NFC West: Craig Terrill
Defensive linemen (13)
Average number kept since 2003: 8.8
Safest bets: Red Bryant, Jason Jones, Brandon Mebane, Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, Alan Branch
Leading contenders: Clinton McDonald, Jaye Howard, Greg Scruggs, Pep Levingston
Longer odds: Pierre Allen, Cordarro Law, Dexter Davis
Comment: The Seahawks finished the 2009 season with Bryant, Mebane, Craig Terrill, Colin Cole, Nick Reed, Lawrence Jackson, Patrick Kerney, Cory Redding and Darryl Tapp on their 53-man roster. Pete Carroll has transformed the line since becoming head coach before the 2010 season. The changes have been as much about fit as personnel. The group keeps getting stronger.
Average number kept since 2003: 6.6
Safest bets: K.J. Wright, Leroy Hill, Bobby Wagner, Korey Toomer
Leading contenders: Heath Farwell, Matt McCoy, Malcolm Smith, Barrett Ruud
Longer odds: Michael Morgan, Allen Bradford, Kyle Knox, Jameson Konz
Comment: Toomer's arrival in the fifth round cranks up the pressure on Smith, a 2011 seventh-round choice. Farwell and McCoy could be competing for a spot. Farwell is better on special teams. McCoy offers more at linebacker. Bradford is converting from running back and has a chance to stick in some capacity. Ruud looks like insurance for Wagner, but his health is a concern.
Defensive backs (17)
Average number kept since 2003: 8.2
Safest bets: Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman
Leading contenders: Jeron Johnson, Byron Maxwell, Roy Lewis, Marcus Trufant, Walter Thurmond, Winston Guy
Longer odds: DeShawn Shead, Ron Parker, Coye Francies, Donny Lisowski, Jeremy Lane, Phillip Adams, Chris Maragos
Comment: Three of the four starters went to the Pro Bowl last season; Sherman arguably should have gone. Trufant's conversion to a nickel role has the potential to upgrade Seattle's coverage. Injuries sidelined Trufant and Thurmond last season. Both can contribute at a reasonably high level if healthy. It's tough to bank on either one, however. Don't forget about Maxwell. He impressed in camp as a rookie, only to fade from the picture after suffering an ankle injury. Seattle likes its depth at corner. Johnson should be ready to take a step forward at safety. The Seahawks like what they've seen from Guy as well.
Special teams (4)
Average number kept since 2003: 3.1
Safest bets: Jon Ryan, Steven Hauschka, Clint Gresham
Leading contenders: none
Longer odds: Carson Wiggs
Comment: Ryan led the NFL with 34 punts downed inside the 20 (against eight touchbacks). Opponents returned two punts for touchdowns, however.
They've made available the audio.
The St. Louis Rams' issues in the secondary were one subject we covered -- without even mentioning Justin King's ankle injury during practice Thursday.
Jerry Gray will be busy coaching for the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. Wonder if LeRoy Irvin is in shape. The Rams need corners, for sure. Aeneas Williams?
They lost those games by a combined 99-31 score.
Much has changed since then. Let's take a look:
Cardinals at Vikings
Score last season: Vikings 27, Cardinals 24 (OT)
Key play: Brett Favre's 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe in the final minute of regulation tied the game, forcing overtime after the Cardinals had built a 24-10 fourth-quarter lead. Favre threw for a career-high 446 yards in the game.
Biggest change: Both teams have new quarterbacks, Kevin Kolb for Derek Anderson in Arizona, and Donovan McNabb for Favre in Minnesota. Also, the Vikings have a new head coach (Leslie Frazier) while the Cardinals have a new defensive coordinator (Ray Horton).
Storyline: McNabb keeps a home in Arizona and was available to the Cardinals when their quarterback situation was in flux, but the team showed no interest in him. He is now trying to hold off a change to rookie Christian Ponder.
