NFC West: Darren Sproles

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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video
Catch us if you can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.

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

First Down

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


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

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

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

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


Second Down

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


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

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

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

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


Third Down

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


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

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

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

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


Fourth Down

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


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

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

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

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

 

For a Monday night game in early December, this is as good as it gets. The 10-1 Seattle Seahawks play host to the 9-2 New Orleans Saints in a game that could decide home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs.

The last time these teams faced each other was in a playoff game following the 2010 season, which Seattle won 41-36. Drew Brees passed for 404 yards and two touchdowns for the Saints, and Marshawn Lynch rushed for 131 yards, including the legendary 67-yard "Beast Quake" touchdown run in the fourth quarter for the Seahawks.

If this game is anything like that one, it will be one heck of a show.

The Seahawks will have to try to stop Brees with a reworked secondary after a week in which two Seattle cornerbacks (Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner) ran afoul of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Thurmond was replacing Browner as a starter due to Browner’s groin injury.

The whole suspensions issue put a damper on a big week. Now everyone will see whether the Seahawks can overcome it or whether Brees will make them pay.

ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and Saints reporter Mike Triplett look at the key issues entering the game:

Blount: Mike, this is a great matchup between the veteran Brees and a young quarterback who idolized him in Russell Wilson. Wilson always saw Brees as someone he could emulate, a player who, like him, wasn't tall but had a great arm and great leadership qualities. As someone who sees Brees every week, how do you compare them?

Triplett: I don’t know that much about Wilson, but I certainly see why he would choose Brees to emulate. It’s remarkable how Brees, at just 6-foot, has been able to not only succeed in the NFL but truly dominate. It would take me too long to rattle off all the reasons why Brees is so successful. For one thing, he’s as competitive and driven as any athlete I've ever been around. That shows in his work ethic both in the offseason and during the season. He also sees the field (through passing lanes since he can’t peek over the top) and anticipates things about as well as any quarterback who has ever played the game. He's not as mobile as Wilson, but he's elusive in the pocket and avoids sacks. I'd say both guys are proof that those intangible qualities count for a lot in the NFL, even if you don't have prototypical size.

I haven't seen the Seahawks' offense light up scoreboards in the few games on national TV this season, especially early in games. Can Wilson keep pace if the Saints are able to put points on the board?

Blount: Most of the time, he hasn't needed to because the defense has played so well. However, after watching him now for two seasons and seeing his growth, I believe Wilson is capable of doing whatever he needs to do to win football games. He has proven it over and over. Three times this season he has led the team to a fourth-quarter comeback, and he’s done it seven times in his brief NFL career. Wilson never is going to be the type of guy, like Brees, who puts up huge passing numbers. That’s not what they want him to do in an offense that wants to run the football with Lynch. But Wilson has demonstrated he can adjust the game plan to fit the needs of the moment. Frankly, he is one of the best I've ever seen at finding a way to win.

The Seahawks have a lot of weapons on offense, and now have added Percy Harvin to the mix. Obviously, Rob Ryan has a done a good job in getting New Orleans' defense back on track. How do you see him approaching this game against Seattle’s power running game with Lynch and a mobile quarterback in Wilson?

Triplett: I know this: Ryan will definitely have a plan. He is one of the league’s most innovative game-planners. Former player Scott Fujita described him as a “mad scientist.” We saw that quality more than ever two weeks ago when the Saints played the San Francisco 49ers. Ryan unveiled two new packages for that game, including a five-linebacker formation to corral the 49ers’ run game and the threat of the read-option. We may see the same thing this week, or maybe a new wrinkle since he likes to be unpredictable. I know the Saints’ defensive players will be amped to prove they’re just as good as the more-hyped Seahawks defense. Ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, outside linebacker Junior Galette and cornerback Keenan Lewis are having breakout years, in particular.

Seattle’s defense has obviously been outstanding this year as well. How do you think they’ll hold up against the Saints’ versatile offense? Who might match up against tight end Jimmy Graham and running back/receiver threats Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, among others?

Blount: The first thing to watch is how the backups in the secondary handle going against a wily veteran like Brees. No doubt he’s going to test Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane. And Graham is a major concern. The Seahawks have struggled at times this season against tight ends. In this case, they might have cornerback Richard Sherman shadow Graham as much as possible. And this is a big test for strong safety Kam Chancellor. The key for the Seahawks is the defensive line, much improved over last year, getting to Brees and taking some of the pressure off the depleted secondary.

