NFC West: Antonio Gates
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.
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.
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.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
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.
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.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio spoke highly of Brock on Thursday.
“He did a nice job,” Fangio said of Brock’s work against the Rams. “He probably had the biggest play of the game in breaking up that pass that Donte (Whitner) intercepted in the end zone. That was a third-and-1, deep into the second quarter. They were in field goal range and I think the score was only 7-3 at the time. So, that was a very critical play at that time and he made that. And he made some other good plays.”
In other 49ers’ notes:
- 49ers’ No. 1 receiver Anquan Boldin turned 33 Thursday. He has 24 catches this season. No receiver older than him has more catches, although San Diego tight end Antonio Gates has 25 catches. He turned 33 in June.
- Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Jon Baldwin will have a “substantial role” Sunday. Baldwin will likely start. “I think it’s all about opportunity and I think the opportunities that he was given last week, shoot I was very encouraged by it,” Roman said of Baldwin, who had two catches in his 49ers’ debut last week “I love to see guys play physical and make plays when opportunities come their way. I’m sure he’ll be getting plenty of opportunities this week and he’s got to take advantage of them.”
After downplaying the Vernon Davis-as-wide-receiver angle, I ran across a comment from the tight end that invited another look.
"I've never had to spend as much time in the playbook as I have this training camp," Davis told ESPN's Jeff Chadiha. "I hope they're planning on using me at wide receiver because I've worked pretty hard learning to do it."
The comment suggested a level of personal investment sufficient for a meaningful change in Davis' role. However, I think we'll be best served viewing the situation in the context of Davis' professional development.
Davis, drafted sixth overall in 2006, struggled to learn the 49ers' ever-changing offenses early in his career. He is now entering a third season in the same system. He is finally in position to work on the finer points, which should include a more sophisticated understanding of pass routes. While Davis has worked with the wide receivers some, he has also worked with the offensive linemen. He should become a more well-rounded tight end, and as the video above demonstrates, he's got some other interests, too.
We should focus the TE-as-WR discussion more on the St. Louis Rams' Jared Cook, who last season made 36 of his 42 receptions from the slot. Cook is one of the more intriguing players in the division. The Rams committed $19 million in guaranteed money to him, tied with the payout to Jason Witten for third-highest among tight ends (Davis is at $23 million, ahead of Antonio Gates at $20.4 million).
"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.
Both are starters for the San Francisco 49ers.
Both were arguably selected higher than their positions warranted in terms of value.
Both have earned Pro Bowl recognition in recent seasons. Both have made high-impact plays in postseason victories over the past two seasons.
Tight end Vernon Davis and strong safety Donte Whitner are key players for the 49ers heading into the team's Super Bowl matchup against Baltimore.
I've singled out Davis in this item because the seventh-year tight end provided yet another high-impact postseason performance Sunday, his third 100-yard receiving game in four playoff appearances over the past two seasons. Davis also had a 44-yard reception against Green Bay last week in his lone playoff performance totaling less than 100 yards.
As the chart below shows, Davis accounts for three of the five highest single-game postseason yardage totals for tight ends over the past two seasons. Davis and Dallas Clark are the only NFL tight ends with more than one 100-yard receiving game in the playoffs since 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Each has three.
The Ravens have allowed only one postseason touchdown pass to a tight end since 2001. They have allowed only two 110-yard receiving games to tight ends in regular-season or playoff games since 2001. Philadelphia's Brent Celek had 157 yards against the Ravens last season. San Diego's Antonio Gates had a 105-yard game against Baltimore in 2007.
This might not be a big deal to everyone, but if you had Wilson and Kaepernick starting as lower-priced quarterbacks on your Gridiron Challenge team, you might blog about it.
St. Louis Rams tight end Lance Kendricks will be joining them in my Week 16 lineup. He faces a suspect Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass defense that ranks 27th in Total QBR allowed. Tight ends Brandon Myers (17 points), Martellus Bennett (13), Clay Harbor (11) and Antonio Gates (11) have had double-digit fantasy scoring games against the Bucs. Greg Olsen (nine), Jacob Tamme (8) and Fred Davis (7) came close.
Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson (22 points Saturday night) and Greg Zuerlein are rounding out my player lineup this week. It was only fitting that I failed to sub out the Detroit Lions' defense before their kickoff Saturday night against the high-scoring Atlanta Falcons. Call it richly deserved punishment for placing the Falcons only sixth on my most recent power rankings ballot.
