NFC West: Brandon Pettigrew

Weatherspoon-KaepernickUSA TODAY SportsAtlanta and San Francisco will square off Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Coach Mike Smith, quarterback Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons finally have that elusive playoff victory. One more home victory stands between them and the Super Bowl after Atlanta outlasted Seattle in the divisional round.

The San Francisco 49ers, overtime losers in the NFC Championship Game last year, are back on the verge of their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season. That 49ers team won it all with one of the all-time great ex-Falcons, Deion Sanders, playing cornerback for them.

Which team will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year? NFC West blogger Mike Sando and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas talked through the possibilities.

Sando: Pat, you just finished watching QBs Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan put on a show in the divisional round. If anyone upstaged them in these playoffs, it was 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick with his 181-yard rushing performance against Green Bay. Kaepernick had 263 yards passing, two passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns. Kaepernick now owns victories over Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in his first eight starts. It's looking like he's going to be the key variable in this game against the Falcons.

Yasinskas: No doubt, Mike. I'm still trying to process what Kaepernick did against Green Bay, and I'm sure the Falcons are looking hard at that. They have to be worried, especially after what they put on tape against Seattle. They played a great first half, but Seattle QB Russell Wilson exploited them in the second half. The Falcons struggled with QB Cam Newton and the read-option offense in the regular season. The Falcons allowed quarterbacks to run for a league-high 8.9 yards per attempt (excluding kneel-downs) this season. Kaepernick can do the read-option, but the 49ers also can turn to RB Frank Gore in the traditional running game, and they can throw the ball. That's a scary combination, and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is going to have to come up with an innovative game plan against the team he once coached.

Sando: Some NFL coaching people I've spoken with thought the Packers had a horrible plan. Of course, that's easy to say after a team gives up 181 yards rushing to a quarterback. But from this view, it appeared as though the Packers played too much man coverage, turning their backs to Kaepernick and giving him too many free running lanes. Even before Kaepernick became the starter, San Francisco was known around the league for having a higher volume of running plays in its arsenal than other teams do. Kaepernick opens up another dimension. What was the key to Cam Newton's running success against Atlanta this season?

[+] EnlargeMichael Turner
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesMichael Turner averaged 7.0 yards per carry in Sunday's win over Seattle.
Yasinskas: Newton and the Panthers used the read-option pretty much to perfection against Atlanta. Carolina got the defensive ends and linebackers to commit and Newton made the right calls. He's a unique talent, and so is Kaepernick. But I think San Francisco could present even more of a challenge due to Gore. Atlanta's defense had issues with the read-option. But the Falcons weren't all that great against any sort of running game. The Falcons use a lot of nickel packages, and that may put them at a disadvantage against the run. They might have to use a little more of their 4-3 base defense and keep middle linebacker Akeem Dent on the field more.

Sando: The 49ers' offensive personnel are heavier than just about any other team. That will force the Falcons to play their base defense on early downs. I dug up a couple of numbers from ESPN game charts to illustrate the point. The 49ers' opponents played nickel or dime defense on only 128 first- or second-down plays this season; for the Falcons' opponents, that number was 396. Against the Packers' nickel/dime defenses, Kaepernick carried 11 times for 107 yards, including his 20-yard touchdown run. He carried three times for 76 yards against the Packers' base 3-4 personnel. That included his 56-yard run. The 49ers can present matchup problems from their two-tight end offense because Vernon Davis (4.38 40-yard dash) and Delanie Walker (4.49) run well. Davis' 44-yard reception against the Packers was a great sign for San Francisco.

Yasinskas: Yes, I think San Francisco's offense is going to present all sorts of problems for Atlanta's defense. But I think the flip side is that Atlanta's offense is going to present matchup problems, even for a very good 49ers defense. Roddy White and Julio Jones command a lot of attention. But no defense can overlook tight end Tony Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas. Both are dependable and dangerous, as shown on Atlanta's game-winning drive against Seattle. Those are four very solid weapons. And let's not forget the fact that Atlanta's run game came to life against the Seahawks. If Michael Turner can show up again, San Francisco's defense is going to have its hands full.

