NFC West: Deion Branch

Wrap-up: Seahawks 24, Patriots 23

October, 14, 2012
10/14/12
7:28
PM ET

Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' 24-23 victory against the New England Patriots in Week 6:

What it means: The Seahawks improved to 4-2 with a comeback victory that should at least temporarily silence calls for the team to replace rookie quarterback Russell Wilson with backup Matt Flynn. Wilson connected on big plays early, then found Sidney Rice for the winning 46-yard touchdown pass with 1:18 remaining. This was exactly what Wilson and the Seahawks needed heading into a road game against the San Francisco 49ers.

What I liked: Wilson completed passes for 50 and 24 yards to Doug Baldwin, the latter for a touchdown, as Seattle jumped to an early lead. Wilson also scrambled for a 9-yard gain on third-and-4 to sustain that scoring drive. The decision to try a trick play in the second half, when the offense was struggling, worked out when Golden Tate drew a pass-interference call on a deep ball from Rice. The fourth-down scoring pass from Wilson to Tate was a big positive.

Seattle’s defense shut down the Patriots’ running game most of the time after New England had hurt opponents with a balanced attack. Richard Sherman put his size to use against Deion Branch in picking off a Tom Brady pass in the third quarter. Fellow cornerback Brandon Browner also made an impact with a huge hit on Patriots receiver Wes Welker. Sherman seemed to have a strong game. Sherman and free safety Earl Thomas picked off passes.

The Seahawks forced Brady into two grounding penalties at critical times. One prevented the Patriots from attempting a chip-shot field goal before halftime. Another forced the Patriots into third-and-20 with 4:47 left in the fourth quarter and the Patriots holding a 23-17 lead.

What I didn’t like: The Seahawks too frequently couldn’t stop Welker before or after the catch. That was a key variable heading into the game. Seattle figured Welker would get his catches, but coach Pete Carroll hoped the Seahawks could stop him from doing damage after the catch. Seattle had ranked third in fewest yards allowed after the catch (per reception).

Seattle’s run game had trouble getting traction. The Patriots were the first team this season able to control Marshawn Lynch from the beginning. That put additional pressure on the Seahawks in other areas, where the team hasn’t been as strong.

What’s next: The Seahawks visit the 49ers for a Thursday night game in Week 7.
The list of available unrestricted free-agent receivers continues to dwindle.

The St. Louis Rams aren't going to find the playmaking help they covet on a list featuring Plaxico Burress, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Patrick Crayton, Rashied Davis, Deion Branch, Jerheme Urban, Bryant Johnson, Roy Williams, Greg Camarillo, Jerricho Cotchery, Mark Clayton, Roscoe Parrish, Michael Clayton, Courtney Roby, Michael Spurlock, David Anderson, Legedu Naanee, Devin Aromashodu, Donnie Avery, Maurice Stovall, Andre Caldwell, Ted Ginn Jr., Steve Smith (Philly version), Jerome Simpson and Devin Thomas.

Roger Hensley of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked colleagues how the Rams will address the issue. Jim Thomas: "There’s not much left at the position in free agency. The wide receiver shelves were cleaned out quickly, so barring a trade of some kind -- which seems unlikely -- the Rams are almost limited to getting help via the draft. And at No. 6 overall, there’s no guarantee that Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State will be available. So yes, the team is in a bit of a predicament at wide receiver."

Also from Thomas, regarding Mike Wallace: "He has a first-round tender. And you can only use your original first-round pick as compensation. The Rams no longer have their original first-round pick after trading down with Washington. So they can't acquire Wallace through the regular process of restricted free agency. Now, the Rams could always offer less in a sign-and-trade situation. But why would the Steelers want less than a first-rounder? They put the tender on him in an attempt to keep him." Noted: The Rams could, in theory, offer the sixth overall pick, but that would be a steep price to pay.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch thinks the Rams should steer clear of Tim Tebow.

Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis says the Rams' search for a backup quarterback continues in the absence of attractive options.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com quotes 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh regarding Harbaugh's relationship with Alex Smith: "It's been good -- strong relationship, as always. It's a very strong relationship."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee has this to say about the situation with Smith: "It's unclear if Smith agrees with Harbaugh that they are as tight as they've ever been. The team's offer did not exactly mesh with Harbaugh's statements of devotion during and after the season. While it's all but certain Smith will be the 49ers' quarterback this season, it also leaves an opening for backup Colin Kaepernick to take over before the three years are complete. Kaepernick has been a regular at the 49ers' training facility this offseason."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers have ruled out Tebow, according to CEO Jed York.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Early Doucet's re-signing means the Cardinals will return their top receivers from last season. Urban: "Doucet set career-highs in 2011 with 54 receptions, 689 yards and five touchdowns in his fourth NFL season, playing in 16 games for the first time. He came up with a pair of long touchdown catches against Carolina (70 yards) and San Francisco (60 yards) and scored on a game-winning screen pass in Philadelphia."

Also from Urban: The Cardinals have little salary-cap room, and there are tradeoffs associated with gaining flexibility.

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle quotes Seahawks coach Pete Carroll as saying Peyton Manning reached out to the Seahawks while figuring out which team to join. Carroll: "He had contacted me about wanting to talk about coming here. By the time we got down to where we had our chance he had already set his sights on going in the direction wound up going, with Denver."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times looks at the market for free-agent linebacker David Hawthorne. O'Neil: "Hawthorne has led Seattle in tackles each of the past three years, but right now, the market for free-agent linebackers looks to be a little softer than some expected." Noted: Looks like we're approaching that period where players reset their expectations before taking deals for less than they had hoped.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com puts together an overview of free agency from the Seahawks' perspective.
Wide receivers Vincent Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Reggie Wayne, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, Laurent Robinson, Josh Morgan, Eric Weems and Harry Douglas have found new homes after hitting the NFL's free-agent market.

Franchise tags essentially removed from consideration Dwayne Bowe, Wes Welker and DeSean Jackson.

Others, such as Marques Colston, re-signed before free agency.

Teams still searching for help at the position -- that would be pretty much everyone but Seattle in the NFC West -- are left with a picked-over group of free agents.

Jerome Simpson, Plaxico Burress, Brandon Lloyd, Legedu Naanee, Devin Aromashodu, Roy Williams, Mario Manningham and Early Doucet are the only ones remaining to have played at least half of their team's offensive snaps during the 2011 season.

As the chart shows, Burress was particularly effective in the red zone for the New York Jets. He converted first downs 38 times in 45 receptions for the third-highest percentage among wide receivers with at least 40 receptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Burress is also up there in age. He's among 12 available wideouts already in their 30s: Hines Ward (36), Burress (34), T.J. Houshmandzadeh (34), Kevin Curtis (33), Patrick Crayton (32), Deion Branch (32), Rashied Davis (32), Donte Stallworth (31), Jerheme Urban (31), Bryant Johnson (31), Lloyd (30) and Williams (30).

Of them, Lloyd has visited the San Francisco 49ers.

Nine more are 29 years old: Greg Camarillo, Keary Colbert, Mark Clayton, Jerricho Cotchery, Roscoe Parrish, Michael Clayton, Courtney Roby, Michael Spurlock and Braylon Edwards.

Still interested?

OK, let's check out 18 others, all younger than 29: David Anderson, Legedu Naanee, Devin Aroshamodu, Donnie Avery, Anthony Gonzalez, Maurice Stovall, Derek Hagan, Mike Sims-Walker, Ted Ginn Jr., Andre Caldwell, Steve Smith, Doucet, Brett Swain, Chaz Schilens, Simpson, Manningham, Devin Thomas and Kevin Ogletree.

Schilens visited Arizona and San Francisco. Manningham visited the 49ers and the St. Louis Rams.

I've also broken down the available wideouts by drafted round:
  • First: Williams, Burress, Ginn, Stallworth, both Claytons, Johnson, Gonzalez and Edwards
  • Second: Avery, Thomas, Simpson, Smith, Parrish, Branch, Colbert
  • Third: Roby, Doucet, Hagan, Stovall, Manningham, Caldwell, Curtis, Sims-Walker, Ward
  • Fourth: Cotchery, Lloyd
  • Fifth: Legedu Naanee
  • Sixth: none
  • Seventh: Houshmandzadeh, Crayton, Schilens, Aromashodu, Anderson, Swain
  • Undrafted: Davis, Urban, Camarillo, Spurlock, Ogletree

Only a handful of the available receivers project as starters. None would qualify as an outright game-breaker.

