NFC West: Brett Swain


The Seattle Seahawks' depth at wide receiver is suddenly a little shallow, but for how long? No one seems to know.

The latest from coach Pete Carroll: Sidney Rice went to Europe for a non-surgical procedure on his knee, while Percy Harvin was in New York getting a second opinion on his sore hip (nothing new to report there).

This situation is ripe for overreaction. Harvin was running at full speed within the past week or so and did not, as far as we know, suffer a new injury. Rice has been practicing and did not, as far as we know, suffer a new injury. But at the very least, there's a chance both receivers will be managing injuries throughout the 2013 season.

Harvin missed seven games to an ankle injury last season. Rice did not miss a game in 2012 after having a surgery on each shoulder. He missed seven games in 2011 and 11 the year before that.

Rice played through knee soreness last season without missing time. He scheduled this overseas treatment previously and with the team's knowledge. The timing wasn't in relation to any aggravation of the injury. Rice was functioning as normal and practicing. The team does not expect him to miss practices or games when he returns.

Harvin and Rice figure prominently into the Seahawks' plans on offense. Their contracts also figure prominently. The chart shows projected salary-cap charges for Harvin, Rice, Zach Miller, Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and Golden Tate. Harvin's new deal buys him security for the next couple seasons. The team could more easily free itself from Rice's contract. Tate is entering the final year of his contract, adding another dynamic to the position.

Those are issues to resolve in the future. First, the Seahawks need to find out more about Harvin in particular, and also Rice.

Seattle currently has 12 receivers on its roster: Harvin, Rice, Tate, Doug Baldwin, Chris Harper, Stephen Williams, Jermaine Kearse, Brett Swain, Bryan Walters, Phil Bates, Greg Herd and Arceto Clark.


NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC West team?

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Offense: Top running backs
Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams have combined for one ruptured patella tendon (Williams), one torn ACL (Mendenhall) and one shoulder surgery (Williams) during the past two seasons. Williams has played five games in two seasons. Mendenhall missed 10 games last season (one to suspension) after returning from his knee injury. So while new quarterback Carson Palmer rightly commands much of the attention heading into camp, the running backs deserve our attention as well.

Defense: Coaching change
The coaching change from Ken Whisenhunt to Bruce Arians cost the Cardinals their defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, just as the defense was gaining momentum. Arizona ranked third behind Chicago and Denver in defensive EPA last season. New coordinator Todd Bowles comes to Arizona after a difficult 2012 season with Philadelphia. Can the Cardinals sustain their recent defensive success under new leadership?

Wild card: Kitchens' health
Quarterbacks coach Freddie Kitchens underwent emergency heart surgery in early June after experiencing chest pain during practice. Last we heard, Kitchens was recuperating and expected to return sometime during camp, perhaps on a limited basis at first. Kitchens' health is a leading issue for the Cardinals even though the team has enough depth on its coaching staff to cover for him.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Offense: Second-year second-rounders
Two second-round picks from 2012 will help determine the Rams' trajectory on offense. Receiver Brian Quick and running back Isaiah Pead each started one game as a rookie. Quick played 174 snaps and caught 11 passes, two for touchdowns. Pead played 39 snaps and had 10 carries. It's time for both to become meaningful contributors. They should have increased opportunities after St. Louis parted with veterans at their positions.

Defense: Rookie safety T.J. McDonald
The Rams will want to get McDonald up to speed quickly. They did sign veteran Matt Giordano for insurance, but McDonald, a third-round choice from USC, is the player they envision in the lineup. Coach Jeff Fisher has experience putting rookie safeties into the lineup right away. Tank Williams started all 16 games as a rookie under Fisher with Tennessee in 2002. Michael Griffin started 10 games as a rookie under Fisher with the Titans in 2007. Williams was a second-round choice. Griffin was a first-rounder.

Wild card: O-line health
The Rams are young just about everywhere except along their offensive line. That's OK as long as those veterans avoid some of the injury troubles they've suffered in recent seasons. Left tackle Jake Long has had two arm surgeries the past two seasons. Right guard Harvey Dahl is coming off a torn biceps. Center Scott Wells has had two surgeries on his right knee, plus a broken foot, in the past year and a half. Tackle Rodger Saffold has had a torn pectoral and a neck injury since late in the 2011 season. The group should be healthy going into camp. Will the good health last?

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Offense: Developing wideouts
Eight wide receivers have played in games for the 49ers during two seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. The list -- Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham, Ted Ginn Jr., Josh Morgan, Braylon Edwards and Brett Swain -- includes zero players the team drafted and developed under Harbaugh. The team will be looking to develop young wideouts A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette while Crabtree and Manningham recover from serious injuries. Jenkins and Patton were draft choices under Harbaugh. Lockette was signed last season.