Lineup changes for Arizona (12): Beanie Wells for Tim Hightower at running back, Kolb for Anderson at quarterback, Daryn Colledge for Alan Faneca at left guard, Rex Hadnot for Deuce Lutui at right guard, Todd Heap for Ben Patrick at tight end, Andre Roberts for Steve Breaston at receiver, Anthony Sherman for Reagan Maui'a at fullback (although the team opened its 2010 game at Minnesota without a fullback), Dan Williams for Bryan Robinson at nose tackle, Daryl Washington for Gerald Hayes at linebacker, Clark Haggans for Will Davis at linebacker, A.J. Jefferson for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback, Patrick Peterson for Greg Toler at cornerback.
49ers vs. Buccaneers
Score last season: Buccaneers 21, 49ers 0
Key play: Josh Freeman's 1-yard scoring pass to tackle Donald Penn midway through the fourth quarter put an exclamation point on the 49ers' first home shutout since 1977.
Biggest change: Jim Harbaugh has replaced Mike Singletary as the 49ers' head coach.
Storyline: Alex Smith gets a shot at Tampa Bay after watching Troy Smith struggle against the Bucs as the 49ers' starting quarterback last season. Troy Smith's approach centered around striking for big plays. The Bucs took away the big plays. Alex Smith gives the 49ers a chance to be more efficient.
Lineup changes for San Francisco (12): Alex Smith for Troy Smith at quarterback, Joe Staley for Barry Sims at left tackle, Adam Snyder for Chilo Rachal at right guard, Bruce Miller for Moran Norris at fullback, Isaac Sopoaga for Aubrayo Franklin at nose tackle, Ray McDonald for Sopoaga at defensive end, Ahmad Brooks for Manny Lawson at outside linebacker, NaVorro Bowman for Takeo Spikes at inside linebacker, Carlos Rogers for Nate Clements at cornerback, Tarell Brown for Shawntae Spencer at cornerback, Donte Whitner for Reggie Smith at strong safety.
Seahawks at Giants
Score last season: Giants 41, Seahawks 7
Key play: With Seattle already down 14-0 in the first quarter, the Giants returned Leon Washington's fumbled kickoff return to the Seattle 4, setting up Ahmad Bradshaw's touchdown run on the next play.
Biggest change: Tarvaris Jackson is the starting quarterback for Seattle. Charlie Whitehurst was a fill-in starter for Matt Hasselbeck when the teams played last season.
Storyline: The Seahawks' so-far-unproductive ground game faces a Giants run defense that has struggled. Seattle's young line improved in pass protection last week. Can it take a step forward in run blocking this week?
Lineup changes for Seattle (16): Sidney Rice for Deon Butler at receiver, Jackson for Whitehurst at quarterback, Russell Okung for Chester Pitts at left tackle, Paul McQuistan for Mike Gibson at left guard, Max Unger for Chris Spencer at center, John Moffitt for Stacy Andrews at right guard, James Carpenter for Sean Locklear at right tackle, Zach Miller for John Carlson at tight end, Brandon Mebane for Junior Siavii at defensive tackle, Alan Branch for Craig Terrill at defensive tackle, Red Bryant for Kentwan Balmer at defensive end, K.J. Wright for Aaron Curry at linebacker, David Hawthorne for Lofa Tatupu at linebacker, Leroy Hill for Hawthorne at linebacker, Brandon Browner for Kelly Jennings at right cornerback, Kam Chancellor or Atari Bigby for Lawyer Milloy, depending on Chancellor's availability.
With Craig Terrill, Junior Siavii and Kentwan Balmer starting on the Seahawks' defensive line, the Giants carried 47 times for 197 yards and two touchdowns.
To say times have changed for Seattle's defense -- or offense, for that matter -- would be an understatement heading into the Week 5 Seahawks-Giants matchup. Overall, the Seahawks are expected to have at least 15 new starters since that 2010 game. Also, the Giants have made changes to their offensive line, further affecting the matchup.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin recognized the differences in sizing up Seattle's defense when speaking with reporters Wednesday:
"They give up literally no yards against the run. They're another team that sinks the safety pretty much according to formation and almost on every play. They have a unique ability -- [Earl] Thomas can come down from like 14 yards deep and be at the line of scrimmage. He’s very quick. They’ve done a nice thing with their personnel. They have a 318-pounder [Bryant] that sits on the inside eye of the tight end. The tight ends are in for an interesting week, for sure."