Mike, if you had to name one area in which the Saints must outplay the Seahawks in order to win the game, what would you pick?

Triplett: Easy one: turnovers. I know you could say that about every team in every game. But it’s especially huge in this matchup. For one, the Seahawks lead the NFL with 26 takeaways. I imagine that’s why they’re second in the NFL in points scored (27.8 per game) even though they don’t have a prolific offense. The Saints need to set the pace in this game and try to force Seattle to keep up with their offense. They can’t afford to give away any freebies or short fields. And based on what we’ve seen from the Saints this season, I think they can do that. Their run game started slowly but has improved. And they showed a patient offensive approach in a Week 5 victory at Chicago and in their last two wins against San Francisco and Atlanta. The Saints have turned the ball over just 13 times, and they lead the league in average time of possession.

Terry, how do you think the Seahawks will handle this game if they don’t set the tone? To be honest, I expected a bit of a sophomore slump from Wilson and the Seahawks, since we see it so often in the NFL. Why have they been able to avoid that? And do you think there’s any risk of the pressure affecting them in a game of this magnitude?

Blount: None whatsoever, Mike. In fact, Wilson thrives on games like this. He is at his best when things seem their worst, along with playing at a high level in the most difficult situations and the high-pressure games. That character trait is what makes Wilson such an exceptional athlete. He never gets rattled. Seattle fullback Michael Robinson said Wilson has the one trait all great quarterbacks need: “A short memory.”

Darren Sproles and Patrick WillisUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SMIThe Saints and Darren Sproles, left, will try to control the ball against Patrick Willis and the 49ers.
The New Orleans Saints are heading into this week’s showdown against the San Francisco 49ers as the much hotter team. They just totaled 49 points, 625 yards and an NFL-record 40 first downs in a 49-17 rout of the Dallas Cowboys this past week, and the 49ers' offense fell flat in a 10-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

However, the Saints (7-2) aren't about to take this game lightly. Not only does it have huge playoff implications in the NFC race, but the 49ers (6-3) have proved to be an extremely difficult matchup for the Saints the past two years. They beat the Saints 36-32 in a playoff game at San Francisco after the 2011 season, then beat the Saints 31-21 at New Orleans in the regular season last year.

San Francisco's physical defense has been able to disrupt New Orleans' potent offense with sacks and turnovers, and the 49ers' rushing offense has been able to keep Drew Brees & Co. off the field.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson break down the clash of styles in this week's Double Coverage:

Triplett: Bill, the 49ers' offense looks pretty one-dimensional this season. I know the Saints will be wary of their rushing attack, since New Orleans' defense has been inconsistent against the run. But what happened to San Francisco's passing attack (ranked 32nd in the NFL at 173.9 yards per game)? I expected a lot more from Colin Kaepernick.

Williamson: I can see your point, Mike, especially this week. Take a glance at Kaepernick's yardage numbers and you'd have to be disappointed. But, in a pure football sense, he is playing well overall. His Total QBR is a whopping 81.7 in the 49ers' six wins. He plays well within the system, and he has been efficient. He has suffered from being without his top 2012 target, Michael Crabtree, all season, and Mario Manningham has played just one game.

Still, there is no doubt Kaepernick could improve in his progressions, and he needs to start taking over some games. In Week 10, the entire offense faltered and Kaepernick was unable to impose his will. Great quarterbacks do that. Mike, do you anticipate the Saints being able to control Kaepernick?

Triplett: I'm curious to find that out. The Saints haven't been tested much by the read-option yet this season, but they're about to play Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton (twice) in the next six weeks. The Saints' run defense, in general, has been a little shaky in recent weeks. The Saints aren't getting pounded up the middle, but they have had a handful of breakdowns in recent weeks that led to big gains by opposing runners. They lost a game at the New York Jets two weeks ago because they let Chris Ivory get loose too many times -- even though they knew he was coming. So they'll need to be a lot more disciplined against the 49ers' dual threat of Kaepernick and Frank Gore.

On the flip side, Bill, few defenses have beat up on the Saints the way the 49ers have the past two years. Do they still pack the same punch this season? Can they slow down a Saints offense that was on fire the other night?

Williamson: What does "slow down the Saints' offense" mean? Holding them to 30 points? I'm sure the Saints will make their share of big plays. The always do. But this San Francisco defense will also make some plays of its own.

