NFC West: Bill Polian

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.

First Down

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

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

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

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

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

Second Down

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

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

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

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

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

Third Down

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth Down

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

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

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

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

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

Tarell Brown tweeted Sunday morning about getting a massage and of his plan to barbecue. Brown has reason to be in a festive mood.

There is reason to believe the cornerback market will be robust in free agency a year after the market struggled. Green Bay re-signed cornerback Sam Shields to a whopping four-year, $39 million deal Saturday. Miami recently signed Brent Grimes, who suffered in free agency last year, to a big extension as well.

If that trend continues, Brown should benefit when free agency starts Tuesday. While the cornerback position is filled with some strong players, ESPN analyst Bill Polian ranks Brown at the top of the available players at the position.

If just one NFL team agrees with Polian, the 49ers will have difficulty keeping him. The 49ers want Brown back, but they will likely not be willing to give him a huge deal with bigger contracts on the horizon for the team. If Brown signs elsewhere, the team will likely have Chris Culliver, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, compete for a starting job. The 49ers would also likely have to add an inexpensive veteran and use an early draft pick on a cornerback.
In an Insider piece, ESPN analyst, and former NFL general manager, Bill Polian gives San Francisco 49ers' cornerback Tarell Brown high praise.

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.

Mel Kiper Jr., Todd McShay and six-time NFL executive of the year Bill Polian singled out two NFC West teams when discussing what they liked and did not like in the 2013 NFL draft.

The video features their thoughts.

Separately, ESPN SportsNation provides an opportunity for you to rate how teams fared. The San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams have been leading in polling for the NFC West.

NFC West draft analysis

April, 27, 2013
NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The NFC West has been gaining on the two-time defending division champion San Francisco 49ers.

The Seattle Seahawks nearly caught the 49ers in the division race last season before adding Percy Harvin. The St. Louis Rams more than tripled their victory total from 2011 while going 1-0-1 against San Francisco. The Arizona Cardinals will almost certainly get better after acquiring quarterback Carson Palmer.

The 49ers, with arguably the NFL's strongest roster and best coaching staff, had nowhere to go but down. How general manager Trent Baalke used the 49ers' NFL-high 13 draft choices was going to be critical for the 49ers to maintain their standing atop the NFC West.

"Trent Baalke has to be on his 'A' game," coach Jim Harbaugh had said. "This could make you. You could be the next Bill Polian, the next Ozzie Newsome. It all hinges on this draft. So, it's exciting."

So, how did Baalke do? With all those picks and relatively few openings in the lineup, Baalke needed to be aggressive. He needed to move up for specific players when appropriate and parlay picks into 2014 capital.

Baalke did those things. He moved up 13 spots to select LSU safety Eric Reid with the 18th overall pick. There's more than one way to judge whether the 49ers fared well in getting the 18th pick from Dallas for the 31st and 74th selections. A rival executive told me he thought the 49ers got a great deal. In 1995, Jacksonville packaged the 31st, 97th and 134th picks with a future fourth-rounder to acquire No. 19 -- a higher price.

The 49ers had the capital to move around the board and target needs. San Francisco addressed its top three needs with its top three picks, landing a safety (Reid), defensive lineman (Tank Carradine) and tight end (Vance McDonald). Baalke acquired a 2014 third-rounder from Tennessee as well.

So, the 49ers got what they wanted now while planning for the future with that 2014 pick and Marcus Lattimore, the running back they hope can contribute in 2014. Carradine could be needed to take over for Justin Smith in another year. The 49ers added receiver Quinton Patton in the fourth round -- no big deal, perhaps, but with a decision on Michael Crabtree's contract looming, insurance at that position made sense longer term as well.


There were a few worthy candidates. A double move the St. Louis Rams pulled off in the first round stands out. We cannot say with any certainty whether the players St. Louis or any team selected will become outstanding ones, but we can evaluate the process, at least. The Rams had more at stake in the first round than any team in the NFC West. Their thinking and execution through that portion of the draft appeared sound.

Moving up eight spots to select wide receiver Tavon Austin delivered to St. Louis the skill player that evaluators were most excited about in this draft. The cost was high, however, and the Rams had lots of needs. Their move to recoup picks by trading back eight spots to No. 30 with their other first-round selection gave them the best of both worlds.

The Rams entered this draft with eight total picks and what seemed to be primary needs at safety, receiver, guard and outside linebacker. They needed depth at corner, too.

Sending the 16th, 46th, 78th and 222nd picks to the Buffalo Bills for the eighth and 71st picks left the Rams with just six selections in the draft. That wasn't going to be enough for coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead to build sufficient depth. But with Snead having come to the Rams from Atlanta, the second-year GM put to use his relationship with Falcons counterpart Thomas Dimitroff, restoring needed picks to St. Louis.

The Rams then sent the 22nd overall choice and a 2015 seventh-rounder to the Falcons for the 30th, 92nd and 198th choices. That left St. Louis with its original pick count, eight, and the same number of first-rounders. Note that the picks St. Louis wound up using in the first round -- Nos. 8 and 30 -- averaged out to the picks the Rams held originally (16 and 22).

The Rams emerged from the first round with the first skill-position player selected and the first 4-3 outside linebacker selected.


[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
AP Photo/Michael ConroyWith strong locker room leaders, Arizona GM Steve Keim said he feels confident in drafting defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.
Risk can be good sometimes, and I'd say the Arizona Cardinals made a calculated one by using their third-round choice for Tyrann Mathieu, the LSU defensive back Bill Polian had called a "poor teammate and a poor risk" during ESPN's draft coverage. Polian, a six-time NFL executive of the year, made those comments before the Cardinals selected Mathieu (Polian and Cardinals coach Bruce Arians worked together in Indianapolis years ago).

