NFC West: C.J. Spiller

Rolando McClain's early retirement from the NFL comes three years after the Oakland Raiders made him the eighth overall choice in the 2010 draft.

While McClain is inviting derision, I wondered whether he was even the most disappointing choice from the first round of that 2010 class. He would fit right in with the 2009 group, for sure.

A quick check of games started by 2010 first-rounders showed four players with 48 starts in 48 possible regular-season games. Three of those four players were from the NFC West: Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis of the San Francisco 49ers, and Earl Thomas of the Seattle Seahawks.

Tyson Alualu, the player Jacksonville controversially selected 10th overall, rounds out the quartet.

St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford (42) and Seattle Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung (37) were relatively close behind. Dan Williams, chosen 26th overall by the Arizona Cardinals that year, ranked 26th on the list with 21 starts over the past three seasons.

All starts aren't quality starts, of course. McClain ranks relatively high on the list with 38 starts despite his bust status. Anyone familiar with the NFL would rather have Denver Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas (23 starts) than Alualu, who has struggled with knee trouble and generally been just OK.

First-round picks from 2010 have combined for 21 Pro Bowl honors.

Maurkice Pouncey leads the way with three. Thomas is one of five players with two. Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Eric Berry and Jermaine Gresham are the others.

Iupati and Okung are part of an eight-man grouping with one Pro Bowl. Ryan Mathews, Thomas, Devin McCourty, Gerald McCoy, C.J. Spiller and Trent Williams are the others.

Iupati, Pouncey, Suh, Thomas and Pierre-Paul have been first-team Associated Press All-Pro once apiece.

Bradford was offensive rookie of the year. Suh won defensive rookie of the year.

A little secret about those running backs forced to run against stacked defenses play after play: They don't really exist.

Check out the chart. It shows 2012 rushing yardage leaders against loaded box counts (those featuring more defenders in the box than the offense has available to block them).

None of the leaders has more than 58 rushes against loaded boxes.

Minnesota's Adrian Peterson plays for a one-dimensional offense. Opponents seemingly must worry only about stopping him to beat the Vikings, right? It sounds good, but Peterson, despite nearing the 2,000-yard mark for the season, has carried against loaded boxes only 39 times. His other 250 carries came against more favorable number counts.

Peterson has 87 carries for 582 yards against eight or more in the box, but the Vikings had at least as many blockers available for some of those plays. San Francisco's Frank Gore ranks second to Peterson in carries (85) and rushing yards (279) against eight or more in the box. The 49ers favor heavier personnel groupings on offense, however. As a result, they often have blockers available for each of those defenders in the box.

Wrap-up: Seahawks 50, Bills 17

December, 16, 2012

Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' victory over the Buffalo Bills in Toronto:

What it means: The Seahawks improved to 9-5, ensuring their first winning season since 2007. They strengthened their hold on a wild-card playoff berth, at least. This victory sets up a potentially pivotal Week 16 game against the NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers. A 49ers defeat at New England in the Sunday night game would put first place on the line at CenturyLink Field next week. The Seahawks have won five of their past six games thanks largely to outstanding play from rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.

What I liked: Everything about the Seattle offense. Three first-half rushing touchdowns from Wilson and consistently productive running from Marshawn Lynch allowed the Seahawks to control the game. Wilson entered this game without a rushing touchdown in the NFL, but his threat as a runner has become more pronounced. This marked a continuation of Wilson's late-game rushing against Chicago two weeks ago. He also threw the ball well, but Seattle did not need his arm much in this game.

Defensively, the Seahawks' rookie cornerback, Jeremy Lane, did a good job defending the deep ball early. Buffalo appeared interested in testing him deep downfield. Lane and the secondary fared well in that area even though corners Brandon Browner (suspended) and Walter Thurmond (injured) did not play. Second-year linebacker K.J. Wright picked off a pass in the third quarter. Up front, Chris Clemons had two sacks, including one producing a fumble return for teammate Bruce Irvin. Jason Jones pressured Ryan Fitzpatrick into a pick-six throw, one Earl Thomas returned 57 yards.