This defense is stellar. It was dominant against Carolina in a loss. The Panthers had one broken play for a touchdown and a 53-yard field goal. In the past six games, the 49ers have given up a total of 71 points. The 49ers are a ball-hawking, smart, tough defense. It will give the Saints all they can handle, especially if rookie safety Eric Reid -- of nearby LSU -- is cleared to play after suffering his second concussion of the season last week. Mike, do you think the 49ers' defense can slow this first-down-machine offense?

Triplett: Well, we've seen the 49ers do it in each of the past two years. Last season they sacked Drew Brees five times and intercepted him twice. In the 2011 playoff game, they had three sacks and forced five turnovers overall. So if they just do that, they’re in good shape, right?

Obviously the Saints will make ball control a huge priority. And they've proven they can do that this year. They're tied for second in the NFL with only 10 giveaways. And their patient game plan in a victory at Chicago in Week 5 comes to mind as a good blueprint. I'd expect them to feed Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Jimmy Graham a lot in the passing game. The offensive line has been more inconsistent this season, allowing 20 sacks. But it played its best game the other night.

How worried should they be about pass-rusher Aldon Smith? I know he was limited in his return last week. How much impact should we expect from him Sunday?

Williamson: I can't say for certain, but I expect Smith to play a full game Sunday. He played about a dozen snaps -- mostly as an inside down pass-rusher -- against Carolina after missing five games while seeking treatment for substance abuse. The team wanted to ease him back in. Smith has said he is ready to be a full-time player again, and the 49ers will need all the reinforcements possible against Brees. So, I'd be surprised if Smith makes another cameo appearance.

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Closer look at Wells and NFC West RBs

February, 22, 2013
2/22/13
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At his best, Beanie Wells can be a big, physical runner with a wicked stiff-arm and a strong nose for the end zone.

Wells was not at his best last season.

The Arizona Cardinals running back had 88 carries for 234 yards and five touchdowns in eight games. He was on the field for 152 snaps, a career low and down from 583 in 2011, when Wells rushed for 1,099 yards and 10 touchdowns.



"I think Beanie had a tough stretch this year because of the injuries," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim told reporters from the NFL scouting combine. "He showed a lot of grit, a lot of toughness late in the year when he was able to. He's had some injuries, so he had a difficult time with his cut ability and his lateral movement, but Beanie is still a big horse who can finish runs and create yardage after contact, which is something that excites us."

That last comment ran counter to my perception of Wells last season.

Of the 74 backs with at least 200 yards rushing last season, Wells ranked 73rd in yards after contact per rushing attempt, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Wells was at 1.12 yards per carry after contact. Only New Orleans scatback Darren Sproles had a lower average (1.0) among those 74 players. The average for those 74 players was 1.7. Adrian Peterson was at 2.9.

Keim was alluding more to the ability Wells has shown in the past, when he was healthier. Wells averaged 2.2 yards per carry after contact in 2011. The average was 1.9 in 2010 and 2.1 as a rookie first-round choice in 2009.

Wells is scheduled to earn $1.4 million in base salary for 2013, the final year of his contract. The comments from Keim made it sound like the team was leaning toward sticking with Wells for another season, but that could change depending upon what happens in free agency and the draft. The team has envisioned fielding a strong one-two punch in the backfield with Wells and 2011 second-round choice Ryan Williams, but injuries have intervened. Williams has missed 29 of 32 games.

"I saw Ryan in our weight room the other day, and he's doing fantastic," Keim said. "He's a guy that, watching film with Bruce [Arians], because he got injured early in the season, you forgot the type of run skills Ryan had. We watched him against Philadelphia, we watched him against New England, his lateral quickness, his natural run skills, his avoidability is something he brings to the table. Plus, he's a three-down back. We're expecting big things out of Ryan moving forward."

There's little sense in taking the bait when San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh tells a radio program Michael Crabtree "has the best hands I've ever seen on a wide receiver."

Anyone with a strong grasp of NFL history would place Cris Carter, Raymond Berry and Steve Largent on a short list for receivers with the surest hands.

Hall of Famer Ken Houston, speaking for a 2008 piece on all-time great wideouts, stood up for AFL stars Otis Taylor and Lionel Taylor.

"Lionel Taylor, I mean, he would catch a BB," Houston said.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, speaking for the same piece, said Randy Moss, then with New England, had the best hands in the NFL at that time (2008).

"A lot of guys can catch," Thompson said then. "He can catch on any platform, as we say in scouting. He can adjust and catch it over the top of somebody's head, catch it falling down, and it doesn't matter if he is covered."

