NFC West: Atari Bigby
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
This can be a nerve-racking time for teams and fans hoping to keep favorite players.
Using the franchise tag almost always keeps a player from leaving in free agency. Teams must balance those concerns with a player's actual value. This year, deciding against using the tag could allow good-not-great NFC West players such as Dashon Goldson, Delanie Walker and Danny Amendola to reach the market and sign elsewhere.
It's tough losing key players, but for some perspective, let's revisit the list of 2012 NFC West unrestricted free agents to change teams during the UFA signing period last offseason:
- St. Louis Rams (6): receiver Brandon Lloyd, linebacker Chris Chamberlain, punter Donnie Jones, guard Jacob Bell, linebacker Bryan Kehl and defensive tackle Gary Gibson. Lloyd was a better fit in New England than he would have been with St. Louis. He caught 74 passes for 911 yards and four touchdowns with the Patriots, starting more than 11 games in a season for the first time since 2006. The Rams did not miss any of the other UFAs signing elsewhere.
- San Francisco 49ers (6): receiver Josh Morgan, guard Adam Snyder, linebacker Blake Costanzo, safety Reggie Smith, safety Madieu Williams and guard Chilo Rachal. The 49ers could have used Costanzo in particular on special teams. Overall, though, they could live with losing these players.
- Seattle Seahawks (5): tight end John Carlson, safety Atari Bigby, quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and linebacker David Hawthorne. Keeping Carlson would have helped the offense. However, the Vikings overpaid for him, and Carlson suffered an injury that prevented Minnesota from getting an immediate return on its investment.
- Arizona Cardinals (3): cornerback Richard Marshall, safety Sean Considine, guard Deuce Lutui. The Cardinals ideally would have held onto Marshall, but they signed William Gay for much less and seemed to get by fine with him. Their defense improved. Gay was subsequently released.
One key difference between those groups: age.
The St. Louis Rams in particular used the UFA signing period to get younger. The 12 UFAs they added (11) or re-signed (one) averaged 2.49 years younger than the 20 UFAs they lost (six) or have not re-signed (14). The gap was 1.39 years younger on average throughout the division. The Rams have the youngest roster in the NFL, based on averages I maintain for every team in the league.
Some older UFAs never sign another NFL contract. They disappear from rosters and realize, perhaps a year or two later, that they've been retired.
The chart shows age differences for the 38 UFA players added or re-signed versus the 47 lost to other teams or still unsigned. According to the NFL, 143 UFAs changed teams across the league this offseason. Another 112 re-signed with their 2011 teams.
Unsigned players remain free to sign with another team, but the NFL will not count them as UFA signings. The distinction matters in part because only UFA additions and losses count toward the formula for determining compensatory draft choices. That formula relies heavily on player salaries. UFAs available this late in the process generally wouldn't command enough money to affect compensatory picks, anyway.
A quick look at which UFA players from NFC West teams did not sign or re-sign as UFAs:
- St. Louis Rams (14): receiver Mark Clayton, tackle Mark LeVoir, tackle Adam Goldberg, tight end Billy Bajema, safety James Butler, cornerback Al Harris (retired), cornerback Rod Hood, cornerback Justin King, quarterback A.J. Feeley, running back Jerious Norwood, linebacker Brady Poppinga, tight end Stephen Spach, running back Cadillac Williams and center Tony Wragge.
- Seattle Seahawks (4): defensive end Raheem Brock, defensive tackle Jimmy Wilkerson, linebacker David Vobora and running back Justin Forsett. Forsett reached agreement with the Houston Texans following the UFA period. The Seahawks had already given his jersey number (20) to free-agent running back Kregg Lumpkin.
- Arizona Cardinals (7): defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday, tackle Floyd Womack, tackle Brandon Keith, outside linebacker Joey Porter, outside linebacker Clark Haggans, running back Chester Taylor and safety Hamza Abdullah.
- San Francisco 49ers (2): tight end Justin Peelle and fullback Moran Norris.
The 27 unsigned UFAs from the NFC West average 31.38 years old, about 3.3 years older than the 22 UFAs signed from other teams.
