NFC West: Darren woodard
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
The team announced the first incarnation of the practice squad Sunday afternoon and each of the members spent the preseason and training camp with the team. Here's the list: receivers Emory Blake and Justin Veltung, cornerback Darren Woodard, defensive ends Sammy Brown and Mason Brodine, safety Cody Davis, offensive tackle Sean Hooey and fullback Eric Stevens.
Perhaps notable in his absence is quarterback Austin Davis, who spent the 2012 season as the team's third quarterback and was among the 20 cuts the team made Saturday. He's still eligible for the practice squad but for now is not a part of the organization. Right now, the Rams are carrying two quarterbacks on the roster, Sam Bradford and Kellen Clemens, with none on the practice squad.
Making matters more interesting was the absence of Clemens from Sunday's practice. Coach Jeff Fisher declined to comment on the absence.
"I'm not going to discuss the roster, who is here, who is not," Fisher said. "We'll have an injury report for you during the week in the regular season."
Since the Rams have just five receivers on the active roster, it's no surprise that they opted to bring two back to the practice squad. Hooey was a project the Rams seemed to like early in camp but was sidetracked by injury. Brodine appeared to narrowly miss a spot on the active roster, losing a close battle to Gerald Rivers for a likely ninth spot among defensive linemen.
Woodard made a late surge but fell short of winning the fifth cornerback job and Davis did the same at safety. Stevens was the lone true fullback on the roster in preseason and can at least give scout team looks at that position for the weeks when Rams play some of the teams that still carry someone at the position.
Brown spent a big chunk of 2012 with the practice squad and then the active roster the final five games.
Safety Matt Daniels had his right arm in a sling and was dressed in street clothes for the short portion of practice open to the media. Tight end Cory Harkey (leg) was on crutches and also not available for practice.
As the Rams go into regular-season mode, it's unlikely any updates will be available until the injury report comes out Wednesday for Sunday's game against Arizona.
The Rams are not scheduled to have practice again until Wednesday.
WR Tavon Austin, first round, No. 8 overall: Austin didn’t sit out completely like the rest of the projected starters, but made no more than a cameo with eight snaps on offense and one on special teams. He was targeted three times and made three catches for 26 yards. The only punt return he dropped back for was booted out of bounds.
LB Alec Ogletree, first round, No. 30 overall: One of the busiest rookies, Ogletree played 25 defensive snaps and four on special teams. He finished with two tackles in unofficial pressbox statistics. Ogletree needed all the reps he could get during this preseason and played more snaps than any defender during the exhibition slate.
S T.J. McDonald, third round, No. 71 overall: McDonald played a dozen snaps and another on special teams as one of the few regulars to make the start. He made one tackle in unofficial pressbox statistics. Progress was evident in McDonald’s first preseason, and he nailed down a starting spot.
WR Stedman Bailey, third round, No. 92 overall: Bailey continued to get steady work, playing 22 snaps on offense and four on special teams. Bailey had three targets and made two catches for 38 yards. He was a bit shaky on the balls he caught, more so than he had been throughout preseason, but still managed to haul in a couple catches. He showed some willingness on special teams, leading the charge on punt coverage once.
OL Barrett Jones, fourth round, No. 113 overall: Jones continued to get extensive work as the Rams try to get him up to speed, playing 57 snaps on offense and six more on special teams. Jones seemed to be a bit more comfortable than he’s been in the previous three games. He’s going to make the roster, no doubt about that, but it will be interesting to see if the Rams feel good enough about his state of readiness to part ways with Tim Barnes, who plays a similar role.
CB Brandon McGee, fifth round, No. 149 overall: McGee is nursing some sort of unknown injury and didn’t play Thursday night. Last week against Denver, McGee played one play on special teams and none defensively. It doesn’t appear that he’s got a serious ailment, but until we know the extent of it, his status for Week 1 remains in doubt.
RB Zac Stacy, fifth round, No. 160 overall: Seemingly healthy and ready to go for the first time in the preseason, Stacy got his first extensive work of the exhibition season. He played 25 snaps on offense, finishing with 37 yards on 11 carries, including a 1-yard touchdown run. There wasn’t a ton of room to work, but Stacy’s short-yardage and goal-line ability might be enough to garner chances in those situations when the regular season comes.
