NFC West: Brandon Keith

Three things: Cardinals-Chiefs

August, 10, 2012
Three things to watch for Friday in the Arizona Cardinals' preseason road game against the Kansas City Chiefs at 8 p.m. ET:

1. QB competition. John Skelton gets the start after coming off the bench to lead a 14-play, 90-yard drive to the Cardinals' lone touchdown against New Orleans in the Hall of Fame game Sunday. Skelton appeared relaxed and comfortable with the offense during that game. He kept his eyes downfield while under pressure (even while getting hit) and generally seemed unperturbed. Skelton's competition for the starting job, Kevin Kolb, faced greater pressure and appeared a little more harried before leaving with an injury. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has said he expects Kolb to play against the Chiefs. His public comments to that effect put pressure on Kolb to play through whatever pain he's experiencing. In that context, it's important for Kolb to play and improve upon his brief showing against the Saints. A repeat of Sunday night would put Skelton in the lead.

2. Stewart Bradley's progress. The Cardinals didn't get much from Bradley last season after signing him to a five-year, $30 million deal in free agency. As a result, they leveraged a pay cut from the 28-year-old inside linebacker this offseason. Bradley has responded favorably. Against New Orleans, he appeared more comfortable in Arizona's 3-4 scheme. Bradley played freely and aggressively, a continuation of progress made late last season. Now, with incumbent starter Paris Lenon recovering from an ankle injury, Bradley should get an extended opportunity against the Chiefs.

3. Pass protection. This has been a problem area for years in Arizona. Kolb was under siege during the Hall of Fame game. The right side of the offensive line has new faces since this time last season. Brandon Keith, the starter a year ago, is out of the league. Former right guards Rex Hadnot and Deuce Lutui are gone. Jeremy Bridges and rookie Bobby Massie are the right tackles. Free-agent addition Adam Snyder is at right guard. Just about any line needs time and reps to round into form. This game gives Arizona another chance to work toward that end. Left tackle Levi Brown faces a potentially tough matchup against Chiefs pass-rusher Tamba Hali, who has 26.5 sacks over the past two regular seasons. Hali has not been a preseason phenom. He has three sacks in six career preseasons.

Three things: Cardinals-Saints

August, 5, 2012
Three things to watch for in the Arizona Cardinals' preseason game against the New Orleans Saints at 8 p.m. ET:

1. Kevin Kolb's performance. The Cardinals' quarterback competition includes John Skelton as well, so his performance also matters. But Kolb is the most intriguing variable on the team's roster this summer. Can he command the offense and finally appear comfortable running it? Can he make it through the game healthy after injuries derailed his 2011 season? We shouldn't expect an all-world performance right out of the gates. We shouldn't read too much into a seemingly shaky one, either. Quarterbacks and offenses in general can struggle during preseason if opponents decide to crank up the pressure or get creative. But perceptions matter for Kolb or any highly paid player trying to prove his worth. In a best-case scenario, Kolb connects with Larry Fitzgerald and rookie first-round choice Michael Floyd for meaningful gains. For reference, Kolb completed 4 of 7 passes for 68 yards in his 2011 Cardinals preseason debut. Skelton completed 6-of-10 for 94 yards and a touchdown in that game.

2. Right side of the OL. The Cardinals have a new look on that side of their offensive line. Right guard Adam Snyder signed from San Francisco in free agency. Veteran Jeremy Bridges remains at right tackle for now after replacing Brandon Keith during the 2011 season. The team hopes rookie Brian Massey can grow into the starting role and take over for Bridges at some point in the near future. This game against New Orleans provides a first look. The Saints have been working with left defensive end Cameron Jordan to drop into coverage in zone-blitz packages, a change for him. We should still see Jordan, a 2011 first-round choice, get some pass-rushing reps against the right side of the Cardinals' line.

3. Cornerback competition. The Cardinals know Patrick Peterson will be starting at left corner this season. They feel great about the likelihood of him emerging as a Pro Bowl-caliber force at that position. Arizona also likes the possibilities on the other side, but it's unclear how that race will settle out. Free-agent addition William Gay represents the known. Greg Toler, coming off ACL surgery, has starting potential. So does A.J. Jefferson, who made seven starts last season after Toler was injured. Throw in third-round choice Jamell Fleming, the team's most impressive rookie during minicamps, and the Cardinals have a genuine camp competition on their hands. The assumption is that Michael Adams would project more in a nickel role, not as a starter. He's as competitive as anyone in the Cardinals' corner mix.
NFC West teams added or re-signed 38 unrestricted free agents during the recently completed UFA signing period. They lost or did not re-sign 47 such players.

One key difference between those groups: age.

The St. Louis Rams in particular used the UFA signing period to get younger. The 12 UFAs they added (11) or re-signed (one) averaged 2.49 years younger than the 20 UFAs they lost (six) or have not re-signed (14). The gap was 1.39 years younger on average throughout the division. The Rams have the youngest roster in the NFL, based on averages I maintain for every team in the league.

Some older UFAs never sign another NFL contract. They disappear from rosters and realize, perhaps a year or two later, that they've been retired.

The chart shows age differences for the 38 UFA players added or re-signed versus the 47 lost to other teams or still unsigned. According to the NFL, 143 UFAs changed teams across the league this offseason. Another 112 re-signed with their 2011 teams.

Unsigned players remain free to sign with another team, but the NFL will not count them as UFA signings. The distinction matters in part because only UFA additions and losses count toward the formula for determining compensatory draft choices. That formula relies heavily on player salaries. UFAs available this late in the process generally wouldn't command enough money to affect compensatory picks, anyway.