Nine of the 27 are at least 33 years old. Another 12 are between 29 and 32. Justin King, former cornerback for the Rams, is the youngest at 25 years old.
All four played in the NFC West: Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor from Seattle, Dashon Goldson from San Francisco, and Adrian Wilson from Arizona.
On the surface, few positions appear stronger within the division. Beneath the surface, there isn't much depth -- at all.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee sized up the situation in San Francisco recently, noting that C.J. Spillman is the team's only backup safety with even one regular-season defensive snap on his resume.
The 49ers can expect Goldson, an unsigned franchise player, to report at some point before the season. But San Francisco, like Seattle in particular among NFC West teams, lacks proven alternatives if injuries strike at safety. The drop from Pro Bowl talent to unknown backup can be a hard one.
It's a position to watch in the NFC West, for sure.
Starters: Wilson, Kerry Rhodes
Backups: Rashad Johnson (498 defensive snaps in 2011), James Sanders (462), Blake Gideon (0), Eddie Elder (0).
Comment: Rhodes missed nine games to injury last season. Johnson started in his place and played extensively during the Cardinals' late-season defensive revival. The experience Johnson gained should leave the Cardinals feeling better about the position. Sanders started six games for Atlanta last season. Arizona did not re-sign backups Hamza Abdullah or Sean Considine, who were special-teams contributors. Overall, the Cardinals feel very good about their depth in the secondary. Wilson's ability to play at a high level last season despite a torn biceps tendon improved the position's outlook. Wilson turns 33 in October, but appears to have quite a bit left.
Starters: Thomas, Chancellor
Backups: Chris Maragos (11 defensive snaps in 2011), Jeron Johnson (9), Winston Guy (0), DeShawn Shead (0).
Comment: Atari Bigby provided veteran depth last season. San Diego signed him as a potential starter in free agency. Maragos projects as a core special-teams player. The Seahawks were high enough on Jeron Johnson, an undrafted rookie in 2011, to keep him on the 53-man roster over a draft choice, Mark LeGree. Maragos projects as a core special-teams player. Guy and Shead have made positive impressions in practice recently. This is one position where Seattle could stand to develop or acquire quality depth in case Thomas or Chancellor suffers an injury. But with two of the NFL's best young safeties in the lineup, the team should be set at the position for years to come.
San Francisco 49ers
Starters: Goldson, Donte Whitner
Backups: C.J. Spillman (16 defensive snaps in 2011), Colin Jones (0), Ben Hannula (0), Trenton Robinson (0), Mark LeGree (0), Michael Thomas (0).
Comment: The 49ers did not re-sign veteran backups Reggie Smith and Madieu Williams. They did not use an early draft choice for a safety or target a veteran in free agency. Spillman, undrafted from Marshall in 2009, is getting plenty of reps this offseason while Goldson remains unsigned as the 49ers' franchise player. Spillman is already among the very best special-teams players in the division (he joined Seattle's Heath Farwell among non-positional specialists on our all-NFC West team for 2011). It's a bit early to know whether the 49ers could count on Spillman at safety if an injury forced their hand. But with eight safeties on the roster, the 49ers do have developmental options at the position.
St. Louis Rams
Starters: Quintin Mikell, Darian Stewart
Backups: Craig Dahl (486 defensive snaps in 2011), Matt Daniels (0).
Comment: Dahl started three games last season and 24 over the past three. He gives the Rams decent veteran depth behind Mikell and the emerging Stewart. Daniels is an undrafted free agent from Duke. He was eager to sign with the Rams when he learned they had only three other safeties under contract. Rookie third-round choice Trumaine Johnson has the size to play safety, but coach Jeff Fisher said the plan will be for Johnson to remain at cornerback. "(Moving to safety) may be something that happens later in his career, but right now he helps us as a corner," Fisher told reporters during the draft.
One question: Should the team focus on adding a front-line receiver to help new quarterback Matt Flynn, or should finding pass-rush help (and possibly linebacker help) stand as top priority?
I lean toward making pass-rush help a higher priority while the team finds out whether Flynn has the ability to maximize the existing weapons and make full use of additional ones.
The chart shows which players accounted for the Seahawks' 33 sacks last season.
