NFC West: A.J. Jefferson

2014 Predictions: Seattle Seahawks

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
video Seattle Seahawks reporter Terry Blount makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.

Week 1: Green Bay Packers

All the pregame hype will center around the so-called Inaccurate Reception, the controversial Hail Mary catch by Golden Tate two years ago that won the game over the Packers at Seattle on a Monday night. Tate has moved on to Detroit, but the Seahawks now have too many weapons for the Packers to stop, no Hail Mary required. Prediction: Win

Week 2: at San Diego Chargers

The Chargers better hope they play a lot better than they did in the preseason game at Seattle, a 41-14 victory for the Seahawks on Aug. 15. San Diego will play better, but not good enough to beat a much better team. Prediction: Win

Week 3: Denver Broncos

The Broncos and their fans got a tiny bit of meaningless Super Bowl revenge in the preseason opener with a 21-16 victory over the Seahawks in Denver. Enjoy it while it lasts, boys. Repeating that outcome in Seattle is not an option. Prediction: Win

Week 5: at Washington Redskins

Traveling coast to coast to play on the road for a Monday night game is a tough task against any NFL opponent, and even tougher against quarterback Robert Griffin III. But the Seahawks catch a break in this one by coming off a bye week with plenty of time to prepare and be fresh for the journey. Prediction: Win

Week 6: Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave Seattle a little bulletin-board material last month when he said the Seahawks were to blame for the increase in penalty flags during the preseason. There won't be near enough flags against Seattle for the Cowboys to win this one. Prediction: Win

Week 7: at St. Louis Rams

Any division game in the NFC West is a rugged battle. The Rams have a defensive line that gave the Seahawks problems a year ago. But they aren't strong enough overall to beat Seattle, even at home in their out-of-date dome. Prediction: Win

Week 8: at Carolina Panthers

The Seahawks were fortunate to win the season opener at Charlotte a year ago. That Panthers team was better than this one, but back-to-back road games against very physical defensive teams will end the Seattle winning streak. Prediction: Loss

Week 9: Oakland Raiders

Coming off their first loss of the season and returning home against an outmanned opponent, is there any doubt? Prediction: Win

Week 10: New York Giants

The Seahawks easily defeated the Giants 23-0 last year in New Jersey, a dress rehearsal for their Super Bowl victory at the same location -- MetLife Stadium. The Seahawks won't need a rehearsal to roll past the Giants in this one. Prediction: Win

Week 11: at Kansas City Chiefs

This likely will be a low-scoring game between two strong defensive teams. Odds are against any team that has to try to win by matching its defense against the Seahawks' D. Prediction: Win

Week 12: Arizona Cardinals

The last time the Cardinals played at CenturyLink Field was last December when they handed the Seahawks a 17-10 loss. That won't happen again unless the Seahawks get caught looking ahead to the 49ers game. The Seahawks don't look ahead. Prediction: Win

Week 13: at San Francisco 49ers

It's a Thanksgiving night, national TV game in the 49ers' shiny new stadium against the hated Seahawks. If San Francisco can't win this one, its time as a championship contender is over. Prediction: Loss

Week 14: at Philadelphia Eagles

This is the toughest part of the season for the Seahawks with back-to-back road games against likely playoff contenders. But the 10 days between games will help and be enough of a cushion to keep Seattle from losing two in a row. Prediction: Win

Week 15: San Francisco 49ers

This is a game that could decide which team wins the NFC West. No way the Seahawks lose to the 49ers twice in three weeks, especially not in front of a rabid full house of 12s. Prediction: Win

Week 16: at Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals probably will be fighting for a playoff spot, and the Seahawks already will be in at 12-2. That difference will be just enough for Arizona to win at home in the same stadium where the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl a few weeks later. Prediction: Loss

Week 17: St. Louis Rams

For the second consecutive year, the Rams close the regular season in Seattle. And for the second consecutive year, the Seahawks will beat them without much trouble. Prediction: Win

Predicted Record: 13-3

Twenty-eight picks in the 2013 NFL draft have changed hands to this point. Sixteen of the 28 have NFC West fingerprints on them.

The chart below, put together with an assist from Jason Vida of ESPN Stats & Information, singles out those 16 selections. Shading identifies picks currently held by NFC West teams.