Defense: Roles on the D-line
General manager Trent Baalke has suggested the team could stand to expand its rotation on the defensive line. How will that play out once the 49ers are on the field and the coaching staff takes over? What role will newcomer Glenn Dorsey play to that end? Starters Justin Smith and Ray McDonald could benefit from a little more rest now and then. They rank among the NFL leaders in total regular-season and postseason snaps played in the past couple of seasons. Smith, in particular, is hugely important to the defense's success.

Wild card: Eric Mangini
The coaching staff will have a different feel with Mangini as the new senior offensive consultant. Harbaugh has kept together his staff for two seasons, an upset for a team that has enjoyed so much success on the scoreboard and in scheming. We easily could have credited Harbaugh for staying the course in the name of continuity. Adding a coach with Mangini's profile shakes things up. It'll be interesting to see how Mangini assimilates.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Offense: James Carpenter
Carpenter's health is a key variable for the future of the offensive line. Coach Pete Carroll has indicated Carpenter should be available for the start of training camp after missing nine games last season and seven as a rookie. Drafted to play right tackle, Carpenter's future is at guard if he can get healthy, stay healthy and regain quickness. Having Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung and Pro Bowl center Max Unger flanking a healthy Carpenter would give Seattle a line more like the one Carroll envisioned.

Defense: Cliff Avril's transition
Seattle will be looking to see how pass-rushing defensive ends Avril and Bruce Irvin fit at linebacker as the coaching staff promotes versatility through the front seven. Avril is particularly important in the short term because Irvin faces a four-game suspension to open the season while starting defensive end Chris Clemons continues to rehab from the torn ACL he suffered during the wild-card round last season. Carroll has hinted that Clemons could return in time for the season, but that's a best-case scenario.

Wild card: Keep it clean
All NFL players must submit to testing for performance-enhancing drugs when they report for training camp. That's significant for the Seahawks after Irvin became the fifth Seattle player since 2011 to incur a PED-related suspension. What are the chances another player tests positive?
NFC West teams are collecting wide receivers from their division rivals' discard piles.

It happened Friday when the San Francisco 49ers claimed Charly Martin off waivers from the Seattle Seahawks. In April, the Seahawks signed former 49ers receiver Brett Swain. Earlier, Seattle also signed former Arizona Cardinals receiver Stephen Williams.

These sorts of signings lend themselves to rivalry narratives, but it's not like Martin, Swain or Williams are striking fear in their former teams. They are developmental players who ran their course with one team and could benefit from new opportunity. They'll be fighting for roster spots. The 49ers think receiver Ricardo Lockette, formerly of the Seahawks, could become one such success story.

San Francisco has been seeking receiver depth this offseason while Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham recover from injuries. Brandon Carswell suffered a torn ACL in his first practice after the 49ers signed him. Martin, 29, fills that roster spot. He has five receptions, two for first downs, on seven targets while with Seattle and Carolina.
Aaron from Chicago wants to know why the Seattle Seahawks keep acquiring personnel from his favorite team, the Minnesota Vikings.

Cornerback Antoine Winfield was the latest addition to the "Minnesota West" roster in Seattle.

"Ever since we controversially signed Steve Hutchinson from them," Aaron writes, "it has seemed as though the Seahawks go out of their way to snatch whatever Vikings they can to stick it to us. It started with them signing Nate Burleson, then Sidney Rice and Heath Farwell, Darell Bevell and Tarvaris Jackson (for whatever reason). They even outbid us for T.J. Houshmanzadeh a few years back. They signed Ryan Longwell at the end of this past season. Obviously, it has continued with Percy Harvin and now Winfield."

Sando: It's a remarkable pattern, but there's likely no revenge factor. The people running the Seahawks during the Hutchinson controversy are long gone from the organization. They were involved in adding Burleson and Houshmandzadeh, but they had nothing to do with the Seahawks' more recent deals for Rice, Farwell, Bevell, Jackson, Harvin or Winfield.

Bevell's hiring as the Seahawks' offensive coordinator stands out as a factor behind the team's decisions to sign Rice and trade for Harvin.

John Schneider's presence as the Seahawks' general manager since 2010 provides a strong link to the NFC North in general. Schneider, after spending much of his career with the Green Bay Packers, played a role in Seattle adding former NFC North players such as Breno Giacomini, Will Blackmon, Cliff Avril, Steven Hauschka, Brett Swain, Frank Omiyale and others. Also, Schneider and Bevell were together in Green Bay. However, Seattle has added many more players without ties to the Vikings or the NFC North.

For a while, the Detroit Lions signed or otherwise acquired a long list of players with Seahawks ties. There were some connections between the organizations -- former Lions coach Rod Marinelli and former Seahawks GM Tim Ruskell shared a history with Tampa Bay, for instance -- but some of the overlap defied explanation.

