NFC West: Ben Graham

Arizona Cardinals cutdown analysis

September, 2, 2011
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The Arizona Cardinals have made their initial cuts to comply with the 53-man deadline Saturday.

Surprise move: Nothing too weighty here. The team kept four safeties initially instead of five, an indication that Adrian Wilson might be ready for the regular-season opener despite a torn biceps tendon. Veteran backup safety Matt Ware, signed as insurance when Wilson was hurt, was among those let go. Sixth-round pick Quan Sturdivant appeared to be on the bubble, but he made the initial 53-man roster. A couple veterans, namely punter Ben Graham and fullback Reagan Maui'a, lost roster spots to less-established players.

No-brainers: Deuce Lutui's status became topical throughout camp as he battled weight issues and played deep into the final preseason game. Keeping him around was a no-brainer, I thought, because Lutui can be an above-average starter. The Cardinals have him under contract on their terms after Lutui failed a physical with Cincinnati in free agency. Arizona is better on its line with Lutui as one of its options.

What's next: The Cardinals will be in the market for help at running back after losing rookie Ryan Williams to season-ending injury. Alfonso Smith made the cut initially, joining a group featuring Beanie Wells, LaRod Stephens-Howling and rookie fullback Anthony Sherman.

The team has eight offensive linemen after placing Floyd Womack on injured reserve. That number is one lower than typical for NFL teams, but the Cardinals had only eight on their Week 1 roster last season. They opened their previous three seasons under Ken Whisenhunt with nine.

The secondary is another area to watch after Greg Toler landed on injured reserve earlier in the week. The team has eight defensive backs on its roster, including four corners (Patrick Peterson, A.J. Jefferson, Richard Marshall and Michael Adams). Arizona has had 11, nine, eight and 10 defensive backs on its Week 1 rosters, respectively, under Whisenhunt.

2011 UFA market: NFC West scorecard

August, 23, 2011
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With training camps winding down, I've found time to update rosters and put together team-by-team reference material for unrestricted free agency.

The names below match official NFL counts.

These are for players with at least four accrued NFL seasons whose contracts expired following the 2010 season. I've added comments for each team.

Arizona Cardinals

Re-signed (8): Ben Graham, Matt Ware, Hamza Abdullah, Ben Claxton, Lyle Sendlein, D'Anthony Batiste, Deuce Lutui, Stephen Spach.

New to team (7): Chansi Stuckey, Richard Marshall, Daryn Colledge, Nick Eason, Stewart Bradley, Floyd Womack, Jeff King.

Still unsigned (3): Alan Faneca, Jason Wright, Bryan Robinson.

Signed elsewhere (5): Steve Breaston (Kansas City), Gabe Watson (New York Giants), Ben Patrick (Giants), Trumaine McBride (New Orleans), Alan Branch (Seattle).

Comment: Sendlein, Colledge and Bradley were the big signings. Marshall provides needed depth at cornerback. Faneca and Wright announced their retirements. The Cardinals weren't aggressive in trying to re-sign the players they lost to other teams. The biggest move Arizona made, acquiring Kevin Kolb from Philadelphia, did not involve a UFA.


San Francisco 49ers

Re-signed (4): Ray McDonald, Tony Wragge, Dashon Goldson, Alex Smith.

New to team (5): Braylon Edwards, Jonathan Goodwin, Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, David Akers.

Still unsigned (5): Brian Westbrook, Troy Smith, Demetric Evans, William James, Barry Sims.

Signed elsewhere (6): David Baas (Giants), Travis LaBoy (San Diego), Jeff Reed (Seattle), Aubrayo Franklin (New Orleans), Takeo Spikes (San Diego), Manny Lawson (Cincinnati).

Comment: Re-signing McDonald signaled Franklin's departure. Getting Goldson back on the relative cheap was a victory. The 49ers wanted to keep Baas, but not at the price he commanded. The team thinks NaVorro Bowman has a bright future in Spikes' old spot at inside linebacker. Lawson wasn't strong enough as a pass-rusher to stick around. Safety depth is improved.


Seattle Seahawks

Re-signed (7): Raheem Brock, Junior Siavii, Brandon Mebane, Leroy Hill, Matt McCoy, Michael Robinson, Kelly Jennings.