Mathieu, nicknamed "Honey Badger" for his aggressive coverage tactics, had been kicked off the team at LSU for violating substance-abuse rules. He had admitted to having a problem eliminating marijuana use from his life. A strong endorsement from Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson helped Arizona feel better about selecting Mathieu. The two starred together at LSU and are looking forward to reuniting.

"We will probably start him at weak safety and then with our defense, with the way it’s structured, he can slide into the slot as a free safety -- basically playing with three corners, but one of them is also a safety," Arians said. "He gives that flexibility where we wouldn’t have to substitute."

Mathieu said he'll submit to regular testing, counseling or anything else the Cardinals might have in mind. He sounded sincere.

Meanwhile, general manager Steve Keim pointed to strong leadership in the Cardinals' locker room as another reason the team might be able to keep Mathieu on the right side of the NFL's policies. Keim singled out Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and Daryl Washington as players "you feel can help keep some structure in place."

Those players might indeed serve as fine leaders. However, the Cardinals did reportedly levy a six-figure fine against Dockett for insubordination last season. Washington is scheduled to serve a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.

"We made two selections, our first two selections, with guys that have impeccable character," Keim said of Jonathan Cooper and Kevin Minter. "You don't want to build your locker room of 53 players with risk.

"If you feel like you have a strong core of solid veteran leaders -- guys like Dockett, Calais Campbell, Daryl Washington -- who you feel can help keep some structure in place, I think that you have a chance to occasionally take a risk. That's if you have that instinct or that gut feeling that this player is committed to making a change."


The Seattle Seahawks used the last choice of the second round to select running back Christine Michael even though the depth chart was stacked with Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin, both of whom are signed for the long term.

The Seahawks did not have glaring needs entering this draft. They had flexibility to make a move such as this one. They also had an opening at running back after releasing Leon Washington. Unlike Washington, however, Michael doesn't factor as an explosive kickoff returner. He doesn't qualify as a change-of-pace back. He would seem to give the Seahawks more of the power running they already have in abundance.

The most surprising move in the division could still be a good one. As coach Pete Carroll pointed out, the team used a third-round choice for quarterback Russell Wilson last year shortly after signing Matt Flynn to a three-year, $19.5 million deal. The team found a starting quarterback when no one thought it needed one.


The landscape at running back continues to change in the NFC West. Every team in the division selected at least one in this draft.

The clock ticks loudly for older backs in the NFL.

Steven Jackson was one established back to depart the NFC West this offseason, leaving the Rams in free agency after eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for the team.

St. Louis traded into the fifth round to select Vanderbilt's Zac Stacy, a power back standing 5-foot-8 and weighing 216 pounds. Stacy will join Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson in the committee setup Jackson resisted.

Frank Gore's time with the San Francisco 49ers is not yet up. He remains effective and hasn't shown obvious signs of slowing. He's one of the most productive and respected players on the team. He also turns 30 next month, a bad number for running backs.

The 49ers used a 2011 fourth-round pick for Kendall Hunter and a 2012 second-rounder for LaMichael James before using a 2013 fourth-rounder for South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore. The team is preparing for life without Gore.

The Cardinals already released 2009 first-round pick Beanie Wells. They signed Rashard Mendenhall before drafting Stanford career rushing leader Stepfan Taylor in the fifth round and another back, Andre Ellington of Clemson, in the sixth.

Michael's addition in Seattle wouldn't appear to change much over the next year or two. I wonder what it says, if anything, about the team's faith in Lynch holding up through the remainder of his contract, which runs through 2015.

Seattle added another running back, Spencer Ware of LSU, late in the sixth round.
The San Francisco 49ers probably are not going to overhaul their defensive scheme to accommodate newly added tackle Glenn Dorsey.

Initial reports suggest Dorsey will help fill the void created by nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga's departure to the Philadelphia Eagles. In that case, Dorsey would also provide insurance at defensive end in the 49ers' 3-4 scheme.

That could be the end of the story. But Dorsey's addition to an evolving line rotation invites a closer look at where the 49ers are headed on defense. It can serve as a launching point for a discussion I've been wanting to have for some time.

[+] EnlargeGlenn Dorsey
Jake Roth/USA TODAY SportsDoes the signing of Glenn Dorsey signal a scheme change in San Francisco?
First, some background on why I think the 49ers have some decisions to make as they seek to sustain their recent success under coordinator Vic Fangio.

General manager Trent Baalke hinted at the subject when suggesting during the NFL scouting combine that the 49ers used a smaller rotation along their line for philosophical reasons, not depth reasons. In my view, the comments sounded like something a GM would say if he thought the defensive coordinator should be using a larger rotation.

Fangio has been known to favor veteran players. That is typical for coordinators running complex 3-4 schemes. Those schemes often function best with veteran players. Veteran players carry higher price tags. Higher price tags force tough personnel decisions as teams manage salary caps that aren't growing all that much from year to year.

That is where the 49ers are at right now. They knew they would have to let certain defensive veterans leave in free agency. Dashon Goldson was one of them. There has also been talk recently about how a scheme change could help the 49ers take better advantage of cheaper labor.

In some ways, the strength of the 49ers' front has allowed them to get by with a smaller rotation along the line. Last season proved they can't take for granted such an arrangement in the future.

A deeper, younger rotation on the line could be part of an evolution unless the 49ers are willing to make the tough choices associated with their current approach. The choices for 3-4 teams can include paying top dollar for a nose tackle and outside linebackers. Demand and prices for players best suited to the 3-4 has risen has more teams have adopted that scheme in recent seasons (perhaps to stay ahead of the curve, New England's Bill Belichick has gone away from the 3-4 over the past couple seasons).

