NFC West: Chester Pitts

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
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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.

 

NFC West Penalty Watch: Record pace

December, 1, 2011
12/01/11
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The Seattle Seahawks have welcomed physical play from their cornerbacks. They've demanded it, actually.

Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman have delivered. Both players picked off passes against the Washington Redskins last week. Both have used their size -- Browner is 6-foot-4, while Sherman stands 6-3 -- to great advantage at times.

Browner has gone too far in officials' eyes, however. Way too far. He leads the NFL in penalties with 15, four more than any other player. His total through 11 games already stands tied for the 14th-highest in a full season since 2003, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Browner averages 1.36 penalties per game, putting him on pace for 22 over a full regular season. That would be one more than the single-season record since 2003, held by offensive lineman Chester Pitts. Four more penalties would place Browner in sole possession of second place on the list.

The 15 penalties called against Browner include five for defensive pass interference, three for defensive holding, two for illegal contact, two for offensive holding on special teams, two for unnecessary roughness and one for roughing the kicker. The official play-by-play book from the Seahawks' game at St. Louis lists Browner as the guilty party for what would be a 16th penalty, but that penalty, for a helmet-to-helmet hit, was actually assessed against Kam Chancellor. The NFL corrects such errors within a couple weeks, usually.

Players sometimes change their ways. Browner's teammate, Robert Gallery, had 17 penalties in 2007. He has 16 penalties combined over the ensuing three-plus seasons.
The Seattle Seahawks had good reasons for signing veteran guard Robert Gallery in free agency.

Their new assistant head coach/offensive line, Tom Cable, coached Gallery in Oakland and wanted him to provide stability and mentoring for a young offensive line.

There were injury risks, however, and those risks are threatening to make this signing a wash for Seattle. Gallery missed the regular-season opener with a knee injury, then suffered a groin injury against Pittsburgh in Week 2. The severity of that injury became known Monday when coach Pete Carroll said Gallery would require surgery that would sideline him for at least a month, possibly longer.

Rookie James Carpenter filled in for Gallery at left guard in the opener, then moved back to right tackle Sunday. He'll stay at right tackle now, with Paul McQuistan, another former Raider, taking over at left guard.

Gallery, 31, missed four games last season and 10 in 2009. Can he stay healthy once he returns from this surgery? The recent history makes it tough for the Seahawks to bet that he will. And with a team looking to rebuild with youth just about everywhere, what value will Gallery have for the long term if he cannot help the team as anticipated this season?

Signing older linemen with ties to Carroll's coaching staff has not produced desired results over the past two seasons. Ben Hamilton and Chester Pitts, signed before the 2010 season because then-line coach Alex Gibbs had worked with them, battled injuries and are no longer with the team. Neither is on an NFL roster.

Around the NFC West: Backing Tarvaris

September, 6, 2011
9/06/11
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Head coach Pete Carroll isn't the only one who thinks Tarvaris Jackson should be the Seattle Seahawks' starting quarterback.

Quite a few Seattle players think so, too. How else to explain Jackson emerging as one of four player-elected team captains barely one month after taking his first snap on a practice field for Seattle?

"It’s obvious that that’s who they wanted to be their leader," Carroll told reporters Monday.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com has that and more in his post-practice notebook. He also looks at the 10 players still with the team since Carroll's first day as head coach: Marcus Trufant, David Hawthorne, Jon Ryan, Brandon Mebane, Aaron Curry, Leroy Hill, Red Bryant, Max Unger, Justin Forsett and Ben Obomanu.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks' roster is about one year younger on average than any Week 1 rosters for the team since at least 2005. Noted: Those earlier teams had Pro Bowl-caliber players in their primes. Quite a few of those players have retired.