The San Francisco 49ers' recent trade for Colt McCoy invovled sending the 164th and 227th choices to the Cleveland Browns for McCoy and the 173rd choice. The Arizona Cardinals' trade for Carson Palmer included Arizona sending the 176th choice to the Oakland Raiders for Palmer and the 219th choice.
Recent trades by the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have affected draft choice counts for NFC West teams in 2013.

The chart shows how many picks each team in the division holds at this time. The counts will change when the NFL hands out 32 compensatory draft choices as early as next week. The league awards those choices to offset net losses in free agency. Teams cannot trade compensatory picks.

The 49ers and Rams have a combined nine picks in the first three rounds. The Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals have a combined five picks in those rounds. The imbalance frames expectations for this draft.

The 49ers have already added veteran receiver Anquan Boldin at the cost of a sixth-round choice. Seattle added Percy Harvin from Minnesota for first- and seventh-round choices, plus a pick next year. The Vikings also hold a seventh-rounder from Arizona as part of the A.J. Jefferson trade last year.
The Arizona Cardinals drafted three offensive linemen and found spots for all of them on their initial 53-man roster.

That's good for a team that could use a youth infusion up front. It's unfortunate to the extent that Levi Brown's season-ending triceps injury made room on the roster for another young tackle, such as seventh-round rookie Nate Potter.

The Cardinals' starting offensive line was stable last season. The same players started every game at every position but right tackle, where Jeremy Bridges made six starts subbing for an injured Brandon Keith.

Arizona will have new starters at left tackle, right guard and possibly right tackle this season. The lineup has the potential to get younger if rookie Bobby Massie starts at right tackle.

The nine linemen making the initial cut: starting center Lyle Sendlein, starting left guard Daryn Colledge, starting right guard Adam Snyder, potential starting left tackle D'Anthony Batiste, rookie guard Senio Kelemete, guard Rich Ohrnberger, Massie, Potter and Bridges.

It's looking like Batiste and Massie will open the season as the starting tackles. Bridges provides an experienced alternative at either spot. Sendlein has started every game over the past four seasons, plus six playoff games. He would be the lineman most difficult to replace if lost to injury.

Arizona could be set up to lean more heavily on its ground game. Quarterback John Skelton remains unestablished. Questions persist at offensive tackle. The team has two talented running backs, four tight ends instead of three and five wide receivers instead of six. Then again, teams rarely use more than two tight ends at a time, and sixth receivers rarely factor.

While game situations can dictate run-pass ratios, a handful of teams were far more likely than Arizona to run on first down when the score was close (defined as a one-score differential or less). Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Houston were among teams running at least 60 percent of the time in these situations. Philadelphia, New Orleans, Green Bay, Detroit and New England -- all teams with top quarterbacks -- were below 48 percent. Arizona was at 53 percent.

This could be a storyline to monitor. As noted, game situations can override the best intentions. But with a defense that appears strong, Arizona might be in position to make a more run-oriented offense work.

Elsewhere on the roster, the Cardinals remain deep at cornerback even after trading former starter A.J. Jefferson to Minnesota. They still have Patrick Peterson, William Gay, Michael Adams, Jamell Fleming and Greg Toler.

Receiver is another position of strength even though Arizona kept only five, one fewer than in recent seasons. First-round pick Michael Floyd joins a group already featuring Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts and Early Doucet. Rookie LaRon Byrd is the developmental player among the group.

The chart shows roster counts for Arizona by position. The asterisk in the headline reflects unofficial counts for the practice squad. The Cardinals have not announced their initial practice squad. Their website does refer to a few possibilities, culled from media reports.

For download: This Cardinals roster features 27 columns of info for every player on the roster since roughly 2007. It also feature summary info comparing the Cardinals against league averages.
San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick was good during a 35-3 preseason victory over the San Diego Chargers on Thursday night.

Very, very good.

Kaepernick's performance came against backups (and, in some cases, against backups to the backups). That should prevent anyone from campaigning for Kaepernick to supplant Alex Smith as the starter in Week 1. But the broader context -- strong training camp, generally strong preseason -- has to be encouraging.

A month ago, the 49ers had to wonder whether Kaepernick would nail down the No. 2 job. He did so rather quickly.

