NFC West: Brian leonard
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.
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.
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.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
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.
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.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
One reason, actually.
Daryl Richardson, the Rams' rookie seventh-round draft choice, has given the offense a jolt with his speed and breakaway ability. He has 53- and 44-yard runs this season. Those are two of the Rams' three longest rushes since the start of the 2010 season. Jackson's 47-yard scoring run in the 2011 opener was the other.
Richardson has 246 yards and a 5.2-yard average through six games. If we watched the Rams play without knowing anything about the legacy Jackson has built in St. Louis, would we conclude through performance alone that Jackson was the Rams' best option?
We might, but it wouldn't be automatic.
Both backs are going to play, but this dynamic is a new one for the Rams. The team has not had a viable alternative to Jackson since Marshall Faul played his final down in 2005, Jackson's second season. The No. 2 back in St. Louis hasn't commanded many carries before this season.
Cadillac Williams, Kenneth Darby, Antonio Pittman, Brian Leonard and Stephen Davis have finished second to Jackson in rushing yards for the Rams since Faulk retired. They had between 152 and 361 yards rushing in a given season. Richardson is on pace to surpass 361 yards in the next three games and possibly sooner if Week 6 was an indicator. Richardson had 11 carries for 76 yards against the Miami Dolphins last week.
In the past, Jackson knew he would get enough carries over the course of 16 games to get his 1,000 yards. He has rightfully taken pride in the streak. There could be enough production to go around for Jackson to keep alive the streak even with Richardson playing a significant role in the offense. Both players were productive as the Rams amassed 462 yards against the Dolphins.
Through six games, Jackson is on pace for 861 yards. Richardson is on pace for 656. Jackson was on a slower pace at this point last season, but he caught up with at least 128 yards in three consecutive games beginning in Week 8. No other Rams running back got more than three carries in any of those games.
The chart shows production by down for Richardson and Jackson. The final column shows percentage of rushes resulting in first downs. The percentage is much higher for Jackson on third down because he has five carries on third-and-1, plus two others with fewer than four yards needed for a first down. Richardson's third-down carries have come with 7, 12, 13, 17 and 24 yards needed for a first down, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Note: Rams coach Jeff Fisher addressed the one-two combination in his conversation with reporters Thursday.
"It's been working and we'll continue it," Fisher said. "I'd still like to see 'Jack' get at least about two-thirds of the carries because he’s got the experience, and Jack is one of those that he almost needs to get rolling. He needs to get going, so we’ll continue to work with that, but we were pleased with the results last weekend."
Related: Rick Venturi's film review on the Rams' running backs at Miami begin at the five-minute mark of this clip.
The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
- Running back Cadillac Williams carried 19 times for 91 yards. Williams joined Marshall Faulk, Antonio Pittman and Brian Leonard as the only Rams running backs other than Steven Jackson to rush for at least that many yards in a game since Jackson entered the league in 2004. Faulk had two 100-yard games when Jackson was a rookie. Leonard had 102 yards in a 2007 game against Arizona. Pittman had 95 yards during a 2008 game against San Francisco.
- The Rams limited Eagles quarterback Michael Vick to 14 completions in 32 attempts. According to Pro Football Reference, this was the 14th time since at least 1960 that a Rams opponent had completed so few passes in so many attempts. The Rams roughed up Vick several times and forced him to hold the ball when receivers were not open.
- Steven Jackson broke free for a 47-yard touchdown run on the Rams' first offensive snap.
- Chris Long, Quintin Mikell and Justin King had sacks for the Rams. Mikell forced a fumble that James Laurinaitis recovered.
- Jerious Norwood had 49- and 29-yard kickoff returns.
- Donnie Jones had a 61-yard punt, and one downed inside the 20.
That happened in St. Louis when Steve Spagnuolo arrived as Rams coach for the 2009 season. Players drafted among the top 52 overall choices only two years prior suddenly didn't fit. Defensive lineman Adam Carriker (13th overall) and fullback Brian Leonard (52nd) were sent on their way before long.
It happened again in Seattle when Pete Carroll took over as head coach last season. Building the defense around Aaron Curry, chosen fourth overall in the 2009 draft, became less a priority once the people responsible for drafting him were no longer in charge.
