC West blog warned against reading too much into Russell Wilson's strong showing at the Seattle Seahawks' rookie camp.

"A third-round QB looks good against other rookies and undrafted players? Who would have thunk it?" TheFault17 wrote May 14, 2012. "Not hating on Wilson at all, but there's way too much stock put in rookie minicamps. Is it September yet?"

The skepticism was warranted even though Wilson later validated the hype.

Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune joined Brock Huard, Danny O'Neil and me Monday in digesting the Seahawks' recently completed 2013 rookie camps. Williams in particular hit the brakes on post-camp excitement. I agree in general but also think he was on the low side in projecting how many 2013 draftees might earn spots on the 53-man roster this season.

710ESPN Seattle has posted the audio to rave reviews. Make that one rave review.

The chart ranks 2012 NFC West draft choices by most games started as rookies. The San Francisco 49ers had zero starts from their rookie draft choices. However, in looking at the 15 players listed in the chart, few would have likely started a game for San Francisco.
A long list of NFL mock drafts projected Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon to the St. Louis Rams one year ago.

It's looking like the Rams came out just fine without him.

Blackmon, charged with DUI last offseason when authorities said they measured his blood-alcohol content at .24 percent, faces a four-game NFL suspension to open the 2013 season, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Blackmon
Blackmon
These are the sorts of troubles NFL teams can do without.

The Rams held the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft. Jacksonville traded into the No. 5 spot to select Blackmon. The Rams then traded back, eventually taking defensive tackle Michael Brockers, who showed flashes of dominance after recovering from injury.

St. Louis wound up using a 2012 second-round choice for receiver Brian Quick and a fourth-rounder for Chris Givens. The team drafted receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey over the weekend.

Blackmon caught 64 passes for 865 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie. He led all drafted rookies in receiving yards and tied Kendall Wright for most receptions. Blackmon also suffered nine drops, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Givens caught 42 passes for 698 yards and three scores. Quick added 11 receptions for 156 yards and two scores.

A four-game suspension for Blackmon would prevent him from playing against Kansas City, Oakland, Seattle and Indianapolis to open the season. He would be eligible to return for the Jaguars' Week 5 game -- against the Rams in the Edward Jones Dome.
The Miami Dolphins just traded the 12th and 42nd overall choices to the Oakland Raiders for the third overall choice.

One year ago, the Washington Redskins traded the sixth and 39th picks, plus first-rounders in 2013 and 2014, to acquire the second overall choice from the St. Louis Rams.

The difference: Robert Griffin III's expected availability with the No. 2 overall pick in 2012. There was no perceived top quarterback available this year, so the Raiders could not leverage the third overall pick to nearly the degree St. Louis leveraged the second overall choice a year ago.

The Dolphins selected Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan.

Of course, the Raiders likely would have held onto the third overall choice this year if they could have gotten a quarterback such as Griffin in that slot.
Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh Ric Tapia/Icon SMIPete Carroll's Seahawks and Jim Harbaugh's 49ers have continued their rivalry into the offseason.
The 2012 battle for NFC West supremacy between the San Francisco 49ers' and Seattle Seahawks' has turned into a perceived battle this offseason.

"It just feels like the Seahawks make a move, then the Niners make a move," former NFL quarterback Damon Huard said Wednesday during our conversation on 710 ESPN Seattle. "The Seahawks sign Percy Harvin, then the Niners go get Anquan Boldin. The Niners just signed Nnamdi Asomugha, they signed Colt McCoy, and now it's the Seahawks' turn to sign a quarterback. It really feels like this competition that was so fun to watch last fall has carried over into the offseason between the Niners and the Seahawks."

That's what it feels like from this angle, too. So, when ESPN's Bill Polian listed 49ers general manager Trent Baalke among his top six executives Insider without a mention of Seattle counterpart John Schneider, I knew some Seahawks fans would take offense.

"Schneider should be on there," SamW9801 wrote in commenting on the Polian piece.

I'm going to ratchet up the discussion with an assist from Tony Villiotti of draftmetrics.com. Tony identified ranges of picks by how frequently teams have found five-year starters within those ranges.

Using those general ranges, displayed at right, I've put together a chart at the bottom of this item comparing the 49ers' and Seahawks' draft choices since 2010.

Baalke took over the 49ers' draft room roughly a month before the 2010 draft. Schneider became the Seahawks' GM that offseason. The 49ers then underwent a coaching change after the 2010 season, at which point Baalke assumed the GM title officially. We might cut Baalke some slack for selecting Taylor Mays, a player then-coach Mike Singletary valued. There were surely other times when both GMs followed their coaches' input, for better or worse.