Tyler Polumbus, Burleson, Will Heller, Rob Sims, Lawrence Jackson, Maurice Morris, Julian Peterson, Trevor Canfield, Marquand Manuel, Kole Heckendorf, Kevin Hobbs, Logan Payne, Chuck Darby, Keary Colbert, Billy McMullen, Travis Fisher, Cory Redding, John Owens, Joel Filani, T.J. Duckett, Kevin Kasper, Etric Pruitt and Mike Williams were among the players to play for both organizations.

Update: The Burleson signing did have a retaliatory aspect, as ZippyWasBanned noted in the comments section. Seattle signed him to an offer sheet featuring "poison pills" similar to the ones that helped the Vikings land Hutchinson.

NFC West links: San Francisco's advantage

April, 9, 2013
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Arizona Cardinals

Former Cardinal quarterback Kevin Kolb on his departure from Arizona: “There was a lot of stuff behind the scenes,” Kolb said of his final months with the Cardinals. “It was interesting how it all played out. But without going into too much detail, I wasn’t totally shocked it happened. ... But there was a bit of a surprise there when it happened, even though a lot of arrows pointed in that direction. There were certain things being said that I tried to believe, but at the same time I was trying to cover all my bases as well. That’s the best way to put it.”

Raising Zona writes that the Cardinals' focus in the draft should now shift to the offensive line.

St. Louis Rams

Could UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin be a player the Rams have their eye on?

Three Rams players recently worked on a project as part of the Clinton Global Initiative.

San Francisco 49ers

NFL.com's Chris Wesseling looks at some of the 49ers' needs heading into the draft.

Having Colin Kaepernick locked up in a cap-friendly deal has allowed playoff teams like the 49ers to be aggressive in the offseason. From Jarrett Bell of USA Today: "By striking gold with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a second-round pick in 2011, the 49ers are in the midst of a virtual rookie cap honeymoon. Under terms of the new rookie scale, Kaepernick can't get another contract until after this season, allowing for a huge advantage as the 49ers tie up pieces around him. Kaepernick, 25, one of the youngest QBs to start a Super Bowl, counts just $1.398 million against the cap -- a scant 1.1% slice."

Seattle Seahawks

Warren Moon says the addition of Percy Harvin was "a big coup" for the Seahawks.

The Seahawks on Monday signed wide receiver Brett Swain.
One year ago, San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree voiced frustration over the opportunities available to him during an overtime defeat to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game.

Crabtree had finished that game with a single reception for 3 yards. No other 49ers wide receiver caught a pass that day.



"Sometimes you just gotta move the ball, man," Crabtree said from the losing locker room at Candlestick Park. "You gotta make plays. You gotta give people a chance to make plays."

Crabtree seemed to be blaming the play calling and/or quarterback Alex Smith. Mostly, he was frustrated after the most difficult defeat San Francisco had suffered in many years.

At the time, I blamed Crabtree's struggles more on the coverage Giants cornerback Corey Webster applied than on anything systemic. The way Crabtree has flourished recently with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback supports other theories.

Crabtree has 15 receptions for 176 yards and two touchdowns in two playoff games this season. He had five receptions for 28 yards and one score in two playoff games last season.

The chart compares San Francisco's overall production when targeting wide receivers in these playoffs versus the playoffs last season.

Having a more legitimate No. 2 receiver in Randy Moss has probably helped Crabtree. Injuries left the 49ers with Crabtree, Kyle Williams, Brett Swain and Joe Hastings as their only receivers in the NFC title game a year ago.

Having Kaepernick in the lineup seems to be working in Crabtree's favor. Crabtree has averaged an additional 29 yards receiving per game in Kaepernick's nine starts.

The 49ers' Super Bowl opponent, Baltimore, has been tough on opposing wideouts during the playoffs. Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady completed 53.2 percent of their passes with three touchdowns, four interceptions and a 64.3 NFL passer rating when targeting wide receivers against the Ravens this postseason.

Staggering difference for 49ers' receivers

September, 10, 2012
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Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams, Brett Swain and Joe Hastings were the San Francisco 49ers' wide receivers when the team left off last season.



Crabtree notoriously accounted for the lone catch, a 3-yarder, from a 49ers wide receiver during an NFC Championship Game defeat to the New York Giants.

Restocking the position during the offseason paid off for the 49ers during their 30-22 victory over Green Bay at Lambeau Field in Week 1.

The chart illustrates the difference.

Crabtree, Randy Moss and Mario Manningham caught 15 of the 16 passes Alex Smith threw their way. Rookie first-round choice A.J. Jenkins was active, but he did not factor.

The 152 yards from San Francisco wide receivers accounted for 72 percent of Smith's total for the game. He averaged 9.5 yards per attempt on those throws, completing 15 of 16. Smith's passes to receivers accounted for 50.8 percent of his yards over the previous two seasons. He averaged 7.7 yards per attempt on those throws.

