NFC West: Aaron Hernandez

Using an early draft choice for an unusually young player can carry risks.

The upside: a potentially longer career window.

As noted earlier Thursday, the San Francisco 49ers' Anthony Davis and the Seattle Seahawks' Earl Thomas are among three players to start all 48 games over the past three seasons before turning 24. Davis has already received a contract extension. Thomas is in line for one.

The chart breaks out all others with more than 35 starts over the past three seasons before they turned 24. Rolando McClain stands out as an exception for the wrong reasons. Most of the others have met general expectations.

That doesn't necessarily mean teams should rush out to draft especially young players. In some cases, it means exceptionally talented players were good enough to attract teams' interest in the absence of college seasoning.

Four of the players in the chart have achieved Pro Bowl and first-team Associated Press All-Pro status: Thomas, Pierre-Paul, Rob Gronkowski and Maurkice Pouncey. Thomas and Pouncey have also been second-team All-Pro choices.
Steve from Palisades Park, N.J., used the most recent NFC West chat to say the San Francisco 49ers should add to their receiving corps "a big guy who can go up and get jump balls" -- perhaps someone such as Ramses Barden.

"The 49ers have Vernon Davis," I replied. "He should be able to do those things."

Paul from San Francisco wasn't having it.

"Davis has never been that guy," Paul wrote to the NFC West mailbag. "Have you ever noticed that he's always jumping in the air when he catches a pass? Not the same as the high, contested end zone passes mentioned above.

"It's like he can't stay on his feet, catch a ball, and continue up the field without breaking stride. He needs his body to remain relatively stationary (in the air) while he concentrates on the ball because he can't do too many things at once while focusing on the ball.

"Watch the tape, you'll see!"

I've seen Davis catch touchdowns passes in stride. It's tough to quantify passes caught high in the air, away from the body and the like. With Davis, the big plays probably overshadow the routine ones in our minds. As the chart shows, Davis has averaged 18.9 yards per touchdown reception over the past five seasons, second only to Seattle's Zach Miller among qualifying tight ends.

Davis has 33 touchdown receptions over the past five seasons. Davis was already in the end zone when he caught 19 of them.

I did think there were times last season when Davis should have factored more prominently in the red zone.

Forty NFL tight ends ran at least 20 pass routes in the red zone last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 40 players, Davis ranked 35th in percentage of targets per route (14.8). The average was 24.2 percent for the others and more than 30 percent for Clay Harbor, Heath Miller, Rob Gronkowski, Owen Daniels, Aaron Hernandez, Joel Dreessen, Tony Moeaki, Anthony Fasano and Benjamin Watson.

Davis' average was around 20 percent over the previous four seasons. The 49ers' offense is changing. Michael Crabtree is playing a more prominent role in the receiving game. That has affected Davis. It isn't necessarily bad for the team, either.

Let's count this as an initial look into a subject that could use additional exploration.
Weatherspoon-KaepernickUSA TODAY SportsAtlanta and San Francisco will square off Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Coach Mike Smith, quarterback Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons finally have that elusive playoff victory. One more home victory stands between them and the Super Bowl after Atlanta outlasted Seattle in the divisional round.

The San Francisco 49ers, overtime losers in the NFC Championship Game last year, are back on the verge of their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season. That 49ers team won it all with one of the all-time great ex-Falcons, Deion Sanders, playing cornerback for them.

Which team will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year? NFC West blogger Mike Sando and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas talked through the possibilities.

Sando: Pat, you just finished watching QBs Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan put on a show in the divisional round. If anyone upstaged them in these playoffs, it was 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick with his 181-yard rushing performance against Green Bay. Kaepernick had 263 yards passing, two passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns. Kaepernick now owns victories over Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in his first eight starts. It's looking like he's going to be the key variable in this game against the Falcons.

Yasinskas: No doubt, Mike. I'm still trying to process what Kaepernick did against Green Bay, and I'm sure the Falcons are looking hard at that. They have to be worried, especially after what they put on tape against Seattle. They played a great first half, but Seattle QB Russell Wilson exploited them in the second half. The Falcons struggled with QB Cam Newton and the read-option offense in the regular season. The Falcons allowed quarterbacks to run for a league-high 8.9 yards per attempt (excluding kneel-downs) this season. Kaepernick can do the read-option, but the 49ers also can turn to RB Frank Gore in the traditional running game, and they can throw the ball. That's a scary combination, and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is going to have to come up with an innovative game plan against the team he once coached.

Sando: Some NFL coaching people I've spoken with thought the Packers had a horrible plan. Of course, that's easy to say after a team gives up 181 yards rushing to a quarterback. But from this view, it appeared as though the Packers played too much man coverage, turning their backs to Kaepernick and giving him too many free running lanes. Even before Kaepernick became the starter, San Francisco was known around the league for having a higher volume of running plays in its arsenal than other teams do. Kaepernick opens up another dimension. What was the key to Cam Newton's running success against Atlanta this season?

[+] EnlargeMichael Turner
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesMichael Turner averaged 7.0 yards per carry in Sunday's win over Seattle.
Yasinskas: Newton and the Panthers used the read-option pretty much to perfection against Atlanta. Carolina got the defensive ends and linebackers to commit and Newton made the right calls. He's a unique talent, and so is Kaepernick. But I think San Francisco could present even more of a challenge due to Gore. Atlanta's defense had issues with the read-option. But the Falcons weren't all that great against any sort of running game. The Falcons use a lot of nickel packages, and that may put them at a disadvantage against the run. They might have to use a little more of their 4-3 base defense and keep middle linebacker Akeem Dent on the field more.