Seattle has drafted 28 players during this period, three more than San Francisco has drafted. The Seahawks had more to work with from a qualitative point as well. Their median choice was No. 130 overall, compared to No. 165 for the 49ers.

It's pretty clear both teams know what they are doing in the draft.

Aldon Smith, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati and NaVorro Bowman have earned Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro honors for the 49ers. Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Russell Wilson, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman have done so for the Seahawks.

Both teams have found franchise quarterbacks after the first round. Colin Kaepernick was chosen 36th overall in 2011. Wilson went to Seattle at No. 75 last year.

Neither team has missed in that first category, which includes players taken among the top 13 overall picks. Smith and Okung are elite players at premium positions.

Both teams have unanswered questions in that 14-40 range. The 49ers are waiting on receiver A.J. Jenkins to produce. The Seahawks haven't gotten much from guard James Carpenter. But in Iupati and Thomas, the 49ers and Seahawks, respectively, found players among the very best at their positions. Kaepernick's selection puts this group over the top for San Francisco. Seattle got eight sacks from Bruce Irvin as a rookie in 2012, so the Seahawks aren't far behind. It's just impossible to overlook the value a franchise quarterback provides.

Seattle has the edge in the 41-66 range. Mays is long gone from the 49ers. That leaves LaMichael James for the 49ers against Bobby Wagner and Golden Tate for Seattle. Wagner was an instant starter at middle linebacker and a three-down player who commanded consideration for defensive rookie of the year. Tate blossomed with Wilson at quarterback.

The Seahawks also have an edge in that 67-86 range, having selected Wilson.

Seattle holds a 7-3 lead in number of picks used between the 87th and 149th choices, a range producing five-year starters 16 percent of the time, according to Villiotti.

Both teams used picks in that range for players whose injury situations dragged down their draft status: Joe Looney in San Francisco, Walter Thurmond in Seattle. Both teams found starting linebackers in this range: Bowman to the 49ers, K.J. Wright to the Seahawks. Both teams found developmental running backs in that range: Kendall Hunter to the 49ers, Robert Turbin to the Seahawks. Both teams found Pro Bowl players: Bowman in San Francisco, Chancellor in Seattle.

Sherman, arguably the NFL's best cornerback, gives Seattle an edge in the 150 through 189 range of picks. Both teams found backup tight ends there. Anthony Dixon (49ers) and Jeremy Lane (Seahawks) have the potential to expand their roles.

The 49ers found starting fullback Bruce Miller in the final pick range, which runs from 190 to the end of the draft. Seattle found a projected starting guard there in J.R. Sweezy. Malcolm Smith is a candidate to start at linebacker for Seattle. Miller and Sweezy both played defense in college. Miller already has successfully transitioned to offense. Seattle believes Sweezy will do the same.

Summing it up: Both teams can feel good about their draft performance in the past three seasons. I doubt either team would trade its picks for the other team's. That makes sense. Teams draft the players they like best. The 49ers have six projected 2013 starters to show for their choices. The number is eight for the Seahawks, not counting Irvin or Tate. Seattle has had more choices and higher choices, and more openings in the lineup to accommodate those players. I think that shows in the results.

You might recall the high school kid who parlayed an old cell phone into a $9,000 convertible through a series of online trades.

I wonder what he could get for a third-round draft choice.

We considered earlier how the San Francisco 49ers could conceivably parlay one of their 2013 NFL draft choices into 2014 picks. That item focused on getting value for one of the second-round choices the 49ers possess. Later selections can also return future capital.

The 49ers aren't the only team to demonstrate this, of course, but with a league-high 14 selections this year, they provide a good example.

Last year, the 49ers turned the 92nd and 125th picks into the 117th and 180th choices, plus 2013 picks in the third, fifth and sixth rounds. Those 2013 picks are 74th overall from Carolina, 157th overall from Indianapolis and 180th overall from Miami. The picks from Carolina and Miami were the 12th choices within their rounds. The one from the Colts was the 24th choice of its round.

The chart shows what the 49ers gave and received in each of the four trades. The underlined picks are the ones San Francisco started and finished with in their possession. The 49ers moved down in the first three trades before moving up to select guard Joe Looney in the fourth one.

A look at how those trades went down:

Trade One

What happened: San Francisco sent the 92nd overall choice to Indianapolis for the 97th choice and a 2013 fifth-rounder.

Immediate fallout: The Colts used the 49ers' pick to select receiver T.Y. Hilton, who finished his rookie season with 50 receptions for 861 yards and seven touchdowns. Hilton had five games with between 100 and 113 yards receiving.

Comment: The seven players San Francisco drafted hardly played until an injury to Kendall Hunter forced second-rounder LaMichael James into duty. The 49ers had to figure their rookies weren't going to play much. The Colts had different needs. They were turning over most of their roster. They needed young players to contribute right away. They had a spot for Hilton and made the most of the pick. The 49ers put that 2013 fifth-rounder in their pocket before using the 97th pick in the next trade.