From ESPN Stats & Information: Moss caught his 154th career receiving touchdown, moving ahead of Terrell Owens for the second-most in NFL history.

2012 NFC West practice squad eligibility

September, 1, 2012
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NFL teams can begin forming practice squads once eligible players clear waivers Saturday.

A look at which players released by NFC West teams have eligibility:

Arizona Cardinals

Eligible: Crezdon Butler, Antonio Coleman, Blake Gideon, Ricky Lumpkin, Colin Parker, Larry Parker, Steve Skelton, Quan Sturdivant, Everrette Thompson, Martell Webb, Scott Wedige, Brandon Williams, Isaiah Williams, D.J. Williams.

Not eligible: DeMarco Sampson, Alfonso Smith, Ronald Talley, Stephen Williams, Clark Haggans, Russ Hochstein

St. Louis Rams

Eligible: Cornell Banks, Tim Barnes, Tom Brandstater, Mason Brodine, Aaron Brown, Sammy Brown, Kendric Burney, Ben Guidugli, Cory Harkey, T-Bob Hebert, Jamaar Jarrett, Nick Johnson, Joe Long, Deangelo Peterson, Chase Reynolds, Scott Smith

Not eligible: Vernon Gholston, Bryan Mattison, Jose Valdez, Kellen Clemens, Ovie Mughelli

San Francisco 49ers

Eligible: Derek Hall, Joe Holland, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Cam Johnson, Matthew Masifilo, Anthony Mosley, Kyle Nelson, Al Netter, Chris Owusu, Nathan Palmer, Mike Person, Konrad Reuland, Kenny Rowe, Michael Thomas, Kenny Wiggins, Michael Wilhoite

Not eligible: Eric Bakhtiari, Ikaika Alama-Francis, Rock Cartwright, Josh Johnson, Brett Swain

Seattle Seahawks

Eligible: Pierre Allen, Allen Bradford, Kris Durham, Cooper Helfet, Rishaw Johnson, Jermaine Kearse, Kyle Knox, Cordarro Law, Pep Levingston, Ricardo Lockette, Sean McGrath, Kris O'Dowd, Josh Portis, DeShawn Shead, Vai Taua, Korey Toomer, Lavasier Tuinei

Not eligible: Phillip Adams, Deon Butler, Paul Fanaika

Note on eligibility

Straight from the collective bargaining agreement:
"The Practice Squad shall consist of the following players, provided that they have not served more than two previous seasons on a Practice Squad:
  • "players who do not have an Accrued Season of NFL experience;
  • "free agent players who were on the Active List for fewer than nine regular season games during their only Accrued Season(s).

"An otherwise eligible player may be a Practice Squad player for a third season only if the Club by which he is employed that season has at least 53 players on its Active/Inactive List during the entire period of his employment.

"A player shall be deemed to have served on a Practice Squad in a season if he has passed the club's physical and been a member of the club's Practice Squad for at least three regular season or postseason games during his first two Practice Squad seasons, and for at least one regular season or postseason game during his third Practice Squad season.

"(For purposes of this Section, a bye week counts as a game provided that the player is not terminated until after the regular season or postseason weekend in question.)"

San Francisco 49ers cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
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Most significant move. The San Francisco 49ers' decision to keep running back Anthony Dixon played into a broader special-teams theme. Veteran fullback Rock Cartwright, once seen as a key special-teams addition following Blake Costanzo's departure in free agency, received his release. The 49ers traded another core special-teams player, safety Colin Jones, to Carolina for what was thought to be a 2014 seventh-round choice.

The 49ers' decision at quarterback was also among those I found most significant. The team kept Scott Tolzien over Josh Johnson in the No. 3 role even though Johnson played for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego. Johnson also outplayed Tolzien in the final exhibition game. Keeping Tolzien appealed, however, because his ceiling appears less defined. Johnson has played in the NFL without setting a sharply upward career trajectory. Colin Kaepernick's emergence as a stronger No. 2 quarterback bought some insurance for carrying a less-experienced third-stringer, perhaps.

Onward and upward: Linebacker Michael Wilhoite, offensive lineman Mike Person and safety Michael Thomas appear to be young players with futures in the NFL. Defensive lineman Matthew Masifilo impressed in the final exhibition game. The 49ers' practice squad will be an option for some of the players let go, but I won't be surprised if waiver claims from other teams get in the way. The 49ers have done a good job building talented depth throughout their roster.

The team also released Eric Bakhtiari, Ikaika Alama-Francis, Derek Hall, Joe Holland, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Cam Johnson, Anthony Mosley, Kyle Nelson, Al Netter, Chris Owusu, Nathan Palmer, Konrad Reuland, Kenny Rowe, Brett Swain and Kenny Wiggins.