The chart shows NFC West leaders in fantasy points this season. Not pictured: Larry Fitzgerald, with 87 points, down from 151 at this point last season. He trails Michael Crabtree (124), Sidney Rice (110), Golden Tate (95) and teammate Andre Roberts (95) among NFC West wideouts with two games remaining. Brandon Gibson (86), Danny Amendola (78) and Chris Givens (77) are next.
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.
The San Francisco 49ers' Patrick Willis has knocked off Matt Forte, Maurice Jones-Drew and Victor Cruz to reach the semifinals, where Cam Newton stands in his way.
Newton easily beat out the Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald by a 70-30 percentage margin. Newton previously won by margins of 87-13 over LeGarrette Blount and 83-17 over Antonio Gates.
Willis, a 55-45 winner over Cruz, previously won by 62-38 (Forte) and 58-42 (Jones-Drew) margins.
The Newton-Willis winner faces Aaron Rodgers or Calvin Johnson in the finals.
I'm going with Willis and Rodgers.
- Leader: mboles52, who overtook two-week leader Billy Shears. His lineup: Aaron Rodgers (47 points), Drew Brees (19), Adrian Peterson (8), Darren McFadden (11), Calvin Johnson (21), Andre Johnson (3), Jimmy Graham (19), Nick Folk (5), Ravens defense (25).
- High score of the week: digitool, with 184 points. Lineup: Rodgers (47), Michael Vick (31), Beanie Wells (31), Maurice Jones-Drew (8), DeSean Jackson (17), Steve Smith (18), Vernon Davis (10), David Akers (6), Green Bay Packers (16).
- My team: tied for 481st place out of 1,508 entries, 68.8 percentile. Down from 418th place and 71.2 percentile last week. Johnson's hamstring injury proved costly, limiting the Houston Texans receiver to three points.
- My wife's team: tied for 164th, 89.5 percentile. Down from 66th place and 95.7 percentile. She got a combined eight points from Mike Wallace and Rob Gronkowski. Sorry to hear about that.
- Dan Graziano's team: tied for 650th, 58.1 percentile. Another shutout at tight end with Antonio Gates in the lineup.
- NFC West matchup to watch: Percy Harvin, Bernard Berrian and the Minnesota Vikings' receivers against the Arizona Cardinals' defense. The Vikings haven't been a big-play passing team. Harvin and Berrian have no receptions longer than 22 yards. The Cardinals' defense has allowed 23 pass plays of at least 20 yards, the second-highest total in the league behind New England's 30. Something figures to give.
Who is your fantasy sleeper play of the week?
- Leader: Billy Shears, for a second week in a row, this time with 486 points. He's gotten 42 points from Rob Gronkowski over the past two weeks. Basically, teams with Gronkowski are lighting it up.
- High score of the week: Walladaraida, with 188 points. Lineup: Tom Brady (31), Ryan Fitzpatrick (22), LeSean McCoy (19), Darren McFadden (29), Mike Wallace (20), Calvin Johnson (22), Gronkowski (22), Ryan Longwell (11), Oakland defense (12).
- My team: tied for 418th place out of 1,459 entries, 71.2 percentile. Up from 693rd place and 53.3 percentile last week. Sticking with Vernon Davis against Cincinnati worked out well.
- My wife's team: tied for 66th, 95.7 percentile. Down from 17th and 98.7 percentile. She also had Gronkowski.
- Dan Graziano's team: tied for 619th, 60.0 percentile. Down from 595th and 59.6. He's had Antonio Gates in his lineup the last two weeks.
- NFC West matchup to watch: Michael Vick and McCoy against the San Francisco 49ers' defense. The 49ers' run defense has given very little ground this season. Making the Eagles one-dimensional would put additional pressure on Vick, who keeps taking too much punishment. I suspect the 49ers will have a tougher time limiting turnovers in this game, putting their defense in tougher positions.
Who is your fantasy sleeper play of the week?
- Leader: Billy Shears, with 330 points. Had Rob Gronkowski going at tight end for 20 points. Every player on his team scored in double figures for Week 2.
- High score of the week: Joey4King1, with 187 points. Lineup: Matthew Stafford (27), Drew Brees (22), Adrian Peterson (26), Darren McFadden (26), Larry Fitzgerald (19), Andre Johnson (15), Gronkowski (20), Nick Folk (12), Pittsburgh Steelers defense (20).
- My team: 693rd place out of 1,391, 53.3 percentile. Sticking with Vernon Davis and wondering if this is the week he breaks out. Had Jamaal Charles going in Week 2. Ouch.
- My wife's team: 17th place, 98.7 percentile. That's right, my wife is dominating this league and letting me hear about it every day. She also had Gronkowski going, plus the New York Jets' defense (24) and the Steelers' Mike Wallace (18).