Trade Two

What happened: San Francisco sent the 97th choice, acquired from Indianapolis, to the Miami Dolphins for the 103rd and 196th choices, plus a 2013 sixth-rounder.

Immediate fallout: The Dolphins used the 97th choice for running back Lamar Miller, who rushed for 250 yards and a touchdown while playing 13.7 percent of the offensive snaps as a rookie.

Comment: Quarterback Kirk Cousins was among the players selected between the 97th pick, which the 49ers owned, and the 103rd pick, which the team acquired. Washington took him 102nd overall. The 49ers could use a young quarterback now, but there would have been no reason for them to select one at that point. Alex Smith was the starter and Colin Kaepernick was next in line. The 49ers pocketed that 2013 sixth-rounder. The 103rd and 196th picks factored into trades below.

Trade Three

What happened: The 49ers traded the 103rd pick, acquired from Miami, to the Carolina Panthers for the 180th pick and a 2013 third-rounder.

Immediate fallout: The Panthers used the 103rd pick for defensive end Frank Alexander, who had 2.5 sacks while playing 52.3 percent of the Panthers' defensive snaps as a rookie. The 49ers used the 180th pick for safety Trenton Robinson, who did not play on defense and was inactive for the final 13 games.

Comment: Getting that 2013 third-rounder worked out well for the 49ers after Carolina finished only 7-9. The Panthers were coming off a 6-10 season when they made the trade, but they had relatively high expectations after Cam Newton's promising rookie season. Finishing below .500 meant the third-rounder Carolina sent to San Francisco would fall 12th in the round.

Trade Four

What happened: The 49ers were the ones trading up this time. They traded the 125th choice, which was their own, and the 196th choice, acquired from the Dolphins, to the Detroit Lions for the 117th choice.

Immediate fallout: The 49ers used the 117th pick for Looney, who was recovering from surgery and would not be ready right away. Alex Boone emerged as a solid contributor for the 49ers at right guard, diminishing the immediate need for Looney. But general manager Trent Baalke noted on draft day that Looney could project at center eventually as well. The Lions used the 125th choice for linebacker Ronnell Lewis, who played one snap on defense in eight games. Detroit used the 196th pick for cornerback Jonte Green, who played 38 percent of the defensive snaps while appearing in 15 games.

Comment: The 49ers must have felt as though Looney would not be available to them at No. 125. There was much activity in this range of picks. The 118th, 119th and 120th choices also changed hands. So did the 123rd through 126th picks. That meant eight of the 10 picks from No. 117 through No. 126 changed hands. Looney was the only offensive lineman selected in that range and the only guard picked until Washington used the 141st choice for Adam Gettis.
In 2010, Pete Carroll's Seattle Seahawks famously drafted in the first round a safety from the University of Texas (Earl Thomas) over one Carroll coached at USC (Taylor Mays).

That turn of events came to mind upon reading an NFC West mailbag submission from Vladimir, a San Francisco 49ers fan in Belgrade.

"I wanted to ask if you can compare two recent college coaches, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, as to how many of their former players each has drafted," Vladimir wrote.

The 49ers have yet to draft a player from Stanford since Harbaugh became their coach in 2011. The Seahawks have drafted two players from USC since Carroll became coach in 2010.

The chart shows which NFL head coaches have drafted more than one player from Stanford and/or USC since 2010. We should note that the coaches themselves don't make draft decisions autonomously. There could have been times when the 49ers' and Seahawks' personnel people steered their head coaches away from drafting players each had coached in college. Conversely, Harbaugh and Carroll would have been more familiar with their former players' weaknesses, not just strengths. In some cases, they might have been the driving forces' behind their teams' decisions to steer clear of certain players from their pasts.

Carroll and Minnesota's Leslie Frazier are the only head coaches whose teams have selected more than one player from USC since 2010. Coaching turnover affects the number of opportunities. Fifteen current NFL head coaches have held their jobs since at least 2010.

Harbaugh and Stanford

2012 draft: The 49ers drafted A.J. Jenkins 30th when Stanford's Coby Fleener (the 34th choice that year) and Jonathan Martin (42nd) were available.

2011 draft: The 49ers drafted Chris Culliver 80th when Stanford's Sione Fua (97th) was available. Also that year, the 49ers selected Kendall Hunter 115th when Stanford's Owen Marecic (124th) and Richard Sherman (154th) were options. They also drafted Daniel Kilgore 163rd when Stanford's Ryan Whalen (167th) was an option.