Reuland could get another chance. It was a mild surprise, perhaps, to see Garrett Celek stick ahead of Reuland as the third tight end.

What's next: The 49ers will watch closely to see which players clear waivers. Wilhoite is one they would like to re-sign, according to his agent, but teams looking for young depth at linebacker could submit claims. The team could use another outside linebacker, at least on paper, but the 49ers got through last season with only three of them.

The 49ers are carrying only eight offensive linemen. Their swing tackle, Alex Boone, is starting at right guard. If there's an offensive tackle out there worth claiming, the 49ers could consider adding one. But two of their division rivals, Arizona and St. Louis, have greater needs and higher waiver priorities.
This link will take you to the next NFC West chat, set to begin at 1 p.m. ET.

A few leftover questions from last week focused on which wide receivers each NFC West team will keep when initial 53-man rosters come into play Friday.

My projections heading into the final preseason games call for six wideouts to make each roster initially: Any injuries suffered Thursday night could affect the outlook.

Camp Confidential: 49ers

August, 16, 2012
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- One school of thought says the San Francisco 49ers got the most they'll ever get from quarterback Alex Smith last season.

What if last season was only the beginning?

That question ran through my mind while watching Smith fire passes on time and on target during a recent three-day stay at 49ers training camp. The answer became clearer every time Smith connected with newcomers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, which was frequently. He appeared more accurate, more confident and more in command than I can ever recall seeing Smith during a training camp -- or any other time, for that matter.

"He's letting the ball go, he's making the right decisions and he's not afraid," tight end Vernon Davis said. "He's playing ball, he's having fun."

Of course, it figures a quarterback would look better throwing to proven targets than when operating without them. Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams, Brett Swain and Joe Hastings were the only wideouts available to Smith in the NFC Championship Game last season. Williams, now fighting for a roster spot, ranked second among the 49ers' wide receivers with 20 catches during the regular season.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Ed Szczepanski/US PresswireThe 49ers brought in more weapons for Alex Smith to work with on offense.
Life for Smith is better now.

"If you watch our team last year, we were kind of one-dimensional as far as offense," left tackle Joe Staley said. "The passing game went through Vernon and Crabtree. The running game was Frank [Gore] and Kendall [Hunter]. We've added a lot of talent. The more weapons you have, the more versatile you can be. Our coaches are very creative."

Smith proved last season he could be a trusted extension of the 49ers' coaching staff. He threw five interceptions in 445 pass attempts, playing to the team's strengths on defense and special teams.

Smith has what offensive coordinator Greg Roman calls a "unique" ability to grasp a game's dynamics in real time for the purposes of managing risks. On the surface, that sounds like a creative way to avoid slapping the dreaded "game manager" label on a quarterback with limited skills. The 49ers don't see it that way at all. They think Smith has demonstrated all the intangibles great quarterbacks should possess: mental and physical toughness; an off-the-charts football IQ; a level head no matter the circumstances; a passion for preparation; and the ability to perform in the clutch. They see him leading an offense that wasn't as bad as advertised, one that should only get better.

"Without an offseason here, we finished 10th in the NFL in scoring [actually 11th] and fourth in time of possession," Roman said. "That is in spite of being poor on third down, which is pretty remarkable.

"We're going to be opportunistic, strike when we feel it's time to strike," he said. "The other part of it is, when we make decisions on offense, it's big picture. The offense, defense and special teams are all intertwined. But we have an offseason under our belt now and are working through our second camp together. We certainly expect a lot of ourselves this year."

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Crowded offensive backfield. Frank Gore is going to get his carries. Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James will be competing for what's left over. Their roles haven't solidified, but Hunter has enjoyed a tremendous camp. He caught my attention this week by hauling in a deep pass up the sideline, the type of play running backs rarely make. Hunter is going to play. James, as a rookie, figures to need time.

Jacobs, signed from the New York Giants, has been getting work in short-yardage situations, an area in which Anthony Dixon struggled in the postseason.

After collecting two Super Bowl rings in five seasons with Kevin Gilbride as his coordinator, Jacobs has been blown away by Roman's ability to showcase each player's individual strengths. That is a recurring theme among 49ers players.

"That is what this staff does the best," Jacobs said. "'G-Ro' is a genius, man. I've seen it, mainly these last couple days, we started doing some different things on offense, things out of different formations and basically putting the defense in sets he wants them to be in, versus what they want to be in."

Based on what he's seen, Jacobs said he thinks Gore would have six or seven Pro Bowl appearances by now, instead of three, had this 49ers staff been in place the whole time.

