NFC West: Aqib Talib

In an Insider piece, ESPN analyst, and former NFL general manager, Bill Polian gives San Francisco 49ers' cornerback Tarell Brown high praise.

Brown
Polian ranks Brown as the best cornerback in unrestricted free agency Insider. Polian gives Brown the nod over several top-notch free-agent cornerbacks such as Vontae Davis, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Aqib Talib.

If just one NFL team agrees with Polian, the 49ers may be hard pressed to keep Brown. Cornerbacks are often paid at a premium price, so if Brown is coveted, he may be looking at a big contract.

Brown is one of the 49ers' free-agency priorities. CBS Sports reported the team is pushing to get a deal done before free agency starts next Tuesday.

Brown was a starter last year, but lost his job late in the season when he was hurt. However, he did regain it in the playoffs.

Brown would likely be a starter again if he re-signs. If not, the 49ers will get Chris Culliver back from a torn ACL. At the very least, he will be the nickel cornerback. They could also try to replace Brown in free agency with someone like Seattle's Walter Thurmond. In either scenario, the team will likely use an early draft pick at the position.
Willis/ShortsGetty Images, USA Today SportsPatrick Willis' 49ers meet Cecil Shorts' Jaguars in the second NFL game in London this season.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The San Francisco 49ers have righted the ship after a shaky start. The Jacksonville Jaguars are still sinking.

The teams going in opposite directions will meet Sunday in London's Wembley Stadium in the second of two NFL games being played in the United Kingdom this season.

The 49ers (5-2) have won four games in a row -- and scored at least 31 points in each of those games -- since starting the season 1-2. The Jaguars are 0-7 and are the first team since the 1984 Houston Oilers to lose their first seven games by double digits.

That makes Sunday's game look like a giant mismatch, yet the Jaguars were 28-point underdogs to the Denver Broncos two weeks ago but lost by only 16 points -- and trailed by just two at halftime.

ESPN.com Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson break down the matchup:

DiRocco: The 49ers used the read-option the most they have all season against Tennessee in Week 7. Will that be a bigger part of the offense again as the season progresses?

Williamson: Mike, I think it is going to be a week-to-week situation. The 49ers used the read-option seven times last week after using it a total of nine in the first six games. The 49ers saw they could exploit Tennessee's defense using it. I think we will see it again, but probably in more challenging games and only in certain situations, when the 49ers are confident it will work. We could maybe see it some in London, but I have a feeling it will be more like the first six weeks of the season.

Mike, if the 49ers do run a lot of read-option offense, do you think the Jaguars can handle it?

DiRocco: Probably not. The Jaguars are last in the NFL in rushing defense (153.3 yards per game) and have given up a league-high nine rushing touchdowns. The defense's biggest problem against the rush is that it has given up a lot of explosive plays. Jacksonville has allowed an NFL-worst 10 rushing plays of 20 or more yards. Stopping the read-option is assignment football and the Jaguars' ends have not been as disciplined as needed. For example, Oakland's Terrelle Pryor ran for 50 yards in Week 2, including a 27-yard run in which the entire defensive front bit on the inside fake.

Bill, the Jaguars have had trouble with tight ends all season and now they face Vernon Davis. Who is the last team that's shut him down how?

Williamson: Davis hurt his hamstring late in the Seattle game in Week 2. He was pretty well shut down in that game before getting hurt. He missed Week 3 against the Colts and then came back against the Rams. He's been good and he is healthy. If the Jaguars have trouble against tight ends, the 49ers will exploit it. Davis and quarterback Colin Kaepernick have a great chemistry going this season. The 49ers' coaching staff is great at exploiting weaknesses.

Mike, do you seeing this being a big problem for Jacksonville?

