NFC West: David Nixon
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
He might play anyway.
Cassel's name was not among the list of inactive players Kansas City submitted 90 minutes before kickoff. The Chiefs named Tyler Palko as their third quarterback. The Chiefs did not immediately disclose any lineup changes. Cassel or Brodie Croyle could start at quarterback.
Cassel has already missed one game since having an appendectomy. He practiced on a limited basis during the week and did not participate fully in warm-ups at the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday morning. Croyle and Palko threw intermediate routes to receivers running at full speed. Cassel tossed soft 8-yard passes to a team staffer while working off to the side.
The Chiefs' inactive list featured cornerback Mike Richardson, safety Ricky Price, fullback Mike Cox, safety Reshard Langford, linebacker Charlie Anderson, center Rudy Niswanger and defensive tackle Anthony Toribio.
Inactive for the Rams: safety Michael Lewis, cornerback Justin King, running back Kenneth Darby, fullback Mike Karney, linebacker David Nixon, guard John Greco, receiver Mardy Gilyard and tight end Mike Hoomanawanui.
The situation at running back is a little troubling for the Rams. Darby is the top backup for Steven Jackson. The team has been naming Karney inactive by choice.
Rookie Keith Toston is the No. 2 running back behind Jackson.
Also from Somers: The Chicago Bears have signed offensive lineman Herman Johnson from the Cardinals' practice squad. Somers: "Johnson is the third of eight 2009 draft picks to leave the team. Outside linebacker Cody Brown, the second-round pick, was cut in training camp. Guard Trevor Canfield was gone last year. The production from most of the other members of the 2009 class has not been great. Running back Beanie Wells, the first-round pick, has not produced consistently. Rashad Johnson, the third round pick, plays in sub packages and on special teams. Cornerback Greg Toler, the fourth round pick, is the only player from the class starting. Outside linebacker Will Davis is on injured reserve with a broken leg."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Skelton might start Sunday even if doctors clear Anderson.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Kelly Jennings will remain the starting right cornerback for Seattle, but rookie Walter Thurmond will continue to get playing time. Also: "Leon Washington’s kickoff return average has dipped to 27.0, which ranks fifth in the league. But his punt return average has spiked to 20.9 after his 84-yarder against the Panthers. But he does not have enough attempts (10) to qualify as the league leader -- although he’s well ahead of the league-leading average (16.0) that belongs to the Titans’ Marc Mariani."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times checks in with Seattle players for a look at what happens during loose-ball pileups in the NFL. Linebacker Will Herring says someone tried to rip his lip and mouth by hooking it with a finger. Herring: "You ever been bass fishing? The bass will jump and just kind of shake their head? I just gave it the old shake-loose." Of course!
Also from O'Neil: a chat transcript noting that Seattle will start the same five offensive linemen for the third game in a row, something that hasn't happened previously this season.
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune previews the Seahawks' game at San Francisco. Boling: "Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck used an interesting term when he noted that the Hawks now are, after several seasons as afterthoughts, once again 'relevant.' Perfect terminology. Relevant doesn’t necessarily mean good, and it certainly doesn’t say anything about consistency. But they truly are relevant to the discussion, and even that feels like an improvement. This time two years ago, the Seahawks had just two wins in Mike Holmgren’s final season as coach. His 10 seasons coaching the team to a Super Bowl and six playoff appearances soon would be celebrated by his getting pelted with snowballs during his final lap of Qwest Field."
John Boyle of the Everett Herald asks whether the Seahawks' victory over Carolina ends their midseason slump.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams are looking to become the third team in franchise history to win road games in three consecutive weeks. All they'll have to do is knock off Drew Brees and friends in the Superdome. Thomas: "The Rams have had some successful road teams, most notably the 2001 NFC championship squad that went 8-0 on the road that season. But that team never played away games in three successive weeks. The best they did was back-to-back road victories twice. The current league policy, according to Rams executive vice president of football operations Kevin Demoff, is to have teams play as many as three consecutive road games only about once every eight years."
Also from Thomas: The Rams signed linebacker David Nixon from their practice squad.