New to team (8): Branch, Zach Miller, Robert Gallery, Jimmy Wilkerson, Atari Bigby, Sidney Rice, Tarvaris Jackson, Reed.

Still unsigned (7): Jay Richardson, Craig Terrill, Chester Pitts, Brandon Stokley, Ruvell Martin, J.P. Losman, Lawyer Milloy.

Signed elsewhere (8): Will Herring (New Orleans), Olindo Mare (Carolina), Matt Hasselbeck (Tennessee), Chris Spencer (Chicago), Jordan Babineaux (Tennessee), Sean Locklear (Washington), Amon Gordon (Kansas City), Ray Willis (Washington).

Comment: Adding Jackson as the starting quarterback was the most significant move for the 2011 season. Mebane was the most important re-signing for the longer term. Hill was a bargain relative to how he's playing right now. Miller and Rice were the types of young, talented players who rarely change teams in free agency. The Seahawks were outbid for Herring and Mare. Can street free agent David Vobora fill some of the void Herring left?


St. Louis Rams

Re-signed (2): Adam Goldberg, Gary Gibson.

New to team (9): Daniel Muir, Quinn Ojinnaka, Harvey Dahl, Ben Leber, Zac Diles, Jerious Norwood, Cadillac Williams, Quintin Mikell, Mike Sims-Walker.

Still unsigned (5): Chris Hovan, Michael Lewis, Darcy Johnson, Clifton Ryan, Mark Clayton.

Signed elsewhere (4): Daniel Fells (Denver), Laurent Robinson (San Diego), Derek Schouman (Washington), Kevin Dockery (Pittsburgh).

Comment: Dahl and Mikell were the big additions. Clayton could return if and when his surgically repaired knee allows. Sims-Walker is a wild card. The team didn't flinch when any of its own UFAs signed elsewhere. Most of the moves made on defense were designed to improve St. Louis against the run. Remember that newcomer Justin Bannan was not a UFA. Denver released him.
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Kevin KolbChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesSigning Kevin Kolb signals that the Cardinals are ready to bounce back after a transition season.

Kevin Kolb's arrival from Philadelphia gives the Arizona Cardinals renewed hope at quarterback and clear direction following Kurt Warner's retirement.

It provides a fresh start after a forgettable 2010 transition season for Arizona.

So much has changed for the Cardinals since their Super Bowl appearance following the 2008 season. Other rosters around the league have turned over since then, of course, but not every team was coming off a Super Bowl appearance.

Quite a few teams have sought change. For the Cardinals, it just happened.

Warner's departure, while easily the biggest change, was far from the only one. Between five and eight starters from that Super Bowl game project as starters in 2011, depending upon how many of the team's unrestricted free agents re-sign.

When Steve Breaston left the Cardinals for Kansas City this week, drawing attention to the cumulative effect of Arizona's roster upheaval, a Seahawks fan drew parallels between Seattle's post-Super Bowl decline and the Cardinals' plight last season.

"Don't misunderstand," Ricky Frey wrote on my Facebook wall, "I'm a Hawks fan, but it seems eerily familiar to watch this happen and know what happened to Holmgren/Mora. Writing on the wall?"

Not if Kolb has anything to say about it. Acquiring a relatively young, potentially ascending quarterback puts Arizona in position to avoid the decline Seattle experienced as a Matt Hasselbeck struggled with injuries while the roster around him withered away. The NFC West remains in transition overall, and the Cardinals know it.

"It’s obviously winnable, but it’s funny to think that everybody thinks you can just step in and win it," Kolb told reporters Friday. "You’re talking about NFL football teams here. I know last year 7-9 is what won it, but it doesn’t matter. ... The door is open, we know, and we’ll be ready to kick it in when it’s time, but it’s not going to be an easy task."

Larry Fitzgerald, Levi Brown, Darnell Dockett, Adrian Wilson and the recently re-signed Lyle Sendlein started for Arizona in the Super Bowl and remain starters in 2011. Another starter from that Super Bowl game, Gerald Hayes, was released this week. Three more are becoming unrestricted free agents: Deuce Lutui, Bryan Robinson and Gabe Watson.