Sando: The 49ers' offensive personnel are heavier than just about any other team. That will force the Falcons to play their base defense on early downs. I dug up a couple of numbers from ESPN game charts to illustrate the point. The 49ers' opponents played nickel or dime defense on only 128 first- or second-down plays this season; for the Falcons' opponents, that number was 396. Against the Packers' nickel/dime defenses, Kaepernick carried 11 times for 107 yards, including his 20-yard touchdown run. He carried three times for 76 yards against the Packers' base 3-4 personnel. That included his 56-yard run. The 49ers can present matchup problems from their two-tight end offense because Vernon Davis (4.38 40-yard dash) and Delanie Walker (4.49) run well. Davis' 44-yard reception against the Packers was a great sign for San Francisco.

Yasinskas: Yes, I think San Francisco's offense is going to present all sorts of problems for Atlanta's defense. But I think the flip side is that Atlanta's offense is going to present matchup problems, even for a very good 49ers defense. Roddy White and Julio Jones command a lot of attention. But no defense can overlook tight end Tony Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas. Both are dependable and dangerous, as shown on Atlanta's game-winning drive against Seattle. Those are four very solid weapons. And let's not forget the fact that Atlanta's run game came to life against the Seahawks. If Michael Turner can show up again, San Francisco's defense is going to have its hands full.

Sando: The 49ers have sometimes let Patrick Willis match up with opposing tight ends. Willis has covered pretty well much of the time, in my view. The 49ers gave up a league-low 613 yards to tight ends, but they ranked only 21st in passer rating allowed (98.5) when opponents targeted the position. San Francisco allowed eight touchdown passes to tight ends. Only five teams allowed more. Kyle Rudolph had two scoring catches against San Francisco. Jermichael Finley, David Thomas, Brandon Pettigrew, Anthony McCoy, Anthony Fasano and Aaron Hernandez also caught touchdowns against the 49ers this season. The key for San Francisco will be pressuring Ryan without blitzing. That appears possible now that defensive end Justin Smith is back and playing pretty well.

Yasinskas: Yes, San Francisco's pass rush will be a key to this game. Atlanta's offensive line, which was a problem spot last season, has enjoyed a resurgence this season with the arrival of offensive line coach Pat Hill. He's had the line playing well most of the season, and the unit was particularly good against Seattle. Ryan wasn't sacked and was barely pressured. Hill's biggest accomplishment has been getting a solid season out of left tackle Sam Baker. Baker was a first-round draft pick in 2008. His first four seasons were filled with inconsistency and injuries, but he has stayed healthy this season and has played at a high level. The rest of Atlanta's offensive line doesn't have great individual talent. But Hill has this line blocking well for the passing game. The running game has been a different story. Turner had a big game against Seattle. But during the regular season, he wasn't the same back he was in past years. I think part of it is because age is catching up to him, but part of it is because the run blocking wasn't great. Atlanta has made the transition toward being a pass-first team, and the offensive line is much better at pass blocking than it is at run blocking. Still, coach Mike Smith believes it's important to have a running game, and he's going to try to establish one with Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers against San Francisco.

[+] EnlargeJustin Smith, DuJuan Smith
Jose Luis Villegas/Sacramento Bee/MCTJustin Smith turned in a strong performance Sunday in his first game back from a torn triceps.
Sando: Seattle, despite leading the NFL in fewest points allowed, ranked 30th in yards per rush allowed since Week 7. The Seahawks resorted to risky tactics after losing their best pass-rusher, Chris Clemons, to injury in the wild-card round. Seattle simply couldn't get to Ryan without compromising its coverage. Ryan threw an early pick against DB pressure, but after that, he completed 7 of 8 passes for 111 yards and a score when the Seahawks rushed a member of their secondary, according to ESPN Stats & Information. San Francisco rushed a DB just twice against the Packers on Saturday night. Justin Smith's ability to play 91 percent of the snaps for the 49ers following a triceps injury was huge for San Francisco. The 49ers need him. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith has 19.5 sacks this season, but none since he had two against Miami in Week 14. The 49ers need the Smiths to pick up where they left off before Justin's injury. That is a key to this game.

Yasinskas: Yes, Atlanta's offensive line has to give Ryan time to throw the ball. A lot of Ryan's critics say he doesn't have a strong arm. But I think he has plenty of arm strength and he showed that with his long touchdown pass to White against Seattle. The key for Ryan in the deep game is for his offensive line to give him time. The Falcons like to use play-action, and that will help. But I think it also helps the offensive line that this game is in the Georgia Dome, so false starts won't be a problem. You brought up a good point last week in showing that Ryan's statistics haven't been as good at home as on the road. That's true. But the Falcons need to capitalize Sunday on the home-field advantage. This franchise has been around since 1966, but it's the first time a championship game will be played in Atlanta. After years of playing second fiddle to the Braves and college football, the Falcons have become the biggest thing in town. Fans finally are embracing this team, and the noise in the Georgia Dome could be a big help for the Falcons.

Sando: The 49ers allowed 38 pass plays of 20 or more yards this season. That was tied for third-fewest (Seattle allowed 40, sixth-fewest). I kept waiting for Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor to deliver a game-changing hit. It never happened. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are the big hitters for the 49ers. They need to be tone-setters down the field. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the physical aspect of this game plays out. That's an area where the 49ers need to win. I tend to think they will, as long as Justin Smith can give them 90 percent playing time once again. How do you see this one going?