More from Thomas: a chat transcript with thoughts on what happened to rookie receiver Mardy Gilyard. Thomas: "Gilyard was doing a good job as a gunner, running down punts and kickoffs. But once he got passes by Danario Alexander as the No. 4 wide receiver, his role became extremely limited. Except for that one kickoff return attempt which he bungled against San Francisoo a few weeks ago, Gilyard hasn't returned kickoffs for weeks. So is this season a disappointment? Sure. But do you write him off? Certainly not. Unless he breaks into the top four WRs or regains his kickoff return job, he may not factor in over these final four games." That's a significant disappointment, I think, given that the Rams are not exactly loaded at wideout this season.
Roger Hensley of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asks colleagues for thoughts on how to beat the Saints. Jeff Gordon: "One, keep Brees off the field by actually running the football with some consistency and sustaining a ball-control offense. Two, take away the Saints running game – which won’t be easy with Na’il Diggs out for the year and the Rams lacking strong OLB play. Three, generate a consistent pass rush in the base defense to lessen the reliance on the blitz. Brees has seen it all, so the Rams will have to mix up their defenses. They won’t be able to blitz the Saints into submission liked they blitzed the Cardinals into submission."
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says secondary coach Johnny Lynn no longer works for the 49ers. The team cited personal reasons. Mark this down as the latest in a long line of unusual events to define this 2010 season for the 49ers under Mike Singletary.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee has this to say about the 49ers' decision to replace Troy Smith with Alex Smith at quarterback: "The 49ers' coaches feel that Alex Smith gives them more options. Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson said last month that Troy Smith is a much better play-action quarterback than he is a shotgun quarterback. Well, the 49ers' best weapon as far as play-action passing – running back Frank Gore – has a broken hip and is done for the season. The two guys who replace him, Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon, hail from more wide-open offenses. Westbrook, of course, played in a West Coast offense in Philadelphia. Dixon was in a spread attack at Mississippi State last season. These are guys who are accustomed to taking handoffs out of the shotgun and who are used to playing a big part in the passing game. In other words, it's a calculated gamble on the part of Singletary (and Johnson, whom I have to believe heavily influenced this move). If the 49ers incorporate more spread ideas, Alex Smith certainly would be more comfortable than Troy Smith. I agree that Troy Smith's swagger and confidence were good for the 49ers offense. But on the other hand, this move may signal that the 49ers -- finally -- may be moving away from their cram-it-up-the-gut style of offense."
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News offers thoughts on the switch back to Alex Smith. Kawakami: "I didn’t 100% disagree with Mike Singletary’s decision to go with ASmith as the starter this season. But I wholeheartedly objected to the team’s total commitment to him–and disregarding of other upgrade options -- to the point that they purposely brought in a bad back-up (David Carr) to make sure ASmith didn’t feel threatened. Backwards, defensive, scaredy-cat thinking. Which has reigned for more than 6 years in the 49ers HQ, of course."
Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News says it's fitting for Alex Smith to start a do-or-die game for the 49ers.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
49ers running back Frank Gore was apparently relishing a chance to compete against the Raiders in joint practices beginning Tuesday.
Matt Barrows: "To say that Gore was excited for today's morning practice would be like saying the Grand Canyon is kinda deep."
Matt Maiocco: "[Gore] was incredible in blitz pickup, as he pancaked both Ricky Brown and Kirk Morrison in the drill. Gore was so fired up, he acted as if he wanted more. RBs coach Tom Rathman took Gore out of the drill the next time he was lined up to go against David Nixon, a rookie linebacker from BYU. (At that moment, Nixon might have been the happiest person on the planet.)"
This might be what happens when a coaching staff prevents a highly competitive person -- Gore, in this case -- from playing in the first exhibition game.
Protecting Gore against the Broncos on Friday night made sense given how much the staff wanted to evaluate Glen Coffee. Coffee impressed in his preseason debut. He isn't a threat to Gore's job and I don't think Gore felt any extra motivation after watching Coffee. But he apparently did want to make a statement against the Raiders. Point taken.