Sando: The 49ers have sometimes let Patrick Willis match up with opposing tight ends. Willis has covered pretty well much of the time, in my view. The 49ers gave up a league-low 613 yards to tight ends, but they ranked only 21st in passer rating allowed (98.5) when opponents targeted the position. San Francisco allowed eight touchdown passes to tight ends. Only five teams allowed more. Kyle Rudolph had two scoring catches against San Francisco. Jermichael Finley, David Thomas, Brandon Pettigrew, Anthony McCoy, Anthony Fasano and Aaron Hernandez also caught touchdowns against the 49ers this season. The key for San Francisco will be pressuring Ryan without blitzing. That appears possible now that defensive end Justin Smith is back and playing pretty well.

Yasinskas: Yes, San Francisco's pass rush will be a key to this game. Atlanta's offensive line, which was a problem spot last season, has enjoyed a resurgence this season with the arrival of offensive line coach Pat Hill. He's had the line playing well most of the season, and the unit was particularly good against Seattle. Ryan wasn't sacked and was barely pressured. Hill's biggest accomplishment has been getting a solid season out of left tackle Sam Baker. Baker was a first-round draft pick in 2008. His first four seasons were filled with inconsistency and injuries, but he has stayed healthy this season and has played at a high level. The rest of Atlanta's offensive line doesn't have great individual talent. But Hill has this line blocking well for the passing game. The running game has been a different story. Turner had a big game against Seattle. But during the regular season, he wasn't the same back he was in past years. I think part of it is because age is catching up to him, but part of it is because the run blocking wasn't great. Atlanta has made the transition toward being a pass-first team, and the offensive line is much better at pass blocking than it is at run blocking. Still, coach Mike Smith believes it's important to have a running game, and he's going to try to establish one with Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers against San Francisco.

[+] EnlargeJustin Smith, DuJuan Smith
Jose Luis Villegas/Sacramento Bee/MCTJustin Smith turned in a strong performance Sunday in his first game back from a torn triceps.
Sando: Seattle, despite leading the NFL in fewest points allowed, ranked 30th in yards per rush allowed since Week 7. The Seahawks resorted to risky tactics after losing their best pass-rusher, Chris Clemons, to injury in the wild-card round. Seattle simply couldn't get to Ryan without compromising its coverage. Ryan threw an early pick against DB pressure, but after that, he completed 7 of 8 passes for 111 yards and a score when the Seahawks rushed a member of their secondary, according to ESPN Stats & Information. San Francisco rushed a DB just twice against the Packers on Saturday night. Justin Smith's ability to play 91 percent of the snaps for the 49ers following a triceps injury was huge for San Francisco. The 49ers need him. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith has 19.5 sacks this season, but none since he had two against Miami in Week 14. The 49ers need the Smiths to pick up where they left off before Justin's injury. That is a key to this game.

Yasinskas: Yes, Atlanta's offensive line has to give Ryan time to throw the ball. A lot of Ryan's critics say he doesn't have a strong arm. But I think he has plenty of arm strength and he showed that with his long touchdown pass to White against Seattle. The key for Ryan in the deep game is for his offensive line to give him time. The Falcons like to use play-action, and that will help. But I think it also helps the offensive line that this game is in the Georgia Dome, so false starts won't be a problem. You brought up a good point last week in showing that Ryan's statistics haven't been as good at home as on the road. That's true. But the Falcons need to capitalize Sunday on the home-field advantage. This franchise has been around since 1966, but it's the first time a championship game will be played in Atlanta. After years of playing second fiddle to the Braves and college football, the Falcons have become the biggest thing in town. Fans finally are embracing this team, and the noise in the Georgia Dome could be a big help for the Falcons.

Sando: The 49ers allowed 38 pass plays of 20 or more yards this season. That was tied for third-fewest (Seattle allowed 40, sixth-fewest). I kept waiting for Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor to deliver a game-changing hit. It never happened. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are the big hitters for the 49ers. They need to be tone-setters down the field. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the physical aspect of this game plays out. That's an area where the 49ers need to win. I tend to think they will, as long as Justin Smith can give them 90 percent playing time once again. How do you see this one going?