Yasinskas: The 49ers probably are the more physical team, and I was very impressed with how they played overall against Green Bay. But following a hunch, I'm taking the Falcons 31-27. I think putting an end to the playoff-win drought will allow Atlanta to be loose and relaxed, especially in the case of Ryan. Playing at home also helps. Atlanta's defense needs to show up for 60 minutes this time. If it does, I think Atlanta has enough offensive firepower to score points even against a good defense and win this game. I see the Falcons going to the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history.

Sando: I'm not sure if I feel better or worse about the Falcons after watching that game against Seattle. The Seahawks had zero pass rush and I think that was the difference in the game, particularly at the very end. Looking ahead to Sunday, the Falcons have the more accomplished quarterback, but so did the Packers and Patriots and Saints. Kaepernick beat them all. I would give the Falcons the edge at receiver despite Michael Crabtree's development. Atlanta has the better kicker. I'd give the 49ers an edge on the offensive and defensive lines, at linebacker and in the secondary. We were talking about Tony Gonzalez earlier. Great player, but would he even start for the 49ers? Not over Vernon Davis, crazy as that sounds. San Francisco is better at running back, too. Maybe the Falcons will pull out another wild one at home, but I just think the 49ers are better. I'll take them to win it 30-17. If the Falcons win, they were better than I thought at every step this season.

NFC West penalty watch: Goldson's fine

December, 21, 2012

Objections to NFL fines for unnecessary roughness fall into a couple categories.

Some objections pertain to the rules themselves. Others pertain to rules interpretations.

The first category should cover objections to the $21,000 fine levied against San Francisco 49ers safety Dashon Goldson for a Week 15 hit on New England's Aaron Hernandez.

Goldson struck Hernandez in the head area with his own helmet while Hernandez qualified for protection as a defenseless receiver. That's a penalty under the rules.

The 49ers incurred a 15-yard penalty for this particular play. They still came out ahead. The hit rocked Hernandez. On the next play, Hernanez failed to make an aggressive play for a ball, enabling an interception.

Safeties in particular walk a line on these types of plays. They want to dissuade opposing teams from throwing over the middle. They also want to keep their paychecks and avoid potential suspensions.

As the NFL continues to penalize players for hits to the head, we should expect defenders to adjust by lowering their target areas. Opponents could suffer fewer concussions, but taking hard hits to the ribs, back and abdomen is no fun, either.

In this case, Hernandez qualified as defenseless under the rule protecting "a receiver attempting to catch a pass, or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner."

Goldson was flagged under rules prohibiting "forcibly hitting the defenseless player's head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him."

Final Word: NFC West

October, 26, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 8:

Three streaks to the test: NFC West teams are 4-0 at home in division games. The Arizona Cardinals will try to keep that streak going at home against the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night. Also, the Seattle Seahawks are 4-0 outside the NFC West. They’ll try to make it 5-0 with a victory at Detroit. However, quarterback Russell Wilson has thrown all seven of his interceptions on the road this season. Finally, the Cardinals’ John Skelton has thrown an interception in 10 consecutive games, the NFL’s longest active streak.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll
Joe Nicholson/US PresswirePete Carroll and the Seahawks face a Lions team that has thrived in the fourth quarter.
Finishing power: The cliche about needing to play a full 60 minutes sounds less trite for the Seattle Seahawks heading into their game at Detroit. The Lions have gained 992 of their 1,926 yards passing in fourth quarters this season. They have thrown all seven of their touchdown passes in fourth quarters. The Lions have 1,075 yards passing in fourth quarters and overtimes. That is 448 more than any other team has gained and 723 more than the Seahawks have gained. Seattle has only 1,230 yards passing for the season. The Seahawks' defense has held opponents to one touchdown pass with two interceptions and a 73.4 NFL passer rating (eighth-lowest) after the third quarter. However, Seattle has allowed 26 passing first downs (eighth-most) and a 67.1 Total QBR (12th highest) across the same span.

Best of both worlds: The 49ers’ defense generally doesn’t blitz much. There should be little need for sending added pressure against the Cardinals. Minnesota got seven sacks against Arizona last week without rushing more than four players on any dropback. Skelton has thrown 17 picks over the past two seasons, all but one against defenses rushing four or fewer defenders. Former starter Kevin Kolb had six touchdowns with only one pick in those situations this season. That could mean Skelton isn’t reading the coverages well enough.

Rediscovering Fitzgerald: Larry Fitzgerald’s production has dropped by 6.1 yards per reception from last season (17.6 to 11.5). He has zero receptions for 40-plus yards after collecting eight of them in 2011. He ranks 36th in receptions of 25-plus yards with three after tying for the NFL lead in that category with 17 last season. Average target depth could be one of the variables at play for Fitzgerald. His depth has fallen from 13.2 yards last season to 5.7 this season out of double formations (one back in the backfield, two skill players per side); it has dropped from 16.0 to 7.1 on the handful of empty formations the team has used. This suggests, on the surface, that Fitzgerald has less time to get downfield when the Cardinals send additional players into pass routes. Target depths have been about the same from two-back and trips formations. However, it’s also true that 2011 was an unusually strong season, even by Fitzgerald’s standards. He set a single-season career high for yards per catch by 2.7 yards.