With Moss now on the 49ers, it is possible Crabtree does not possess the best hands among wide receivers on his own team.

Oops. I wasn't going to take the bait on this one, but now it's too late. Time to regroup.

Bottom line, I suspect Crabtree has impressed Harbaugh this offseason, and Harbaugh would like that to continue for as long as possible. By offering such strong public praise for Crabtree, Harbaugh is setting a standard for Crabtree to meet this season. He realizes Crabtree has the ability to meet that standard, or else he wouldn't make the statement.

We should all recall Harbaugh's calling quarterback Alex Smith "elite" and promoting him for the Pro Bowl last season. Then as now, Harbaugh was standing up for his guy. Smith enjoyed the finest season of his career and even outplayed the truly elite Drew Brees at times during the 49ers' playoff victory over New Orleans. The way Harbaugh backed Smith played a role in that performance, in my view.

Back to Crabtree. He has the ability to rank among the most sure-handed receivers in the game. He has not yet earned that status, but now he has little choice, right?

As the chart shows, Crabtree finished the 2011 season with 12.2 receptions per drop, which ranked 28th in the NFL among players targeted at least 100 times. Larry Fitzgerald led the NFL with 80 receptions and only one drop. Those numbers are according to ESPN Stats & Information, which defines drops as "incomplete passes where the receiver should have caught the pass with ordinary effort."

Crabtree suffered six drops last season by that standard, a few too many for the player with the best hands his head coach has ever seen on a wide receiver.
Lots going on with the St. Louis Rams.

First, thanks to @Gofastleft for pointing out a story suggesting the team has asked for a retractable roof as part of its proposed renovations to the Edward Jones Dome.

Charles Jaco of Fox2now.com says experts generally suggest a price tag between $200 million and $300 million for retrofitting a stadium with such a roof. Jaco: "The Rams lease at the dome says the team is free to leave St. Louis in January 2015 if the dome is not among the top facilities in the National Football League. The Rams rejected an offer from the Convention and Visitor’s Commission to spend $124 million to upgrade the dome, half from taxpayers, half from the team. And this is their counter-offer. If the CVC rejects this proposal, which is pretty likely, then both sides go to arbitration June 15." Noted: Details for the various proposals become public Monday.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch details changes in the Rams' scouting department. Thomas: "The process is well under way, with general manager Les Snead bringing two Atlanta Falcons scouts into directors' positions in the front office. Falcons pro scout Ran Carthon is joining the Rams as director of pro personnel; Falcons area scout Taylor Morton is coming to St. Louis as director of college scouting. The Rams didn't have anyone with the title of director of pro personnel last season, so technically, Carthon isn't replacing anyone. John Mancini, who has been the Rams' director of college scouting for the past two years, is being retained with the title of assistant director of college scouting."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com offers thoughts on Michael Crabtree's development through three seasons. Maiocco: "While fans expect 1,000-yard seasons from a player chosen with the No. 10 overall draft pick, the 49ers' offense is not one that features the outside receivers. Some view Crabtree as a bust. I am certainly not in that camp."

Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle looks at how rookie LaMichael James could change the 49ers' offense. Lynch: "At Oregon, he played in a spread and most of his carries came from a shotgun quarterback. That could continue with the 49ers. With the additions of Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and rookie A.J. Jenkins the team is showing signs of opening up the offense. Going into the shotgun frequently, could put James on the field more often. But for that to be the case, James will have to prove he’s more of a Darren Sproles than a Dexter McCluster. The revelation of just whom James will be, will start this Friday at the team's rookie minicamp."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee looks at the sorry recent history of the No. 81 jersey in San Francisco, asking whether there's been a T.O. curse.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com explains how receiver Larry Fitzgerald pushes teammates to work harder. Fitzgerald: "I'm just an extremely self-motivated person, that's all. Every day I am trying to run faster, jump higher, lift more. I have always been that way. Especially young guys like (Ryan Williams) … yesterday Patrick Peterson, we had a squat competition. I do it with (receivers) DeMarco Sampson, Jaymar (Johnson). I am into that. I love the competition, no matter if it is on the field, the basketball gym, the bowling alley, competition always makes the cream rise to the top. So I love to compete."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com checks in with offensive line coach Tom Cable for thoughts on why the team drafted defensive lineman J.R. Sweezy with an eye toward converting Sweezy to offense. Cable: "It was his demeanor, first and foremost. His intelligence. His toughness. And how he played on defense."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Red Bryant is determined to fulfill expectations after signing a $35 million contract this offseason. Bryant: "A lot of guys get big contracts and they kind of go in the tank because you get comfortable. I feel like not so much to justify it, but I have bigger expectations than just a contract. You hear that all the time, but I definitely want to be a guy that when my playing days are over with and they think about the Seahawks, they think about big Red Bryant."