I would expect similar disruption in San Francisco, where Jim Harbaugh has taken over for Mike Singletary.
"The simple effect is that nobody is guaranteed a position," 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said from the NFL owners meeting this week. "A new staff comes in, we have a new system offensively, defensively and on special teams. Very few holdover position coaches. So, it's going to be competition at its finest. Roll out the ball and may the best man win."
The pressure will be on some of the less established players -- second-round choice Taylor Mays comes to mind -- once the lockout ends and players return to their teams. A prolonged lockout will hamper preparations, another challenge to overcome.
They've been in big games before, and frequently, thanks largely to shrewd drafting.
This is the Steelers' third Super Bowl appearance in the last six seasons.
The team made available James Farrior, Flozell Adams, Hines Ward, Brett Keisel, Ben Roethlisberger and LaMarr Woodley during its initial media session Monday -- just the opportunity I needed to produce an item corresponding to the one titled, "Draft hindsight: Aaron Rodgers and beyond".
The idea: to examine a Super Bowl team's featured players -- in this case, the ones made available Monday -- with an emphasis on draft status and the decisions NFC West teams made in the same rounds. Not every team held a choice in every featured round.
The Arizona Cardinals had a shot at Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but they came out OK.
Here goes ...
1997 Draft: James Farrior, LB, Virginia
Round: First (eighth overall, by the New York Jets)
NFC West spin: Farrior is a two-time Pro Bowl choice, but the NFC West offers no apologies for passing over him. Orlando Pace and Walter Jones became perennial Pro Bowl tackles. Jones became the best player in Seahawks history, in my view. Shawn Springs made one Pro Bowl trip and picked off 33 passes during a 13-year career. The Cardinals had no shot at Farrior. They chose Tommy Knight one pick later. He started 54 games in six NFL seasons. Rumor says the 49ers selected a quarterback in the first round of this draft.
First-round selections in the division:
- Rams (first overall): Pace, T, Ohio State
- Seahawks (third overall): Springs, CB, Ohio State
- Seahawks (sixth overall): Jones, T, Florida State
- Cardinals (ninth overall): Knight, CB, Iowa
- 49ers (26th overall): Jim Druckenmiller, QB, Virginia Tech
Round: Second (38th overall, by Dallas)
NFC West spin: Adams became a five-time Pro Bowl choice with Dallas. His career appeared finished, or close to it, until injuries led the Steelers to call on him this season. Arizona passed on Adams twice. Safety Corey Chavous, chosen five spots before Adams, went to a Pro Bowl with Minnesota. He was a productive player for roughly a decade. Tackle Anthony Clement, chosen two spots before Adams, started more than 100 games for three teams.
Second-round selections in the division:
- Cardinals (33rd overall): Corey Chavous, SS, Vanderbilt
- Cardinals (36th overall): Anthony Clement, T, Louisiana-Lafayette
- Rams (37th overall): Robert Holcombe, FB, Illinois
- Seahawks (47th overall): Todd Weiner, T, Kansas State
- 49ers (58th overall): Jeremy Newberry, C, California
Round: Third (92nd overall, by Pittsburgh)
NFC West spin: The Rams and Seahawks found Pro Bowl-caliber players when they passed over Ward in the third round. Seattle gave up on Ahman Green prematurely, however, after coach Mike Holmgren grew weary of early fumble problems. The 49ers missed on tackle Chris Ruhman three choices before Ward went to Pittsburgh. Ruhman played in six games with the 49ers, starting none. He played in 11 NFL games with two starts overall. The 49ers passed on Ward even though Jerry Rice had suffered a devastating knee injury in the 1997 opener.
Third-round selections in the division:
- Rams (65th overall): Leonard Little, DE, Tennessee
- Seahawks (76th overall): Ahman Green, RB, Nebraska
- 49ers (89th overall): Chris Ruhman, T, Texas A&M
Round: Seventh (242nd overall, by Pittsburgh)
NFC West spin: The 49ers drafted longtime starting guard and center Eric Heitmann three spots before the Steelers found Keisel. Pittsburgh could use Heitmann this week after the Steelers' starting center, Maurkice Pouncey, suffered a severely sprained ankle during the AFC Championship Game. Keisel became a Pro Bowl choice for the first time this season, distinguishing him from 2002 NFC West seventh-rounders. The Rams found their mainstay snapper in this draft. Keisel was gone when the 49ers found guard Kyle Kosier, who started 29 games for them and remains a starter with Dallas.