Six Arizona starters from that game are retired or did not play last season: Mike Gandy, Warner, Edgerrin James, Terrelle Smith, Chike Okeafor and Monty Beisel. Seven more play for other teams: Reggie Wells, Leonard Pope, Anquan Boldin, Antonio Smith, Karlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle and the recently traded Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Some were role players. Others were tougher to replace.

Breaston was a backup on that team, but he played extensively as the third receiver and finished the season with more than 1,000 yards.

Kolb's addition headlined a flurry of transactions the Cardinals announced Thursday and Friday.

Sendlein, safety Hamza Abdullah, cornerback Michael Adams, tackle D'Anthony Batiste, center Ben Claxton, punter Ben Graham, fullback Reagan Maui'a and tight end Stephen Spach re-signed.

Five draft choices have signed. Guard Daryn Colledge, defensive end Nick Eason, tight end Jeff King, receiver Chansi Stuckey and linebacker Stewart Bradley have signed as free agents from other teams.

Re-signing Sendlein while adding Kolb, Colledge and Bradley suggests the 2011 team is still coming together, not necessarily falling apart.
Alex Smith and Matt HasselbeckGetty ImagesAlex Smith and Matt Hasselbeck are both eligible for free agency this offseason.
It is possible, even likely, that the NFL and its players will continue their staring contest through the 2011 draft -- even with a ruling from U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson.

The appeals process could take weeks or longer, during which time it's unlikely the league would open for business. We're probably doomed to status quo, in other words.

But if ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson is correct, Judge Nelson will most likely end the lockout, leading to an immediate appeal -- a scenario I think would lead, eventually, to the league opening for business under 2010 rules while the sides continued their battle in the courts.

Those 2010 rules set the bar high for free agency. Only players with six accrued seasons would qualify for the unrestricted market. Starters such as Arizona's Steve Breaston, San Francisco's Dashon Goldson and Seattle's Brandon Mebane would lose leverage and most likely return to their teams under relatively modest one-year deals.

The players listed in the chart -- those with at least six accrued seasons and no contracts for 2011 -- would be free to explore opportunities elsewhere.

Options and implications for this type of free agency in the NFC West:

Arizona Cardinals

Overview: The Cardinals suffered more personnel losses than they could weather last offseason. They would benefit from a return to 2010 rules, however, because the restrictions would keep multiple starters off the market. Their list of potential free agents with six-plus seasons features no front-line players. The Cardinals would be better off focusing on a new deal with Larry Fitzgerald, who is entering the final year of his contract.

Top priority: Finding a veteran quarterback. Derek Anderson isn't expected back. Marc Bulger's name is heard most frequently in connection with the Cardinals. He turned 34 this week and did not attempt a pass in a regular-season game while with Baltimore last season. Bulger struggled during his final seasons with the Rams, but the team was falling apart around him. He last finished an NFL season with more touchdowns than interceptions in 2006. The down year has surely helped him get healthy.

Players in flux: Breaston, starting guard Deuce Lutui and starting center Lyle Sendlein wouldn't have enough accrued seasons to become unrestricted under 2010 rules. The situation is particularly difficult for Breaston, who has battled through knee problems without getting a long-term deal.

Veteran variable: Starting left guard Alan Faneca has considered retirement. The Cardinals invested in veteran guard Rex Hadnot for depth last offseason. The team lacks young depth on the line, but if Lutui and Sendlein return, the Cardinals have some flexibility.

Name to keep in mind: Ike Taylor, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cardinals are hoping Greg Toler can build upon an up-and-down 2010 season. Taylor would give the team options. He played under new Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton.

St. Louis Rams

Overview: The Rams' most important players tend to be younger starters under contract for the long term (Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Rodger Saffold, Sam Bradford, Jason Smith). Most of their top veterans are also under contract (Steven Jackson, Fred Robbins, James Hall). Free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe is out of the picture after signing with the Washington Redskins following his salary-related release.

Top priority: The Rams could use a veteran guard with some nastiness. The team has invested heavily in its line, but this group could use more of an edge. Bringing back receiver Mark Clayton should be another consideration even though Clayton is coming off a serious knee injury. The rapport Clayton had with Bradford was strong.

Players in flux: Defensive tackles Gary Gibson and Clifton Ryan would remain property of the Rams under 2010 rules, as would cornerback Kevin Dockery and receiver Laurent Robinson. Gibson was the only full-time starter of the group last season. The Rams are expected to seek an upgrade at that position even with Gibson coming back.

