NFC West: 2013 NFL free agency

Takeo Spikes sighting at Rams Park

June, 11, 2013
6/11/13
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ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Rams own the NFL's youngest roster by average age. They could be interested in adding some veteran seasoning at linebacker, it appears.



Takeo Spikes, 36, was seen at Rams headquarters Tuesday night and was reportedly there for a free-agent visit.

Spikes started all 32 games for the San Diego Chargers over the past two seasons. Before that, he started 44 of 48 games during a three-year run with the San Francisco 49ers. He would presumably play middle linebacker in the Rams' 4-3 scheme, backing up James Laurinaitis, if St. Louis were to sign him.

Spikes has been a starter every season since entering the NFL with Cincinnati in 1998. He has started 215 games overall, averaging 14.3 starts per season during a 15-year career. He missed 13 games in 2005 while with Buffalo, but otherwise he has been remarkably durable and consistent at a physically demanding position.

Spikes played 66.9 percent of the defensive snaps for San Diego last season. He was the starter in San Francisco previously until the team decided NaVorro Bowman was ready to take the job. Bowman became an Associated Press All-Pro selection. Spikes signed with the Chargers after San Diego hired the 49ers' former defensive coordinator, Greg Manusky.

Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Laurinaitis and rookie first-round choice Alec Ogletree are expected to start for the Rams at linebacker. The team is remarkably young and inexperienced at the position beyond Dunbar and Laurinaitis, however. Spikes' 215 starts are about double the combined total for the Rams' current linebackers (108).
The St. Louis Rams said they would rather sign a couple big-money free agents than several mid-priced ones.

Quality over quantity was the rationale.



That approach helps explain why the Rams rank sixth among NFL teams in contractual commitments for unrestricted free agents signed from other teams this offseason despite landing just two of them in Jake Long and Jared Cook.

Maximum potential contract value can be misleading, but in general, the more aggressive teams will commit larger total dollar values toward free agents. As the chart shows, St. Louis ranks relatively high in total dollar values despite signing fewer UFAs than any other team ranked among the top 10.

ESPN.com's John Clayton takes a closer look in his column Sunday. While the Rams focused their UFA resources narrowly, the Arizona Cardinals added a long list of players at relatively low cost. Clayton liked the approach from a value standpoint.

"Three winners emerged from the post-frenzy shopping market -- Arizona, Chicago and Tennessee," Clayton writes. "Based on playing time from last year, I'd give the Cardinals the slight edge from the post-March 17 market."

The chart below, updated from the version published here March 27, lists playing time and contract information for all the UFA players Arizona has signed or re-signed this offseason.

Note: I added Karlos Dansby to the chart below. Most of the additions were unrestricted free agents. Dansby was not. The Miami Dolphins released him.

Karlos Dansby left the Arizona Cardinals in free agency following the 2010 NFL season.

The linebacker was back at team headquarters for a free-agent visit this week as the team considered its options at the position.

The welcoming party might have been a little underwhelming. Reggie Walker, Lyle Sendlein, Levi Brown, Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Leach, Rashad Johnson, Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett are the only players remaining on the roster from when Dansby was last with the team.

Another connection: Todd Bowles, the Cardinals' defensive coordinator. Bowles was with the Miami Dolphins when Dansby signed with the team in free agency for the 2010 season.

The Cardinals could use insurance and depth at inside linebacker with starter Daryl Washington facing a four-game suspension and possibly additional sanctions to start the season.

Dansby, 31, started every game and played nearly all the snaps for the Dolphins last season. His contract was scheduled to carry a 2013 cap number near $8.6 million, however, and Miami released him. The move surprised Dansby. Buffalo has also shown interest.
Marcus Trufant's contract agreement with the Jacksonville Jaguars officially ends his career with the Seattle Seahawks following 10 seasons.

Trufant earned Pro Bowl honors once and was a solid player for most of his career. He spent quite a few of his prime years playing for weaker defenses before the Seahawks' current leadership upgraded significantly over the past couple seasons.

At 32, Trufant becomes the oldest unrestricted free agent from an NFC West team to sign elsewhere this offseason. Isaac Sopoaga (31) and Steven Jackson (29) are the only ones older than 28 to catch on elsewhere.

The 20 UFAs from the division still without contracts average 31.8 years old. The 20 to sign elsewhere average 28.1 years old, same as the average for the five to re-sign. The chart below shows contract statuses for all 45.

UFAs are veterans with at least four years' experience whose contracts have expired. They qualify for inclusion in the NFL formula used to distribute compensatory selections. Released players are not UFAs.
The Seattle Seahawks have announced Steven Hauschka's re-signing with the team.

The veteran kicker could still face competition in training camp from a drafted rookie, rookie free agent or even from another veteran.