The Rams in particular need playmakers, but in looking at what is available, how many would qualify as dramatically better than what they already have? Austin Pettis, Brandon Gibson, Danario Alexander, Dominique Curry, Greg Salas and restricted free agent Danny Amendola are their current wideouts.

Turning point: Wes Welker drops the ball

February, 5, 2012
2/05/12
11:48
PM ET
Wes Welker Elsa/Getty ImagesDejection best describes Wes Welker's reaction following his fourth-quarter dropped ball.
INDIANAPOLIS — Reddened eyes and a hushed voice told the story for Wes Welker in Super Bowl XLVI.

The pass he dropped with four minutes remaining was a turning point against New England in the Patriots' 21-17 defeat to the New York Giants. No amount of consoling from teammates could convince him otherwise.

"That is one I'll have to live with," Welker said.

The Patriots led 17-15 with 4:06 remaining when Tom Brady dropped back to pass on second-and-11 from the New York 44-yard line. New England had driven 48 yards in nine plays after taking over possession at its own 8. Brady had Welker wide open to his left and 23 yards downfield. The pass was a bit behind Welker and high, but the receiver turned his body and got both hands on the ball.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time, he makes that grab," fellow receiver Deion Branch said. "It's football. Nobody's perfect."

Welker dropped five passes during the Patriots' first 18 games of the season, none on throws traveling more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He dropped a league-high 11 passes during the 2010 regular season, with drops defined as passes the receiver should have caught with ordinary effort, and only when the receiver is 100 percent at fault. But he also topped 100 receptions for the third time in five seasons since the Patriots acquired him in 2007.

"I mean, the ball is right there," Welker said. "I just have to make the play. It's a play I've made 1,000 times in practice and everything else."

Welker kept his composure as he spoke. It appeared to be a struggle.

"When it comes to the biggest moment of my life and I don't come up with it, it's discouraging," he said.

Brady might not have thrown the pass if not for a Giants breakdown.

"The man over me was playing a two-high look and the safety went to one-high and that is why it opened up for me like it did," Welker explained.

Giants safety Antrel Rolle said communication problems were at fault. The coverage was supposed to change when the Patriots adjusted their formation. The message didn't make it to everyone on defense.

"We were just on a little different page, but it happens," Rolle said. "You know, one mistake all game, we'll take it."

Will they ever.

"We just couldn't connect," Brady said of the pass for Welker. "He's a hell of a player. I'll keep throwing the ball to him for as long as I possibly can. He's a phenomenal player and teammate, and I love that guy."

Welker caught 122 passes for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns during the regular season. He caught seven passes for 60 yards on eight targets Sunday.

Welker now has 18 receptions for 163 yards in two Super Bowl appearances for New England, both against the Giants and both in defeat. His drop wasn't the only turning point Sunday.

The Patriots still had the lead after the ball went through Welker's hands. They had a chance to convert on third down as well, but Brady's pass to Branch fell incomplete.

A defensive stand following Welker's drop also could have saved the game and spared Welker from his fate, but instead the Patriots allowed a 38-yard sideline strike from Eli Manning to Mario Manningham on the Giants' next offensive play.

Manning-to-Manningham worked again for 16 yards, and suddenly New York had first down at the New England 34 with 2:52 to play.

The Giants scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:04 left without even trying. Ahmad Bradshaw hoped to stop at the 1, which would have allowed the Giants to run down most of the clock before kicking the winning field goal. But instead they gave Brady one final possession with 57 seconds to play.

Welker would not get another chance.

Brady targeted Aaron Hernandez four times and Branch three times during a final desperation drive that ended with a 51-yard Hail Mary to the end zone that fell incomplete.

"It's one that will take a while to shake off, that's for sure," Welker said.


