NFC West: David Carr

Good afternoon. NFC West blog headquarters will be relocating from the Northwest to Indianapolis for Super Bowl week.

The plane I'm riding in, a Boeing 757, is traveling 565 mph at 35,637 feet, according to tracking software. I'll be connecting through Atlanta, so this will be a full travel day.

Once situated in Indy, I'll be helping with our Super Bowl coverage, with an eye toward this division. Josh McDaniels, David Baas, Bear Pascoe, David Carr, Rocky Bernard, Jimmy Kennedy, Deon Grant, Antrel Rolle, Isaiah Stanback, Deion Branch, Niko Koutouvides, Tracy White and Andre Carter are among the NFC West alumni currently with the Super Bowl participants.

Quite a few current NFC West players will be filtering through Indianapolis for various events during the week. I'll be catching up with some of them.

The week will conclude with Hall of Fame voting, followed by the Super Bowl itself. I don't have a strong feeling as to which team will win the game. Both should like their chances. I did pick New England to win it all before the season -- one of the few predictions that remains on track -- so I'll likely stick with the Patriots when ESPN solicits staffers' predictions later in the week.

Here's hoping this Sunday treats you well.

Update: Yes, I made it to Indy. Grabbed a sandwich tonight with AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley. Will be heading over to ESPN's Super Bowl headquarters downtown on Monday morning.

Final Word: NFC West

October, 14, 2011
10/14/11
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 6:

Putting Carlos Rogers to the test. Detroit's Jim Schwartz and San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh pointed to the 49ers' front seven when asked why the team has improved in its secondary. The 49ers have had a strong front seven for years, but so clearly something else is different. Doug Clawson of ESPN Stats & Information passes along this note: Rogers, new to the 49ers this season, leads NFL defensive backs with three picks on passes traveling more than 10 yards downfield. The 49ers allowed 10 touchdowns with six interceptions on these throws last season. The TD-to-INT ratio is 2-to-7 this season. Let's see if the trend holds against the Lions. Matt Stafford is tied with Aaron Rodgers for the most scoring passes on these throws. Stafford has seven, five to Calvin Johnson.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Bruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireThe Lions' Matthew Stafford, among the league's best passers on first downs, has had some trouble producing on third downs.
Attacking the Lions on third down. Stafford has seven touchdown passes with only one interception on first down this season, matching Rodgers for the best totals in the league. The production hasn't been consistent on third down. Stafford has completed only 50.9 percent of his third-down passes, with two touchdowns, two interceptions and weak efficiency numbers (22.3 Total QBR, 71.3 NFL passer rating). The absence of a conventional ground game could, in theory, set up more third-and-long situations. But according to John Parolin of ESPN Stats & Information, that isn't necessarily the case. A lower than average percentage of the Lions' third-down plays (44.1) have required at least eight yards for a first down. Stafford's first-down-conversion percentage (26.9) on these third-and-long plays ranks only 15th. That lags behind Alex Smith (31.2) and Tarvaris Jackson (30.0). There's been some boom to go with the bust on third-and-long for the Lions, however. Stafford ranks among the NFL's top three in touchdowns (two) and completions of 30 yards or longer (three) on third-and-8 or longer.

Watch for the play-action game. The Lions have thrown out of the shotgun formation more times than any team in the league. They also hand off from the shotgun, keeping teams honest enough for Stafford to lead the NFL in play-action passing in these three areas: completion percentage (80.0), Total QBR (97.5) and NFL passer rating (150.4). The 49ers rank fifth in completion percentage allowed against play-action (53.8), but only 28th in yards per attempt (10.5) and 31st in yards per reception (19.1). Why such a disparity? The Dallas Cowboys set up their 77-yard overtime reception against the 49ers in Week 2 with a play-action fake that worked beautifully. The 49ers' safeties need to stay disciplined.

Mismatch of all mismatches. The Green Bay Packers have scored more points in third quarters (49) than the St. Louis Rams have scored in all their games combined (46). Second quarters are often when teams hit their strides on offense. The Rams have only three second-quarter points all season. Green Bay has 44. Sure, the Packers have played one additional game, but that doesn't begin to account for the disparity. The Packers scored more points against Denver in Week 4 (49) than the Rams have scored this season.

Clay Matthews alert. The Rams' Sam Bradford has absorbed 18 sacks through four games, putting him on pace to take 72 of them over the season. That would rank tied for second in the sack era (since 1982) with Randall Cunningham, three behind David Carr's record. The Packers' Matthews has only one sack through five games. He had 8.5 sacks at this point last season, thanks to a pair of three-sack games. What's up? The Packers are using more three-man rushes. Cullen Jenkins is no longer around to attract attention from opposing lines. Matthews has also been dealing with a quadriceps injury. Might this be his get-well game?

NFC West Stock Watch

October, 4, 2011
10/04/11
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Anything with horns on it. The St. Louis Rams are 0-4 and the most disappointing team in the league. Media coverage in St. Louis is beginning to suggest trouble ahead for coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney if the Rams do not start winning. The Rams appear to have no answers and the schedule isn't getting any easier.

2. Sam Bradford, Rams QB. Opponents have sacked Bradford 18 times in four games. Bradford is on pace to absorb 72 sacks over a 16-game season. That would tie Bradford with Randall Cunningham for the second most since at least 1982, when sacks became an official stat. David Carr set the record with 75 sacks in 2002. Carr never recovered from the beating he took early in his career. The punishment Bradford is taking could threaten his long-term outlook.

3. Coach Ken Whisenhunt, Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals have lost 12 of their last 15 games, including three in a row this season despite making a substantial investment at quarterback. That'll hurt any coach's stock.

[+] EnlargeFrank Gore
Rich Schultz /Getty ImagesFrank Gore rushed for 127 yards and a score in the 49ers' win over the Eagles.
RISING

1. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers RB. There were too many worthy candidates and too few spaces to honor them all. Gore's stock value improved the most from a week ago, when he struggled against Cincinnati, suffered an ankle injury and then watched Kendall Hunter start ahead of him in Week 4. Gore responded by leading the 49ers past Philadelphia with 127 yards and the winning touchdown. Coach Jim Harbaugh, linebacker NaVorro Bowman, defensive end Justin Smith and the entire 49ers offensive line deserve mention here. All would have been worthy choices.

2. Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle Seahawks QB. There were no indications Jackson was about to pass for 319 yards with three touchdowns against the Atlanta Falcons. The performance should quiet critics clamoring for the Seahawks to bench Jackson in favor of Charlie Whitehurst. Jackson took no sacks in this game. His offensive line deserves partial credit for that, but Jackson was the one who took advantage. He was the one whose stock jumped the most in Seattle.

3. Beanie Wells, Arizona Cardinals RB. It's still a mystery how the Cardinals could lose with Wells carrying 27 times for 138 yards and three touchdowns. Wells' physical running played a huge role in Arizona's ability to build a 27-17 fourth-quarter lead over the New York Giants. He's averaging 107 yards rushing per game, second to Darren McFadden among players with at least 20 carries this season. He's also leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns with five. Give some credit to the Cardinals' offensive line as well.