Liz Mathews of 710ESPN Seattle notes that rookie right tackle James Carpenter is getting work at left guard while Robert Gallery recovers from a knee injury. Breno Giacomini is working at right tackle. Noted: Assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable wanted a veteran familiar with his scheme. He and Gallery were together with the Raiders for years. Last season, the team brought in Ben Hamilton and Chester Pitts because both had played for then-line coach Alex Gibbs. The expectation is that Gallery has more left than either Hamilton or Pitts, but injuries are a concern. Gallery missed four of the Oakland Raiders' first five games last season. He missed 10 games in 2009.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' aren't yet sure what role Chester Taylor will play for them this season. Tight end Todd Heap played with Taylor in Baltimore and sized up Taylor this way: "He's a good all-around back. He's not afraid to pass block. He's physical running the ball. He's got great hands out of the backfield; that's one thing that always impressed me about Chester, to catch the ball in space, to catch the ball in traffic." Noted: Heap and Taylor last played together in 2005. Taylor was mostly a backup to that point in his career. He enjoyed a breakout season with Minnesota in 2006.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says veteran linebacker Stewart Bradley was happy to change jersey numbers from 97 to 52, a number more befitting of a linebacker. Noted: Bradley remained in a backup role through training camp as he adjusted from Philadelphia's 4-3 defense to the Cardinals' 3-4 scheme. Arizona gave him a $5 million signing bonus on a five-year, $30 million deal. He needs to start and play well for the Cardinals, and that is the expectation.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams are mostly healthy as the regular-season opener approaches after stressing injury avoidance during training camp. Defensive end Chris Long: "We were still out four hours a day, whether it was walk-throughs or practice. We had some really good long practice sessions. We had even more time in meeting rooms. Hopefully, what it'll do is keep people healthy and put years on careers." Noted: New rules prevented teams from hitting as much during camps this summer. Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo had already gone easier on the team in 2010 than he did in 2009, his first season with the team. That is easier for a coach to do once he establishes his program.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com predicts a third-place finish for the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West, one spot ahead of Seattle.

Also from Maiocco: thoughts on the 49ers' recent roster moves, specifically why they released draft choice Ronald Johnson and didn't even sign him to their practice squad. Maiocco: "He was the only 49ers' draft pick who did not make it, and it was no surprise. Johnson failed to show any unique skills in 49ers camp. He struggled catching the ball as a wideout, and he mishandled two punts in an exhibition game. What was a bit of a surprise was that the 49ers didn't immediately bring Johnson back to the practice squad. The 49ers signed a rookie receiver to the practice squad on Sunday, but the player chosen was undrafted rookie Joe Hastings of Washburn. The Philadelphia Eagles signed Johnson to their practice squad on Monday."

Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers' moves under Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke suggest a long-term approach, not a quick fix. Noted: The 49ers have gotten quite a bit younger this offseason while doing nothing from a personnel standpoint to upgrade their quarterback situation for the immediate term. That's a reflection of a longer-term approach.
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
8/23/11
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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
8/23/11
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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.

Mike Gibson, Ben Hamilton, Chester Pitts and Tyler Polumbus started at left guard for the Seattle Seahawks last season.

No wonder the team went after Robert Gallery when the free-agent negotiating period opened Tuesday.

Gallery
Gallery and Seattle agreed to terms on a three-year deal, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. The contract length suggests this will be a relatively modest deal financially for Seattle, a bit of a surprise.

Gallery, 31, missed four games last season and 10 in 2009, but he's a significant upgrade at the position for Seattle. The team has struggled to find a long-term starter at left guard since losing Steve Hutchinson to Minnesota following the 2005 season.

The line has been a mess overall. Seattle started 11 combinations last season alone, but the line is taking shape. First-round draft choice James Carpenter projects as the starter at right tackle, with third-rounder John Moffitt at right guard. Max Unger will step in at center, with Gallery at left guard and 2010 first-round choice Russell Okung at left tackle.

For the first time in years, Seattle has what appears to be a coherent, sustainable and promising plan for its offensive line. Gallery's durability is the biggest concern. The Seahawks felt good about adding another veteran guard, Mike Wahle, several years ago. His injury problems prevented him from holding down the job for long, however.

Gallery's connections to new Seahawks assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable were important in getting this deal done. Both were together in Oakland for years. Gallery let it be known he wanted to leave Oakland and stay with Cable. Cable's presence means the Seahawks know what they're getting from an injury and production standpoint.

NFC West free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC West team:

Arizona Cardinals

1. Sign or acquire a quarterback: You've heard all the potential names by now. Kevin Kolb, Kyle Orton, Carson Palmer, Marc Bulger and Matt Hasselbeck all could be available. The same goes for Donovan McNabb, but the Cardinals aren't interested in him. How much interest they have in the others remains less clear. They liked Bulger as an option last offseason, but the timing wasn't right. Kolb reportedly stands atop their wish list now, although price is a consideration. One way or another, the Cardinals will go into the 2011 season with fresh veteran blood at the position.