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat makes the case that Kaepernick is more gifted (but not yet better than) Smith. Cohn: "One pass by Kaepernick stood out. He rolled left -- sprinted actually -- and as he ran, he threw across his body to fullback Bruce Miller for nine yards. It was a beautiful throw and it’s Kaepernick’s signature throw -- toss that sucker while his body goes one way and his arm goes the other, an impossible maneuver. No one does it better than him in the entire league. Certainly not Alex Smith. Not even close."

Matt Maiocco of notes that both Kaepernick scoring passes came on "well-thrown balls on rollouts to either side."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee was similarly impressed: "Throughout the first half, Kaepernick showed why the 49ers used a high, second-round draft pick on him: He's excellent at evading defenses with his quick feet and then making them pay with his big arm. Kaepernick went into the half 12-18 for 158 yards and a 131.3 passer rating."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers' quarterbacks fared well, except for Scott Tolzien. Branch: "On his first series, he sailed a third-down throw to a wide-open Nathan Palmer on a slant route. On his second series, he badly underthrew Chris Owusu, who was open down the left sideline. Two plays later, his third-down pass was picked off by linebacker Bront Bird near the line of scrimmage."

Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune offers postgame notes following the Seahawks' victory over Oakland. Golden Tate suffered a twisted knee. Red Bryant chipped a tooth while celebrating Jaye Howard's safety.

Art Thiel of Sportspress Northwest framed the performances of Russell Wilson and Matt Flynn this way: "Wilson played the first two series and one quarter, and didn’t have his previous wow factor. Nor did he feel compelled once to take off running. There simply was no need to risk anything in the final exhibition when the defense was in charge the entire game. For those inclined to offer a pity party for Matt Flynn, the heir apparent to the starting QB job who was usurped by the upstart, there is no need to bother. Taking over in the second quarter, he evinced no depression, moving the club on touchdown drives of 78 and 90 yards."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals couldn't have expected much more from rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley on Thursday night. Somers: "He showed poise in the pocket and patience in making his reads. It helped that the Cardinals were successful running the ball, which has been the lone positive on offense this preseason. Running back Beanie Wells started and gained 35 yards on seven carries in the opening quarter."

Darren Urban of says the Cardinals' final exhibition game changed perceptions about which players might earn spots on the initial 53-man roster. Urban: "Now I'm finding it hard to believe outside linebacker Quentin Groves doesn’t stick around. The other backup outside linebacker choice then would come down to Clark Haggans or Brandon Williams. In the secondary, undrafted rookie Blake Gideon got a ton of playing time, and while Rashad Johnson and Adrian Wilson sat out, I start to wonder if Gideon could have a chance to slip on the roster, in place of Johnson, maybe? And there is little question there is a decision coming between A.J. Jefferson, Greg Toler and Michael Adams."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams aren't sure how much time first-round draft choice Michael Brockers might miss. Thomas: "Brockers took an X-ray on site at the Edward Jones Dome, and Fisher said the ankle will undergo an MRI exam today. Brockers left the locker room Thursday night wearing a walking boot on his right foot, so his status is very much up in the air for the Sept. 9 season opener in Detroit. The defensive tackle from Louisiana State was cut block below the knees by a Raven while in pursuit of Baltimore running back Bernard Pierce down the line of scrimmage. Brockers did not return."

Nick Wagoner of offers postgame notes, including this one: "DT Matt Conrath left the game with an undisclosed injury and his status moving forward is unknown. The Rams are already a bit thin depth wise at DT and any serious injuries would not be good moving forward."

Three things: Cardinals-Saints

August, 5, 2012
Three things to watch for in the Arizona Cardinals' preseason game against the New Orleans Saints at 8 p.m. ET:

1. Kevin Kolb's performance. The Cardinals' quarterback competition includes John Skelton as well, so his performance also matters. But Kolb is the most intriguing variable on the team's roster this summer. Can he command the offense and finally appear comfortable running it? Can he make it through the game healthy after injuries derailed his 2011 season? We shouldn't expect an all-world performance right out of the gates. We shouldn't read too much into a seemingly shaky one, either. Quarterbacks and offenses in general can struggle during preseason if opponents decide to crank up the pressure or get creative. But perceptions matter for Kolb or any highly paid player trying to prove his worth. In a best-case scenario, Kolb connects with Larry Fitzgerald and rookie first-round choice Michael Floyd for meaningful gains. For reference, Kolb completed 4 of 7 passes for 68 yards in his 2011 Cardinals preseason debut. Skelton completed 6-of-10 for 94 yards and a touchdown in that game.

