NFC West: Brian Westbrook

Four 1,100-yard rushers in one division?

December, 7, 2011
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Passing is generally the key to victory in the NFL.

This helps explain why quarterbacks earn the most money, why teams often draft pass-blocking tackles over top runners and why fullbacks have become endangered.

Teams still value running the ball, of course. Defenses would have an easier time defending quarterbacks if they knew with certainty a run was not coming. And every team seeking support for young or average quarterbacks would be better off with a strong ground game.

NFC West teams fall into this group. Each team in the division is on pace to produce a 1,000-yard runner.

One division has produced four 1,000-yard rushers in a season five times since divisional realignment in 2002. Each NFC West team's leading rusher is on pace for at least 1,100 yards. Only one division, the AFC North in 2010, has produced four players with at least 1,100 yards since realignment.

Frank Gore's yardage production for the 49ers has leveled off in recent weeks. Continued strong defense and increased production from quarterback Alex Smith have helped the team keep winning. Facing two backup quarterbacks -- Arizona's John Skelton and St. Louis' A.J. Feeley -- simultaneously lowered the bar for the 49ers in recent weeks.

I would expect the Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch to gain the most rushing yardage in Week 14 among NFC West backs. Seattle wants to field a run-first offense, which makes sense this week.

The Rams rank second in most sacks per pass attempt, a threat now that Seattle's best pass protector, Russell Okung, has landed on injured reserve. The Rams are averaging fewer than one offensive touchdown per game. That gives Seattle a good chance to win without taking as many chances through the air. The Rams have allowed more rushing yards than any team in the NFL.

Note: With an assist from Anicra in the comments, I updated the projected totals for Jackson, Lynch and Wells to reflect their participation in only 11 games this season. I had previously divided their rushing totals by total team games (12 apiece), using the average to project totals for the remaining four games.
A few thoughts on NFC West rosters after calculating age ranks for NFL teams based on the rosters I maintain:
  • The chart ranks teams from oldest to youngest, excluding special-teams players who can sometimes play into their 40s. The first column shows overall rank, counting offensive and defensive players. The third and fourth columns show where teams rank on each side of the ball. These are for starters and backups. In some cases, teams might plan to release older backups on the reduction to 53 players.

  • Arizona Cardinals: Earlier in the preseason, Kevin Kolb referred to the Cardinals as a young team. They do have young players, some of whom played extensively last season and should be better for it. But the Cardinals have the sixth-oldest roster in the league overall. Vonnie Holliday (35), Clark Haggans (34), Joey Porter (34), Paris Lenon (33), Floyd Womack (32), Adrian Wilson (31), Todd Heap (31) and Nick Eason (31) are some of them. The team has also favored veteran offensive linemen, including veteran backups.

  • St. Louis Rams: The Rams got older on purpose, adding seasoning to their defense through players added on one-year deals. Al Harris (36) is the oldest non-specialist on the team. James Hall (34) and Fred Robbins (34) remain valuable contributors. Both start. Rookie Robert Quinn will likely replace Hall at some point. Drafting a defensive tackle in the first round of the 2012 draft could make sense, too. Some of the Rams' additions could come at the expense of incumbent veterans such as Hank Fraley (34 next month) and Na'il Diggs (33).

  • San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers have gotten younger this offseason, particularly on defense. They subtracted Takeo Spikes (34), Aubrayo Franklin (31 this week), Travis LaBoy (30), Brian Westbrook, Nate Clements (31), Brian Westbrook (32 next month), William James (32), Barry Sims (36) and Demetric Evans (32 next month).. Fulback Moran Norris (33) is their oldest non-specialist. The team has only six non-specialists in their 30s, half as many as the Cardinals have.

  • Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks have been getting younger by design over the past two seasons. Like the 49ers, they have only six non-specialists in their 30s, with none older than 33 (Raheem Brock). They have subtracted Sean Locklear (30), Matt Hasselbeck (36 next month), Stacy Andrews (30), J.P. Losman (30), Brandon Stokley (35), Lawyer Milloy (37), Chester Pitts (32) and Craig Terrill (31). Most general managers want to make their teams younger when starting out. In Seattle, the head coach is also amendable to that approach. But a few players such as Brock (33), Junior Siavii (32), Colin Cole (31), Marcus Trufant (30) and Atari Bigby (30 next month) have kept the Seahawks defensive ranking from sinking further. Seattle is 16th oldest on that side of the ball.

I've sprouted a couple new gray hairs just typing in some of these names. Might be time to squeeze in an afternoon workout.

2011 UFA market: NFC West scorecard

August, 23, 2011
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With training camps winding down, I've found time to update rosters and put together team-by-team reference material for unrestricted free agency.

The names below match official NFL counts.

These are for players with at least four accrued NFL seasons whose contracts expired following the 2010 season. I've added comments for each team.