Yasinskas: The 49ers probably are the more physical team, and I was very impressed with how they played overall against Green Bay. But following a hunch, I'm taking the Falcons 31-27. I think putting an end to the playoff-win drought will allow Atlanta to be loose and relaxed, especially in the case of Ryan. Playing at home also helps. Atlanta's defense needs to show up for 60 minutes this time. If it does, I think Atlanta has enough offensive firepower to score points even against a good defense and win this game. I see the Falcons going to the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history.

Sando: I'm not sure if I feel better or worse about the Falcons after watching that game against Seattle. The Seahawks had zero pass rush and I think that was the difference in the game, particularly at the very end. Looking ahead to Sunday, the Falcons have the more accomplished quarterback, but so did the Packers and Patriots and Saints. Kaepernick beat them all. I would give the Falcons the edge at receiver despite Michael Crabtree's development. Atlanta has the better kicker. I'd give the 49ers an edge on the offensive and defensive lines, at linebacker and in the secondary. We were talking about Tony Gonzalez earlier. Great player, but would he even start for the 49ers? Not over Vernon Davis, crazy as that sounds. San Francisco is better at running back, too. Maybe the Falcons will pull out another wild one at home, but I just think the 49ers are better. I'll take them to win it 30-17. If the Falcons win, they were better than I thought at every step this season.
The St. Louis Rams have allowed the 10th-most yards to opposing tight ends through Week 9 this season.

No big deal, right?

Well, it is if you're @timstantonx and you're wondering whether this is the week Vernon Davis gets back on track as a receiver for the San Francisco 49ers.

Davis will be facing a Rams defense that gave up eight catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns to New England tight end Rob Gronkowski in St. Louis' most recent game.

The 49ers, like the Rams, are coming off a bye. I suspect the 49ers will want to reintroduce Davis to their stat sheet after spending the last few games explaining how much they value him as blocker. Davis has five catches for 71 yards over the 49ers' last three games. His 58-game streak with at least one reception ended during that time.

The chart from ESPN Stats & Information shows receiving stats for tight ends against the Rams this season. There's a row showing totals for this season and for the Rams' first eight games last season. Tight ends have been piling up more yards against the Rams to this point in 2012 than last season.

The final row shows Davis' stats this season.

The 49ers completed 13 of 16 passes for 150 yards when targeting Davis against the Rams last season. The Rams' other opponents completed 41 of 74 passes for 384 yards to tight ends over the full season.

What Fangio said and what the 49ers did

September, 13, 2012
9/13/12
5:45
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About this time last week, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was telling us how his defense, about to face the Green Bay Packers, differed from some others.

"They will dictate what kind of game it is from a personnel standpoint," Fangio said of the Packers. "We are prepared to match their personnel with our people and we're a little different than some people in that we will keep our base defense out there against three wide receivers."

Hold on a minute. That last part was 100 percent counter to how the 49ers played the Packers. San Francisco played three snaps of its base 3-4 defense, none of them against the Packers' three-receiver offense. The team used nickel or dime coverages against all 19 plays when the Packers used three wide receivers.

Fangio and the defensive staff even removed Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis from the field for stretches to counter the Packers' pass-oriented offense. The first chart shows Green Bay's stats with Willis on and off the field. Green Bay had some early success against Willis in coverage. Overall, though, the stats aren't particularly telling. It's just odd to see one of the NFL's great every-down linebackers coming off the field for almost any reason.

The chart below shows the Packers' stats against the 49ers' sub, base and short-yardage defenses, according to ESPN Stats & Information. San Francisco spent nearly all the game in its sub packages. Their defensive front was strong enough to deter the Packers from running anyway. Green Bay fell behind, which also could have been a factor.

The plan will be different against Detroit in Week 2. They ran 62 percent of their Week 1 plays against St. Louis with only two wide receivers on the field. Tight ends and running backs filled out the other three spots. The Packers ran more than 80 percent of their plays against the 49ers with three or four wide receivers on the field.

Last season, Willis played a leading role in coverage against Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

710ESPN Seattle audio: 49ers WR rotation

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
6:50
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So, you're killing time before NFC West teams open their seasons Sunday and figure you might as well make another trip to the pregame media buffet table.