INDIANAPOLIS -- Those pushing for the San Francisco 49ers to upgrade at wide receiver can point to the NFC Championship Game for supporting evidence.

Michael Crabtree's 3-yard reception stood as the lone catch for a 49ers wideout during a 20-17 overtime defeat to the New York Giants. The team's wide receivers caught eight passes for 51 yards on 29 targets in two playoff games.

Sure, the quarterback play could have been better at times. But with second-year receiver Kyle Williams muffing one punt against the Giants and fumbling while returning another, there's room for improvement at the position.

Should the 49ers stick it out with Crabtree, a player with obvious talent, or should they consider moving on?

[+] EnlargeMichael Crabtree
Jay Drowns/Getty ImagesMichael Crabtree made this 41-yard reception against Seattle, but usually when plays broke down Alex Smith looked for Vernon Davis.
Elsewhere in the NFC West, should the St. Louis Rams re-sign Brandon Lloyd even as they install an offense that might not fit him as well? Will Andre Roberts justify his role as a starter for Arizona? What does it say when Seattle gets more from an undrafted free agent (Doug Baldwin) than from an $8 million-a-year acquisition (Sidney Rice)?

The Giants' and New England Patriots' Super Bowl media sessions Monday provided an opportunity to seek answers for questions about what makes a receiver and quarterback click. Eli Manning, Bill Belichick and Deion Branch racked up yards after the questions.

Manning's take

Alex Smith has started 35 games with Crabtree as one of his receivers. Crabtree has hardly participated in offseason practices or training camps for reasons ranging from his rookie contract dispute to injuries to the 2011 lockout.

Manning wasn't going to discuss specifics relating to the 49ers' situation, but the insight he offered on quarterback-receiver relationships in general suggests Smith and Crabtree need more time together. Timing itself isn't a big problem, Manning said, because a quarterback and receiver can work that out in practice. He pointed instead to game situations as the most valuable factor in developing chemistry.

"What happens in a game when things that you prepared for, all of a sudden you get a different technique or something that maybe that hasn't happened before occurs?" Manning said. "Can you tell by their body language, by the stem of their route, exactly what they are going to do? You have to scramble or move in the pocket and the timing is a little off, how are they going to react to those situations?"

Smith has built up that kind of rapport with tight end Vernon Davis. The two have played together since 2006. Smith has thrown 26 of his 68 regular-season touchdown passes to Davis, the NFL's highest percentage to one player for any quarterback with as many or more total touchdown passes.

Smith tossed more scoring passes to Davis during the playoffs (four) than he threw to Crabtree all season (three). The 41-yard strike he threw to Crabtree at Seattle in Week 16 was memorable, but when plays broke down in that game, Smith scrambled and found Davis along the sideline to extend drives, notably on a critical fourth-and-2.

"That is only something can really happen in games," Manning said of improvisational plays in general. "Talking to receivers on the sideline during games, after games. Talk about those plays where the timing was off or you got a different coverage. You have to talk about those things so you can learn from those experiences and make sure the next time you're ready for it."

Belichick and Branch

Acquiring a veteran receiver from another team -- another system, more specifically -- carries risks.

"There are so many different systems in the league and teams draft for their schemes to a certain degree," Belichick said. "If you are going to ask a player to do something, you want a player in there that can do it and not somebody that is a good player but cannot really fit what you want him to do. That's the trick."

Branch's experience in going from Super Bowl MVP in New England to highly paid disappointment in Seattle comes to mind. Branch has bounced back upon returning to the Patriots.

Injuries slowed Branch in Seattle. Front-office infighting brought into question whether or not the coaching staff was as committed as the front office to maximizing Branch's value. Fluctuations in quarterback play also affected things.

"Everything is based on opportunity, situations" Branch said.

Crabtree emerged from the NFC title game lamenting what he considered a lack of opportunities. He had a point. Some passes Smith threw to him appeared to be throwaways or simply off target.

Another time, Smith failed to throw the ball when Crabtree appeared to be running open. A week earlier, Crabtree failed to make plays on contested passes.

Keeping it simple

Assuming the 49ers re-sign Smith, which seems likely, how the team proceeds at wide receiver will stand as one of the more closely followed offseason storylines.