Seventh-round selections in the division:
- Cardinals (223rd overall): Mike Banks, TE, Iowa State
- Seahawks (232nd overall): Jeff Kelly, QB, Southern Mississippi
- 49ers (239th overall): Heitmann, C, Stanford
- Rams (243rd overall): Chris Massey, LS, Marshall
- 49ers (248th overall): Kyle Kosier, G, Arizona State
- 49ers (256th overall): Teddy Gaines, DB, Tennessee
Round: First (11th overall, by Pittsburgh)
NFC West spin: The Cardinals passed over Roethlisberger and came away with a potential Hall of Fame receiver. No complaints there, even though quarterbacks are more valuable than receivers. None of the other NFC West teams had a shot at Roethlisberger. Seattle and St. Louis were set at quarterback, anyway.
First-round selections in the division:
- Cardinals (third overall): Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Pittsburgh
- Seahawks (23rd overall): Marcus Tubbs, DT, Texas
- Rams (24th overall): Steven Jackson, RB, Oregon State
- 49ers (31st overall): Rashaun Woods, WR, Oklahoma State
Round: Second (46th overall, by Pittsburgh)
NFC West spin: The Cardinals could certainly use Woodley now, and badly, but they had already invested millions in the position heading into the 2007 draft. Free-agent additions Chike Okeafor and Bertrand Berry had combined for 14.5 sacks during the 2006 season. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they haven't gotten enough from their second-round investment in Alan Branch.
Second-round selections in the division:
- Cardinals (33rd overall): Branch, DL, Michigan
- Rams (52nd overall): Brian Leonard, FB, Rutgers
- Seahawks (55th overall): Josh Wilson, CB, Maryland
OK, all done, and just in time. ESPN.com teammates Mike Reiss, Kevin Seifert and I are heading out to the Packers' media session next. Seifert is driving and he doesn't wait for anyone. Gotta jam.
It was 2007 when Ken Whisenhunt joined an NFC West head coaching fraternity featuring Mike Holmgren, Mike Nolan and Scott Linehan. The landscape has changed dramatically since then, shifting further Tuesday when the Seattle Seahawks traded 2007 second-round draft choice Josh Wilson to Baltimore.
Wilson's departure leaves the Arizona Cardinals' Alan Branch as the only 2007 NFC West second-round choice still with his original team. The St. Louis Rams have only one player remaining from that draft class, fifth-round choice Clifton Ryan. That draft also featured Adam Carriker and Brian Leonard.
The San Francisco 49ers came away from that draft with Patrick Willis and Joe Staley. Jason Hill, Ray McDonald, Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown also remain from that draft, making it easily the strongest 2007 class for an NFC West team.
The Cardinals still have Levi Brown, Branch, Steve Breaston and Ben Patrick. The Seahawks traded their 2007 first-rounder to New England for Deion Branch. They still have Brandon Mebane, Mansfield Wrotto, Will Herring and Steve Vallos from that class.
The chart takes a round-by-round look at how many 2007 NFC West draft choices remain with their original teams.
The move reunites Carriker with former Rams interim coach and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, now with the Redskins. I never sensed the Rams' current leadership disliked Carriker, but neither was the leadership ever personally invested in Carriker's career. Haslett has a better feel for what Carriker can become. Perhaps Carriker will fit better at defensive end in the Redskins' 3-4 scheme than at defensive tackle in the Rams' 4-3. A shoulder injury prevented Carriker from playing last season, perhaps hastening his departure.
The Rams made Carriker the 13th player chosen in the 2007 draft. His departure leaves restricted free agent Clifton Ryan, a fifth-round choice, as the only 2007 Rams choice still with the team. The current leadership previously traded second-round choice Brian Leonard. Other members from that class -- Jonathan Wade, Dustin Fry, Ken Shackleford, Keith Jackson and Derek Stanley -- are also gone.