2. Right side of the OL. The Cardinals have a new look on that side of their offensive line. Right guard Adam Snyder signed from San Francisco in free agency. Veteran Jeremy Bridges remains at right tackle for now after replacing Brandon Keith during the 2011 season. The team hopes rookie Brian Massey can grow into the starting role and take over for Bridges at some point in the near future. This game against New Orleans provides a first look. The Saints have been working with left defensive end Cameron Jordan to drop into coverage in zone-blitz packages, a change for him. We should still see Jordan, a 2011 first-round choice, get some pass-rushing reps against the right side of the Cardinals' line.

3. Cornerback competition. The Cardinals know Patrick Peterson will be starting at left corner this season. They feel great about the likelihood of him emerging as a Pro Bowl-caliber force at that position. Arizona also likes the possibilities on the other side, but it's unclear how that race will settle out. Free-agent addition William Gay represents the known. Greg Toler, coming off ACL surgery, has starting potential. So does A.J. Jefferson, who made seven starts last season after Toler was injured. Throw in third-round choice Jamell Fleming, the team's most impressive rookie during minicamps, and the Cardinals have a genuine camp competition on their hands. The assumption is that Michael Adams would project more in a nickel role, not as a starter. He's as competitive as anyone in the Cardinals' corner mix.
Good morning, NFC West.

Chris Clemons' recent agreement with the Seattle Seahawks leaves the NFC West with few unsettled contract situations heading into training camps.

The San Francisco 49ers' Dashon Goldson remains unsigned as a franchise player, but he'll sign a one-year deal at some point.

Janoris Jenkins' negotiations with the St. Louis Rams will bear watching as the week progresses. Jason Cole of Yahoo! has the details on that one. While it's tough to fault the Rams for seeking protection given Jenkins' troubled off-field history, the team built its protection already by drafting Jenkins later than the cornerback would have been available in the absence of that history.

Meanwhile ...

Brian McIntyre of takes a closer look at the Rams' receivers. Among his thoughts: "Last year's fourth-round pick Greg Salas posted big numbers out of the slot at Hawaii and was having a promising rookie season before suffering a broken leg midway through the season. Injuries to Amendola and Salas is what got 2011 third-round selection Austin Pettis on the field as a rookie. Pettis' performance is why the Rams invested so heavily in the wide receiver position again this April. Brandon Gibson currently sits atop the depth chart, but he's a player the current coaching staff and front office inherited, has a seven-figure salary ($1 million) and can be released with no cap implications. The new regime also inherited Danario Alexander, who is a game-changing deep threat when healthy, which he rarely is."

Nick Wagoner of analyzes the Rams' roster heading into camp. He lists Danny Amendola, Brian Quick, Chris Givens, Steve Smith and Salas as five leading candidates to secure up to six spots on the initial 53-man roster.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee previews a few potential camp battles for the 49ers. He anticipates fewer carries for Frank Gore. Barrows: "It's clear that Frank Gore won't have the workload he's had since becoming the featured running back in 2006. What's unclear is how those non-Gore carries will be divided this season. Second-year player Kendall Hunter and second-round draft pick LaMichael James are assured spots on the team while Rock Cartwright could win one based on his special teams ability. Brandon Jacobs' and Anthony Dixon's spots, however, are fuzzier."

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News checks in with 49ers rookie receiver A.J. Jenkins, who says he's made significant strides since minicamp. Jenkins: "Obviously I had criticism when I first came in as far as being in shape. That’s irrelevant now. I’m just trying to help the team win, whether that’s playing special teams, offense or being a real good teammate."

Clare Farnsworth of reflects on Grant Feasel's recent passing at age 52. Feasel played for the team in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Former teammate Jeff Kemp: "Grant was the quintessential sacrificial warrior. He wrapped himself up in the duty to clear the way for and protect his teammates. He took his job so seriously. Our families grew up together and Grant deeply loved his family. He had a great sense of humor but never during the heat of battle."

Also from Farnsworth: expectations for the Seahawks' running backs.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic takes a look at the Cardinals' secondary with training camp approaching. Somers: "After Patrick Peterson, there is considerable sorting out to do in training camp. There are four solid contenders for other starting position: William Gay, Greg Toler, A.J. Jefferson and rookie Jamell Fleming. Based upon off-season work, Gay and Toler lead the pack. By the end of the summer workouts, they were splitting time with the first team. Toler missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but his recovery is on schedule. In one practice, he was matched up against Larry Fitzgerald and leaped to break up and pass. He fell to the ground, and everyone held their breath. Fitzgerald quickly leaned over Toler, checking on him. Toler was fine. It's recovering from those kinds of plays that will build his confidence."