Kevin Kolb and QBs avoiding sacks

August, 25, 2011
8/25/11
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Several years ago, when the Houston Texans were transitioning away from David Carr to Matt Schaub, I asked one of their assistants how the team planned to reduce sacks allowed.

Mike Sherman, the Texans' offensive coordinator at the time, said quarterbacks are usually most responsible for how many sacks a team allows. Carr's offensive line obviously played a role in the 249 sacks he had absorbed over a five-year period. But line play could not account for the Texans' rate of sacks-per-pass-attempt plummeting from 8.9 percent in Carr's final season to 4.2 percent in Schaub's first season.

How quarterbacks deal with pressure matters tremendously.

That context came to mind recently when Larry Fitzgerald told Sports 620 KTAR what he liked about new Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb.

"The thing I like about him is that he gets the ball out of his hands quick," Fitzgerald told the station, according to sportsradiointerviews.com. "He makes very fast decisions and he is going to give me an opportunity to go make plays, which is something that any receiver would be licking their chops for."

The Cardinals allowed sacks on 8.9 percent of pass attempts. Only the Chicago Bears, Carolina Panthers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders allowed higher percentages. All had shaky quarterback situations or, in the Steelers' and Bears' cases, quarterbacks known for taking sacks.

Kolb needs to work on this area of his game. He took 15 sacks and had 189 pass attempts. That works out to 7.9 percent, which would have ranked 25th in the league among teams last season. Indianapolis (2.4), the New York Giants (3.0), New Orleans Saints (3.9) and Atlanta Falcons (4.0) led the NFL in that statistic last season. Their quarterbacks had quite a bit to do with those percentages.
Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper and San Diego's Jim Harbaugh were the starting quarterbacks for a Vikings-Chargers preseason game on Aug. 12, 2000.

Culpepper
Culpepper
That was a long, long time ago by NFL standards. Enough time has passed to encompass nearly all of Culpepper's playing career, and for Harbaugh to have held three head coaching jobs in the interim.

Culpepper, now 34 and out of the NFL since the 2009 season, seems an unlikely candidate to provide veteran depth for the Harbaugh-coached San Francisco 49ers.

"We're going to bring in Daunte in for a workout and kick the tires," Harbaugh told reporters Sunday."I'm looking forward to that."

Two questions come to mind immediately: Culpepper? Really?

The 49ers' plans to add a veteran backup for the regular season are well founded. Starter Alex Smith has had injury problems. He took a beating in the first preseason game. Rookie backup Colin Kaepernick needs seasoning.

If the 49ers added Culpepper, they could carry him through camp, see how he fares, then reassess later in the process -- after other quarterbacks become available through release.

The 49ers released David Carr earlier this offseason because he was making solid No. 2 quarterback money and the team didn't value him at that level after re-signing Smith and using a second-round pick for Kaepernick.

Culpepper would sign for the veteran's minimum, presumably, and without guaranteed money. He spent last season playing for the UFL franchise in Sacramento.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Seahawks rookie Mark LeGree worked manual labor during the lockout to help make ends meet. O'Neil: "LeGree did what he had done between his junior and senior seasons in college: He got a job working for a general contractor in Boone, N.C. He put up awnings and spread gravel and mulch. He knocked down a rock wall and built another one."

Also from O'Neil: He has a hard time believing the Seahawks have moved on from Matt Hasselbeck. O'Neil: "It's hard for me to believe that Seattle will not offer Hasselbeck the chance to re-sign. Now, it's possible the Seahawks won't increase their offer for Hasselbeck to re-sign, but that's something very different from stating Seattle won't even make a final offer to Hasselbeck. That would truly be a remarkable turn of events considering this offseason began with coach Pete Carroll's statement he considered Hasselbeck the team's starting quarterback and that re-signing him was the top priority. That was January. A lot of time has passed since then, and the two sides failed to reach an agreement in March. Seattle must prepare for the possibility Hasselbeck won't be back. After all, he's not under contract and he's going to be the top free-agent quarterback available. He very well may not be back. It's just hard for me to believe the door has been closed."

Bucky Brooks of NFL.com touches on several free agents from NFC West teams, suggesting where they would and would not fit in 2011. He likes Sidney Rice's prospects in St. Louis, but has this to say about Hasselbeck possibly returning to Seattle: "Hasselbeck has repeatedly stated his desire to return to Seattle, but the team is poised to transition at the position. The Seahawks paid a hefty sum to acquire Charlie Whitehurst a season ago, and they need to see if he has the goods to become a franchise quarterback. Also, the team's reluctance to get a deal done prior to the lockout suggests the front office isn't completely sold on Hasselbeck as their starter in 2011. Without a strong commitment from the team to remain on board, Hasselbeck would be better served to look for greener pastures."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com revisits Jack Patera's final season coaching the team (1982). The strike made this a strange season. Patera was fishing during the strike when he received word of his firing. Patera later said he expected to coach the team for years to come. He never coached again. Patera: "Who in the hell would get a hold of me with a truck parked in the woods on the river? They had to come about 16 miles and up the road another four or five, and at the time I thought, you know, there’s something wrong with my family, or my child, or whatever."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic looks at the role Larry Fitzgerald will play in the Cardinals' coming quarterback acquisition. He points to Kevin Kolb as the leading candidate. Somers: "The Cardinals must be concerned about what impact signing a veteran such as Hasselbeck or the Ravens' Marc Bulger would have on their effort to re-sign Fitzgerald this fall. Will Fitzgerald be as anxious to sign another multi-year contract if the guy throwing him the ball has only a couple of years left, at most? The Cardinals have asked themselves that question. Their answer is one reason they will pursue Kolb." Adding Kolb would make the Cardinals more intriguing heading into the season. How well would he fit their offense? Would he succeed right away? Would he make the Cardinals more competitive right away? Would he justify whatever price Kolb would command for the Eagles?

Also from Somers: He has a hard time seeing how Arizona could open training camp at Northern Arizona University before Aug. 1 or Aug. 2.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com offers thoughts on what 46-man rosters could mean for the 49ers on game days. The expansion by one roster spot wipes out previous rules making it tougher for teams to use third-string quarterbacks. Maiocco: "Alex Smith is the clear favorite to win the starting job. I thought all along that Colin Kaepernick would be active as the No. 2 quarterback. That way, he could be used in specialty packages throughout a game to utilize his unique running and throwing skills. Veteran David Carr is the only other quarterback on the 49ers' roster, but his roster spot is not a sure thing. The 49ers could still add a veteran quarterback through free agency or a trade. They might also sign an undrafted rookie. If the 49ers go with another veteran quarterback on the roster, which seems likely, the 49ers might believe a player with experience would be in a better position than Kaepernick to play for long stretches." That thinking could come into play more strongly if Smith became unavailable early in the season. The team would have to think hard about turning over the job to Kaepernick for most of the season. Coach Jim Harbaugh has said the position will be competitive. I wouldn't rule out Kaepernick exceeding expectations in practice or exhibition games, based on his athletic ability.