2. Firm up the offensive line: Left guard Alan Faneca retired. Center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui have expiring contracts. Brandon Keith showed promise at right tackle, but he's coming off knee surgery. A better quarterback would help take pressure off the line, but Arizona isn't going to find another Kurt Warner. The team has loaded up at running back, adding second-round choice Ryan Williams to an already crowded backfield. The Cardinals need to re-sign Sendlein. Letting Lutui depart would put them in the market for veteran help. I've looked through the free-agent lists for guards already familiar to the Cardinals. Pittsburgh's Trai Essex, a starter in 21 games over the past two seasons, played for Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm with the Steelers.

3. Work toward a deal with Larry Fitzgerald: Ideally, the Cardinals would have landed their next quarterback in March, then spent the offseason working toward extending Fitzgerald's contract beyond the 2011 season. Fitzgerald is an NFL rarity. He's in line to sign three massive contracts during the course of his career. He signed the first one as the third player chosen in the 2004 draft. That deal ultimately became untenable for the Cardinals, giving Fitzgerald the leverage to get $40 million over four seasons, plus assurances Arizona would not name him its franchise player once the deal ended. Fitzgerald, still only 27, will cash in at least one more time.

Top five free agents: Sendlein, Lutui, receiver Steve Breaston, defensive lineman Alan Branch, defensive lineman Gabe Watson.

St. Louis Rams

1. Upgrade the run defense: The Rams could use another defensive tackle to take their promising defensive front to another level. Adding Fred Robbins in free agency last offseason was a good start. Barry Cofield (New York Giants) and Brandon Mebane (Seattle Seahawks) are scheduled to become free agents this offseason. Cofield played for Steve Spagnuolo and would transition to the Rams' system easily. The Rams could use an in-the-box safety, something they addressed later in the draft. They need to find one and possibly two starting outside linebackers. Chase Blackburn projects more as a backup, but he was also with Spagnuolo on the Giants. Blackburn has played all three linebacker positions. Minnesota's Ben Leber would make sense as well. Paul Ferraro, the Rams' linebackers coach, was with the Vikings previously.

2. Help out Steven Jackson: Adding a third-down back such as Darren Sproles would lighten the load for Jackson, who has played through several injuries in recent seasons. Jackson has 654 rushing attempts over the past two seasons despite missing one game and playing for a team that has often trailed its opponents. Only Chris Johnson (674) has more carries during that span. Sproles isn't the only viable potential option. Jason Snelling, DeAngelo Williams and Reggie Bush also could become available. Upgrading at right guard would also help out Jackson.

3. Figure out the situation at receiver. It's questionable whether the Rams will find any clear upgrades at receiver in free agency. That could lead them to stand pat at the position. They have quantity, but not enough high-end quality. Adding more quantity wouldn't solve much. Plaxico Burress gets mentioned as an option for his ties to Spagnuolo, but he's been out of the game and might not offer much. The Rams thought about claiming Randy Moss off waivers last season. Moss could make more sense for the Rams now that Josh McDaniels is offensive coordinator. He worked well with Moss in New England. Sidney Rice could also have appeal.

Top five free agents: receiver Mark Clayton, guard Adam Goldberg, defensive tackle Clifton Ryan and tight end Daniel Fells.

Seattle Seahawks

1. Sign or acquire a quarterback: Bringing back Hasselbeck remains an option. The team expressed interest in Kolb last offseason. The team could also add a lower-profile veteran to the mix -- perhaps a Matt Leinart type -- for an open competition with Charlie Whitehurst. That would not excite Seattle fans, of course. Getting a young quarterback to build around would be ideal, but the Seahawks are adamant they will not force the situation in the absence of viable options. They weren't going to do it in the draft, when they passed over Andy Dalton for tackle James Carpenter. They probably aren't going to do it in free agency, either.