Darren Urban of previews training camp for Arizona. Urban: "The Cards won’t be able to ease into anything. The first practice is Wednesday afternoon, and by Saturday afternoon they will have the Red-White practice, which usually features a live goal line situation. With so much to determine -- not the least of which will be the starting quarterback -- Ken Whisenhunt embraces an extra preseason game and some extra days in camp because of it. The new collective bargaining agreement essentially took away a week of offseason on-field work. Whisenhunt looks forward to recouping some of that."
Our two-day look at NFC West rosters concludes with projections for the Arizona Cardinals' defense and special teams.

Defensive linemen (9)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.2

Safest bets: Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Dan Williams, David Carter, Nick Eason, Vonnie Holliday

Leading contenders: Ronald Talley

Longer odds: Ricky Lumpkin, Landon Cohen

Comment: The position should be a strength for the Cardinals. Campbell and Dockett have earned most of the attention. Carter stood out immediately as a rookie in training camp last year. He came out swinging and quickly moved up the depth chart at nose tackle. Carter impressed enough as a rookie for Pro Football Focus to feature him in its "Secret Superstar" series. Williams has gotten his weight down. This is a big year for him coming off a season-ending arm injury.

Linebackers (15)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.2

Safest bets: Daryl Washington, Sam Acho, O'Brien Schofield, Paris Lenon, Clark Haggans, Stewart Bradley

Leading contenders: Reggie Walker, Quentin Groves

Longer odds: Quan Sturdivant, Marcus McGraw, Paul Vassallo, Colin Parker, Brandon Williams, Antonio Coleman, Zack Nash

Comment: Washington is an emerging star and should command more widespread respect if the Cardinals' defense continues to improve. Lenon remains an integral part of the defense. He's the link between coordinator Ray Horton and the rest of the defense. Bradley hasn't come close to unseating him. A full offseason should give Bradley a better chance to earn playing time, at least. The Cardinals are counting on Acho and Schofield to provide their outside rush. The coaching staff also wants to get pressure with its inside linebackers. Washington has shown he can make that happen.

Defensive backs (17)

Average number kept since 2003: 9.2

Safest bets: Patrick Peterson, Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes, Jamell Fleming, Greg Toler, William Gay, Rashad Johnson

Leading contenders: A.J. Jefferson, Michael Adams, James Sanders

Longer odds: Justin Bethel, Marshay Green, Blake Gideon, Eddie Elder, Crezdon Butler, Larry Parker, James Nixon

Comment: Fleming, the Cardinals' third-round choice, stood out among rookies at organized team activities and minicamps. Coach Ken Whisenhunt commended his quickness and ability to change direction fluidly. The team plans to try him in the nickel role during training camp. The other nine defensive backs listed among "safest bets" and "leading contenders" have started regular-season games in the NFL. Barring injuries, one or two players released from this group figures to play elsewhere this season.

Special teams (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 2.9

Safest bets: Jay Feely, Mike Leach, Dave Zastudil

Leading contenders: none

Longer odds: Ricky Schmitt

Comment: Feely's field-goal percentage last season (79.2) was his lowest since 2004. Four of his five misses were outdoors. Arizona plays six games outdoors in 2012 (Arizona counts as indoors even though the roof can open).
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

The Arizona Cardinals might wind up releasing a player they now or recently considered as a starting cornerback. They also have reason to expect more from safeties Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson as both players operate nearer to full health.

Those and other factors made the Cardinals' defensive backfield a worthy choice for this exercise, particularly after cornerback Richard Marshall's departure in free agency raised concerns about the secondary's strength early in the offseason.

Third-round choice Jamell Fleming was arguably the Cardinals' most impressive rookie during organized team activities and minicamps. The non-contact sessions offered only limited glimpses of what players have to offer, but Fleming's quickness stood out to the coaching staff. The Cardinals want to see how he operates as the nickel. William Gay was a veteran addition in free agency.