Ray Ratto of CSNBayArea.com raises questions about the 49ers and Raiders possibly sharing a new stadium. Ratto: "For one, where does the stadium go? The 49ers would want it in Santa Clara, where they keep saying they are prepared to start construction. The Raiders would want it closer to Oakland, if not Oakland proper. Reason: The team that has to leave its fan base becomes a de facto tenant of the other, no matter how you draw up the partnership. In fact, the side that gave in would surely want monetary compensation for moving away from its fan base, and negotiation increases the possibility of impasse, rather than the other way around. For two, the NFL would have to solidly commit to the Bay Area as the next place for a league stadium loan, and there is no sense that the league is prepared to do that."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Boston College's Mark Herzlich could be a consideration for the 49ers as an undrafted free agent.

Also from Barrows: Justin Smith isn't worried about going through the offseason without the 49ers' defensive playbook. Players without much NFL experience are more vulnerable. Smith is right about team changing up game plans from week to week during the season, but younger players will need help with technique and broader concepts. They'll need to learn their coaches' language.

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers' rookies face challenges.

The San Francisco Chronicle has this to say about 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes: "Spikes has the full confidence of 49ers players as their union representative, and he keeps in touch with them through a steady stream of e-mails. He's also a free agent, and once this lockout is over, he might not be their teammate anymore. Spikes played well last year and said Friday he'd like to return, but with young players such as NaVorro Bowman and Scott McKillop behind him, he probably will not be a high priority for the 49ers when players can be signed."

Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat offers five 49ers storylines for training camp, including this one about the quarterbacks: "Can Alex Smith beat out rookie Colin Kaepernick for the starting quarterback job? Smith has never won a quarterback competition in his professional career -- he lost out to Shaun Hill in 2009 and J.T. O’Sullivan in 2008. Will Alex Smith actually win for once this August? Will he look better than mediocre in the process?"

Also from Cohn: A look at sure bets for the 49ers and an opinion suggesting Spikes is likely to re-sign.

Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis offers thoughts on free agency and says the 49ers' Aubrayo Franklin could appeal to teams running 4-3 schemes, not just 3-4 schemes. Softli: "This big man takes up a ton of space on the interior. His size, athletic ability and production to consistently command a double team and create plays inside make him a force to be dealt with and a valuable commodity. While several 3-4 teams will be fighting over his services, don't be surprised if a 4-3 defensive team doesn't snap him up; he is athletic enough to play in a 3-technique and beat up offensive guards on the pass rush, and moves well laterally vs. the run to flatten down the line of scrimmage with production."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with agents for the Rams and other players regarding what awaits in free agency following the lockout. Thomas: "This year, teams won't necessarily be able to 'ice' lesser free agents for a couple of months, waiting for the price to go down. If they do, the player won't be ready to play at the start of the regular season. On the other hand, agents won't be able to shop players as much as usual. With such a highly condensed time frame this year, if an agent says "give me a day to decide on your offer, he may not find the offer there in a day or two. The team may have gone on to the next guy on their list."

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams need to target a receiver in free agency to help out quarterback Sam Bradford. Miklasz: "If you need more convincing, all you have to do is go back to the final game of the 2010 regular season, when the Rams could have won the NFC West with a victory in Seattle. The Seahawks won by 10. The Rams scored six points and were held to 184 yards. The receivers couldn't get open. Jackson was often smothered. Bradford had nowhere to go with the football. It was an abysmal, futile performance. Do not forget that game. Get Sam some help."
Steve Carp of the Las Vegas Review-Journal says the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame will honor St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson, among others, at a ceremony Friday night. Jackson on Nevada's 1944 high school state champion football team, which will also be honored as well: "I would have loved to have been on that team; I would have gotten a whole lot more yards. But I would have also loved the challenge of playing against them, because what they did was remarkable, and as a football player, you always want to test yourself against the best. And those guys, for that time, were the best. They helped pave the way for me as well as the guys from Vegas who went into the NFL before me, and I'm honored to be going into the Hall of Fame with that team."

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams players were back on the field for practices in Arizona. Coats: "Wide receivers Donnie Avery and Brandon Gibson reported Thursday via Twitter that the four-day workout period had begun."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com revisits the free agents Arizona has signed in recent seasons. Bertrand Berry and Kurt Warner were among those that worked out best. Duane Starks? Not so well. Urban: "The bottom line is that, occasionally, help comes via free agency. More often than not, you acquire the best players through the draft because, aside from a player here or there, there is a reason a team lets a player go. Usually it’s because they don’t see him being worth the money he commands on the open market."

Also from Urban: a Cardinals chat with thoughts on the quarterback situation, specifically whether Matt Hasselbeck could wind up with Arizona. Urban: "That's a good question. Suddenly the Hasselbeck rumors have flared up in the last day or two (in no small part because guys like SI's Jim Trotter and Peter King have mentioned they don't think Hasselbeck will return to the Seahawks). I still think Kevin Kolb will be a top target. The funny thing is, these rumors continue with an ebb and flow and whether it's Bulger or Kolb or Orton or Hasselbeck popping up as a 'favorite,' nothing has happened to actually change any of those things. Talks aren't ongoing. Nothing is different."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com looks at the most impressive single-season receiving performances in franchise history. One more to consider: The year Joe Jurevicius caught 10 touchdown passes, easily a career high and badly needed amid injuries to other wideouts, in helping the Seahawks reach the Super Bowl.

Also from Farnsworth: a look at winning percentages for the Seahawks' starting quarterbacks.

More from Farnsworth: recalling the 1999 season, Seattle's first under Mike Holmgren. That team started 8-2 on its way to 9-7.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee offers Alex Smith's explanation for the apparent disconnect with receiver Michael Crabtree, who questioned Smith's role as the 49ers' starting quarterback. Smith: "I'm not even on the roster. I'm a free agent. I'm not on the roster. So for him to be confused as to the quarterback situation isn't the strangest thing in the world in my opinion. I can tell you Michael probably doesn't read all the stuff. A lot of guys -- we're in it so deep during the season that during the off-season sometimes the last thing you want to do is read up on what's going on. You have to get away a little bit and clear your head. So for him to be confused? I'm sure there's a lot of other guys confused on what the hell is going on. It's understandable. I don't think that's the strangest thing. I don't think that was a huge deal."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com passes along this quote regarding Alex Smith from running back Anthony Dixon: "Alex is pretty much up there and going through it like the offensive coordinator would. It's amazing how much he knows. He know the ins and outs and all the crazy (details) we got. It's great to hear. I'm behind him 100 percent because when your quarterback is out there speaking the offense as fluently as he is, it makes you feel like it's going to be a good year."

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat offers notes from the 49ers' practice Thursday. Rookie Aldon Smith arrived with veteran Justin Smith. Both played at Missouri.

Also from Branch: David Baas expects to return to the 49ers.