Missing mainstays: The St. Louis Rams miss injured receiver Danny Amendola, who probably will not play against New England. The Patriots miss injured tight end Aaron Hernandez, who did not make the trip to London for the game. Football is a team sport, however. The Rams have run about as many snaps with Amendola on the field as they have run without him on the field, before and after the injury. They’re averaging slightly more yards per play without him (7.6 to 7.0). They have five offensive touchdowns without him and four with him. The Patriots are averaging slightly more yards per play (5.7 to 5.3) without Hernandez on the field. Their yards per pass attempt is much higher with Hernandez off the field or unavailable through injury (8.1 to 6.0), especially on first and third downs. Amendola and Hernandez are missed, but life must go on, and it has.

Note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

A coach's dilemma: To run (mouth) or pass

September, 19, 2012
Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton worked as a secondary coach in Pittsburgh for years before finally getting a chance to advance.

Horton wants people to know he was ready for the job long ago, that he did not suddenly materialize as worthy for the promotion.

Now, after his Cardinals shocked New England in Week 2, Horton wants people to know he was ready for the Patriots, too. His comments on the Doug & Wofl show on Arizona Sports 620 radio invite closer examination. First, though, the comments via Arizona Sports:
"We knew that whenever [Aaron] Hernandez was in tight, it was going to be a run, so we had a run check. But when he got hurt, it screwed that up because they went to three wide receivers. What they did, and we figured out real quick was, whenever Tom Brady was under the center, they were going to run the ball and whenever he was in the shotgun, they were going to pass the ball. We told our players, 'Hey, make the run check if Tom Brady's under the center. If he's in the gun, go to the pass check.'

"They handled it beautifully, and so we had dual calls that basically what we were telling them is, we know when they're going to run and pass, so our players put us in the best position to win the game and they did a flawless job of managing the game of getting inside New England's head."

Could it really be that simple? Could the Patriots really be so predictable? Mike Reiss of breaks out some of the numbers.

The key question is whether or not the Patriots were additionally likely to pass when under shotgun. They were.

I've put together a chart showing the Patriots' shotgun and conventional play selection on first and second downs, figuring third-down plays tend to be passes anyway. The chart excludes spike plays.

The Patriots passed 80 percent of the time from the shotgun formation and 44 percent of the time from under center on these early downs. The percentages were 75 percent from shotgun and 41 percent from under center for every other NFL team in Week 2, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

From that, we can say the run-pass disparity by formation was roughly the same for the Patriots as for other teams. The shotgun is a passing formation by definition. The plan Horton put together obviously went much deeper. He obviously had a great feel for the Patriots' offense. Good for him, but only to an extent.

Beating the Patriots should be enough for a coordinator secure in his position and worthiness for the job. What Horton said on the radio comes off as self-serving.

Those comments were consistent with the unapologetic attitude Horton has brought to the job. That attitude can be an asset for Horton's defense. But there are times when a coordinator can be best served sounding like a coordinator, not like a frustrated position coach.

Horton has done a fantastic job with the Cardinals' defense. He should be in line for a head coaching position if the trend continues. Of course, the team owners responsible for hiring head coaches are presumably watching how Horton handles himself in all areas, not just on the field. Do they hear a head coach when they listen to comments such as these?

Around the NFC West: Doubling up at TE

September, 13, 2012
This was looking like a year for NFC West teams to feature dynamic tight ends.

It didn't happen so much in Week 1.

Seattle released veteran Kellen Winslow on the reduction to the 53-man roster limit. Arizona found only six offensive snaps for Rob Housler in its opener.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals are preparing to face one of the more dynamic tight end combinations anywhere. New England's Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez play just about every snap. Bill Belichick: "Those (tight ends) are involved in most every play: run, pass, pass patterns, protection. It makes it harder for the defense to defend when you can run behind them or throw to them, get them down field as well as in shorter areas. A good, versatile tight end can present a lot of problems to the defense." Noted: Seattle's Zach Miller and San Francisco's Vernon Davis played most extensively among NFC West tight ends in Week 1. The Cardinals' Todd Heap and the Rams' Lance Kendricks were next, followed by the 49ers' Delanie Walker, the Cardinals' Jeff King and the Seahawks' Anthony McCoy. New England, Houston, Detroit, Denver and San Francisco played the most snaps with at least two tight ends in Week 1, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Darren Urban of looks at how the Cardinals use their tight ends. Urban: "The Cardinals don’t use the tight end as much in their scheme and Housler is still trying to find his niche. But on the Cardinals’ game-winning drive late in the season-opening win against Seattle, there was Heap making a couple of key catches, including the catch that gave the Cards a first-and-goal." Noted: Housler battled a hamstring injury recently and didn't get as many practice reps, perhaps setting him back. Also, the Cardinals are strong enough at wide receiver to merit using three at a time frequently, leaving less room for a second tight end.

Dan O'Neill of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has fun with the Rams' Jeff Fisher mustache campaign. O'Neill: "In the shadow of the world 's largest Fu Manchu, otherwise known as the Arch, the mustachioed masses are assured of setting a new mark for Guiness World Records. According to the Rams' marketing department, which has filed the necessary papers with Guiness, the record for fake mustaches worn in one place at one time is 227. The huge gathering emulating Fisher on Sunday can't do anything but help his award-winning chances."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch updates Rodger Saffold's neck situation. Thomas: "The big left tackle can laugh now, because amazingly, he was back on the practice field Wednesday at Rams Park. There's no way he'll play in Sunday's home opener against Washington; his neck remained stiff as he talked with reporters after practice. But he did get a little bit of work in during practice and was listed as limited participation on the team's official injury report."

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams made the right move trading away the second overall choice in the 2012 draft at the expense of selecting Robert Griffin III.