But with Hauschka under contract, every team in the NFC West has a kicking option on its roster.

The chart at right shows field-goal percentages over the past five years for veteran and rookie kickers. The percentages are similar. Some kickers face tougher circumstances based on variables such as distance, venue, weather and situations. But in looking at the percentages overall, teams might feel better about going young at the position.

The chart below shows 2012 field-goal percentages for current NFC West kickers Phil Dawson (San Francisco 49ers), Jay Feely (Arizona Cardinals), Greg Zuerlein (St. Louis Rams), Hauschka and David Akers, formerly of the 49ers.

Hauschka suffered an injury during the playoffs last season. The team signed Ryan Longwell on a short-term basis.



The chart below shows which NFC West unrestricted free agents have signed this offseason. The list does not include players who were released or otherwise did not qualify for UFA status.

We can remove another NFC West unrestricted free agent from the pool of available players.

Cameron Morrah, a Seattle Seahawks seventh-round draft choice from the Tim Ruskell era, agreed to terms with the San Francisco 49ers. He joins Jason Jones and Alan Branch as the only UFAs from the Seahawks to join another team this offseason. Morrah spent the 2012 season on injured reserve.

Injuries have severely limited Morrah to this point in his career.

A 39-yard reception from Matt Hasselbeck during a memorable 41-36 playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints stands as a career highlight for him. The reception set up one of four Hasselbeck touchdown passes.

This signing carries interest in the NFC West almost entirely because Morrah played for another team in the division. His addition to the 49ers' roster should not significantly affect the team's approach to the draft. Morrah has played in 27 regular-season games and two postseason games, however, so he does have some experience.
David from State College, Pa., questions whether the Seattle Seahawks are making a mistake by signing 35-year-old cornerback Antoine Winfield.

"The Seahawks have a lot of young, untested talent and their success these past few seasons has largely come from trusting that young talent to carry the team," David writes. "Signing Antoine Winfield goes against that. Does Pete Carroll really not trust the depth we have at CB behind Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner? Or does this move represent a change in tactics by the front office?"

Sando: Winfield's deal is not yet official, but I would expect this to be a very modest contract. The reported terms -- one year for as much as $3 million -- reflect what Winfield could earn if he maxed out various incentives. There will be little in the way of guaranteed money. Winfield will have to earn his spot on the roster.

I do not see the Winfield signing signaling a change in philosophy.

Seattle considered Winfield because Winfield has demonstrated an ability to play at a high level from the slot, an aspect of the defense Seattle has been looking to upgrade. We could still see the Seahawks addressing that area in the draft, but there will be less urgency to do so following Winfield's addition.

We should also understand the Winfield signing for what it is not.

The Seahawks would not turn to Winfield as a replacement for Sherman or Browner on the outside if either one of those starting corners suddenly were not available. We would most likely see Jeremy Lane or someone else playing on the perimeter in that case. As we discussed last week, Winfield is not an outside coverage player at this stage of his career.

Also, I do not think Seattle signed Winfield over concerns about its current starting corners. While Sherman has earned a reputation for brashness, he has proven to be extremely thorough in his preparation, according to coaches. Seattle does not need a veteran player to mentor Sherman on that front.

The Winfield addition tells us Seattle thinks Winfield can provide a clear upgrade from Marcus Trufant as a slot corner, and at a reasonable price. That is probably all it tells us.
Players reaching NFL free agency are, by definition, players teams are prepared to lose.

That has become clearer in the one month since 45 NFC West players became unrestricted free agents March 12. The Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have so far re-signed only two of the 45. Another UFA, Chris Williams, reportedly will re-sign with the Rams, although no contract has been filed to this point.

At most, then, three of the 45 have been retained. The 49ers and Seahawks have yet to re-sign one of their own UFAs. Arizona re-signed safety Rashad Johnson just as free agency was beginning. The Rams' deal with defensive end William Hayes is the most significant UFA re-signing in the division so far. Hayes signed for $3.4 million per season.

Teams from the division had re-signed 13 UFAs at this point last year. Seventeen UFAs had signed elsewhere, matching the number that have signed elsewhere this offseason.

The chart shows UFAs from NFC West teams this offseason. Quite a few were backups and/or players teams hoped to replace. Dashon Goldson, Delanie Walker, Danny Amendola and Steven Jackson could be the toughest ones to replace right away, although their teams did not appear particularly determined to keep them.

NFC West teams kept several valued players from reaching free agency this offseason by re-signing them before contracts expired. Calais Campbell, Chris Clemons, James Laurinaitis and Chris Long come to mind as prominent examples.