What I didn't like: The defense was too forgiving early in the game. C.J. Spiller found ample running room. The pass rush wasn't very effective until the score was out of hand. Kicker Steven Hauschka had an extra-point try blocked.

Running it up: The Seahawks executed a successful fake punt while holding a 47-17 lead in the fourth quarter. The play set up a field goal for a 50-17 lead. Last week, the Seahawks threw for the end zone on a fourth-and-23 play while holding a 51-0 lead over the Arizona Cardinals. Throwing a conventional pass while blowing out an opponent differs from using tactics such as onside kicks and fake punts.

Eye-popping numbers: The Seahawks have outscored their past two opponents by a 108-17 margin. They have exceeded 460 total yards against each of their past three opponents. The Seahawks and 49ers combined for more than 1,000 yards against the Bills this season.

What's next: The Seahawks close out the regular season with home games against San Francisco and St. Louis.

Rush defenses could get nickeled, dimed

December, 13, 2012

NFC West teams face in Week 15 the two NFL teams with the most rushing attempts and rushing yards against nickel and dime defenses.

That provides an opportunity to show how these teams have fared against the run when using these sub packages.

The first chart shows the New England Patriots with a league-high 291 carries for a league-high 1,361 yards and six touchdowns against these lighter defensive personnel packages featuring additional defensive backs. It also shows the San Francisco 49ers holding opponents to 3.9 yards per attempt with no rushing touchdowns from their own nickel an dime units.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee takes a closer look at this aspect of the 49ers-Patriots matchup set for Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.

I have excluded quarterback scrambles from the breakdowns.

The second chart shows the corresponding numbers for the Buffalo Bills' offense and Seattle Seahawks' defense. The teams play in Toronto.

Buffalo ranks second to New England with 1,306 yards rushing against nickel and dime defenses. That is because the Bills, like the Patriots, spend most of their time in pass-oriented personnel groupings, even when they want to run the ball. More traditional teams such as Minnesota, which faces the St. Louis Rams in Week 15, do more of their running against base defenses.

The Seahawks' nickel and dime defenses have allowed 4.6 yards per carry this season overall. Frank Gore's 37-yard run against Seattle pumped up that average.

As noted, the charts exclude yards gained by quarterback scrambles. That is one area to watch in Week 15.

The Bills rank eighth in scramble yards with 147 on 23 carries, with six first downs. Seattle has allowed 72 yards on seven scrambles. Aaron Rodgers had a 16-yard scramble against Seattle. Ryan Tannehill and Cam Newton had 15-yarders. Note that scrambles differ from designed rushes.

Also in Week 15, Arizona faces a Detroit Lions offense that ranks fourth with 920 non-scrambling rush yards against nickel and dime defenses. Detroit ranks second to New England in total non-scramble plays against these defenses. The Lions, like Buffalo and New England, predominantly use pass-oriented personnel groupings.

The Cardinals gave up 33-yard runs to Seattle's Marshawn Lynch and Buffalo's C.J. Spiller on these plays. Lynch had additinal runs for 20, 15 and 11 yards on them. Spiller also had a 17-yarder.

The Lions' Joique Bell had a 67-yard run in Week 13 against Indianapolis' lighter defensive personnel. He had corresponding runs for 26 and 23 yards against Houston a week earlier.
Levi Brown's injury and an underwhelming quarterback competition were supposed to doom the Arizona Cardinals in 2012.

The team surprised skeptics by winning its first four games anyway.

The injury news has worsened. The Cardinals have fallen to 4-2 as they prepare to face the Minnesota Vikings in Week 7. Arizona will be without quarterback Kevin Kolb and safety Kerry Rhodes. The team is listing cornerback Greg Toler and fullback Anthony Sherman as doubtful.

The Cardinals should have a healthier Darnell Dockett after a hamstring injury slowed the veteran defensive end previously. Strong games from Dockett and defensive end Calais Campbell figure to be key against the Vikings' Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin.

Peterson and Harvin each have four games with 100 yards from scrimmage this season, as the chart shows. Harvin had another game with 98. Peterson ranked fifth (628) and Harvin eighth (603) in yards from scrimmage through Week 6. Larry Fitzgerald (430) and Andre Roberts (304) lead the Cardinals in that category.