Victor Adeyanju and Mark Setterstrom are the Rams' only 2006 choices still with the team.
The dismantling continues in St. Louis.
The natural question is whether the organization went too far in pushing out higher-priced veterans.
I suspected they might have gone too far when they released linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa. I also thought they might have been premature in parting with Orlando Pace despite the tackle's steep salary and history of injuries.
The reality, though, is that the Rams got it right.
They have gone from being a bad, old team with significant salary-cap problems to being a bad, young team with a much brighter salary-cap future.
The younger players finding their way this season have a chance to help the team in the future. That wasn't the case in 2008, when losing got old, literally.
The Rams have the third-youngest roster in the league. They had the third-oldest last season. Their offense has moved the ball much better than I would have anticipated. A glaring lack of playmakers has turned the red zone into a dead zone, preventing the Rams from scoring enough points to compete on the scoreboard. But I think it's safe to say the Rams have the most promising young offensive line in the NFC West.
This team needs to find playmakers in the draft, plain and simple.
Kraig writes via Facebook: Sando, you pity the Rams, but you ridicule the Seahawks. You're a believer in the new 49er formula, although not always its execution. The Cards are an enigma, but undeniably talented. Interesting. But kicking the Seahawks when they're down is starting to stand out. What gives?
Mike Sando: Expectations frame the analysis. The Rams were a 2-14 team rebuilding. They parted with Torry Holt, Orlando Pace, Drew Bennett, Trent Green, Anthony Becht, Corey Chavous, Pisa Tinoisamoa, Brian Leonard, Gary Stills, Jason Craft, Ricky Manning, Fakhir Brown, La'Roi Glover, Dane Looker, Travis Minor, Dante Hall, Nick Leckey, Brett Romberg, Chris Draft and others. This was a total roster overhaul. I thought the Rams might have gone too far with a couple of these moves, but once the moves were made, the expectations were set accordingly.
With a new head coach and a younger roster, the Rams were going to struggle for a while. I thought 0-7 was likely and said so on the blog. The fact that the Rams are 0-6 is bad, but not a shock. It's Year 1 of a total rebuild. The Seahawks did not see themselves in the same light. Holding them to the same standard as the Rams would have been a bigger insult to the Seahawks than holding them accountable as I have tried to do.
Seattle thought injuries were pretty much to blame for a 4-12 record. The team thought Walter Jones would be fine this season. The team thought depth at tackle would be fine after re-signing Ray Willis. I thought the team needed to do more to shore up the position. Sean Locklear had missed a few games in the past, Willis has had knee issues and Jones was coming off surgery at age 35. I questioned whether the team could stay healthy in predicting a 7-9 record when schedules came out, upgrading the outlook slightly when Matt Hasselbeck seemed to pass a few injury-related milestones.
The outlook for Seattle darkens when we consider advanced ages for some of these injured players. Jones and Patrick Kerney are into their 30s. Both needed to play at a high level for Seattle to succeed. The fact that both are dealing with injury problems should surprise nobody. It was entirely predictable even if there was a chance both might beat the odds.
I think it's an even worse sign for Seattle if we start judging them with the same standards applied to the Rams. It's not that bad.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Among the things I'll want to see when the Rams conclude their exhibition season Thursday night against the Chiefs:
- Prominent holdovers. Parting with recent first-round cornerback Tye Hill had to put other disappointing high draft choices on notice. After pushing out aging vets a few months ago, the Rams have targeted young underachievers, including Brian Leonard, Joe Klopfenstein and Hill. If the Rams valued Hill only as much as they valued a 2010 seventh-round choice, how much do they value, say, Adam Carriker?
- Backup receivers. The final exhibition game often helps shake out the final one or two spots at receiver. That appears true for the Rams. They sounded high on veteran Tim Carter earlier in the offseason. They acquired Ronald Curry from the Lions. Neither seems to have made a strong impression. Where do they stand?
- Special teams. The Rams had some problems defending returns in their previous exhibition game. Punter Donnie Jones can help solve that with better punts. Still, lapses in coverage could raise red flags.