A quick look at which UFA players from NFC West teams did not sign or re-sign as UFAs:
The 27 unsigned UFAs from the NFC West average 31.38 years old, about 3.3 years older than the 22 UFAs signed from other teams.

Nine of the 27 are at least 33 years old. Another 12 are between 29 and 32. Justin King, former cornerback for the Rams, is the youngest at 25 years old.
Four days until the 2012 NFL draft. In the meantime, the mock drafts are piling up.

The chart below shows new projections from reporters covering the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams.

All three have the Rams and Seahawks drafting for defense. They all have the Arizona Cardinals drafting an offensive lineman and the 49ers drafting a pass-catcher of some sort.

I'll be participating in a live mock draft Monday at 1 p.m. ET, with trades permitted. Details to come.

Moving along ...

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic checks in with Ken Whisenhunt and Rod Graves regarding the Cardinals' draft options. Somers: "Addressing the offensive line in the first round makes considerable sense. The Cardinals haven't drafted a lineman the past two seasons. They haven't taken one above the fifth round since selecting Brown fifth overall in 2007. They have tried to plug holes with veterans at the end of their careers (guard Alan Faneca) and low-round picks they hoped would develop (right tackle Brandon Keith). The results have been mixed at best."

Also from Somers: Whisenhunt points to continuity with Graves and personnel director Steve Keim as keys to success in the draft.

Darren Urban of looks at whether the Arizona Cardinals need a stronger No. 2 receiver to pair with Larry Fitzgerald. Urban: "The Cardinals went to a Super Bowl with Anquan Boldin alongside Larry Fitzgerald, but one of the reasons the Cards were eventually comfortable with dealing Boldin was the success Fitzgerald and the passing game had even in games Boldin missed with injury." Noted: Kurt Warner was the constant.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune has the Seahawks selecting Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower in his 2012 first-round mock draft. Williams: "Hawks might move down to get Hightower, but he fills an obvious need and will be the team's quarterback on defense for the next 10 years."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times looks at the Seahawks' need for a linebacker, noting that general manager John Schneider says this draft has more good ones than the previous draft offered. Schneider: "It's completely different than it was last year. There's good numbers up there." Noted: Value could lead the Seahawks to draft a linebacker in the first round, but if there are more to be found throughout the draft, the team could have reason to draft early at a position featuring fewer talented prospects.

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune explains why he thinks Melvin Ingram might have more appeal to the Seahawks than Luke Kuechly. Boling: "Carroll and his staff like to find players with unique skills and then develop ways to work them into a scheme. While Kuechly looks to be a conventional middle linebacker type, Ingram could be more of a fun toy for Carroll."

Brock Huard of 710ESPN Seattle makes two observations after attending a charity event featuring most of the team: Team chemistry appears strong, and the Seahawks have become a much bigger team physically.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch projects LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne to the Rams with the sixth overall pick after teams picking among the top five selected Justin Blackmon and Trent Richardson, among others.

Also from Thomas: The Rams need help at defensive tackle, but none of the top three prospects appears worthy of the sixth overall choice. Thomas: "In a deep defensive tackle class, there should be multiple options for the Rams at the top of the second round and perhaps even at the top of the third."

More from Thomas: a closer look at Claiborne and the cornerbacks. Thomas: "From a pure coverage standpoint, there are those who feel Claiborne is a significantly better prospect than his much-ballyhooed predecessor at LSU, Patrick Peterson, who went No. 5 overall in the 2011 draft to Arizona."

More yet from Thomas: New Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar has good things to say about Gregg Williams.

Pat Yasinskas of says HBO has interest in the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers as "Hard Knocks" alternatives to the Atlanta Falcons, who declined to participate. Noted: Tough to envision the 49ers accepting. Their football leadership has sought to close ranks.

Matt Maiocco of passes along thoughts from 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh on GM Trent Baalke's suggestion the team has one player in mind for the 30th overall choice. Maiocco: "I think Trent's trying to be dramatic with you guys -- build the drama. There's several -- there's a lot of good guys. There are a lot of good guys we'd love to have at that pick. Having been through this once, most of the guys you recognize as great football players are going to be playing against you. That's just the fact of business. But getting the right guy, the right fit for our team, is what we're all focused on."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee has the 49ers drafting receiver Stephen Hill with the 30th pick.

Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle looks at history precipitating the 49ers' impending stadium move from San Francisco to Santa Clara.

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says new 49ers running back Brandon Jacobs has great speed -- on the highway.

Phil Barber of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat outlines five positions to watch in the draft for San Francisco.

Jason Peters' injury hurt the Philadelphia Eagles and did no favors for the Arizona Cardinals.

The Pro Bowl left tackle was earning $12.8 million per year, a reflection of his obvious value to the Eagles. His injury thrust Philadelphia into the market for a free-agent tackle, leading the Eagles to reach agreement with the previously misnamed Demetress Bell, a player the Cardinals had targeted early in free agency.

Arizona is heading toward the draft with an obvious need at tackle. The Cardinals hold the 13th overall choice, but no pick in the second round. They re-signed veteran tackle Levi Brown, but the position remains unsettled.

Moving Brown back to right tackle would require finding a better prospect for the left side. That appears unlikely in the short term, even if the Cardinals use their first-round choice for a tackle. It's looking like Brown will man the left side heading into the season.

Who starts opposite Brown? Perhaps it's a draft choice. Former starter Brandon Keith has had injury problems and is unsigned. Jeremy Bridges is nearly 32 years old and appears most valuable as a spot starter, not a long-term answer. The team re-signed D'Anthony Batiste, a 30-year-old backup with 22 appearances and four starts in six seasons with six teams.