Carroll and USC

2012 draft: Carroll's Seahawks drafted Bruce Irvin 15th when USC's Nick Perry (28th) was available. They drafted Bobby Wagner (47th), Russell Wilson (75th), Robert Turbin (106th) and Jaye Howard (114th) before the Vikings made Rhett Ellison (128th) the next USC player off the board.

2011 draft: Seattle drafted John Moffitt 75th when USC's Jurrell Casey (77th) and Shareece Wright (89th) were options. They drafted K.J. Wright 99th when USC's Jordan Cameron (102nd) was available.

Seattle drafted four additional players before USC's Ronald Johnson (182nd) and Allen Bradford (187th) were chosen. The Seahawks made Pep Levingston the 205th choice before USC's Stanley Havili (240th) and David Ausberry (241st) were chosen. Seattle then took USC linebacker Malcolm Smith with the 242nd choice.

2010 draft: Seattle chose Russell Okung sixth and Thomas 14th before Mays became the first USC player selected at No. 49.

The Seahawks took Golden Tate 60th when USC's Charles Brown (64th), Damian Williams (77th), Kevin Thomas (94th) and Everson Griffen (100th) were options. They took cornerback Walter Thurmond 111th when USC's Joe McKnight (112th) was available. Seattle drafted two more players before selecting USC's Anthony McCoy with the 185th choice.
There's more than one way to build an NFL team, but most general managers would point to the draft as the most important component.

With that in mind, I've gone through the past three drafts for an initial look at impact.

Seattle ranks among the NFL leaders in games started by players drafted since 2010. The Seahawks are tied for the lead in most Pro Bowl players drafted over that period.

The first chart shows choices by round for NFC West teams since 2010.

Philadelphia (33), St. Louis (29), Seattle (28), New England (28) and Minnesota (28) have used the most total selections over the past three drafts. Chicago (16), New Orleans (17) and Jacksonvile (17) have used the fewest.

All choices are not valued the same, of course. Having choices doesn't mean using them wisely.



The second chart shows how many starts each NFC West team's last three draft classes have made. Seattle leads the way with 282, the third-highest total in the NFL behind Cleveland (328) and New England (291). The New York Giants (93) and Jets (99) are at the bottom.

Players heading to weaker teams have an easier time working their way into the lineup. That influences the number of starts without necessarily saying much about the quality of the players drafted. Better teams pick later in each round, another factor. But the Seahawks' willingness to play young players and their ability to find good ones in the draft accounts for their strong showings in these areas.

The totals in that second chart include starts made for other teams.

For example, Michael Hoomanawanui has made 17 starts since the Rams chose him in the fifth round of the 2010 draft. That figure shows up in the chart. Note that Hoomanawanui made six of those starts for New England in 2012.



The third chart shows how many NFC West teams' draft choices since 2010 have earned Pro Bowl honors to this point. Seattle and Cincinnati lead the NFL with four apiece. San Francisco, Washington, Denver and Minnesota have three apiece.

The Rams are among 11 teams with zero. Cleveland, Jacksonville, Oakland, Dallas, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Green Bay, Miami and the Jets are the others.

Pro Bowl selections can be arbitrary. Some players are named to the game as replacements for reasons beyond their control, including injuries or when a player named to the game originally reaches the Super Bowl.

Still, going to the Pro Bowl by any means reflects well on a draft choice.

Russell Wilson, Russell Okung, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor have represented Seattle in the Pro Bowl as draft choices since 2010. Mike Iupati, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith have represented San Francisco. Patrick Peterson and Daryl Washington have represented Arizona.
Recent pieces from Adam Schefter and Mel Kiper Jr. Insider have focused attention on some of the strongest decisions NFC West teams made during the 2012 NFL draft.

With Kiper's 2012 draft re-grade in mind, I've put together a list showing the NFC West rookie draft choices providing the most value relative to draft status, at least in my view.

I've ruled out players drafted in the first two rounds, figuring those players should produce relatively early in their careers. I've ruled out special-teams players, figuring teams can find those throughout the draft. And I've ruled out mid-round picks contributing as backups, figuring those players should contribute as backups.

We're left with eight players, four of them drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, three by the St. Louis Rams and two by the Arizona Cardinals. The San Francisco 49ers did not need their rookies as much this season.

St. Louis' Trumaine Johnson arguably should be on the list. He made three starts and picked off two passes as a third-round choice. In the end, that seemed reasonable for a player drafted 65th overall. Johnson's teammate, kicker Greg Zuerlein, would lead any list of special-teams draft choices in the division.

I left off the Cardinals' Ryan Lindley even though he became Arizona's starting quarterback as a sixth-round choice. Lindley exceeded expectations in becoming a starter. However, he had zero touchdown passes and seven interceptions while ranking last in Total QBR (9.8) among the 43 quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts during the regular season.

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