710ESPN Seattle passes along comments from Seahawks coach Pete Carroll regarding Russell Wilson's arm strength.
Back and forth the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints went until finally time ran out with the 49ers leading, 36-32.

One of the more memorable games in NFL playoff history produced four lead changes in the final minutes. It also produced the five largest one-play swings in win probability during the divisional round, according to Alok Pattani of ESPN's analytics team.

We've been charting the most pivotal plays from NFC West games all season. Pattani calculates a percentage shift based on how similar plays have impacted games in similar situations over the years. The chart puts numbers to the wild emotional swings felt during the final minutes.

"You're going to live or die in these games -- we lived," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game. "We move on, and we move on in spectacular fashion."

The 49ers and Saints combined for the five most pivotal plays from the divisional round. The top two plays -- Alex Smith's winning 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis and the 66-yarder New Orleans scored a bit earlier -- created the largest one-play swings in the playoffs this season.

Smith's 28-yard run for the go-ahead touchdown also shows up on the list. The 49ers trailed by one point with 2:18 remaining at the time. They were already in field-goal range. As a result, the team might have been better off, strictly from a win-percentage standpoint, had Smith fallen to the ground inbounds short of the goal line.

The Saints had only one timeout remaining. The 49ers could have run down the clock before kicking a field goal with less than a minute left. I wouldn't fault Smith for taking the touchdown, however. He was playing aggressively. The 49ers are strong on defense. Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats took a closer look at the tradeoffs.

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Rapid Reaction: 49ers 36, Saints 32

January, 14, 2012
1/14/12
8:16
PM ET


SAN FRANCISCO -- Thoughts after the San Francisco 49ers' 36-32 divisional playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints on Saturday at Candlestick Park:

What it means: The 49ers are headed to the NFC title game against the winner of the New York Giants-Green Bay Packers game Sunday. They will play at home if the Giants win. They will visit Green Bay if the Packers win. Alex Smith and Vernon Davis showed their playoff mettle in leading the 49ers back from fourth-quarter deficits not once, but twice. This will go down as one of the great games in 49ers history and in NFL postseason history.

What I liked: Smith's winning 14-yard touchdown pass to Davis showed the 49ers were playing to win, not for overtime. On the 49ers' previous drive, Smith's 37-yard strike to Davis up the left sideline and 28-yard touchdown run on a beautifully executed keeper put the 49ers ahead with 2:11 remaining. The 49ers played the game on their terms early, delivering punishing hits while hawking the ball. They forced three first-quarter turnovers and built a 17-3 lead. Dashon Goldson outfoxed Drew Brees to pick off one pass. Tarell Brown made an athletic play for another interception. Smith capitalized on the turnovers, finding Davis for a 49-yard touchdown and Michael Crabtree for a 4-yarder that showed San Francisco has indeed made progress in the red zone recently. Donte Whitner in particular roughed up the Saints, knocking out running back Pierre Thomas with a concussion and pounding tight end Jimmy Graham. The defense held firm after the 49ers suffered their first turnover in six games, right before halftime.

What I didn't like: The 49ers' defense, ranked fourth overall in yards allowed per game during the regular season, gave up go-ahead pass plays covering 44 and 66 yards in the final five minutes. The 49ers forced four first-half turnovers and still led by only three. Smith paid for the aggressive offensive plan, taking third-down sacks, including one that led to the 49ers' first turnover since a Week 12 game at Baltimore. Crabtree, after making his scoring grab, had trouble holding onto the ball on contested throws. The 49ers needed him to win those battles. Goldson went for the big hit on Marques Colston, but Brees led Colston away from trouble, producing a 31-yard gain when the 49ers led by only six points in the third quarter. Frank Gore had seven drops during the season and had a hard time throwing in this game, sending one back to Smith on a hop to sap the potential from a trick play. The 49ers' defense cracked with the game on the line, allowing Darren Sproles' go-ahead 44-yard touchdown reception.