Veteran variable: Adam Goldberg started all 16 games on the offensive line last season. The Rams could stand to upgrade, but I see value in bringing back Goldberg as a backup. He can play every position on the line but center. Goldberg has also taken an interest in mentoring younger players. His value off the field is a consideration.

Name to keep in mind: Daniel Graham, TE, Denver Broncos. Graham could make sense for the Rams in free agency. He played under the Rams' new offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, and could help upgrade the run blocking. Seattle has connections to Graham as well.

San Francisco 49ers

Overview: The 49ers signed some of their better young players to long-term contracts well before labor pains became so severe. Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Joe Staley come to mind. The lockout has made it tougher for the 49ers' new coaches to get a feel for players. The 49ers like their talent overall and haven't been big players in free agency over the past couple of seasons. That isn't likely to change.

Top priority: Finding a starting quarterback trumps everything else. Alex Smith can become a free agent. Backups David Carr and Troy Smith are not expected back. The 49ers aren't expected to use the seventh overall choice to select or acquire a quarterback. Coach Jim Harbaugh prides himself in coaching up quarterbacks, but he needs quarterbacks to coach.

Players in flux: Goldson, outside linebacker Manny Lawson and defensive lineman Ray McDonald are among the 49ers players that would fall short of the six-season requirement for unrestricted free agency.

Veteran variable: Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin played last season under a one-year franchise deal. The price tag for re-franchising Franklin appears prohibitive. The 49ers took a wait-and-see approach with Franklin because they hadn't seen him perform at a high level over the long term. They'll need a new nose tackle if Franklin departs.

Name to keep in mind: The 49ers' staff is coming mostly from the college ranks, so there aren't obvious connections to players from other NFL rosters. I expect the 49ers to focus more on re-signing some of their own players, from Spikes to David Baas and beyond.

Seattle Seahawks

Overview: The Seahawks have a long list of players without contracts for 2011. That was mostly be design. The team would like to continue turning over its roster without investing too much in older players such as Matt Hasselbeck, Raheem Brock and Olindo Mare.

Top priority: Figuring out the quarterback situation. Hasselbeck is headed for free agency and could leave if another team gives him some of the longer-term assurances Seattle has resisted. The Seahawks have shown some interest in Philadelphia Eagles backup Kevin Kolb, a player they inquired about last offseason. They still have Charlie Whitehurst. They could draft a quarterback early.

Players in flux: Defensive tackle Mebane heads the list of Seattle players who would not reach free agency under the rules used in 2010. General manager John Schneider called Mebane a "steady pro" when asked about him at the combine. That sounded like faint praise and an indication the Seahawks are not yet prepared to pay top dollar for Mebane if, and when, he hits the market.

Veteran variable: The Seahawks have a few of them, including Mare and Brock. But let's focus on offensive linemen Sean Locklear and Chris Spencer. They combined for 31 starts, but neither appears to be a priority for re-signing. Stacy Andrews is a candidate to step in for Locklear at right tackle. Max Unger could replace Spencer. Coach Pete Carroll thinks the team has upgraded its young depth on the line.

Name to keep in mind: Robert Gallery, guard, Oakland Raiders. Tom Cable's addition as offensive line coach makes Seattle a logical destination for Gallery, who has declared his intention to leave the Raiders.

Key matchup: Jon Ryan vs. Drew Brees?

January, 7, 2011
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The nameless, faceless statistic known as field position is probably underrated in NFL analysis.

Any formula for a Seattle Seahawks upset victory over New Orleans in the NFC wild-card round should probably mention it.

Seattle's Jon Ryan, named special-teams player of the week in the NFC, helped the Seahawks control field position during a 16-6 victory over St. Louis. The Rams began four drives at or inside their 10-yard line following punts.

What could a similar performance against New Orleans mean for Seattle?

Check out the first chart, which breaks down Saints quarterback Drew Brees' production by field position (yes, the passer rating in the second row is correct despite the poor touchdown-to-interception ratio).

How do these stats compare to field-position passing numbers for other top quarterbacks?

New England's Tom Brady has no touchdowns, no interceptions and an 88.6 rating from his own 20-yard line and back. He has three touchdowns, two picks and a 92.0 rating from his own 21 to midfield.