Thomas and Bryant are indeed the two defenders who stand out most when opponents evaluate Seattle's defense. Chris Clemons can be another.
The Arizona Cardinals' overall success slowing the Giants' ground game in Week 4 should be encouraging for Seattle. The Giants had 24 rushes for 54 yards, a 2.3-yard average. Those numbers ranked among the worst for the Giants since Coughlin became their head coach. They rank 24th in rushing yards per game and 29th in rushing yards per attempt.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Readiness factor: No team in the NFC West faces more roster-related work than Seattle once the league reopens for business. The team is entering the second season of a massive roster overhaul. More than two dozen players are headed for free agency, in many cases by design. The quarterback situation remains in flux. The lockout prevented the Seahawks from continuing their trend for draft-day trades under coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider. That avenue for improvement was lost for good. Seattle will need some time to work through personnel changes.
Biggest challenge: The Seahawks could have a hard time upgrading their quarterback situation. Matt Hasselbeck appears on his way out, with Minnesota's Tarvaris Jackson as a possible addition via free agency, according to ESPN's John Clayton. Charlie Whitehurst is unproven. Kevin Kolb could be too expensive for Seattle's tastes in terms of trade compensation and contract demands. I don't get the sense the Seahawks are all that concerned. They're building for the long term. My sense is that Carroll doesn't value quarterbacks the way he might if his background were on offense. Still, addressing the position is important. The task presents challenges.
What surprises await on the injury front? Seattle has suffered more than its share of injuries in recent seasons. A few top contributors, including left tackle Russell Okung and pass-rusher Chris Clemons, played through painful conditions last season. The lockout has prevented players from training and rehabbing at team facilities. Injury-related news updates have been scarce. Will the Seahawks be as healthy as they need to be given the state of their roster?
Key players without contracts for 2011: Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, kicker Olindo Mare, defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, tackle Sean Locklear, center Chris Spencer, cornerback Kelly Jennings, safety Lawyer Milloy, defensive end Raheem Brock, defensive tackle Craig Terrill, fullback Michael Robinson.
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com passes along initial jersey numbers for the Rams' 2011 draft class. First-round choice Robert Quinn gets No. 94. Second-rounder Lance Kendricks gets No. 88. Wagoner: "No player on the active roster wore 94 last year. DT Jimmy Saddler-McQueen wore it on the practice squad. Victor Adeyanju had it previously. Tight End Derek Schouman wore 88 last year. He is not under contract for 2011."
Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis looks at DeAngelo Williams, Ahmad Bradshaw, Michael Bush, Darren Sproles, Tim Hightower, Ronnie Brown, Jerome Harrison and Mewelde Moore as running backs for the Rams to consider in free agency.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the 49ers have fired Lal Henhegan, their executive vice president of football administration since 2006. Maiocco: "The departure of Heneghan is not believed to be related to any hiring in the team's personnel department. When Heneghan was hired in March 2006, owner John York cited the valuable experience he would bring to a youthful front office and coaching staff. Heneghan was vice president of football operations and general counsel for the Cleveland Browns from 1998 to 2004 prior to joining the 49ers. Heneghan spent seven years with the NFL Management Council as director of labor relations. He supervised the daily operation and interpretation of the NFL salary cap." The 49ers continue to tweak their front office. Henhegan had always worked in the background. I cannot recall hearing his name associated with any decision regarding the 53-man roster, the draft or free agency.
Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat takes a closer look at Bruce Miller, the player San Francisco is projecting as a fullback. Miller played defensive end at Central Florida. One of the defensive assistants there, John Skladany, had this to say about Miller: "The biggest thing is he’s just relentless. He really enjoys that part of the game. He goes and looks for the contact. He just keeps going and going and going. You’re going to have to shoot him to stop him. If he’s going to be blocking, some linebacker is going to have a long day."