Five of the players with at least 3.0 sacks are unsigned and/or will not return.
Anthony Hargrove has agreed to terms with Green Bay, Leroy Hill is unsigned and Raheem Brock is not expected back. Jason Jones, signed from Tennessee, should help pump up the numbers to a degree. But there's definitely room for another contributor.
That was the word Monday from the world's leading comp-pick guru, AdamJT13, who links specific players to specific comp picks on his blog.
The NFL awards compensatory choices based on net losses in unrestricted free agency, calculated by factors including salary and performance.
According to AdamJT13, the Seattle Seahawks' signing of Sidney Rice last offseason helped the Minnesota Vikings land a fourth-round pick -- 128th overall, the second-highest of the 32 selections awarded Monday.
Oakland received the 129th pick thanks to Seattle's deal with former Raiders tight end Zach Miller. Green Bay landed the 133rd pick for losing Daryn Colledge to Arizona, and Oakland picked up a fifth-rounder (168th overall) for losing Robert Gallery to Seattle.
UFA additions and subtractions this offseason will help determine how comp picks are awarded in 2013.
Arizona has added Adam Snyder and William Gay while losing Richard Marshall and Sean Considine.
San Francisco has added Josh Johnson, Mario Manningham and Rock Cartwright while losing Josh Morgan, Blake Costanzo and Snyder.
Seattle has added Matt Flynn and Jason Jones while losing John Carlson, Charlie Whitehurst and Atari Bigby.
The Rams have added Steve Smith, Quinn Ojinnaka, Kendall Langford, Scott Wells and Cortland Finnegan while losing Brandon Lloyd and Chris Chamberlain.
Red Bryant, Paul McQuistan and Heath Farwell previously re-signed.
Seattle and the other NFC West teams have added only two UFAs from other teams, however. I've put together UFA scorecards for each team in the division. Ages are in parenthesis. Here goes ...
UFA unsigned (age): defensive end Raheem Brock (33), defensive lineman Jimmy Wilkerson (31), safety Atari Bigby (30), quarterback Charlie Whitehurst (29), linebacker Leroy Hill (29), linebacker Matt McCoy (29), defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (28), linebacker David Hawthorne (26), running back Justin Forsett (26), linebacker David Vobora (25)
UFA re-signed: Farwell (30), Robinson (29), McQuistan (28), Bryant (27)
UFA added: none
UFA lost: tight end John Carlson (27)
Franchise player: none
Comment: Forsett has provided value, but the Seahawks will want to add a power back as depth behind Marshawn Lynch, who re-signed before free agency. Mike Tolbert, a free agent from the San Diego Chargers, could be worth a look if the running back market remains soft. Tolbert weighs 243 pounds, has 21 total touchdowns over the past two seasons, and caught 54 passes in 2012. The price would have to be right after Seattle committed to Lynch.
San Francisco 49ers
UFA unsigned: fullback Moran Norris (33), tight end Justin Peelle (33), safety Madieu Williams (30), quarterback Alex Smith (27), receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (26), guard Chilo Rachal (26), safety Reggie Smith (25)
UFA re-signed: cornerback Carlos Rogers (30), linebacker Tavares Gooden (27)
UFA added: none
UFA lost: guard Adam Snyder (30), linebacker Blake Costanzo (27), receiver Josh Morgan (26)
Franchise player: safety Dashon Goldson (27)
Comment: Randy Moss and potential addition Rock Cartwright do not appear in the listings because they were not unrestricted free agents. Re-signing Alex Smith and finding additional receiver help appear to be the top priorities. The 49ers are showing little outward urgency on either front, however.
UFA unsigned: defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday (36), kicker Jay Feely (35), long-snapper Mike Leach (35), outside linebacker Clark Haggans (35), outside linebacker Joey Porter (34), offensive lineman Floyd Womack (33), punter Dave Zastudil (33), tackle D'Anthony Batiste (29), safety Sean Considine (29), guard Deuce Lutui (28), safety Hamza Abdullah (28), tackle Brandon Keith (27), receiver Early Doucet (26)
UFA re-signed: none.