Indianapolis' Peyton Manning has three touchdowns and 13 picks from his own 1 to midfield. The numbers flip to 30 touchdowns and four picks inside opponents' territory.

San Diego's Philip Rivers has five touchdowns and eight picks on a longer field. He has 36 touchdowns and six picks on a shorter field.

In short, bad things appear more likely to happen, particularly for Brees, when he's backed up near his own goal line.

That's where Ryan comes in.

Ryan has only one touchback all season, easily the lowest number in the league among the 27 punters with at least 19 punts downed inside the 20 (Ryan has 27, including a season-high six at Chicago).

Ryan ranks fifth in fair-catch percentage among the 33 punters with at least 20 punts this season.

Weather can make a difference for punters and kickers. Saints punter Thomas Morstead has played two cold-weather games this season, one at Cincinnati and one at Baltimore. The Bengals and Ravens averaged more than 15 yards per punt return in those games. The Saints allowed only 10 total yards on punt returns in their final two regular-season games, both indoors.

The chart ranks NFC West punters by fair-catch percentage, figuring the best return is no return from the punting team's perspective.

Pro Bowl balloting: NFC West leaders

December, 22, 2010
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Fan balloting for the Pro Bowl has closed.

The chart shows NFC West players who finished among the top five at their positions.

Players and coaches vote next. The NFL announces teams next week.

Where NFC West ranks in Pro Bowl votes

December, 8, 2010
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The St. Louis Rams lead the NFC West, but they joined the Carolina Panthers as the only NFL teams without a player in the top five at his position in updated fan balloting for the Pro Bowl.

Not even Steven Jackson cracked the list, according to figures the NFL released Tuesday. Fan balloting continues through Dec. 20. Players and coaches vote Dec. 22-23.

The chart breaks down totals by position and division. NFC West teams produced a league-low 11 players among the top five in fan balloting at their positions.

Seven NFL teams produced at least 11 players among the top five at their positions: Pittsburgh 17, Baltimore 13, Minnesota 12, New York (Jets) 11, New York (Giants) 11, Philadelphia 11 and Green bay 11. New England had 10.

A look at NFC West players and where they rank in fan balloting at their positions:
And now, on to the chart ...

Better late than never for this Cardinal

December, 8, 2010
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More evidence that Pro Bowl balloting among fans might not line up with actual player performances: The Arizona Cardinals' Ben Graham, described as "average at best" during a recent team-wide analysis, leads all punters in fan voting.

Graham played at a Pro Bowl level last season, but the San Francisco 49ers' Andy Lee beat him out for a spot on the NFC squad. Graham hasn't been as effective this season. His net average has fallen from 40.6 to 36.2. The Cardinals have downed 20 of his punts inside the 20-yard line, well off the pace he set last season (42 in 16 games).

The decline in production isn't solely a reflection on Graham. Teams have done a better job containing the Cardinals' coverage units, specifically LaRod Stephens-Howling.

It's likely Sean Morey's reputation as a Pro Bowl performer on special teams helped Stephens-Howling enjoy more favorable matchups last season. Morey left the Cardinals and retired amid concussion issues.

Graham is the only NFC West player leading his position in fan voting, according to information the NFL provided Wednesday. NFC West alumni Heath Evans (fullback), Steve Hutchinson (guard) and Antrel Rolle (free safety) lead their positions in voting.

Fan balloting runs through Dec. 20. Players and coaches vote Dec. 22-23.

Silver linings: Cardinals vs. Seahawks

November, 15, 2010
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The facts: The Cardinals fell to 3-6 with a 36-18 defeat to the Seattle Seahawks at University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 10.

The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two. Looking ahead: The Cardinals visit the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 11.

Post-camp roster analysis: Cardinals

August, 30, 2010
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Matt Leinart apparently has no idea where he stands with the Arizona Cardinals. That makes it tough for the rest of us to predict exactly what might happen.

Will Leinart start at quarterback for the Cardinals in Week 1? Will he serve as the backup? Will the Cardinals release him? Might they trade him?

The next week to 10 days should provide answers. NFL teams have until Saturday to reduce their rosters to 53-man limits, with the 75-man deadline passing Tuesday.

