NFC West: 2013 Week 5 QB Watch

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
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Catch us if you can.

That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.

It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.

By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.

It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.

So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?

The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.

Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.

The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.

First Down

The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?


Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.

Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.

Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.

Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.


Second Down

The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?


Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.

Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.

Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.


Third Down

Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?


Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.

Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.

Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.

Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.


Fourth Down

If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?


Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.

Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.

Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.

Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.

 

QB Watch: Seahawks' Russell Wilson

October, 9, 2013
10/09/13
9:00
AM ET
A weekly analysis of the Seahawks' quarterback play.

Wilson
Rewind: Russell Wilson showcased his running ability with 102 yards rushing Sunday at Indianapolis, equaling the total of running back Marshawn Lynch. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. It meant Wilson had to scramble at times and couldn’t find an open receiver downfield in the Seahawks' 34-28 loss to the Colts. When Wilson runs as much as he did Sunday, it’s tempting fate for an injury. But as Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Monday, Wilson is doing what he has to do behind an offensive front that was missing four starters. He completed only 15 of 31 passes and missed some opportunities with inaccurate throws. Wilson had Golden Tate wide open on the sideline inside the Colts' 10-yard line, but overthrew him. Wilson also ran several times when he didn’t see he had an open receiver downfield, including a deep seam route by tight end Luke Willson that might have been a TD if the throw was made. All of this is a result of the protection problems up front that force Wilson to make quick decisions. It was a rare day when Wilson couldn’t make the clutch play.

Fast-forward: Home sweet home against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at CenturyLink Field, a place where Wilson never has lost. The Seahawks have won 10 consecutive home games under Wilson’s guidance. Center Max Unger should return, which will help stabilize the line issues.

Indoor woes: Wilson is 16-7 in his NFL career, but only 2-5 in domed stadiums, and the Seahawks have three more indoor games this season: at Arizona, St. Louis and Atlanta. The roof over his head probably isn’t making as much of a difference as the teams he’s facing on the road.

Prediction: Look for Wilson to rebound with the passing game this weekend at home against a Tennessee team the Seahawks should beat. It’s possible he could have his best game of the season on Sunday at CenturyLink Field.

QB Watch: Rams' Sam Bradford

October, 9, 2013
10/09/13
9:00
AM ET

    A weekly examination of the St. Louis Rams' quarterback play.

    Bradford
    Bradford
    Rewind: In terms of QBR, Sam Bradford had his best game of the season against Jacksonville, posting a score of 60.8. He threw for 222 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions for a passer rating of 105.3.

    Bradford’s numbers were solid if unspectacular when combined with a 56 percent completion rate. He dropped in a perfect pass to Austin Pettis for a 31-yard touchdown to help close out the Jaguars late.

    The Rams rushed for 143 yards and had some balance for the first time, surely helping Bradford and creating a few more play-action opportunities. That was, perhaps, the most encouraging sign for Bradford and the offense to come out of that game.

    Fast-forward: Bradford and the Rams got a bit of a breather with Jacksonville in town on Sunday, but a trip to face the league’s top-ranked defense in Houston will provide a more difficult task.

    The Texans are allowing just 134.2 yards per game in the air, more than 50 yards fewer than the next-closest team in the league. Behind dominant end J.J. Watt, they’re tied for 11th in sacks with 14 but lead the league in sacks per passing attempt, getting sacks on 11.6 percent of opposing quarterback attempts.

    Ball security: Bradford has been fortunate that opponents have missed their share of interception opportunities, but given how many attempts he’s had in 2013, his interception rate has been a definite positive in his game.

    Bradford has thrown an interception on 1.4 percent of his attempts, tied with Atlanta’s Matt Ryan for fifth-lowest in the league.

    Prediction: This figures to be as difficult a challenge as Bradford will face in the passing game. Watt is the master of the batted pass, and Bradford has had issues in that area. Don’t expect much from Bradford & Co. this week.

QB Watch: Cardinals' Carson Palmer

October, 9, 2013
10/09/13
9:00
AM ET
A weekly analysis of the Arizona Cardinals' quarterback play:

Palmer
Rewind: While it might be hard to pile on after a win, Carson Palmer still has a way to go to become the player the front office expected him to be. He’s still making poor decisions on passes, throwing all three of his interceptions inside Carolina territory Sunday. Palmer took the blame and said his performance wasn’t “good enough,” but it’s becoming a broken record. The offense will get it “sooner or later,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.

Boy, was I close this week. I tempered expectations and said Palmer would have 250 yards and one touchdown. Well, he got the touchdown on a very nice drive and finished with 175 yards.

Fast-forward: If the Cardinals have struggled to eat up yards thus far, this might be their biggest task yet. San Francisco’s secondary showed its brute strength this past weekend against Houston. The 49ers are ranked second in passing yards allowed per game and fourth in passing yards allowed per attempt. And to top it off, they’re only giving up 3.7 yards per run.

Not a good sign: It’s one thing for a quarterback to be intercepted when he’s pressured; there are defenders in his face, the pocket collapses and his window to find an open receiver shrinks quickly. But it’s another issue for picks to be tossed when the quarterback isn’t pressured, as was the case with Palmer on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus. Palmer tried to force too many passes to Larry Fitzgerald, or to make the “heroic throw,” as Arians called it.

Prediction: I’m not expecting much out of Palmer, which, in the end, could be a good thing. I say he will throw for 165 yards and a touchdown but the Cardinals will lose because the 49ers will take advantage of Arizona’s slow start.

Just don’t ask me to pick the spread in the Broncos-Jaguars game.
A weekly examination of the San Francisco 49ers' quarterback play.

Jones
Kaepernick
Rewind: It was a weird one. The 49ers blew out Houston 34-3. The offense was fine, Colin Kaepernick didn’t look terrible. But he completed just six passes and had a stretch of seven straight incompletions. Still, Kaepernick was part of the reason the 49ers won big.

Fast-forward: After a tough early-season slate, the schedule starts to ease a bit. The 49ers host Arizona on Sunday. But Arizona has a decent defense and it can make some things happen against the pass. Kaepernick will need to be sharp.

Back to Smith days? Kaepernick’s predecessor, Alex Smith, was known as a game manager. That’s what Kaepernick was Sunday. The 49ers’ passing game is being affected by a lack of depth. The run game starts this offense and Kaepernick is being asked to enhance it. That may continue for a while before Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree return from injuries.

Prediction: Kaepernick will likely be asked to do more against the Cardinals. I think he will complete 17 of 28 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns.

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