NFC West: 2012 NFL Training Camp
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
Russell Wilson was the most impressive quarterback on the field upon reporting for Seattle Seahawks minicamp in June.
The question was whether the rookie would do what rookies often do: bog down during training camp and the exhibition season, playing his way out of consideration for immediate playing time.
Wilson did encounter a few bumps during camp, but he worked through them impressively. And when the exhibitions began, Wilson was again usually the most impressive quarterback on the field. That helps explain why coach Pete Carroll plans to give Wilson the start against Kansas City when the Seahawks play their next exhibition, set for Friday.
"Wilson has earned his first start in the team's third preseason game, and a strong performance could elevate him into a starting role for the 2012 regular-season opener," ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported Tuesday.
That last part -- "could elevate him into a starting role" -- will get people excited.
Matt Flynn's signing to a three-year deal averaging $6.5 million in free agency created the strong impression that Flynn was the Seahawks' quarterback of the future, and present. We've become accustomed to money equaling job security to the extent that teams will give the players they pay -- and particularly quarterbacks -- every advantage to succeed.
That was the approach Seattle took with Matt Hasselbeck a decade earlier. The team stuck with Hasselbeck through up-and-down years, never using an early draft choice for a potential replacement. Then-coach Mike Holmgren believed in picking a starting quarterback and providing unwavering support for that player to the extent possible. There is merit to that approach. It's more comfortable for all involved. But it's not the only way to go.
Carroll and Seahawks general manager John Schneider have kept an open mind about the position. They liked Flynn, but their commitment to him did not preclude the team from using a third-round choice for Wilson, another quarterback. And if there was evidence Wilson might be the better quarterback, Carroll wasn't going to stick to the script with Flynn. There was no script, anyway. The best player was going to play.
Flynn still might go into the season as the starter, even if Wilson plays well Friday night.
Flynn has been in the NFL longer. Early evidence, limited as it might be, suggests he could run the offense efficiently. He would be the safe choice from a public relations standpoint. Carroll and Schneider don't seem to care much about that, though. They didn't flinch when critics blasted them for using first-round choices on James Carpenter and Bruce Irvin. They've flaunted convention across the board -- Red Bryant, Brandon Browner and J.R. Sweezy provide three recent examples -- and come out looking smart most of the time.
Carroll is going to pick the quarterback he thinks is best, even if it's at the expense of the accepted narrative.
My mind keeps flashing back to a play Wilson made during the second half against Denver last week. Two defenders were driving Wilson to the ground when the quarterback, his body at a severe angle, threw a perfectly placed pass from his own 45-yard line to his receiver near the sideline at the Denver 45. That type of play cannot be coached. The awareness Wilson showed was impressive enough, but the physical ability to deliver that pass set him apart from the vast majority of quarterbacks.
Wilson stands only 5-foot-10 and five-eighths inches. That's too short for an NFL quarterback, conventional wisdom says. The Seahawks aren't saying conventional wisdom is wrong, but with Wilson showing so much promise in so many other areas, they're eager to find out whether he's the exception to the rule.
Update: Carroll has announced the decision to start Wilson against the Chiefs.
The Cardinals do have a pretty good idea which players those tackles will have to block in passing situations this season.
The list includes Jared Allen and Jason Babin, who combined for 40 sacks last season while ranking first and third, respectively, in that category. Overall, the Cardinals face nine of the 17 NFL players with at least 10 sacks last season, plus another player, John Abraham, who finished with 9.5. There are also players expected to reach double figures in sacks this season after failing to do so in 2011. Mario Williams and Clay Matthews head that list.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic identifies D'Anthony Batiste (left) and rookie Bobby Massie (right) as potential favorites to start at tackle after a triceps injury knocked out left tackle Levi Brown, perhaps for the season.
Batiste, 30, started four games for Atlanta in 2007. Massie, a fourth-round choice, started 29 consecutive games at right tackle to end his career at Mississippi.
The chart shows the Cardinals' 2012 schedule, plus projected top pass-rushers from the left and right sides of each opponent's defense. Those pass-rushers' sack totals from 2011 appear in parenthesis.
Left tackle Levi Brown's potentially season-ending triceps injury forced the Cardinals to consider contingencies. Meanwhile, John Skelton worked at quarterback with the starting offense, with Kevin Kolb getting second-team reps as part of their rotation.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt has announced no timetable for naming a starting quarterback for the regular season. Skelton will get the start Thursday against Tennessee.