Play calling raised eyebrows: The 49ers' aggressiveness on offense led them away from the ground game. The early passing helped the 49ers take a 14-0 lead with scoring passes to Davis and Crabtree. Pass plays continued outnumbering runs as the game progressed, however, and the 49ers did not get into a rhythm on the ground. The 49ers had 29 pass attempts and 15 rushes through three quarters. They also had taken four sacks to that point, widening the disparity. The strategy was easy to question because the 49ers' wide receivers were not playing at a high level.

Defensive player of the year: It would be tough to argue against the 49ers' Justin Smith, the team's most consistent and consistently dominant player. Smith's brute power won out when he sacked Brees on third down when the 49ers absolutely needed a stop in the third quarter. Later, with 49ers up only three, Smith drove Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod into Brees for a sack. These were Reggie White-type plays at critical moments.

Injury notes: The 49ers got receiver Ted Ginn Jr. back from injury, but Ginn spent as much time on the exercise bike as on the field, it seemed. His knee was a problem. Ginn had trouble getting much traction in the return game and was called for pass interference late in the third quarter. Officials flagged receiver Kyle Williams for offensive interference on the next play. Both calls appeared straightforward. The Saints declined both.

What's next: The NFC title game.

XTRA910 audio: Fisher, 49ers and more

January, 13, 2012
1/13/12
6:00
PM ET
Among the subjects discussed during my latest conversation with Dan Bickley and Mike Jurecki on XTRA Sports 910 AM:
This conversation tied together some themes we've been discussing on the blog this week, throwing in a couple others. Thanks to XTRA for making available the audio.
Jim Harbaugh and Sean Payton Getty ImagesCoaches Jim Harbaugh and Sean Payton will go head-to-head on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET).
OK, so the New Orleans Saints' and San Francisco 49ers' head coaches won't be bonding over the phone this week.

No problem.

NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas and I are here to set the record straight heading into the Saints-49ers divisional playoff game Saturday.

We'll get right to the pressing issues, starting with those preseason blitzing shenanigans 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh brushed off Monday.

Mike Sando: I've got no reason to think the Saints' radio voice, Jim Henderson, was anything but truthful when he said Sean Payton ordered extra blitzes against the 49ers in the preseason opener after Harbaugh supposedly failed to call Payton before the game. I've also never heard of protocol requiring coaches to work out a "gentleman's agreement" regarding how to approach preseason games.

Pat Yasinskas: We're talking about two coaches with very strong personalities. Payton and Harbaugh both are extremely competitive and you can include New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in that category. The Saints blitzed more than any team during the regular season. But there's no doubt all the blitzing in the preseason game was a bit over the top. There's also no doubt Harbaugh and the 49ers will remember that and that could provide some extra motivation. I expect both teams to be very feisty. That's not a bad thing for the Saints. Their defense hasn't been great and the extra edginess could help them.

Mike Sando: Shall we step outside, you and me? I kid, but count me among those questioning the Saints' performance outdoors. I realize New Orleans has won plenty on the road, but the Saints averaged only 23.8 points in their four most recent outdoor games (Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Jacksonville). They averaged 41.1 points at home during the regular season and nearly as much in all their 11 indoor games. What's the truth about the Saints' offense and how well it travels?

Pat Yasinskas: The numbers don't lie. Tennessee was a decent team. The Bucs had not yet fallen apart when they beat the Saints. The level of competition was fairly high in those games. But the Panthers and Jaguars were not good teams. That shows there definitely is something to the perception the Saints aren't the same team outdoors. Obviously, Drew Brees and the passing game are best suited for a dome. But I think the one thing that's overlooked, and something that could be a big factor, is the New Orleans running game. The Saints run the ball well and have gotten better in that area as the season has gone on. Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory bring a nice mix of speed and power. I think we could see more of the Saints' running game than usual in this one.

Mike Sando: The 49ers will welcome the challenge. Arian Foster, Felix Jones, LeGarrette Blount, Jahvid Best and Montario Hardesty are among the NFL backs the 49ers have injured since preseason. They roughed up LeSean McCoy, too. Unless Marshawn Lynch suddenly shows up in this game — and, hey, the Saints wouldn't want to see him, either — the 49ers' run defense should be OK. I still think getting to Brees is the key. But as John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information pointed out, Brees has completed a league-high 52.1 percent of his passes over the past two seasons while throwing under duress.