You survey the offerings and figure, hey, why not listen to see what Sando and these 710ESPN Seattle guys had to say about the upcoming games? You click on this audio link and the conversation leads, eventually, to a discussion of the San Francisco 49ers' reconfigured receiving corps heading into a Week 1 game at Green Bay.

You wonder how opposing receivers fared at Lambeau Field last season, but you're not interested in stats accumulated during garbage time. So, you ask to see a chart from ESPN Stats & Information showing 2011 opposing yardage leaders at Lambeau when scores were within, say, a 10-point margin.

You then realize that chart appears below. You see that three of the five leaders played during that wild Week 17 shootout with Detroit, the one that meant very little. But you also notice that four of the five leaders were tight ends, and then it dawns on you: While the 49ers' possibilities at wide receiver remain undefined, tight end Vernon Davis could be primed to pick up where he left off in the playoffs last season.

You then headed over to the NFC West Gridiron Challenge page and made sure Davis was in your lineup.
CANTON, Ohio -- With the Pro Football Hall of Fame proceedings an hour-plus from beginning, an interview transcript from San Francisco 49ers training camp caught my attention.

Reporters asked defensive coordinator Vic Fangio about the 49ers' preparedness to face four-receiver personnel groupings this season.

Buffalo, Arizona and Chicago led the NFL in percentage of offensive plays with four wideouts last season. All are on the 49ers' schedule in 2012. The Bears have a new offensive coordinator and a new philosophy, so their stats might not carry over as much.

The 49ers open against Green Bay, which used four receivers 6.1 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's a low percentage, but it ranked seventh in the NFL last season.

Most teams prefer keeping a running back and tight end on the field, limiting the receiver count to three or fewer.

Anyway, in an effort to cover some non-Hall of Fame ground on this Saturday, here's what Fangio had to say about the matter:
"We still see a tight end on the field most of the time. Most teams when they get into their passing formation are three wide receivers, one tight end and one back. Now, sometimes that one tight end is a really good receiver, as we’ll see in the first game against Green Bay with (Jermichael) Finley and in the second game with (the Detroit Lions' Brandon) Pettigrew right now. We still see a whole lot more at least one tight end on the field than four wide receivers."

The stats support Fangio's thinking.
There's little sense in taking the bait when San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh tells a radio program Michael Crabtree "has the best hands I've ever seen on a wide receiver."

Anyone with a strong grasp of NFL history would place Cris Carter, Raymond Berry and Steve Largent on a short list for receivers with the surest hands.

Hall of Famer Ken Houston, speaking for a 2008 piece on all-time great wideouts, stood up for AFL stars Otis Taylor and Lionel Taylor.

"Lionel Taylor, I mean, he would catch a BB," Houston said.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, speaking for the same piece, said Randy Moss, then with New England, had the best hands in the NFL at that time (2008).

"A lot of guys can catch," Thompson said then. "He can catch on any platform, as we say in scouting. He can adjust and catch it over the top of somebody's head, catch it falling down, and it doesn't matter if he is covered."

With Moss now on the 49ers, it is possible Crabtree does not possess the best hands among wide receivers on his own team.

Oops. I wasn't going to take the bait on this one, but now it's too late. Time to regroup.

Bottom line, I suspect Crabtree has impressed Harbaugh this offseason, and Harbaugh would like that to continue for as long as possible. By offering such strong public praise for Crabtree, Harbaugh is setting a standard for Crabtree to meet this season. He realizes Crabtree has the ability to meet that standard, or else he wouldn't make the statement.

We should all recall Harbaugh's calling quarterback Alex Smith "elite" and promoting him for the Pro Bowl last season. Then as now, Harbaugh was standing up for his guy. Smith enjoyed the finest season of his career and even outplayed the truly elite Drew Brees at times during the 49ers' playoff victory over New Orleans. The way Harbaugh backed Smith played a role in that performance, in my view.

Back to Crabtree. He has the ability to rank among the most sure-handed receivers in the game. He has not yet earned that status, but now he has little choice, right?