[+] EnlargeRandy Moss
Ed Szczepanski/US PresswireAfter sitting out for a season, Randy Moss joined a revamped 49ers receiving corps.
2. Role for Randy Moss. The passing game went through Crabtree and Davis last season. Both are in the primes of their careers. Neither figures to see his role diminish appreciably. With Manningham joining the mix and rookie first-round choice A.J. Jenkins lurking, a rotational role for Moss appears likely.

The sentiments Jacobs expressed regarding Roman and the 49ers' coaching staff could be important to keeping Moss from growing frustrated. Moss never has been one to suffer fools, even perceived ones, especially if the ball stopped coming his way. He did buy into "the New England way" when the Patriots' offensive staff was at its best and the team was winning. Moss also was catching balls left and right from an all-time great quarterback back then, circumstances the 49ers will not replicate.

The question then becomes whether Moss, 35 years old and coming off an idle season, will put team goals ahead of personal ones no matter what.

Davis, probably the most emotionally authentic player on the team, said he "loves" Moss for having "a great heart" and being a selfless teammate.

"Not only has he extended some knowledge to me, he has shown me that being great requires you to work even when you've had tons of success, with people saying you're a potential Hall of Famer, first ballot," Davis said of Moss.

3. Potential sophomore slump. Aldon Smith has incurred a DUI arrest, suffered stab wounds at a party and been carted off the Candlestick Park field with a preseason hip injury since setting a franchise rookie record with 14 sacks last season. That sounds like a sure-fire recipe for a sophomore slump.

Smith has been getting around slowly with the help of a forearm crutch. Hip injuries can be terribly painful. Athletes as lean as Smith have so little padding in that area. On the positive side, Smith has bounced back quickly from injuries in the past. He missed three games after suffering a cracked fibula during the 2010-11 season at Missouri.

The 49ers are asking Smith to transition from situational pass-rusher to full-time outside linebacker. Missed practice reps could slow that transition in the short term.

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

The 49ers brought back all the important players from a team that finished 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship Game last season. They added weapons at receiver and running back after falling short offensively.

Both sides of the ball figure to benefit from a full offseason after scrambling to learn new schemes on the fly following the lockout.

The progress Davis showed late last season comes to mind as an extreme example. Adapting to yet another offense was tough in the beginning, but once he grasped the concepts more fully, there was no stopping him (10 receptions, 292 yards and four touchdowns over two playoff games).

Finishing 13-3 again would break from precedent, but all signs point to the 49ers as NFC West favorites.

Much will hinge on whether the offense improves, and to what degree.

The line appears in position to take a step forward. Four of the five starters played at least 92 percent of the offensive snaps last season. The new starter, right guard Alex Boone, is entering his third season with the team. The best offensive lines play together for years. This one increasingly has continuity. There's talent, too, with first-round choices in three of the five spots.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

Niners fans should be familiar with the warning labels by now.

Injuries: The 49ers were unusually healthy last season. Alex Smith took a league-high 44 sacks and somehow started every game. He started 16 games in a regular season for the first time since 2006 and the second time in his career. The defense suffered very few meaningful injuries in 2011-12, but the hip bruise Aldon Smith suffered last week highlighted the implausibility of a repeat on that front.

Turnovers: History says San Francisco's plus-28 turnover differential will be unsustainable.

Targets on backs: The 49ers are going from hunters to hunted. Opponents will be gunning for them. Opponents will also have fuller, more accurate reads on the schemes Jim Harbaugh and staff brought to the NFL from Stanford. The unconventional shifting and personnel combinations San Francisco unleashed on opponents might not have the same effect a second time around. That might have begun to happen last season, when the 49ers proved far less dominant when facing opponents a second time.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Tarell Brown has been the best cornerback in camp. Teammates say he puts in the prep time. It shows when the 49ers do situational work. The more specific the situation, the better Brown seems to fare. Brown is also probably the 49ers' best corner in press coverage, an asset in short-yardage situations, whereas the other starting corner, Pro Bowl choice Carlos Rogers, tends to prefer off coverage.
  • Jacobs has run effectively in short-yardage situations. I did notice rookie linebacker Kourtnei Brown rocking Jacobs twice in one-on-one pass-rush drills during the team's recent Fan Fest practice.
  • When the 49ers enter their locker room from the practice field, a sign meets them with a list of five points: work hard, stay loose, stay focused, be accountable and take care of one another. The sign greeting them as they leave the locker room reads, "You are getting better or getting worse. You never stay the same."
  • Versatile corner Perrish Cox is making a strong push to unseat Chris Culliver in the nickel role. No matter what happens, Cox figures to play this season. He's made an impact on special teams as well. Seeking continued improvements in the secondary was additionally important with Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Jay Cutler, Drew Brees and Tom Brady on the schedule this season.
  • While Harbaugh has defended Jenkins from premature and unfair criticism, all indications point to a gradual assimilation for the receiver San Francisco selected in the first round. Veteran safety Donte Whitner: "When he gets there, I would compare him to a guy like Robert Meachem. He's not really big in stature, but he has a lot of speed. He has some quickness."
  • Safety Michael Thomas could be an undrafted free agent to watch for the 49ers this season. He knows the defense after playing for coordinator Vic Fangio at Stanford. Whitner: "If I was a betting man, at the end of the season, he'll be somewhere around this football team, whether it be on practice squad or on the 53[-man roster] because he wasn’t drafted, he’s not the biggest guy, not the fastest guy, but he has football instincts and he has football smarts. He’s around the football in practice."
  • The 49ers do a good job maximizing roster spots. They used nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga at fullback in power packages last season. Staley and Sopoaga caught passes. Bruce Miller successfully converted from college defensive end to starting fullback. Defensive lineman Demarcus Dobbs is the latest project. He's working as a blocking tight end and could conceivably push Nate Byham for the third roster spot at that position. Harbaugh: "He's definitely far enough along. We still don't know what that ceiling is yet."
  • The defense has a firmer grasp of Fangio's playbook entering a second season together. The team had 42 defensive calls installed when this week opened. That's not an unusual number, but Fangio should be able to call more of them with confidence.
  • Every player I spoke with -- Alex Smith, Davis, Williams, Jacobs, Staley and others -- mentioned putting team goals before individual ones. Harbaugh and staff have ingrained that mindset in players. It's a storyline to watch now that the 49ers have additional offensive weapons, a strong personality in Moss and higher expectations overall.
There are no blockers or play-action fakes to deal with when prospective NFL athletes compete at the scouting combine each February.