A few notess and observations from practice at Northern Arizona University:
- The offensive linemen generally held up well in one-on-one pass-rush drills. A somewhat slippery surface might have worked against the defensive players, however. Tackle D.J. Young, a player the Cardinals are auditioning at left tackle in Brown's extended absence, split matchups against linebacker Antonio Coleman. D'Anthony Batiste, another candidate at tackle, held up well in two of three matchups with Sam Acho, one of the Cardinals' better pass-rushers. I thought Batiste fared well against Quentin Groves as well. Rookie Bobby Massie, a potential starter on the right side, seemed to do well enough in two of the four matchups I watched. He split with Acho. Clark Haggans gave him trouble. Coaches are surely grading on the finer points. I was watching to see if offensive linemen got beat.
- Young, undrafted from Michigan State in 2011, worked with the starters at left tackle. Batiste was at right tackle. They aren't necessarily the players Arizona will take into Week 1 as starters. The team is in discovery mode while assessing its options. Rookie Nate Potter was the second-team left tackle, with Massie on the right side. Potter faced Acho twice in one-on-one-drills and seemed to do OK.
- The ball was on the ground quite a bit while Skelton led the first-team offense. The passing game didn't seem to be functioning crisply. Larry Fitzgerald slipped out of a break, coming up short on one ball near the sideline. Fitzgerald also dropped a ball. He was upset with himself after practice, turning serious when the subject arose. Fitzgerald: "I dropped a ball, slipped on a couple routes -- stuff that is inexcusable. I need to give John better looks than that. I have to hold myself to a higher standard. Got to get better tomorrow."
- Tight end Rob Housler, though enjoying a strong camp overall, had trouble connecting with Skelton a few times. It was a tough day for the tight ends overall. Veteran Todd Heap left practice with a stinger injury. Jeff King suffered a false-start penalty, the offense's third of the day.
- Kolb, leading the second-team offense while Skelton prepares to start at Tennessee on Thursday, connected on a deep pass to Stephen Williams. "Kevin had a great day today, John made some throws and that's what it's about," Fitzgerald said.
- Andre Roberts was on point when battling cornerback Larry Parker for the ball. Parker jumped the pass from Skelton, sending the ball into the air. Roberts stayed with it aggressively and made the catch.
- Inside linebacker Daryl Washington missed practice following a death in the family.
All for now. Time to process some interviews from earlier in the day. I'll be back at practice Tuesday as Cardinals camp breaks.
Temperatures in the 80s, brief sprinkles, scarce oxygen and a few lightning strikes in the distance left little doubt of my location following a two-hour drive from Phoenix up I-17.
The Arizona Cardinals have a walk-through session and a full practice scheduled for Monday at Northern Arizona University. They break training camp with a practice Tuesday morning.
Two weeks have passed since the Cardinals opened their exhibition season in Canton at the Hall of Fame Game. We're still seeking answers to a few questions as the Cardinals head into their final days of camp:
- Who will start at quarterback? John Skelton would appear to have the edge, but Kevin Kolb remains in the mix until coach Ken Whisenhunt says otherwise.
- Who will start at right cornerback? William Gay has the job for now.
- Can Stewart Bradley beat out Paris Lenon at inside linebacker? Lenon has been hurt. Bradley has shown improvement.
- What happens at left tackle? Start Levi Brown has a torn triceps. The Cardinals will audition multiple players for the role.
- What happens at right tackle? The situation at left tackle could influence the answer.
- Are running backs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams healthy enough to suppress concerns in the backfield? Williams looked good against the Raiders in his first game back from knee surgery. Wells did not play, but he could make his preseason debut this week.
Those are among the questions on my mind heading into practices Monday. The walk-through is scheduled for noon ET, with the full practice at 6:15 p.m. ET (sorry for the listings in Eastern time, but we generally seek consistency across the site to avoid additional confusion).
A defense featuring Vonnie Holliday (36), Clark Haggans (35), Paris Lenon (34), Adrian Wilson (32), Nick Eason (32), Darnell Dockett (31) and Kerry Rhodes (30) shouldn't need mid-camp lectures on the basics.
The Cardinals are getting one from Wilson, one of their defensive leaders.
"What we were going through last year is starting to creep back into this year," Wilson told Sirius NFL hosts Pat Kirwan and Tim Ryan, via Darren Urban.
