NFC West: Brandon Weedon

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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Catch us if you can.

That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.

It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.

By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.

It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.

So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?

The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.

Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.

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

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.

 
NFL teams have played their most important snaps of the 2013 exhibition season now that every team has played at least three games.

This becomes a good time to check out how many snaps each projected starting quarterback has played. The players listed in the chart below entered preseason as the quarterbacks I considered most likely to start season openers. We might have to make adjustments in some cases.

Teams have different priorities based on a range of factors. This snapshot does provide some context.

A few notes regarding the NFC West info:
  • Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer appeared sharper in the preseason opener than he did subsequently. Pass protection was one problem against San Diego on Saturday night. Palmer still got 37 snaps, his highest total of the preseason. But with the team losing key players Rob Housler and Jonathan Cooper to injuries, snap counts for Palmer were not a leading storyline.
  • St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford has played 25 snaps in each of the last two preseason games. He is averaging 10.2 yards per pass attempt in the preseason and has a 114.1 NFL passer rating to this point (he finished the 2012 preseason with five touchdown passes, no picks and a 116.3 rating). The team's most recent preseason game, at Denver, provided Bradford a good opportunity to connect with Jared Cook, the tight end St. Louis lured away from Tennessee in free agency with $19 million in guarantees. Cook caught four passes for 50 yards and a touchdown.
  • San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick has played fewer snaps than any projected starter other than the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III, who has not yet played in a game since suffering knee injuries in the playoffs last season. Kaepernick finished strong against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night, completing his final six passes, including one for a touchdown.
  • Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson took three sacks and threw two interceptions while playing 38 snaps against Green Bay in the most recent preseason game. The Packers, meanwhile, pulled Aaron Rodgers after 10 snaps. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the Packers came after Seattle with scheme-related wrinkles an offense would address in the regular season, but not preseason.
Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, Cadillac Williams, J.J. Arrington and Eric Shelton were the running backs selected ahead of Frank Gore in the 2005 NFL draft.



Gore, the San Francisco 49ers' career rushing leader, has kept those players' names in mind as motivation over the years.

This is pretty typical thinking in the NFL.

Tom Brady famously kept in mind the six quarterbacks selected ahead of him in the 2000 draft, and what it felt like to be selected 199th overall. He teared up when recalling his draft-day experience for a documentary more than a decade later.

"Of all the quarterbacks selected before Brady in the 2000 draft, none hurt Brady more than [Geno] Carmazzi" going to the 49ers because Brady had been a huge fan of Joe Montana and the team while growing up in California, Mike Reiss noted two years ago.

Gore has company among third-round choices in the NFC West.

Brandon Weedon was among the quarterbacks selected ahead of 2012 Seattle Seahawks third-rounder Russell Wilson. Rolando McClain and Sergio Kindle were among the linebackers selected ahead of 2010 49ers third-rounder NaVorro Bowman.

Back to Gore: He has 8,839 career rushing yards. Benson (6,017), Brown (5,171), Williams (4,038), Arrington (654) and Shelton (23) have combined for 15,903 yards.
It's usually about the money. It's also about what the money represents.

Brandon Jacobs, touched when a 6-year-old gave him $3.36 from a piggy bank to keep him with the New York Giants, balked when the Giants offered 446,428 times as much.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says Jacobs, one of the San Francisco 49ers' new running backs, received the $3.36 offering well after signing with the San Francisco 49ers. Jacobs: "I got the letter a couple days ago and it meant a whole lot to me. That's a special thing and I wish every athlete could get that feeling. That definitely meant a lot for him to do that and put that concept together for one of his favorite players on one of his favorite teams. It meant a lot to me and gave me a lot of motivation. I want to do good and go out there and do the best I can for little Joe. After thinking about it since it happened, I'm going to remember this for the rest of my life. When I go back to Jersey, we are going to have some fun together."

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News says 49ers defensive end Justin Smith is hungry. Real hungry. Smith: "The window is small. ... In a couple years, we'll probably lose a lot of people. That's just the nature of the game. There's a sense of urgency in that aspect, just talking with a lot of guys. We've got to push and get this done sooner than later."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says injuries contributed to Frank Gore's diminished production following a streak of six consecutive 100-yard games.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Pete Carroll and his former USC assistants had no idea what happened to former recruit Brian Banks. Carroll: "We really lost track of Brian and what happened until the story was brought about here just in recent days. When we first heard about the story, I thought it was remarkable circumstances and a guy up against all odds -- extraordinary, remarkable circumstances. But not until I talked to him on the telephone did I realize what kind of guy this guy is, and that he deserved a chance. Given other circumstances, he would have earned it in front of our eyes. But this is a guy that just deserved it. This is a great illustration for us of why people deserve a second chance."

Michael Ghelken of the San Diego Union-Tribune expects Banks to work out for the Chargers on Friday.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Banks, a linebacker, can run the 40-yard dash in less than 4.7 seconds.

Brock Huard of 710ESPN Seattle offers thoughts on Matt Flynn relative to Brandon Weedon.