Teams running 4-3 schemes still need to pay for pass-rushers, including at defensive tackle if they're fortunate enough to find one worthy of the investment. They can generally get by paying less for linebackers.

The 49ers are paying big money to defensive end Justin Smith through the 2013 season. They have invested heavily in inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. They committed to Bowman for the long term after deciding he could provide value to them even if San Francisco went away from its current scheme. The idea was that Bowman and Willis would remain among the very best players on the defense regardless. They would be worth the money no matter what.

Again, I don't think the 49ers are suddenly going to unveil a 4-3 base defense. But they do have flexibility with their personnel. They could be headed in that direction. As Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. noted when I reached out to him Wednesday, Smith was a 4-3 defensive end coming out of college. Ray McDonald was seen as an up-the-field lineman. The fact that Smith and McDonald have flourished in a 3-4 reflects well on them and on defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. There's precedent for Dorsey to make a transition, too.

On the other hand, Dorsey appears ideally suited for a 4-3 defense. That was the word on him as the fifth pick of the 2008 draft and that remained the word on him heading into free agency. And the 49ers do have the personnel to become more of a 4-3 team on defense should they choose to head in that direction.

"I could see McDonald as a three-technique type and maybe Dorsey as one-technique," Williamson said. "Ahmad Brooks could project as a 'SAM' linebacker pretty easily and Bowman would be great as the 'WILL'. Justin Smith could be a strong-side end, Aldon Smith could play the weak side. They do have the personnel."

To this point, San Francisco's defense under Fangio has relied upon a smaller number of players logging a higher number of snaps. San Francisco wore down on defense late last season, a factor in the team falling just short of a Super Bowl victory.

The 49ers are only getting started on implementing their offseason plan. Dorsey's arrival may or may not mean much in the bigger picture. But the comments Baalke made at the combine have lingered in my mind. They sounded significant. The subject will come up again as the 49ers navigate the draft and minicamps.

Back in 2001, the Indianapolis Colts loaded up on offensive players to support young quarterback Peyton Manning. As a result, they released veteran defensive players, putting the coordinator in a tough position. Fangio was that coordinator. Bill Polian, the GM back then, thought a simpler defensive scheme would help the team get more from a young defense. The head coach, Jim Mora, refused Polian's demand that he fire Fangio. Polian fired Mora and Fangio in response.

The 2013 49ers are not the Colts of a decade ago. Not even close. They have plenty of talent on offense and defense. They still have a very effective veteran core on defense. Their quarterback remains under contract on the cheap for another season at least, providing flexibility. Fangio just helped the 49ers get to the Super Bowl. Now is not the time to scrap what has gotten the 49ers to this point. But there are some tradeoffs to consider, at least, and the 49ers are well aware of them. I wonder to what degree the team will alter its defense with sustainability in mind.

ESPN's Bill Polian, Mark Schlereth, Trey Wingo and Adam Schefter offered thoughts Monday on the trade sending Percy Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks.

Polian examines the fit. Schelerth addresses Harvin's impact. Schefter notes Seattle general manager John Schneider's past efforts to chase big-name wide receivers.

The first four NFL quarterbacks drafted in 2012 have already won starting jobs as rookies.

Seattle's Russell Wilson, third-round choice from Wisconsin, has a chance to make it five of the top six. He'll get a chance to work with recently cleared receiver Sidney Rice when the Seahawks visit Kansas City for their third exhibition game, set for Friday night.

We can excuse Denver's Brock Osweiler, the only second-round quarterback this year, for failing to crack the lineup. He'll get time to develop behind Peyton Manning.

"What it tells you that this is probably the most talented class since the '83 Marino-O'Brien-Kelly class," ESPN's Bill Polian said on NFL Live.

But there was also a word of caution from Polian, the former Indianapolis Colts exec, regarding the current crop of rookies: "Let's take a look three years from now. Then we'll know."

Recent history backs up the cautionary tone.

Three of the first four quarterbacks from the 2010 class have lost their starting jobs (Tim Tebow, Jimmy Clausen and Colt McCoy). St. Louis' Sam Bradford is the exception among the four. The sixth quarterback drafted that year, fifth-rounder John Skelton, could start in Arizona. None of the eight quarterbacks drafted later than Skelton holds a starting job.

The first five quarterbacks drafted in 2011 are starters now that Jake Locker, chosen eighth overall by Tennessee, has ascended into the Titans' lineup over Matt Hasselbeck. Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton are the others. Locker, Gabbert and Ponder have the most to prove.

San Francisco backup Colin Kaepernick was the sixth quarterback drafted in 2011, ahead of Ryan Mallett, Ricky Stanzi, T.J. Yates, Nathan Enderle, Tyrod Taylor and Greg McElroy. Kaepernick might be starting by now if Alex Smith hadn't put together a career-best season.

Twenty-three of the named 30 starters for 2012 entered the NFL as first-round draft choices. Dalton and Drew Brees were second-rounders. Matt Schaub, like Wilson, was a third-round pick. Tom Brady (sixth), Ryan Fitzpatrick (seventh) and Matt Cassel (seventh) were late-round picks. Tony Romo was the only one undrafted.

The San Francisco 49ers' NFC West rivals might as well start working on their divisional concession speeches.

That is because the 49ers, after one good season, suddenly tower over the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams by just about every meaningful on-field franchise marker.

That was my somewhat skeptical takeaway from the "NFL Future Power Rankings" Insider projecting where teams are headed by 2015, using a weighted formula reflecting rosters, quarterbacks, drafts, front offices and coaching.