UFA added: Snyder (30)
UFA lost: cornerback Richard Marshall (27)
Franchise player: defensive end Calais Campbell (25)
Comment: The Cardinals have been in a tough spot. They would have faced criticism had they declined to pursue Peyton Manning. They could now face criticism for sacrificing the first week of free agency while waiting for Manning. The reality is that Arizona probably wasn't going to be all that aggressive in the market this offseason, anyway. It did hurt losing Marshall to the Miami Dolphins after coordinator Ray Horton called him the Cardinals' defensive MVP.
St. Louis Rams
UFA unsigned: cornerback Al Harris (37), quarterback A.J. Feeley (34), offensive lineman Tony Wragge (32), linebacker Brady Poppinga (32), punter Donnie Jones (31), offensive lineman Adam Goldberg (31), guard Jacob Bell (31), receiver Brandon Lloyd (30), cornerback Rod Hood (30), running back Cadillac Williams (29), defensive tackle Gary Gibson (29), receiver Mark Clayton (29), tackle Mark LeVoir (29), tight end Stephen Spach (29), safety James Butler (29), tight end Billy Bajema (29), quarterback Kellen Clemens (28), running back Jerious Norwood (28), linebacker Bryan Kehl (27), linebacker Chris Chamberlain (26), cornerback Justin King (24)
UFA re-signed: none
UFA added: cornerback Cortland Finnegan (28)
UFA lost: none
Franchise player: none
Comment: The Rams are not looking to re-sign many of their own free agents. They want to turn over the roster, and that is happening in a big way. The team's failure to secure playmaking help for quarterback Sam Bradford stands out as the biggest theme to this point. Finnegan was a welcome addition, but he isn't going to score many touchdowns.
The chart below shows a general overview.
Re-sign running back Marshawn Lynch and defensive end Red Bryant.
Lynch's agent of record, Mike Sullivan, recently took a job with the Denver Broncos. That would not affect negotiations as much if Lynch remained with Octagon Worldwide. The agent game can be an unpredictable one, however. That is something to file away.
Bryant has said he strongly wants to re-sign with Seattle.
The charts below expand upon Brian McIntyre's lists. I've added offensive and defensive snap counts from ESPN Stats & Information. The final column shows what players earned per year on their most recent contracts.
The second chart shows restricted free agents. Teams can retain rights to RFAs by making one-year qualifying offers.
The Seattle Seahawks were better than the Cardinals on defense early in the season, but they have still made significant gains. They ranked 22nd in points per game allowed and 16th in yards per game allowed after Week 9. They currently rank sixth in points and eighth in yards. They lead the NFL in takeaways since Week 10 with 18, two more than San Francisco.
With an assist from Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information, I've put together a chart showing the Seahawks' playing-time percentages by player for Weeks 1-9 and 10-15. The chart shows only players whose playing time has changed by at least 10 percentage points from then to now.
The emergence of linebacker K.J. Wright and cornerback Richard Sherman stand out as important factors in the Seahawks' improved play.
Sometimes Wright and the Seattle linebackers can be vulnerable to misdirection plays, a concern against San Francisco in Week 16. Overall, however, their aggressive play has been an asset.
- Durability concerns were valid. The Minnesota Vikings wanted to re-sign Rice, but they had concerns about the receiver's ability to stay healthy. So did other teams considering options in free agency. Rice suffered a labrum injury in his shoulder during practice before the season. Knee problems slowed him during the season. Two concussions in recent weeks precipitated the IR move.
- Rice's hip wasn't the issue. Most of the Rice-related injury concerns in free agency stemmed from the microfracture hip surgery Rice underwent while with the Vikings. Rice's hip seems to have held up OK.
- Seattle has good depth. The Seahawks never had to worry about losing a receiver as talented as Rice in recent seasons. That is because they did not have any receivers as talented as Rice. How bad was their receiver situation in the past? They remain better at the position now, even without Rice. Rookie Doug Baldwin has taken some big hits, however. Can he hold up? Ben Obomanu has suffered from drops in recent weeks. Mike Williams has struggled. So, even though the depth is better than it was, questions remain. The group needs to improve.