- Jason Smith. The No. 2 overall draft choice gets another chance to prove he belongs in the starting lineup for Week 1. He could play extensively at right tackle.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Campfires: Coach Ken Whisenhunt isn't afraid to make first-round draft choices earn their starting jobs. He benched Matt Leinart coming out of camp last season, then made talented rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie wait until near midseason before becoming a full-time starter. The trend could continue this summer as rookie first-round choice Beanie Wells practices with the Cardinals for the first time.
Wells projects as the long-term replacement for Edgerrin James at running back, but Ohio State's late graduation prevented him from participating in minicamps and organized team activities. That means the adjustment period for Wells could take a little longer. Expect Tim Hightower to enter camp as the tentative starter.
Meanwhile, the situation at tight end remains a mystery. Arizona is carrying six tight ends on its roster, one behind the league high. Ben Patrick, the player coaches have tried to develop as a player versatile enough to help as a receiver and blocker, faces a four-game suspension to start the season. That could open the door for Anthony Becht, Leonard Pope or Stephen Spach to seize the starting job. I don't see a clear favorite, particularly with Patrick serving a suspension and Spach coming off knee surgery.
|Jeff Mills/Icon SMI|
|Will Beanie Wells be able to avoid the injuries that plagued him in college?|
Camp will be a downer if ... Wells doesn't immediately prove he can avoid the long list of injuries that affected him in college. Arizona needs a more dynamic runner to run its offense the way Whisenhunt and offensive line coach/running game coordinator Russ Grimm want to run it. Wells has the physical ability to provide that missing element. Can he stay on the field and will he fight through some of the ailments that await every running back in the NFL?
The preferred scenario would include Wells breaking a few long runs during the preseason, setting up the play-action passing game that worked so well for Arizona when the team showed more balance in the playoffs last season.Camp will be a success if ... the reconfigured coaching staff takes control of the team and helps Arizona build on the momentum from its Super Bowl season.
Whisenhunt has stressed continuity during the first two years of his tenure. He kept the same five starters on the offensive line even though right guard Deuce Lutui had penalty problems and center Lyle Sendlein sometimes struggled while playing through a shoulder injury. While the approach worked, continuity wasn't an option for the coaching staff once the Chiefs hired offensive coordinator Todd Haley head coach.
Whisenhunt's decision to fire quarterbacks coach Jeff Rutledge and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast shook up the staff considerably more.
Warner will miss the rapport he enjoyed with Haley. The two appeared inseparable at times and the relationship seemed to benefit Warner on the field. Can the newly configured staff fill the void or otherwise find ways to keep Warner and the offense rolling?
Franchise player rules will force Dansby to wait, and he should be content "settling" for a one-year franchise deal worth nearly $9.7 million. The volatile Dockett has also committed to letting his play do the talking, a good sign for the team.
While Boldin put aside his concerns to produce last season, his situation bears monitoring. Another year without a new contract probably equates to a higher frustration level. Boldin, generally the consummate pro, might have a harder time dealing with the situation -- particularly if the team fails to meet expectations.
San Francisco 49ers
Training camp site: 49ers headquarters (Santa Clara, Calif.)
|Kyle Terada/US Presswire|
|Can Shaun Hill distinguish himself to claim the starting QB job?|
Campfires: The 49ers have quite a few position battles for a team that finished strong and feels good about its chances for contending within the division.
The quarterback race will rightfully command the most attention. Coach Mike Singletary said the players will know whether Shaun Hill or Alex Smith should be the starter, at which point Singletary will merely affirm what they know. That means Smith's status as the No. 1 overall draft choice in 2005 will not afford him any advantage in the competition. Hill's 7-3 record as the 49ers' starter over the last two seasons gives him the edge.
On defense, Dashon Goldson would have to flop or suffer another injury for the older and less athletic Mark Roman to take back his job at free safety. Dre Bly has the edge over Tarell Brown at right corner. Kentwan Balmer, the 49ers' first-round choice in 2008, could push for a starting job at left defensive end.Camp will be a downer if ... both quarterbacks flounder and veteran Damon Huard appears to be the best option. Unlikely? Perhaps. But the scenario isn't as laughable as it should be. Neither Hill nor Smith distinguished himself during the competition a year ago. Even if Mike Martz was playing favorites when he installed J.T. O'Sullivan as the starter, the fact remains that O'Sullivan enjoyed the strongest preseason of the three.