As the chart shows, Crabtree finished the 2011 season with 12.2 receptions per drop, which ranked 28th in the NFL among players targeted at least 100 times. Larry Fitzgerald led the NFL with 80 receptions and only one drop. Those numbers are according to ESPN Stats & Information, which defines drops as "incomplete passes where the receiver should have caught the pass with ordinary effort."

Crabtree suffered six drops last season by that standard, a few too many for the player with the best hands his head coach has ever seen on a wide receiver.
Every team in the NFC West had a 1,000-yard rusher last season.

Coaches in Seattle, San Francisco and St. Louis have promoted run-first philosophies. Arizona has invested first- and second-round picks in running backs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams, respectively.

Run, run, run.

And yet the division focused on the passing game quite a bit during the 2012 NFL draft -- on both sides of the ball. NFC West teams drafted a league-high three wide receivers in the first two rounds. Teams from the division drafted three cornerbacks in the first three rounds, tied with the NFC North for most in the league.

The charts show how many receivers and corners each division added through the first three rounds. The combined total for the NFC West (six) was the most for any division, one more than the NFC North.

St. Louis drafted cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins (second round) and Trumaine Johnson (third round). Arizona used a third-round choice for cornerback Jamell Fleming. Arizona (Michael Floyd) and San Francisco (A.J. Jenkins) used first-round picks for receivers. St. Louis added receiver Brian Quick in the second round (and another receiver, Chris Givens, in the fourth).

NFC West pass defenses could face additional pressure given the scheduling rotation in 2012.

Every NFC West team faces New England with Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker.

The division also faces Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers, Jermichael Finley, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson), Detroit (Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew) and Chicago (Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall).

San Francisco draws New Orleans (Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston) and the New York Giants (Eli Manning, Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz). Arizona faces Philadelphia (Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin) and Atlanta (Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones). Seattle faces Dallas (Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant) and Carolina (Cam Newton, Steve Smith).

The top five teams in 2011 passing yardage -- New Orleans, New England, Green Bay, Detroit and the Giants -- show up on NFC West schedules. Green Bay, New England, the Giants and Saints comprised the top four in yards per passing attempt. The top seven teams in passing touchdowns -- Green Bay, New Orleans, Detroit, New England, Dallas, Atlanta and the Giants -- play a combined 16 games against the NFC West.

And, of course, NFC West teams must face each other, which means games against Larry Fitzgerald, Vernon Davis, Randy Moss, Sidney Rice and others.

Sando chat scheduled for 1 p.m. ET

January, 5, 2012
1/05/12
9:26
AM ET
There will be no first-round playoff bye for the NFC West chat.

Hope to see you there at 1 p.m. ET.

All NFC West subjects are on the table.

Here's one I ran across Thursday morning: Vernon Davis ranks tied for 79th in red zone targets this season. He has nine, well below the totals for some of the leading tight ends in the playoffs. Jimmy Graham has 28, Rob Gronkowski has 26 and Aaron Hernandez has 24. Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Gonzalez have 21.

Davis ranks eighth in touchdowns per red zone target among players with at least nine targets, however. He has four red zone TDs.

Get him the ball.
The New England Patriots' Aaron Hernandez and the San Francisco 49ers' Delanie Walker top an unusual list of NFL tight ends.

Both have played more than half their teams' offensive snaps, but neither is the featured tight end on his team. The Patriots and 49ers are the only NFL teams with one tight end playing at least 90 percent of the snaps and another playing at least half of them (thank you, Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information, for digging up the numbers).

The point is not to go overboard in stressing how much the 49ers might miss Walker while he recovers from a broken jaw suffered in Week 16. We have covered that ground. The 49ers do not have a player similar to Walker on their roster, so they will have to adjust. That is life in the NFL.

The New England comparison interested me for how much the Patriots rely on Rob Gronkowski (96.2 percent of snaps) and Hernandez (73.1) in the passing game. With those two combining for 154 receptions and 1,991 yards this season, the totals for Vernon Davis and Walker (78 catches for 872 yards) reflect a different approach and, to a degree, untapped potential.

The 49ers do not feature their tight ends the same way, obviously, and coach Jim Harbaugh wants to be more run-oriented by design. There is only one Tom Brady, anyway, and the Patriots lack the strong defense that allows the 49ers to win playing the 49ers' way. But with Davis (95.9 percent of snaps) and Walker (56.1) spending so much time on the field, one might reasonably expect them to combine for more production than Davis managed by himself only two seasons ago (78 catches, 965 yards).