That helps explain why Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook could not catch San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick during a 78-yard touchdown run Friday night.

Officials clocked Cook at 4.44 seconds in the 40-yard dash during the 2010 combine. Kaepernick ran the 40 in 4.53 seconds the following year, an outstanding time for a quarterback.

Kaepernick was already approaching full stride when Cook disengaged from the man blocking him (Brett Swain) to give chase after the 49ers' backup quarterback fooled the Vikings' defense with a designed run off play-action. That put Cook at a clear disadvantage even though he had perhaps a one-yard head start.

Still, with 70 yards remaining til the end zone, most cornerbacks would like their chances against most quarterbacks in that situation.

Kaepernick is not most quarterbacks, of course. He rushed for more than 4,000 yards at Nevada. He was one of four quarterbacks at the 2011 combine to break 4.6 seconds in the 40. Tyrod Taylor (4.51), Jake Locker (4.59) and Cam Newton (4.59) were the others.

Cook was close to catching Kaepernick near the goal line, but Kaepernick held him off with his arm and made one last cut to ensure safe travel to the end zone.

That is one fast quarterback.
Our two-day look at NFC West rosters continues with projections for the San Francisco 49ers' offense.

Quarterbacks (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.1

Safest bets: Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Josh Johnson

Leading contenders: none

Longer odds: Scott Tolzien

Comment: Johnson has more experience than Kaepernick and could project as the No. 2 quarterback if an injury forced Smith from the lineup on short notice. Johnson's history with coach Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego probably helps his chances in that regard. Kaepernick gets a chance this summer to prove he's ready to take the next step following a more regular offseason. Tolzien could project for the practice squad.

Running backs (9)

Average number kept since 2003: 4.9

Safest bets: Frank Gore, LaMichael James, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, Bruce Miller

Leading contenders: Rock Cartwright, Anthony Dixon

Longer odds: Jewel Hampton, Cameron Bell

Comment: Moran Norris is out after spending five of the past six seasons as a 49ers fullback. That was one of many changes in the backfield this offseason. Jacobs' arrival suggests Dixon must step up his game significantly to stick on the roster -- and will probably have to demonstrate special-teams value as well. He won't be able to compete with Miller or Cartwright in that regard. If the 49ers find a way to keep six running backs, Cartwright would likely be in the picture almost exclusively for his special-teams value. Hampton could be a candidate for the practice squad.

Wide receivers (11)

Average number kept since 2003: 5.7

Safest bets: Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, A.J. Jenkins

Leading contenders: Kyle Williams, Ted Ginn Jr.

Longer odds: Brett Swain, Joe Hastings, Nathan Palmer, Chris Owusu, Brian Tyms

Comment: The first four appear set as long as Moss continues on his current trajectory. The 49ers kept five at the position in Week 1 last season. Despite talk of opening up the offense, the team could have a hard time justifying six roster spots for wideouts for a coaching staff that seems to relish using multiple tight ends. Williams and Ginn carry obvious special-teams value in the return game, a huge consideration. I have a hard time envisioning the 49ers, stung by Williams' miscues in the NFC Championship Game, taking undue chances in the return game at Green Bay in the opener. Ginn is the most proven return specialist on the team and a game-breaker when healthy. Owusu could be a candidate for the practice squad.