Arizona Cardinals

Re-signed (8): Ben Graham, Matt Ware, Hamza Abdullah, Ben Claxton, Lyle Sendlein, D'Anthony Batiste, Deuce Lutui, Stephen Spach.

New to team (7): Chansi Stuckey, Richard Marshall, Daryn Colledge, Nick Eason, Stewart Bradley, Floyd Womack, Jeff King.

Still unsigned (3): Alan Faneca, Jason Wright, Bryan Robinson.

Signed elsewhere (5): Steve Breaston (Kansas City), Gabe Watson (New York Giants), Ben Patrick (Giants), Trumaine McBride (New Orleans), Alan Branch (Seattle).

Comment: Sendlein, Colledge and Bradley were the big signings. Marshall provides needed depth at cornerback. Faneca and Wright announced their retirements. The Cardinals weren't aggressive in trying to re-sign the players they lost to other teams. The biggest move Arizona made, acquiring Kevin Kolb from Philadelphia, did not involve a UFA.


San Francisco 49ers

Re-signed (4): Ray McDonald, Tony Wragge, Dashon Goldson, Alex Smith.

New to team (5): Braylon Edwards, Jonathan Goodwin, Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, David Akers.

Still unsigned (5): Brian Westbrook, Troy Smith, Demetric Evans, William James, Barry Sims.

Signed elsewhere (6): David Baas (Giants), Travis LaBoy (San Diego), Jeff Reed (Seattle), Aubrayo Franklin (New Orleans), Takeo Spikes (San Diego), Manny Lawson (Cincinnati).

Comment: Re-signing McDonald signaled Franklin's departure. Getting Goldson back on the relative cheap was a victory. The 49ers wanted to keep Baas, but not at the price he commanded. The team thinks NaVorro Bowman has a bright future in Spikes' old spot at inside linebacker. Lawson wasn't strong enough as a pass-rusher to stick around. Safety depth is improved.


Seattle Seahawks

Re-signed (7): Raheem Brock, Junior Siavii, Brandon Mebane, Leroy Hill, Matt McCoy, Michael Robinson, Kelly Jennings.

New to team (8): Branch, Zach Miller, Robert Gallery, Jimmy Wilkerson, Atari Bigby, Sidney Rice, Tarvaris Jackson, Reed.

Still unsigned (7): Jay Richardson, Craig Terrill, Chester Pitts, Brandon Stokley, Ruvell Martin, J.P. Losman, Lawyer Milloy.

Signed elsewhere (8): Will Herring (New Orleans), Olindo Mare (Carolina), Matt Hasselbeck (Tennessee), Chris Spencer (Chicago), Jordan Babineaux (Tennessee), Sean Locklear (Washington), Amon Gordon (Kansas City), Ray Willis (Washington).

Comment: Adding Jackson as the starting quarterback was the most significant move for the 2011 season. Mebane was the most important re-signing for the longer term. Hill was a bargain relative to how he's playing right now. Miller and Rice were the types of young, talented players who rarely change teams in free agency. The Seahawks were outbid for Herring and Mare. Can street free agent David Vobora fill some of the void Herring left?


St. Louis Rams

Re-signed (2): Adam Goldberg, Gary Gibson.

New to team (9): Daniel Muir, Quinn Ojinnaka, Harvey Dahl, Ben Leber, Zac Diles, Jerious Norwood, Cadillac Williams, Quintin Mikell, Mike Sims-Walker.

Still unsigned (5): Chris Hovan, Michael Lewis, Darcy Johnson, Clifton Ryan, Mark Clayton.

Signed elsewhere (4): Daniel Fells (Denver), Laurent Robinson (San Diego), Derek Schouman (Washington), Kevin Dockery (Pittsburgh).

Comment: Dahl and Mikell were the big additions. Clayton could return if and when his surgically repaired knee allows. Sims-Walker is a wild card. The team didn't flinch when any of its own UFAs signed elsewhere. Most of the moves made on defense were designed to improve St. Louis against the run. Remember that newcomer Justin Bannan was not a UFA. Denver released him.
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NFC West: What's left in free agency

August, 23, 2011
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The time has come for some accounting now that the top unrestricted free agents have found homes. Others continue to wait.

I've put together charts showing how many and which UFAs for NFC West teams remain unsigned. The deadline passed Saturday for teams to make qualifying offers to these players.

The charts rank unsigned UFAs from oldest to youngest. I've ordered the players this way because so many older players find out through free agency where they stand.

A couple players, Alan Faneca and Jason Wright, have announced intentions to retire. They have chosen to go out on their own terms. Retirement becomes a process for others. Free agency comes and goes, the phone seldom rings, teams get on with their lives and before long, a player realizes he is finished.

Some players listed below could help teams if they found the right situations. Lawyer Milloy started 16 games for the Seattle Seahawks last season. The St. Louis Rams have kept in touch with Mark Clayton to monitor the receiver's recovery from knee surgery.