Bell, formerly of the Buffalo Bills, was the most promising young tackle available in free agency. The Cardinals were among several teams to meet with him this offseason. Bell, 27, was not a sure bet, however. A shoulder injury slowed him last season. Bell played in seven games, starting six. He has 30 starts over the last three seasons.
Leverage shifts from players to teams as NFL free agency moves along.

Contract values provide the most persuasive evidence.

As time passes, players with stratospheric expectations must lower their sights to find deals.

Team-issued statements from San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke have marked the changing landscape with unintended humor.

"We are extremely pleased to re-sign an All-Pro player like Carlos," Baalke said when the 49ers re-signed Carlos Rogers on March 16.

Notice the shift when quarterback Alex Smith returned to the team five days later, much deeper into free agency.

"We are pleased that Alex has chosen to continue his career as a 49er," Baalke said then.

The 49ers brought back Rogers. They waited out Smith. Big difference.

More of the same awaited Ted Ginn Jr.'s re-signing a day later.

"We are glad that Ted has decided to return to the 49ers in 2012," Baalke said.

Teams are more proactive in re-signing players early in free agency. Players come back to teams later in the process.

Forty-one unrestricted free agents from NFC West teams remained without contract agreements through Saturday. Eleven of them are at least 33 years old. Another 17 are at least 29.

As the chart shows, St. Louis saw little value in rushing out to secure players from a team that finished 2-14 last season. Nineteen of the 21 original UFAs from the Rams remain unsigned. Two, Brandon Lloyd and Chris Chamberlain, signed elsewhere.

Overall, only seven of the remaining 41 UFAs without contracts were players I listed as starters late in the season: Clark Haggans and Brandon Keith from Arizona; Tony Wragge, Brady Poppinga and Jacob Bell from St. Louis; and two Seattle linebackers, Leroy Hill and David Hawthorne.

Hawthorne stands out as a relatively young starter (26) with an established record of consistent production. He visited Detroit, only to have the Lions re-sign Stephen Tulloch. He visited New Orleans, only to have the Saints reach agreement with Curtis Lofton.

The Seahawks would be better with Hawthorne and Hill back on their roster. Like a lot of teams at this stage, however, they aren't facing a great deal of pressure.

That helps explain why it's been a quiet weekend around here so far.

2012 NFC West UFA scorecard: update

March, 16, 2012
Michael Robinson's expected re-signing with the Seattle Seahawks would give the team a league-high four re-signings in the unrestricted free-agent market.

Red Bryant, Paul McQuistan and Heath Farwell previously re-signed.

Seattle and the other NFC West teams have added only two UFAs from other teams, however. I've put together UFA scorecards for each team in the division. Ages are in parenthesis. Here goes ...

Seattle Seahawks

UFA unsigned (age): defensive end Raheem Brock (33), defensive lineman Jimmy Wilkerson (31), safety Atari Bigby (30), quarterback Charlie Whitehurst (29), linebacker Leroy Hill (29), linebacker Matt McCoy (29), defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (28), linebacker David Hawthorne (26), running back Justin Forsett (26), linebacker David Vobora (25)

UFA re-signed: Farwell (30), Robinson (29), McQuistan (28), Bryant (27)

UFA added: none

UFA lost: tight end John Carlson (27)

Franchise player: none

Comment: Forsett has provided value, but the Seahawks will want to add a power back as depth behind Marshawn Lynch, who re-signed before free agency. Mike Tolbert, a free agent from the San Diego Chargers, could be worth a look if the running back market remains soft. Tolbert weighs 243 pounds, has 21 total touchdowns over the past two seasons, and caught 54 passes in 2012. The price would have to be right after Seattle committed to Lynch.

San Francisco 49ers

UFA unsigned: fullback Moran Norris (33), tight end Justin Peelle (33), safety Madieu Williams (30), quarterback Alex Smith (27), receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (26), guard Chilo Rachal (26), safety Reggie Smith (25)

UFA re-signed: cornerback Carlos Rogers (30), linebacker Tavares Gooden (27)

UFA added: none

UFA lost: guard Adam Snyder (30), linebacker Blake Costanzo (27), receiver Josh Morgan (26)

Franchise player: safety Dashon Goldson (27)

Comment: Randy Moss and potential addition Rock Cartwright do not appear in the listings because they were not unrestricted free agents. Re-signing Alex Smith and finding additional receiver help appear to be the top priorities. The 49ers are showing little outward urgency on either front, however.

Arizona Cardinals

UFA unsigned: defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday (36), kicker Jay Feely (35), long-snapper Mike Leach (35), outside linebacker Clark Haggans (35), outside linebacker Joey Porter (34), offensive lineman Floyd Womack (33), punter Dave Zastudil (33), tackle D'Anthony Batiste (29), safety Sean Considine (29), guard Deuce Lutui (28), safety Hamza Abdullah (28), tackle Brandon Keith (27), receiver Early Doucet (26)

UFA re-signed: none.

UFA added: Snyder (30)

UFA lost: cornerback Richard Marshall (27)

Franchise player: defensive end Calais Campbell (25)

Comment: The Cardinals have been in a tough spot. They would have faced criticism had they declined to pursue Peyton Manning. They could now face criticism for sacrificing the first week of free agency while waiting for Manning. The reality is that Arizona probably wasn't going to be all that aggressive in the market this offseason, anyway. It did hurt losing Marshall to the Miami Dolphins after coordinator Ray Horton called him the Cardinals' defensive MVP.