Last year, the Cardinals opened the season with a 1-6 record as their defense struggled with a newly installed scheme. Defensive improvement late in the season led to expectations for continued gains in 2012. And while two exhibition games provide only limited evidence, Wilson would probably have a good feel for the situation entering his 12th season with the team.
More Wilson: "I was pretty pissed last game. It’s because [mistakes] are things we know and it's things that come from veteran guys. When things like that happen you start to say, 'OK, is this guy starting to get too comfortable?' Are you going to have to pull the guy to the side and really say something to him? That's what I feel I have to do now. Starting [Monday morning] through the rest of camp is those veteran guys, you can't be comfortable making those small mistakes. They will turn into big problems for the whole team."
The Cardinals would be enjoying a routine training camp were it not for uncertainty at quarterback, concerns on the offensive line, injuries at running back and, according to Wilson, doubts regarding defensive accountability.
Perhaps a trip to the movies will help the Cardinals clear their minds.
The ball scarcely hit the ground when Alex Smith and the starters were on the field.
Smith to tight end Vernon Davis over the middle, time and again. Smith to receiver Randy Moss in the end zone, twice. Smith to receiver Mario Manningham in the corner of the end zone, as if it were automatic.
This was the most impressive passing performance I've seen in training camp trips this summer to St. Louis, Seattle and the 49ers. Davis caught one pass from Smith while pirouetting, timing his spin so the ball met his torso on rhythm.
The 49ers probably will not stray too far from their basic philosophies. They'll still use two or more tight ends regularly, health permitting (Delanie Walker is expected back for the season, and probably sooner). But on this day, at least, the 49ers' offense demonstrated the potential for diversification.
I'll be taking that visual back to NFC West blog headquarters on a flight leaving the San Francisco Bay Area for the Pacific Northwest on Tuesday night. Our "Camp Confidential" file on the 49ers is tentatively scheduled for Thursday. Then it's off to Arizona for Cardinals camp early next week -- the last stop in this NFC West tour.
- Randy Moss' personality. Moss and tight end Vernon Davis stayed after practice to catch balls from a mechanical throwing device. They've obviously become fast friends. When one caught passes, the other would shadow him, reaching one arm into the catching area the way a defender might during a live situation. Moss was considerably more playful than I would have anticipated for a 35-year-old entering his 14th season with his fourth team since 2010. The two joked back and forth. Moss also bantered with receiver Michael Crabtree. It's clear Moss has assimilated well with his new team.
- Another personality on the line. Left tackle Joe Staley has long been the most outgoing personality on the 49ers' offensive line. He might have met his match now that Alex Boone is starting at right guard. Boone is quick with a quip. When the team brought him to a lectern overlooking reporters arranged at desks, Boone assumed the role of a teacher addressing students.
Boone, making the transition from tackle to guard, on how much his confidence has grown: "I had a tremendous amount of confidence in myself; I think I'm pretty good looking. But as far as the guard position, I was a little nervous. I'm not going to lie. But every day day I'm out there, I feel a little more comfortable between A.D. (right tackle Anthony Davis) and (center) Jon (Goodwin)."
After practice, Boone and right tackle Anthony Davis walked off together, laughing about something. The mix on the line seems like a healthy one.
Boone is taller than the typical guard. He has to work at staying low enough to prevent stouter defensive tackles from winning the leverage battle. He's been studying Brian Waters tape to learn from a tactician at the position.
- Aldon Smith timetable: Coach Jim Harbaugh indicated Sunday that the team's purest outside pass-rusher might miss about a week after suffering a hip injury in the exhibition opener Friday night. That was my initial understanding, anyway. Others listening thought Harbaugh meant Smith could be out a week, then need additional time to get up to speed. The bottom line, of course, is that the 49ers expect Smith to be ready for the regular-season opener. Hip injuries can be extremely painful. Smith was getting around Monday with the help of a forearm crutch. Missing practice time will set back Smith's efforts to transition from pass-rusher to full-time outside linebacker.
I'll be back at 49ers camp Tuesday, gaining a better feel for the defending NFC West champs while gathering information for a "Camp Confidential" file scheduled later in the week.
Left guard: Rokevious Watkins versus Bryan Mattison was the projected camp battle. It hasn't materialized.
My take then: "Watkins is a rookie fifth-round choice with college experience at both guard and both tackle spots. He's listed at 338 pounds and has weighed considerably more, but the scouting reports question his strength. Mattison started four games for the Rams last season after two seasons in Baltimore as a backup. I've wondered whether Quinn Ojinnaka might project as the starter here, but he's more apt to play tackle. Barry Richardson could be a consideration, as well."