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says Smith has been helping rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle checks in with David Carr, who says 49ers coaches have told him there would be a competitive situation at quarterback. Will Carr be back? I do not see the fit with Smith as the presumptive starter heading into camp and Kaepernick as the longer-term starter. Carr has previously played for 49ers coaches, notably offensive coordinator Greg Roman. But it would be a bit unusual to have a third-string quarterback earning No. 2 money.
Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle passes along John Clayton's thoughts regarding Seahawks quarterback Charlie Whitehurst. Clayton thinks Whitehurst should be leading teammates in player-organized workouts. Clayton: "Part of the knock on him is that you know he's got talent, but does he have that desire to take over things? Does he have that leadership ability? To be a leader you have to lead. And the (time to lead is now) when you've got everybody scattered around trying to do it." It would reflect well on Whitehurst if he were leading well-organized workouts featuring large numbers of Seattle players. On the other hand, it's not like anyone else on the roster has been able to pull together the team this offseason. The Seahawks are not gathering in large numbers this offseason for a couple reasons. One, relatively few players live in the Northwest. Two, this is a roster in transition. Quite a few players are without contracts for 2011 and unsure whether they'll be back.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com revisits 1996, the year then-owner Ken Behring tried to relocate the team. Farnsworth: "One of the oddest twists to this whole deal involved David Behring and the team’s best player -- Cortez Kennedy, who balked at going to Anaheim because he had signed a contract with the Seattle Seahawks. Kennedy’s action was viewed as beyond defiant by Behring, who fumed that the team leader was not displaying the kind of leadership ownership deemed appropriate. ... Late that season, Behring and Kennedy found themselves at midfield at the Kingdome, as the club president presented Kennedy with the Steve Largent Award trophy that has been voted annually since 1989 to the player who best exemplifies the spirit, dedication and integrity of the Seahawks."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says nothing has changed on the quarterback front for the Cardinals. Somers: "Whenever they are able, the Cardinals will pursue a trade for Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb. Kolb had highs and lows last season, but if you are looking for reasons to be excited about him, check out this highlight video of his game against the Falcons. He completed 23 of 29 for 326 yards and three touchdowns against good defense."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com thinks an increasingly complex NFL game requires more offseason prep time for players. Urban: "Today’s playbook is more complicated. The premium placed on not turning the ball over is so much higher than it used to be (watch those 702s QBs huck the ball downfield in search of a big play; interceptions weren’t good but they weren’t as frowned upon as now). Running, running, running was much more commonplace. Precision in the passing game -- which takes reps -- wasn’t as important."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the San Francisco 49ers could use more wide receivers at their player-organized workouts. Barrows: "The only wide receivers on the 49ers roster who have not spent some time with Alex Smith in the Bay Area are Lance Long, Dominique Zeigler and ... wait for it ... Michael Crabtree. The 49ers signed Long to their practice squad in November. Zeigler is recovering from an ACL tear suffered in Week 12 this past season. Crabtree, meanwhile, recently has been working out on his own in the Bay Area, but he has yet to join the group of 49ers that works out together in the South Bay. David Carr said that the group intended to contact Crabtree and ask him to join their training session." It's tough to say Crabtree should be attending these sessions if he hasn't been invited.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says second-year 49ers nose tackle Ricky Jean-Francois continues to put in the necessary offseason work. Jean-Francois has moved closer to earning a college degree. Maiocco: "He spent the past three weeks in Baton Rouge, La., where he continues to get high offseason marks. In fact, Jean Francois scored an 'A' on Tuesday in his Caribbean Studies course at LSU. Completion of the course brings him 12 hours from earning his degree in general studies. Now, Jean Francois plans to head back to Miami, where he regularly works out with teammate Frank Gore and other NFL players at Bommarito Performance Systems."

3k of Turf Show Times takes a hard look at possibilities for the St. Louis Rams' offense with rookie tight end Lance Kendricks as a focal point. VanRam: "The use of the H-back allows for a TE to set up at multiple spots: TE, WR, FB or RB. By pushing the player around the formation, it forces some kind of response from the defense to adjust to the switch. Complicating things even further is the possibility of motion. The H-back can play off the line next to the traditional TE and motion into another position. Conversely, he can come out of the FB spot up into a receiving spot to begin the play." Using a second-round choice for Kendricks does signal the Rams' intentions offensively.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the 49ers' interest in bringing back Alex Smith leaves the team with many of the same questions it faced a year ago. Some of the answers are different this time. A year ago, the team was hoping stability at offensive coordinator would help Smith blossom into a solid starter. The backup heading into the season, David Carr, wasn't part of the long-term equation. It was Smith or bust for the 49ers. This year, the team still hopes Smith plays well, of course, but adding rookie Colin Kaepernick gives the 49ers a young prospect to develop. The team has a plan beyond Smith, changing how Smith's return should be analyzed.

Also from Maiocco: Kaepernick and Carr joined Smith for recent workouts.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee updates workout plans for the 49ers' 2011 draft choices.

More from Barrows: The 49ers' later-round picks live modestly while waiting out the lockout. Teams would normally provide basic needs for players during portions of the offseason, but not during the lockout.

Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle profiles 49ers first-round pick Aldon Smith, who played hurt at Missouri. FitzGerald: "Smith would like to work for the Drug Enforcement Agency when his pro football days are done, giving the law a pair of extremely long arms. Friends and family members say he has a fine singing voice and plays the drums for the church choir. It's also known that his pain threshold is very high, he's very loyal to his teammates and enjoys football so much that a broken leg is just an annoyance."

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says injury concerns allowed two 49ers draft choices, Kendall Hunter and Ronald Johnson, to remain available longer.

Also from Branch: The 49ers appear confident in their coaches' abilities based on how the team selected in the first three rounds, draft analyst Rob Rang said.

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams tight end Mike Hoomanawanui has high hopes for the team's offense under new coordinator Josh McDaniels. Hoomanawanui was one of the Ram's more impressive young players when healthy last season, but injuries sidelined him for stretches. Hoomanawanui: "Hopefully, I got my injuries out of the way my first year and I won't have to deal with that again. It's great to get back out here (during player-organized workouts) and see all the guys and get some team camaraderie going again. Obviously, everybody knows the situation (with the NFL lockout). Hopefully, we can get it settled soon and get back on the field with everybody."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams fullback Brit Miller is nearly five months into rehab on his way back from a torn ACL. He can sprint and is starting to work on changing direction. Miller: "That's kind of the final phase of the rehab on ACLs. I hope to get a full season this year, really prove what I can do at fullback. I know (fullback) is not a huge part of what every team does, but I want to be the best at whatever we do. So I look at it as one position: fullback/special teams." McDaniels has sometimes wanted his fullback types to project as runners when needed. Miller did not project as a runner before the injury he suffered against San Francisco late last season.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Leon Washington made a big enough dent in the team's records for return specialists to rank among the best in franchise history after only one season. Farnsworth: "Washington’s time obviously will come. In one season, he broke the game, season and career records for scoring returns -- which had been one, across the board. His 253 return yards against the Chargers broke the single-game record that had been held by Maurice Morris (231), and his 63.3-yard average in that game obliterated the previous record of 42.8 yards by Charlie Rogers. Washington also produced 1,461 yards for the season -- roughly half the career total of 2,843 by Morris, who ranks third behind Broussard (3,900) and Rogers (3,214); and third on the single-season list behind Josh Wilson (1,753) and Rogers (1,629)." To what degree will new kickoff rules prevent Washington from making an impact in the future?