St. Louis Rams

UFA unsigned: cornerback Al Harris (37), quarterback A.J. Feeley (34), offensive lineman Tony Wragge (32), linebacker Brady Poppinga (32), punter Donnie Jones (31), offensive lineman Adam Goldberg (31), guard Jacob Bell (31), receiver Brandon Lloyd (30), cornerback Rod Hood (30), running back Cadillac Williams (29), defensive tackle Gary Gibson (29), receiver Mark Clayton (29), tackle Mark LeVoir (29), tight end Stephen Spach (29), safety James Butler (29), tight end Billy Bajema (29), quarterback Kellen Clemens (28), running back Jerious Norwood (28), linebacker Bryan Kehl (27), linebacker Chris Chamberlain (26), cornerback Justin King (24)

UFA re-signed: none

UFA added: cornerback Cortland Finnegan (28)

UFA lost: none

Franchise player: none

Comment: The Rams are not looking to re-sign many of their own free agents. They want to turn over the roster, and that is happening in a big way. The team's failure to secure playmaking help for quarterback Sam Bradford stands out as the biggest theme to this point. Finnegan was a welcome addition, but he isn't going to score many touchdowns.

The chart below shows a general overview.

NFC West: Free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Arizona Cardinals

Key free agents: DE Calais Campbell (franchise tag), CB Richard Marshall, OLB Clark Haggans, WR Early Doucet, T Brandon Keith, G Deuce Lutui, K Jay Feely.

Where they stand: A strong finish to the 2011 season on defense gives the Cardinals a glass-half-full feel heading into free agency. Going from 1-6 to 8-8 was an impressive achievement. Arizona does have serious concerns on its offensive line. The situation at tackle is particularly questionable even if Levi Brown returns (and maybe especially if he returns, depending on your view). The line concerns might actually dissipate some if the team lands Peyton Manning, a quarterback with the ability to beat pressure with quick throws. But tackle is still an area that needs addressing for the long term. Injuries throughout the offensive backfield raise questions about that area as well. Kevin Kolb (concussion), Beanie Wells (knee), Ryan Williams (knee) and Anthony Sherman (ankle) missed extensive time or played at a diminished level for stretches.

What to expect: The Cardinals are one of the teams chasing Manning. That pursuit could consume them for the short term. Landing Manning would signal the end for Kolb in Arizona. The Cardinals have until March 17 to exercise a $7 million option on Kolb, the quarterback they acquired from Philadelphia for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a fat contract. I'm expecting a resolution to Manning's situation before the Kolb bonus comes due simply because interest in Manning should be high enough to accelerate the process. The Cardinals had about $3 million in salary-cap space entering the week, according to ESPN's John Clayton. That figure could increase substantially once the team releases Brown or reworks his contract. Arizona still has strong coaching ties to Pittsburgh on both sides of the ball, but it's an upset if the Cardinals seriously pursue any of the aging veterans recently released by the Steelers. Developing young talent is the priority now. Re-signing Marshall, who fared well at corner, should be a priority. Does free-agent linebacker Stewart Bradley still factor prominently into the team's plans, particularly at such a high price?

St. Louis Rams

Key free agents: WR Brandon Lloyd, G Jacob Bell, CB Justin King, OL Adam Goldberg, LB Chris Chamberlain, G Tony Wragge, TE Billy Bajema, WR Mark Clayton, DT Gary Gibson, P Donnie Jones.

Where they stand: The Rams have no interest in staying the course from a personnel standpoint after going 15-65 over the past five seasons. They will seek fresh talent almost across the board as Jeff Fisher's new coaching staff seeks players for its schemes. The Rams are seeking playmakers in particular, starting at wide receiver. The offensive line needs addressing, although the Rams might try to minimize the turnover at offensive tackle for the short term, figuring they cannot afford to create new needs. But former starting center Jason Brown, benched last season, appears unlikely to return. The team also needs two starting outside linebackers, starting defensive tackles and perhaps two starting cornerbacks on defense.

What to expect: Mass roster turnover. I could see the team retaining as few as one or two players from its list of 21 projected unrestricted free agents. The Rams have a disproportionate amount of their salary cap tied up in recent high draft choices Sam Bradford, Chris Long and Jason Smith. The rookie wage scale will provide them cap relief even if the team remains among the teams picking very high in the 2012 draft. Bradford and Long are cornerstones. Smith could stick around at a reduced rate. The team still has hope for him under new offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan and defensive lineman Jason Jones, both free agents from Tennessee, have ties to Fisher and could make sense for the Rams. Despite the need for playmakers on offense, the Rams did not use the franchise tag on Lloyd, their most talented receiver. Questions persist about how effective Lloyd might be outside Josh McDaniels' offense.

San Francisco 49ers

Key free agents: QB Alex Smith, CB Carlos Rogers, FS Dashon Goldson (franchise tag), G Adam Snyder, WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Josh Morgan, G Chilo Rachal, FB Moran Norris, LB Blake Costanzo.

Where they stand: Coach Jim Harbaugh has said it's a bit unsettling heading through the offseason with his starting quarterback unsigned. Smith and the 49ers are expected to reach agreement eventually. This relationship will almost certainly continue even if Smith does reach free agency without a deal in place. Smith would not fit nearly as well anywhere else. Harbaugh likes to use the word "equity" when describing players he wants to keep. The 49ers would rather bring back Smith than invite the disruption that Manning would bring, were they able to land him. The team needs help at wide receiver and possibly cornerback, depending upon what happens with Rogers. Getting Goldson at the relatively reasonable franchise rate ($6.2 million) was a plus for the 49ers' continuity in the secondary.