The new offensive system should better suit Hill in particular, and the 49ers have declared this quarterback race a two-man affair, ruling out Huard as a contender. Still, after years of backing up Trent Green, Tom Brady and Dan Marino, Huard wound up starting three of the first five games in Kansas City last season when the unaccomplished Brodie Croyle and Tyler Thigpen were his primary competitors.Camp will be a success if ... Hill validates his 7-3 record as the 49ers' starter, right tackle Marvel Smith makes it through training camp healthy and the push toward a full-time 3-4 defense validates Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson as promising pass-rushers.
Hitting on all three of those might be asking a bit much, but getting two of them right might be enough, particularly if the 49ers feel good about the quarterback situation.
On the receiving end: It's a little surprising to see the 49ers emerge with their deepest group of receivers in years after committing to Singletary's smashmouth approach. The change to Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye was all about making smarter use of the players general manager Scot McCloughan and former coach Mike Nolan had acquired in recent years.
That meant -- and still means -- forging an identity in the ground game. Yet, while receivers Michael Crabtree, Isaac Bruce, Brandon Jones and Josh Morgan will not be battling Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin for Pro Bowl berths this season, they do give the 49ers better potential than they've enjoyed recently.
Singletary's smashmouth roots should not and likely will not dissuade the 49ers from making frequent use of those receivers.
|Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire|
|The Seahawks must get Matt Hasselbeck through training camp unscathed.|
Training camp site: Seahawks headquarters (Renton, Wash.)
Campfires: The Seahawks weren't going to pretend that first-round choice Aaron Curry would have to prove himself in camp to earn a starting job. They put the fourth overall choice in the lineup from the beginning. No suspense there.
Most positions in Seattle appear settled. The situation at receiver should produce intrigue with Nate Burleson, Deion Branch and rookie burner Deon Butler fighting to get on the field with T.J. Houshmandzadeh and tight end John Carlson. Injuries will probably help sort out the situation. Burleson is returning from ACL surgery. Branch is entering his first full season since undergoing his own ACL procedure.
Don't be surprised if rookie second-round choice Max Unger pushes for playing time somewhere in the interior of the offensive line. He projects as the long-term starter at center if Chris Spencer plays out his contract and leaves following this season. If S
pencer holds the job, Unger figures to find his way onto the field in one of the guard spots, perhaps this year.
Camp will be a downer if ... quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's back injury flares up at any point along the way. Hasselbeck and the Seahawks say the quarterback has long since overcome the problems that helped limit him to seven starts last season. They didn't know the extent of the problem a year ago when they assured fans that Hasselbeck would be fine for the regular season. The issue is under control now, they say, but the very nature of back injuries should raise at least some concern heading into a pivotal season for the organization.
Camp will be a success if ... Hasselbeck, left tackle Walter Jones and defensive end Patrick Kerney put to rest concerns about their long-term health. Beyond the obvious injury storylines, this camp becomes a success for Seattle if Curry validates coach Jim Mora's opinion that the linebacker's pass-rushing abilities are indeed far stronger than anticipated on draft day.
Seattle badly needs to restore its pass rush to better compete against the Cardinals' passing game in a broader effort to overtake Arizona in the division. Kerney is the key, but the Seahawks are also counting on pressure from other sources: Brandon Mebane, Cory Redding, Lawrence Jackson, Darryl Tapp and possibly Leroy Hill. Significant pass-rush help from Curry would offset Julian Peterson's departure while making it easier for the Seahawks to justify having drafted a linebacker fourth overall.
Learning curve: By all accounts, the two years Mora spent in the background watching Mike Holmgren operate should leave him better prepared to handle his second head-coaching job. The way Holmgren handled everything from players to the media differed quite a bit from the more freewheeling approach Mora displayed with the Falcons.
