NFC West: 2013 NFL combine

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
video
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.

 

NFL big plays: Who and what makes them

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
11:00
AM ET
NFL teams spent Sunday watching running backs and wide receivers work out at the NFL scouting combine. As always, teams are looking for players with big-play ability.

But what is a big play?

In my experience, NFL teams tend to see them as runs covering 12-plus yards and passes covering 16-plus yards.



Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch used different measures in a recent piece suggesting the St. Louis Rams need to find a game-breaking player in the draft. But the idea is the same across the board. The longer the play, the better for offenses.

I've put together a couple charts showing where NFC West teams stood last season in big plays, using NFL teams' definition of them. The Rams had 102, which is about the same as they had in 2011 (100) and 2010 (100). They had 89 in 2009.

Rams quarterback Sam Bradford led the NFC West with 66 of these 16-plus completed passes. Seattle's Russell Wilson was second with 64. San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick (41) and Alex Smith (32) combined for 73. John Skelton (26), Kevin Kolb (20), Ryan Lindley (12) and Brian Hoyer (4) combined for Arizona's total of 62.

The San Francisco 49ers had 126 total big plays, up from 108 in each of the previous two seasons. Seattle had 121, a rise from 95 in 2011, 100 in 2010 and 80 in 2009. Arizona had 84, down from its totals in 2011 (103), 2010 (102) and 2009 (122).

The first chart shows totals for last season. The chart below shows individual NFC West leaders, also from last season.

The Seahawks and 49ers pumped up their totals for rushing with additional quarterback runs covering at least 12 yards. Wilson (14) and Kaepernick (11) combined for 25 of them. Smith added two for the 49ers. Kolb had five. Bradford had three.

We can revisit in the future whether the 12- and 16-yard cutoffs are most meaningful. I just know those are the cutoffs teams cite when evaluating players and offensive production.

Thoughts as Alex Smith rumors heat up

February, 24, 2013
2/24/13
7:30
PM ET
The San Francisco 49ers cannot trade Alex Smith before March 12, but with word coming that a deal could be lined up, let's consider the possibilities.

First, rules do allow teams to talk about trades and even agree to them informally before the trading period begins. So, it's possible the 49ers have done that during the NFL scouting combine. But the NFL trading period remains 16 days away. Teams cannot enter into binding agreements until then. We shouldn't get too worked up about potential trades until the 49ers and another team say they've reached agreement.

Draft analysts have been saying for some time that the 2013 class of college quarterbacks was relatively unimpressive. Those college prospects, by most accounts, have not changed minds at the combine. For that reason, teams needing quarterbacks have additional incentive to lineup veteran options.

Seattle's Matt Flynn could also be an option for teams, but he hasn't played much. Smith posted a 19-5-1 starting record with the 49ers over the past two seasons.

CBS Sports' Jason LaCanfora reported via Twitter than the 49ers have been telling other teams they've got a trade agreement just about worked out. If so, the 49ers could be telling other teams the truth. They also could be trying to stimulate the market. There's no way to know for sure in the absence of more concrete information.

On guards: How early to draft best ones

February, 24, 2013
2/24/13
12:30
PM ET
General managers and coaches have been known to send figurative smoke screens from the NFL scouting combine regarding their draft intentions.

On the surface, at least, the rest of the NFC West has to hope Arizona general manager Steve Keim is serious when he says the Cardinals would consider drafting a guard with the seventh overall choice in the 2013 NFL draft.

No NFL team has taken a guard among the top seven overall choices since the Kansas City Chiefs used the seventh pick of the 1986 draft for West Virginia guard Brian Jozwiak. Jozwiak started three games in three seasons before suffering a career-ending hip injury.

Some of the tackles drafted among the top seven overall choices have transitioned to guard in the NFL. The Cardinals used the second pick of the 2001 draft for Leonard Davis, who had played tackle in college. They moved him to guard, with so-so results. Davis went to Pro Bowls years later with Dallas.

Michael Vick was the first overall choice in that 2001 draft. Justin Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson and Richard Seymour joined Davis among the top six overall choices. Each would have brought more value to the Cardinals than even a Pro Bowl-caliber guard, in my view. Steve Hutchinson, drafted 17th overall by Seattle, was the best guard in that 2001 class.