Patrick Peterson is locked in as the starter on the left side and should be primed to take a big step forward after finishing strong as a rookie first-round choice in 2011. Former starters A.J. Jefferson and Greg Toler join Gay as candidates to start on the opposite side. Fleming is in the mix. Michael Adams, who played a third of the defensive snaps last season, offers veteran depth (he is 27).

The backup safeties, Rashad Johnson and free-agent addition James Sanders, each played 450-plus snaps on defense last season.

Tight end was another position I considered here. Todd Heap, Jeff King, Rob Housler and Jim Dray give the Cardinals variety, depth and upside.
A look at three potentially significant under-the-radar offseason moves for each NFC West team, continuing with the Arizona Cardinals:

1. Cornerback shuffle. Former Pittsburgh Steelers corner William Gay is working with the starting unit during organized team activities. Arizona signed him to a modest deal after losing Richard Marshall in free agency. Gay played for Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton previously. He should fit the defense. Third-round corner Jamell Fleming has been the Cardinals' best rookie during organized team activities. Arizona could wind up cutting a cornerback who once projected as a starter. Patrick Peterson, Gay and Fleming have job security. A.J. Jefferson, Greg Toler and Michael Adams could be competing for two spots. Jefferson and Toler have been starters. Adams knows how to win a roster spot as an underdog. He's a good special-teams player and sound tackler.

2. Naming John McNulty as QB coach. The stakes are sky-high for the Cardinals at quarterback this season. Former QB coach Chris Miller made his coaching debut in 2009 and, as a former player, was probably an ideal sounding board for then-starter Kurt Warner. The landscape has changed dramatically since then. McNulty brings college coordinating experience, organizational skills and an emphasis on mechanics to the role. He's a professional coach, not a former pro player making the transition to coaching. The Cardinals are banking on McNulty to challenge Kevin Kolb and John Skelton. They are asking him to help develop rookie Ryan Lindley for the future. McNulty coached the Cardinals' receivers previously. Coach Ken Whisenhunt considered him to be a rising talent, one reason the Cardinals blocked Tampa Bay from interviewing McNulty for its opening at offensive coordinator.

3. Re-signing Levi Brown. There are some parallels between this move and the San Francisco 49ers' decision to bring back Alex Smith a year ago. Both players were disappointing as high first-round draft choices. Both cited unfinished business when deciding to return. Both players' teams easily could have moved in another direction. But Arizona, like San Francisco, might have been worse off in the short term. Brown, like Smith a year ago, re-signed after finishing the previous season relatively strong. Arizona had a tough enough time trying to replace its right tackle this offseason. Replacing both of them probably would have set the team back.
A few considerations on the Arizona Cardinals' defense after the team reached agreement with franchise player Calais Campbell on a five-year contract:

Line solidified: The Cardinals' starting defensive line is under contract for the next three seasons. Hard as it is to fathom given his youthful exuberance, Darnell Dockett turns 31 later this month. He has missed only one game in eight seasons. Third-year nose tackle Dan Williams becomes the key variable on the line. How well he plays in returning from a broken arm will be critical to the defense.

Key variables at linebacker: The team is mostly going young at this position except for Paris Lenon, who remains the best option at inside linebacker at age 34. Will a full offseason enable Stewart Bradley to overtake Lenon? The odds seem against it based on what we saw from both players last season. Bradley took a pay cut but remains a factor. Re-signing Clark Haggans could provide insurance at outside linebacker, where Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield remain unproven despite showing promise to this point.

Finding another corner: I've listed A.J. Jefferson as the projected starter opposite Patrick Peterson, but that is hardly a given. The team has several candidates, but no clear favorite for the job. Teams use more than two corners in combination frequently, so perhaps it's less important which ones wind up starting in the base defense. William Gay, Greg Toler, Jefferson and Jamell Fleming are options, with 5-foot-8 Michael Adams projecting in more of a rotational role because of his size. Fleming, a third-round pick, will get a chance to play multiple positions in the secondary, according to coordinator Ray Horton.
The NFL rule expanding roster limits to 90 players came at the right time for teams overhauling their personnel.

The St. Louis Rams are one of those teams.