2. Solidify the offensive line: Tom Cable's addition as assistant head coach/offensive line puts the Seahawks in position to court Oakland Raiders guard Robert Gallery in free agency. Gallery has said he's not returning to the Raiders. Seattle has drafted its starting tackles, starting center and starting right guard in the past few seasons. Max Unger and Russell Okung need better luck with injuries. Okung would also benefit from an experienced presence next to him at left guard. Gallery qualifies as such and he would fit the zone system Cable wants to run. Green Bay's Daryn Colledge could be available, too. He has ties to Seahawks general manager John Schneider. Former Seattle starters Chris Spencer, Sean Locklear, Chester Pitts and Ray Willis might not return.

3. Plug holes on defense. Mebane appears headed for free agency. The Seahawks want him back, but how badly? Mebane could fit better in a purer 4-3 defense. He also might command more money elsewhere. Injuries along the defensive front could also affect the Seahawks' needs. Red Bryant is coming off season-ending knee surgery. Injuries affected Colin Cole and Chris Clemons last season as well. Cornerback is another area to monitor once free agency opens. Does Marcus Trufant still fit at his relatively high price? The Cincinnati Bengals' Johnathan Joseph and other free-agent corners could appeal.

Top five free agents: Hasselbeck, Mebane, Locklear, linebacker Will Herring, defensive end Raheem Brock.

San Francisco 49ers

1. Re-sign Alex Smith: Smith and the 49ers renewed their vows informally this offseason. The official ceremony should come when free agency opens and Smith signs with the team. Smith's name continues to show up on free-agent lists in the interim, but there's no chance he'll sign elsewhere. He's given his word to the 49ers. The team, in turn, has entrusted him with its playbook. Smith even took the lead in teaching what he knew of the offense to teammates. Re-signing Smith takes pressure off rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick. With a new coaching staff, a young prospect in Kaepernick and no access to players during a lockout, this wasn't the year for San Francisco to make a bold play for a veteran passer from another team.

2. Make a decision on Aubrayo Franklin. The 49ers' plans on defense remain a bit mysterious. Coordinator Vic Fangio did not distribute playbooks to players. The team's needs could change based on whether Franklin, a solid nose tackle, leaves in free agency. Franklin's status as a franchise player last season raised the stakes for a new contract. What does Fangio think of him? What specifically does Fangio want from his defensive linemen? How much will Fangio change to suit the 49ers' personnel? How much new personnel might he want? General manager Trent Baalke said the 49ers will not be aggressive in free agency. The team has shown restraint on that front in recent seasons. Losing Franklin would hurt.

3. Figure out the secondary: The pass defense was problematic last season. Personnel changes in the secondary are on the way. Veteran cornerback Nate Clements stands to earn more than $7 million in base salary in 2011. That price appears prohibitive. The team could release Clements or find a way to keep him at a lower rate. Free safety Dashon Goldson does not have a contract for 2011. How much is he worth? Baltimore's Chris Carr is one free-agent cornerback with ties to the 49ers' staff. He and Fangio were together in Baltimore.

Top five free agents: Smith, Franklin, outside linebacker Manny Lawson, center David Baas, linebacker Takeo Spikes.
The Seattle Seahawks' Chester Pitts and Raheem Brock pulled off the seemingly impossible recently.

They found humor in the NFL labor situation.

I doubt NFL brass laughed too heartily after Pitts and Brock mocked commissioner Roger Goodell with fake prank phone calls, but at least someone is having fun.

Pitts did make a serious point Monday while appearing with Brock on ESPN's "First Take." He said he expected significant movement on the labor front once a federal appeals court makes its ruling. That part of the "First Take" conversation didn't make the highlight clip below.

When does this labor dispute end?

"It ends soon," Pitts said. "Basically, one side is going to get leverage in the courts. Whichever side has more leverage is going to force the hand of the other."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com checks in with 49ers secondary coach Ed Donatell. Unable to work with players, Donatell and the other 49ers coaches are working with one another. Donatell: "We'll watch tons of tape together. That's how you grow together -- just getting tuned up together. We do it a bunch of hours and weekends because we like it." Donatell also offered thoughts on second-year safety Taylor Mays: "This is a young player, going into Year 2. That's when a lot of guys spike, especially when you're a high-profile guy like he was. If you think about that first year, it's a whirlwind. He got some valuable playing time. I see a lot of traits. He should spike in this system." That seems to be the most optimistic assessment on Mays I've heard coming from the 49ers in quite a while.