As the chart shows, teams rarely draft college guards among the top seven picks. That is because teams value other positions higher than they value guard. Teams figure even a great guard isn't going to help the team as much as a very good player at many other positions.

"If you think he is a Pro Bowl guard, how high is too high?" Keim said in explaining his reasoning. "If you're convinced that player is a Pro Bowl talent and an elite type player, you take him and don't look back. People say that's too high to take a guard or take a tight end. But I don’t subscribe to that theory."

The Cardinals have used free agency to target guards Daryn Colledge and Adam Snyder in recent offseasons.

Division-rival San Francisco used the sixth pick of the 2006 draft for tight end Vernon Davis, who has grown into a very good player. Arizona used the 10th pick that year for quarterback Matt Leinart. In that case, drafting a tight end would have made more sense than drafting a quarterback. I think that is one of the points Keim is addressing. He'd rather have a Pro Bowl guard than a disappointing player at a position of greater value.

That is a reasonable position to take. Still, all else equal, the Cardinals would be better off getting a good player at a position of greater value. Their NFC West rivals would have an easier time preparing to face a top guard than they would have preparing for a top player at most other positions.

On the NFL's hope to change up offseason

February, 22, 2013
2/22/13
4:00
PM ET
The question becomes inevitable each February for those covering or working for the NFL.

"So, what do you do during the offseason?"

It's a reasonable question from those whose NFL experience consists of a few hours each Sunday from September through the Super Bowl in early February.

Of course, the NFL scouting combine begins two weeks after the Super Bowl. Free agency begins a couple of weeks after that. The draft follows five or six weeks later. From there, minicamps bridge most of the gap until training camps open in late July and early August.

There really isn't much of an offseason. Some offseasons feel busier and more compelling than the seasons themselves.

In that context, I see no downside to the NFL seeking a more evenly paced and structured offseason featuring the combine in March, free agency in April and the draft in May. The time between the Super Bowl and combine would expand, but the NFL would promote regional combines in the interim.

"Under the proposal, all NFL teams also would kick off training camp on the same summer day, making it the official launch of the football season," ESPN's Adam Schefter reports. "The idea is to lengthen the NFL offseason and make sure football is relevant during a longer offseason period with one big event in each month."

The league thinks a more structured offseason would allow for greater promotion of each event and greater profits. NFL players would have to sign off on the changes. Moving back the start of free agency could affect the window for players to maximize their value.

"We haven't seen any kind of proposal," George Atallah of the NFL Players Association said via Twitter. "If I had a nickel to react to every idea that was hatched at combine, well ..."

Closer look at Wells and NFC West RBs

February, 22, 2013
2/22/13
1:00
PM ET
At his best, Beanie Wells can be a big, physical runner with a wicked stiff-arm and a strong nose for the end zone.

Wells was not at his best last season.

The Arizona Cardinals running back had 88 carries for 234 yards and five touchdowns in eight games. He was on the field for 152 snaps, a career low and down from 583 in 2011, when Wells rushed for 1,099 yards and 10 touchdowns.



"I think Beanie had a tough stretch this year because of the injuries," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim told reporters from the NFL scouting combine. "He showed a lot of grit, a lot of toughness late in the year when he was able to. He's had some injuries, so he had a difficult time with his cut ability and his lateral movement, but Beanie is still a big horse who can finish runs and create yardage after contact, which is something that excites us."

That last comment ran counter to my perception of Wells last season.

Of the 74 backs with at least 200 yards rushing last season, Wells ranked 73rd in yards after contact per rushing attempt, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Wells was at 1.12 yards per carry after contact. Only New Orleans scatback Darren Sproles had a lower average (1.0) among those 74 players. The average for those 74 players was 1.7. Adrian Peterson was at 2.9.

Keim was alluding more to the ability Wells has shown in the past, when he was healthier. Wells averaged 2.2 yards per carry after contact in 2011. The average was 1.9 in 2010 and 2.1 as a rookie first-round choice in 2009.