Lessons learned? Yes, but it will be interesting to see how the Seahawks' leadership -- operating without Holmgren for the first time since 1998 -- will respond under pressure if things go wrong early.
St. Louis Rams
Training camp site: Rams Park (Earth City, Mo.)
|G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images)|
|Will Marc Bulger be able to regain his old form behind a revamped offensive line?|
Campfires: The Rams need to figure out what they have at receiver, linebacker and left cornerback after overhauling their roster.
Torry Holt, Orlando Pace, Drew Bennett, Trent Green, Anthony Becht, Corey Chavous, Pisa Tinoisamoa, Brian Leonard, Gary Stills, Jason Craft, Ricky Manning, Fakhir Brown, La'Roi Glover, Dane Looker, Travis Minor, Dante Hall, Nick Leckey and Brett Romberg were among the former starters and role players cast aside in the makeover.
None was irreplaceable. Getting rid of them was the easy part. Identifying and developing adequate replacements will take time.
Camp will be a downer if ... top draft choices Jason Smith and James Laurinaitis aren't ready to contribute right away. Coach Steve Spagnuolo has taken it slowly with both rookies, but he likely will not have that luxury once the regular season gets going. Smith and Laurinaitis probably must play and play well for the Rams to avoid trouble.
Laurinaitis' development is critical because the Rams appear so thin at linebacker after releasing Tinoisamoa. Even if Laurinaitis plays well, the Rams' depth at linebacker could betray them.
Camp will be a success if ... quarterback Marc Bulger finds comfort behind an upgraded offensive line. Bulger can be a highly accurate passer when opposing defensive linemen aren't pounding the confidence out of him. The player who topped 4,300 yards passing with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions three years ago hasn't resembled even remotely the scared soul seen under center for the Rams too often over the last two seasons.
The Rams' should start to regain some swagger on the line with 320-pounder Jason Brown taking over at center and the personably intense Smith at tackle. Right guard Richie Incognito won't be the only starter with some snarl, in other words. That should help provide improved protection for Bulger and leadership for the offense.
Fantasy spin: Running back Steven Jackson should not hurt for opportunities now that the Rams have landed a 320-pound center (Brown, free agent from the Ravens) and a 258-pound fullback (Mike Karney, late of the Saints). The Rams will try to develop their young receivers, but rarely should any of them represent a more formidable option than Jackson. And if he gets some luck with injuries, look out.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Rams certainly never set out to amass 13 seventh-round draft choices, three more than any other team in the league. It just worked out that way.
Ronald Curry, a seventh-round choice of the Raiders in 2002, became the lucky 13th when St. Louis acquired him from the Lions by trade Wednesday.
Rosters are at their fattest this time of year, so the total will certainly shrink.
The Rams' failure in the early rounds of past drafts -- before the current regime took over -- has probably left more room for later-round players.
Billy Bajema's addition could help cost 2006 second-rounder Joe Klopfenstein a roster spot. At linebacker, the Rams have parted with 2003 second-rounder Pisa Tinoisamoa, 2004 fourth-rounder Brandon Chillar and 2006 third-rounder Jon Alston, creating room for seventh-rounders David Vobora and Chris Chamberlain. At running back, the Rams practically gave
away 2007 second-rounder Brian Leonard, making it more likely for seventh-rounder Chris Ogbonnaya to stick.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Rams weren't an 8-8 team seeking a few tweaks to regain their footing. They needed a franchise overhaul after posting a 5-27 record over the past two seasons.
That overhaul has continued with Brian Leonard's trade to the Bengals on Thursday and Pisa Tinoisamoa's release Friday.
Changing over a roster means adding new players in key positions. Adding new players means losing existing ones, and the Rams have parted with quite a few this offseason.
The chart shows notable Rams players to leave the roster since general manager Billy Devaney spearheaded Steve Spagnuolo's hiring as head coach.
Some of the changes were difficult to miss. The releases of Torry Holt and Orlando Pace come to mind. Other changes have come via attrition. In this case, the Rams have decided against re-signing numerous unrestricted free agents. It's significant to note that quite a few of them remain unsigned.
