NFC West: Cullen Jenkins
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.
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.
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.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
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.
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.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
Cullen Jenkins' contract agreement with the New York Giants removes from the free-agent pool a player the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks considered signing.
Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPNNewYork.com says the Giants signed Jenkins to improve their run defense. In the video above, however, Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. sees Jenkins as one of the NFL's better interior pass-rushers.
Williamson sees Jenkins as a liability against the run if cast as a 4-3 defensive tackle, but strong against the run if cast as a 3-4 defensive end.
Seattle presumably would have valued Jenkins the most as an interior pass-rusher. San Francisco could use depth across the line, particularly if versatile backup Ricky Jean-Francois leaves in free agency.
Jenkins has played about two-thirds of the available defensive snaps over the past five seasons. He has started at defensive tackle in the Eagles' 4-3 scheme and at defensive end in the Packers' 3-4.
Jenkins played for the Packers when Seahawks general manager John Schneider was with Green Bay. Seattle has decisions to make along its defensive line. Tackle Alan Branch can become a free agent. "Leo" end Chris Clemons is coming off ACL surgery. Base end Red Bryant is coming off a foot injury. Jenkins could provide insurance or a starting option at tackle. He could also provide insurance for Bryant's spot.
The 49ers also have decisions to make along their defensive line. End Justin Smith is coming off elbow/triceps surgery. Starting nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and versatile backup Ricky Jean Francois can become a free agent.
Foot and ankle injuries slowed Jenkins at times last season. He still started all 16 games.
ESPN's Adam Schefter expects Jenkins to visit the 49ers and Seahawks. Jenkins has already met with the New York Giants.
Also from Urban: The Cardinals' defense is racking up sacks. Urban: "As a defense, the Cards have 42 sacks, tied for third in the NFL and three off the league lead. It’s the franchise’s third-highest total ever, behind the 59 achieved in 1983 and the 55 in 1984. It’s the team’s highest total since moving to Arizona."
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was "honored" to be named a Pro Bowl player this season. Rodgers-Cromartie: "When I first got the call, I thought it was a joke," he said. "I thought I had a good year, but I didn't think it was good enough for the Pro Bowl. As the day went on, I realized I was really in and I just put my head down and gave thanks to the Lord. It's a blessing and an honor to be named with those guys."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Packers-Cardinals game sold enough tickets to appear on local television.
Also from Somers: Cardinals playoff tickets go on sale to Arizona residents Monday. Outsiders cannot purchase them until Tuesday. Also, Whisenhunt says he hopes the Rams select a quarterback instead of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, assuming the Rams pick first overall.
More from Somers: a scouting report on the Packers-Cardinals matchup, including this tidbit: "If the Packers hold the Cardinals to no more than 77 rushing yards, they will set a franchise record for fewest yards allowed in a 16-game season. The Packers rank first in the NFL against the run. The Cardinals' run game has improved over the second half of the season, and they might not take many chances with the pass if a No. 2 playoff seed isn't on the line. It can be tough to run against a 3-4 defense, and Packers nose tackle Ryan Pickett and ends Johnny Jolly and Cullen Jenkins have played well."
Greg Johns of seattlepi.com says guard Rob Sims would like to return for another season with the Seahawks. Sims: "I feel like I've put enough out there to show everybody, even whoever the new GM is, that I want to be here. That I'm part of this team and I'm a company guy. Who knows? I might think about it a little bit, but I'm not ready to leave Qwest Field. And I don't think I will. But we'll see. It's not up to me anymore."
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says Matt Hasselbeck followed Mike Holmgren as the Steve Largent Award winner. Hasselbeck: "I thought there were more deserving people this year, but it’s a very cool trophy and I’ll find a place for it. It’s a special honor. And they opened it up to coaches as well, so it’s more competition. And it’s voted on by your teammates, so that’s very important."
Also from Williams: "In his last 20 games, Hasselbeck has thrown for 21 touchdowns and 26 interceptions. Seattle is 6-15 during that stretch. That’s the worst record for the Seahawks over two seasons since they won eight games over the 1992 (2-14) and 1993 (6-10) seasons."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo had no plans to celebrate New Year's Eve.