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says defensive tackle Craig Terrill is headlining a concert in the Seattle area Saturday night. Farnsworth: "Terrill’s previous musical adventures have included singing the National Anthem prior to the Seahawks’ wild-card playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys in 2007 and a show-stopping performance at the team party in Detroit after the loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XL. He also has played the House of Blues in Chicago and Orlando, as well as several venues in Seattle."
Also from Farnsworth: Seahawks draft choice Kris Durham was working out with quarterback Charlie Whitehurst before the draft. Farnsworth: "It was a revelation that slipped through the cracks on a very busy third day of the draft for the Seahawks -- when they selected seven prospects in the final four rounds and also held an introductory news conference with first-round pick James Carpenter, a tackle from Alabama. But the Whitehurst-to-Durham connection definitely is worth revisiting. Whitehurst was born in Green Bay, when his father, David, was playing for the Packers. But he grew up in the Atlanta area and went to Clemson. He spends time there in the offseason."
Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle says there's a better than 50-50 chance Matt Hasselbeck will re-sign with Seattle, according to ESPN.com's John Clayton. Henderson: "Clayton thinks the market shrunk for Hasselbeck when Tennessee and Minnesota, the two teams with the "most urgent" quarterback needs, filled those vacancies by drafting quarterbacks in the first round. Arizona, which didn't draft a quarterback and has a clear need at the position, would seemingly have at least some interest in Hasselbeck. But Clayton believes Marc Bulger would be the Cardinals' preference over Hasselbeck."
Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News says Matt Leinart could be an option for the Seahawks. Wolf says the Seahawks spoke with Leinart about joining the team next season. I'm not sure when this would have happened, given that there has not yet been a free-agent signing period. It's also worth noting that Seattle has shown no apparent interest in Leinart previously. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has been selective in pursuing his former players at USC. He placed strict conditions on receiver Mike Williams. He quickly released running back LenDale White after determining White wasn't serious enough in his approach. He traded defensive end Lawrence Jackson to Detroit, where Jackson appears to be a much better fit.
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:
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.
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.
Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider says the 49ers' search for a GM will be a 'sham' if current team executive Trent Baalke gets the job quickly. Lynch: "The 49ers are either creating a huge smoke screen to conceal their true desire to hire someone other than Trent Baalke as their general manager, or their GM search is a sham. Yet another league source said Baalke's hire was a done deal. Not only that, reports and sources say his hiring has been in the works for several weeks." Hiring from within isn't necessarily a bad thing. It would be puzzling, however, for the 49ers to hire Baalke quickly without following through on team president Jed York's pledge to consider as many people as possible.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says former Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist is the latest candidate to interview for the 49ers' GM job.
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News offers details on Willis' hand injury. Brown: "Willis provided new details about the second hand surgery that will keep him out of Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals. He said X-rays after last week's game revealed that bones in his hand had moved, despite a pin that had been surgically inserted to keep it in place. Willis said he thought the X-ray was just a formality and was laughing right up until the moment the doctor gave him a serious look."
Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat wonders how the 49ers will approach a meaningless game after coming out flat with the playoffs on the line.
Also from Branch: checking in with Nate Davis.
David White of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers want to interview at least one GM candidate who will not be available before next week, but Trent Baalke remains the overwhelming favorite to become GM.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com takes a closer look at Craig Terrill's almost accidental development into a kick-blocking machine. Terrill has three blocked field-goal tries this season and eight for his career, tied with Joe Nash for most in franchise history.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times passes along this comment from Seahawks coach Pete Carroll regarding quarterback Charlie Whitehurst: "It's all on him. I've talked about that. This is the big opportunity. This is the big challenge. This is the big spotlight. This is all of that for him." No pressure, Charlie.
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says containing Steven Jackson remains the key to beating the Rams. Jackson has never reached 100 yards rushing against Seattle. Nose tackle Colin Cole: "It always starts with Steven Jackson. They’re not going to put the whole offense on Bradford’s shoulders and expect him to win the game for them. It’s not going to happen. They’ve got one of the top-five running backs in the game in their backfield, and he makes that team better. And he’s going to be the No. 1 threat that we have to take away from them as best as we can."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' John Skelton has shown an ability to make plays, at least on occasion, without ideal mechanics. Coach Ken Whisenhunt: ""The one thing that I've been really impressed with John is, at that position, you have to be able to throw the football in all kinds of different physical positions, and I've seen him do that."