"One thing I've always felt about that position is let's not get too overanalytical," Belichick said. "He might be big, he might be fast, he might run great routes, he might have great hands, he might have great experience. But whatever his skill set is, whatever combination of attributes he has, if he can get open and catch the ball, that is good for the passing game. If he can't do those two things, then what value does he have?"
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.
Playing connect-the-dots with prominent Seattle draft choices predating the Seahawks' current leadership, which arrived in 2010:
  • 2003 draft: First-round pick Marcus Trufant accepts a pay reduction. Fourth-rounder Seneca Wallace, the only other player remaining with Seattle from this class when Pete Carroll took over as head coach, is traded.
  • 2004 draft: Third-round pick Sean Locklear, the only remaining player from this draft class, has his contract truncated. The team does not re-sign him.
  • 2005 draft: First-round pick Chris Spencer is not re-signed. Second-rounder Lofa Tatupu is released after refusing a pay reduction. Third-rounder Leroy Hill takes a pay reduction, then re-signs somewhat improbably.
  • 2006 draft: First-rounder Kelly Jennings is traded. Second-rounder Darryl Tapp is traded. Fourth-rounder Rob Sims, the third player Seattle selected in the 2006 draft, is traded.
  • 2007 draft: The team had no first-round pick. Second-rounder Josh Wilson is traded. Deion Branch, the player Seattle received in return for that 2007 first-round pick, is traded.
  • 2008 draft: First-rounder Lawrence Jackson is traded. Second-rounder John Carlson is imperiled when the team signs tight end Zach Miller in free agency. Carlson is entering the final year of his contract.
  • 2009 draft: First-rounder Aaron Curry accepts a new contract making him easier to trade or release in the future.

Curry and Carlson are the two remaining early draft choices to watch. Both remain younger players with potential, but their futures in Seattle appear tenuous.

Some of these draft choices would have fared better in Seattle if the team had performed well enough to avoid sweeping changes in the organization. Likewise, those sweeping changes might not have been necessary if some of these draft choices had come closer to meeting expectations.

What stands out most to me: Mike Teel, David Greene, Wallace, Jeff Kelly and Josh Booty are the only quarterbacks the Seahawks have drafted since 2001.
A link to the latest NFC West chat transcript, plus one newly addressed subject per division team, not appearing in the transcript:
Chris from Fresno, Calif., thought the San Francisco 49ers' offense looked "pathetic" in the preseason opener. "Should 49ers fans be concerned?" he asks.

Mike Sando: Preseason final scores are pretty much meaningless. How players perform while learning a new offense matters more, but it's too early for panic. You can bet the 49ers will be determined to improve upon their showing against New Orleans. If they look the same or worse, they'll be disappointed and they'll hear about it, but they'll still have time to figure out things before the regular season. If I were the 49ers, I'd be more concerned about losing a key player to injury, particularly a quarterback, than incurring criticisms from those who complain about paying full price for meaningless games, only to analyze those games as if they were worth every penny.

William from Oklahoma City has heard the term "gunslinger" attached to Kevin Kolb, triggering visions of careless play and turnovers. "I don't think the Cards have the defense to cover more turnovers and win games," he writes.

Mike Sando: The gunslinger talk stems at least in part from Kolb's swashbuckling ways off the field. Tales of Kolb disarming a rattlesnake with a boot and killing it with a firearm contribute to the image. There is also this: 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions over the past two seasons, and more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (11) overall for his career. Kolb thinks the Cardinals' offensive system will allow him to exploit coverages more precisely than he could running a West Coast system in Philadelphia. A few numbers to consider: Kolb has thrown interceptions on 3.5 percent of pass attempts over the past two seasons. That compares to 4.9 percent for Alex Smith over the same span and 2.7 percent for Kurt Warner in 2009, his final season with Arizona.

William from St. Louis thinks the Rams could wind up keeping seven wide receivers on their initial 53-man roster, or possibly spread across the active roster and practice squad. He sees Danario Alexander, Mike Sims-Walker, Danny Amendola, Donnie Avery, Austin Pettis and Greg Salas making it, with Mardy Gilyard beating out Brandon Gibson thanks to superior special-teams value.