The 49ers' announced Tim Ryan's addition to their preseason TV broadcast team. Ryan has worked 12 of the 49ers' last 48 regular-season games for Fox. He grew up in San Jose, lives there currently and played with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh when both were with the Chicago Bears. Ryan: "I grew up loving the 49ers."

Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle offers a primer on new 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Ostler: "Kaepernick is adopted. First Rick and Teresa had a son, Kyle, now 33. They had two more sons who died in early infancy because of heart defects. Doctors told the Kaepernicks, 'No more.' Too late; Teresa was pregnant and had a healthy daughter, Devon, now 29. But there was a void left by the two sons who died, so six years later, the Kaepernicks adopted Colin."

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Kaepernick could play as a rookie even though he's unlikely to start.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Packers receiver Greg Jennings joined Cardinals players at the workouts Larry Fitzgerald has organized. Meanwhile, Cardinals center Lyle Sendlein laments the absence of organized team activities this offseason. Sendlein: "No matter what, the team is different every year. Minicamps and OTAs (organized team activities) are when you really build together as a team. Thankfully, some of us are still out here, building on that."

Also from Somers: Thoughts on Alan Faneca's retirement following one season with the Cardinals. Coach Ken Whisenhunt: "He summed it up exactly right when he said going into camp that he wasn't going to be the player he was six years ago, but he was good enough. He played at a level that we thought was still very good. ... He was a powerful man, a big man for a guard. But the thing that was most impressive was his ability to think on the move and make assessments in a situation where it happens so fast. He had such a great feel for the game."

More from Somers: Faneca's retirement was no surprise, but the Cardinals do not have young players on the roster to replace him.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Faneca's leadership and toughness set him apart. Urban: "For the time being, veteran Rex Hadnot would figure to plug into Faneca’s left guard spot, although with so much left to be sorted in the offseason, depth charts don’t mean much right now. Fellow 2010 interior starters, center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui, also have contracts that are expiring."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Pete Carroll and Mike Holmgren are the only Seahawks coaches to win a division title in their first season with the team. Holmgren and Chuck Knox were the only ones with winning records during their first seasons.

Also from Farnsworth: a look back at Carroll's first season with Seattle.

More from Farnsworth: Carroll's recent speech to Associated Press Sports Editors.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says there was "no malice" intended when Chester Pitts and Raheem Brock put together a video mocking commissioner Roger Goodell. I'm sure players would feel the same way if Goodell put together a video mocking them.

Also from O'Neil: a more expansive look at the video from Pitts and Brock. Pitts' impersonation of Barack Obama was spot-on, by the way.

Michael Lombardi of NFL.com suggests Darren Sproles as a possible free-agent target for the Rams as the team searches for a backup running back. Lombardi: "Sproles would be to the Rams what Danny Woodhead has been to the Patriots. He would allow Sam Bradford to have an effective check-down option, is a great screen runner, and his talents would force teams to defend the middle of the field, thus taking pressure off the outside receivers. Think of St. Louis being like the 2010 New England offense. With new Rams tight end Lance Kendricks being like Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, Danny Amendola being similar and as effective as Wes Welker, and Sproles being Woodhead, the Rams would be explosive. One third-down back, and the Rams are on their way to being a top-five scoring offense."

David Kvidahl of stlhighschoolsports.com says former Rams assistant strength and conditioning coach Chuck Faucette has taken a job as head coach at the high school level.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's recent column in the Wall Street Journal warned of impending doom if players' attorneys prevail in ongoing court battles.

The column invited strong criticism from various quarters, and then there was this: veteran guard Chester Pitts, player rep for the Seattle Seahawks, agreeing with characterizations of Goodell as "Fraud-ger" instead of Roger, and comparing league attorney Jeff Pash to something best flushed down a toilet.

Pitts made the remarks during a segment Wednesday with Mike Salk and Brock Huard on 710ESPN Seattle. Salk characterized Goodell as fraudulent and asked Pitts for thoughts on the commissioner. The Pash characterization was unsolicited. Pitts:
"[Goodell] has tried to find in the media’s eyes and the people’s eyes a middle ground where he is not seen as an employee of the owners, when everyone in the world knows he is. But I think if he would just own up to that and say, 'Everything I’m going to do, I’m going to back what my owners tell me to do,' then I think that he wouldn’t be a fraud any more. We may not like him, the same way I don’t like Jeff Pash, but Jeff Pash is consistent. He’s a consistent turd, but he is consistent. He is what he is."