- Protecting Rice was a wise move. Rice represents a long-term investment. Seattle signed him for this season, sure, but the long-term future matters more -- both for Rice personally, and for the team. Rice is 25 years old. No sense in risking his health. This had to be an easier decision for all involved given those considerations and the fact that Seattle will not qualify for the playoffs, anyway.
The chart shows the players Seattle signed from other teams in unrestricted free agency. All but backup Atari Bigby and the long-ago-released Jeff Reed have missed games to injury.
The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
- Marshawn Lynch rushed for 135 yards, his highest total since Seattle acquired him last season. Lynch scored a rushing touchdown in the fourth consecutive game he has played, becoming the first Seattle player to accomplish that feat since Shaun Alexander in 2005.
- The Seahawks allowed no sacks to the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware, who entered the game with 12 sacks this season, including four a week earlier.
- Kennard Cox's tackle during a Cowboys punt return forced Dallas to begin its second drive at its own 2-yard line.
- The Seahawks did not fumble.
- Seattle's league-leading goal-to-go defense allowed no touchdowns in two such situations Sunday. Brandon Mebane blew up one running play. Atari Bigby nearly sacked Tony Romo on another, forcing an incomplete pass.
- The Seahawks won time of possession.
- Free safety Earl Thomas and linebacker David Hawthorne had tackles for loss.
- Strong safety Kam Chancellor continued delivering huge hits, including one that rocked DeMarco Murray at the line of scrimmage on a second-and-4 play in the second quarter. On-field microphones picked up the jarring sound from the collision, followed by crowd reaction.
- Cornerback Richard Sherman forced Dez Bryant to fumble with a big hit near the goal line. Roy Lewis recovered for Seattle.
They lost those games by a combined 99-31 score.
Much has changed since then. Let's take a look:
Cardinals at Vikings
Score last season: Vikings 27, Cardinals 24 (OT)
Key play: Brett Favre's 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe in the final minute of regulation tied the game, forcing overtime after the Cardinals had built a 24-10 fourth-quarter lead. Favre threw for a career-high 446 yards in the game.
Biggest change: Both teams have new quarterbacks, Kevin Kolb for Derek Anderson in Arizona, and Donovan McNabb for Favre in Minnesota. Also, the Vikings have a new head coach (Leslie Frazier) while the Cardinals have a new defensive coordinator (Ray Horton).
Storyline: McNabb keeps a home in Arizona and was available to the Cardinals when their quarterback situation was in flux, but the team showed no interest in him. He is now trying to hold off a change to rookie Christian Ponder.
Lineup changes for Arizona (12): Beanie Wells for Tim Hightower at running back, Kolb for Anderson at quarterback, Daryn Colledge for Alan Faneca at left guard, Rex Hadnot for Deuce Lutui at right guard, Todd Heap for Ben Patrick at tight end, Andre Roberts for Steve Breaston at receiver, Anthony Sherman for Reagan Maui'a at fullback (although the team opened its 2010 game at Minnesota without a fullback), Dan Williams for Bryan Robinson at nose tackle, Daryl Washington for Gerald Hayes at linebacker, Clark Haggans for Will Davis at linebacker, A.J. Jefferson for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback, Patrick Peterson for Greg Toler at cornerback.
49ers vs. Buccaneers
Score last season: Buccaneers 21, 49ers 0
Key play: Josh Freeman's 1-yard scoring pass to tackle Donald Penn midway through the fourth quarter put an exclamation point on the 49ers' first home shutout since 1977.
Biggest change: Jim Harbaugh has replaced Mike Singletary as the 49ers' head coach.
Storyline: Alex Smith gets a shot at Tampa Bay after watching Troy Smith struggle against the Bucs as the 49ers' starting quarterback last season. Troy Smith's approach centered around striking for big plays. The Bucs took away the big plays. Alex Smith gives the 49ers a chance to be more efficient.