DiRocco: Absolutely. Tight ends have combined to catch 42 passes for 401 yards and five touchdowns against Jacksonville this season. Depending on the defense called, the Jaguars will either have a safety or linebacker on the tight end. At times, the job has fallen to middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, who is very good against the run but not fast or quick enough in pass coverage. The Jaguars won't use the approach New England did against New Orleans standout Jimmy Graham -- the Patriots put their best corner, Aqib Talib, on him -- so I'd expect Davis to have chances to exploit some matchups with linebackers on Sunday.

Speaking of exploitation, the Anquan Boldin trade looked like a steal in Week 1. How is it regarded now?

Williamson: Still, unabashed thievery. Sure, Boldin had 13 catches in the first week and a combined 21 catches in the following six. But the 49ers would be in trouble without Boldin. He had three circus catches at Tennessee and he's been the team's only reliable wide receiver with Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham out. The 49ers would not be 5-2 without Boldin.

Mike, do you think the Jaguars will keep him in check Sunday?

DiRocco: The Jaguars have done a solid job the past two weeks of playing umbrella coverage and making sure they don't give up deep throws. That does leave the short and intermediate routes open, though, and that's where Boldin thrives. He's a physical receiver and the Jaguars don't yet have the kind of personnel to match up with him. Coach Gus Bradley wants to build a secondary similar to the one he helped build in Seattle, which includes big, physical corners. The Jaguars still have work to do there, although rookie third-round pick Dwayne Gratz (5-foot-11, 201 pounds) is finally back from his high-ankle sprain.

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Scoring changes affect Brady, Kaepernick

December, 21, 2012
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The Total QBR scores for Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick have changed slightly after the NFL made changes to the official play-by-play account from the San Francisco-New England game Sunday night.

The first change involved the interception return for 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers against Brady with 8:02 left in the first quarter. The return was for 63 yards. It had been listed previously as a 53-yard return. Brady's QBR score for the week is now 57.0. Fifty is considered roughly average.

The other change involved a pass from Kaepernick with 7:39 remaining in the first quarter. The pass has been changed from one covering minus-5 yards to one covering zero yards. That means Kaepernick has 221 yards passing, not 216. It also means Delanie Walker has 34 yards receiving, and the Patriots' Aqib Talib gets credit for a 5-yard fumble recovery. That change upped Kaepernick's QBR score from 87.1 to 87.7.

Separately, the latter play should have been ruled as an incomplete pass, the NFL determined in its weekly officiating review. Walker did not possess the ball long enough to make a football move, as required by rules.

"This actually never went to review," Dean Blandino of the NFL office said. "The replay official confirmed it upstairs without bringing the referee over and that is a mistake."

The 49ers were driving deep in Patriots territory at the time.

Around the NFC West: 49ers-Pats matchup

December, 14, 2012
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Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com have put together a must-read preview for the San Francisco 49ers' game against the New England Patriots.

One observation in particular from Buschi regarding 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick invited a closer look.

"If I'm the Patriots game-planning," he said, "I want to put Kaepernick in passing situations, especially outside the numbers. I wouldn't want to give him the running backs in the middle of the field, or the tight-end throws that make it easy on a quarterback.

"I want to make it tough on him, and I think having Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, those are options you want to take away. You want him throwing to [Michael] Crabtree, [Mario] Manningham and [Randy] Moss outside the numbers."

Since becoming the 49ers' starter in Week 11, Kaepernick has completed 22 of 31 passes for 324 yards with one touchdown and one interception (102.1 NFL passer rating) when targeting wide receivers outside the yard-line numbers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He has completed 10 of 12 passes for 118 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions (107.6 rating) when targeting running backs and tight ends inside the numbers.

Those numbers appear quite strong, but they aren't all trending in a positive direction.

Kaepernick's rating drops to 82.9 when targeting wide receivers outside the numbers over the past three weeks. That period excludes Kaepernick's breakout performance against the Chicago Bears in Week 11. In that game, Kaepernick completed 5 of 6 attempts for 79 yards, one touchdown and a maximum 158.3 rating when targeting wide receivers outside the numbers. He has subsequently completed 17 of 25 attempts with an interception on those throws.