The 49ers, easily underrated while charging to a 13-3 record last season, appear overrated in relation to their division rivals by this ranking, in my view. Can we really say their front office blows away those for the other NFC West teams by an 8.5-to-5 margin across the board? A five-game cushion in the 2011 division standings says we can, but that will be a tough edge to maintain. Then again, last season did happen. It has to count for something, and the front office usually had the right answers.

"This category weighs each team's front office in terms of its ability to manage its roster and bring in new talent via free agency or trades," the methodology reads. "It also factors in a team's willingness to spend money, and a market's attraction to free agents. A 10 represents a team that has the ability to spend freely and obtain top-choice talent on a regular basis. A one represents a team that has little ability to spend, has no track record of bringing in quality free-agent talent or, worse, has spent big on free agents that have made little-to-no impact."

The 49ers hit big on Aldon Smith in the 2011 draft while finding outstanding free-agent value in Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers. They succeeded in keeping together their defense. CEO Jed York appears to have made the right move for a general manager even though fans were hardly chanting for Trent Baalke to assume the role. York and Baalke landed Jim Harbaugh as head coach.

On the flip side, the 49ers' front office has done less heavy lifting than the front offices for Seattle and St. Louis in particular. San Francisco stayed the course to a greater degree than those other teams, relying upon a new coaching staff to get more from Alex Smith and others. But the Rams remain in the early stages of a rebuild, while the Seahawks will need better on-field results to validate the high-impact moves they've made since Pete Carroll arrived in 2010. Seattle's unsettled fate at quarterback stands as another key variable.

Overall, the 49ers finished ahead of their division rivals in all five core categories except for one. They were second to St. Louis in projected quarterback strength. Having Sam Bradford gave the Rams 6.25 points out of 10 in that category, ahead of scores for Seattle (4.5) and Arizona (3.75).

I'll be curious to hear your thoughts on how these teams are set up for the future. I suspect a 2008 projection would have expected more from the Cardinals in 2011.

As the piece freely admits, these projections cannot anticipate everything.

"But they do provide some interesting conclusions about what's truly important to succeeding on a perennial basis in the NFL, specifically the value of a franchise QB," the piece notes. "And while some teams may experience a down year, the squads at the top of this list are well suited for sustained success over the long term."

Note: Gary Horton, Matt Williamson, Trent Dilfer and Mel Kiper Jr. worked with Bill Polian in putting together these projections.

ESPN's Bill Polian pointed to Bruce Irvin (Seattle Seahawks) and A.J. Jenkins (San Francisco 49ers) as two surprising first-round selections.

Polian liked the Jenkins selection relative to where the 49ers got him. His concerns on Irvin related only to off-field issues that raised character concerns for some teams.

Irvin, Fletcher Cox and Michael Brockers were three players the Seahawks were considering when they traded back three spots into the 15th overall slot. Cox went to Philadelphia at No. 12. Brockers went to St. Louis at No. 14. Seattle was contemplating moving back again to the No. 20 range, but general manager John Schneider had heard rumblings about teams' potential first-round interest in Irvin over the previous couple days.

The Jets were picking 16th, and they were also interested in pass-rush help. That was one reason the Seahawks felt as though they'd better take Irvin where they got him.

"Irvin's problem was not football," Polian said. "He is an outstanding rusher. ... Pete Carroll knows him well. Pete's had a history of being able to coach those kinds of guys and do well with them. Hopefully, for the young man's sake, it will work out fine."
The San Francisco 49ers twice lost close games against New Orleans in the Superdome when the Saints were allegedly eavesdropping on visiting coaches from 2002-2004.

Coincidence? Evidence of malfeasance?

"There’s something missing here," said Bill Polian, the ESPN analyst and former longtime NFL executive. "I don’t know what kind of competitive advantage you can get."

The report by "Outside the Lines" cites people familiar with the Saints' game-day operations as saying Mickey Loomis, the Saints' general manager, had the ability to monitor opposing coaches from his private box during home games.

NFC West teams played three games at the Superdome during the period in question.

The 49ers suffered a 35-27 defeat at New Orleans in 2002 after the Saints outscored them 22-3 in the fourth quarter. They also suffered a 30-27 defeat there in 2004 after Aaron Brooks found Donte Stallworth for a 16-yard touchdown with 1:01 remaining. Also in 2004, the Seattle Seahawks claimed a 21-7 victory at New Orleans.

The NFL has already suspended Loomis, a former longtime Seahawks executive, for the first eight games of the 2012 season as punishment for his handling of the Saints' bounty situation.

The allegations against Loomis are damaging whether or not the Saints realized any in-game advantages.

"Mickey would have to know the verbiage of every other opposing team in order to translate it, and then he would have to do it instantly and find some way to communicate with his coaching staff and get it down to the field in time for it to be useful," Polian said. "That would be very difficult to do, in my opinion."

The Saints have strongly denied the allegations.

Steve Mariucci (2002) and Dennis Erickson (2004) were the 49ers' head coaches for the NFC West defeats in question. Erickson and Loomis worked together in Seattle years earlier.

Another NFC West alum, Jim Haslett, was the Saints' head coach at the time.
The Arizona Cardinals went from pursuing Peyton Manning to paying Kevin Kolb this offseason.

Another quarterback will have a chance to grab the Cardinals' attention this offseason.

John Skelton, who owns six game-winning drives in 13 career games, will be given a chance to compete for the starting job at training camp. At least one longtime NFL talent evaluator thinks Skelton has an opportunity to become the long-term starter in Arizona.

Bill Polian, the ESPN analyst and six-time NFL executive of the year, recently pointed to Skelton Insider as a key variable in rating how well the Cardinals fared in recent drafts.