This is the first time I can recall one person labeling another person a "turd" and meaning it as a compliment. Makes a fan want to run out and purchase season tickets, no?

Pitts' less personal points, including that player are gaining ground as more becomes known, are worth a listen. You might want to plug your nose just to be safe.
Matt from Phoenix thinks the Cardinals could have a difficult time filling a primary need such as pass-rusher with the fifth overall choice, given that Von Miller might not be available. He wonders how well North Carolina's Robert Quinn would fit in Arizona, and at what point the Cardinals might lean more toward taking the best player regardless of immediate need, such as LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson.

Mike Sando: Every first-round choice under Ken Whisenhunt has addressed a primary need, from tackle Levi Brown (2007) to cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (2008) to running back Beanie Wells (2009) to nose tackle Dan Williams (2010). None qualified as a blatant reach, however. Value lined up with need more often than not in those examples.

Arizona has enough needs for most first-round selections to address one. The Peterson example stands out as more extreme than most. As much as the team wants more consistent play from its corners, including Rodgers-Cromartie, that position doesn't rank among the primary need areas for Arizona.

The Cardinals need to help their pass rush by adding and developing talent at outside linebacker. That looks like a priority whether or not O'Brien Schofield emerges after more fully recovering from a knee injury that hurt his draft stock in 2010.

What if Miller isn't available? I do think Arizona could justify selecting Peterson fifth if he stood out as clearly the best player on the board. He's seen as a safe pick, and I'm sure new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, a former cornerback, wouldn't fight adding an elite talent at the position. I bet the Cardinals would get more from Rodgers-Cromartie with Peterson competing for acclaim.

The team could seek pass rush help later; when Horton was with Pittsburgh, the Steelers used second-round choices for Jason Worilds (2010) and LaMarr Woodley (2007). The Steelers did not ask those players to contribute right away.

Any player Arizona selects fifth overall will have to contribute right away. I'm convinced of that. It's one reason I do not think the Cardinals will draft one of the quarterbacks potentially available in that slot. Peterson would start right away.

As for Quinn, he was a defensive end in college. He was known more for rushing the passer than playing the run. He did not play in 2010. Doctors discovered a brain tumor (benign) in 2007. I suspect the Cardinals would have too many questions to use such a high choice for him. They'll be looking for a safer pick in that spot.

It's tough to imagine Arizona passing on Miller if he's available at No. 5.


Mike from Friday Harbor, Wash., wonders whether Tom Cable's presence in Seattle will steer the Seahawks toward an offensive lineman -- and away from a developmental quarterback -- with the 25th pick in the 2011 NFL draft. He thinks drafting to fill immediate needs appears more sensible with a long list of potential free agents and no third-round choice.

Mike Sando: The Seahawks do hold the second choice of the fourth round, plus consecutive picks in the fifth, but you are right about having immediate needs.

Cable's presence makes the Seahawks more likely to sign Oakland Raiders guard Robert Gallery in free agency, which could lessen the need to draft an immediate starter along the line. Cable's presence also makes the team more likely to consider a guard in the first round because Cable, unlike predecessor Alex Gibbs, shares the personnel department's affinity for larger interior linemen

Since 1995, Gibbs' teams never drafted a guard or center in the first round. The guards his teams drafted since 1995 averaged 289 pounds. Tackle Russell Okung was the only offensive lineman Seattle drafted in Gibbs' lone season with the team. While Gibbs lauded the selection, drafting a left tackle sixth overall was an organizational move. Gibbs was more particular about interior offensive linemen; that is why the team signed veteran guards Ben Hamilton and Chester Pitts, who had played for Gibbs previously.


Ernest from Corpus Christi, Texas, expects the San Francisco 49ers to draft a quarterback, but he wonders whether they'll play said quarterback right away, and how those plans could change based on which veteran the team adds.