Three players have reached 100 yards from scrimmage against the Cardinals this season. Miami Dolphins receivers Brian Hartline (253) and Davone Bess (123) did it in Week 4. Buffalo's C.J. Spiller (110) did it last week.

Marshawn Lynch (97), Wes Welker (95) and Stevan Ridley (95) came closest.

The Vikings' Peterson expects to play despite an ankle injury that sidelined him part of the week. He practiced Friday and expects to start.

RBs also hit tough sledding around here

October, 9, 2012
NFC West teams lead the NFL in shutting down quarterbacks. They also lead the league in yards per rushing attempt allowed on called running plays.

By called running plays, I'm excluding quarterback scrambles. However, even if we included those plays, NFC West teams would have the lowest yards per carry allowed through Week 5.

Adrian Peterson (3.4 per attempt vs. the NFC West), Cedric Benson (2.4), DeMarco Murray (3.7) and C.J. Spiller (3.4) have fallen well short of a 4.0-yard average against the division. LeSean McCoy (5.4), Alfred Morris (5.6) and Marshawn Lynch (5.0) are the only backs averaging at least 4.0 per attempt against the NFC West among the 15 players with at least 10 carries.

Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona are allowing 3.5 yards per carry or less. St. Louis is allowing 4.2 per attempt.

The chart from ESPN Stats & Information provides some context.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

September, 12, 2012
Alex SmithBenny Sieu/US PresswireThe 49ers' Alex Smith showed again in Week 1 that he can do more than just manage a game.
The NFL has become a game of frequent substitutions.

Some of them don't make much sense on the surface.

For example, the San Francisco 49ers removed from the field Patrick Willis, arguably the NFL's best linebacker, for roughly one-third of the defensive snaps against Green Bay in Week 1. That will not be the norm for the 49ers, but it made sense for one game.

The MVP Watch list is making a few short-term substitutions this week. The list, always part snapshot and projection, leans toward the snapshot side at this early point in the season.

Arian Foster, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning and Michael Vick are getting the week off. We'll see most of them again this season. Matt Ryan, Robert Griffin III, Tony Romo, Joe Flacco and Alex Smith could not be denied.

Drew Brees earned the benefit of the doubt following a rough opener. That is one reason the current list favors quarterbacks to an unusual extent. Here is another: Buffalo's C.J. Spiller was the only running back or receiver to exceed 135 yards in an opener. His team lost big.

Non-quarterbacks have a tough time measuring up even when they dominate.

Peyton Manning won MVP honors for the 2009 season even though Chris Johnson topped 2,000 yards rushing. Speaking of Manning, he's moving up the list and should only improve as he shakes off the rust and gets more familiar with his new teammates. How will his aging bones fare when the weather turns? Manning plays his only dome game of the season in Week 2, when the Broncos visit Atlanta.

Editor's note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this post.
A defensive assistant coach scheduled to face Seattle this season told me during training camp he hoped the Seahawks would not acquire Marshawn Lynch.

The thinking was that Lynch would give the Seahawks' running game a needed edge.

The price Seattle paid for Lynch remains a key variable in determining whether this trade was a wise move.

Buffalo receives a 2011 fourth-round draft choice and an undisclosed 2012 choice. The value of that second choice matters a great deal. If it's a conditional pick, Lynch would have to perform well for the price to increase.

The Bills played the Lynch situation right by waiting until well into the season before making a move. The rest of the league knew Lynch was expendable once Buffalo drafted C.J. Spiller, but Lynch still had value. There was no reason for the Bills to give him away at a discount. Seattle was interested all along and that interest had to grow once it became clear the Seahawks' running game needed a boost.

The Seahawks have long-term needs throughout their roster. Acquiring Lynch could fill an obvious need at running back. From that standpoint, this move looks like Seattle trying to cross off a significant need so it can focus on filling others at quarterback, receiver, along the offensive line and elsewhere. There's a risk Lynch will not produce, but that's a risk associated with any player.

