NFC West: Casey Hampton
These would be actual starters, not projected or usual ones. There are differences (hence, the asterisk in the headline).
The New York Giants opened with tackle Will Beatty at tight end. The San Diego Chargers had tight end Randy McMichael on the field instead of receiver Robert Meachem.
The Indianapolis Colts went with two backs and two tight ends, with Donnie Avery instead of Reggie Wayne as the wideout.
The Cleveland Browns had a third wide receiver instead of tight end Benjamin Watson. St. Louis opted for a second tight end, Matthew Mulligan, instead of fullback Brit Miller. Bradley Fletcher started for the Rams as a third cornerback, nudging out linebacker Mario Haggan against the Detroit lions, who went with a third wideout.
The Arizona Cardinals opened with a second tight end instead of fullback Anthony Sherman.
Multiple other teams made similar tweaks to open their games.
My point here isn't to list all the adjustments. Listing as many as I have will hopefully illustrate the NFL's situational nature. Starting offensive linemen tend to play full games across the board. Players at other positions are more likely to sub in and out of games regularly.
The players we consider starters don't always start. They often don't play all the snaps. Some play sporadically.
Many teams are constantly shifting from one personnel group to another. Defenses are constantly switching personnel to match up.
The chart shows age rankings for starters in Week 1, oldest to youngest. The first column shows overall rankings. The other columns show rankings for offense and defense. These are based on the rosters I maintain for every team, with ages calculated to the day (as opposed to rounding backward to the most recent birthday).
Note: I updated this item after realizing Casey Hampton, 35, needed to be listed as a starter for Pittsburgh, and that Tim Tebow was listed as a starter at tight end for the Jets. These changes bumped the Steelers' starting defense from sixth to first in average age. The Jets' change had a smaller effect.
As evidenced by the two-minute drill last week and against Indy last year, and a few other times, the 49ers, and Alex Smith, can move the ball fairly effectively when in the spread, using 3-4 wide receivers, Smith in the shotgun and running a hurry-up style offense.
Given that Singletary never plays a game aggressively on offense until the 49ers fall behind by three scores, at which point they then fight to come back using the spread, how effective do you think Smith would be as a quarterback in a system that actually was built around his strengths?
Most people I talk to think he's a pretty bad QB, but I think he would at least be in the top 10 given a shot playing in a system like Indy's offense, one where he's in the gun about 70 percent of the time and has 3-4 wide receivers to hit quickly.
Frankly, the 49ers as a whole are built to be a more aggressive offense. Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis should be getting a lot more passes, and they have shown they can run effectively from spread formations, as they did vs New Orleans.
Mike Sando: I understand your frustrations with the offense. Two-minute situations do not necessarily apply over the course of a full game. Defenses play differently when protecting leads late in games. Offenses have an easier time completing passes, dictating tempo and those sorts of things. The 49ers would not necessarily be able to do that at will. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady might make it look easy, but Smith and other lesser quarterbacks couldn't duplicate the results.
Sure, Smith could be better than this if he were in a better situation. He needs to be better in this situation, however. It's not like he's so good in spread situations that the 49ers should abandon plans for a power running game with Frank Gore.
If Smith were struggling in a pass-happy offense, we would probably be asking why the 49ers weren't taking pressure off him by building around Gore.
Tim from Jackson, Wyo., writes: Hey Mike, I attended the Chicago game and saw the hit laid on Jon Ryan. Crowd went nuts. I notice that ESPN has been showing that hit with regularity, and in a jocular fashion. Why is this hit not being used as an example of a hit on a defenseless player? Hines Ward seems to come to mind when one thinks of hits of this sort, and I seem to remember Warren Sapp laying out a Green Bay player, injuring said player pretty severely. Any thoughts?
Mike Sando: I thought the hit was clean. Ryan was charging forward toward Devin Hester and within about 7 yards of him when Earl Bennett blocked Ryan cleanly. Ryan was actively trying to make the tackle. He was not trotting across the field away from the action. It was a brutal and devastating hit, but I couldn't see anything about it in violation of the rules.
Erick from California writes: Who is the best rookie offensive lineman in the NFC West -- Rodger Saffold, Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis or Russell Okung?
Mike Sando: Okung hasn't played enough to say for sure, but the way he played in a hostile environment Sunday was impressive. No penalties. No sacks allowed. Drove Brian Urlacher into the end zone on Justin Forsett's 9-yard touchdown run.
Of the other three, Saffold plays the toughest position, left tackle. He's probably been the best to this point based on what the Rams are asking him to do. I'd probably go with Davis next, then Iupati, if we're talking about how the rookies have played to this point. Davis has a tougher job because he's playing tackle. Iupati has more help playing guard.
