NFC West: Antonio Freeman

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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AM ET
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Catch us if you can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.

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

First Down

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


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

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

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

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


Second Down

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


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

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

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

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


Third Down

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


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

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

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

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


Fourth Down

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


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

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

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

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

 

What the Rams need to upgrade offense

January, 2, 2011
1/02/11
12:22
AM ET
I've spent the first day of 2011 accepting friend requests on Facebook. Not quite -- this was actually a chance to watch football on TV and play outside with my sons -- but thanks for responding to the NFC West personal ad from Friday. We've added a couple hundred more friends, and counting.

Dan, a Rams fan, wasn't too happy with the way I've described the St. Louis Rams as a team lacking offensive firepower. I thought Kansas City's victory in the Edward Jones Dome brought to light these shortcomings. Danario Alexander and others made a few big plays to help the Rams beat San Francisco, but the 49ers clearly had more dangerous weapons. They were missing the quarterback.

I'll share my conversation with Dan here and wrap it up with some closing thoughts. Another Facebook friend, Michael, joined the conversation partway through.

Dan: In an earlier post this week regarding Sam Bradford's primetime debut, you stated: "He doesn't necessarily have the offensive weapons to make it happen." What are you talking about? Steven Jackson, Danario Alexander, Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, Laurent Robinson, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui. You mean to tell me that those guys are not offensive weapons? Sam Bradford and Co. will prove you wrong, Mr. Seattle Native.

Mike Sando: Seattle native? Actually California native who grew up following the Rams in the 70s. Not that it matters, but the Rams do lack weapons. Watch how they approach the offseason for confirmation, or just look at Bradford's YPA this season. Hoomanawanui is good if healthy. And Seattle's D has been vulnerable anyway.

Michael: After Steven Jackson, nobody really strikes fear into opponents from St. Louis' offense. Amendola's 8.2 yards per reception don't necessarily require D coordinators to gameplan around him. If they could get a dude like A.J. Green in St. Louis so that Bradford can open up the offense, they will be a scary team to face down the road.

Dan: OK. I stand corrected on the Seattle comment. Your ESPN bio made you look like you were all about Seattle. Sorry about that. I have been following the Rams since the mid-80's and wished they moved back to LA.

Anywho, let's get back to the "weapons" discussion here. Jackson is solid at RB, although I wish we had a little speedster a la Darren Sproles or Felix Jones or Leon Washington to mix things up. At tight end, we have three decent players in Fells, Billy Bajema, and Hoomanawanui. So it comes down to the wide receiver corps. Coming into 2011, with a healthy Donnie Avery, Mark Clayton and Danario Alexander -- and throw in Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, and Mardy Gilyard for good measure -- where do you see a problem? I guess health issues, obviously.

Should they draft more receivers or trade for one? I think they should focus on strengthening their secondary and defense as a whole, and nab a solid running back to spell Jackson. I personally like the Rams receiving corps when healthy.

Michael: Obviously, you aren't talking to me, but don't mind if I pitch in, haha. I just think they need at least one big-play guy that defenses need to game-plan around. Obviously, it's possible to win without one (Tom Brady 2001-2004), but it would make Bradford's job easier, Jackson more effective and open holes for alot of the solid receivers you guys already have.

Dan: I must have been writing my rant while you were writing your comment so I missed yours. But here's your big play guy. The DX Missile. Avery, Clayton, Alexander, Amendola, Gibson, and Gilyard could provide a sold WR corps for Sam. But again, it comes down to, can they stay healthy?

Mike Sando: The "DX Missile" stuff is odd to me. He has played in seven games and has needed knee surgery once during that stretch. A little premature to count on him as a big-play threat. Avery and Clayton coming off IR. It's a bonus if they come back strong. Amendola good third-down WR. Gibson has improved. Gilyard probably will improve. He is a non-factor right now. They'll look to upgrade top-end talent at WR. They've done a nice job patching the position as best they could.

Closing thoughts: The Rams do have occasional big-play ability, but they lack a consistent big-play threat. This team has averaged a league-low 10.0 yards per completed pass through Week 16. That is not necessarily a horrible thing. Atlanta and New Orleans are tied with Carolina for the second-lowest average per reception (10.4 yards). But a little more firepower would open up the offense, including on the ground. The Rams are tied with Miami and Seattle for the second-lowest rushing average per carry even though they have a Pro Bowl running back.