Marshawn Lynch should upgrade Seattle

October, 5, 2010
The Seattle Seahawks finally landed the physical running back they've coveted when the Buffalo Bills agreed to part with Marshawn Lynch nearly six months after drafting another back, C.J. Spiller, in the first round.

This can only be a good thing for Seattle from a personnel standpoint.

Lynch instantly becomes the most physically gifted runner on the team. He is 24 years old and was a Pro Bowl choice two seasons ago. Expect Lynch to share time with his former college roommate, Justin Forsett, and veteran Leon Washington. Julius Jones, already the odd man out of the rotation, presumably has no place on the roster.

Lynch's carries and rushing yardage declined every season in Buffalo and his departure from the team appeared more likely once the Bills used a high choice for Spiller.

Lynch does come with baggage. He ran afoul of the law multiple times while with the Bills. One NFL personnel evaluator told me years ago he thought bringing Lynch back to the West Coast could carry risk if it meant reuniting the running back with negative influences from his youth.

A fresh start could also serve Lynch well and he'll get that in Seattle.

The Seahawks were expected to trade a fourth-round choice to the Bills as part of the deal. The team already sent its 2011 third-rounder to San Diego in the Charlie Whitehurst deal, but Seattle subsequently added a mid-round choice in the Josh Wilson deal with Baltimore. The pick from Baltimore is a fifth-rounder that could become a fourth-rounder based on how Wilson performs for the Ravens.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said he was most disappointed with the Seahawks running game following a 20-3 defeat at St. Louis in Week 4. Personnel issues on the offensive line were one obvious issue. The Seahawks also wanted a more physical presence in the backfield. They signed LenDale White, then released him.
C.J. Spiller's contract agreement with the Buffalo Bills -- reported here by's John Clayton -- leaves the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Okung as the only healthy 2010 NFL draft choice without a contract.

If that's not embarrassing for all involved, perhaps that helps explain why a deal has been so elusive.

The chart shows signing statuses for first-round choices. Baltimore Ravens second-round choice Sergio Kindle, who suffered a fractured skull and remains hospitalized, also remains unsigned.

A defensive assistant coach for an NFC West team told me earlier this offseason he hoped the Seattle Seahawks weren't serious about acquiring Buffalo Bills running back Marshawn Lynch.

If the Seahawks are serious -- and I see no reason for them to stand pat at the position -- getting Lynch at a discount price would make sense.

The Scouts Inc. analysis Insider on Lynch heading into last season said he had "great inline vision and run skills with good lateral quickness and agility" to go with breakaway speed. The 2009 season probably changed opinions on Lynch, but he only recently turned 24 years old. He hasn't suffered career-threatening injuries. If those attributes shined through two seasons ago, why can't they shine through at some point in the future, particularly under circumstances that might qualify as a fresh start?

Lynch isn't a perfect player by any means. The Buffalo Bills wouldn't have benched him last season and they probably wouldn't have drafted C.J. Spiller more recently if Lynch were a sure-fire bet. That's where the "discount price" element comes into play. The lower the price, the less risk and the greater potential for net gain.

Let's put it this way: If Lynch were available in a three-man NFL draft featuring current Seattle running backs Justin Forsett and Julius Jones, which player would most teams draft first? I'd make Lynch the favorite. Also, would adding Lynch to the mix improve the Seahawks' outlook at the position? Seems like it would.

Not much else to consider if the price is right.

Should Rams have drafted RB?

May, 5, 2010
The Rams could be right about Steven Jackson's back surgery being no big deal and little threat to his 2010 season.

The reality, of course, is that Jackson didn't make it through last season and the team could use a competent backup anyway.

If the Rams sign veteran Brian Westbrook, who visited team headquarters recently, they'll have some measure of insurance. But it's clear Westbrook would serve only as a stopgap player, not a longer-term solution to an issue that figures only to grow in importance with every hit Jackson takes.

And if Jackson misses time in 2010 or injuries again affect his performance, the Rams' decision against drafting a running back this year will come under additional scrutiny regardless of whether the resulting criticism is fair.

It's important to frame the discussion properly. We can accomplish this by weighing which running backs the Rams could have drafted against which players they actually drafted.