Note: UFAs are defined strictly as players whose contracts expired following at least four accrued NFL seasons. Released players are not UFAs in the same sense even though they can sign with any team.

The Arizona Cardinals think rookie running back Ryan Williams tore a patella tendon in his right knee.

That was the preliminary word from coach Ken Whisenhunt following the Cardinals' 28-20 preseason defeat at Green Bay on Friday night. Williams would miss the 2011 season if that were the case. He would then face a grueling rehabilitation.

St. Louis Rams running back Cadillac Williams has had torn patella injuries, one to each knee, while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He returned the next season in each case and hasn't missed a game over the past two seasons.

This would be a costly injury for the Cardinals because their other primary back, Beanie Wells, remains unproven. Wells has also missed time with injuries during his two seasons in the NFL.

The Cardinals used a second-round draft choice on Williams this offseason. Whisenhunt said they had him rated as one of the 15 best players available. Williams did not disappoint during training camp, either. He showed an ability to change directions without sacrificing much speed. I thought he had a chance to supplant Wells in the starting lineup at some point during this season.

This injury could lead to more playing time for LaRod Stephens-Howling. The Cardinals have used Stephens-Howling increasingly over the past couple seasons, sometimes with three wide receivers and another running back.

Arizona has stocked up on tight ends this offseason, giving the team additional flexibility with its personnel groups. But just about every grouping includes at least one running back. Wells hasn't been consistent in pass protection and he missed a block against Green Bay.

Among the running backs available: Laurence Maroney, Kenneth Darby, Julius Jones and Brian Westbrook.
Bob Padecky of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat explains why there's a good chance Michael Crabtree will flourish with the 49ers. Two words: Vernon Davis. Padecky: "Remember two seasons ago when a talented 49er was criticized for being inconsistent and not a team player? Remember how we all moaned that Vernon Davis had such untapped talent that if applied properly, he would become an All-Pro? Last year Davis had the highest average-per-catch of any tight end in the NFL, 16.3 yards. He was the first tight end in 49er history to lead the team in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns." Padecky also holds up Crabtree's 27-game stats against those for other former 49ers receivers. More here.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee sizes up offensive free agents for the 49ers with an eye toward which ones will return. He lists Tony Wragge, Jeff Reed, Troy Smith and Brian Westbrook as players not expected back. What about Barry Sims? Barrows: "The 49ers might decide that this is the year promising Alex Boone, a one-time undrafted free agent who could end up being the steal of the 2009 class, takes over the swing tackle role from Sims. But when choosing between the proven commodity and the intriguing young player, coaches typically side with caution. That's what the 49ers did a year ago when they tapped Sims, a 13-year veteran, to take over at left tackle for injured Joe Staley."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says there are more questions than answers on defense for the 49ers. Maiocco: "The defensive coaching staff is going to be working against the clock to figure all this out -- and determine the best way to improve the 49ers' No. 24 ranking against the pass from a year ago. Do not expect new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to try to make the 49ers' defense something it is not. Would he like to employ a pressure defense like what his longtime associate Dom Capers has done in Green Bay?" If he had the right personnel, sure.

Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis offers highlights from the Rams' most recent relief trip to Joplin, Mo. Softli: "Pro scout Ray Agnew and defensive line coach Brendan Daly, along with a few others, went into the heavily impacted area called 'ground zero.' This group was responsible for removing debris from the foundation of homes and dragging the materiel curbside for removal. Other groups contributed in the call or data communication center and others went to help with the sorting of donations, including at a local Catholic church. I was assigned to the group that would head to Misti's Mission, which included Rams owners and 10-15 employees."

Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis offers thoughts on Matt Williamson's recently published Top 15 list for NFC West players. Williamson did not include Steven Jackson. He offered this explanation to Balzer via email: "Jackson was actually 16th on my list. I just see him as a declining player who has taken too much of a beating over the years. It happens to every RB and I just think that time has come for Jackson. Adding a quality backup could certainly help his cause though going forward and lessening the stress on his body. But I no longer see big plays from Jackson -- which is often the first thing to go when RBs decline. I also don't see the same burst, elusiveness and acceleration."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com summarizes Jay Feely's interview with ESPN regarding the lockout. Feely, the Cardinals' veteran kicker, suggests a labor agreement isn't as close as advertised. Feely: "I do not think it is as close as some people make it out to be. There are still some issues we have to resolve. I do not think we are going to miss games. I am hopeful that we will not miss games. But there are definitely some steps that need to be taken. Rational thought needs to be the dominant force driving these negotiations." The owners have shown restraint, in my view, by not publicly leveraging the recent appeals-court ruling in their favor. That seems to be a sign that negotiations are serious and there's a good chance for an agreement.

Also from Urban: a look at the Cardinals' running backs.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com checks in with Hall of Famer Steve Largent for a look back at the team's 1988 season. A wild road victory over the Raiders in the final week of the regular season delivered an AFC West title to Seattle. Largent: "Dave Krieg just couldn’t miss that day. And we needed everything he had, because the Raiders were scoring just as fast as we were."