"The Cardinals have done a solid job over the past three seasons, garnering eight starters and nine contributors from the draft," Polian wrote. "Beanie Wells, Sam Acho and Patrick Peterson have made great contributions. If QB John Skelton is 'the man' (still a possibility, for me, depending on camp), they've hit the jackpot."

We haven't heard much about Skelton this offseason. Perhaps that changes during camp.
The St. Louis Rams, in trading the second pick of the 2012 NFL draft to Washington, have already benefited from one team desperate for a quarterback.

They could benefit again if the Miami Dolphins traded into the third overall spot from No. 8 to ensure landing Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

The Rams, picking sixth and uninterested in a quarterback that early, would have one additional non-passer to consider if Tannehill joined Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III to make this the first 1-2-3 draft for QBs since 1999.

What are the chances?

The new wage scale for top draft choices has led some to suggest teams will be more interested in trading into the top few spots from lower in the first round. ESPN's Bill Polian advocated this position in his latest column Insider. He sees the QB-needy Dolphins having little choice but to make a strong play for Tannehill, which could mean leaping past Cleveland, owner of the fourth overall choice, for that opportunity.

But the price for moving up would seem to rise for two reasons. One, Tannehill plays quarterback, the most valuable position, giving Minnesota, owner of the third pick at present, additional leverage. Two, the third overall choice is more affordable for the Vikings than it would have been in the past, giving them less incentive to trade out of the choice as a matter of general principle.

The Vikings would presumably select USC's Matt Kalil third if they remained in that spot. Cleveland, picking fourth, already has a franchise left tackle in Joe Thomas. But if Minnesota traded back to No. 8, the Vikings could forget about Kalil, perhaps settling instead on another tackle, Riley Reiff.

Tampa Bay holds the fifth pick and would not pass on Alabama running back Trent Richardson, in Polian's estimation.

In that scenario, the Rams could choose from Kalil, Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon and LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, among others. They would have tougher choices, but also superior options.
Paul Kuharsky's take on former Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher should help better inform St. Louis Rams fans.

The most interesting part, to me, centers around possible candidates for general manager if Fisher became the Rams' next head coach.

Kuharsky mentions two names, both familiar to NFC West followers:
  • Ruston Webster: Webster is the Titans' vice president of player personnel under former Seahawks executive Mike Reinfeldt. While with Seattle, Webster seemed to get along well with everyone on both sides of the Tim Ruskell-Mike Holmgren. The fact that he arrived in Seattle with Ruskell and left to join Reinfeldt's staff attests to that (Reinfeldt was Holmgren's top confidant in Seattle). Webster would work well with Fisher.
  • Randy Mueller: Mueller has been a senior executive with the San Diego Chargers since 2008. He predated Holmgren in Seattle and worked well with Holmgren before leaving to serve as general manager in New Orleans. Kuharsky mentions Mueller because the Titans tried to interview Mueller during the process that culminated with Reinfeldt's hiring. Rams fans might know that Mueller was instrumental in bringing Jim Haslett to New Orleans as Saints coach.

Webster would be an obvious candidate because he has worked with Fisher recently. Kuharsky also mentioned Fishers' relationships with Bill Polian and Rich McKay from their days together on the NFL's competition committee. McKay hasn't worked directly in personnel recently. He and Webster were together in Tampa Bay previously.

Fisher also worked in Tennessee with current Titans vice president of football operations Lake Dawson. Dawson, the team's former pro personnel director, worked with Reinfeldt and Webster in Seattle.
John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan MarinoUS PresswireJohn Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino are a part of a draft class that may be the best in NFL history.
The 1983 NFL draft might have been the best of the modern era even without Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway, Jim Kelly or Dan Marino.

It was that good.

"I think if you asked each guy to a man, in particular the Hall of Fame guys, there has always been a pride about our class," said cornerback Darrell Green, the 28th overall choice in 1983 and a Hall of Famer. "Without ever discussing it, we knew we were a pretty special class of athletes."

The class produced six Hall of Famers –- Elway, Kelly, Marino, Green, Eric Dickerson and Bruce Matthews -– in addition to recent Hall finalists Richard Dent and Roger Craig. Of the 335 players drafted, 41 combined for 142 Pro Bowl appearances.

No other draft class has produced more than 34 Pro Bowl players since the NFL and AFL combined for a common draft in 1967, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That year served as the starting point for this project ranking the five best draft classes. The 1996, 1981, 1969 and 1985 drafts also made the cut.

Not that making the cut was good enough for some.

"If you took the defensive players in our draft and put them on the field against any class, we would shut them out," said Ronnie Lott, one of the more decorated members of a 1981 class featuring Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, Rickey Jackson, Howie Long and Kenny Easley.

The project was biased against recent classes because their players haven’t had time to achieve in ways that set apart the older classes. The 2001 class has already produced 33 Pro Bowlers, same as the 1996 class and more than every other class but 1983, 1987 and 1988. But the best players from that class aren't finished achieving.

The biggest challenge, at least to me, was settling on the right criteria. ESPN Stats & Information provided an updated version of the spreadsheet used to identify elite draft classes for a previous project Insider. The spreadsheet awarded points to players based on:

  • Hall of Fame enshrinement (15 points)
  • MVP awards (8)
  • Player of the year awards (6)
  • All-Pro first-team awards (4)
  • All-Pro second-team awards (3)
  • Super Bowl victories (3)
  • Pro Bowls (2)
  • Rookie of the year awards (2)
  • Super Bowl defeats (1)

I used the spreadsheet as a starting point.

From there, I assigned 15 points to current or recently retired players likely destined for Canton. The players I singled out were: Troy Polamalu, Dwight Freeney, Ed Reed, LaDainian Tomlinson, Steve Hutchinson, Brian Urlacher, Tom Brady, Champ Bailey, Peyton Manning, Randy Moss, Alan Faneca, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Taylor, Jonathan Ogden, Marvin Harrison, Ray Lewis, Brian Dawkins, Terrell Owens, Derrick Brooks, Marshall Faulk, Larry Allen, Michael Strahan, Brett Favre, Junior Seau and Deion Sanders.