After looking at the Seahawks' roster earlier Monday, here's a quick run through the Cardinals:

Quarterbacks (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.0

Keepers: Derek Anderson

Looking safe: Max Hall

On the bubble: Leinart, John Skelton

Comment: Coach Ken Whisenhunt's handling of Leinart suggests there's more than tough love at work here. It's fair to question whether Leinart fits into the team's plans at all this season. The smart move, it seems, would be to keep Anderson, Leinart and the winner of the Hall-Skelton competition. But it's clear Whisenhunt isn't convinced Leinart has what it takes to be a starting quarterback.

Running backs (8)

Average number kept since 2003: 5.3

Keepers: Tim Hightower, Beanie Wells, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Jason Wright

On the bubble: Reagan Maui'a, Charles Scott

Also: Alfonso Smith, Nehemiah Broughton

Comment: Scott arrived via trade this week after Broughton suffered a season-ending knee injury. Maui'a could be the choice heading into the regular season. Scott provides depth for the final exhibition game, but it's unlikely he would be refined enough as a blocker to factor into the offense in a meaningful way. Smith's speed caught my attention early in camp.

Wide receivers (11)

Average number kept since 2003: 6.1

Keepers: Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, Early Doucet

Looking safe: Andre Roberts, Stephen Williams

On the bubble: Onrea Jones, Max Komar

Also: Isaiah Williams, Darren Mougey, Mike Jones, Ed Gant

Comment: Gant serves a suspension to open the season. Roberts will make the team as a third-round pick. Williams pretty much wrapped up a spot with his latest strong performance (at Chicago). Jones and Komar could be competing for a sixth and final spot at the position.

Tight ends (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.1

Keepers: Ben Patrick, Anthony Becht, Stephen Spach

Also: Jim Dray

Comment: The team released Dominique Byrd on Monday. The top three appear set. Not much drama here. Dray looks like practice-squad material.

Offensive linemen (12)

Average number kept since 2003: 8.9

Keepers: Lyle Sendlein, Alan Faneca, Brandon Keith, Reggie Wells, Levi Brown, Deuce Lutui, Rex Hadnot, Jeremy Bridges

Looking safe: Herman Johnson

Also: Ben Claxton, Tom Pestock, Jonathan Palmer

Comment: Lutui could be trending toward a spot back in the starting lineup despite reporting to camp overweight. Johnson also reported overweight. He isn't a starter, and that's why I listed him separately from the keepers (even though it's an upset, most likely, if Johnson does not stick).

Defensive line (9)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.4

Keepers: Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, Dan Williams, Bryan Robinson

Looking safe: Alan Branch, Gabe Watson, Kenny Iwebema

Also: John Fletcher, Jeremy Clark

Comment: This position appears pretty much set. I would expect seven to earn roster spots.

Linebackers (14)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.1

Keepers: Gerald Hayes, Paris Lenon, Clark Haggans, Joey Porter, Daryl Washington

Looking safe: Will Davis, Cody Brown

Bubble: Monty Beisel, Reggie Walker

Also: O'Brien Schofield, Steve Baggs, Mark Washington, Chris Johnson, Pago Togafau

Comment: Hayes and Schofield could open the season on reserve/physically unable to perform, opening two roster spots. Beisel and Walker could be competing for the final spot at this position.

Defensive backs (13)

Average number kept since 2003: 8.9

Keepers: Adrian Wilson, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Kerry Rhodes, Greg Toler, Trumaine McBride, Matt Ware

Looking safe: Michael Adams, Hamza Abdullah, Rashad Johnson

On the bubble: Marshay Green

Also: A.J. Jefferson, Trevor Ford, Justin Miller

Comment: Toler could be passing McBride on the depth chart as the starting right cornerback, fulfilling expectations. Johnson appeared more physical early in camp. Haven't heard much about him lately, though.

Specialists (3)

Average number kept since 2003: 2.9

Keepers: Jay Feely, Ben Graham, Mike Leach

Comment: Arizona has three on the roster and that's how many the team will keep. Simple enough.

Valuing that veteran seasoning

August, 11, 2010
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Age can be a sensitive subject, even in the NFL. Especially in the NFL, where a couple down seasons past age 30 can leave even accomplished players on the outside.

Teams try to find the right mix of youth, players in their primes and older veterans.