Tight ends (5)

Average number kept since 2003: 2.9

Safest bets: Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker

Leading contenders: Nate Byham, Konrad Reuland

Longer odds: Garrett Celek

Comment: Byham was emerging as a top-flight blocking tight end before a knee injury ended his 2011 season during training camp. Reuland, then an undrafted rookie, had a chance to gain ground while spending last season on the practice squad. Reuland played for Harbaugh and staff at Stanford.

Offensive linemen (15)

Average number kept since 2003: 9.0

Safest bets: Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone, Anthony Davis, Daniel Kilgore, Joe Looney

Leading contenders: Mike Person, Jason Slowey

Longer odds: Derek Hall, David Gonzales, Garrett Chisolm, Chase Beeler, Kenny Wiggins, Al Netter

Comment: Boone has become the prohibitive favorite to start at right guard even though he remains in the early stages of a conversion from tackle. Boone could move back to tackle if the 49ers were to lose Staley or Davis to injury. Boone remains the third-best tackle on the team. Kilgore once stood as a candidate at right guard, but he now projects as Goodwin's eventual successor at center. Looney, a rookie fourth-round choice, could be the long-term right guard, but he's recovering from foot surgery.
As you might have heard, the San Francisco 49ers ran into some troubles at the wide receiver position last season.

Those troubles affected their offense and special teams, notably during an overtime defeat to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game (Kyle Williams was forced into the starting lineup, with Brett Swain and Joe Hastings as backups).

You might have also heard, more recently, about changes to rules governing injured reserve.

Those rules, if enacted before last season, might have given the 49ers a welcome boost at the receiver position with a Super Bowl berth on the line. Josh Morgan, placed on injured reserve in October, could have been a candidate, at least in theory, to return in time for that game against the Giants.

I'm going to qualify this by saying it's not immediately clear whether Morgan would have recovered from his broken leg in time to face the Giants. Reports immediately after the season suggested Morgan was "ahead of schedule" in his rehab. This does not necessarily mean he would have been cleared by mid-January, but the thought did come to mind in assessing how the rule might have affected NFC West teams.

The St. Louis Rams' Danny Amendola also came to mind. He required surgery in October to repair a torn triceps suffered in Week 1. It is possible, in theory (that phrase again), that the Rams would have approached that injury differently had the new IR rule been available to them. Amendola could have undergone the procedure earlier instead of trying to return right away. That could have accelerated the timeline for rehab, although he still could have missed the full season (he was rounding into form by early April).

Again, it's tough to know which players would have been ready to return, and precisely when, but this new rule does give teams another option in the future, at least. The rule also adds another layer of strategy to roster management.

To qualify for return from IR, a player must suffer an injury after the start of training camp. He must be placed on injured reserve following the initial reduction to 53 players. His team must designate him as a player to return. He must miss at least 42 calendar days from the time of injury. And he cannot play in a game until eight weeks following his placement on IR.

This disqualifies Terrell Suggs and other players injured before training camp from consideration under the new rule. Those players could still play this season if placed on the physically unable to perform list heading into the season.

I'll update if I learn anything new about Morgan's injury in particular. I used it mostly to illustrate how the new rule could come into play. Key word: could.
A flurry of recent activity has pumped up roster counts around the NFC West.

The Seattle Seahawks added guard Deuce Lutui, linebacker Barrett Ruud and cornerback Roy Lewis. The Arizona Cardinals added safety James Sanders. The St. Louis Rams signed defensive end William Hayes. The San Francisco 49ers welcomed back receiver Brett Swain while announcing an earlier agreement with running back Brandon Jacobs.

Teams will continue supplementing their rosters heading into the draft and training camps.

With that in mind, I've put together two charts. The first one shows current roster counts. The second one shows where rosters stood at the 80-man limits on Sept. 2, 2011 -- offering a point of reference.



We can compare current roster counts (above) with 80-man counts from last September (below) to see where NFC West teams are short on players.
  • Seattle: The Seahawks have more room for receivers and defensive linemen than for other positions. They have the most signed players of any team in the division.
  • San Francisco: The 49ers have five fewer defensive backs than they had in September, but they were carrying an unusually large number at the time. Linebacker is a position where they could use numbers.
  • Arizona: Offensive line and linebacker are the positions where the Cardinals have the most room, with defensive line next on the list.
  • St. Louis: The Rams have the most room of any team in the division, both overall and at defensive line, linebacker and receiver.


Teams will add players through the draft before signing undrafted free agents. While veteran free agency has slowed for most teams, the Rams keep bringing in players for tryouts and visits. They have 21 roster spots to fill, most in the division.

I have arranged the first chart by which teams have the most players at present. The second chart lists teams in the same order for easier comparison. Teams will also release some of their current players, making the comparisons only general.


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