I added five points for Hall of Fame finalists not yet enshrined -- Cortez Kennedy, Shannon Sharpe, etc. These changes allowed the rich to get richer, of course, because all those players already had lots of Pro Bowls on their resumés. But if it was important to recognize current Hall of Famers -- and it was, I thought -- then it was important to acknowledge the strongest candidates not yet enshrined.

Another thing I noticed: These changes didn't significantly alter results, which were predicated mostly on Pro Bowl appearances, a statistical correlation revealed.

The next challenge was making sure the formula didn't acknowledge great players at the expense of good ones. ESPN's John Clayton and Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. felt the formula should take special care in this area. I wasn't as adamant.

"You love the Hall of Famers," Horton said, "but I like the class where the guy plays at a high level for a long time. I love those third-round picks that just play and play. We shouldn’t make a mistake at the first pick. That guy should be a great player."

Clayton used approximate-value ratings from Pro Football Reference to produce averages for each draft class. The 1993 class produced the highest average, followed by the 1996, 1983, 1975 and 1971 classes. Clayton also plugged in total games played. The 1983 class edged the 1993 class for the most, followed by the 1990, 1976 and 1988 classes.

A few key variables changed along the way.

Teams drafted at least 442 players annually from 1967 to 1976. They drafted more than 330 players each year from 1977 through 1992. The 1993 class featured only 224 players, fewer than any class under consideration. The first 224 players drafted in 1969 had much higher average approximate-value ratings than the 1993 class, for example. More recent draft classes also benefited from league expansion, which opened roster spots and opportunities for additional players.

NFL regular seasons also grew in length from 14 to 16 games beginning in 1978.

My focus was more on what the draft classes produced and less on extenuating circumstances.

The 1993 class is among those deserving honorable mention. Do the most decorated members of that class -- Strahan, Willie Roaf, Will Shields, John Lynch, Jerome Bettis and Drew Bledsoe among them -- hold up to the best from other years?

Take a look at my top five classes and decide for yourself.

[+] EnlargeDarrell Green
US PresswireDarrell Green was the last pick of the first round in the 1983 draft.

Why it's the best: No other class came close using the point system from ESPN Stats & Information. The 1983 class finished in a virtual tie with the 1996 and 1981 classes even when I removed from consideration the three Hall of Fame quarterbacks -- Elway, Marino and Jim Kelly. No class had more combined Pro Bowls from its top-10 picks (42) or more combined Pro Bowls from players drafted later than the 200th overall choice (26). Five of the six Hall of Famers played their entire NFL careers with one team for 83 combined seasons, or 16.6 on average.

Hall of Famers: Elway (Broncos), Kelly (Bills), Marino (Dolphins), Green (Redskins), Dickerson (Rams), Matthews (Oilers)

Hall of Fame finalists: Richard Dent (Bears), Roger Craig (49ers)

Other big names: Karl Mecklenburg (Broncos), Joey Browner (Vikings), Chris Hinton (Broncos), Charles Mann (Redskins), Dave Duerson (Bears), Leonard Marshall (Giants), Albert Lewis (Chiefs), Curt Warner (Seahawks), Jimbo Covert (Bears), Henry Ellard (Rams), Mark Clayton (Dolphins), Tim Krumrie (Bengals), Greg Townsend (Raiders), Gill Byrd (Chargers), Don Mosebar (Raiders), Darryl Talley (Bills).

Late-round steals: Mecklenburg was the 310th overall choice. Dent went 203rd overall. Clayton went 223rd. They combined for 15 Pro Bowls.

Ah, the memories: Green grew up in Houston rooting for the Oilers, but his hometown team wasn't very accommodating on draft day. His family didn't have cable TV, so they couldn't watch the draft on ESPN. They had heard the Oilers would be showing it at their facility, or at least providing real-time updates, but Green was turned away.

"They sent my little behind on out of there," Green said. "That is the way that went. What is funny, I’m a Houstonian, I played 20 years in the NFL, started 18 years and I never played in Houston but one time, so I couldn’t stick it to them. ... But you always love your hometown. I was a Luv Ya Blue, Bum Phillips, Kenny Burrough, Earl Campbell, Dan Pastorini fan."

Green was used to the cold shoulder. Tim Lewis, drafted 11th overall by Green Bay, was supposed to be the superstar cornerback that year. Looking back, Green liked going one spot after Marino. Green also values being a bookend to a first round featuring Elway on the other side.

"[Redskins general manager] Bobby Beathard told me if I was there, he would take me," Green said. "I'd always been told by pro players, 'Hey, don’t believe anything they say.' As an adult, I know why. Things change. But the man told me. We got down to Dan Marino at 27 and I knew I wouldn't be 27. Then when we got to 28, the last pick of the first round, now I’ve got nothing else to do but believe it. I was extremely excited he maintained his word."

Ray Lewis
Frank Victores/US PresswireRay Lewis could be one of the best linebackers to ever play in the NFL.

Why it's No. 2: Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis arguably rank among the three best players at their positions in NFL history. Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens arguably rank among the 10 greatest receivers. Between four and seven members from this class have strong credentials for Canton. Only the 1983 class produced more total Pro Bowl appearances. Unlike some other classes -- 1988 comes to mind -- this one provided star power deep into the draft.

Hall of Famers: none yet.

Hall of Fame finalists: none yet.