Dan Arkush of Pro Football Weekly says the Seahawks are confident Max Unger can take over effectively at center.
Smart teams build through the draft.

The St. Louis Rams have done this recently, adding quarterback Sam Bradford, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, left defensive end Chris Long, right defensive end Robert Quinn, left tackle Rodger Saffold, right tackle Jason Smith and others.

A few specific needs remain. The more I look through the list of potential NFC West free agents, the more I get the sense quite a few would fit nicely with the Rams.

Let's discuss six of them:
  • Deuce Lutui, Arizona Cardinals guard: The Rams need a starting right guard. Lutui is a pretty good one. He's a little quirky from a personality standpoint, and weight can be a problem for him. But Lutui plays with a nasty streak the Rams could use up front. I also think St. Louis could use a strong, unifying veteran voice on its line. Lutui wouldn't fill that role, but he would upgrade the talent, for sure.
  • Brandon Mebane, Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle. Seattle could use Mebane as well, but for all the talk about Barry Cofield possibly fitting as a free-agent defensive tackle in St. Louis, what's not to like about Mebane? Signing him would diminish a division rival while solidifying a Rams line already featuring good talent. The run defense would improve with Mebane.
  • Dashon Goldson, San Francisco 49ers free safety. The Rams watched former franchise player Oshiomogho Atogwe sign with Washington this offseason. They could use a free safety to replace him. Goldson has started 32 games over the last two seasons. He would fill a gap on the Rams' depth chart.
  • Brian Westbrook, 49ers running back. The Rams nearly signed Westbrook last offseason. They could use an upgrade behind Steven Jackson. Westbrook played well when needed last season. The 49ers aren't bringing him back. The Rams could do better mostly by going younger, but Westbrook could help for a season.
  • Leroy Hill, Seahawks outside linebacker. Hill's off-field troubles and recent injury issues will not help him find work. Hill turns 29 in September and hasn't started a game since 2009. I'm listing him here because the Rams need an outside linebacker and Hill has become a forgotten man. His career was once quite promising.
  • Steve Breaston, Cardinals receiver. The Rams already have plenty of numbers at receiver. Breaston offers speed and special-teams ability, but he wouldn't provide the "wow" factor Rams fans have been seeking at the position. He's also had some knee issues.

The NFL has yet to set rules for unrestricted free agency. Each of these six players has at least four accrued seasons. They would qualify under the system that was in place before last season.

Your thoughts? Fire away.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee provides one more piece of evidence affirming Alex Smith's intentions to re-sign with the San Francisco 49ers. Barrows: "Smith, who is an unrestricted free agent, spoke publicly for the first time since the 2010 season ended. He said he didn't want to be quoted but said the thrust of his comments could be relayed. The main thrust -- that there's a good likelihood that he will return to the 49ers for a seventh season." The 49ers have already met with him, given him a playbook and declared Smith part of the team. It's become a foregone conclusion Smith will return for 2011. As coach Jim Harbaugh told NFL Network in his latest comments on the matter: "We're well-documented on the record that we very much want Alex to be a 49er next year. And he really is a 49er. In my mind, and hopefully in his mind, he is a 49er and we look forward to him competing for that starting quarterback position next year."

Also from Barrows: Is Kendall Hunter the next Brian Westbrook?

Mindi Bach of CSNBayArea.com has this to say about Smith's likely return: "When he met with new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh in January, the two men hit it off immediately, Smith said. He said he liked the idea of playing for an offensive-minded head coach who played quarterback in the NFL. Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, 49ers head coaches since 2005, both came from defensive backgrounds."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com explains why defensive backs Colin Jones and Curtis Holcomb appealed to the 49ers in the draft. General manager Trent Baalke on Jones: "When you look at the measurable, he's 6-foot, 210 pounds, runs low 4.4s and you can see it on film. He loves special teams. You look at the TCU film, covering kicks, covering punts, he's the first one down and he's not afraid of contact."

Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis looks at potential free-agent defensive tackles for the Rams to consider this offseason. The Giants' Barry Cofield and the Seahawks' Brandon Mebane made the list. Softli on Cofield: "Cofield has developed into one of the league's best interior defensive linemen. He has explosive use of his hands with quickness out of stance and plays behind pads. Good run stopper with football instincts and a nose for the ball. Solid lateral movement over and around trash, a dominant interior lineman with some nasty in his play. Pass rush is adequate, but reacts well to screens and hustles to second level."