Pat Yasinskas: Although Brees is good against the blitz, believe it or not, he is human. He can make mistakes when pressured. He threw 22 interceptions in 2010. The 49ers' best chance to slow Brees is to pressure him.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireThe Saints should have their hands full preparing for the likes of 49ers QB Alex Smith.
Mike Sando: Two contributors to the NFC West blog, ArmedWithWings and ncannelora, suggested the 49ers’ All-Pro inside linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, would give San Francisco the personnel and flexibility to defend Brees’ passes to tight end Jimmy Graham and the Saints’ running backs. That would separate the 49ers from just about every Saints opponent this season.

Pat Yasinskas: The Saints are going to score some points, even against good defenses. But I'm thinking outside the box on this game. I'm thinking the New Orleans defense could determine this game. This is not a defense that's going to shut anyone down. But Williams' defenses are built around the theory that coming up with turnovers is the key. That was a strength in the 2009 season, when the Saints won the Super Bowl. The Saints have not been as opportunistic this season or in 2010. If they're going to win, that needs to change. If the Saints can come up with a turnover or two, they'll win. If they don't, they could be in trouble.

Mike Sando: San Francisco has committed only 10 turnovers all season, fewest in the league. The 49ers also led the NFL in turnovers forced. I wonder, though, if the 49ers will have to take more chances offensively to keep pace with the Saints. And as Scott Kacsmar noted recently, teams with historically strong turnover numbers during the regular season have often made quick postseason exits. In fact, the five teams with the fewest regular-season turnovers since 2008 have gone 0-5 in the playoffs, committing 17 turnovers in those games. The 49ers cannot follow that pattern. Conventional wisdom says they need to run the ball with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. That is true. But keep an eye on Alex Smith. He has quietly relished proving the doubters wrong this season. He has only five interceptions all season and has played a role in five fourth-quarter comeback victories.

Pat Yasinskas: We must be fairly persuasive guys. We've managed to talk each other into thinking the other teams can win. Should be a good one Saturday. See you at the 'Stick.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 28, 2011
12/28/11
12:08
PM ET
Drew BreesDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireDrew Brees broke Dan Marino's 27-year-old single-season passing record Monday night.
Breaking Dan Marino's single-season record for passing yardage enhanced Drew Brees' MVP credentials even if Aaron Rodgers remains the favorite on your imaginary ballot.

The manner in which Brees broke the record shouldn't matter too much in the end because Brees needed only 15 games to break it. Yes, the Saints kept passing during their blowout victory over Atlanta solely because they wanted Brees to get the record. But if the record hadn't fallen Monday night, Brees likely would have claimed it against Carolina in Week 17 -- a game the Saints must win for any shot at the NFC's second seed in the playoffs.

One thing I wanted to know, however, was to what degree Marino chased Dan Fouts' previous record with the same sense of purpose. A trip back into 1984 showed Marino taking a different, more organic path to the record.

Marino entered the 1984 regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys with a chance to clinch home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs.

A week earlier, Marino had thrown four second-half touchdown passes to turn a 17-7 deficit into a 35-17 victory over Indianapolis. Needing just 19 yards against the Cowboys to break Fouts' record, Marino closed the season with a 340-yard effort featuring the winning 63-yard touchdown pass to Mark Clayton with 51 seconds remaining.

The Cowboys had tied the game with 1:47 remaining on a deflected 66-yard pass that Tony Hill caught off the rebound.

"The final moments were as stunning and sensational as in any game this season," the New York Times' Michael Janofsky wrote at the time.

Marino was the MVP, of course. Brees, despite his record-setting ways, stands second on our list again this week. Rodgers has more touchdown passes and fewer interceptions for a team with a better record and a Week 1 victory over Brees' Saints. But if Green Bay rests Rodgers and its starters while Brees outduels Cam Newton in Week 17, then what?

The trade agreement that would send Reggie Bush to the Miami Dolphins affirms once again the St. Louis Rams' apparent preference for lower-profile transactions in free agency.

Bush would have fit nicely, at least in theory, as a third-down back and change of pace for Rams starter Steven Jackson.

Adding Bush also would have qualified as a flashy move. St. Louis does not appear preoccupied with flashy moves at the moment.

The Rams have holes in their roster, but generally not at key positions. They're set with young starters or future starters at quarterback, offensive tackle, defensive end, middle linebacker and cornerback. They have numbers at wide receiver, but could still use an elite target at the position. They were mentioned as a possible suitor for Sidney Rice, who signed with Seattle, but how serious were the Rams? They could also use a right guard, backup running back and outside linebackers.