The St. Louis Rams, one of the NFL's youngest teams last season, signed a few players well in their 30s this offseason as they tried to add seasoning. Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt pointed to veteran leadership as one of the things he likes about his roster.

I've gone through NFC West rosters to see how many players in their 30s each team employs. The numbers were about what I would have expected.
Arizona (13): punter Ben Graham 36, defensive tackle Bryan Robinson 36, kicker Jay Feely 34, snapper Mike Leach 33, guard Alan Faneca 33, linebacker Clark Haggans 33, linebacker Joey Porter 33, tight end Anthony Becht 33, linebacker Paris Lenon 32, linebacker Monty Beisel 31, safety Adrian Wilson 30, tackle Jeremy Bridges 30, center Ben Claxton 30.

San Francisco (13): kicker Joe Nedney 37, tackle Barry Sims 35, snapper Brian Jennings 33, linebacker Takeo Spikes 33, fullback Moran Norris 32, cornerback William James 31, quarterback David Carr 31, guard Tony Wragge 30, defensive end Demetric Evans 30, defensive end Justin Smith 30, cornerback Nate Clements 30, center Eric Heitmann 30, safety Michael Lewis 30.

Seattle (10): kicker Olindo Mare 37, safety Lawyer Milloy 36, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck 34, guard Ben Hamilton 32, receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh 32, guard Chester Pitts 31, receiver Deion Branch 31, tight end Chris Baker 30, defensive tackle Craig Terrill 30, defensive tackle Colin Cole 30.

St. Louis (8): defensive end James Hall 33, defensive tackle Fred Robbins 33, quarterback A.J. Feeley 33, center Hank Fraley 32, linebacker Na'il Diggs 32, kicker Josh Brown 31, snapper Chris Massey 30 and punter Donnie Jones 30.

Several other players turn 30 this season: nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (49ers), guard Adam Goldberg (Rams), linebacker Gerald Hayes (Cardinals), kicker Shane Andrus (49ers), guard Reggie Wells (Cardinals) and cornerback Marcus Trufant (Seahawks).

Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald was the NFC West's highest-ranked Madden 10 player last season.

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis has overtaken Fitzgerald in the latest version of the popular NFL video game. Madden 11 overall rankings show Willis with a 99 rating, same as Fitzgerald posted last season. Fitzgerald was second among NFC West players this season at 97.

The chart shows every NFC West player with a ranking higher than 80.

The New York Jets thought Alan Faneca was slipping, but Madden 11 has the new Cardinals guard ranked among the top 10 players in the NFC West at 91. Adam Snyder's rating looks a little high. Beanie Wells' rating could be a little low.

Your thoughts?

NFC West special-teams grades

February, 15, 2010
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Ben Graham's punting, Neil Rackers' regular-season field goal kicking and LaRod Stephens-Howling's overall dominance helped Arizona finish an NFC West-leading eighth in Rick Gosselin's annual special-teams rankings.

The Seahawks were 11th, the Rams tied for 18th and the 49ers 21st.

I like these rankings because they are thorough. Gosselin ranks every team in 22 special-teams categories, then adds up the rankings to produce point totals. The system values all 22 categories the same, a potential weakness, but I think the overall rankings are still telling.

The 49ers' 4.4-yard average on punt returns was an NFL worst. The Cardinals were first in punts downed inside the 20 (42) and first in field goal percentage (94.7). The Seahawks were last in opponents' gross punting average (47.2).

Around the NFC West: Rams' sale update

January, 20, 2010
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Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams majority owner Chip Rosenbloom and sister Lucia Rodriguez are weighing three offers to buy the team. Thomas: "All three offers, described as "acceptable" by the sources, are comparable to what the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise recently sold for -- which was in the range of total franchise value of $720 million to $800 million. ... The pressure to sell the team comes from estate taxes resulting from the death of [Georgia] Frontiere. By 2014, Rosenbloom and Rodriguez must start paying on the principal of those estate taxes rather than the interest, and that increased payment would severely cut into the team's profits."

Also from Thomas: The Rams have signed defensive tackle Chris Bradwell.