Receiving numbers aren't everything, of course. Davis and Walker have contributed in other ways. Their presence on the field forces teams to account for the running game while still having to worry about a speedy tight end getting open as a receiver. Walker's replacement, veteran Justin Peelle, has averaged a modest 8.2 yards per catch for his career. Blocking is his strength.

The chart ranks second tight ends by most playing time for the teams whose primary tight ends have played at least 90 percent of the snaps. The five primary tight ends: Dallas' Jason Witten (99.2 percent), Gronkowski (96.2), Davis (95.9), Pittsburgh's Heath Miller (95.3) and Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew (94.1).

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San Francisco 49ers rookie Aldon Smith made Matthew Stafford pay with a big hit Sunday.

The NFL made Smith pay, too,

Smith, who has 5.5 sacks over the 49ers' past three games, drew a $15,000 fine from the NFL for hitting the Detroit Lions' quarterback below the knee area as Stafford threw incomplete. The play drew a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer.

The league also fined the Lions' Brandon Pettigrew for a chop block. That fine was for $7,500.
Colleague Kevin Seifert showed some daring by sending TCU quarterback Andy Dalton to the Minnesota Vikings at No. 12 in a recent ESPN.com mock draft.

He wasn't arguing for Dalton's value so much as saying the Vikings' need for a quarterback might compel them to take one there.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonDid the Rams "reach" to get quarterback Sam Bradford in the first round last year?
"To me," Seifert later wrote with first-year Vikings coach Leslie Frazier in mind, "there is no better time to jump to the other side than in a coach's first year, giving him a building block for the rest of his program."

The key, of course, is not mistaking anchors for building blocks.

Steve Mariucci was the San Francisco 49ers' first-year coach when the team used a 1997 first-rounder for Jim Druckenmiller, a blunder softened only by Steve Young's presence on the roster. That experience should not directly influence the 49ers' thinking as they consider first-round quarterbacks for new coach Jim Harbaugh, but it's a reference point.

With Harbaugh and the 49ers in mind, I went through recent drafts to see which teams with first-year head coaches used first-round selections for quarterbacks. More precisely, I looked at all first-round quarterbacks since 2000 to see which ones had first-year head coaches.

Six of the last eight first-round quarterbacks -- Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and JaMarcus Russell -- joined teams with first-year head coaches. All but Russell remain franchise quarterbacks in their teams' eyes. All but Russell are still playing for their original head coaches. Four of the six had winning records in 2010.

For most of those franchises, value and need lined up pretty well, and first-year coaches benefited.

"If you don't have a quarterback, you're drafting maybe a different kind of running back, maybe a different kind of offensive lineman, than if you have somebody," Lions coach Jim Schwartz told reporters at the scouting combine. "We had Calvin Johnson, but our ability to get Jahvid Best, Nate Burleson in free agency, to draft Brandon Pettigrew -- those pieces were because of the quarterback that we have."

We could also argue that the St. Louis Rams were better off building their offensive line and other areas of their roster before making Sam Bradford the first overall choice in 2010. They could have drafted Sanchez or Freeman instead of defensive end Chris Long in 2009, then spent subsequent selections on players to build around one of those quarterbacks.

Bradford and Denver's Tim Tebow were the "other" first-round quarterbacks in the eight-man group featuring Stafford, Sanchez, Freeman, Ryan, Flacco and Russell.

In general, getting the right quarterback for a first-year head coach puts a franchise in strong position for the long term. There's no sense forcing the issue, however, because the wrong quarterback can drag down any coach, regardless of tenure.

A coach such as the Vikings' Frazier might have a harder time waiting. His contract runs only three seasons and ownership expects quick results. Harbaugh has a five-year deal with the 49ers. Expectations are high, but there's less urgency for immediate results.

The first chart shows the 14 first-round quarterbacks since 2000 that landed with returning head coaches.

The second chart shows the 14 first-round quarterbacks since 2000 that landed with first-year head coaches.
Our ongoing discussion on tight ends raised questions about which ones possess the best -- and worst -- hands.