The update: Ojinnaka has gotten the first-team snaps to this point. Watkins reported to camp out of shape. His chances should improve over time.
Richardson has been working with the first team at right tackle, ahead of Jason Smith. Richardson also played left tackle against Indianapolis in the preseason opener. Mattison practiced with the first team at left guard only when the Rams needed Ojinnaka to fill in for Rodger Saffold at left tackle.
Against the Colts, Mattison made a couple good blocks for Isaiah Pead in the second quarter. Ojinnaka appeared more comfortable in pass protection than as a run-blocker. The job appears to be Ojinnaka's to lose, but the team will want more of a mauler in the position long term. Developing Watkins has to be a priority even if Ojinnaka is better suited to start right away.
Kevin Hughes, an undrafted free agent in 2011, played left guard late in the game. He gave up a couple quarterback pressures under difficult circumstances as the Rams were well behind at that point.
This could be a position for the Rams to address in the 2013 draft.
That should be the hope, anyway.
Running backs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams are practicing and should begin contributing in games before much longer. Both could make their 2012 preseason debuts this week if they make it through practices without any setbacks.
Tight end Jeff King, a reliable contributor on early downs last season, has been activated from the physically unable to perform list, the team announced. King became an immediate and somewhat surprisingly productive target for Kevin Kolb in particular last season.
Getting the running backs into the offensive flow figures to make the biggest impact for Kolb and John Skelton. LaRod Stephens-Howling broke free for a 15-yard run early in the opener, but the Cardinals netted three yards on their first four carries against Kansas City. That included one carry for negative yardage on third-and-1.
Harbaugh was grateful to see what the team said were 32,000 people turn out for Fan Fest at Candlestick Park, roughly four times the turnout from the same event last year.
There was relatively good news for the 49ers on the injury front, something for which a coach is always grateful. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith might miss only about a week with the hip bruise he suffered Friday night. And the initial diagnosis for tight end Delanie Walker, who left practice with an injured knee Sunday, suggested the team likely "dodged a bullet" in terms of the injury's severity.
Most significantly, though, Harbaugh was grateful for the discovery made when a shirtless man ran past security onto the field and made his way directly toward the head coach.
"Glad he was clothed," Harbaugh said. "Glad he wasn't naked."
Police subdued the man after what looked like a brief staredown between coach and trespasser.
"He called me 'coach,' " Harbaugh said, "but I didn't say anything."
Fans flowed into the parking lots outside Candlestick hours before the event began. Some tailgated. Concessions opened early. A lone Dallas Cowboys fan stood out in the sea of 49ers red. But when he taunted the crowd, a 49ers fan revoked the man's hat and chucked it (other fans returned it). Chants of "Cowboys suck" arose.
Players and coaches interacted with fans memorably.
Receiver Randy Moss stood near the stands and played catch with fans, making sure one youngster in particular made a catch without interference from overzealous adults.
Middle linebacker Patrick Willis fitted his shoulder pads and jersey over a child barely tall enough to walk with the equipment draped over him. Harbaugh signed autographs for at least a half-hour, as did players.
Fans chanted for their favorite players, including for quarterback Alex Smith, who saluted them as he jogged off the field. Left tackle Joe Staley danced for the crowd while "Hood Rich Anthem" blared over the speakers.
The crowd roared when Michael Crabtree beat Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers to catch a deep pass from Smith. Crabtree waited until the last moment before raising his hands just high enough to make the catch.
Walker's injury while blocking provided a scare. He watched most of practice with a wrap holding an ice pack on his elevated knee.
When the offense scored at one point, Harbaugh "rewarded" that group by having them run. The idea was that the winning team earned the right to get better, the coach explained.
The 49ers will return to their headquarters in Santa Clara for practices beginning Monday (I'll be there through Tuesday).
"We'll grind this week," Harbaugh said. "This will be a good, hard-working football week for our team. We'll see if we can make the most of it."
"Don't be vanilla here," Justin wrote via the NFC West mailbag. "I know you have to be leaning one way. Which is it?"
My advice would be to go with Kevin Kolb early, then switch to John Skelton if Kolb isn't performing well enough to keep the job. First, though, Kolb must do enough during the exhibition season to emerge as a plausible choice for the starting job. He hasn't done that yet, but four exhibitions remain, so there is time.
The team went ahead and paid a $7 million bonus to Kolb this offseason, so why not support him fully?