The Rams could always re-sign a free agent or two as they set their roster for training camp. In most cases, however, the team appears eager to move on without them.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Jim Moore of seattlepi.com says Seahawks second-round choice Max Unger was once a "gangly ninth-grader who had never played football." Why hadn't Unger played to that point? Moore: "Unger wanted to play, but his local Pop Warner league wouldn't let him because he was too big and would've crushed kids his age -- his dad said he was 5-10 and 200 pounds in the 6th grade." Unger's line coach at Oregon compared him to Gary Zimmerman. I like Unger's chances of earning a starting job.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks have not signed any of the nine players who participated in post-draft camps on a tryout basis. Those players helped the Seahwaks conduct practices while others rehabilitated injuries.
Also from O'Neil: Linemen Rob Sims and Chris Spencer face pivotal seasons in 2009.
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says T.J. Duckett hopes his role in the Seahawks' offense grows as much as the running back's beard. Teammates are calling him Kimbo Slice and the comparison holds up from what I've seen at post-draft practices.
Also from Williams: Matt Hasselbeck is getting comfortable.
John Morgan of Field Gulls heaps praise upon Seahawks president Tim Ruskell for striking a "sweetheart deal" with linebacker Leroy Hill. No doubt, this deal came out in the Seahawks' favor. Instead of paying $8.3 million to Hill for one season or much more on a lucrative long-term deal, Seattle could pay as little as $13 million over two seasons before escaping the deal without negative salary-cap ramifications.
Michael Steffes of Seahawk Addicts likes what he sees from John Clayton, who graded the Seahawks' offseason as the best in the league.Les Carpenter of the Washington Post checks in with former Seahwaks coach Mike Holmgren, who says the Redskins should be patient with quarterback Jason Campbell. Holmgren was in Washington as Zorn's guest to see off his wife and daughter to Africa, where they plan to continue mission work. Anything Holmgren says publicly about the Redskins' quarterback situation on the matter would dovetail with Zorn's wishes.
David Fucillo of Niners Nation sizes up the 49ers' defensive line, placing Ray McDonald on the bubble for a roster spot. Justin Smith is very good. Aubrayo Franklin finished strong last season. As for the rest of the line? We need to see more. Fucillo: "I'd imagine the one that will draw the most contention is Ray McDonald. I'm pretty sure he'll make the 53-man, but his reconstructive knee surgery moves him temporarily to the bubble watch. One thing that does have me curious is the potential roster battle between McDonald and Ricky Jean-Francois."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the Cardinals will release players before training camp. The team is carrying 84 players, counting unsigned draft choices. Teams can carry no more than 80 signed players at this point in the offseason.
Revenge of the Birds' Hawkwind quotes Mike Lombardi on the Anquan Boldin and Darnell Dockett situations. Lombardi: "I have covered the Boldin trade situation and his contract at length and the fact is clear, the market will not satisfy him or the Cards. As for Dockett, he is very well thought of in the NFL, but he is not going anywhere. They cannot afford to trade him for several reasons."
Kathleen Nelson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams gained depth on their defensive line in the Brian Leonard trade. We'll see if Orien Harris earns a roster spot. Leonard might be the winner in this deal after landing in Cincinnati. Agent Mike McCartney: "This is a great trade for Brian. I give the Rams credit for putting him in a great situation ... where he can be a running back." Also, the Rams released tackle David Oswald.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Could the Rams use a player with "great versatility, good power, leg drive and balance to break secured tackles" while displaying "outstanding character, excellent work habits" and the traits of a "good football player and a better person who will represent a team well"?
Of course the Rams could use players like that. Pro Football Weekly's 2007 draft preview book said those things about Brian Leonard. Was the assessment wholly incorrect? I doubt it. Has Leonard changed dramatically since leaving Rutgers? It seems unlikely.
The very best players transcend coaching staffs and schemes. Quite a few others need to find the right fit. Leonard's injury last season probably hurt his standing. But the Rams have changed more than Leonard has changed since St. Louis made him a second-round choice in 2007. The fit apparently wasn't right any longer.
I think that's an important point to remember when assessing players' careers. It's one reason I'm reluctant to apply the "bust" label in cases such as this one. Multiple factors beyond a player's control go into making a player successful.