Mike Baldwin of the Oklahoman says former Rams and Steelers defensive back Clendon Thomas will be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. Thomas picked off three passes for the Rams in 1961, then had 15 interceptions for the Steelers over a two-year period. Baldwin: "A second-round selection, Thomas played 11 years in the NFL with the Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers. Playing primarily defensive back, because of his size and speed, Thomas was considered one of the top athletes in the league. Selected to the 1963 Pro Bowl and a three-time second team All-Pro selection, Thomas played in 137 professional games. He compiled 27 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries. Thomas, 75, is a member of the Steelers Legends team. He also intercepted a Paul Hornung pass and returned it for a touchdown."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Bobby Engram was "humbled" to earn a spot as the third receiver on the Seahawks' 35th anniversary team, determined by online fan balloting. Farnsworth: "Finishing second to Steve Largent (5,004 votes) was Brian Blades (3,487), and coming in third -- as the slot receiver -- was Bobby Engram (2,254). Darrell Jackson finished fourth (1,388), followed by Joey Galloway (941), Daryl Turner (211) and Koren Robinson (95)."

Also from Farnsworth: Engram's former teammates reflect on the receiver's contributions. Lofa Tatupu: "His understanding of what the route needs or what the coaches expect out of it, the way he could read coverages, his understanding of route concepts and what the defense was doing -- it was all second to none. You put a nickel or a corner on him on the inside, he’d eat him up all day. Bobby was a professional in every sense of the word. He was an amazing guy – a guy you love to have in the locker room, a leader."

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle asks whether Seattle could be in line to host a Super Bowl. ESPN.com's John Clayton put the chances at "virtually none" thanks to a combination of factors including hotel rooms, weather and stadium size.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com shows off a sensational "Grand Cannon" poster featuring then-Cardinals quarterback Neil Lomax standing before a Grand Canyon backdrop.

Pat Kirwan of NFL.com thinks Arizona would be a good fit for Carson Palmer if the Bengals decided to trade the disgruntled quarterback. Kirwan: "There’s no denying his talent and experience. If you’re looking to duplicate some of the things you did with Kurt Warner, he’s your best choice." Palmer would instantly make the Cardinals a leading candidate to win the NFC West, in my view. His addition would energize the team and revive the offense, particularly with three capable running backs to lessen the load.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee wouldn't be surprised if the 49ers moved up from the second round to snag a quarterback. Barrows: "My sense is that the 49ers - who have the 13th pick in the second round - would be willing to move up in that round, or even climb into the bottom of Round 1, to get the quarterback they desire. In previous years, when the 49ers were in rebuilding mode, they cherished every one of their picks. Now, however, there is a feeling that the overall roster is strong, especially if they use their No. 7 pick on a pass rusher like Von Miller or Robert Quinn or on a cornerback like Patrick Peterson or Prince Amukamara. Furthermore, general manager Trent Baalke already has shown he's willing to trade up to get his man. He did so last year in order to land Rutgers offensive tackle Anthony Davis."

Also from Barrows: a potential setback in the 49ers' efforts to get a stadium built.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com addresses whether the 49ers could have a reason not to pursue a tampering case against the Eagles after learning that Andy Reid had been in contact with running back Brian Westbrook. Maiocco: "First, we don't know the 49ers are unwilling to pursue this matter. That's only speculation. But we might be onto something here. The 49ers are believed to be one of the teams interested in obtaining Eagles backup quarterback Kevin Kolb. So the 49ers might not want to create any acrimony between the two organizations. But, ultimately, it'll come down to which team offers the Eagles the best level of compensation for Kolb. And, of course, no trades can take place until the owners and players hammer out a new CBA. Teams are allowed to speak to each other during this time to gauge interest. I do not know if the 49ers and Eagles have spoken on this matter, but my guess is there has been some level of communication."

Cam Inman of Bay Area News Group checks in with Jerry Rice for thoughts on a potential lockout.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says instincts and production helped Lofa Tatupu earn a spot on the team's 35th anniversary squad. Chad Brown, Fredd Young and Rufus Porter were the other linebackers. Farnsworth on Tatupu: "His contributions have been across the board: 551 tackles in the regular season, including a career-high 123 in 2006; 66 tackles in the postseason, making him the franchise leader; 10 interceptions, including three in a 2007 game against the Philadelphia Eagles and two returned for touchdowns; 8.5 sacks, including four in his rookie season; 41 passes defensed; seven forced fumbles; three Pro Bowl selections, the most for a linebacker in club history."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald is everywhere these days, and his contract situation is what everyone is asking about. Somers: "Money won't be an obstacle for the Cardinals. Or at least it shouldn't be. Their payroll was near the lowest in the NFL in 2010, and management is smart enough to know that low-balling Fitz will alienate even avid fans. The biggest challenge will be opportunity. Like any elite receiver, Fitzgerald wants the ball. He won't complain publicly because he's sensitive about being labeled as a diva. And he has that right. Over the years, Fitzgerald has developed a work ethic that's hard to match. Last year, he was overthrown more than a Little League first baseman, yet never complained publicly."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Fitzgerald was speaking only about Tommie Harris and not his own situation when he said a change of scenery can help.