Mike Sando: Gibson has worked with the starters all through camp. Teammates have raved about his approach to the game. Gibson will almost certainly be part of the 53-man group. Teams keeping seven receivers generally do so when injuries force their hand. Perhaps a starting wideout is injured, so the team carries another one as insurance while the starter heals. The Rams do have some flexibility at the position because they'll be primarily a one-back team. They do not need to carry a pure fullback on the roster. They could have one of their tight ends, Lance Kendricks or Michael Hoomanawanui, shift into the fullback spot on an as-needed basis.

Back to which receivers will earn roster spots. Amendola makes it for sure. I think both draft picks, Pettis and Salas, will stick on that initial 53. Sims-Walker will make it and could start. Then it comes down to health. Injuries have a way of solving these dilemmas. If Alexander and Avery are healthy and playing at a high level, the team has a choice to make. Avery has practiced well the last couple days, but can he stay on the field? Gilyard has had his moments in camp. I'm just not sure whether the Rams will find a spot for him.

Trenchbroom from Spokane, Wash., wonders what position besides offensive line figures to be most improved for the Seattle Seahawks in 2011.

Mike Sando: Wide receiver is a good place to start after the team added Sidney Rice in free agency. The Seahawks have caught the ball exceptionally well this summer. They now have two big targets at receiver. They have a pass-catching tight end (Zach Miller) to give opposing secondaries more to think about. And if they get any consistency from Golden Tate this season, that would further elevate the group. Seattle was better than expected at receiver last season after trading Deion Branch and releasing T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Expectations are higher heading into the upcoming season, and for good reason. The talent is better.

All for now.
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers will not be "major players" in free agency following the lockout, according to general manager Trent Baalke. Baalke: "Just because somebody goes out, makes a lot of acquisitions, doesn't mean all those acquisitions are going to pan out the way the media thinks they're going to pan out." The media has indeed played up some free-agent signings -- think Albert Haynesworth -- but NFL teams are the ones that have made the mistakes. Not so much lately, however. The 49ers and other teams have done a better job re-signing their own players and showing restraint in free agency. There simply haven't been many excellent players available. This offseason could be different. The pool of available players will likely be larger.

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says 49ers rookie Aldon Branch isn't worried about a rookie wage scale.

Bob Padecky of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers hope Joe Montana's name can help them get a stadium built.

Also from Padecky: Count former 49ers lineman Bob St. Clair among retired players upset with labor negotiations. He wants more protections for former players. St. Clair: "I am really lucky, luckier than most of the guys. The helmets when I played didn’t provide any protection at all. Concussions? We’d get concussions every game. I know I am having trouble with my memory. But I go to golf tournaments and I see guys I played with and against in wheelchairs, unable to walk. Dementia, crippled bodies, there’s no question it’s caused by the sport. No question."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com expects Chilo Rachal to face competition for the starting job at right guard. Maiocco: "Assuming center David Baas re-signs, Rachal is the 2010 starter whose position for the upcoming season is the most tenuous. Adam Snyder, the backup at right guard a year ago, helped Joe Staley organize all the work for the offensive linemen during the player-led workouts. Snyder knows the terminology and line calls as well as anyone right now."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says talk of high salary floor as part of a new collective bargaining agreement could affect how the 49ers spend money. Could the team have an easier time paying more to nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, for instance? Barrows: "Why not spend it on players you know and trust and who allow your best defensive player, Patrick Willis, to make plays? One of the issues is Willis, who signed a contract extension last year. Would re-signing Franklin mean that Franklin is making more than Willis? And if so, would that cause problems? (My guess is that Willis would have no problem with that as long as the difference is within reason. But money issues inside the locker room can be tricky)."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com revisits the team's final season under coach Mike Holmgren. Farnsworth: "By the time the season ended, 26 players had missed a combined 163 games -- and the 14-player injured reserve list included Pro Bowl left tackle Walter Jones, Pro Bowl defensive end Patrick Kerney, wide receivers Nate Burleson and Ben Obomanu and starting offensive linemen Chris Gray, Chris Spencer, Rob Sims, Mike Wahle and Sean Locklear. Matt Hasselbeck missed nine games, wide receiver Deion Branch eight and linebacker Leroy Hill four. So a better question might be: How did the Seahawks manage to win four games?"