A few thoughts after Minnesota Vikings free-agent cornerback Antoine Winfield told ESPN's Josina Anderson he had reached agreement on a one-year deal with the Seattle Seahawks:
  • The fit: Winfield projects as the replacement for Marcus Trufant as the Seahawks' primary slot corner. Richard Sherman is unquestionably the No. 1 cornerback on the team. Brandon Browner projects as the other starter. Seattle still has plans and hopes for younger corners on the team, notably Jeremy Lane. Walter Thurmond, if healthy, could be part of the mix. DeShawn Shead is another young corner with potential. Trufant, 32, is a free agent and not expected back. The Seahawks could still draft a corner. They could decide to release Winfield after training camp, even. This is a one-year deal without significant salary-cap ramifications.
  • Veteran presence: Winfield, who turns 36 on June 24, becomes the oldest player on the Seahawks' roster by more than four years. His addition adds a veteran voice to the defensive backs' meeting room in Seattle. He is older than Lane by more than 13 years. Sherman recently turned 25. Browner, though 28, has started less than full two seasons in the NFL. From afar, this might look like a case of Seattle seeking a veteran corner to help settle down the frequently outspoken Sherman. I've never sensed worry from coach Pete Carroll on that front, however. Trufant was a veteran corner, but Seattle wasn't trying to re-sign him. Winfield qualifies as a special case, an older player with a specific set of skills for Seattle to fit into its defense.
  • Minnesota West: Winfield joins receivers Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, plus offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, as high-profile Seahawks with ties to the Vikings. All were together in Minnesota as recently as 2010. Those ties could have helped Winfield feel more comfortable about changing teams for the first time since he left the Buffalo Bills for Minnesota following the 2003 season. The Seahawks are an attractive destination on the merits, however. Winfield accepted a one-year contract. He presumably could have gotten a one-year deal elsewhere, including in Minnesota.
  • 49ers rivalry: Adding Winfield will strengthen perceptions that the Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are trying to one-up each other this offseason after one half-game separated them in the 2012 standings. Some of these moves appear coincidental. To review, Winfield agreed to terms with Seattle a week after the division-rival 49ers signed another older former Pro Bowl corner in Nnamdi Asomugha. In both cases, the signing teams waited out the cornerbacks, signing them to one-year deals. The 49ers previously traded for receiver Anquan Boldin hours after news broke that Seattle was acquiring Harvin. Both teams recently added backup quarterbacks who entered the NFL as early-round picks. Both made those moves after trading away the backup quarterbacks they had previously signed as starters.
Earlier: A few thoughts on Winfield.

A few thoughts on Antoine Winfield

April, 12, 2013
4/12/13
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Cornerback Antoine Winfield remains a free agent for now following reports he was nearing a deal with the Seattle Seahawks while still considering the Minnesota Vikings.

Winfield would be an intriguing luxury for the Seahawks. They appear strong at cornerback with Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner as the starters in the base defense. They saw some good things from 2012 sixth-round choice Jeremy Lane late last season and could proceed with him as a potential third corner. The draft will provide another avenue for improving the nickel corner situation as the team moves on from 32-year-old veteran Marcus Trufant.

Winfield turns 36 in June. He is not the future, obviously. But by most accounts, Winfield played at a high level around the line of scrimmage last season. He fared well enough in close quarters to lead the 2012 cornerback rankings at Pro Football Focus.

"Nobody at PFF will try and tell you that Antoine Winfield was the best corner in football last season," Sam Monson wrote for PFF. "That being said, his grade was impressive for a player of his age and, perhaps most notably of all, he graded positively across the board in every area we analyze for the position. Though he may not have been able to touch the top corners when it came to coverage alone, he still ranked inside the Top 20 in that area and teamed with it an ability that is completely unmatched by his cornerback peers -- his play against the run and the short passing game."

Run-stuffing abilities are a bonus, but cornerbacks must cover well, first and foremost. If the Vikings thought Winfield could still cover at a high level, they likely would have made keeping him a higher priority.

Any team signing Winfield would want to tailor a role specifically for his strengths. Adding him would look like a tremendous move on paper for Seattle. Winfield would likely provide a clear upgrade from Trufant. Discovering fresh, young talent at the position also has appeal, however, and there's nothing fresh about a cornerback approaching his 36th birthday. Perhaps the Seahawks can have it both ways in 2013. Signing Winfield could provide some insurance in case a younger player fails to develop right away.
Good morning, NFC West. It's good to be back home and on the division beat again after attending my sister's wedding in Pennsylvania (followed by a family trip to Gettysburg in the heart of Pittsburgh Steelers country).



Sorry, no wedding pics here. And as much as I'd like to share what I learned about a couple of Civil War-era relatives -- a great, great grandfather and his brother made Gettysburg appearances in 1863 -- we've got NFC West business to discuss.