Mike Sando: There's almost no way the 49ers would go into the 2011 season planning to start a rookie quarterback. It could happen, I suppose, if the 49ers surprisingly selected one seventh overall, then failed to land a veteran of any note. And it could happen if the quarterback they drafted outperformed reasonable expectations during camp and showed himself to be the team's best option.

More likely, the 49ers will add a quarterback after the first round, then give that quarterback some time to develop.


Heef from Chesapeake, Va., wonders why the 49ers select seventh in the first round without holding the seventh pick in subsequent rounds.

Mike Sando: The 49ers were one of seven teams with a 6-10 record last season. They picked seventh overall, then rotated with the seven other 6-10 teams in subsequent rounds.

For example, Tennessee picked 39th, followed by Dallas (40th), Washington (41st), Houston (42nd), Minnesota (43rd), Detroit (44th) and San Francisco (45th). The 49ers moved up one spot in that rotation in the third round, and so on.


Ronan from Dublin asks whether NFL rules on cross-ownership will come into play regarding Stan Kroenke's expected increased stake in the Arsenal Football Club.

Mike Sando: The cross-ownership rules apply most stringently when an NFL owner owns a non-football team in a competing market. Kroenke's interests in Arsenal shouldn't affect his interests in the Rams.
The lockout will force NFL teams to rely more heavily on the draft than free agency, for now.

They'll need the players they chose in 2010 to step forward as well. That will be more challenging if the lockout prevents second-year pros from participating in the meetings and workouts that come with a typical offseason. It's still possible to make projections based on what 2010 draft choices showed as rookies.

I'll begin with the Seattle Seahawks.

"Our guys all the way through the picks, not everybody has stuck, but for the most part, we were counting on guys to play," coach Pete Carroll said from the NFL owners meeting last month. "You put together another year like that and another year like that, and your roster should be really be adjusted well."

The chart breaks down the Seahawks' 2010 draft choices based on how they could fit in 2011.
Alex Smith and Matt HasselbeckGetty ImagesAlex Smith and Matt Hasselbeck are both eligible for free agency this offseason.
It is possible, even likely, that the NFL and its players will continue their staring contest through the 2011 draft -- even with a ruling from U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson.

The appeals process could take weeks or longer, during which time it's unlikely the league would open for business. We're probably doomed to status quo, in other words.

But if ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson is correct, Judge Nelson will most likely end the lockout, leading to an immediate appeal -- a scenario I think would lead, eventually, to the league opening for business under 2010 rules while the sides continued their battle in the courts.

Those 2010 rules set the bar high for free agency. Only players with six accrued seasons would qualify for the unrestricted market. Starters such as Arizona's Steve Breaston, San Francisco's Dashon Goldson and Seattle's Brandon Mebane would lose leverage and most likely return to their teams under relatively modest one-year deals.

The players listed in the chart -- those with at least six accrued seasons and no contracts for 2011 -- would be free to explore opportunities elsewhere.

Options and implications for this type of free agency in the NFC West:

Arizona Cardinals

Overview: The Cardinals suffered more personnel losses than they could weather last offseason. They would benefit from a return to 2010 rules, however, because the restrictions would keep multiple starters off the market. Their list of potential free agents with six-plus seasons features no front-line players. The Cardinals would be better off focusing on a new deal with Larry Fitzgerald, who is entering the final year of his contract.

Top priority: Finding a veteran quarterback. Derek Anderson isn't expected back. Marc Bulger's name is heard most frequently in connection with the Cardinals. He turned 34 this week and did not attempt a pass in a regular-season game while with Baltimore last season. Bulger struggled during his final seasons with the Rams, but the team was falling apart around him. He last finished an NFL season with more touchdowns than interceptions in 2006. The down year has surely helped him get healthy.

Players in flux: Breaston, starting guard Deuce Lutui and starting center Lyle Sendlein wouldn't have enough accrued seasons to become unrestricted under 2010 rules. The situation is particularly difficult for Breaston, who has battled through knee problems without getting a long-term deal.

Veteran variable: Starting left guard Alan Faneca has considered retirement. The Cardinals invested in veteran guard Rex Hadnot for depth last offseason. The team lacks young depth on the line, but if Lutui and Sendlein return, the Cardinals have some flexibility.

Name to keep in mind: Ike Taylor, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cardinals are hoping Greg Toler can build upon an up-and-down 2010 season. Taylor would give the team options. He played under new Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton.