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com passes along thoughts from ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. regarding the Rams' draft plans. Kiper: "If the top two receivers are gone then they could look defensive tackle because that’s the value. Outside linebacker, I don’t see anybody that would fit what they are doing defensively there if you are looking for a traditional outside linebacker. Maybe an interior offensive lineman they could look at. It’s a little early maybe for (Florida OL Mike) Pouncey, who I don’t think is as good as his brother Maurkice. That’s early. I wouldn’t take Mike Pouncey ahead of where Maurkice went because I don’t think they are similar players. I think Maurkice was a much better prospect."

Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis sounds unconvinced about the Rams' potential interest in former Giants receiver Plaxico Burress.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic looks at quarterback trade options for the Arizona Cardinals. Somers on Carson Palmer: "There are two issues. How much would the Cardinals be willing to give up for a quarterback whose best years might be behind him? Is Palmer the next Kurt Warner: a good quarterback in need of the right situation? If the Bengals are willing to trade Palmer, what will they want in return? Arizona would be a good fit for Palmer, who reportedly wants to return to the West. My guess is that Palmer would have to be willing to restructure his contract."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com sees the potential for significant roster churn in Arizona this offseason. Urban: "That probably shouldn’t be a shock after a 5-11 season. Churning the bottom of the roster always is possible after every season, and with so many free-agents-to-be NFL-wide, it may be even more likely this offseason (once the CBA is determined). What that will mean specifically for the Cards is impossible to know. They’ve already plotted out free agency — they, like every team, needed to be ready by last weekend when free agency was originally supposed to start — and have players targeted. Does that mean current players would be on the backburner in case replacements are signed? Sure it could. It will also be interesting to see the demand on certain lower-tier players in a flooded market."

Also from Urban: Cardinals safety Matt Ware has played through diabetes.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com looks at projected draft choices for the team with the 25th overall choice. Rob Rang on his Jimmy Smith projection: "The Seahawks’ biggest needs are quarterback and the interior of the offensive line, but the team could throw a curveball should a cornerback of Smith’s talent fall into their lap. The 6-2, 210-pound Smith has top 15 talent but off-field concerns could push him down the board. His size and physicality, however, make him an ideal fit for a team looking for press corners. The Seahawks allowed 31 touchdowns and only intercepted 12 passes. That minus-19 TD/INT ratio was topped by only the Texans, who had minus-20."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times expects Matt Hasselbeck to test free agency. O'Neil: "That doesn't mean Hasselbeck's departure is a done deal. Far from it. Testing the open market can provide the nudge to bring the two sides together, another team's offer becoming a tangible, concrete milepost to negotiate off of. That's what happened with Kurt Warner in Arizona two years ago. The Cardinals were coming off a Super Bowl appearance yet Warner had to take a free-agent visit to San Francisco before agreeing to a new deal in Arizona."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune thinks the Seahawks could make a run at Kevin Kolb. Williams: "Well, I know they were interested in Kolb last year, so that leads me to believe they will make a run after him again. If the cost is too prohibitive, then that opens the door for another free agent quarterback should they not bring Hasselbeck back. Maybe someone like Carson Palmer if Cincinnati decides to part ways with the USC product and makes him available in a trade. Whatever the team decides, I think they will bring two new QBs in to compete with Whitehurst."

Brock Huard of 710ESPN Seattle looks at options for Seattle if Hasselbeck leaves.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee doesn't expect the 49ers to pursue tampering chargers against the Eagles after San Francisco running back Brian Westbrook said he speaks regularly to Andy Reid. The NFL's tampering policy lays out parameters for tampering as follows, and I am paraphrasing: a team speaks with a player from another team; the other team shows interest in the player; the player and his current team experience problems in negotiations. From the policy: "In circumstances like those of the example above, tampering will be found even in the absence of a demonstrated cause-and-effect relationship between the player's contract problems and his prior involvement with the other club." In this case, the 49ers and Eagles presumably have no interest in Westbrook.

Ron Kroichick of the San Francisco Chronicle says 49ers legend Dwight Clark is landing in the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame.

Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider asks whether the 49ers should have interest in Cam Newton.

Tim Klutsarits of examiner.com says Oshiomogho Atogwe's departure from the Rams makes sense financially, but not in other ways.

Jason La Canfora of NFL Network says former Rams quarterback Marc Bulger performed at a high level in practices with Baltimore last season, citing a source as saying the ball never hit the ground when he was running the offense.

Around the NFC West: John Shaw out

February, 18, 2011
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Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says longtime Rams executive John Shaw is stepping down from the team now that Stan Kroenke has taken over as majority owner. Shaw: "This was a joint decision by Stan and myself. Stan provided me an opportunity to stay on if I so chose. But I just thought that this was a good time to do this. I appreciate the fact that he gave me my head and let me make a decision about officially ending the relationship. I felt it was the right time to do this. I really tried to do this gracefully and without any type of announcement." Shaw, when reached by the Post-Dispatch, was on his way out to dinner with former owner Chip Rosenbloom. Shaw clearly fit better when Rosenbloom was running the team, and the dynamics had changed with Kroenke taking control.