My plan for the Rams' offense this offseason would include these priorities:
  • Draft a running back with speed to provide a change of pace and provide another option on kickoff returns.
  • Bring back Clayton and Avery, but do not count on either. At least one of them figures to come back strong in 2011. Clayton would be the favorite given Avery's injury history.
  • Make sure Bradford and Hoomanawanui spend considerable time together this offseason. Hoomanawanui has been effective when healthy. He's had bad luck with ankle injuries -- similar to what Russell Okung has gone through in Seattle -- but he should be the starter next season.
  • Draft a wide receiver in the first three rounds. Teams running the Rams' offense haven't needed to use early picks for the position. Two players that succeeded in this offense -- Antonio Freeman with Green Bay, Darrell Jackson with Seattle -- were third-round choices. But if the Rams are in position to draft a playmaking wideout in the first round, they need to consider it. This is what Indianapolis has done to maximize its investment in Peyton Manning.
  • Consider signing a receiver in free agency, but think twice before giving up high draft choices for one. Teams giving up considerable draft capital for receivers haven't always gotten what they wanted in return. Randy Moss did not help Minnesota. Brandon Marshall upgraded the position for Miami, but the price was high (two second-round choices). The Rams need their early picks. They snagged left tackle Rodger Saffold in the second round, for example.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

A first-round scenario to consider when the NFL draft begins Saturday: The Lions draft Matthew Stafford, the Rams take a tackle, the Chiefs address their defensive line and the Seahawks draft Aaron Curry. Under that scenario, might Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree fall to the 49ers at No. 10? And if he did, would the 49ers take him?

The possibility came to mind as I looked at 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan and the receivers his teams have drafted since 1994. The names, listed in the chart by overall selection, shed light on McCloughan's philosophy.

Draft Rd. Pick McCloughan's Team Receiver
College Conference
2001
1 9 Seahawks
Koren Robinson N.C. St.
ACC
1996
2 56 Packers Derrick Mayes
Notre Dame
Independent
2007
3 76 49ers Jason Hill
Wash. St. Pac-10
2000 3 80
Seahawks Darrell Jackson
Florida
SEC
1999
3 82 Seahawks Karsten Bailey
Auburn SEC
2006 3 84
49ers Brandon Williams
Wisconsin
Big Ten
1995 3 90
Packers Antonio Freeman
Virginia Tech
ACC
2001
5 140 Seahawks Alex Bannister
E.Kentucky
Ohio Valley (I-AA)
1994
5 146 Packer Terry Mickens Florida A&M
MEAC (I-AA)
1998
5 150 Packers Corey Bradford
Jackson St.
SWAC (I-AA)
2004
5 157 Seahawks D.J. Hackett
Colorado Big 12
1994
6 169 Packers Jay Kearney
W.Virginia
Big East
1995
6
173 Packers Charlie Simmons
Georgia Tech
ACC
2008
6 174 49ers Josh Morgan
Virginia Tech ACC
2005
5 174 49ers Rasheed Marshall
W.Virginia
Big East
2000
6 175 Seahawks James Williams
Marshall
C-USA
1994
6
181 Packers Bill Schroeder
Wisc.-LaCrosse WIAC (II)
1999
7 213 Packers Donald Driver
Alcorn ST.
SWAC (I-AA)
1997
7 213 Packers Chris Miller
USC
Pac-10
2005
7 223 49ers Marcus Maxwell
Oregon
Pac-10
2003
7 224 Seahawks Taco Wallace
Kansas St.
Big 12

McCloughan's mentor in Green Bay, Ron Wolf, shied away from drafting receivers early. He perceived the position as a risky one.

If we look at McCloughan's history, which overlapped Wolf's tenure in Green Bay, we see his teams drafted only one receiver -- Koren Robinson at No. 9 in 2001 -- among the top 55 overall selections since 1994. McCloughan's teams have drafted five receivers between the 76th and 90th choices, zero in the fourth round and 10 between the 140th and 181st choices.

While the 49ers might be tempted to take Crabtree at No. 10, history says McCloughan might target the position in other rounds. The 49ers hold the following picks: 10, 43, 74, 111, 146, 171, 184, 219 and 244. McCloughan's history suggests he might look for a receiver at 74 and then at 146 or later. Taking Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin or another receiver at No. 10 would go against the most firmly established precedent.

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