Clare Farnsworth of checks in with receiver Doug Baldwin regarding the near-catch against Arizona in the end zone Sunday. Baldwin: "It was an opportunity that I had. I had the ball in my hands. Technically, according to NFL stats, it's not a drop. But for me, it's a drop. For what I want to do in my career and where I want to be, I need to make that play. I'm upbeat about it now, because there’s nowhere to go but up from here."

Also from Farnsworth: Playing John Moffitt at right guard could help improve communication on the line.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times looks at how long-range thinking (releasing Winslow) clashed with short-term goals (repeated failures in the red zone Sunday) for the Seahawks. Noted: This was absolutely the case unless there was reason to think Winslow wouldn't have been available for the opener. Winslow does have knee troubles, but the termination of his contract did not carry a "failed physical" notation. He was presumably healthy enough to contribute. The price for keeping Winslow on the roster would have been $3.3 million in salary (guaranteed had he been on the roster for Week 1) and a conditional draft choice that would have been owed to Tampa Bay.

Brock Huard of 710ESPN Seattle looks at what the Seahawks should do differently in Week 2.

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News previews the matchup between 49ers tackle Anthony Davis and Lions defensive end Cliff Avril. The two went after one another last season. Davis: "He doesn't like me, man. I don't know why. I don't need any new friends. It's cool. It's not about one person going against one guy."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle looks at Tarell Brown's matchup against Lions receiver Calvin Johnson. Lions coach Jim Schwartz on Johnson's role in the winning touchdown pass to running back Kevin Smith against the Rams: "If you look at the play, there were four people on (Johnson). The play was designed for Calvin. We make no mistake about that. We were trying to hit Calvin on the back line, but when they slough four guys off on him -- they had him doubled and also had two linebackers underneath -- when that happened, that freed our running back up to be wide open in the flat. That's the dynamic that Calvin brings. It’s very rare that he’s not doubled, some way, somehow."

Also from Branch: The 49ers can tie an NFL record for consecutive NFL games without a turnover if they avoid one against Detroit. New England has the record of seven games.
The most recent NFC West chat is heading into overtime thanks to Jeff from Seattle.

"I enjoyed it when the chat wrap used questions that weren't answered," Jeff wrote. "Any plans to bring that back to the feature?"

Sometimes there's not time, but this time, there is. It's May 24 and we -- OK, I -- recently ran a weather report, after all. The first section begins with a question about Kellen Winslow, but the answer touches on teams beyond Seattle. It also lets me break out a chart, always a plus.

Robert from Georgia asked whether Kellen Winslow's addition in Seattle will lead the Seahawks to use more personnel groupings with two tight ends.

"The way New England uses Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez is unbelievable," he wrote, "and while I am in no way trying to compare, does the addition of Winslow increase Zach Miller's production? Could Seattle have the second-best two-tight-end set in the NFL?"

That sounds optimistic. I expect the San Francisco 49ers to field the best two-tight end tandem in the division once again. Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are very good together. Each is faster than his Seattle counterpart, although Winslow has obviously been more productive than Walker as a receiver (with quite a few more opportunities).

I've put together a chart showing how frequently NFC West teams and Winslow's former team, Tampa Bay, used two or more tight ends. John Carlson's injury suppressed the numbers for Seattle. The St. Louis Rams have a new coaching staff, so numbers from last season might not mean as much.

Seattle will use two-plus tight ends more frequently as long as Miller and Winslow are healthy. Winslow amassed 74 percent of his receiving yardage (565 of 763) as the only tight end on the field last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That figure mirrored the percentage of snaps when Tampa Bay used fewer than two tight ends, disregarding kneeldowns and spikes.

Miller's receiving numbers were going to climb anyway after he bottomed out at 25 receptions. Winslow has consistently been a 70-catch player. I would expect that figure to fall as he plays alongside another tight end to a degree he did not last season.

There is a chance Winslow will catch more passes than Miller.

Miller will likely be the in-line tight end, meaning he'll be more involved in run blocking. Winslow will be more of an H-back. That is consistent with assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable's vision for the offense.

Jacob from Missouri says it's easy to become optimistic while hearing good things from organized team activities and such.

"As a Rams fan, I could really use some optimism, but when is the best time to actually believe all the good things I'm hearing?" he writes.

Mike Sando: It's OK to believe the good things you're hearing now. Just remember to keep it all in perspective. For the Rams, pay close attention to the injury situation. This team was hit hard by injuries last season. It's important for the Rams to get through the offseason without starting to head down the path that led to the training room last season.

We should pay close attention to what the Rams are saying about Jason Smith at right tackle. We should listen for clues about Brian Quick's readiness to contribute right now, not just at some point in the distant future. We should pay attention to the source of information. When Jeff Fisher, a former defensive back, gushes over Janoris Jenkins and indicates he expects immediate contributions, that means something. I'd go ahead and buy into that a little bit.

Jeff from Fowler, Calif., asks whether NaVorro Bowman is the most logical young player to receive a contract extension from the 49ers.

Mike Sando: Yeah, I would think so. Dashon Goldson is operating on the franchise tag, so he could get a new deal as well. But he's been around a little longer. Bowman is younger and quickly became an All-Pro player. The 49ers should not feel pressure to do a deal with him right now, however. Bowman has the 2012 and 2013 seasons remaining on his contract. Waiting another year isn't disrespectful to Bowman. Why not get one more cheap season from Bowman and then reward him accordingly if Bowman backs up his strong 2011 season with another big year?

kualla83 from Phoenix asked whether the Arizona Cardinals' defense should be regarded on par with those from Seattle and San Francisco, even though those defenses were more consistent from start to finish.