The Rams' website says team executive Kevin Demoff will participate in a chat March 2.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com does not expect Troy Smith or Brian Westbrook to return to the 49ers. Maiocco: "Jim Harbaugh always cites accuracy high on the list of attributes he wants from his quarterback. Troy Smith completed 50.3 percent of his passes. Also, Harbaugh's brother, John, released Troy Smith prior to the start of the regular season last year and decided to stick with just two quarterbacks (Joe Flacco and Marc Bulger) on his Baltimore Ravens roster. As for Westbrook, Harbaugh made it clear he likes Anthony Dixon as Frank Gore's backup. He also noted Gore will not be spending too much time on the sideline. At the conclusion of the regular season, I asked Westbrook what kind of situation he was looking to find in 2011."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee offers thoughts on the 49ers' draft options from NFL Network's Mike Mayock. Mayock: "I think that Von Miller from Texas A&M is the prototype 34 rush linebacker. He's got an innate ability. He not only has a great get off and quickness, he also can bend his body and twist and turn and flatten the corner to get to a quarterback. He's a tiny bit undersized. You've got to get yourself comfortable with that. He's not as big as, say, DeMarcus Ware was when he came out, but I think he's tough enough to overcome that. And I think if you're talking about the first round at No. 7 and you're looking for an edge rusher, I think Von Miller's the guy as far as the outside linebacker's concerned."

Eric Branch of Santa Rosa Press-Democrat notes that the 49ers' new assistant secondary coach, Greg Jackson, played with Harbaugh.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says using the franchise tag for Seahawks defensive tackle Brandon Mebane would cost more than $12 million, according to NFL.com. That is consistent with what Brian McIntyre of Mac's Football Blog projected in late January. O'Neil: "Mebane's value goes beyond Seattle, though. He plays a position that is becoming increasingly expensive across the league to the point that the franchise tag is no longer as economical of a solution. Certainly not like it was last year. Six players were designated with the franchise tag in 2010. Three played defensive tackle. Going back to 2007, 46 players have been designated with a franchise tag. Seven were defensive tackles, which matches the most at any one position."

Also from O'Neil: a round-by-round look at draft choices the Seahawks hold, including the fifth-rounder acquired from Baltimore in the Josh Wilson trade. That pick would have upgraded to a fourth-rounder had Wilson made 10 starts.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic passes along thoughts on the Cardinals' draft options from Mayock. Mayock: "If you believe there is a franchise quarterback, that trumps every other need. And since Kurt Warner retired, that underscores that point better than anything I can say. So if you believe Blaine Gabbert is the guy, you've got to take him right there. I think they have to be evaluating him right now. But they also have to be evaluating Von Miller, who is the prototype rush linebacker and a guy who immediately becomes a headache and a guy you've got to game-plan for every week coming off the edge. And Patrick Peterson is definitely the third guy I think you have to be looking at because of his ability to play the corner position and possibly kick inside a little bit down the road like Antrel Rolle did a few years back. But if they believe like I believe that Gabbert is a top 10 pick, that would be my guy at No. 5." That is the easy part. The hard part is determining whether Gabbert is or is not worthy of "the guy" status.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Kerry Rhodes is headed for Kentucky's hall of fame for pro football.

How the NFC West stacks up with Steelers

February, 4, 2011
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Sam Bradford/Matt Hasselbeck/Ben RoethlisbergerGetty Images/US PresswireHow do Sam Bradford, Matt Hasselbeck and the other NFC West QBs stack up against the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger?
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Close your eyes for a moment after reading this sentence and imagine your favorite NFC West team lining up against the AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl.

How would your team's offense measure up, starter for starter, against the one NFC champion Green Bay will face Sunday?

The chart compares NFC West teams' offensive starting lineups against the one Pittsburgh has listed on the official Super Bowl flip card. Doug Legursky will likely replace center Maurkice Pouncey, and injury situations could affect projected NFC West lineups.

I've generally recreated NFC West lineups as they were when each team's season concluded, just to see how offenses from the division might stack up against the one NFC champion Green Bay will encounter Sunday. An NFC West all-star team would produce an overall talent upgrade, but no single NFC West offense prevails in a head-to-head comparison, at least in my view.

For additional perspective, check out how NFC West offenses stacked up one year ago.

Enjoy the imaginary games.

25 NFC West free agents to watch

January, 28, 2011
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Sean writes via Facebook: Mike, yesterday on 710ESPN here in Seattle, Brock and Salk had a guest talking about the number of free agents this year is around 500, which is more than double most years because of the amount of unrestricted free agents last offseason. Seattle has 27 going into this offseason. Is it a disadvantage or advantage with the free-agent pool as large as it is to have a lot of free agents this offseason? Also, how many does San Francisco have?