- Dan Graziano's team: 595th place, 59.6 percentile. Big week (155) despite zero points from tight end Antonio Gates. Michael Vick was the only player on his roster from the division Dan covers. Hey, whatever it takes.
- NFC West matchup to watch: Baltimore's Ray Rice against the St. Louis Rams, who have allowed more rushing yards than any team in the league. The Rams should be much better than that, and I think they will be. But can they slow Rice this week?
Why the asterisk in the headline? A Sando is, indeed, in 17th place out of all those entries. It's just not me.
The prep work was tougher for teams preparing to face opponents with new coaching staffs. That is why the Seattle Seahawks, scheduled to visit San Francisco in Week 1, have had added interest in the 49ers' preseason games this summer. Those games have provided at least some evidence as to what the 49ers might look like with Jim Harbaugh on the sideline.
"I’ve kept an eye on San Francisco because that’s a new team and all," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll told reporters Thursday. "They looked very good last week against the Raiders. I’ve looked at both sides of that game film and they executed very well on offense and on defense."
The 49ers aren't tipping their hand from a strategy standpoint during preseason games. But those games still create a visual for what the 49ers' personnel might look like running basic plays.
A few thoughts on how prepared each NFC West team should be for its Week 1 opponent:
- Seattle Seahawks: A year ago, the Seahawks were the team with the new coaching staff. They seemed to surprise the 49ers in the regular-season opener at Seattle. There should be fewer surprises when the teams face one another in the 2011 opener even though the 49ers do have a new staff. For one, the 49ers' key personnel is largely the same from last season. Two, Carroll coached against Harbaugh extensively while at the college level. He'll have a better feel than most for the way Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman like to call a game. He'll have a better feel than most for the way Harbaugh might want to use his personnel. The 49ers will surely have some surprises for Seattle, but the Seahawks should be well prepared under the circumstances.
- San Francisco 49ers: They'll have good feel for what Carroll likes to do defensively given Harbaugh's experience at the college level and limited staff carryover. Both San Francisco line coaches, Mike Solari and Jim Tomsula, were on the 49ers' staff last season. Also, 49ers receivers coach John Morton was on Carroll's staff at USC. Seattle does have a new offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, and new offensive line coach, Tom Cable. The 49ers will presumably study Bevell's history in Minnesota and Cable's approach to the running game. There should be no big surprises.
- Arizona Cardinals: They have to feel good about facing the Carolina Panthers at University of Phoenix Stadium in the opener. Yes, the Panthers have a new head coach in Ron Rivera, but the Cardinals faced Rivera's Chargers last season, so they've prepared for his defensive scheme. San Diego crushed Arizona in that matchup, but that had a lot to do with the personnel each team put on the field that day. Rivera did not get to bring Philip Rivers or Antonio Gates with him. The Panthers will have a good feel for the Cardinals' personnel. Their staff includes former 49ers assistants Ray Brown and Pete Hoener.
- St. Louis Rams: They would have been better served drawing an opponent less talented than Philadelphia, but if they were going to play the Eagles, they could not have picked a better time (Week 1) or place (at home). The Eagles are working through issues on their offensive line. One of their top threats on offense, Jeremy Maclin, has been ill. Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo and Eagles coach Andy Reid know each others' schemes and tendencies. They coached together for years. Safety Quintin Mikell signed with the Rams after spending all of his career with Philadelphia. He'll have a great feel for Michael Vick and the Eagles' offense.
Not that any of us are looking forward to the regular season or anything.
"The thing that sets him apart is his consistency to make plays, play after play," Davis said. "Everybody talks about him not being a good blocker, but they don't look at the other side, his consistency."
Davis said he sees the position continually evolving away from bigger tight ends to those with the athletic ability to challenge defenses in the passing game. We're seeing that in the NFC West with Davis, Delanie Walker, Zach Miller and rookie draft choices Lance Kendricks and Rob Housler, among others. A quick check through the NFL rosters I maintain showed no more than 10 tight ends listed at 270-plus pounds.
"The position has evolved tremendously," Davis said. "I say that because you don't have these 6-6, 6-7, 275-pound guys any more. We're normally around 6-3, 6-4, 240-250 pounds and can move fast. That is what it's about nowadays. Teams are looking for that tight end that can really stretch the seam and can run with the football in his hand."
Along those lines, I recently asked 49ers receiver Braylon Edwards to compare Davis to Edwards' former teammate in Cleveland, Kellen Winslow Jr. Edwards offered these thoughts:
They are both extremely talented. 'K2' is, before I got here, the best I played with. Watching him, he was, before his motorcycle accident, probably would have been the best pass receiving tight end of our era. But he is still doing his thing.