Also from Somers: Guard Alan Faneca considers retirement. Faneca proved this season he was not washed up after the New York Jets released him, but suffering through a 5-10 season surely has taken away some of the enjoyment. Faneca: "You know you are getting closer to the end than you are to the beginning, so you just appreciate the moment and treat it as if it is the last time. I've seen guys that haven't known (it was ending)."
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals rookie receiver Andre Roberts is making strides. Larry Fitzgerald: "He had a rough start and that's been well noted, but you really have to tip your hat for the way he's bounced back. It really makes you proud to see a guy so resilient and dealing with controversy and things not going his way. I told him after the (Cowboys) game how happy I was for him. . . . He's getting better every single week. He can get a lot better and he is getting better."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says unusual weather has forced the Cardinals to brave the elements this week. Whisenhunt even wore sweatpants instead of shorts to one practice.
Also from Urban: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie did not earn a Pro Bowl berth this season, but all was not lost. Urban: "The ironic part is that defensive coordinator Bill Davis actually sees this as Rodgers-Cromartie’s most consistent season of his three. DRC’s work in the film room has greatly improved, and Davis said Rodgers-Cromartie’s mistakes have been minimized. On that point, Rodgers-Cromartie doesn’t disagree, saying that he has learned a lot and has been consistent in practice."
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' last few seasons have made the more appreciative of their current opportunity. Burwell: "Don't tell them they ought to be embarrassed for still being alive and kicking in the NFL playoff hunt with a 7-8 record. Don't tell them that winning the NFC West title is an insult to everyone's football sensibilities, because they just might tell you something you don't want to hear, such as what it has been like to have endured the pain and suffering through one of the most moribund eras in NFL history."
Roger Hensley of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asks colleagues to compare Sam Bradford to other quarterbacks in style and approach. Burwell: "He reminds me a little of Joe Montana for his nimbleness out of the pocket, and Troy Aikman as a big man in the pocket with great accuracy." That's a combination the Rams could live with.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch compares Bradford to other quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall. Miklasz: "You'd have to go back to John Elway (1983) to find the last time a team made the playoffs after drafting and starting a QB chosen No. 1 overall. But even then, Elway had some help; he started 10 games for Denver, with Steve DeBerg making the other six starts."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Mike Hoomanawanui returned to practice for the Rams. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur: "Mike did a good job today. He got a limited amount of reps, and the stuff that we did with him he seemed to be able to function. Obviously, Coach (Steve Spagnuolo) will make the final decision on what happens with Mike, but as far as today goes, it's promising."
Also from Wagoner: The Rams' defensive front has been key this season. Wagoner: "Led by the talented trio of James Hall, Chris Long and Fred Robbins and deploying a rotation that sometimes goes as many as nine deep, the Rams front four has become the lead force behind a defensive resurgence that’s seen them make tremendous strides this season."
More from Wagoner: Rams veterans are savoring a chance to earn a playoff berth.
The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
- Seattle remains in position to win the NFC West title and advance to the playoffs.
- Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck appeared to be bouncing back from a rough outing against Atlanta the previous week. He led a touchdown drive early in the game before exiting with a hip injury.
- Defensive tackle Craig Terrill tied Joe Nash's team record with his ninth career blocked field-goal attempt.
- Leon Washington scored on a 16-yard run during his only carry on offense.
- Lofa Tatupu and Earl Thomas forced fumbles. Tatupu had 10 tackles and a sack.
- The Seahawks went for it twice on fourth down and made it both times.
- Seattle scored touchdowns on both red zone possessions.
- Chris Clemons collected a half-sack, giving him 10.5 sacks for the season.
Williams' foot and ankle injuries threatened his ability to play a full game, however, and the Seattle Seahawks felt they could not commit a roster spot to him against San Francisco, particularly after Williams did not practice all week.
Williams does not play special teams, another consideration.
Keeping Williams active as a luxury would have required paring the roster elsewhere. The team did not feel comfortable sitting down one of its eight active defensive linemen.