Opponents seem to be forcing Kaepernick into shorter throws recently. His passes traveled 10.2 yards past the line of scrimmage on average against Chicago. They have traveled 6.7 yards past the line of scrimmage on average over the next three games. The average was 7.5 yards for Alex Smith this season.

New England has allowed far fewer long pass plays recently compared to earlier in the season. Acquiring cornerback Aqib Talib could explain part of the improvement. Opponents have four pass completions of 30-plus yards over the Patriots' last five games. They had 12 over a four-game period ending in Week 6.

NFC West Penalty Watch: Flags flying

October, 7, 2011
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It's been a rough first four games for NFC West teams in the penalty department, and not just in the tripping department.

Officials have flagged teams from the division 153 times, assessing penalties covering 1,054 yards. The other divisions average 118 penalties and 835 penalty yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information. No division has as many in either category.

The totals count declined penalties.


The chart below shows all 14 NFL players with at least five declined and assessed penalties this season. Five of them play for NFC West teams.

On a side note, penalties for unnecessary roughness are on the rise, with 57 having been called through the first four weeks of the season. There were 25 through the first four games of the 2007 season. That number has risen to 37 (2008), 41 (2009), 53 (2010) and now 57.

I doubt players have gotten any rougher unnecessarily. Officials are likely calling these penalties more aggressively. Calls for unsportsmanlike conduct are also up. There have been 17 through four games this season, up from an average of nine at this point in the previous four seasons.

MoJo from Tucson sees similarities between the 2008 Aaron Rodgers and more recent versions of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb. Both were drafted as heirs to successful veterans. MoJo thought Rodgers struggled some in his first season as a starter. Kolb suffered from bad luck, getting injured. MoJo wants to know if I see any similarities as we continue to consider Kolb as a potential acquisition for the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals.

Mike Sando: I don't see a meaningful comparison here. The back story on Rodgers in Green Bay was that he instantly caught teammates' attention in practice. His talent was obvious. Brett Favre was better at that point, but Rodgers made it clear he had the talent to take over the job sooner rather than later. There's also a brashness to Rodgers that served him well in that situation. He wasn't going to disrespect Favre, but he wasn't going to worship him. Rodgers expected to play.

I don't know as much about Kolb. He seems to have an edge about him, too. But in his current situation, Michael Vick became the one with the more prodigious talent. There's no push from anyone to get Kolb onto the field. If the 2007 or 2008 version of Rodgers were in Philadelphia, I suspect he would be the unquestioned starter.

Also, Rodgers played quite well during his first season as a starter. He finished that 2008 season with 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Favre struggled through an ultimately unsatisfying season with the New York Jets that year. His 2009 season with Minnesota was special, but it was also an exception to the norm in recent seasons. While Rodgers has consistently put up good numbers and even won a championship, Favre has thrown more touchdowns than interceptions in a season just twice since 2005.

Had Kolb been on the bench in Green Bay while Favre's career was winding down, I doubt the Packers would have moved as aggressively to make the change. Rodgers has the "it" factor. It's harder to tell whether Kolb measures up in that area, or as a passer.


Aaron from Redmond, Wash., wanted my thoughts on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's comments to Seattle Seahawks fans regarding 10 a.m. PT kickoffs.

Mike Sando: These are potentially significant comments in that Goodell has previously dismissed West Coast teams' concerns about early kickoffs. This time, the commissioner said the matter is "something we've got to try to find a way to deal with" amid challenges related to broadcast schedules. Let's consider this to be a starting point in a conversation long overdue from West Coast teams' perspectives.


Neil from Jackson, Miss., says St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' reputation as a pass-oriented coach stems from the success McDaniels' quarterbacks have enjoyed, not from any aversion to the ground game. Neil says he's a Saints fan and he has seen how effectively a balanced offense can benefit the passing game. He expects the Rams to use running back Steven Jackson to the extent necessary to make quarterback Sam Bradford look good.