"Any way you can add in 'thrown to' and 'drops' in this stat?" Furfanam asked in one comments section.

Consider it done.

Jason Vida of ESPN Stats & Information produced the information. I've broken it out in four charts. A few notes on the findings:
The first chart ranks NFL tight ends by most receptions. It also shows number of targets, drops and drop percentage. Witten, Jacob Tamme and Gates were the only tight ends with at least 50 receptions and no more than two dropped passes.



The second chart shows lowest drop percentages among tight ends targeted at least 20 times last season. Miller's standing atop the list backs up James Walker's contention that the Pittsburgh Steelers tight end was underrated in our power rankings.



The third chart ranks NFL tight ends with at least 20 targets by the highest percentage of dropped passes.

ESPN Stats & Information's totals on Bajema matched my charting. I had Bajema dropping passes against Tennessee, Denver and Arizona.



The final chart focuses only on NFC West tight ends, ranking them by lowest percentage of dropped passes.
Paul from San Francisco writes: Hey Mike, liked the analysis of the Rams and where they improved/worsened from last season. Any chance you can do that for the 49ers? Also, I'm a little underwhelmed by all the forecasts of the Niners winning the West this year because of how weak the West looks/is. Can you take a look at how the Niners stand up against the first- and sec0nd-ranked teams in the other NFC divisions? In other words, what are their playoff chances if they do win the West? Which NFC West rookie makes the biggest impact this year? Sorry, a lot of questions! Thanks!

Mike Sando: No apologies necessary. Glad you liked the look at the Rams. We've subsequently put together one on the Seahawks. I'm working on one for the 49ers and will have one for the Arizona Cardinals, too. These have been quite fun.

Why worry about trivial details such as winning the NFC West for the first time since 2002 when there are playoff matchups to consider? Haha.

If the 49ers were to win the NFC West as the third or lower seed, they would draw a home playoff game in the wild-card round. Teams hosting wild-card games often draw relatively flawed opponents. For example, the 2008 Cardinals drew a home playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan. The 2007 Seahawks drew a home playoff game against the Washington Redskins and Todd Collins. Drawing flawed opponents at home can help a team break through in the postseason.

That might not be the case for the NFC West champion this season. The other top teams in the conference are stacked with proven quarterbacks. Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers are in the NFC North. Drew Brees and a more seasoned Ryan are in the NFC South. The NFC East has a different look now that Donovan McNabb has left the Philadelphia Eagles, but Eli Manning won a Super Bowl -- and multiple road playoff games -- for the New York Giants. The Dallas Cowboys finally won a playoff game last season with Tony Romo.

Drawing one of those quarterbacks in the wild-card round could be tough for the NFC West champion, whether it's the 49ers or anyone else.


Doug from Surprise, Ariz., writes: With the departure of Karlos Dansby and with Gerald Hayes' back injury, the Cardinals obviously have issues at inside linebacker. Given that they play a 3-4 defense, is it feasible that the Cardinals could plug Adrian Wilson into a linebacker role (i.e. some sort of hybrid strong safety/linebacker)? Wilson is too small to play linebacker full-time, but he is a very good strong safety who excels when playing closer to the line of scrimmage.

Mike Sando: The Cardinals might have to rely upon Wilson more as an extra box defender, but I can't see them turning him into a base linebacker. The team would lose some of what he offers as a safety while putting Wilson at additional risk for injury.


William from Cincinnati writes: My reason for writing is that I really don't see how the Rams are still considered the worst team in the league. Why does everybody think the Lions will all of a sudden be so good? The Rams beat them last year and have better players at most positions except for receiver (Calvin Johnson is the only reason, though), outside linebacker with Julian Peterson, tight end with Brandon Pettigrew and defensive tackle with Ndamukong Suh.

The other positions almost all favor the Rams or are a tossup. Running back, cornerback, free safety, strong safety, offensive line, fullback, middle linebacker, punter and defensive end all go in the Rams' favor with Steven Jackson, Ron Bartell, Oshiomogho Atogwe, James Butler, Jason Smith, Jason Brown, Jacob Bell, Mike Karney, James Laurinaitis, Donnie Jones and Chris Long, respectively. And, yes, Long is better than Kyle Vanden Bosch. He had more sacks and one less tackle and basically all of his stats came in the last eight games of the year. With that and the familiarity of the defense Long now enjoys -- plus Fred Robbins knowing Steve Spagnuolo's defense helping out -- he should be even better.