St. Louis Rams

Overview: The Rams' most important players tend to be younger starters under contract for the long term (Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Rodger Saffold, Sam Bradford, Jason Smith). Most of their top veterans are also under contract (Steven Jackson, Fred Robbins, James Hall). Free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe is out of the picture after signing with the Washington Redskins following his salary-related release.

Top priority: The Rams could use a veteran guard with some nastiness. The team has invested heavily in its line, but this group could use more of an edge. Bringing back receiver Mark Clayton should be another consideration even though Clayton is coming off a serious knee injury. The rapport Clayton had with Bradford was strong.

Players in flux: Defensive tackles Gary Gibson and Clifton Ryan would remain property of the Rams under 2010 rules, as would cornerback Kevin Dockery and receiver Laurent Robinson. Gibson was the only full-time starter of the group last season. The Rams are expected to seek an upgrade at that position even with Gibson coming back.

Veteran variable: Adam Goldberg started all 16 games on the offensive line last season. The Rams could stand to upgrade, but I see value in bringing back Goldberg as a backup. He can play every position on the line but center. Goldberg has also taken an interest in mentoring younger players. His value off the field is a consideration.

Name to keep in mind: Daniel Graham, TE, Denver Broncos. Graham could make sense for the Rams in free agency. He played under the Rams' new offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, and could help upgrade the run blocking. Seattle has connections to Graham as well.

San Francisco 49ers

Overview: The 49ers signed some of their better young players to long-term contracts well before labor pains became so severe. Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Joe Staley come to mind. The lockout has made it tougher for the 49ers' new coaches to get a feel for players. The 49ers like their talent overall and haven't been big players in free agency over the past couple of seasons. That isn't likely to change.

Top priority: Finding a starting quarterback trumps everything else. Alex Smith can become a free agent. Backups David Carr and Troy Smith are not expected back. The 49ers aren't expected to use the seventh overall choice to select or acquire a quarterback. Coach Jim Harbaugh prides himself in coaching up quarterbacks, but he needs quarterbacks to coach.

Players in flux: Goldson, outside linebacker Manny Lawson and defensive lineman Ray McDonald are among the 49ers players that would fall short of the six-season requirement for unrestricted free agency.

Veteran variable: Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin played last season under a one-year franchise deal. The price tag for re-franchising Franklin appears prohibitive. The 49ers took a wait-and-see approach with Franklin because they hadn't seen him perform at a high level over the long term. They'll need a new nose tackle if Franklin departs.

Name to keep in mind: The 49ers' staff is coming mostly from the college ranks, so there aren't obvious connections to players from other NFL rosters. I expect the 49ers to focus more on re-signing some of their own players, from Spikes to David Baas and beyond.

Seattle Seahawks

Overview: The Seahawks have a long list of players without contracts for 2011. That was mostly be design. The team would like to continue turning over its roster without investing too much in older players such as Matt Hasselbeck, Raheem Brock and Olindo Mare.

Top priority: Figuring out the quarterback situation. Hasselbeck is headed for free agency and could leave if another team gives him some of the longer-term assurances Seattle has resisted. The Seahawks have shown some interest in Philadelphia Eagles backup Kevin Kolb, a player they inquired about last offseason. They still have Charlie Whitehurst. They could draft a quarterback early.

Players in flux: Defensive tackle Mebane heads the list of Seattle players who would not reach free agency under the rules used in 2010. General manager John Schneider called Mebane a "steady pro" when asked about him at the combine. That sounded like faint praise and an indication the Seahawks are not yet prepared to pay top dollar for Mebane if, and when, he hits the market.

Veteran variable: The Seahawks have a few of them, including Mare and Brock. But let's focus on offensive linemen Sean Locklear and Chris Spencer. They combined for 31 starts, but neither appears to be a priority for re-signing. Stacy Andrews is a candidate to step in for Locklear at right tackle. Max Unger could replace Spencer. Coach Pete Carroll thinks the team has upgraded its young depth on the line.

Name to keep in mind: Robert Gallery, guard, Oakland Raiders. Tom Cable's addition as offensive line coach makes Seattle a logical destination for Gallery, who has declared his intention to leave the Raiders.

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