"Vernon is faster than Kellen and I think he is a little stronger in the blocking game than Kellen. I think that is the big difference between the two. They both run good routes, they both have extremely good hands, good size, but I think the big thing is, Vernon is a blocker. I’ve seen him on film and he takes that to heart and he destroys guys play after play after play. I think that is the difference between him and a lot of tight ends."
Davis leads NFL tight ends in touchdown receptions over the past two seasons with 20.
Earlier: Why I ranked Davis third among NFL tight ends, and what Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. thinks of him.
"Any way you can add in 'thrown to' and 'drops' in this stat?" Furfanam asked in one comments section.
Consider it done.
Jason Vida of ESPN Stats & Information produced the information. I've broken it out in four charts. A few notes on the findings:
- Jason Witten, who edged Antonio Gates for the top spot in our rankings, dropped only two of the 126 passes thrown his way last season. That gave him easily the lowest drop rate -- 1.6 percent -- among tight ends with at least 50 receptions.
- Heath Miller had the most receptions (42) without a drop. Green Bay's Jermichael Finley (21), Jacksonville's Zach Miller (20) and Jim Kleinsasser (17) were next.
- Brandon Pettigrew, Dustin Keller and Kevin Boss had the most drops with nine apiece. Chris Cooley, Tony Gonzalez, Aaron Hernandez and Owen Daniels were next with six each.
- The St. Louis Rams' Daniel Fells ranked 13th in lowest drop percentage among players with at least 20 targets. Teammate Billy Bajema, with three drops in 21 targets, had the highest drop percentage in the same category.
The first chart ranks NFL tight ends by most receptions. It also shows number of targets, drops and drop percentage. Witten, Jacob Tamme and Gates were the only tight ends with at least 50 receptions and no more than two dropped passes.
The second chart shows lowest drop percentages among tight ends targeted at least 20 times last season. Miller's standing atop the list backs up James Walker's contention that the Pittsburgh Steelers tight end was underrated in our power rankings.
The third chart ranks NFL tight ends with at least 20 targets by the highest percentage of dropped passes.
ESPN Stats & Information's totals on Bajema matched my charting. I had Bajema dropping passes against Tennessee, Denver and Arizona.
The final chart focuses only on NFC West tight ends, ranking them by lowest percentage of dropped passes.
- Production: Davis has 20 scoring receptions over the past two seasons, most among tight ends and one behind overall league leader Roddy White. Davis has 134 receptions over that span, five more than Gates and only 10 fewer than wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Greg Jennings.
- Big-play ability: Davis averaged 16.3 yards per reception last season. His per-catch average over the past two seasons ranks 14th in the NFL among all players with at least 100 receptions during that span. Davis can outrun linebackers and safeties without trouble. He is faster than some cornerbacks.
- Durability: Davis has not missed a game over the past three seasons. He has played through injuries. Injuries have slowed quite a few other top tight ends in the league during that time, including Gates, Dallas Clark, Jermichael Finley, Chris Cooley and Owen Daniels.
- Better focus: Davis has done a much better job controlling his emotions during games. He also reduced his penalty count from 12 in 2009 to two last season.
- Transcendent talent. The consistently productive tight ends in the NFL tend to play with Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks. Davis has not. He has also changed offensive coordinators every year since entering the NFL as the sixth pick in the 2006 draft.
- Improved hands. Davis no longer drops passes regularly.
Davis finished fourth behind Witten, Gates and Clark in ESPN.com balloting. He was close behind Clark and well ahead of Cooley and Tony Gonzalez, quite an accomplishment given where Davis' career stood two-plus years ago.
Gates and Witten were my top choices because they have produced consistently for so long and neither appears to be trailing off. Gates was the top choice because he's the more dynamic receiver. Clark's injury last season made Davis an easier choice in the third spot. I ranked Gonzalez only 10th because he no longer threatens defenses down the field. He averaged a career-low 9.4 yards per reception last season and that figure has been in retreat since 2006.
Davis is only 27 years old. His yards-per-catch average is headed in the other direction: from 9.8 in 2007 to 11.5 (2008), 12.4 (2009) and 16.3 (2010).
"It is tough to argue he is not a top five tight end," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "He is a tenacious blocker -- not a great blocker, but he can be a good one at times. He is one of the few tight ends in the league who is going to have 60-yard plays. I'm not even sure Gates or Clark is any more to the degree Davis is. I don’t think he is as good a route-runner. A lot of his stuff is just vertical. He is not as sharp out of his cuts yet. Those areas he can improve upon -- getting a better feel for coverages, getting better out of his breaks, better setting up routes, those types of things."