The first chart shows every player the Rams drafted in 2010 and the running backs selected next (fullbacks excluded). The findings:
  • The Rams passed on Clemson's C.J. Spiller to draft quarterback Sam Bradford. No surprise there. Franchise quarterbacks take precedence over franchise running backs.
  • They passed on Mississippi's Dexter McCluster to draft offensive lineman Rodger Saffold. This choice seemed reasonable given predraft grades suggesting Saffold as a first-round value.
  • They passed on USC's Joe McKnight twice to draft cornerback Jerome Murphy and receiver Mardy Gilyard. The Rams had to get a receiver at some point, it seemed, and cornerback was another need area.
  • They passed on Mississippi State's Anthony Dixon three times to take tight end Mike Hoomanawanui, defensive end Hall Davis and tight end Fendi Onobun. These decisions should be fun to monitor. If Dixon shines for the 49ers while Hoomanawanui or Onobun struggles, the Rams arguably overvalued tight end at the expense of running back depth.
  • They passed on Buffalo running back James Starks to draft defensive end Eugene Sims. Starks was the last running back drafted.

Having Jackson healthy would severely diminish the Rams' short-term need for a running back. Keeping Jackson healthy could depend on the Rams' ability to limit his carries without sacrificing too much production.

The second chart shows the Rams' current running backs (fullbacks excluded).

Flurry of moves in the NFC West

April, 24, 2010
RENTON, Wash. -- NFC West teams are making four choices in a seven-pick span from late in the fourth round into the fifth round.

I've listed the players chosen in the chart.

The big news in the division Saturday surrounds the Seahawks' acquisition of veteran running backs LenDale White and Leon Washington. NFL Network cameras just showed Seahawks coach Pete Carroll putting general manager John Schneider in a mock headlock while Schneider spoke on the phone. Carroll then delivered a few faux punches to Schneider's ribs. Carroll was clearly happy with the team's ability to land a couple of veteran running backs.

Washington brings added value in the return game. Carroll has been known to covet "gadget" players, one reason Clemson's C.J. Spiller could have been a possibility in the first round. Washington fits the gadget mold because he's explosive and on the short side at 5-foot-8.

"Washington is an explosive change-of-pace runner who places a lot of pressure on opposing defenses," the Scouts Inc. profile on Washington reads in part. "He can get downhill quickly and press the hole. He can turn upfield after the catch and can adjust to balls outside his frame. He has the speed to turn the corner. He's very dangerous in space."

That report was written before Washington suffered a serious leg injury requiring surgery. Washington has said he expects to be ready for training camp.

These moves obviously affect running back Julius Jones. We'll talk to Carroll at some point Saturday to find out what he's thinking.

What the Seahawks want early

April, 22, 2010
RENTON, Wash. -- This just in from ESPN's Shelley Smith, reporting from Seahawks headquarters:
A source close to the team tells me Pete Carroll wants an offensive tackle, a defensive tackle and a safety and that the only OT Carroll wants is Trent Williams from Oklahoma or else he won't draft an OT early.

The top players at those positions could be gone, in which case we start thinking about ... Jimmy Clausen? C.J. Spiller?

Last-minute look at mock drafts

April, 22, 2010
Nolan Nawrocki, Rob Rang, Rick Gosselin and Pat Kirwan have posted updated mock drafts recently.

The chart shows their predictions for NFC West teams, with links to their full mock drafts.

They agree on Sam Bradford at No. 1. Two think Eric Berry will land in Seattle at No. 6. Two like Anthony Davis to the 49ers at No. 13. None agreed on Seattle's choice at No. 14 or the 49ers' choice at No. 17. All predicted Arizona would take a linebacker -- Sean Weatherspoon or Brandon Graham -- at No. 26.

Rang has Seattle taking Jimmy Clausen at No. 6. Gosselin has Clausen going 30th to Minnesota. Not much of a consensus, in other words.

Note that Gosselin is the only one thinking Seattle will draft an offensive tackle in the first round. There's no question the Seahawks' obvious need for a tackle has made it easier to reach when making projections for Seattle at No. 6.