The tossup positions are at quarterback (that is with Sam Bradford), kicker and right outside linebacker.

So my question is, where's the love for the Rams? And that's just them vs. the Lions. I'm sure I could pick out another team or two and argue just as well that they are better than them as of now. Thanks again.

Mike Sando: Ah, yes, the most recent ESPN power rankings did have the Rams ranked 32nd and I think that's fair after the team went 3-13, 2-14 and 1-15 over the last three seasons. The Rams have earned our skepticism. We're still in the offseason and you're going to see more reliance on 2009 records when putting together power rankings.

I did take the Rams over the Lions before last season in terms of which organization was building more wisely. The Lions were going with older players and that didn't make a great deal of sense. The Rams paid a price for going as young as they did, although I didn't see a better alternative given the salary-cap situation and overall state of the roster.

The Lions can expect Matthew Stafford to progress enough in his second season to outpace Bradford and A.J. Feeley in the short term. That doesn't mean Stafford will be better for sure, but it's reasonable to think he might be until we see what the Rams' quarterbacks can offer. Also, if you have seen Louis Delmas play safety the for the Lions, you know he's a dynamic player and better than what the Rams have to offer at the position.


Kenny from Washington writes: Do you think Seahawks players respect Pete Carroll, or just think he came to Seattle to get out of a jam at USC?

Mike Sando: Those options are not exclusive. In other words, the answer to both could be the same.

I think Seattle players respect him, but it's never unconditional respect. He will have to earn that respect over time and across situations. He can lose respect by handling situations dishonestly or mishandling his duties. It's very early in the game right now.

Getting out of a jam at USC would have been secondary to the assurances Carroll needed from an NFL team. He was able to stay on the West Coast and get control over personnel matters. No other team on the West Coast was going to offer those things to him, and Carroll was getting to an age where it was probably time to take this job.

I don't think Carroll realized the severity of the sanctions that awaited. That might have reflected arrogance on his part and on USC's part, but I don't think he thought the NCAA would come down so harshly.

NFC West draft watch: Offensive linemen

November, 12, 2009
11/12/09
11:33
AM ET
Rank Offensive Tackle Prospect College Height Weight Scouts Inc. Grade
1 Russell Okung Oklahoma St.
6-8 299 96
2 Trent Williams
Oklahoma 6-5 306 94
3 Bryan Bulaga
Iowa 6-6 311 93
4 Charles Brown
USC 6-5 285 92
5 Anthony Davis
Rutgers 6-5 328 91
6 Tony Washington
Abilene Christian
6-6 300 83
7 Sam Young
Notre Dame
6-7 314 81
8 Selvish Capers
West Virginia
6-4 293 80
9 Kyle Calloway
Iowa 6-6 318 78
10 Jason Fox
Miami 6-6 301 77
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Steve Muench of Scouts Inc. passes along a "thank you" to those who left thoughts and comments in the recent item soliciting feedback about 2010 draft priorities for NFC West teams. Steve read through the comments in preparation for our first in-season discussion matching projected team needs with available talent.

We covered offensive linemen in this discussion, figuring the Seahawks and 49ers in particular could target tackles as early as the first round. I spend all of my time watching NFC West teams. Steve spends his time evaluating college prospects. It was nice to compare notes.

Muench sees Oklahoma State tackle Russell Okung as a potential top-five overall selection. We discussed several other prospects, beginning with the top two listed on the chart.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Knowshon Moreno is the only running back off the board after the first 20 picks, leaving the Cardinals in potentially strong position to draft Chris Wells, Donald Brown, LeSean McCoy or whichever running back they might be targeting if the value is right.

The Lions' selection of Brandon Pettigrew at No. 20 means the Cardinals probably will not be selecting a tight end at No. 31. I'm getting emails, texts and other notifications from some anxious Cardinals fans. Hold on!

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