Lineup changes for San Francisco (12): Alex Smith for Troy Smith at quarterback, Joe Staley for Barry Sims at left tackle, Adam Snyder for Chilo Rachal at right guard, Bruce Miller for Moran Norris at fullback, Isaac Sopoaga for Aubrayo Franklin at nose tackle, Ray McDonald for Sopoaga at defensive end, Ahmad Brooks for Manny Lawson at outside linebacker, NaVorro Bowman for Takeo Spikes at inside linebacker, Carlos Rogers for Nate Clements at cornerback, Tarell Brown for Shawntae Spencer at cornerback, Donte Whitner for Reggie Smith at strong safety.
Seahawks at Giants
Score last season: Giants 41, Seahawks 7
Key play: With Seattle already down 14-0 in the first quarter, the Giants returned Leon Washington's fumbled kickoff return to the Seattle 4, setting up Ahmad Bradshaw's touchdown run on the next play.
Biggest change: Tarvaris Jackson is the starting quarterback for Seattle. Charlie Whitehurst was a fill-in starter for Matt Hasselbeck when the teams played last season.
Storyline: The Seahawks' so-far-unproductive ground game faces a Giants run defense that has struggled. Seattle's young line improved in pass protection last week. Can it take a step forward in run blocking this week?
Lineup changes for Seattle (16): Sidney Rice for Deon Butler at receiver, Jackson for Whitehurst at quarterback, Russell Okung for Chester Pitts at left tackle, Paul McQuistan for Mike Gibson at left guard, Max Unger for Chris Spencer at center, John Moffitt for Stacy Andrews at right guard, James Carpenter for Sean Locklear at right tackle, Zach Miller for John Carlson at tight end, Brandon Mebane for Junior Siavii at defensive tackle, Alan Branch for Craig Terrill at defensive tackle, Red Bryant for Kentwan Balmer at defensive end, K.J. Wright for Aaron Curry at linebacker, David Hawthorne for Lofa Tatupu at linebacker, Leroy Hill for Hawthorne at linebacker, Brandon Browner for Kelly Jennings at right cornerback, Kam Chancellor or Atari Bigby for Lawyer Milloy, depending on Chancellor's availability.
Steven Jackson plans to play for the St. Louis Rams despite a quadriceps injury. The Arizona Cardinals hope to have Beanie Wells back from a hamstring injury. The San Francisco 49ers expect Frank Gore to play despite an ankle injury, although reports suggest his status is a little more tenuous (he is questionable).
One lower-profile injury of note: Kam Chancellor, strong safety for the Seahawks, missed practice again and was listed as doubtful for Sunday. It's looking like veteran Atari Bigby, formerly of the Green Bay Packers, will start against the Atlanta Falcons.
Bigby has been playing special teams and in sub packages. He's not hurting for experience or talent. Injuries spelled his demise in Green Bay. If he's healthy, though, the Seahawks could certainly do worse for a short-term replacement.
Chancellor has emerged this season as a big-hitting defender with play-making ability. His interception against Arizona all but clinched the Seahawks' victory in Week 3.
Fluke play? Not for the Cardinals during an unsightly 13-10 defeat to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at CenturyLink Field.
Kolb had faced a similar set of circumstances right before halftime. The Seahawks picked him off that time as well, one of the leading reasons the Cardinals left Seattle with the same point total they managed with Max Hall and Derek Anderson as their quarterbacks during a 22-10 defeat here last season.
Watching the helplessly overmatched Hall flail away in the uncompromising Northwest elements on that September day in Week 7 last season represented rock bottom at the quarterback position for the Cardinals under coach Ken Whisenhunt. That game, as much as any other, forced the organization into the market for a quarterback good enough to upgrade them right now, not just in the distant future.
Kolb has generally delivered, with a few very specific and damaging exceptions. He's had a hand in four turnovers, all in opponents' territory, during the Cardinals' 1-2 start to this season. Switch a couple of those giveaways into positive plays and Arizona might not have lost to Rex Grossman and Tarvaris Jackson in consecutive weeks.
"I just have to be smarter with the ball, know the situation, think about every play, every down, and then have great trust that we're going to go in there and, worst-case scenario, we're going to kick a field goal," Kolb said afterward. "You have to sock it away and learn from it. It's hard to swallow. Trust me, it's hard to swallow."
