NFC West: Chad Lucas

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
video
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.

First Down

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.


Second Down

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.


Third Down

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.


Fourth Down

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.

 

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

An accounting note related to the Rams' acquisition of receiver Ronald Curry from the Lions: Chad Lucas is no longer with St. Louis.

The Rams released Lucas, leaving them with 12 receivers, still above the NFL average (10.6). Teams without established players at a position sometimes load up at the position heading into training camp, improving the odds of stumbling upon contributors.

Lucas had been with the Bucs before joining the Rams. He caught five passes for 82 yards while with Tampa Bay during the 2007 season.

Current Rams receivers: Curry, Laurent Robinson, Keenan Burton, Tim Carter, Travis Brown, Donnie Avery, Nate Jones, Derek Stanley, Horace Gant, Sean Walker, Jarrett Byers and Brooks Foster.

WR Count
ARI SF STL SEA
Current
11 11 12 11
2008 Opener
6 5 6 6
2007 Opener
6 6 6 6
2006 Opener
5 5 5 4
2005 Opener
7 7 5 7
2004 Opener
6 6 6 5
2003 Opener
6 6 5 4

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Seahawks and 49ers appear dramatically improved at receiver this season. The Cardinals might also improve at the position if 2008 third-round choice Early Doucet emerges following an injury-affected rookie season.

Uncertainty at the position in St. Louis could lead the Rams to keep an eye on the NFC West discard pile when roster limits tighten.

The chart shows how many receivers each NFC West team has carried for its past six regular-season openers. The top row shows current counts. A look at how they stack up:

Arizona: Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Steve Breaston, Early Doucet and Jerheme Urban are back. Sean Morey, listed as a receiver, has been a Pro Bowl player on special teams. Lance Long is reportedly looking good again this offseason. Also: Shane Morales, Justin Brown, Ed Gant and Onrea Jones.

San Francisco: Isaac Bruce, Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan, Brandon Jones, Jason Hill and probably Arnaz Battle stick around. Dominique Zeigler isn't a significant contributor on special teams, hurting his chances if the others stay healthy. Also: Maurice Price, Mark Bradford, and Dobson Collins. Note: I have listed Michael Spurlock as a kick returner. That's why his name didn't show up on this list initially. I changed the 49ers' count to 11 given that Morey is counting at the position for Arizona. Thanks to redng0ld for pointing it out.

St. Louis: Donnie Avery, Keenan Burton, Laurent Robinson and Tim Carter comprise the likely top four based on what we know so far. Derek Stanley is recovering from knee surgery. Brooks Foster is a rookie fifth-round choice. Also: Travis Brown, Nate Jones, Horace Gant, Chad Lucas, Sean Walker and Jarrett Byers.

Seattle: T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Deion Branch, Nate Burleson and Deon Butler comprise the likely top four. Courtney Taylor and Ben Obomanu could be favorites for the final two spots if Seattle keeps six. Also: Billy McMullen, Michael Bumpus, Mike Hass, Logan Payne and Jordan Kent.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Chris from parts unknown writes: Sando, Wassup man. I wanted to know, will the rams pick up a free agent WR heading towards the draft or do you think they will draft a WR? If so, who do you think they will pick up??

Mike Sando: Adding a veteran receiver sounds like a good idea until you take a closer look at the 14 unrestricted free agents at the position:

Amani Toomer, age 35
Dane Looker, 33
Dante' Hall, 31
Darrell Jackson, 30
Justin McCareins, 30
Ashley Lelie, 29
Koren Robinson, 29
Edell Shepherd, 29
Shaun McDonald, 28
Drew Carter, 28
Tab Perry, 27
Keary Colbert, 27
Reggie Williams, 26

Plaxico Burress and Torry Holt are probably the best available receivers among those released by their teams (released players do not qualify as unrestricted free agents). Given that the Rams have said they will not pursue college prospects with known off-field issues, I would not expect them to consider Burress, whose legal troubles are significant. And Holt's time in St. Louis has passed.

Toomer would make sense for the Rams if they were desperate for a mentor. His Giants career overlapped with Steve Spagnuolo's time there. So far, however, the Rams have appeared more determined to get younger than to add aging veterans. That type of move would probably wait until after the draft.

I see no sure-fire way to fix this position in one offseason. The Rams probably would have drafted Jake Long if given the opportunity last year. I would expect them to draft a tackle with the second overall choice this year. The team might then need to help its defense. Under that scenario, it becomes harder to find a likely starter at receiver in the draft. And I do think the Rams need a starter to pair with Donnie Avery, even if the coaches like Keenan Burton's potential.

Bottom line: As much as the Rams need help at receiver, I'm not sure they can afford to address the position aggressively at the expense of other needs. The value would have to be strong -- a possibility at the top of the second round -- or they would have to surprise us by selecting Michael Crabtree or Jeremy Maclin early. Perhaps we'll see them looking for a veteran stopgap after the draft.

The team's current receivers include Avery, Burton, Chad Lucas, Nate Jones, Joel Filani, Travis Brown and the rehabbing Derek Stanley.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

A quick look at 53-man rosters from Feb. 1, date of Super Bowl XLIII, provides a reference point for seeing how NFC West teams have changed so far this offseason.

I'll continue with St. Louis.

Gone from the Rams' 53-man roster and injured reserve list in the 58 days since the Super Bowl (18):

 
  Kevin Terrell/Getty Images
  Orlando Pace was drafted by the Rams in 1997.

Offense

Orlando Pace, T

Torry Holt, WR

Dante' Hall, WR

Drew Bennett, WR

Dane Looker, WR

Travis Minor, RB

Anthony Becht, TE

Cory Withrow, C

Brett Romberg, C

Anthony Davis, T

Nick Leckey, C

Brandon Gorin, OL

Rob Petitti, OL

Defense

Corey Chavous, SS

Jason Craft, CB

Fakhir Brown, CB

La'Roi Glover, DT

Special teams

Gary Stills, LB

(Read full post)

Why the Rams need help at receiver

March, 18, 2009
3/18/09
12:20
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Rams Receiver Career Receptions
Donnie Avery
53
Keenan Burton
13
Derek Stanley
6
Chad Lucas
5
Joel Filani
0
Travis Brown
0
Nate Jones
0
Total 77

Rams general manager Billy Devaney has joked about installing a wishbone offense in acknowleding how badly the team could use help at receiver.

It's not that the Rams have far fewer receivers than most teams. They are carrying seven. NFL teams are carrying 7.5 on average. No team has fewer than six.

Production is the issue. The Rams' current receivers have 77 receptions in regular-season NFL games.

Arizona's third receiver, Steve Breaston, caught that many passes last season alone. Seattle's T.J. Houshmandzadeh has 507 career receptions. Arizona's Anquan Boldin (502) and Larry Fitzgerald (426) are close behind.

Former Rams receivers Isaac Bruce (1,003) and Torry Holt (869) have 1,872 combined receptions and 14 combined seasons with at least 77 receptions. Past receptions aren't going to help the Rams in 2009, but this team clearly needs more firepower at the position.

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