Wells is scheduled to earn $1.4 million in base salary for 2013, the final year of his contract. The comments from Keim made it sound like the team was leaning toward sticking with Wells for another season, but that could change depending upon what happens in free agency and the draft. The team has envisioned fielding a strong one-two punch in the backfield with Wells and 2011 second-round choice Ryan Williams, but injuries have intervened. Williams has missed 29 of 32 games.

"I saw Ryan in our weight room the other day, and he's doing fantastic," Keim said. "He's a guy that, watching film with Bruce [Arians], because he got injured early in the season, you forgot the type of run skills Ryan had. We watched him against Philadelphia, we watched him against New England, his lateral quickness, his natural run skills, his avoidability is something he brings to the table. Plus, he's a three-down back. We're expecting big things out of Ryan moving forward."

Two young QBs in NFC West? Make it three

February, 21, 2013
2/21/13
12:13
PM ET

A reporter asked new Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians about the NFC West during an NFL scouting combine news conference Thursday.

"It’s a dynamic division with two really good young quarterbacks," Arians said, "but moreso they have great defenses."

Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Sam Bradford give the NFC West three young starting quarterbacks. Wilson is 24. Kaepernick is older than Bradford by five days. Both are 25.

We can assume Arians was referencing Wilson and Kaepernick as the "two really good young quarterbacks" in the division. Both made playoff appearances last season. Both ranked among the leaders in Total QBR and passer rating.

It's easy to forget, however, just how young Bradford remains after three seasons with the St. Louis Rams. I didn't realize or had forgotten that Bradford was slightly younger than Kaepernick.

Also Thursday, Arians said he thought the Cardinals' problems along the offensive line have been overstated. He said he thinks the line will benefit quite a bit from Levi Brown's return from injury. He said the line situation was "not near as dire" as advertised.

Around the NFC West: Combine's timing

February, 20, 2013
2/20/13
9:04
AM ET
The NFL scouting combine has traditionally served another purpose beyond evaluating college prospects.

For years, team executives and agents have used the event as a springboard into free agency. That might not be the case to the same extent this week because the gap between the combine and the March 12 start to free agency is longer than it has sometimes been in the past.

"Most agents don't think a lot of re-signings will happen during this year's combine," ESPN.com's John Clayton wrote. "That won't stop teams from trying to get deals done. General managers and negotiators will be busy. Teams can start designating franchise players this week. Negotiations will be conducted to get teams under the cap. Players will be released. Trades can't be formalized until March 12, but deals can be discussed to set up potential trades."

Free agency began Feb. 26 in 2009 and March 4 in 2010 before the lockout affected 2011. The signing period opened March 16 last year.

This year, the combine should help Seattle and San Francisco get a better feel for trade markets relating to their backup quarterbacks. Both teams could benefit if the combine confirms fears that the 2013 quarterback draft class isn't particularly strong. Both teams' general managers will have opportunities to speak with their counterparts from other teams.
The San Francisco 49ers finished the 2012 season with an NFL-high four wide receivers who entered the NFL as first-round draft choices.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Jenkins
Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsWill the 49ers utilize receiver A.J. Jenkins more in his second season than they did his rookie year?
One of them, Michael Crabtree, enjoyed a breakout season with 1,105 yards during the regular season, plus 20 receptions for 285 yards and three scores in the playoffs.

It's still fair to wonder whether wide receiver ranks high on the 49ers' list of needs heading into the NFL scouting combine and free agency.

Randy Moss is 36 years old and without a contract. Mario Manningham is coming off season-ending knee surgery. Ted Ginn Jr. projects as a return specialist if he stays with the team. And then there is 2012 first-round draft choice A.J. Jenkins, the No. 1 variable in assessing the 49ers' level of need at the position.

If Jenkins steps into the lineup and produces, the 49ers could feel pretty good about their receiving situation, particularly with tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker (a potential free agent) expected to factor prominently as targets. But after Jenkins played in only three games and had zero receptions as a rookie, we're left to wonder how much he'll factor in 2013.

"I wasn't sold on him as a first-rounder in the draft and I'm still not sold on him," Bill from Redding, Calif., wrote in the NFC West mailbag.

Bill wanted to know whether I thought the 49ers had made a bad pick, and where I saw Jenkins fitting into the offense in the future.