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune looks at the Seahawks' struggles in pass coverage last season. Williams: "Pete Carroll wants to play more press coverage because it takes away the quick, rhythm passing game and forces the offense to make tougher throws down the field and outside the numbers. It’s one of the reasons Seattle drafted big corners in Stanford’s Richard Sherman and Clemson’s Byron Maxwell, along with bringing in Oregon State product and CFL Star Brandon Browner with a futures contract. And it’s why the Seahawks chose to trade 5-9 defensive back Josh Wilson and likely will not bring back Kelly Jennings in free agency. Carroll wants bigger, more physical corners on the perimeter that can force opposing quarterbacks to make more precise throws on the perimeter of the defense."

Brock Huard of 710ESPN Seattle offers thoughts on Sal Paolantonio's suggestion that the Redskins could have interest in Hasselbeck. Huard thinks Hasselbeck's value is rising as the lockout continues because teams will want veterans capable of running their offense on short notice. Also, the Redskins' offense is similar to the one Seattle ran last season, so Hasselbeck could step in pretty quickly. Unlike some of the other teams needing quarterbacks, the Redskins did not use a high 2011 draft choice for one. Would they commit to Hasselbeck beyond the 2011 season, and would that be enough for Hasselbeck to sign with them?

Bob Young of the Arizona Republic checks in with Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell, who has continued to pursue interests in comedy writing. Young: "Campbell said he has been working out several hours a day to be ready to roll when a labor settlement is reached and training camp opens, but he also spent time in Los Angeles visiting the set of Will Ferrell's web-based show 'Funny or Die' and meeting with the writers of 'Family Guy.'"

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com took notice when safety Adrian Wilson provided footage from a recent workout. Urban: "Wilson tweeted out a video from today’s workout. Narrated by wide receiver Stephen Williams (and with a cameo from Beanie Wells), Wilson shows his ability to rep four big plates on each side of the bar on the incline bench press. Crazy. Say the bar is 45 pounds and the plates 45 pounds each, that’s 405 pounds. Yikes. Not that it’s a shock, really. Wilson lives for the weight room. As an aside, safety Rashad Johnson, who is spotting for Wilson, looks like he’s put on significant muscle."

Dan Arkush of Pro Football Weekly lists Ben Leber, Barry Cofield and Quintin Mikell as players who could make sense for the Rams in free agency. Arkush: "Mikell played under Steve Spagnuolo in Philly when the head coach was an assistant with the Eagles, Cofield played under Spagnuolo in New York along with Fred Robbins and Leber has a history worth noting with Rams linebackers coach Paul Ferraro, who previously coached Minnesota's special teams. All three players could figure as potential instant starters at positions widely considered to be in dire need of more depth."
Josh from Redding, Calif., could use some help settling an argument. His friends say the Seattle Seahawks haven't used free agency to bring in any Pro Bowl-caliber receivers. Josh points to Deion Branch and T.J. Houshmandzadeh as players with that kind of potential, but he wonders why neither produced for Seattle the way they did for their previous teams.

Branch

Branch


Mike Sando: None of the wide receivers Seattle has signed in free agency during the Hasselbeck era were coming off a Pro Bowl-caliber season when he signed with the Seahawks. Therefore, no one should be surprised that the free-agent receivers Seattle signed during this era failed to reach that level with the team. That is the most direct, succinct answer to your question.

Bobby Engram was coming off a torn ACL when Seattle signed him back in 2001. He enjoyed his best season playing with Hasselbeck. Engram put up Pro Bowl-caliber numbers for the team in 2007 with 94 receptions for 1,147 yards and six touchdowns. Seattle got as much or more from Engram than the Chicago Bears had gotten from him. But there were no expectations of Pro Bowls when the Seahawks signed him. Engram was simply trying to get healthy.