What to expect: Not a whole lot, most likely. The 49ers were a good team last season after taking a low-keyed approach to the free-agent market. They will presumably show interest in Vincent Jackson, Mike Wallace and any high-profile, productive receiver with the talent to upgrade their offense. It's a small upset if the 49ers land one of them, however, because their philosophy is built on a measured approach resistant to overpaying. They will have to address the receiver position in free agency one way or another, however. Re-signing Morgan would help. Pierre Garcon, Marques Colston, Mario Manningham, Plaxico Burress and Robert Meachem are among the other options in free agency. An upgrade at right guard would help the line, but the 49ers might be apt to develop 2011 draft choice Daniel Kilgore after investing first-round choices in their left tackle (Joe Staley), left guard (Mike Iupati) and right tackle (Anthony Davis).

Seattle Seahawks

Key free agents: DE Red Bryant, LB David Hawthorne, LB Leroy Hill, OL Paul McQuistan, DE Raheem Brock, DL Tony Hargrove, FB Michael Robinson, RB Justin Forsett, QB Charlie Whitehurst, LB Matt McCoy, TE John Carlson, LB Heath Farwell.

Where they stand: The Seahawks' long-term quarterback situation hangs over them as they head toward the 2012 draft with only the 12th overall choice. The team has built up the rest of its roster to a point where sticking with Tarvaris Jackson as the primary starter could hold back the team to a degree it did not through much of last season. Upgrading the pass rush is another priority for the Seahawks. With defensive end Raheem Brock publicly stumping for Seattle to land Manning, his former teammate, I couldn't help but wonder which one of them had a better shot at earning a roster spot with the team in 2012. It might be Manning, even if the Seahawks are relative long shots for his services. Brock failed to provide the pass-rush push Seattle needed opposite Chris Clemons. Linebacker is another position the Seahawks need to address, whether or not Hawthorne and Hill return.

What to expect: The Seahawks have roughly $30 million in cap space, according to Clayton, and will make every effort to land Manning. They feel they've got a shot as long as they can persuade him to get on a plane and check out what they have to offer in terms of the roster, coaching, facilities, ownership and more. If Manning goes elsewhere, I would expect the Seahawks to consider Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn. Securing him at a price lower than what Arizona paid for Kolb would be the goal. As badly as the Seahawks want to upgrade the position, they have said they will not panic. Overpaying for Flynn could represent panic in their eyes. On the pass-rush front, I'm increasingly skeptical the team will shell out for Mario Williams. The price could be too high for a player Houston has decided to let hit the market. Re-signing Bryant is a priority, but using the franchise tag for him was never an option given the $10.6 million price. A deal slightly north of the one teammate Brandon Mebane signed seems likelier if Bryant returns.
Sorry, San Francisco 49ers fans. It's just tough envisioning the team sacrificing its 2012 first-round draft choice for the right to overpay for Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Mike Wallace.

The 49ers have sought to build their team through the draft, patching their roster with relatively affordable free agents. If they were to splurge for Wallace, sacrificing the draft capital that goes along with landing restricted free agents, the move would run 180 degrees counter to form.

Not that Wallace would necessarily be a waste.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee makes a strong case for Wallace in San Francisco. Barrows: "There's no guarantee a top receiver would still be available when the 49ers pick in the first round. And it's hard to imagine any wideout they did select there would be more effective than Wallace, at least initially. The good news for the pro-Wallace crowd is that the 49ers are likely to be interested when free agency starts, just as they threw their name into the ring with Nnamdi Asomugha last year. But as was the case with Asomugha and other high-end cornerbacks in 2011, the 49ers are likely to drop out once the price gets too steep. While giving up the 30th overall pick for a young but proven commodity like Wallace is justifiable, giving up that pick and signing Wallace to a pricey, long-term deal goes against the 49ers' philosophy."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle checks in with 49ers tight end Nate Byham, who says his surgically repaired knee is full strength. Byham: "Watching all season all I could do was lick my chops and think, 'I’m excited to a part of this.' Especially how they use tight ends and fullbacks. I really see myself fitting in at that H-back spot and that tight end spot. They work it like a jigsaw puzzle. They like to move guys around."

Matthew Hathaway of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offers details on the stadium renovation plan Rams officials rejected Thursday. Hathaway: "Taken as a whole, the CVC plan lacked the grand scale of several recent NFL stadium rehabs, like the $375 million overhaul of Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium or the $250 million renovation of Sun Life Stadium in Miami. The CVC plan also called for the Rams to pay for 52 percent of the $124 million project. That's a bigger share than what was paid by NFL teams in recent, more expensive rehab projects in Kansas City, Chicago or New Orleans."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals tackle Brandon Keith, like Levi Brown, has arrived at a crossroads of sorts. Somers: "Keith showed flashes of the ability that made coaches think he could be an everyday starter. He's athletic for a man of 335 pounds and he can be a physical run blocker. Like Brown, that's his strength. His weakness, like Brown's, has been pass protection. Fast rushers tend to beat him off the ball. The problematic knee has played a role in that, no question. No matter the reason, Keith hasn't shown yet that he can hold up as a starter over time. Like Brown, the Cardinals want Keith back but at the right price. My sense is they place a higher value on Brown returning because he's durable, smart and has the ability to also play the right side."

Clare Farnsworth of says the combine allowed Seattle's personnel people and coaches to get a better read on underclassmen in the draft. Farnsworth: "That junior class, those players who have been granted special eligibility for the draft, numbers 65 this year -- including Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, Baylor QB Robert Griffin III, Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon, LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, USC tackle Matt Kalil, Boston College middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe and Alabama running back Trent Richardson. All are expected to be first-round picks on April 26."