The team needed to guard against depth issues on the defensive line in case nose tackle Colin Cole suffered another injury. Cole is coming back from an ankle injury and well ahead of Williams in the recovery process. He practiced all week.
Seattle kept eight defensive linemen active Sunday: ends Chris Clemons, Raheem Brock, Dexter Davis and Kentwan Balmer, plus tackles Brandon Mebane, Cole, Junior Siavii and Craig Terrill.
I would expect Williams to start against Atlanta in Week 15.
I'll be heading over to University of Phoenix Stadium to catch the San Francisco 49ers' game against Green Bay on TV before the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals kick off at 4:15 p.m. ET.
Should be a fun Week 13.
And now, let's dive into the mailbag, as promised ...
Dylan from Phoenix writes: Hi Sando. I have heard quite a few reasons for the Cardinals' free fall. However, I was wondering if you believed the Bidwills' seemingly tight pockets have a played a bigger role than many have thought in the Cardinals' demise? Thanks.
Mike Sando: That subject demands some elaboration. Kurt Warner walking away from an eight-figure salary has hurt the Cardinals more than any other move has hurt them since last season. That move had nothing to do with anyone being cheap. The team also opened its wallet for safety Adrian Wilson (2009) and defensive lineman Darnell Dockett (2010).
The Cardinals did reduce their payroll this season. If I were to blame some of their struggles on tight pockets, I would take a longer-range view. For example, the Cardinals will tell you their offers for Antrel Rolle and Karlos Dansby were very competitive. That might be true, but Rolle hit the market only because the Cardinals backloaded his contract, as was their custom. You could say they backloaded deals to save up-front money.
The same thing happened, but more spectacularly, when Larry Fitzgerald's previous contract hit a crossroads for similar reasons. The Cardinals valued Fitzgerald more than they valued Rolle -- enough to meet his contract demands. Fitzgerald leveraged that situation into $40 million on a four-year deal. Paying $10 million per year to Fitzgerald complicated Anquan Boldin's situation, contributing to his departure from the team.
The way the Cardinals structured contracts for Fitzgerald and Rolle, two high draft choices, played a role in their struggles this season. But if Warner had decided to play out his contract, the team would probably find itself in the thick of the NFC West race anyway.
Doug from Washington, D.C., writes: Hey Mike, big fan of the blog and huge fan of the Seahawks. Watching them this year has definitely given me more hope than the past two seasons, but I'm pretty concerned about the future of this team. I want to say the team is rebuilding, but I feel like the team is too old to expect consistent improvement.
What kind of moves do you expect John Schneider and Pete Carroll to make in the offseason in terms of shipping out veterans for draft picks, etc? Will the end of their season ultimately govern this decision? Thanks!
Mike Sando: Thanks, Doug. Great question. How the team finishes will influence decisions.
I expect another busy offseason for the Seahawks in terms of overhauling the roster. The Seahawks made lots of changes, but they didn't become a young team through the roster. I expect them to get younger before next season.
You should expect additional sweeping changes across the offensive line. Some of the more familiar names up front -- Chris Spencer and Sean Locklear come to mind -- do not have contracts beyond this season. Veteran guards Ben Hamilton and Chester Pitts do not have contracts beyond this season. They were stopgap players this season.
Additional players without contracts beyond this season include Matt Hasselbeck, Mike Williams, Ray Willis, Olindo Mare, Leroy Hill, Jordan Babineaux, Lawyer Milloy, Brandon Stokley, Raheem Brock, Michael Robinson, Matt McCoy, Junior Siavii, Craig Terrill and Brandon Mebane.
I would expect Seattle to re-sign Hasselbeck this offseason, but even that decision could hinge on what happens over the remaining games. Williams and Mebane look like obvious keepers. Some of the others have proven they have value, but their futures are less clear.