Liz Mathews of 710ESPN Seattle passes along comments from Seahawks rookie safety Mark LeGree, who appeared on John Clayton's radio show Saturday. LeGree: "Even if I don't get a starting spot, I'm going to make the guy ahead of me work for his spot. On special teams? I love special teams. I know how big a part of the game it is, it can change a game in just one play. I am looking forward to the opportunity to be able to start. I'm a playmaker and I can go get that ball."

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic checks in with Cardinals guard Rex Hadnot, who has been working out with teammates and could replace the retiring Alan Faneca in the starting lineup. Hadnot on participating in player-organized workouts: "It's helping out a tremendous amount. Me being a guy who came in last year, I'm continuing to bond with my new teammates. It's given us all a chance to work together as a team and when you see guys putting the work in, it should give you a better appreciation of what each and every man goes through on a consistent basis to try and prepare themselves for an NFL season. I'm excited about what we're doing under the circumstances."
Warner/BradfordUS PresswireThe Cardinals are still searching for Kurt Warner's replacement, while the Rams hope a coordinator change doesn't stunt Sam Bradford's growth in St. Louis.
The usual NFL offseason narratives aren't so alluring now that the league has locked out players and banned roster transactions. That is bad for the NFL and a downer for those dependent upon the hope each offseason sells.

Quite a bit of that hope turns out to be misplaced, however.

Free agency no longer commands widespread appeal as a primary route to improvement. The two most recent Super Bowl teams, Green Bay and Pittsburgh, have had little use for the unrestricted market. Both have built largely through the draft.

The draft is part of the offseason, of course, but relatively few choices make significant contributions right away. Most enter the league as long-term investments.

Rookies were not going to shape the 2011 season, either, lockout or no lockout.

What are we really missing as a sleepy May sets up what could be a comatose June? Well, the prevailing NFC West storylines from last offseason stand as cautionary tales:

Arizona Cardinals

Delusional 2010 storyline: Matt Leinart's time had come. As the thinking went, Kurt Warner's retirement cleared the way for Leinart to realize the potential Arizona had seen in him when the Cardinals drafted him 10th overall in 2006. I wasn't entirely sold on the idea, but neither was it reasonable to think the Cardinals would demote Leinart during the exhibition season and then cut him when making the mandatory reduction to 53 players. Leinart signed with Houston, but did not attempt a regular-season pass in 2010. He can become an unrestricted free agent once the lockout ends, provided players with five accrued seasons qualify. It's doubtful any team would sign him as a starter. So much for the thought that Leinart would blossom once freed from Warner's shadow.

Post-lockout storyline to resist: A new quarterback fixes everything. The Cardinals will presumably move aggressively to upgrade at quarterback once the signing period opens. The move will restore hope. While even moderate improvement at quarterback could get Arizona back into NFC West contention, it will be premature to recast the Cardinals as Super Bowl contenders again. Warner was a special player. He covered for weaknesses elsewhere on the roster. His stellar record in postseason play made the Cardinals viable in ways the team's next quarterback likely will not.

San Francisco 49ers

Delusional 2010 storyline: Having the same offensive coordinator in back-to-back seasons will be key. Quarterback Alex Smith and his offensive teammates were working from the same playbook in consecutive years for the first time. The 49ers loved the way Smith was "taking ownership" of the offense during camps. There were reasons to expect improvement upon the 8-8 record San Francisco posted in 2009. Instead, Smith and the 49ers fell apart during the season opener against a Seattle team with none of the continuity San Francisco spent all offseason talking about. The 49ers' offense was worse against Kansas City a couple weeks later, leading coach Mike Singletary to obliterate continuity as a viable offseason storyline by firing coordinator Jimmy Raye.

Post-lockout storyline to resist: Smith will suddenly shine now that he's finally working under a sharp offensive-minded head coach. New coach Jim Harbaugh has repeatedly praised Smith this offseason, making it clear the 49ers want Smith to return. Smith has said he expects to return, and I understand the 49ers' thinking. They need a veteran quarterback to get them by while rookie Colin Kaepernick develops, and Smith will handle the situation with grace. Harbaugh's feel for quarterbacks does make his pairing with Smith more appealing, but if Smith had the "it" factor, we would have seen more evidence by now.

Seattle Seahawks

Delusional 2010 storyline: Alex Gibbs' addition as offensive line coach will help Seattle build an identity through the running game. The thinking had some merit because Gibbs had been the master of zone-blocking schemes for years, helping teams get solid production without investing heavily in linemen through free agency or with high draft choices. The plan blew up, though, when Gibbs abruptly retired just before the regular season. Guard Ben Hamilton later indicated Gibbs had clashed with management over personnel moves. In retrospect, the pairing of two headstrong offensive assistants -- Gibbs and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, who was subsequently fired -- might not have been the best fit.

Post-lockout storyline to resist: The return of Red Bryant from injury will fix the run defense. No doubt, the season-ending knee injury Bryant suffered against Oakland dealt a significant blow to the Seahawks' run defense. Still, we're talking about Red Bryant here, not Reggie White. Seattle's issues against the run went beyond a single player. Having middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu hobbling through the season on two injured knees also hurt. And without more support from the offense, Seattle became more vulnerable to opponents' rushing attacks.

St. Louis Rams

Delusional 2010 storyline: Sam Bradford is brittle and will not hold up physically. Bradford missed time at Oklahoma, so injuries were a legitimate concern. But anyone who saw Bradford in person at the NFL combine and thereafter realized he was built solidly. And when Bradford stood up to big hits during the exhibition season, the Rams were reasonably confident he could last a full season. Bradford did better than that. He joined Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan and David Carr as the only rookie quarterbacks to take every snap during a 16-game NFL season.

Post-lockout storyline to resist: The lockout and a coordinator change will threaten to send Bradford down the same path Smith's career took with the 49ers. Ideally, Bradford would have continued in the same offensive system he learned as a rookie, spending this offseason working on the finer points of that scheme. Bradford does face additional challenges this offseason, but that does not justify comparisons to Smith. Bradford finished his rookie season with 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, while Smith finished his first year with one touchdown and 11 interceptions. Both inherited bad teams, but Bradford walked into a tougher situation: the Rams were 1-15 the year before he arrived.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com asks whether the team has had a free-agent signing better than the one that landed linebacker Chad Brown, who went to two Pro Bowls over an eight-season span with the organization. Brown was an outstanding linebacker. But the franchise often struggled during his tenure, never winning a playoff game. Other players the team signed through free agency weren't as physically talented, but they played key roles for teams that enjoyed postseason success. Center Robbie Tobeck and receiver Bobby Engram would have to rank high on the list. Brown was, at his best, a better player. But Tobeck and Engram made significant impacts as well, helping the team enjoy sustained success that included a Super Bowl appearance.

Also from Farnsworth: a look back at the Seahawks' 1984 season. The team went 12-4 despite losing running back Curt Warner to injury.