More from Thomas: a chat transcript featuring thoughts on Donovan McNabb's potential availability via trade. Thomas: "If you trade for McNabb, you're getting him for just one year. His contract expires following the 2010. He's scheduled to make $5 million in base salary, actually a pretty modest amount. But he is due a $6.5 million roster bonus in May. So obviously, a trade would have to take place before then. Anyway, I wonder if McNabb would even want to come here to a 1-15 team with one of the league's worst offenses. He might resist such a trade or threaten to retire."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com quotes CEO Tod Leiweke this way on what he wants from the team's front office: "Can collaboration work? It does all the time, in all sorts of environments. In fact, it’s how I lead. This is the model that makes sense to us -- to get guys to work together, to share opinions. And the coach’s opinion is going to matter in who we pick (in the draft). But ultimately, that’s the general manager’s job: To go out and find those guys. And how can you not ask Pete Carroll what he thinks about the draft? That’s exactly what we want here."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times calls John Schneider a surprise choice as the Seahawks' new general manager. O'Neil: "Schneider doesn't have 20 years of front-office experience like Floyd Reese, the other finalist who many around the league considered the favorite to get the job. Schneider, 38, doesn't have a Super Bowl ring like Marc Ross of the Giants or Omar Khan of the Steelers, who were also interviewed. Schneider didn't even have his own Wikipedia page at the time of his hiring. But what Schneider does possess is a sterling reputation for draft acumen, and after spending the past seven seasons in Green Bay, he's well-schooled in the Packers' approach to steering clear of the league's free-agent spending frenzy."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com looks at factors surrounding Kurt Warner's decision on retirement. Urban: "There are his teammates, of course, and any obligation he might feel to them. That would never trump his family, but if you think Larry Fitzgerald is just sitting idly by and not letting Warner know constantly how much he wants Warner to return, that’s just being na´ve. There is little question the Cards still have a team that can win the NFC West and conceivably contend for a Super Bowl. It’d be hard to walk away from that -- especially when Warner knows he’s a key piece to such an equation."

Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders ranks the 49ers' Andy Lee as the NFL's best punter in 2009, with the Cardinals' Ben Graham third. The methodology is interesting. One thing I'd like to see: more specific values assigned to punts downed inside the 20. That was one area where I thought Graham in particular excelled.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee does not expect the Saints' Reggie Bush to become available to the 49ers as a return specialist. Barrows: "The Saints definitely could -- and probably will -- ask Bush to restructure his contract. But Bush could command enough interest around the league, especially in a cap-less season, that he could safely decline the Saints' request. For the 49ers, a more likely veteran target would be Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs, who is unhappy with his contract and whose team would be more interested than the Saints in accruing extra draft picks." Advice to the 49ers: Draft a returner who doubles as a third receiver or nickel cornerback.

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers' Frank Gore and Justin Smith could land spots in the Pro Bowl if the Vikings advanced to the Super Bowl. Scheduling the Pro Bowl before the Super Bowl should give quite a few Pro Bowl alternates a chance to qualify as Pro Bowl players.

Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers' fate in 2010 rests more on Warner's decision than anything the 49ers might do.

David Fucillo of Niners Nation looks at how the 49ers' receivers performed in 2009. Michael Crabtree was consistent, if not spectacular.
Darren Urban's item on the "final eight" rules provides a good opening to discuss what an uncapped year means for the Cardinals.

Basically, the final eight teams alive in the playoffs, including Arizona, will have a harder time signing free agents from other teams if the NFL and its players fail to extend the collective bargaining agreement. I don't think this is a huge deal, though, because rules will also dramatically reduce the number of players available in free agency. And remember, there haven't been many good players hitting the market, anyway.

Without a new CBA, players must have six years in the league, not four, to become free agents. Teams will also be able to use one franchise tag and two transition tags to restrict veteran players.

Pat Kirwan of NFL.com has done a good job explaining some of the implications here and here.

Last offseason, Arizona lost (and in some cases did not want back) Terrelle Smith, Eric Green, J.J. Arrington, Antonio Smith and the since-re-signed Monty Beisel in unrestricted free agency. The Cardinals added Bryant McFadden and Jason Wright as unrestricted free agents. The team re-signed unrestricted free agents Brian St. Pierre, Ben Graham, Kurt Warner, Ralph Brown, Clark Haggans, Bertrand Berry and the since-released Elton Brown, with Karlos Dansby re-signing as a franchise player.

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