Kolb delivered his postgame remarks with appropriate levels of regret and perspective. He wasn't buying the idea that Arizona, having lost a fourth-quarter lead during a 22-21 defeat at Washington last week, was only a couple plays away from being 3-0.
"Guess what, we're one play away from being 0-3, too, because Carolina had the ball there at the end," Kolb said refreshingly. "This game comes down to that. It's an inch in this league and you better be willing to go get that inch."
The Cardinals converted just three times in 14 chances on third down, marginally better than their 2-of-12 showing at Seattle last season. They averaged 4.6 yards per play, up from 4.1 here last season. Their lone touchdown this time was as spectacular as it was unrepeatable, with Kolb retreating to the Seattle 27-yard line before throwing a jump ball to Larry Fitzgerald against double coverage.
And those two interceptions Kolb threw Sunday outnumbered the one Arizona threw at Seattle last season.
"I probably had [receiver] Andre [Roberts] coming right underneath him wide open," Kolb lamented. "Just need to read it out, put the ball in the guy's hand."
Kolb was at his best running the Cardinals' no-huddle offense during an eight-play, 78-yard touchdown drive midway through the second quarter. Arizona went back to the no-huddle sparingly in the second half, after Seattle had time to adjust.
"We mixed up a lot of packages, gave him a lot of different looks, blitzing from different places, dropping into different coverages to keep him off-balance," veteran Seahawks safety Atari Bigby said. "A lot of times with young quarterbacks, that can be difficult for them. I noticed they went into hurry-up mode so we could not change personnel on them, trying to control the game."
The five-year, $63 million contract Arizona handed Kolb should not obscure his relative inexperience. This was his 10th career regular-season start and his second in a row against a solid defense on the road.
"We're still growing around Kevin and what he does well," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "There were a couple times where plays were mixed up and we didn't run them correctly. That is a product of getting familiar with our offense and that just takes time. It's not something you can snap your fingers and you are running efficiently."
Those are fair points, but it's also reasonable to expect better during clutch situations. There are times when Kolb's winning personality translates to mistakes when a more experienced passer would show greater restraint. As Kolb acknowledged last week, he must learn to walk the line between being aggressive and being careless.
The interception Kolb threw in Redskins territory last week stands as one example. The pass Seattle's Marcus Trufant picked off at the Seattle 17 before halftime Sunday was another. The Cardinals had first down from the Seattle 41 with seven seconds remaining. Kolb threw aggressively for Fitzgerald along the right sideline.
"It was Cover 2, a soft 2, and 'Tru' did a really good job of kind of slow playing it," said Fitzgerald, who had five catches for 64 yards and was shut out in the second half. "He is a nine-year veteran, he is a savvy guy and he just made a heckuva play."
The good news for Arizona is that Kolb appears to have the physical skills, mental makeup and work ethic to succeed. He should only improve as he masters an offense he began practicing only 52 days ago. But those expecting instant results in critical situations will have to wait at least another week.
Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers in their Week 2 matchup at Heinz Field:
What it means: The Seahawks have yet to get their offense going after two games against teams with strong defenses. They take a 0-2 record into their home opener against Arizona. Since the NFL expanded to 12 playoff teams in 1990, only 22 of 177 teams starting 0-2 have qualified for postseason. That stat might mean less in the NFC West after the 2010 Seahawks became the first team with a losing record to win its division.
What I liked: The Seahawks protected the football. Their run defense fared reasonably well through most of the game for a unit that was on the field far too long. Atari Bigby and Chris Clemons collected sacks.
What I didn't like: The Seattle offense was simply no match for the Steelers' veteran defense. That was no revelation for either team. Seattle failed to cross midfield on offense until the fourth quarter, an embarrassment no matter how strong the opposing team might be on defense. Before the game, news that Sidney Rice's shoulder injury could be serious made it tougher for Seattle to feel as optimistic about its immediate offensive future. The Seahawks' pass defense, untested against San Francisco in the opener, could not stop the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger from finding Mike Wallace for a 2-yard touchdown and a 53-yard reception. Wallace topped 100 yards receiving.
What's next: The Seahawks open the NFC West portion of their schedule with a home game against Arizona in Week 3.