Josh Kerns of mynorthwest.com links to an interview with Banks.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic offers thoughts on the Cardinals' recent organized team activities. He thought John Skelton missed some passes that should have been completed. Also from Somers: "WR Michael Floyd looks like he would be more effective at a little lighter weight. It's not unusual for rookies to be a bit heavy in their first camp, and Floyd is far from overweight. But my guess is that strength and conditioning coach John Lott would like Floyd to be a bit lighter than he is now. He's listed at 220 pounds. Floyd didn't look quick going through agility drills, but that's not his forte, either. It's getting downfield and using his size and strength against smaller defenders."

Also from Somers: The Cardinals dropped too many potential interceptions last season.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says confidence isn't a problem for Arizona's defense. Calais Campbell: "It’s knowing the defense can work, because of where we finished last year. When we are jelling and we do it right, the offense has no chance. They only make plays when we make mistakes and we haven’t made a lot of mistakes lately. Our confidence is high. I can’t wait to get in there that first game."

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com offers Rams-related notes, including one about first-round choice Michael Brockers signing his rookie contract. Wagoner: "Brockers is the seventh member of the Rams’ 10-man draft class to sign on the dotted line as the Rams move closer to getting everyone under contract before the end of the offseason program next week. Brockers has been present and participating in the team’s Organized Team Activities and the rookie minicamp, working mostly with the first team alongside Kendall Langford on the inside."

Also from Wagoner: catching up with rookie cornerback Trumaine Johnson, who played with Jeff Fisher's son, Brandon, at Montana. Brandon is now an assistant secondary coach for St. Louis.

Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis says the Rams' rookie class is adjusting to the NFL. Softli: "There are also many adjustments that come with moving to a new city and its surroundings, from finding grocery stores and restaurants to the closest movie theatre. Of the utmost importance, though, is learning the new playbook and terminology, focusing on the Rams’ way of doing business, meetings, lifting and running sessions."
Once upon a time, Mike Holmgren and the Cleveland Browns were doing all they could to acquire from St. Louis the second overall choice in the 2012 NFL draft, presumably to select Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III.

The Browns had "stepped up their efforts to try to acquire the No. 2 pick, going so far as to offer at least three No. 1 picks to the Rams and possibly even a second-round pick," ESPN's Adam Schefter reported at the time.

Once Washington outmaneuvered Cleveland to acquire the pick, Holmgren suggested a cozy relationship between the Rams and Redskins could have left the Browns on the outside. It sounded like spin, but the picture was only beginning to change.

Now that the Browns have identified first-round choice Brandon Weedon as their franchise quarterback, hindsight says RG3 and other prospects not named Weedon weren't such great fits after all. That sounds convenient.

[+] EnlargeFlynn
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesMatt Flynn may not have the strongest arm, but the Seahawks saw enough in the free agent to sign him for three years.
These developments would not matter much in the NFC West if the story ended there. But it does not end there.

"Of the more realistic candidates," ESPNCleveland's Tony Grossi wrote, "free agent Matt Flynn was no bigger than Colt McCoy with a similarly popgun arm. He was never seriously considered."

Paul from Richmond, Va., read those words and fired off a plea for clarification to the NFC West mailbag.

"I take it that John Schneider and Pete Carroll don't share the Browns' view of Flynn's arm, but how can one staff see an adequate NFL arm when the other sees a popgun?" Paul asked. "Mike Holmgren coached Matt Hasselbeck, who doesn't exactly have a cannon, but apparently was good enough. Does Flynn have less of an arm than Hasselbeck? Your thoughts?

Mike Sando: While we cannot hold the Browns accountable for what someone else wrote, we can assume Grossi was writing what he perceived to be the Browns' position.

Holmgren and Schneider both have long and close associations with Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson. It is conceivable both would have access to Thompson's thoughts on Flynn, a player Thompson drafted.

But it's also clear Schneider would have a much better feel for Flynn. One, Schneider was with the Packers when Green Bay drafted Flynn. He evaluated Flynn in person on a daily basis for years. Holmgren did not. Two, Schneider counts Packers coach Mike McCarthy among his close friends, conceivably giving him access to the most current and credible assessment of Flynn. Holmgren likely would not have the same access to McCarthy.

It's also reasonable to think the Seahawks and Browns both had some reservations about Flynn. Seattle did not pursue Flynn all that aggressively in free agency. Carroll and Schneider said Flynn won them over during Flynn's visit to team headquarters. That visit included a tryout on the field and coaching sessions in the classroom. That part of the evaluation should not be understated.

When personnel people discuss players with dynamic arm talent, those conversations aren't going to involve Flynn. They wouldn't involve Hasselbeck, either. Both were later-round picks in part because their raw talent wasn't off the charts.

But it's harsh to say Flynn has a "popgun" arm. For a more qualified opinion, I called 710ESPN Seattle's Brock Huard, who played for the Seahawks and has watched them practice this offseason. He also thought Flynn's arm was better than that.

As for Weedon being the Browns' most logical choice all along? Sure, he might have been, but it's awful convenient now.

"No doubt, Weedon had one of the most dynamic arms in this draft," said Huard, who also serves as a college football analyst for ESPN. "But when the play broke down and the pocket was not clean, he was the least resourceful of all these prospects. He would be a fantastic fit in a Mike Martz system, but in a West Coast system requiring some movement and resourcefulness, behind a shaky line and with questionable receivers, we'll have to watch how it plays out."

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