One reason could be that Kolb simply hasn't earned enough respect in the locker room. That would be a problem, if true.
"I am a Skelton guy," Justin wrote. "He looks the part and the team seems to really respond to him when he is in the game. ... Most importantly to the discussion, he can take a hit. I read that in the locker room following the Hall of Fame Game, Darnell Dockett came up to Skelton and gave him a pat on the back in front of cameras as Skelton was giving an interview. This means a great deal. Skelton has gradually improved. Kolb has not."
Is there any advantage to the team making that declaration after one exhibition? I think not. Is Skelton the answer simply because Kolb might not be? That's a question with far-reaching consequences for the organization. From what I've seen, there appears to be a good chance the organization will be looking for a new starter after the 2012 season.
I was in the Cardinals' locker room when Dockett approached Skelton, shook his hand and said something about Skelton being his boy. Kolb wasn't in sight at the time. Had anyone come up to him and given him encouragement following the game? What did it mean? Does the impression Dockett left represent a majority opinion for the team? Tough to say, but I will admit the scene reinforced the perception that teammates have responded better to Skelton. To be fair, Skelton has been with the team longer. Further, the injuries Kolb suffered took him away from the team for stretches of the season. Skelton then benefited from an improving defense and a couple soft spots in the schedule.
Justin wasn't the only Cardinals fan reaching out with pro-Skelton commentary.
"Mike, Kevin Kolb cannot absorb punishment and should not be the Cardinals' QB," Edward from Tempe wrote, using all-caps to emphasize his point. "There, I said it. It's obvious he can't take a hit without being knocked out of a game. It's like a boxer not being able to take a punch. He just shouldn't be playing."
It's too soon for the Cardinals to return a verdict. Coach Ken Whisenhunt seemed relaxed and unconcerned following the game in Canton. He was taking a big-picture view, it seemed. We should do the same for another exhibition game or two, at least.
With an assist from coach Pete Carroll, however, Owens pulled it off.
The result: a prank video following in the tradition of other team-building devices from Carroll's bag of tricks. This one required Owens, wearing jersey No. 10 at present after favoring No. 81 to this point in his career, to mock himself and his reputation for self-centered behavior. At one point in the video, Owens kept a straight face while standing before the team and claiming that Tate had tried to charge him $81,000 for the right to wear No. 81. Owens complained about his minimum-level salary and even claimed that he was the reason Tate preferred No. 81 in the first place.
Pretty funny stuff.
One of the better NFL pranks I can recall hearing about involved former Kansas City Chiefs backup quarterback Pat Barnes, his teammate at the time, Greg Manusky, and a lottery ticket. You can read about that one here.
That's what makes Jeff Fisher's comments regarding cornerback Janoris Jenkins so remarkable -- and so encouraging for St. Louis Rams fans.
Check out Fisher's comments Thursday:
"Well, he basically can do everything that’s required of a corner, an elite corner, for that matter, with the footwork and the change of direction, ball skills, tackling, and understands the defense. He's going to be a very good corner in this league."
Throwing in the "elite" reference was strong stuff. Closing with a declarative statement on Jenkins' future as a "very good" corner drives home the point.
Fisher, a cornerback for the Chicago Bears in the 1980s, has coached defensive backs and coordinated defenses. He knows elite corners when he sees them, and he is stating plainly his belief that Jenkins, who has not yet participated in so much as an exhibition game, fits the mold. That is encouraging for a team that ran out of corners last season.
The Rams last placed a corner in the Pro Bowl when Aeneas Williams made it for his work during the 2001 season.
"I call him a baby Patrick Willis because I hadn't seen a linebacker move like that since Pat," Robinson said.
Wagner has much to learn, of course. Robinson wasn't saying Wagner was already playing at a Pro Bowl level. But he does see great potential.
The back-and-forth went like this once I asked Robinson about Wagner (we were speaking previously of K.J. Wright, another Seahawks linebacker):
Robinson: "Very explosive. He is a guy that can run sideline to sideline. He's learning. He's still a young guy learning how to get off blocks in the National Football League. But he is going to be another special player one day. I call him a baby Patrick Willis because I hadn't seen a linebacker move like that since Pat."
Robinson: "I mean, it's the truth. I've been against both of them. He's fast, he's explosive and again, just the way he slips blocks and it seems like he is always going toward the ball. He's not worried about getting blocked. He's learning. Obviously, he is still young. But he definitely has the ability."