Dave Grosby and Bob Stelton of 710ESPN Seattle do not expect the Seahawks to trade up for a quarterback in the draft.

Mike Salk of 710ESPN Seattle says the Seahawks' general manager, John Schneider, does not sound averse to adding a quarterback such as Peyton Manning, if available.
We're still a month away from NFL free agency, but with the Super Bowl behind us, we'll start sizing up players without contracts for 2012.

Expanding upon Brian McIntyre's lists, I've plugged in offensive and defensive snap-count numbers for NFC West free agents, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.

The charts below cover the Arizona Cardinals' free agents. The final column shows what each player's previous contract averaged annually.

Re-signing defensive end Calais Campbell will be a top priority. I don't see the Cardinals letting him get away. They moved on from Antonio Smith a few years ago, but they did so with Campbell ready to take over. They would have a hard time replacing Campbell.

Cornerback Richard Marshall proved valuable on a one-year deal. Early Doucet was a primary threat on third down.

Overall, though, the Cardinals have a relatively modest group of unrestricted free agents.

Safety Sean Considine played extensively on special teams. I've listed him with the offensive and defensive UFAs, however.

The Cardinals' key specialists are without contracts. The team has turned over those positions in recent seasons.

The Cardinals can keep their restricted free agents, listed below, by making one-year qualifying offers to them, then matching any outside offers.
The San Francisco 49ers have become the hunted in the NFC West.

Having already take aim at their 2011 turnover differential, let us consider another reason for a potential 2012 regression from 13-3.

"Repeating the 2011 relative lack of injuries on the 49ers may be as hard as replicating the turnover ratio," Michael Rally contended via Twitter.

Injuries did slow and/or sideline some of the 49ers' most important players, including running back Frank Gore and linebacker Patrick Willis. Starting receiver Josh Morgan missed most of the season. A freak jaw injury sidelined tight end Delanie Walker late in the season. A hamstring injury slowed defensive end Ray McDonald.

But in looking at injured-reserve lists, the 49ers definitely fared better than their division rivals. They finished the regular season with five players on IR. The other three NFC West teams had a combined 39.

I've broken out the IR lists by team and position, based on where teams stood after Week 17. In some cases, teams released and/or reached injury settlements with players placed on IR previously. Teams usually keep on IR the players they value the most, however. The players listed below are the most relevant ones.

St. Louis Rams (16)

Fullback: Brit Miller

Receiver: Danny Amendola, Mark Clayton, Greg Salas

Tight end: Mike Hoomanawanui

Offensive line: guard Jacob Bell, Rodger Saffold, Jason Smith

Defensive line: Jermelle Cudjo

Linebacker: Josh Hull

Cornerback: Ron Bartell, Bradley Fletcher, Al Harris, Brian Jackson, Marquis Johnson, Jerome Murphy

Comment: Quarterback Sam Bradford was injured much of the year without landing on IR. The Rams ran through several unlisted cornerbacks as well. That position was hit hard. Losing both starting offensive tackles is never good, but Smith wasn't a huge positive factor on the right side. The team was arguably better off without him in the lineup.

Seattle Seahawks (15)

Receiver: Kris Durham, Mike Williams, Sidney Rice

Tight end: John Carlson

Offensive line: John Moffitt, James Carpenter, Russell Okung

Defensive line: Jimmy Wilkerson

Linebacker: Jameson Konz, Matt McCoy, David Vobora, Dexter Davis

Cornerback: Marcus Trufant, Walter Thurmond, Ron Parker

Comment: The Seahawks remained strong against the run largely because their line was healthier this season. Losing three-fifths of the starting offensive line could not stop Marshawn Lynch from producing at a high level. Rookie Richard Sherman capitalized on injuries at cornerback. Good, young depth helped Seattle weather injuries well.

Arizona Cardinals (8)

Quarterback: Max Hall

Running back: Ryan Williams

Offensive line: Brandon Keith, Floyd Womack

Defensive line: Dan Williams

Linebacker: Joey Porter

Cornerback: Crezdon Butler, Greg Toler

Comment: Ryan Williams' knee injury affected the team significantly. The injury situation was worse overall than the list would indicate. Quarterback Kevin Kolb missed seven starts with foot and concussion problems. Running back Beanie Wells played hurt much of the year and had a hard time producing late in the season. Adrian Wilson played through a torn biceps and got better as the season progressed.

San Francisco 49ers (5)

Receiver: Dontavia Bogan, Josh Morgan

Tight end: Nate Byham

Defensive line: Will Tukuafu

Cornerback: Curtis Holcomb

Comment: Byham was a solid blocking tight end. The team missed Morgan, especially late in the year. Gore's production diminished after he suffered an apparent knee injury in Week 10. Overall, though, the 49ers were healthy. They inflicted more injuries than they suffered, knocking out several opposing runners, including Felix Jones, LeGarrette Blount, Jahvid Best, Steven Jackson and Pierre Thomas.

Cardinals regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 18
Preseason Power Ranking: 21

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesRookie Patrick Peterson's special teams play earned him a spot on the Pro Bowl roster.
Biggest surprise: The Cardinals recovered from a 1-6 start to finish 8-8 despite never getting consistently improved play from their quarterbacks. Arizona appeared dead after blowing a 24-6 halftime lead at Baltimore in the seventh game of the season. The Cardinals were trailing the 1-6 St. Louis Rams at home the next week after quarterback John Skelton took two safeties in the third quarter, absurdly producing the first four-point quarter in league history. This was how the Ken Whisenhunt era was going to unravel? No. Patrick Peterson's 99-yard punt return in overtime turned around the season. The Cardinals won at Philadelphia the next week and later put together a four-game winning streak -- the team's longest since 1999. Beating Seattle in Week 17 capped the season appropriately.