They drafted 10 players and are close to adding 23 undrafted free agents.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams cut five veteran players Thursday -- Demarco Cosby, John Henderson, Nate Ness, Quinn Porter and Chris Smith -- to make room for the influx. Thomas: "The Rams attempted to address their shortage of linebackers by adding undrafted rookies Sammy Brown of Houston, Derrick Choice of Stephen F. Austin, Alex Hoffman-Ellis of Washington State, and Noah Keller of Ohio. Brown led the nation in tackles for loss (30), while also registering 13.5 sacks for Houston. He's 6-2, 242 and ran a 4.63 at his pro day. Hoffman-Ellis was named Washington State's defensive MVP for the 2011 season after recording 88 tackles and two sacks, and returning his only interception for a touchdown." Noted: Releasing veteran kicker Josh Brown also contributed to the youth movement.

Matt Maiocco of says the San Francisco 49ers "have not ruled out" moving right tackle Anthony Davis to right guard, allowing Alex Boone to take over at right tackle. But Boone might be the front-runner at right guard for now. Maiocco: "The 49ers were fine letting Adam Snyder get away to sign a five-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals because the team believes a promotion from within will result in an upgrade. If Boone wins the starting job at right guard, he could still serve as the team's swing tackle. It would be easier for the 49ers to move Boone to one of the tackle positions and bring someone off the sideline to take over at guard than to groom another player to back up at both tackle spots."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says rookie Josh Looney faces stiff competition in his push to start at right guard.

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News checks in with former 49ers linebacker and broadcaster Gary Plummer regarding the death of Plummer's friend and former teammate, Junior Seau. Plummer estimated he had suffered more than 1,000 concussions during his career, and that Seau probably suffered more than that. Plummer: "In the 1990s, I did a concussion seminar. They said a Grade 3 concussion meant you were knocked out, and a Grade 1 meant you were seeing stars after a hit, which made me burst out in laughter. As a middle linebacker in the NFL, if you don't have five of these (Grade 1 effects) each game, you were inactive the next game. Junior played for 20 years. That's five concussions a game, easily. How many in his career then? That's over 1,500 concussions. I know that's startling, but I know it's true. I had over 1,000 in my 15 years. I felt the effects of it. I felt depression going on throughout my divorce. Junior went through it with his divorce." Noted: I'd be interested in hearing what a doctor would say about Plummer's estimates.

Clare Farnsworth of looks at all the starters who have been in the lineup with Leroy Hill.

Also from Farnsworth: a look at the unusual pieces the Seahawks have put together on defense. Coach Pete Carroll: "Our defense is a 4-3 scheme with 3-4 personnel. It’s just utilizing the special talents of our guys."

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle runs the Robert Turbin photo Carroll was marveling over during draft weekend. Does any player in the NFL have more muscular arms?

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' decision to draft a cornerback early added competition to a position that wasn't hurting in that area. Somers: "At least four cornerbacks, including Greg Toler and Jamell Fleming, have a legitimate shot at starting at left cornerback. Toler was contending for the job last summer when he suffered a torn ACL and missed the season. A.J. Jefferson, who lost the starting job after seven games, is returning. William Gay signed as a free agent."

Darren Urban of says the team has recommitted to quarterback fundamentals with John McNulty coaching the position. John Skelton: "In years past, it seemed like, if the ball’s on the money and where it needs to be, we could let everything else slide. Now, I am throwing some good balls but my feet are messed up and that’s when I get coached up. Not only with coach McNulty but coach (Ken Whisenhunt) back there and coach Mike (Miller) sometimes."
The joke from Arizona Cardinals general manager Rod Graves was that his team, without a second-round choice and having passed on Riley Reiff in the first round, would consider taking the Iowa tackle in the third.

Graves knew Reiff would be long gone by then, but if he and the Cardinals were stressing over their perceived need for a tackle, they hid their discomfort well.

Using a third-round choice for Oklahoma cornerback Jamell Fleming, chosen 80th overall Friday, showed the Cardinals weren't going to reach for help at tackle.

The team liked its depth at corner and felt as though four of its players at the position could start: Patrick Peterson, A.J. Jefferson, William Gay and Greg Toler. But with Toler coming off knee surgery and valuable veteran Richard Marshall having left in free agency, necessitating the move to sign Gay, the Cardinals had room for another young prospect at the position.

Coordinator Ray Horton expects his corners to support against the run. Scouts Inc. Insider gave the 5-foot-10, 206-pound Fleming high marks in that area. Others weren't as convinced.