Also from Thomas: Will this be Leonard Little's final game with the Rams? Thomas: "Little leads the Rams in sacks this season (6 1/2) and remains the team's best pass rusher. There's a chance the Rams could ask him back for 2010 but in a limited role as a situational pass rusher. Little will return to his offseason home in Charlotte, N.C., for a while before reaching a decision."
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with Rams rookie linebacker James Laurinaitis. Veteran teammate Leonard Little: "They put a lot of pressure on him coming into this season; he's basically our quarterback on defense," Little said. "Guys respect him for learning it all as quick as he did. He was given the keys to a car, and he drove it pretty good."
Also from Coats: a look at the Rams' 2009 draft choices.
Howard Balzer of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat checks in with Spagnuolo as the Rams head into Fan Appreciation Day. The Rams have plans to give extra playing time to younger players Sunday. They will play to win the game first.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee checks in with 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, who hopes Alex Smith's analytical side gives way to maverick instincts. Raye: "You need a certain amount of maverick in you to really embrace the position."
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Isaac Bruce continues to miss practice even though the team plans for him to suit up one last time Sunday. Bruce probably will not play much.
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says Raye's comments about Smith are similar to what Smith's college coach, Urban Meyer, said in 2005. Raye: "We have to wean him off that exactness. There is a fluidity of play that's involved at the position. And I think the more he plays, that will take over. He will play better, faster, the more he plays."
Also from Brown: Vernon Davis has done away with his dreads because he wants a new look.
John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers had only one offensive coordinator -- Greg Knapp, now with Seattle -- return for more than one season in the role during the first decade of the 2000s.
Also from Crumpacker: There's no way Bruce will start against the Rams, Raye suggests.
More from Crumpacker: a look inside the 49ers' new dining facility.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Left tackle Joe Staley is one of the more engaging personalities in the 49ers' locker room. He's also fun to watch in games if you like aggressive offensive-line play.
Staley, the 28th player chosen in the 2007 draft, is trying to temper some of that aggressiveness while making the transition to left tackle, where one mistake can expose a right-handed quarterback to unseen punishment. But Staley, 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, also knows the aggressiveness is what makes him a good player.
Staley brought up a play against Packers defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, a fellow Central Michigan product, during a recent conversation about the balance between aggression and taking unnecessary risks. Jenkins beat Staley with an inside move during the Packers-49ers exhibition game Aug. 16.
Staley: "The first two steps, I had good position and I just wanted to kill him. I got away from my technique and he spun on me right away. So I went after him, took my three steps and I just wanted to blow his [expletive] up. Plus, he's from Central Michigan."
Staley prides himself on technique and having quick feet. He managed to push Jenkins to the ground on the play in question, but Jenkins still disrupted the play.
Staley: "One of those examples, you get away from your technique. Just because you're aggressive doesn't always mean [you prevail]. Not being a big tubby fat [guy], I could actually move back there. Got him on the ground. Times like that, being too aggressive can hurt you.
In preparing for a recent matchup against the Bears, Staley watched Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones at work during the Seattle-Chicago game Aug. 16. Jones is one of the more patient offensive tackles around. Shoulder injuries have prevented him from being as aggressive in the running game at times. Staley, who turns 24 on Saturday, still has low miles.
Staley: "I'm aggressive. When I don't have success is when I don't play aggressive. When I'm playing real aggressive is when I have more success."
Left tackles traditionally earn more money than right tackles because they protect the quarterback's blind side. Left tackles tend to be more athletic. Right tackles tend to be more physical in the running game. That's changing.
For Staley, the move to the left side might make his job easier in pass protection. Right tackles in the NFC West line up against proven pass rushers Patrick Kerney (Seattle) and Leonard Little (St. Louis). At left tackle, Staley will face Rams rookie Chris Long and Seahawks rookie Lawrence Jackson (unless Darryl Tapp, more of a pure pass rusher, wins the starting job at right defensive end).