Biggest disappointment: Arizona's big play for quarterback Kevin Kolb failed to produce the desired results. Kolb missed seven-plus games to injury and struggled when he was in the lineup. Those blaming the Cardinals' offensive line for protection issues should not overlook Kolb's role in the negative plays. Kolb was nearly 30 percent more likely than Skelton to take sacks. He took more in nine starts (30) than Kurt Warner ever took during a full season with the team. Warner was not playing behind Pro Bowlers, either. Kolb was frequently quick to bail on plays, often with negative results. He completed 13 of 37 passes (35.1 percent) for 167 yards from outside the pocket, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Missing the final three games to a concussion amplified durability questions.

Biggest need: Offensive tackle has to be up there. Brandon Keith broke down physically at right tackle, ending the season on injured reserve. Levi Brown might have played his final game for the team at left tackle. His contract becomes untenable in 2012. The Cardinals could bring him back at a reduced rate. Upgrading the position might be a better option. Two teams, Arizona and Tennessee, have not selected an offensive lineman in the first three rounds of the last four drafts. The Cardinals will need better pass protection even if Kolb improves his pocket awareness.

Team MVP: Larry Fitzgerald. The perennial Pro Bowl choice dropped only one pass despite finishing the season with 150 targets, fourth-most in the league. The three players with more targets than Fitzgerald -- Roddy White, Wes Welker and Calvin Johnson -- combined for 22 drops (14 by White). Fitzgerald upped his yards per reception from 12.6 in 2010 to 17.6 this season. His play bordered on heroic against Seattle in Week 17. Fitzgerald played through a bruised lung, spitting up blood, and still dominated with the game on the line. His grace and sportsmanship also stood out. While other players jawed back and forth, occasionally scuffling, Fitzgerald helped up the men blanketing him in coverage. He joined Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison and Randy Moss as the only players with 1,400 yards in four seasons.

What could have been: Peterson's four touchdowns on punt returns and improved play at cornerback gave the Cardinals outstanding return on their first-round draft investment. Imagine if second-round choice Ryan Williams hadn't suffered a season-ending knee injury during preseason. Williams showed big-play ability during camp. Without him, the running game faltered some as starter Beanie Wells fought through a knee injury. Wells topped 1,000 yards, but he averaged 3.1 yards per attempt with a long run of nine yards over Arizona's final four games.

NFC West injury situations that matter

December, 21, 2011
Arizona: Quarterback Kevin Kolb practiced on a limited basis while continuing his return from a concussion. Coach Ken Whisenhunt remained noncommittal on a starter for Saturday's game at Cincinnati. Kolb has suffered significant injuries in two of his past three starts, missing games following each one. Kolb appears unlikely to start if his reps do not increase Thursday. The team has won enough with backup John Skelton to consider giving Kolb additional recovery time. Right tackle Brandon Keith (ankle) did not practice Wednesday. Jeremy Bridges' presence gives the team insurance. Beanie Wells remained limited while dealing with a knee injury likely to bother him the rest of the season. Wells' production has fallen off as a result. The team's decision to place outside linebacker Joey Porter on injured reserve changes nothing. The team has gone with younger alternatives, and Porter wasn't playing.

St. Louis: The Rams remained without quarterbacks Sam Bradford (ankle) and A.J. Feeley (thumb). Bradford has shed the walking boot he wore last week, but it's unclear whether he'll return this week. Kellen Clemens could start again. The Rams were also without cornerbacks Justin King (shoulder) and Josh Gordy (abdominal) in practice Wednesday. Depth at the position is pretty much tapped out, a huge concern heading into a matchup against Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Mike Wallace. Gordy appears more likely than King to play. Earlier injuries at wide receiver became more significant Wednesday when the NFL levied a four-game suspension against rookie receiver Austin Pettis for using performance-enhancing drugs. The team's best receiver, Brandon Lloyd, did practice fully. He had been ill.

San Francisco: Receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle) and linebacker Patrick Willis (hamstring) missed practice. Ginn's injury is new. Willis remains on course to return at an unstated point in the future. As much as the 49ers want Willis back on the field right now, they need to make sure he's ready for the postseason. Hamstring injuries tend to recur, so the team might be erring on the side of caution. Left tackle Joe Staley did not finish the game Monday night after suffering a bruised leg. The 49ers did not list him on their injury report Wednesday. The team listed receiver Braylon Edwards as limited with a knee injury. He was inactive for performance-related reasons Monday night, but with Ginn's status unclear, the team needs numbers at the position. Ginn's absence would leave the 49ers with a less dynamic and experienced return specialist, a concern heading to Seattle.

Seattle: An ankle injury limited receiver Doug Baldwin in practice Wednesday. Having Baldwin ready is crucial now that Mike Williams has joined Sidney Rice on the Seahawks' injured reserve list. Baldwin is the team's best option on third down. The Seahawks figure to need their tight ends in protection against the 49ers' formidable defensive front seven. Linebacker David Hawthorne's full participation in practice despite a knee injury comes as a positive sign. The team has been resting Hawthorne during the week recently. Getting Hawthorne healthier is important because the team's depth at linebacker has run low in recent weeks. The 49ers favor heavier personnel groupings, so a full contingent of linebackers would have greater value this week than in some others.