As for the need at tackle, consider that Kansas City selected Oklahoma's Donald Stephenson with the 74th choice, the first pure tackle selected since Cleveland chose Mitchell Schwartz with the 37th pick. The Cardinals aren't the only team avoiding tackles in this range of the draft, in other words. Arizona's next pick is 112th overall.
The NFC West chat began amid a report suggesting the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots had discussed a trade involving the 12th pick in the 2012 NFL draft.

By the time the chat ended, word had come that no such talks had taken place.

Just another NFC West chat, this one was not. Let's hit some highlights:
Birdman from Arizona thinks the Cardinals could use a first-round choice for a cornerback. He calls into question the team's quality depth at that position and says Stephon Gilmore or Dre Kirkpatrick would be the choice if tackle Riley Reiff were not available.

Mike Sando: That would be purely a value pick, Birdman. The Cardinals like their corner situation. They think they have four starting corners (Patrick Peterson, Greg Toler, A.J. Jefferson and William Gay). They also have Michael Adams, who has played a lot in sub packages. Corner is not really a big priority position for the Cardinals right now. I think we saw that in the value decision they made on Marshall. So, if they take a corner that early, it's because the value screamed at them, not because the need was primary.

Kyle from St. Louis asks whether the Rams appear likely to trade back from the sixth overall pick.

Mike Sando: My general feel is that the Rams have moved back enough in the first round, and now they need to maximize the value of the pick (unless someone makes a crazy offer). Right now, the Rams have the best of both worlds: a pick high enough to get the top-rated player at a position, but also additional picks (this year and in the future).

Gus from Seattle asks about the Seahawks possibly drafting a "touchdown maker" instead of a pass-rusher in the first round. "Does any part of you think they are playing possum and may jump on a Michael Floyd or Kendall Wright or Doug Martin instead?" he asks.

Mike Sando: Yeah, I could see them going in that direction. Mostly, I think they would like to trade back and then take what falls to them. We should account in our minds for the fact that Jason Jones' addition in free agency was seen by the team as a move to upgrade the pass rush. They could also get Dexter Davis back, with some thought he could help their pass-rush. So I would not lock in a pass-rusher as the pick in the first round. It would make a lot of sense, however.

Chex Norris from San Diego asks whether the 49ers would select Kendall Wright or Stephen Hill at No. 30 if other prospects, notably Kevin Zeitler and Janoris Jenkins, were not available.

Mike Sando: Wright was the projection to the 49ers at No. 30 in our initial Blogger Mock Draft. Hill might be the better fit from a physical standpoint. I might lean toward Wright on overall value, but Hill as the more likely fit because of his physical dimensions. Maybe they could move back a couple spots if faced with that dilemma? Thinking out loud here.

We're down to the final few hours before the draft. I'll be heading over to Seattle Seahawks headquarters and getting set up over there in the not-too-distant future.
Justin from Phoenix understands criticism over the Arizona Cardinals' relative inactivity in free agency. However, he notes that running back Ryan Williams and cornerback Greg Toler will be returning after missing the 2011 season with injuries. In his view, the team will be adding a couple of impact players.

Mike Sando: The Cardinals must have their fingers crossed on Williams, who really did stand out at training camp before suffering a torn patella tendon. That was a serious injury. Might Williams need an extended period -- perhaps several games or even the full season -- to get all the way back?

A healthy Toler would quietly give the Cardinals a potentially strong group of corners. Patrick Peterson, A.J. Jefferson, Toler and William Gay all have starting experience.

Nose tackle Dan Williams, who suffered a freak arm injury at San Francisco last season, is another key player the Cardinals expect to have back. We could throw quarterback Kevin Kolb into that category as well. He'll get a fresh start after battling head and toe injuries last season.

I've put together a chart showing notable NFC West players returning from injuries suffered last season. Seattle's James Carpenter and Walter Thurmond are not expected to be ready for training camp or even the regular season. They are candidates for the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Carpenter in particular will need an extended period to recover from his knee injury, general manager John Schneider said recently.

Tight end Nate Byham is the only San Francisco 49ers player on the list. The 49ers were generally healthy last season.

Byham projected as an outstanding blocker before suffering a season-ending knee injury. His expected return to a group featuring Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker should restore the position.

With Walker entering the final year of his contract, we've discussed the possibility of San Francisco drafting Stanford tight end Coby Fleener. However, Walker's value on special teams and his growth as an all-around tight end could make keeping him a priority. In that case, where would Fleener play?