We're only five or six games into the evaluation, though. I've seen good things from every one of them.
Michael from parts unknown writes: Sando, after browsing through the NFC West roided-out rosters, I am wondering where the teams in the division rank in age by position. Have you done something like that before? Looking at the 49ers' offensive line got me to thinking about it. Their average age on the offensive line is 24.8. That is insanely young for an offensive line, isn't it? Oh and by the way, I read your blog daily. Thanks, Mike.
Mike Sando: Yes, I can easily slice and dice ages by position. It's just a matter of dragging the the position category into an Excel pivot table window and watching the numbers come up. I plan to update rosters Thursday night. I'll come back with an item breaking down roster ages by position.
Jimmy from San Diego writes: Hey Mike, looking at your MVP Watch, just wanted to comment on defensive players. No defensive players come close to Osi Umenyiora based on his performance this season. Eight sacks, seven forced fumbles (two shy of the NFL record in only six games). I am sorry, Troy Polamalu and Julius Peppers do not stack up. Clay Matthews is having a helluva season, too.
Mike Sando: Yeah, I do not necessary disagree. Part of the challenge in putting together MVP Watch lies in making sure some of the best teams are represented. There's a balancing act between recognizing winners and including a few players having great individual seasons without as much team success.
Philip Rivers made the list, possibly for the last time unless the Chargers start winning again. Ben Roethlisberger could be representing the Steelers on the list relatively soon. Sometimes it feels as though only three or four candidates are truly worthy of strong consideration, making it tough to fill the remaining six or seven spots.
Brian from Scottsdale, Ariz., writes: Is it too early to begin questioning the Cardinals' first-round draft choice, Dan Williams? I know he plays a position that doesn't yield great statistics, and I've read about his deactivation for a game for weight issues. I can't help but think a team should be getting more out of a player drafted this high.Your thoughts?
Mike Sando: Let's see where he's trending a month from now.
My thought was that Williams would take over as the starting nose tackle sometime this season. The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Casey Hampton with the 19th pick in 2001, moving him into the starting lineup for Week 7. Hampton started the final 11 regular-season games and developed into the anchor of the Steelers' 3-4 defense for the next decade (and counting).
Williams hasn't shown much to this point. Missing weight raised questions about him. If he hasn't shown anything a month from now, harder questions would be more appropriate. The team has played only five games to this point.
Nick from Portland, Ore., writes: If you were the Seattle front office (or Pete Carroll), how would you solve your long-term QB questions?
If the Seahawks stay competitive and Matt Hasselbeck stays (mostly) mistake free, conventional wisdom would then suggest Charlie Whitehurst never sees significant playing time this season.
If that happens (and I hope it does), Whitehurst will remain the untested and unproven backup he's always been. Let's say Hasselbeck plays well enough to earn an extension this offseason. Are the Seahawks really going to pay Whitehurst $10 million and never use him in the regular season?
Mike Sando: Whitehurst gets $4 million this season and $4 million next season, with another $1 million available via incentives in each year of the deal. Seems to me Seattle can pay that price to keep Whitehurst as the backup if Hasselbeck plays well enough to command a contract extension.
The biggest question I have is whether the Seahawks would commit to Hasselbeck beyond this season when the rest of the roster figures to get younger. What if Hasselbeck plays just well enough for the Seahawks to post an 8-8 record, win the NFC West title and then lose in the wild-card round? Those parameters could create a dilemma.
I don't think the Seahawks know what they're going to do. They need to see the season play out. Sometimes these questions answer themselves through injury or other means. Ten games remain. There's still time to get some answers.
Kristof from Gainesville, Fla., writes: I'm excited about the Rams' win, but with Laurent Robinson and Mardy Gilyard hurt and with Donnie Avery and Mark Clayton out for the year, can the Rams keep the passing game going? Danario Alexander was great but he, Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola aren't going to scare defenses.
Mike Sando: Robinson, Gilyard and Clayton were not scaring defenses and I say that will all due respect. Clayton in particular was highly productive, but he was not a rare physical talent commanding extra attention from defensive coordinators. The Rams' depth at receiver is thinning. I don't think they've quite reached the breaking point. Losing Amendola might do it, though. They need to get the tight ends going now that Mike Hoomanawanui is healthier.
The Rams are better on defense this season. They're better at quarterback. They have a top running back. Their offensive system has succeeded elsewhere without elite talent at wide receiver. Sam Bradford needs receivers he can trust. Clayton was that type of receiver. Amendola is that type of receiver. Gibson has made some strides.
The Dude in Brooklyn writes: Sando, I didn't realize you were so expert with faint praise. Your statement that the 49ers have the best defense in the division couldn't have been less enthusiastic. "Based on what we have seen," "I know they played some weak offenses," "there was a sense they were improved" ... that is not the language of a convinced man.