Strongest Hall credentials: Jonathan Ogden (Ravens), Marvin Harrison (Colts), Ray Lewis (Ravens), Brian Dawkins (Eagles), Terrell Owens (49ers), Zach Thomas (Dolphins), La'Roi Glover (Raiders).

Other big names: Mike Alstott (Bucs), Willie Anderson (Bengals), Simeon Rice (Bucs), Lawyer Milloy (Patriots), Tedy Bruschi (Patriots), Eddie George (Titans), Jeff Hartings (Lions), Keyshawn Johnson (Jets), Donnie Edwards (Chiefs), Jon Runyan (Oilers), Amani Toomer (Giants), Muhsin Muhammad (Panthers), Stephen Davis (Redskins), Joe Horn (Chiefs), Marco Rivera (Packers).

Late-round steals: Fifth-rounders Thomas, Glover and Horn combined for 17 Pro Bowls. Another fifth-rounder, Jermaine Lewis, added two more. No other fifth round produced more total Pro Bowls during the period in question. Although expansion added additional picks to more recent fifth rounds, those picks were also later in the draft. Thomas and Glover should get strong Hall of Fame consideration.

Ah, the memories: Glover was the 16th defensive tackle drafted in 1996. He wasn't even invited to the combine initially, and when he did get the call, there wasn't enough time to prepare for the specialized events. Glover, who weighed about 265 pounds at San Diego State, was in trouble and he knew it.

"It's funny to me now, but it wasn't funny then," Glover said. "I got a call maybe a week before the combine, so I wasn’t prepared. I was out there doing my long-distance conditioning training and I wasn’t doing speed-type training. I may have ran like a 5.1 or 5.2, a very bad time."

Glover performed much better at his personal workout, dropping those times into the low 4.9s. Oakland made him the 166th player chosen that year.

"I just remember feeling goosebumps and I started sweating -- the dream is coming true," Glover said. "And then I was put on the phone with Mr. Al Davis. He asked me a very specific question: 'How would you like to be an Oakland Raider?' And I damn near lost it. I didn’t cry or anything. I kept my composure over the phone. As soon as I hung up and saw my name come on the ticker -- I lived in a tiny 2-3 bedroom home -- the place just erupted. All the women were crying and all the men were asking for tickets."

[+] EnlargeLT
US PresswireLawrence Taylor helped the New York Giants win two Super Bowls.

Why it's No. 3: This was arguably the greatest defensive draft under consideration, particularly near the top. The NFL's best athletes typically played offense, but 1981 draftees Taylor, Lott and Easley helped change the dynamics. This draft wasn't as strong as some throughout, but its star power on defense set it apart. Key players from this draft helped the 49ers, Redskins, Giants, Bears and Raiders dominate at times during the decade. Only the 1986 draft produced more Super Bowl winners.

Hall of Famers: Taylor (Giants), Lott (49ers), Mike Singletary (Bears), Howie Long (Raiders), Rickey Jackson (Saints), Russ Grimm (Redskins).

Hall of Fame finalists: none.

Other big names: Easley, Eric Wright (49ers), Dennis Smith (Broncos), Cris Collinsworth (Bengals), Hanford Dixon (Browns), Freeman McNeil (Jets), James Brooks (Chargers), Brian Holloway (Patriots), Hugh Green (Bucs), Carlton Williamson (49ers), Neil Lomax (Cardinals), Dexter Manley (Redskins), Mark May (Redskins), E.J. Junior (Cardinals).

Late-round steals: Charlie Brown, chosen 201st overall by the Redskins, caught 16 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, earning Pro Bowl honors both years. Wade Wilson, chosen 210th, played 19 seasons and earned one Pro Bowl berth, in 1988.

Ah, the memories: Once the 49ers drafted Lott eighth overall, the USC safety headed to the airport to use a ticket the team had held for him. Easley, chosen sixth by the Seahawks, was the other great safety in that draft class and the two were so closely linked that the person behind the airline counter mixed up Lott's destination.

"You are going to Seattle?"

"No, San Francisco," Lott replied.

Lott often looks back on how things might have been different if the Saints had drafted Taylor instead of George Rogers first overall. That wasn't going to happen because the Saints wanted a running back to help them control the clock, and they were especially particular about character in that draft -- their first with Bum Phillips as head coach.

"Lawrence Taylor, I didn't realize he was going to be that type of player, but Rickey Jackson did turn out to be the player we needed [in the second round]," Phillips said. "We needed a great player and a great individual. We needed some leadership and we needed the right kind of character to be leaders."

The 49ers needed a new secondary. They used that 1981 draft to select Lott, Wright and Williamson.

"I talked to Bill Walsh and his statement was, 'If I see it on film once, then my coaches should be able to get it out of a guy,'" said Horton, the Scouts Inc. founder and veteran NFL talent evaluator. "That always stuck with me. He was amazing at seeing things on tape. That '81 draft was a smart draft. You could look at that draft and you could see what teams were thinking."

Joe Greene
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireJoe Greene is one of five Hall of Fame inductees from the 1969 draft class.

Why it's No. 4: Roger Wehrli's 2007 Hall of Fame enshrinement gave this class five inductees. Only three other classes managed more combined Pro Bowl appearances. Some of the names in this class won't resonate with recent generations, and that is understandable. But this was still a strong class and one worthy of our consideration.

Hall of Famers: Joe Greene (Steelers), Ted Hendricks (Raiders), O.J. Simpson (Bills), Wehrli (Cardinals), Charlie Joiner (Oilers).

Hall of Fame finalists: L.C. Greenwood (Steelers), Bob Kuechenberg (Eagles).