Michael Kanellos of greentechmedia.com says the solar panels Seahawks owner Paul Allen has approved for facilities associated with his sports franchises have stirred controversy within the industry. Kanellos: "Solyndra is easily the most controversial company in solar and rivals Better Place and Bloom Energy for the overall title in green technology. Critics contend that its CIGS solar panels will never economically compete with crystalline panels and that the DOE loan guarantee and over $1 billion in equity investments will go swirling down the S-bend. Solyndra, on the other hand, says its products will dramatically decrease in price over the next few years. ... To top it off, the IRS has ruled that companies that install Solyndra solar systems can also get a tax credit for a new roof. Maybe Paul Allen's tax lawyer is sharper than yours."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says it's fair to question whether Michael Crabtree could be doing more to prepare this offseason. Crabtree has not been participating in player-organized practices sessions. Maiocco: "There are about a dozen players who are taking part regularly in the workouts. How much benefit are the players getting from meeting four days a week? It's difficult to gauge. But I understand the fans' concerns about Crabtree. After all, he has yet to play in an exhibition game with the 49ers. With it now apparent that Alex Smith will be back at quarterback, both Crabtree and Smith have a lot to gain from spending more time together and talking about the new playbook." Would this be yet another item leading with or featuring the 49ers? Yes, it would. This makes it eight blog entries in a row. Look, I tried to break the streak and mix it up a little, but at this precise point in the NFL lockout, we're reduced to stories about solar panels and clothing lines. On Crabtree, he's become an enigmatic figure. Smith's expected return adds another layer to the story.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee checks in with former 49ers running back Glen Coffee. Coffee on the gun that was discovered in his car: "In Tuscaloosa, I had two instances where pretty much -- in one instance, a guy pretended he had a gun and in another instance, a guy attempted to rob me. That happened my sophomore year in college. So I purchased a gun. I put it in my car for safety reasons. So then we go ahead on the timeline: I find Christ, but it's almost like, I already had the gun in my car. I'm already riding around with a gun in my car. And just because I found Christ, I didn't think in my head, 'Ok, I don't need to have a gun in my car anymore.' You know what I'm saying? It's almost it wasn't as a big of a deal. It didn't cross my mind to say, 'I need to take the gun out of my car.' If I had it in my car, I didn't feel I needed to take it out of my car."

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman worked extensively with quarterback David Carr in Houston under then-coach Dom Capers. This profile is more about Roman than about Carr, who is not expected back with the team. Barrows: "In two seasons with Roman as his quarterbacks coach, Carr had 30 touchdowns, 25 interceptions and an 80.5 passer rating. In his three other seasons as Houston’s starter, Carr had 29 touchdowns, 40 interceptions and a 71.7 rating." Capers: "He understood the total concept so well that I ended up making him the quarterbacks coach. That was just because I felt he was the best guy for the job and he understood defense. He understood how to attack things. He not only knew the protections in the pass game, but he knew the route concepts."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com profiles team administrator Justin Casey. Urban: "He helps negotiate contracts. He’s the go-to man in the organization when it comes to rules – be it about the collective bargaining agreement, player personnel or salary cap. He’s the liaison for rookies when they first come to the Cardinals, lining up their new NFL lives. During the draft, he’s one of the few who stays in the war room, organizing all the information flowing around the league. On game days, the 35-year-old Casey helps out in the coaches’ booth in the press box. And in his spare time -- infrequent as it is -- he watches video, of both pro players and potential college draftees."

Mark Clayton of the St. Louis Rams is promoting his faith-based clothing line during the lockout. Says the promotional release: "Clayton's perseverance and faith have played a large role in his career and in his life. While this talented wide receiver has set and broken records time after time, his focus has always been on a higher purpose: his relationship with God. Now, Clayton is using his entrepreneurial skills to bring spirituality into the fashion world, creating a place where faith meets fashion in the form of T-shirts and a complementary online community that fosters acceptance and brings a spiritual message to a new audience."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee reports on Alex Smith's situation with the San Francisco 49ers after the veteran quarterback spent more than four hours at informal workouts for players Wednesday. Barrows: "Smith, who seemed unwilling to return to the 49ers when the 2010 season ended, said he's been impressed with Jim Harbaugh, with whom he met regularly before the lockout began. Smith has never had an offensive-minded head coach in San Francisco, and he said it is clear that Harbaugh knows how to handle quarterbacks. Smith also is familiar with – and well-liked by – 49ers players who live in the San Jose area. He's been working out regularly with them since February. ... Top receiver Michael Crabtree has not been part of that group. He has been working out in the Dallas area." Smith and Crabtree seemed to click right away when Crabtree was a rookie, but they haven't built on the early rapport.

Also from Barrows: Nothing much happening on the Nate Clements front. Of course, with the lockout, nothing can happen yet.

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News calls Harbaugh's interest in bringing back Smith an "incredible leap of faith" given Smith's history. I would call it a convenient one-year stopgap.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com points to three factors in the 49ers' decision to pursue Smith. One of them: "There is nowhere Smith can go in the NFL that gives him a better opportunity than the 49ers to be a starting quarterback in 2011. Harbaugh has given no indication veteran David Carr fits into the team's plan. The 49ers added Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the second round, but it's unreasonable to expect the rookie to be ready to play early in the upcoming season. Smith might not face a whole lot of competition, either."

Also from Maiocco: The 49ers requested and received permission for Harbaugh to visit Smith and family to offer congratulations on the birth of their child.

Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider points to the 2007 draft as the 49ers' best under former personnel chief Scot McCloughan.

Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis assesses the quarterback situation in the NFC West. Softli on Seattle: "While the Seahawks took a page out of Bill Walsh's draft philosophy and secured two offensive linemen with their first two picks, the reigning NFC West champions are going about their business to develop a ball-control offense by establishing the run first, and hiring Tom Cable as the offensive line coach is the cherry on top. With that said they are still in desperate need for a quarterback. Charlie Whitehurst did a great job managing the team when defeating the Rams in the season finale to bring the NFC West crown back to the Pacific Northwest, but he is not the future for the Seahawks."

Liz Mathews of 710 ESPN Seattle says Matt Hasselbeck and John Carlson are consulting with former players for advice on dealing with the labor situation. A group recently gathered at a Seattle-area hotel. Hasselbeck: "Some of these guys have gone through work stoppages before and it's good to hear their side of it -- what they did to stay in shape, how they kept their teammates together, communicating and those kinds of things. The reason that we are here is that I think it would just be wonderful for new guys as they come to town if they had guys that have sort of been there and done that. So I just told them how when I was struggling here as a player in Seattle, all the former quarterbacks in this area -- whether it be Warren Moon or Jim Zorn or Jeff Kemp or Tom Flick -- guys that just played, they were just there as a resource. 'Hey man, I get it.' "

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com checks in with Chad Brown, who earned a spot on 35th anniversary team and misses the game despite staying busy. Farnsworth: "He still lives in the Denver area, where he runs Pro Exotics and Ship Your Reptiles, which breed, sell and ship non-venomous snakes and reptiles; has coached his daughter (Amani) in basketball, is coaching his son (Aram) in football and also doing private coaching for players in high school and at the University of Colorado, his alma mater; and has a weekend gig on a Denver sports talk radio station. But while Brown is out of football, and has been for the past three seasons, that doesn’t mean football is out of Brown."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says it's tough to get a feel for the dynamics at cornerback without Patrick Peterson, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Greg Toler at the team's facility. Urban: "One thing is guaranteed, and that’s the confidence both DRC and Peterson own. Perfect for their position, and necessary. As has been noted many times, whomever plays cornerback will need a steady pass rush to achieve high-profile status. But if DRC can take his 2009 season and ratchet it up, and Peterson becomes the player everyone keeps saying he should be, high expectations should be the bar the two are able to reach."

Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic checks in from the Cardinals' informal workouts. Boivin: "Approximately 30 players participated in the practice, including quarterbacks John Skelton and Max Hall, who were leading passing drills; wide receiver Steve Breaston; and an assortment of peripheral players such as 49ers receiver Kyle Williams, who went to ASU; free agent quarterback Shane Boyd, who has spent time with five NFL teams, including the Cardinals in 2006; and Sun Devils wide receiver Aaron Pflugrad, who said he was just trying to get in extra work. Players who have appeared at past workouts included the Ravens' Todd Heap, Terrell Suggs and Joe Flacco."

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams coaches spent part of their Wednesday assisting tornado victims in the St. Louis area. Coats: "The coaches took on a number of chores, including cutting up and removing downed trees, and cleaning up assorted debris." This would normally be about when rules permitted most rookies to join their teams for offseason workouts and minicamps. The lockout continues to prevent that from happening.
David from San Jose, Calif., says the San Francisco 49ers should not open the 2011 season with Alex Smith and rookie Colin Kaepernick as their top two quarterbacks. He thinks the team needs to add another starting-caliber player -- Carson Palmer, Kevin Kolb or Donovan McNabb -- to avoid a repeat of the 2010 season.

Mike Sando: That sounds more realistic in theory than in reality. Among the considerations:
  • Smith arguably outperformed McNabb last season. Same number of touchdown passes. Five fewer interceptions. Both had losing records as starters (3-7 for Smith, 5-8 for McNabb). I would have added McNabb last offseason if I were the 49ers, but the urgency is gone. McNabb's stock has fallen. It's a tougher case to make right now. Smith has a head start on the playbook and will take direction from coach Jim Harbaugh. McNabb struggled adjusting to Mike Shanahan's offense, would be getting a late jump on the playbook and would arrive more set in his ways, and with the clock ticking.
  • Acquiring Kolb would likely require parting with one or more 2012 draft choices. That would make little sense given Kaepernick's status as the projected future starter.
  • Palmer lacks the mobility Harbaugh says he craves in a quarterback, and it's not yet clear whether Cincinnati will trade him. Palmer will expect to start for as long as he's with a team. The 49ers would not make him a long-term starter. The fit would not be right.
  • The 49ers' quarterback situation in 2010 suffered from the curious case of David Carr. The front office signed him, but coach Mike Singletary would not play him. That left the 49ers with the two Smiths, Alex and Troy. Troy Smith wasn't even with the team in training camp. The team fired its coordinator early in the season. Alex Smith got hurt. It's reasonable to expect the 49ers' current leadership to handle the quarterback situation better in 2011. Now, if injuries strike, all bets are off. But that is true for most teams.

Remember, too, that Harbaugh is entering his first season as head coach. The lockout is threatening to turn a transitional season into a lost one for teams with new coaches, new systems and new, unproven quarterbacks.

Harbaugh has identified his quarterback of the future -- Kaepernick. He has available to him a veteran, Smith, who is comfortable with the situation. I don't sense great urgency from the 49ers to invest significant resources in another veteran for just one season. We should instead expect the team to sign an undrafted free agent or two.


Ray from Corona, Calif., thinks the 49ers' draft-day decisions affected the Arizona Cardinals in ways that will play out in the NFC West for years to come. Ray thinks Arizona selected LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson fifth overall in part because the team didn't want the 49ers, picking seventh, to get him. He thinks Peterson would have fallen to San Francisco if Von Miller had been available to the Cardinals. He also thinks Arizona would have selected Kaepernick in the second round if the 49ers hadn't traded up to select Kaepernick instead.

Mike Sando: It's fun to consider the possibilities. Miller's selection at No. 2 made the Cardinals' decision on Peterson appear more straightforward. Had Miller been available to Arizona at No. 5, perhaps the Cardinals would have selected him. That would have left Peterson to the 49ers at No. 7, provided Julio Jones remained the choice at No. 6. But the Cardinals' excitement over what Peterson offers on defense and in the return game could have made him the choice, anyway.

The rest is more speculative, but still fun to consider.

Another what-if scenario came to mind recently when I was looking at players NFC West teams selected. The St. Louis Rams selected wide receiver Greg Salas with the 112th pick, three spots before San Francisco selected running back Kendall Hunter.

The Rams could have used a complimentary back for Steven Jackson, but ultimately they valued Salas more than they valued any of the running backs in that range.

Eastern Washington's Taiwan Jones was also available, as were Delone Carter, Bilal Powell, Jamie Harper, Johnny White and nine more running backs (excluding fullbacks) selected later in the draft.


Michael from Phoenix wonders what the Cardinals have planned for their offensive line following Alan Faneca's retirement. He sees the team's next quarterback struggling if Arizona doesn't address the line.

Mike Sando: Re-signing right guard Deuce Lutui and center Lyle Sendlein becomes more important. Veteran Rex Hadnot could play left guard. It's no secret Arizona has largely ignored its line in the draft. Free agency could provide options, but coach Ken Whisenhunt thought the line was generally good enough last season. The team had bigger problems.

Quarterbacks benefit from their lines, but lines also benefit from their quarterbacks. Kurt Warner could bail out an offensive line by anticipating routes and releasing the ball early. The Cardinals likely aren't going to find a quarterback as skilled in that regard. But with improvements on defense and at least decent play at quarterback, they can probably rely more heavily on a running game that now features Ryan Williams.
Colleague Kevin Seifert showed some daring by sending TCU quarterback Andy Dalton to the Minnesota Vikings at No. 12 in a recent ESPN.com mock draft.

He wasn't arguing for Dalton's value so much as saying the Vikings' need for a quarterback might compel them to take one there.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonDid the Rams "reach" to get quarterback Sam Bradford in the first round last year?
"To me," Seifert later wrote with first-year Vikings coach Leslie Frazier in mind, "there is no better time to jump to the other side than in a coach's first year, giving him a building block for the rest of his program."

The key, of course, is not mistaking anchors for building blocks.

Steve Mariucci was the San Francisco 49ers' first-year coach when the team used a 1997 first-rounder for Jim Druckenmiller, a blunder softened only by Steve Young's presence on the roster. That experience should not directly influence the 49ers' thinking as they consider first-round quarterbacks for new coach Jim Harbaugh, but it's a reference point.