The chart below shows where Jenkins' first-year production fit relative to other receivers drafted 25th to 35th overall over the past decade. Jenkins (30th overall) and New Orleans' Robert Meachem (27th in 2007) were the only ones without a reception. Meachem missed his rookie season after undergoing knee surgery.

Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers' other coaches have been vague when pressed for specifics on what Jenkins could do to improve his chances for playing time.

The 49ers have some credibility on such matters. Their 2012 draft choices hardly played last season, mostly because they weren't needed.

Second-rounder LaMichael James was very good when injuries pushed him into a prominent role late in the season. However, I would have expected Jenkins to get some reps once the 49ers lost Manningham and Kyle Williams to injuries. That did not happen, and it suggests the staff wasn't convinced Jenkins would be ready.

NFL scouting combine preview: NFC West

February, 19, 2013
2/19/13
12:00
PM ET
NFC combine preview: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation previews the 2013 scouting combine by identifying the most important thing for each team to learn about its greatest area of need.

Arizona Cardinals: Quarterback is the most obvious and critical need area for the Cardinals. The team can use this combine to figure out whether any of the prospects at the position would warrant the seventh overall selection. Conventional wisdom says Geno Smith and Matt Barkley aren't promising enough to justify selecting so early. As we discussed earlier Tuesday, the Cardinals' division rivals from San Francisco showed two years ago how it's done at No. 7. They bucked expectations to select a quarterback that early, choosing Aldon Smith instead. The 49ers then found their quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, in the second round. The Cardinals head to this combine needing to fall in love with a quarterback for the right reasons. It happened for Seattle last year (Russell Wilson), and it happened for the 49ers with Kaepernick. Neither was a first-round selection, but both were players each team badly wanted to select in the early stages.

St. Louis Rams: Offensive line is probably the greatest need area. The Rams proved last season they could function offensively in the absence of front-line talent along the line. Line coach Paul T. Boudreau prides himself in rewarding the best players regardless of draft status. Coach Jeff Fisher's teams have never used a first-round choice for an offensive lineman when Fisher was a head coach. Fisher's teams have used two second-round selections (2005, 1996) and two third-rounders (1997, 1999) for the position. It's still important for the Rams to identify starting-caliber linemen for drafting in 2013. Lane Johnson (Oklahoma) and D.J. Fluker (Alabama) are two tackles whom analysts project as potentially available when the Rams are scheduled to select with the 16th and 22nd overall selections. Would either one be worthy of such a high selection? Alabama guard Chance Warmack is another lineman to consider.

San Francisco 49ers: Defensive line has to be a primary focus area for the 49ers at this combine. Justin Smith will turn 34 in September and will be coming off arm surgery. He and fellow defensive end Ray McDonald rank among the NFL's top four in most snaps played by defensive linemen over the past two seasons. Depth along the line needs reinforcing even if Smith returns to top form and plays another couple of seasons at his customary high level. Kentwan Balmer and Ricky Jean Francois are the only true defensive linemen the 49ers have selected in any round over the past five drafts. Balmer was a bust. Jean Francois can become a free agent this offseason. With that in mind, the 49ers head to the combine looking to identify defensive linemen worth drafting as early as 31st overall. UCLA's Datone Jones and Georgia's John Jenkins are two guys to investigate further.

Seattle Seahawks: Defensive line and receiver are two positions for the Seahawks to keep in mind heading to Indianapolis for the combine. Improving the pass rush was a priority even before the team's sacks leader, Chris Clemons, suffered a torn ACL against Washington during the wild-card playoff round. The team could stand to improve its pass-rush push on the interior and exterior alike. Seattle gets much credit for landing impact players throughout its three drafts under general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll. However, 2012 first-rounder Bruce Irvin stands as the only true defensive lineman the current regime has selected in the top three rounds. Fourth-rounders Jaye Howard and E.J. Wilson were the only ones drafted in the first six rounds. Trading for Clemons and converting Red Bryant from tackle to end eased pressure to target the defensive line in past drafts. The pressure is there now. Seattle has boldly bucked convention with some of its draft picks. Is there a defensive lineman in this draft with the unusual traits Carroll seems to value?

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider

NFC WEST SCOREBOARD