Other big names: George Kunz (Falcons), Bill Bergey (Bengals), Bill Stanfill (Dolphins), Calvin Hill (Cowboys), Ed White (Vikings), Gene Washington (49ers), Jack Rudnay (Chiefs), Bill Bradley (Eagles), Ted Kwalick (49ers), Jim Marsalis (Chiefs), Ron Johnson (Browns), Fred Dryer (Giants).

Late-round steals: Greenwood was a six-time Pro Bowl choice and was the 238th overall pick. The Falcons found five-time Pro Bowler Jeff Van Note with the 262nd choice. Larry Brown, chosen 191st overall, was a four-time Pro Bowl selection.

Ah, the memories: There was no scouting combine back then. Wehrli couldn't remember seeing a pro scout, even at Missouri practices. He had never even run a 40-yard dash until a Cardinals scout asked him to run one at the Hula Bowl all-star game in Hawaii.

Wehrli agreed to run on the spot even though he was wearing pads, the playing surface was natural grass and the stakes were higher than he realized.

"At the time, I didn’t know it was a Cardinals scout," Wehrli said. "I ran the 40, came back and he said, 'Man, we didn’t realize you were that fast.' Later, he told me that timing moved me up to a first-round draft choice [from the third round]."

Wehrli had clocked in the 4.5-second range. He would run 4.4s on Astroturf later in the pros.

"You never really trained for it back then," he said.

[+] EnlargeJerry Rice
US PresswireJerry Rice, the best receiver in NFL history, helped San Francisco win three Super Bowls.

Why it's No. 5: Just as the 1983 class featured more than quarterbacks, the 1985 version offered much more than the most prolific receiver in NFL history. Yes, Jerry Rice was the 16th overall choice, helping set apart this class from some others. But the supporting cast featured elite talent, from Bruce Smith to Chris Doleman and beyond.

Hall of Famers: Rice (49ers), Smith (Bills).

Hall of Fame finalists: Andre Reed (Bills).

Other big names: Lomas Brown (Lions), Steve Tasker (Oilers), Ray Childress (Oilers), Kevin Greene (Rams), Jay Novacek (Cardinals), Bill Fralic (Falcons), Jerry Gray (Rams), Randall Cunningham (Eagles), Ron Wolfley (Cardinals), Al Toon (Jets), Jim Lachey (Chargers), Kevin Glover (Lions), Mark Bavaro (Giants), Herschel Walker (Cowboys), Duane Bickett (Colts), Doug Flutie (Rams), Jack Del Rio (Saints).

Late-round steals: Tasker became a seven-time Pro Bowl choice on special teams as the 226th overall choice (albeit with Buffalo, after the Oilers waived him). Greene was a fifth-rounder, Novacek was a sixth-rounder and Bavaro, one of the toughest tight ends, provided excellent value in the fourth round.

Ah, the memories: Bill Polian was a little-known pro personnel director with USFL roots when Bills general manager Terry Bledsoe suffered a heart attack two months before the draft. The Bills had already landed their franchise quarterback in Kelly two years earlier, but his two-year detour through the USFL had set back the organization. Buffalo held the No. 1 overall pick, and the stakes were high.

Polian took over GM duties. Norm Pollom, a holdover from the Chuck Knox years, headed up the college scouting side.

The Bills were in great hands. Although some fans hoped the team would draft Flutie, Polian and Pollom found building blocks.

Aggressive wheeling and dealing allowed Buffalo to land cornerback Derrick Burroughs with the 14th choice, acquired from Green Bay, even after drafting Smith first overall. Reed was a steal in the fourth round. The decision to draft Smith over Ray Childress was the right one even though Childress became a five-time Pro Bowl choice for the Oilers.

San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Orlando Pace, O.J. SImpson, Tom Brady, Cris Collinsworth, Brian Urlacher, Rickey Jackson, Roger Wehrli, Frank Reich, Michael Strahan, Cortez Kennedy, Randy Moss, Ray Lewis, Junior Seau, Brian Dawkins, Deion Sanders, Mike Singletary, Dwight Freeney, LaDainian Tomlinson, Russ Grimm, Brett Favre, Charlie Joiner, Jonathan Ogden, Kenny Easley, Ronnie Lott, Kevin Greene, Lomas Brown, Roger Craig, Doug Flutie, Steve Tasker, Neil Lomax, Bill Polian, Peyton Manning, Terrell Owens, Bobby Beathard, Marshall Faulk, Jason Taylor, Randall Cunningham, Carlton Williamson, Lawrence Taylor, Jerome Bettis, Howie Long, Larry Allen, Will Shields, Alan Faneca, Champ Bailey, Joe Greene, Marvin Harrison, Bruce Smith, Drew Bledsoe, Richard Dent, John Lynch, NFL Draft 2010, Jerry Rice, Ed Reed, Eric Wright, Walter Jones, Derrick Brooks, Steve Hutchinson, Tony Gonzalez, Troy Polamalu, Chris Doleman, Ted Kwalick, Gene Washington, Jerry Gray, Andre Reed, Shannon Sharpe, Willie Roaf, Ray Childress, Jay Novacek, Bill Fralic, Ron Wolfley, Al Toon, Jim Lachey, Kevin Glover, Mark Bavaro, Hershel Walker, Duane Bickett, Terry Bledsoe, George Kunz, Bill Bergey, Bill Stafill, Calvin Hill, Ed White, Jack Rudnay, Bill Bradley, Jim Marsalis, Ron Johnson, Fred Dryer, L.C. Greenwood, Bob Kuechenberg, Ted Hendricks, Dennis Smith, Hanford Dixon, Freeman McNeil, James Brooks, Brian Holloway, Hugh Green, Dexter Manley, Mark May. E.J. Junior, Bum Phillips, Kenny Burrough, Earl Campbell, Dan Pastorini, Norm Pollom