With Harbaugh and the 49ers in mind, I went through recent drafts to see which teams with first-year head coaches used first-round selections for quarterbacks. More precisely, I looked at all first-round quarterbacks since 2000 to see which ones had first-year head coaches.

Six of the last eight first-round quarterbacks -- Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and JaMarcus Russell -- joined teams with first-year head coaches. All but Russell remain franchise quarterbacks in their teams' eyes. All but Russell are still playing for their original head coaches. Four of the six had winning records in 2010.

For most of those franchises, value and need lined up pretty well, and first-year coaches benefited.

"If you don't have a quarterback, you're drafting maybe a different kind of running back, maybe a different kind of offensive lineman, than if you have somebody," Lions coach Jim Schwartz told reporters at the scouting combine. "We had Calvin Johnson, but our ability to get Jahvid Best, Nate Burleson in free agency, to draft Brandon Pettigrew -- those pieces were because of the quarterback that we have."

We could also argue that the St. Louis Rams were better off building their offensive line and other areas of their roster before making Sam Bradford the first overall choice in 2010. They could have drafted Sanchez or Freeman instead of defensive end Chris Long in 2009, then spent subsequent selections on players to build around one of those quarterbacks.

Bradford and Denver's Tim Tebow were the "other" first-round quarterbacks in the eight-man group featuring Stafford, Sanchez, Freeman, Ryan, Flacco and Russell.

In general, getting the right quarterback for a first-year head coach puts a franchise in strong position for the long term. There's no sense forcing the issue, however, because the wrong quarterback can drag down any coach, regardless of tenure.

A coach such as the Vikings' Frazier might have a harder time waiting. His contract runs only three seasons and ownership expects quick results. Harbaugh has a five-year deal with the 49ers. Expectations are high, but there's less urgency for immediate results.

The first chart shows the 14 first-round quarterbacks since 2000 that landed with returning head coaches.

The second chart shows the 14 first-round quarterbacks since 2000 that landed with first-year head coaches.
 Josh Johnson and Andrew LuckUS PresswireCoach Jim Harbaugh (not pictured) is likely to seek brainy, athletic QBs such as Josh Johnson, left, and Andrew Luck, whom he coached in the college ranks.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Less than a week before the 2011 NFL draft, no team in the league has a greater need at quarterback than the San Francisco 49ers.

No amount of pre-draft smoke can obscure that reality, so why even try?

"It is a need here with the 49ers," general manager Trent Baalke said Wednesday.

David Carr, who fell behind Troy Smith on the depth chart in 2010, is the only 49ers quarterback under contract. And no one expects him to return.

Three questions persist. What type of quarterback will the 49ers seek for new coach Jim Harbaugh? What is the likelihood they'll find a future starter in this draft? And where does 2010 starter Alex Smith fit into the picture?

The profile

Any prospect Harbaugh likes for the position will be smart, athletic enough to move well and wired like a quarterback as opposed to being just a raw athlete.

That is the word from some of the people who would know best, including Harbaugh himself. Harbaugh sought those qualities when he recruited current Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup Josh Johnson to the University of San Diego. More recently, Harbaugh sought them in the quarterbacks he brought to Stanford, where the relative smarts were pretty much required, anyway.

"You have to be able to learn, taking what you learned in the meeting room on the field the next day or that day and being a quick learner," former Stanford quarterback Alex Loukas said. "We call it a 'one-rep guy' -- taking one rep and getting that rep correct the first time. Being focused every rep, attention to detail is very big. If somebody is lined up wrong, you have to make sure they are right."

Loukas was among 15 former Stanford players attending the 49ers' pro day Wednesday for athletes with Bay Area ties. Receiver Ryan Whalen was another.

"I do think they will make the right decision in what they do," Whalen said, "and it’s going to need to be a smart quarterback, a quarterback that can stay in the pocket and can move, and a tough guy who is a good leader."

Harbaugh, who started 140 regular-season games and won twice in the playoffs during a 14-year NFL career, is bringing a run-heavy West Coast system to the 49ers from Stanford. It's a pro-style offense all the way, but Harbaugh says he's open to certain quarterbacks from spread-oriented offenses.

"If they have it in their DNA to be a quarterback, they’ll figure out how to go from the shotgun to under center," Harbaugh said. "I hope that paints a picture. If you got the DNA to be a quarterback, you have the ability to figure things out [in general]."

Drafting a quarterback

Pre-draft expectations can be notoriously off-base.

A year ago, Jimmy Clausen was supposedly the hot prospect and even a consideration for the Seattle Seahawks with the sixth overall pick. He went 48th to Carolina.

It's tough to know, then, which quarterbacks will be available to the 49ers in the first two rounds. But if conventional wisdom is even remotely accurate, Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert will not be considerations for San Francisco with the seventh overall choice. Taking another quarterback that early would also defy expectations.

What about the second round?

Even if we set aside the second round's status as a quarterback wasteland, there is this: The 49ers, though picking seventh in the first round, are scheduled to select only 13th in the second. The gap stems from the NFL's system of rotating selections by round among teams with identical records the previous season.

Eight teams with potential quarterback needs select before the 49ers in the second round.

Throw in the 49ers' confidence in Harbaugh's ability to coach quarterbacks and it's easier to fathom San Francisco fighting off the urge to address such an obvious and critical need in the first two rounds. And if they draft one later than that, they're investing in more of a developmental player, not a near-term starter.

"You can't, because you need something, misevaluate, or you are back to square one," said Baalke, who was not yet with the 49ers when they arguably did just that in selecting Smith first overall.

Baalke then pointed to the draft, free agency and the not-yet-open trade market as options the team will consider.

"I am confident our plan is such that we will figure it out, and I've got tremendous confidence in Jim and the coaching staff to win football games with whoever we bring in here," he said.

Re-evaluating Alex Smith

The 49ers have told Smith they want him back and are awaiting word from him on a decision once the lockout ends and communication is restored.

All the qualities that Harbaugh wants in a quarterback line up with the advertised traits that attracted the 49ers' previous leadership to Smith in the first place.

At the very least, those traits weren't strong enough to transcend the well-documented coaching- and injury-related issues Smith has encountered as a professional. At most, they did not exist. But it's obvious Harbaugh, a coach with few other viable options at the moment, wouldn't mind finding out for himself.

As Harbaugh told KNBR radio in February, "I like Alex and I like being around him and I like what I see on tape. ... I’m not going to hide my feelings. I like Alex Smith. I like him as a football player, as a person. ... Some people say Alex Smith needs a fresh start, needs a new place to be. I say, 'Let that place be here.' "

The ultimate decision

Baalke holds the power over personnel decisions in the 49ers' power structure. His teams over the years have drafted five quarterbacks: Chad Pennington and Patrick Ramsey in the first round, Sage Rosenfels in the fourth, Nate Davis in the fifth and Gibran Hamdan in the seventh.

While this is the first time Baalke has entered a draft with the GM title, Harbaugh's background as a quarterback will influence the team's thinking significantly.

"It's a critical decision," Baalke said. "Jim and I had a great conversation about it [Tuesday]. ... We feel we have it evaluated right and placed on the board accordingly."

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