Antoine Winfield, Brady Quinn, Richard Sherman and Chilo Rachal were among the names moving across the news wire while I was walking my sister down the aisle and, later, walking along the path marking Pickett's Charge. We'll explore Winfield, Quinn, Rachal and other divisional newsmakers as this Friday progresses.

First, though, I wanted to share the latest fan demographic breakdown from Noah Veltman. Last month, Veltman provided a lesson in sports geography by dividing the country into regions based on which NFL stadiums were nearest. This time, Veltman has used data from Facebook to show which teams are most popular in each county, as determined by the number of "likes" each team has received from Facebook users.

This is admittedly not a perfect way to measure team popularity.

Some information does appear useful, however. The St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals appear on a list of underrepresented teams featuring the Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and San Diego Chargers.

"[The Rams] lose the majority of their geography-based territory, to the Cowboys in the south, to the Chiefs in the west, and to the Bears in the north," Veltman writes. "[The Cardinals] lose most of their geography-based territory to the Cowboys on all sides. Even southern Arizona is Cowboys country."

Again, the methodology isn't perfect. Those results do match up with established perceptions, however.

Related: Which fans like which fans.

Video: How Winfield fits with Seahawks

April, 10, 2013
4/10/13
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ESPN.com NFL scout Matt Williamson discusses how Antoine Winfield can contribute to the Seahawks. The free-agent cornerback, who will turn 36 this season, is close to a deal that would land him in Seattle after nine seasons in Minnesota, ESPN's Ed Werder reports.
When we last left the Antoine Winfield story, Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was acknowledging his strong desire to talk Winfield back onto the team after his surprising release last month.

Winfield has since been courted by the Washington Redskins, who subsequently re-signed veteran DeAngelo Hall, but today he is visiting the Seattle Seahawks, according to ESPN's Ed Werder. The Seahawks have one of the NFL's strongest secondaries, led by All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, and adding Winfield as a nickel or dime back would seem an attractive luxury.

The Vikings haven't made a move to replace Winfield yet, but it's clear that he is intent on at least finding out what else is available to him before re-entering negotiations in Minnesota. Stay tuned.

Eight in the Box: Under the radar

April, 5, 2013
4/05/13
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at the top under-the-radar move made by each NFC West team thus far this offseason:

Arizona Cardinals: A soft market for cornerbacks helped the Cardinals sign former San Diego Chargers starter Antoine Cason to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. Scouts Inc. gave Cason a 79 grade, tied with Chris Gamble, Brent Grimes, DeAngelo Hall and Quentin Jammer for highest among corners on the market this offseason. Arizona has rotated corners through its lineup with moderate success in recent seasons. There's no sense in overpaying when Patrick Peterson is anchoring the other side as a top-five overall selection. Cason has good size at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds. He is on the younger side (turns 27 in July). He has never missed a game in five NFL seasons. He has started 45 of 48 games the past three years. Cason should provide an upgrade from 2012 starter William Gay.

St. Louis Rams: The Rams made waves by signing Jake Long and Jared Cook to deals with a combined $35 million in guaranteed money. Their move to bring back defensive end William Hayes on a three-year deal was important, too, even though it went under the radar. St. Louis led the NFL in sacks last season. Hayes had seven of them while playing 34.2 percent of the defensive snaps. He combines with Chris Long (11.5 sacks in 2012) and Robert Quinn (10.5) to give St. Louis a strong pass-rushing combination at defensive end.

San Francisco 49ers: Glenn Dorsey is too big to go under the radar, but anyone familiar with his time in Kansas City wouldn't think much of his signing in San Francisco. The 49ers seem to have big plans for Dorsey, however. They gave him a modest deal totaling $6 million over two seasons, a reflection of how far Dorsey's stock has fallen since the Chiefs made him the fifth overall choice in 2008. Dorsey wasn't to blame for the scheme change in Kansas City that made him less valuable to the defense. The 49ers run a base 3-4 defense that wouldn't seem to suit Dorsey's strengths as an up-the-field tackle, at least on the surface. I do think San Francisco has a specific role in mind for Dorsey, increasing the chances he makes a positive impact as a low-cost player with obvious talent.

Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks made high-profile moves almost exclusively this offseason. They landed Percy Harvin, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett before trading away quarterback Matt Flynn. There isn't much from which to choose in the under-the-radar category. Defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, signed from the Miami Dolphins as a cheaper alternative to Alan Branch, will have to suffice. McDaniel has been mostly a backup and rotational player during his seven NFL seasons. "He has great length with good power and plays with good pad level," Scouts Inc. wrote in its review of him. "He isn't a quick-twitch athlete and is inconsistent to get off blocks and show range to the pile. He has limited pass-rush skills and hasn't made great progress given his time in the NFL." How's that for under the radar?
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.

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