Fair enough. But why, Mike Sando? There is both an easy positive and negative argument for why the 49ers' defense is the best. They were statistically superior in nearly every category and did so with a crappy offense that constantly left them in bad position with three-and-outs and turnovers. Their per-play stats are top-10 or just below.
Over the course of the season, they played all the same teams except for two, so the schedule argument is bogus. If anything, the Cards should be demoted for not having to play their own offense when the rest of the division had to. The squad has a good mix of experience and youth and includes five former or current Pro Bowlers and several players that are developing quite well.
As for the negative argument ... there's almost nothing good to say about the Rams or Seahawks. I'll leave the Rams alone because they're rebuilding. Yes, the Seahawks had major injuries on offense, but the defense was as healthy as the others in the division. It was bad because it was bad. Are the additions going to be enough? How important are the personnel losses? That defense has more questions than answers and did nothing well last year.
As for the Cards, their defense was 19th despite the advantage of a fourth-ranked offense. Some say they have a good secondary, but they couldn't defend the pass all year. Is a nickel back [Bryant McFadden] and a third-rounder [Rashad Johnson] going to solve their pass-defense woes? For those who think the Cards have a good secondary, I'll leave Sando with a homework assignment that will disabuse you of your rose-tinted glasses: What was the last team to allow more passing TD's than the 2008 Cards?
Mike Sando: The Cardinals allowed 36 passing touchdowns last season. I suspect the 1981 Colts were the last team to allow more (37) in a season. Not good.
To address your broader point, we might be answering different questions. The evidence you cited was from last season. Which NFC West team had the best defense last season? The 49ers, of course, by almost any measure. Which NFC West team will have the best defense in 2009? The 49ers, probably.
Back to the Cardinals. When they were bad, they were really bad. When they were good, they were really good. The 49ers were more consistent defensively. Arizona allowed six touchdown passes to Brett Favre in a single game. Horrible. But when the Cardinals needed to control Matt Ryan and Jake Delhomme in the playoffs, they did it well. That means more than how the 49ers fared in a meaningless game against Buffalo.
The Cardinals can play with a violence and ferocity that is unmatched in the division. That is how they recovered a league-high 17 fumbles last season. The 49ers recovered six. The fumble-forcing hit Darnell Dockett put on Zak Keasey last season comes to mind. The knockout shot Adrian Wilson put on Trent Edwards was another example. Patrick Willis is the only other player in the division to inflict that type of punishment (the hit on Jets receiver Brad Smith last season comes to mind).
The problem in this division is that none of the teams can count on having a strong pass rush. The 49ers could develop one if Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson flourish in the
3-4. The Seahawks could rediscover one if Patrick Kerney gets healthy and some of their recent draft choices develop, etc. But can any team in this division truly count on its pass rush?
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Our look at the Cardinals' potential options in the first round of the upcoming draft featured input from Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. Matt offered quite a bit more insight during our recent conversation. I wanted to share more of his Cardinals-related analysis here.
On the running backs: "I think Tim Hightower is a backup at best. Same with Edge [Edgerrin James]. And neither gives you something on special teams. Players like that are a dime a dozen.
"If you look around the league, how many teams are going to pull the trigger on a first-round running back? If you are Chris Wells or Knowshon Moreno or LeSean McCoy or Donald Brown, two or three are going to be unhappy with where they go and Arizona could benefit from that."
On the Cardinals' defense: "They need a body on defense. I really like the addition of Bryant McFadden. I think their secondary is on the verge of being one of the better in the league. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is on the verge of becoming a top-notch No. 1 corner. Antrel Rolle will only improve. Karlos Dansby is not going anywhere. Darnell Dockett is good.
"They want to go more 3-4 and have those two sloppy Michigan nose tackles [Alan Branch and Gabe Watson]. That holds them back a little bit. You need to be better on the nose. They are lucky in the division not to get exposed at the nose. If they tried to play the Steelers and Ravens twice a year against that type of personnel, they would have problems.
"I think they are going to try to drift more and more that way. With their Steeler roots, they know what it takes. They would love to get a Casey Hampton-type guy. Ron Brace is an longer-shot guy for them late in the first. If Larry English was there from Northern Illinois, he might be hard to pass up. That might make up a little bit for the Antonio Smith loss.
"If they could find a defensive end to rotate in and out, that would be helpful. Smith will be great at that in Houston. He is a strongside end and he can shift inside on throwing downs. They do not have somebody along those lines. That is a hard thing to find."Though James doesn't figure into the Cardinals' plans at running back, he does have some value -- something I recently discussed with Jeremy Green, also of Scouts Inc. I'll dive into that analysis at some point in the not-too-distant future.