Undrafted Rookie Roundup: Two undrafted rookies that have made positive impressions all along showed up again Thursday night -- running back Benny Cunningham and linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong. … Cunningham played 18 snaps on offense, 12 on special teams and was the sharpest of the team’s backs. He had eight carries for 76 yards and likely solidified a roster spot. … Armstrong was active again at linebacker and on special teams, playing 30 snaps on the former and 20 on the latter. He had another big hit and finished with a tackle and pass defended. … End Gerald Rivers made one final push to make the final roster, leading the team in tackles with six and tossing in a sack, three tackles for loss and a hurry in a defense-high 61 snaps. … It remains to be seen whether it will be enough, but cornerback Darren Woodard was sticky in coverage again on his 57 snaps before he left the game with an apparent hamstring issue. If nothing else, Woodard showed enough in the final two preseason games to merit practice squad consideration.
The Rams close out their exhibition slate Thursday night against Baltimore at the Edward Jones Dome. That game represents one final opportunity for players who haven't already secured a spot to either change the mind of the Rams' coaching staff or confirm what coach Jeff Fisher and Co. already know.
"Our focus is on winning the game and in addition to that we still need to continue to evaluate players, finish up strong and work on a few areas," Fisher said. "There could be some jobs decided, yes."
The Rams roster isn't in the same state of flux it was in 2012 when Fisher and general manager Les Snead took over and began a drastic remodeling project. But there are still a handful of jobs that could go either way. Here's a look at six Rams who have a chance to help themselves in the preseason finale.
CB Darren Woodard: Woodard helped himself in a big way with his performance against Denver last week and not just because of his second interception. Woodard was sticky in coverage and unafraid to come up and tackle. The Rams kept five corners last year and if they do so again this year, Woodard would have to supplant returner Quinton Pointer. Pointer didn't play much at all against the Broncos and has been banged up off and on during camp. Another strong showing from Woodard could make the Rams think twice.
OL Brandon Washington: After working exclusively at guard last year, Washington has been pressed into duty at right tackle during this preseason because of injuries to Rodger Saffold, Joe Barksdale and others. The good news for Washington is that added versatility equals increased opportunity. If the Rams keep only eight offensive linemen it might be hard for Washington to win a spot, but if he can show something at tackle, he might be able to make a case to be a possible ninth.
WR Justin Veltung: The first five receivers are a given, leaving a possible sixth spot up for grabs between Veltung and Nick Johnson. It's not given the Rams keep six, but Veltung has been a pleasant surprise since the Rams signed him a couple of days into camp. Making some catches wouldn't hurt, but Veltung can punch his ticket with some good special teams work, including some return opportunities.
RB Chase Reynolds: You'd be hard pressed to find a more selfless player in the locker room than Reynolds, who has been a dutiful contributor on the practice squad and scout team the past two years. With Isaiah Pead suspended in Week 1, the Rams already figure to have the three backs to handle the carries but they will have a roster exemption and Reynolds has been heavily involved in first unit special teams in the preseason. Even if only for the first week of the season, Reynolds could follow Veltung's lead and sew up a spot with some contributions on special teams.
DE Gerald Rivers: Rivers has been the undrafted rookie to catch the Rams' eye in this preseason, following in the footsteps of defensive tackle Matt Conrath from last year. When Eugene Sims was absent tending to the death of his mother, Rivers got opportunities to work with the first-team defense against Green Bay and held his own. The Rams have eight linemen they'll keep for sure, but pass-rushers are considered a premium by Fisher and staff. A strong performance against the Ravens could help convince the Rams to keep Rivers on the 53 rather than try to pass him through waivers to get to the practice squad.
TE Zach Potter: Potter helped himself a bit last week with a touchdown catch late in the Denver game but he's not here for his pass-catching abilities. Potter is one of two tight ends (Cory Harkey is the other) who will routinely go work with the offensive line in the one-on-one pass-rush drills. While Harkey is considered the team's first option as a true blocking tight end, he's also dealing with an injury that could keep him out for a little while. If that's the case, Potter could cement his spot in the tight end crew with what figures to be plenty of playing time Thursday night.