"Obviously they have to prove it a little more on the field," he wrote, "but if the second half of last season is any indication of what is to come, I am really excited."

Mike Sando: First off, this question was one I answered in the chat. We had very few Cardinals questions and I answered them. FearTheTweetTweet even complained during the chat, asking whether I'd ever answer another Arizona question. I was looking for them and found only three (out of 140 questions, which was a low number for a chat anyway). So, we get a rerun of an answer.

It's fair to say the Cardinals should be optimistic based on the improvement they saw late in the season. It's fair to say the Cardinals have to prove it over the course of the season, which you indicated to be the case. The 49ers are in a different class defensively right now. Justin Smith and Patrick Willis were the two best defensive players in the division last season. The Cardinals do not have players quite on that level defensively. Now, they do have some very good players. The key variable, in my mind, is what production the team gets from its young outside linebackers. Again, there is reason for optimism there, but also much for the team to prove.
There's little sense in taking the bait when San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh tells a radio program Michael Crabtree "has the best hands I've ever seen on a wide receiver."

Anyone with a strong grasp of NFL history would place Cris Carter, Raymond Berry and Steve Largent on a short list for receivers with the surest hands.

Hall of Famer Ken Houston, speaking for a 2008 piece on all-time great wideouts, stood up for AFL stars Otis Taylor and Lionel Taylor.

"Lionel Taylor, I mean, he would catch a BB," Houston said.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, speaking for the same piece, said Randy Moss, then with New England, had the best hands in the NFL at that time (2008).

"A lot of guys can catch," Thompson said then. "He can catch on any platform, as we say in scouting. He can adjust and catch it over the top of somebody's head, catch it falling down, and it doesn't matter if he is covered."

With Moss now on the 49ers, it is possible Crabtree does not possess the best hands among wide receivers on his own team.

Oops. I wasn't going to take the bait on this one, but now it's too late. Time to regroup.

Bottom line, I suspect Crabtree has impressed Harbaugh this offseason, and Harbaugh would like that to continue for as long as possible. By offering such strong public praise for Crabtree, Harbaugh is setting a standard for Crabtree to meet this season. He realizes Crabtree has the ability to meet that standard, or else he wouldn't make the statement.

We should all recall Harbaugh's calling quarterback Alex Smith "elite" and promoting him for the Pro Bowl last season. Then as now, Harbaugh was standing up for his guy. Smith enjoyed the finest season of his career and even outplayed the truly elite Drew Brees at times during the 49ers' playoff victory over New Orleans. The way Harbaugh backed Smith played a role in that performance, in my view.

Back to Crabtree. He has the ability to rank among the most sure-handed receivers in the game. He has not yet earned that status, but now he has little choice, right?

As the chart shows, Crabtree finished the 2011 season with 12.2 receptions per drop, which ranked 28th in the NFL among players targeted at least 100 times. Larry Fitzgerald led the NFL with 80 receptions and only one drop. Those numbers are according to ESPN Stats & Information, which defines drops as "incomplete passes where the receiver should have caught the pass with ordinary effort."

Crabtree suffered six drops last season by that standard, a few too many for the player with the best hands his head coach has ever seen on a wide receiver.
Eight of John Clayton's 10 best tight ends have one thing in common: a Pro Bowl quarterback.

Vernon Davis, ranked fifth, was an exception.

We hear quite a bit about tight ends taking pressure off quarterbacks, but it's tough for any tight end to produce at an elite level without a high-producing quarterback. Zach Miller might have landed on this list a year ago, but his production fell sharply with Seattle last season -- more a reflection of quarterbacks and the offense than of Miller.

Davis' 26 touchdown receptions since 2009 rank second only to Rob Gronkowski (27) among NFL tight ends. He has always had a strong rapport with Alex Smith.

Davis' playoff production sets him apart from most tight ends. He had 10 receptions for 292 yards and four touchdowns in two postseason games.

Every team in the NFC West had a 1,000-yard rusher last season.

Coaches in Seattle, San Francisco and St. Louis have promoted run-first philosophies. Arizona has invested first- and second-round picks in running backs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams, respectively.

Run, run, run.

And yet the division focused on the passing game quite a bit during the 2012 NFL draft -- on both sides of the ball. NFC West teams drafted a league-high three wide receivers in the first two rounds. Teams from the division drafted three cornerbacks in the first three rounds, tied with the NFC North for most in the league.

The charts show how many receivers and corners each division added through the first three rounds. The combined total for the NFC West (six) was the most for any division, one more than the NFC North.

St. Louis drafted cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins (second round) and Trumaine Johnson (third round). Arizona used a third-round choice for cornerback Jamell Fleming. Arizona (Michael Floyd) and San Francisco (A.J. Jenkins) used first-round picks for receivers. St. Louis added receiver Brian Quick in the second round (and another receiver, Chris Givens, in the fourth).

NFC West pass defenses could face additional pressure given the scheduling rotation in 2012.

Every NFC West team faces New England with Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker.

The division also faces Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers, Jermichael Finley, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson), Detroit (Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew) and Chicago (Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall).

San Francisco draws New Orleans (Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston) and the New York Giants (Eli Manning, Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz). Arizona faces Philadelphia (Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin) and Atlanta (Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones). Seattle faces Dallas (Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant) and Carolina (Cam Newton, Steve Smith).

The top five teams in 2011 passing yardage -- New Orleans, New England, Green Bay, Detroit and the Giants -- show up on NFC West schedules. Green Bay, New England, the Giants and Saints comprised the top four in yards per passing attempt. The top seven teams in passing touchdowns -- Green Bay, New Orleans, Detroit, New England, Dallas, Atlanta and the Giants -- play a combined 16 games against the NFC West.