Mike Sando: That's a good way to put it, Neil. I raised the subject with AFC West blogger Bill Williamson on Friday afternoon while we were sharing a ride to the airport in Hartford from our annual meetings in Bristol. Williamson noted that selecting running back Knowshon Moreno was McDaniels' first draft-related decision as Denver Broncos coach. McDaniels' personnel decisions did not work out so well, and Moreno hasn't met expectations. But that isn't as relevant as the fact that McDaniels valued the ground game enough to take a running back in the first round.


Kualla83 from Phoenix wonders why ESPN's Rick Reilly rated Arizona Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie so low in his recent redrafts. Kualla83 acknowledges that Rodgers-Cromartie suffered through a rough 2010 season, but he has also seen Rodgers-Cromartie's speed facilitate spectacular plays in coverage. He'd still take Rodgers-Cromartie first among the cornerbacks selected in that 2008 draft class.

Mike Sando: Reilly made Rodgers-Cromartie the seventh cornerback drafted in 2008. That is too low, in my view. He put Tracy Porter, Aqib Talib, Brandon Flowers, Terrell Thomas, Brandon Carr and Antoine Cason ahead of "DRC" in this redraft.

This is feeling like a pivotal season for Rodgers-Cromartie. The Cardinals used the fifth overall choice in the draft for a cornerback. Rodgers-Cromartie has taken quite a bit of criticism. Getting slapped around by Reilly on a redraft should not go unnoticed, either.

I think the Cardinals will find out a great deal about Rodgers-Cromartie this season.
The Arizona Cardinals went into the 2008 NFL draft needing a cornerback.

It's increasingly clear they made the right choice in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie even though the one-time Pro Bowl choice is coming off a disappointing 2010 season.

The problems Rodgers-Cromartie experienced in coverage and in tying for the NFL lead with 15 penalties last season appear trivial compared to the off-field issues affecting the corner Tampa Bay selected four spots later in the first round.

Aqib Talib's future in the NFL appears shaky now that Talib is facing a likely charge for a second-degree felony. The incident stands as a troubling setback for a player who appeared to have made strides off the field.

Talib's situation sent me back through the 2008 draft for a look at the first 10 cornerbacks selected. The Cardinals fared relatively well in making Rodgers-Cromartie the 16th overall choice, but they'll expect a more focused effort from him this season. Adding defensive coordinator Ray Horton, a former NFL cornerback, has the potential to help.

What could have been for Earl Thomas

March, 15, 2011
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Free safety Earl Thomas generally impressed during his rookie season with the Seattle Seahawks.

His range was obvious. He was a willing tackler. He showed an ability to make plays on the ball.

There were times when Thomas went for big plays at the expense of sound coverage, but overall, he looked like the player Seattle thought it was getting with the 14th overall choice in the 2010 draft.

Thomas picked off Philip Rivers twice, including once deep in Seahawks territory to preserve a victory. He picked off Drew Brees and Sam Bradford in the end zone. Thomas finished the season with five interceptions and he probably should have had nine; Football Outsiders counted four dropped picks for Thomas, one behind league leaders Aqib Talib, Sean Smith and Derrick Johnson.

As Paul Kuharsky notes, Football Outsiders defines a drop as a ball that hit the defender "right in the hands or chest" as opposed to mostly out-of-reach balls glancing off fingertips.

The chart shows Thomas' game-by-game interception totals. He was on pace for 12 interceptions through Week 4 and eight interceptions after making his final pick of the season in Week 11. His five picks ranked tied for ninth in the NFL and third among rookies behind New England's Devin McCourty (seven) and Cleveland's Joe Haden (six).

Related: Mark Sanchez benefited from dropped picks more than other quarterbacks benefited; and the Miami Dolphins' defense let 19 potential picks slip through their hands.

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