2011 Cardinals Week 14: Five observations

December, 18, 2011
Five things I noticed while watching the Arizona Cardinals during their most recent game, a 21-19 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 14:
  • Great body language in the secondary. Strong safety Adrian Wilson and cornerback Patrick Peterson in particular played with obvious fire against the 49ers. They were the aggressors. They celebrated positive plays and seemed unfazed following negative ones. Defensive backs could simply be playing with more confidence now that they have a better grasp of a new scheme and are enjoying some success. The personalities might also be meshing better, a consideration as free safety Kerry Rhodes rejoins the rotation after recovering from injury. Cardinals fans will recall Rhodes repeatedly looking back toward Wilson when Carolina's Steve Smith scored in Week 1. As noted then, there's a line between expressing frustration and showing up a teammate. I thought Rhodes crossed that line.
  • Nick Eason's strong hands. The Cardinals' rotation at nose tackle has changed since Dan Williams went on injured reserve. Eason caught my attention by rag-dolling Alex Smith to the ground with one hand. Eason grabbed Smith by the sleeve and brought him down instantly.
  • Improved speed on the perimeter. The Cardinals' move toward younger players at linebacker has shown up on the stat sheet. Sacks are up. It's also showing up against the run. The Cardinals appear less reliant on the defensive ends to contain outside runs. Linebackers Sam Acho, O'Brien Schofield and Daryl Washington have the speed to chase down plays near the the sidelines. Free-agent addition Stewart Bradley got to the sideline in coverage against Frank Gore as the Cardinals held the 49ers to a field goal in the red zone.
  • Natural use of LaRod Stephens-Howling. The shovel pass Arizona executed freed Stephens-Howling for an 18-yard gain and made the 49ers pay for getting upfield quickly. It was the perfect play call at the time. There have been times, in past seasons, when the Cardinals' use of Stephens-Howling, though well-intentioned, felt a little forced. I remember seeing Stephens-Howling come into the game, usually on second down, and knowing the Cardinals would throw to him near the sideline. Stephens-Howling has justified an expanded role. The team has needed him to provide explosive plays lost when rookie Ryan Williams went on injured reserve.
  • Ray Horton delivering on promise. The Cardinals' first-year defensive coordinator vowed to come after opposing quarterbacks. Arizona's defensive players were leaning forward before the snap as if they could hardly restrain themselves from coming across the line early. Wilson and Peterson were among the defensive backs blitzing and getting to the quarterback. I never got the sense Arizona feared or respected Alex Smith's ability to beat them with big plays downfield.

This was a huge victory for Arizona. I made more than five notes when jotting down observations. A few more, quickly: Officials flagged Rashad Johnson for a late hit on Delanie Walker, who dropped a third-down pass a short while later. Related? I thought it could have been. Those types of hits get receivers' attention. ...

The Cardinals' Reggie Walker had a hard time with 49ers' punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. in the open field. Ginn juked him a couple times on returns into Arizona territory. ...

Not sure why the Cardinals left their right tackle, Brandon Keith, singled up against Aldon Smith on a three-man pressure deep in Arizona territory. Smith got the sack. Skelton was partly to blame. He held the ball too long. ...

Just when quarterback John Skelton seems to be making progress in his decision making, he throws a high pass across the field for an interception. ...

The Cardinals did exploit Patrick Willis' injury absence from the 49ers' defense. Larry Fitzgerald broke a tackle attempt by Willis' replacement, Larry Grant, during a 53-yard reception to open the fourth quarter. Willis would have made that tackle, most likely.

Cardinals' youth movement is old news

November, 30, 2011
If the headline above this item sounds confusing, that was the point.

The Arizona Cardinals are at once a young, emerging team and an old, declining one.

As discussed earlier Wednesday in the Arizona section of this item, the Cardinals have the 15th-oldest players on offense and the second-oldest players on defense. No team in the NFL has older defensive backups in terms of average age. But that is only part of the story.

The Cardinals' five youngest players are starting. Their eight youngest players all own at least two starts this season. Their ninth-, 10th- and 11th-youngest players -- David Carter, LaRod Stephens-Howling and O'Brien Schofield -- are getting significant playing time and making positive contributions.

By my calculations, the Cardinals would go from third-oldest to roughly 15th-oldest in average age (not counting specialists) simply by replacing Vonnie Holliday, Clark Haggans, Joey Porter and Paris Lenon with players averaging 25 years old.

Haggans and Lenon remain productive players, but the team hopes to replace them with younger players. Schofield could realistically step in for Haggans next season. Free-agent addition Stewart Bradley, 28, will presumably play more next season as well.

Porter appears on his way out now that rookie Sam Acho is starting and producing (two sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery against St. Louis). Acho has started the last five games. He has four sacks in those five starts, plus a fifth sack one game before he replaced Porter in the lineup. The 2011 fourth-round draft choice looks like a keeper.

The Cardinals will also get younger next season by welcoming back Ryan Williams from injured reserve. The team signed 32-year-old Chester Taylor as an emergency replacement when Williams, still not yet 22, landed on injured reserve with a knee injury. Nose tackle Dan Williams, 24, went on injured reserve more recently. His return will also make the Cardinals younger on average.

The goal should be to get better, not just younger. But if you're going to suffer through losing seasons, it's best to develop young talent along the way. The Cardinals are doing that. They could still stand to add young players throughout their roster.

For example, Arizona's backup offensive linemen are 28, 29 and 31 years old when 27-year-old Brandon Keith is healthy enough to start at right tackle. That gives the Cardinals the oldest backup offensive linemen in the league, by my calculations.

Plugging in an experienced player can be more comforting than turning to a raw rookie, but teams hire coaches to develop talent, not just manage it. Drafting for the offensive line (there's a thought) and defense would go a long way toward changing the overall makeup of the Cardinals' roster.