And, of course, NFC West teams must face each other, which means games against Larry Fitzgerald, Vernon Davis, Randy Moss, Sidney Rice and others.

Turning point: Wes Welker drops the ball

February, 5, 2012
Wes Welker Elsa/Getty ImagesDejection best describes Wes Welker's reaction following his fourth-quarter dropped ball.
INDIANAPOLIS — Reddened eyes and a hushed voice told the story for Wes Welker in Super Bowl XLVI.

The pass he dropped with four minutes remaining was a turning point against New England in the Patriots' 21-17 defeat to the New York Giants. No amount of consoling from teammates could convince him otherwise.

"That is one I'll have to live with," Welker said.

The Patriots led 17-15 with 4:06 remaining when Tom Brady dropped back to pass on second-and-11 from the New York 44-yard line. New England had driven 48 yards in nine plays after taking over possession at its own 8. Brady had Welker wide open to his left and 23 yards downfield. The pass was a bit behind Welker and high, but the receiver turned his body and got both hands on the ball.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, he makes that grab," fellow receiver Deion Branch said. "It's football. Nobody's perfect."

Welker dropped five passes during the Patriots' first 18 games of the season, none on throws traveling more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He dropped a league-high 11 passes during the 2010 regular season, with drops defined as passes the receiver should have caught with ordinary effort, and only when the receiver is 100 percent at fault. But he also topped 100 receptions for the third time in five seasons since the Patriots acquired him in 2007.

"I mean, the ball is right there," Welker said. "I just have to make the play. It's a play I've made 1,000 times in practice and everything else."

Welker kept his composure as he spoke. It appeared to be a struggle.

"When it comes to the biggest moment of my life and I don't come up with it, it's discouraging," he said.

Brady might not have thrown the pass if not for a Giants breakdown.

"The man over me was playing a two-high look and the safety went to one-high and that is why it opened up for me like it did," Welker explained.

Giants safety Antrel Rolle said communication problems were at fault. The coverage was supposed to change when the Patriots adjusted their formation. The message didn't make it to everyone on defense.

"We were just on a little different page, but it happens," Rolle said. "You know, one mistake all game, we'll take it."

Will they ever.

"We just couldn't connect," Brady said of the pass for Welker. "He's a hell of a player. I'll keep throwing the ball to him for as long as I possibly can. He's a phenomenal player and teammate, and I love that guy."

Welker caught 122 passes for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns during the regular season. He caught seven passes for 60 yards on eight targets Sunday.

Welker now has 18 receptions for 163 yards in two Super Bowl appearances for New England, both against the Giants and both in defeat. His drop wasn't the only turning point Sunday.

The Patriots still had the lead after the ball went through Welker's hands. They had a chance to convert on third down as well, but Brady's pass to Branch fell incomplete.

A defensive stand following Welker's drop also could have saved the game and spared Welker from his fate, but instead the Patriots allowed a 38-yard sideline strike from Eli Manning to Mario Manningham on the Giants' next offensive play.

Manning-to-Manningham worked again for 16 yards, and suddenly New York had first down at the New England 34 with 2:52 to play.

The Giants scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:04 left without even trying. Ahmad Bradshaw hoped to stop at the 1, which would have allowed the Giants to run down most of the clock before kicking the winning field goal. But instead they gave Brady one final possession with 57 seconds to play.

Welker would not get another chance.

Brady targeted Aaron Hernandez four times and Branch three times during a final desperation drive that ended with a 51-yard Hail Mary to the end zone that fell incomplete.

"It's one that will take a while to shake off, that's for sure," Welker said.

Bill Belichick, Josh McDanielsAP Photo/Winslow TownsonWhile Bill Belichick preps for the Super Bowl, Josh McDaniels remains a fixture behind the scenes.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Josh McDaniels spent the last year trying to reinvent himself.

After making few friends as the Denver Broncos' head coach, McDaniels showed himself to be congenial and accommodating as the St. Louis Rams' offensive coordinator, even as the team struggled to a 2-14 record.

It's tough to say who benefits from McDaniels, now the AFC champion New England Patriots' offensive coordinator in waiting, going into stealth mode during Super Bowl week. The Patriots have used McDaniels' vague title — he'll remain merely an "offensive assistant" until he replaces the outgoing Bill O'Brien next season — to shield their highest-profile assistant from the Super Bowl spotlight.

"It's great to have him back," quarterback Tom Brady said.

Everyone from Brady and fellow Patriots legend Bill Belichick to the team's assistant strength coach, Moses Cabrera, has embraced the Super Bowl experience this week. The Patriots made available 53 active players, all eight members of the practice squad and 13 coaches Wednesday. No McDaniels, though.

O'Brien, recently named the next coach at Penn State, sounded perfectly comfortable with McDaniels' presence on the staff. This should be a positive story for all parties.

"Josh is a very close friend of mine," O'Brien said. "He is one of the brightest coaches I've ever been around and he has come in here and done a great job of observing our offense, watching the teams that we're playing (against the New York Giants') defense, helping me out with little bullet points."

The access ban spares McDaniels from answering questions about his failed tenure in Denver and his unusual status as a coach for two teams in the same season.

"He is mostly working with the coaches in the staff meetings," Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins said. "I'm not sure how much input he has right now. You would have to ask one of the coaches."

Done deal.

