NFC West: Darcel McBath

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
video
Catch us if you can.

That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.

It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.

By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.

It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.

So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?

The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.

Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.

The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.

First Down

The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?


Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.

Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.

Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.

Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.


Second Down

The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?


Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.

Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.

Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.


Third Down

Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?


Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.

Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.

Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.

Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.


Fourth Down

If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?


Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.

Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.

Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.

Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.

 

Rapid Reaction: Ravens 34, 49ers 31

February, 3, 2013
2/03/13
10:45
PM ET

NEW ORLEANS -- Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 34-31 defeat to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII:

What it means: The 49ers came excruciatingly close to a sixth Super Bowl title, but they couldn't draw up or execute the winning plays with four shots from the Baltimore 5-yard line. Overall, they made too many mistakes to win the game. The 49ers' total collapse early in the game raises questions about their readiness for the Super Bowl after a week filled with the usual distractions, plus the one cornerback Chris Culliver created with his derogatory comments during the week.

What I liked: The 49ers again showed an ability to weather a rough start against a playoff team.

Tight end Vernon Davis repeatedly exploited a speed advantage against Ray Lewis and the Baltimore defense early in the game. Davis even got in Lewis' face to rub it in at one point early in the second quarter.

Patrick Willis and Darcel McBath saved the 49ers late in the second quarter when they chased down Ravens kicker Justin Tucker short of a first down on a fake field-goal try. The 49ers trailed 14-3 at the time, so the stop was important for them.

Michael Crabtree capped his most impressive season with another mostly impressive performance. He made a tough catch on a high pass early in the game. Crabtree also knocked down Ravens defensive backs Cary Williams and Bernard Pollard on his way to a 31-yard touchdown reception to pull San Francisco within 28-13 midway through the third quarter.

Davis, who topped 100 yards receiving, wasn't the only tight end making an impact in this game. Second tight end Delanie Walker blasted Ravens safety Ed Reed to help free Frank Gore for a touchdown run. Walker also planted Ravens kick returner Jacoby Jones as the momentum was turning late in the third quarter.

What I didn't like: The 49ers were sloppy early in the game. A formation penalty wiped out a 20-yard gain on their first play. The 49ers appeared to have a mixup in the backfield later in the drive. That was no way to start the game on offense after having two weeks to prepare. It got worse.

The bad start gave the Ravens good field position on their first possession. And when the defense held on third-and-9, an offsides penalty against Ahmad Brooks gave Baltimore another chance, setting up a touchdown pass on third-and-4.

The 49ers blew it again early in the second quarter when LaMichael James lost a fumble, allowing the Ravens to recover at their own 25-yard line. That led to another Ravens touchdown, and San Francisco gave the ball right back to the Ravens when Colin Kaepernick overthrew Randy Moss, finding Reed instead.

Allowing a 108-yard kickoff return to open the second half nearly killed the 49ers' chances for a comeback. They suddenly trailed by a 28-6 margin.

The 49ers let seven of the final 11 seconds run off while the Ravens ran around the end zone with the football before taking a safety. That left only four seconds on the clock when Baltimore executed a free kick. Having a few additional seconds might have given the 49ers a chance to return the ball into field-goal range, or run a play before attempting a field goal.

Early trend continues: The Ravens scored first. They became the fifth consecutive 49ers opponent to score first, joining Atlanta, Green Bay, Arizona and Seattle. San Francisco came back to beat the Falcons, Packers and Cardinals heading into Super Bowl XLVII.

Costly sack: 49ers right tackle Anthony Davis struggled against the Ravens during a 2011 game between the teams. In this game, Davis gave up a third-down sack in the red zone on the 49ers' second possession. Paul Kruger beat him decisively to take down Kaepernick before the quarterback had a chance to throw. The 49ers' pass protection was generally excellent, but not on this critical play.

First-half domination: The 49ers gave up three first-half touchdown passes for the second game in a row. Joe Flacco completed 13 of 20 passes for 192 yards, three scores and a 135.8 NFL passer rating in the first half Sunday. Two weeks earlier, Atlanta's Matt Ryan completed 18 of 24 first-half passes for 271 yards, three scores and a 151.2 rating against San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game. Flacco and Ryan combined to complete 70.5 pecent of their first-half passes for 463 yards and a 144.2 rating against the 49ers in those two first halves.

What's next: The 49ers head toward the 2013 NFL draft with the 31st overall choice. The Ravens will pick 32nd overall.
NaVorro Bowman's fourth-and-4 pass breakup all but delivered the San Francisco 49ers to victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.

The play was notable for a few reasons.

Having Bowman, an inside linebacker, in coverage against a wide receiver with Roddy White's credentials would seem to favor the offense. But as White dragged across the formation, Bowman blanketed him and made contact before quarterback Matt Ryan delivered the ball, making this a legal play.

Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons' 13-time Pro Bowl tight end, came open on the play, but Ryan seemed to lock in on White from the beginning. There was logic to Ryan's thinking with a linebacker in coverage.

Bowman and fellow inside linebacker Patrick Willis both had underneath coverage responsibilities on this play. Their ability to remain on the field and make plays in nickel situations sets them apart from traditional run-defending inside linebackers.

In the end, Bowman's breakup will go down as the most pivotal play on the 49ers' road to the Super Bowl -- not just on an anecdotal basis, but also on a statistical one.

The play produced change in win probability of 31.5 percentage points, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That was the largest positive swing for any play during the 49ers' first 18 games of the season.

The chart, courtesy of Dean Oliver, shows the 49ers' 10 most pivotal positive plays of the season by change in win probability. Colin Kaepernick appears on the list four times. Alex Smith does not appear on the list.

2012 49ers defensive snaps: Weeks 1-5

October, 13, 2012
10/13/12
3:30
PM ET
A periodic look at which players are playing and when, continuing with the San Francisco 49ers' defense, which has spent much of the season using its nickel package:

Darcel McBath played close to 15 percent of the defensive snaps for Denver when Ed Donatell was the Broncos' defensive backs coach during the 2009 and 2010 NFL seasons.

The San Francisco 49ers hope they won't need McBath that much in 2012, but with starting safety Dashon Goldson unsigned and training camp approaching, adding McBath for insurance made sense Monday.

The 49ers announced McBath's signing. McBath's familiarity with Donatell, the 49ers' second-year secondary coach, enhanced the potential for a quick assimilation.

The 26-year-old McBath, a second-round choice in 2009 and a former cornerback at Texas Tech, appeared in one game for Jacksonville last season, participating in one defensive snap. He played extensively on special teams as a rookie and showed promise on defense, only to suffer a broken arm against Indianapolis (after picking off off Peyton Manning).

Goldson has every reason to report in time for the regular season and probably sooner. Rules for franchise players prevent him from signing anything other than the one-year, $6.2 million offer San Francisco made to him to retain his rights. In the meantime, McBath gives the 49ers more manpower for practice and someone familiar to Donatell.

McBath might not stick around long, in other words.

The signing does appear to carry at least some potential. McBath was a second-round choice, so he obviously has some talent. The injury he suffered with Denver set him back (an arm injury sidelined McBath in college as well, back in 2005). Turmoil in Denver surely worked against him as well. That combination -- injury and franchise instability -- can be difficult even for veterans to overcome.

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