Sam from St. Louis writes: Sando, do you notice Chris Long being held a lot and the opposing offensive linemen not getting called for it? Seems like he's constantly being held, but it's almost like it happens on so many plays that the refs just stop noticing it or looking for it? I remember earlier in the year when he drew two consecutive holding calls and it almost seemed like the refs were too embarrassed to keep calling it or something. Long gets better the later the game goes on and many times it just seems like all the opposing offense can do to stop him is just hold him and hope the refs don't notice. He's gotten James Hall and Fred Robbins a handful of sacks this year.
Mike Sando: Looking at my notes, I saw the Seahawks' Locklear hold Long on a second-and-10 play in the fourth quarter back in Week 4. Long and Geoge Selvie got to the quarterback anyway, but there was no holding call.
Overall, yes, I have noticed Long getting held a few times without officials throwing flags. That's more a reflection of Long than a reflection of officiating. Good defensive ends get held. Long is now a good defensive end.
Jon from New York writes: I know it's easy to play the hindsight game with the draft, but I can't help myself.
In the last two years, the 49ers have taken two offensive linemen and a wide receiver in the first round. How much better would they be if they had taken Michael Oher instead of Michael Crabtree last year and then picked up Dez Bryant instead of Anthony Davis this year?
It seems like they would have been able to, and I heard that they were going to take Oher anyway until Crabtree fell to them.
Mike Sando: No doubt, it's tempting to entertain those thoughts. There is no way we can criticize the selection of Crabtree based on what might have been available to the team receiver-wise the next year. The 49ers made a value decision on Crabtree. I understood the decision and thought it was the right decision.
Moving up a couple spots to get Davis seemed unnecessary. Bryant is more of a big-play threat than Crabtree. He would have helped the return game. But if you look at their overall numbers this season, Crabtree and Bryant are pretty similar. Crabtree has 38 catches for 509 yards and five touchdowns. Bryant has an additional six receptions, 38 yards and one touchdown. Both have gone through multiple quarterbacks.
Crabtree is actually averaging an additional yard per reception this season (13.4 to 12.4). Both have three touchdowns in their last four games.
Dimitri from Boston writes: Sando, great blog. So, I played with the playoff calculator. If the Niners/Seahawks/Rams all end up 7-9 and if you assume the Niners lose at Green Bay and at San Diego, but win against the Seahawks, Rams and Cardinals, the 49ers win the division.
With that being said, wouldn't you put the Niners as the favorite to win the division? Niners may not be consistent or reliable and they are without Frank Gore, but relatively, it is hard to argue that any team in West can beat them (Niners are 7-2 in division dating back to 2009)? And if you look back on the season, their "best" games were against better teams (Saints, Eagles, Falcons).
Therefore, if football luck balances out (Nate Clements holds onto a pick, Alex Smith doesn't fumble against the Eagles, deflected balls hit the ground and are not picked) and the Niners steal a win in Green Bay or San Diego, the Niners should win this division?
Mike Sando: Fun stuff.
On the luck front, remember that the 49ers were losing to the Eagles by a touchdown when Alex Smith lost that fumble. The fumble itself triggered a series of actions that laid the foundation for the subsequent rally. No fumble might have meant no rally.
I do not trust the 49ers to win at St. Louis. They barely beat the Rams at Candlestick even though the Rams' defense gave up far more big plays than they typically give up in a game. I think the Rams' pass rush will be a bigger factor in the Edward Jones Dome. And if luck evens out, the Rams won't suffer an interference penalty along the lines of the one Oshiomogho Atogwe drew while covering Delanie Walker late in the 49ers' overtime victory.
Circle that St. Louis game. I think it's hugely pivotal for the 49ers.
The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
- Seattle remains tied atop the NFC West at 5-6 with a chance to take back the tiebreaker from St. Louis in Week 17.
- Veteran defensive lineman Craig Terrill blocked a field goal try for the seventh time in his career, drawing within one of Joe Nash's team record.
- Kennard Cox blocked a Chiefs punt.
- Rookie Earl Thomas returned the blocked punt for a touchdown.
- Seattle trailed by only four points entering the fourth quarter despite struggling on both sides of the ball.
- Receiver Ben Obomanu caught passes for 87 and 52 yards, building on recent strong performances.
- Tight end Chris Baker caught a touchdown pass for the first time as a Seahawk.