"He has been a great help on game days up in the press box," O'Brien said, "just by being your eyes in the sky with (personnel director) Nick Caserio and (tight ends coach) Brian Ferentz, just an added set of eyes up there."

Tight end Aaron Hernandez speaks with McDaniels "a lot" and says his future coordinator is "definitely involved" and fitting in.

Backup quarterback Brian Hoyer said he values McDaniels as "an extra guy to go to" for questions about the game plan or the offense in general, particularly if O'Brien is busy.

Brady gave Hoyer and the other quarterbacks a glowing review on McDaniels, who coached the position and coordinated the offense, among other duties, while with New England from 2001-08. In the short term, McDaniels is serving as a resource for players.

"Josh's presence has been good, just having his presence around our locker room and on the field," running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis said. "He's been here before. It's just positive chemistry."
The New England Patriots' Aaron Hernandez and the San Francisco 49ers' Delanie Walker top an unusual list of NFL tight ends.

Both have played more than half their teams' offensive snaps, but neither is the featured tight end on his team. The Patriots and 49ers are the only NFL teams with one tight end playing at least 90 percent of the snaps and another playing at least half of them (thank you, Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information, for digging up the numbers).

The point is not to go overboard in stressing how much the 49ers might miss Walker while he recovers from a broken jaw suffered in Week 16. We have covered that ground. The 49ers do not have a player similar to Walker on their roster, so they will have to adjust. That is life in the NFL.

The New England comparison interested me for how much the Patriots rely on Rob Gronkowski (96.2 percent of snaps) and Hernandez (73.1) in the passing game. With those two combining for 154 receptions and 1,991 yards this season, the totals for Vernon Davis and Walker (78 catches for 872 yards) reflect a different approach and, to a degree, untapped potential.

The 49ers do not feature their tight ends the same way, obviously, and coach Jim Harbaugh wants to be more run-oriented by design. There is only one Tom Brady, anyway, and the Patriots lack the strong defense that allows the 49ers to win playing the 49ers' way. But with Davis (95.9 percent of snaps) and Walker (56.1) spending so much time on the field, one might reasonably expect them to combine for more production than Davis managed by himself only two seasons ago (78 catches, 965 yards).

Receiving numbers aren't everything, of course. Davis and Walker have contributed in other ways. Their presence on the field forces teams to account for the running game while still having to worry about a speedy tight end getting open as a receiver. Walker's replacement, veteran Justin Peelle, has averaged a modest 8.2 yards per catch for his career. Blocking is his strength.

The chart ranks second tight ends by most playing time for the teams whose primary tight ends have played at least 90 percent of the snaps. The five primary tight ends: Dallas' Jason Witten (99.2 percent), Gronkowski (96.2), Davis (95.9), Pittsburgh's Heath Miller (95.3) and Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew (94.1).


Buckle up: Chancellor, Wilson break mold

December, 28, 2011
The Arizona Cardinals' Adrian Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks' Kam Chancellor tower over the other strong safeties in the NFC this season.

That is true not only in their accomplishments -- Wilson is a Pro Bowl starter, Chancellor a first alternate -- but in their physical dimensions.

They are the biggest starting strong safeties in the NFL at a time when the prevailing NFL trends have led teams in another direction at the position. Wilson stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 230 pounds. Chancellor goes 6-3 and 232. The other 30 starting strong safeties average 6 feet and 207 pounds.

The Cardinals' and Seahawks' offensive players should be on alert Sunday when the teams close out the regular season against one another at University of Phoenix Stadium. Chancellor has incurred $60,000 in fines for hits the NFL deemed illegal this season. Wilson, fined $25,000 for a memorable 2008 hit on Trent Edwards, was slapped with a $10,000 fine last season and one for $7,500 in 2011.

"It's tough to be an enforcer safety the way the rules are, where every receiver is defenseless," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "But the beauty is, they can be a linebacker in your sub packages. They can make a lot of plays for you with 4-5 guys behind them -- stop the run, pick up a Matt Forte out of the backfield, those things. And the quarterback doesn't know what they are going to do."

[+] EnlargeSeattle's Kam Chancellor
Jim Z. Rider/US PRESSWIRESeattle's Kam Chancellor towers over many other NFL safeties.
Offenses, enabled by rules changes favoring the pass, have forced defenses to counter with players better suited for coverage than patrolling near the line of scrimmage. But purely from a size standpoint, the top two strong safeties from the NFC are more Steve Atwater than Steve Gregory. They aren't bad in coverage, but opponents must contend first with their physical nature.

"I picked Chancellor slightly over Wilson, but clearly they were the guys to choose from," Williamson said.

The best offenses this season are making frequent use of athletic tight ends. Green Bay's Jermichael Finley, New Orleans' Jimmy Graham and the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez come to mind. Teams could increasingly value bigger safeties in coverage, although so many of the athletes with the necessary qualifications seem to be playing offense.

"The great strength of Wilson or Chancellor is not to cover an Aaron Hernandez, it is to knock their teeth out," Williamson said. "But that is coming. Those big safeties are the only ones athletic enough to hang with them. You can see much more of a premium on having a defensive back who is 6-3 and 220 and can hit and will bang with a Gronkowski."

Chancellor has 12 passes defensed, four interceptions, three tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and a sack this season, according to figures. Wilson has 14 passes defensed, seven tackles for loss, one interception and one forced fumble. He is one of 11 NFL players with at least 20 career sacks and 20 interceptions.

"They are muscle-bound guys and that is certainly not a bad thing," Williamson said. "You have to use them properly. They are a thing of the past, but also the wave of the future."