Mike Sando: There are a few key points to keep in mind here. One, there is no free agency without a new labor agreement. Two, the next labor agreement will define terms for free agents. About 500 players with four accrued seasons could become unrestricted under the previous system. Another roughly 100 players will have three accrued seasons.

Teams have had a long time to anticipate a work stoppage. It's never a good time to have a long list of good players without contracts. But in most cases, teams have already re-signed the players they think they absolutely have to keep. Some teams have a long list of free agents by design. I would put Seattle in that category.

The Seahawks promoted competition during the 2010 season by shortening contracts in a few cases. They re-signed a couple players they wanted to target, but overall, I think they feel just fine going into the labor period with unsigned players. The number you cited -- 27 -- is in the right ballpark. The totals are unofficial until the league releases its annual list.

The 49ers have a shorter projected list featuring five starters from last season: Takeo Spikes, Aubrayo Franklin, Manny Lawson, Alex Smith and Dashon Goldson.

I've put together an initial list of 25 projected NFC West free agents to watch. These are not necessarily ranked in order of abilities. A couple "name" players did not make the list, and I'm noting there are only two St. Louis Rams on there (could have considered Adam Goldberg, Billy Bajema, Gary Gibson, Daniel Fells, Laurent Robinson, Clifton Ryan, etc.).

Wrap-up: 49ers 38, Cardinals 7

January, 2, 2011
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Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 38-7 victory over the Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park in Week 17:

What it means: The Cardinals (5-11) emerged from this game with the fifth overall choice in the 2011 NFL draft after Denver lost to San Diego, ensuring the Broncos would pick ahead of Arizona. The 49ers (6-10) could wind up tied with Seattle for the seventh choice if the Seahawks also finish with a 6-10 record. A coin toss held at the scouting combine would break any tie for draft positioning. The Cardinals' poor showing on offense should prevent anyone from thinking rookie quarterback John Skelton should go into next season as a candidate to start.

Update on strength of schedule: The New York Giants' victory Sunday would leave Seattle with the tougher strength of schedule relative to San Francisco, should the Seahawks and 49ers tie in draft order. The 49ers played Philadelphia (10-6) and Green Bay (10-6) while the Seahawks played Chicago (11-5) and the Giants (10-6). All other opponents were the same.

What I liked: The 49ers' best players on offense made big plays. Vernon Davis got loose for a 59-yard touchdown reception. Ted Ginn Jr. caught a 37-yard scoring pass, providing what the 49ers expected to see throughout the season, but did not. Receiver Josh Morgan extended to make a grab for a 32-yard reception. Quarterback Alex Smith averaged 11.7 yards per attempt and Brian Westbrook scored twice as the 49ers built a 31-7 lead. On defense, the 49ers dominated even without injured inside linebacker Patrick Willis. Justin Smith, always a tough matchup for the Cardinals, padded his Pro Bowl credentials with three sacks. For Arizona, there wasn't much, but at least receiver Larry Fitzgerald factored more prominently into the offense.

What I didn't like: The Cardinals got blown out twice by a 49ers team that was bad enough to cost Mike Singletary his job as head coach. John Skelton passed for 92 yards on 25 attempts, taking four sacks to go with his 3.7-yard average per attempt. Richard Bartel came into the game and served up an interception for a touchdown.

Tomorrow's Talker: Which quarterbacks will be leading these teams next season? The 49ers will have a better idea once they hire a head coach. The Cardinals' leadership has had months to consider its options after failing to adequately prepare for life after Kurt Warner.

What's next: Both teams will be watching the playoffs from afar.

NFC West roided-out rosters: Updated

December, 22, 2010
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The chart shows oldest-to-youngest age ranks for NFC West teams relative to the rest of the NFL, based on the 26-column rosters I make available for download periodically.

Seattle, despite having a league-low 21 players from Week 17 last season on its current 53-man roster, still stands as the seventh-oldest team in the NFL. Expect that ranking to fall this offseason as the Seahawks continue to turn over their roster. The team already subtracted 33-year-old guard Ben Hamilton from the 2011 equation, it appears, by waiving him from injured reserve.

Arizona has the oldest offensive linemen and specialists in the league on average and the fourth-oldest linebackers. The average at linebacker in particular figures to fall next season. If not, it's tough to envision the Cardinals gaining needed athleticism at the position.

In San Francisco, veterans such as Brian Westbrook and Justin Smith are driving up the average ages at their positions. The 49ers have the 10th-youngest starting offense based on recently updated lineups. They were the youngest in Week 1, but injuries have forced Westbrook and tackle Barry Sims, 36, into the lineup since then.

St. Louis, the youngest team in the NFC West on average, has the NFL's youngest linebackers. That is not necessarily a good thing. The team would be better off at the position if it had not been forced to place 32-year-old Na'il Diggs on injured reserve. The Rams have the fifth-youngest offensive starters thanks in part to rookie quarterback Sam Bradford.

Note: No actual steroids were used in building these rosters.

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