The team's reported preference for Jason Snelling and Jerome Harrison over Bush or Darren Sproles also shows the Rams want their backup running back to bring more to the table than specialized skills suited for a limited role. Snelling carried 24 times for 129 yards against Arizona last season, carrying the load effectively for Atlanta after the Falcons lost Michael Turner to injury. Snelling has three career games with at least 24 carries. Harrison has four career games with at least 29 attempts. Bush has never carried more than 21 times in a game.

Snelling or Harrison would provide insurance should an injury sideline Jackson for entire games. Bush would have given the Rams a player to supplement Jackson situationally.

NFC West free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
3:28
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

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

Arizona Cardinals

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

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

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

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

St. Louis Rams

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

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

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

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

Seattle Seahawks

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

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

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

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

San Francisco 49ers

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

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

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

Top five free agents: Smith, Franklin, outside linebacker Manny Lawson, center David Baas, linebacker Takeo Spikes.

Around the NFC West: Tillman in HOF?

July, 5, 2011
7/05/11
11:05
AM ET
Arizona Cardinals

Ken Whisenhunt spent the Fourth of July weekend visiting military installations in Kuwait and Iraq as part of the NFL-USO Coaches Tour.

Former Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth is making a push to get Pat Tillman inducted into the Hall of Fame.

San Francisco 49ers

Despite organizing workouts and coaching up players this offseason, the 49ers have not promised Alex Smith the starting job and may bring in a veteran to compete with him when the lockout ends.

Aldon Smith, the No. 7 overall pick in April's draft, will be switching positions from defensive end to linebacker.

Seattle Seahawks

Former Seahawks tackle Walter Jones has no regrets about calling it quits prior to the 2010 season

St. Louis Rams

Darren Sproles could be an appealing option to back up Steven Jackson.

The first preseason game of 2011 -- the Hall of Fame Game between the Chicago Bears and the St. Louis Rams -- is still on track according to the Hall's president.
The later-than-usual kickoff for the NFC West chat hopefully worked better for those unable to participate earlier in the day.

I'm getting enough questions about NFC West running backs to consider running a poll asking which player is best, Frank Gore or Steven Jackson. First, though, a few chat highlights followed by some closing thoughts.
Nathan (DC): No one seems to think the Seahawks will win the division this year. The Rams have Sam Bradford, the Cardinals just need a quarterback, Jim Harbaugh is the next great coach, etc. But Seattle seems to be building its team the right way, and I have a hard time doubting Pete Carroll. Your thoughts?

Mike Sando: Those concepts aren't exclusive. In fact, we could even say Seattle's decision to do this "the right way" by overhauling the roster and building from the inside out has contributed to perceptions that they will not fare as well in the near term. The Seahawks have said they're building this for the long haul. They will of course try to compete in the meantime, and last year showed they do have a chance.

Henery (Florida): Five years from now, who do you think will have the best offensive line?

Mike Sando: Five years is forever in the NFL, but I get what you are asking. Let's rephrase the question this way: Which NFC West offensive line appears set up best for long-term success? I would start with the 49ers based on what we've seen from Mike Iupati, plus the significant investment through the draft (three recent first-rounders in starting roles). I might lean toward the Seahawks next based on Russell Okung's presence and the investment made in the 2011 draft. The Rams would be next. They have some question marks at guard. Center Jason Brown might need a strong year. Jason Smith's concussion history is a concern. The Cardinals would be last simply because they haven't invested significant draft resources in their line since selecting Levi Brown.

tomas (Los Angeles): Does Darren Sproles have any gas left in his tank, and do you think he would fit in Rams new offensive system?

Mike Sando: Sproles is talented enough to fit in any system as a situational back. I would applaud the Rams for adding him, but the value might not be right. Sproles turns 28 this month. The Rams are going to give the ball to Steven Jackson most of the time. Spending big on a long-term deal for Sproles wouldn't make sense.

Scott (Northglenn, CO): Who is a sleeper at receiver that you can see having a surprisingly good year? Danario Alexander, Ben Obomanu, Early Doucet, Mark Clayton?

Mike Sando: Those are good names to consider. Don't forget about the Cardinals' Andre Roberts. He progressed last season and could factor, particularly if Early Doucet doesn't seize a greater role in the offense. One thing to consider for Arizona: Patrick Peterson can factor in the return game, perhaps lessening the need to keep an extra receiver active on game days. Just a thought.

The questions about receivers hinge so much on what happens at quarterback. We know Larry Fitzgerald is going to get his 85-plus catches. Some of those secondary receivers need a healthier offense to get their catches, as when Arizona had three 1,000-yard receivers a few years ago.

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