Branch never put up Pro Bowl numbers before or after signing with Seattle (after the Seahawks acquired him by trade). He suffered a torn ACL in the final game of his second season with the Seahawks. Branch also joined the team at a time when the front office (Tim Ruskell) and head coach (Mike Holmgren) were falling out of sync. Holmgren could have done more to maximize what Branch offered, Ruskell could have done more to make sure Holmgren was getting what he wanted, or a combination of both. By the time Branch was back up to speed physically, Holmgren was gone, Hasselbeck was battling injuries and Branch, through his fat contract, had come to symbolize the unfulfilled expectations of a franchise in decline following its Super Bowl appearance.

Houshmandzadeh had been to one Pro Bowl in eight seasons before signing with Seattle. He was 32 years old and declining during his first season with Seattle. However, his numbers for receiving yards, yards per reception and touchdowns increased from 2008, his final season with Cincinnati, to 2009, his only season with Seattle. Houshmandzadeh, like Branch, came to the organization during a time of transition. He never seemed to mesh with Hasselbeck, either.

Burleson

Burleson


Nate Burleson's numbers with Minnesota had been in decline when Seattle signed him as a free agent in 2006. Burleson had one solid season with the Seahawks. He suffered a torn ACL in the season opener of his third season with the team. Burleson never put up Pro Bowl numbers before or after signing with Seattle.

Seattle simply has not signed Pro Bowl-caliber receivers in free agency during the Hasselbeck era. The team has done well finding solid role players on occasion, from Engram to Joe Jurevicius.

But only three wide receivers in Seahawks history have represented the team in a Pro Bowl. One of them, Alex Bannister, did so as a special-teams player. The others, Steve Largent and Brian Blades, never played with Hasselbeck. Blades was the last Seattle player to represent the team in a Pro Bowl as a wide receiver -- following the 1989 season.

Right off, then, we can say that Hasselbeck wasn't the only Seattle quarterback to spend his Seahawks career throwing to wideouts deemed unworthy of Pro Bowl acclaim.
Current NFC West teams popped up four times in Mike Tanier's Insider list of the 10 most disappointing NFL trades of the past 25 years.

How heartwarming.

By disappointing, Tanier meant for both teams. He was not analyzing lopsided trades, but rather those that hurt both teams. Terrell Owens, Kelly Stouffer, Joe Wolf, Deion Branch and Trev Alberts make appearances, so proceed at your own risk.

The San Francisco 49ers' 2004 trade sending Owens to Philadelphia for Brandon Whiting and a conditional fifth-round choice checked in at No. 2 on the list.

[+] EnlargeTerrell Owens
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesTerrell Owens went to the Super Bowl with the Eagles after being traded by the 49ers.
I'm not sure how disappointing this trade wound up being for the Eagles. Owens played a leading role in getting them to a Super Bowl, and his gutsy play put Philadelphia in position to win the game. That one season was worth losing Whiting even though Owens became a headache for the team overall.

On some levels, this deal was a downer for all parties. Owens should have become an unrestricted free agent that year, but his agent failed to file the necessary paperwork to void his deal. The 49ers initially received a second-round choice from Baltimore as part of the trade, but with Owens seeking a ruling that would let him hit the market, San Francisco agreed to lesser compensation as part of a settlement. Owens did get a new contract, so he came out OK, but the trade was definitely disappointing.

The 1989 trade between Seattle and the then-Phoenix Cardinals ranked sixth on the list. The Seahawks got Stouffer, who never became the franchise quarterback they were seeking. The Cardinals drafted Wolf with the first-round pick they received from Seattle.

This deal was also memorable for the Seahawks' failed attempts to trade Pro Bowl safety Kenny Easley before settling on the first-round pick as compensation. The Easley trade fell through when doctors discovered Easley had suffered career-ending and life-altering kidney damage after ingesting massive quantities of ibuprofen over the years. The Seahawks' role in administering the ibuprofen drove a wedge between Easley and the organization. The sides reconciled 15 years later, but it was an excruciating process.

I appreciate Tanier's inclusion of the first Seattle-New England trade involving Branch. Sure, the Patriots came away with Pro Bowl safety Brandon Meriweather, while the Seahawks never got much in return for Branch. This trade was lopsided on the surface, but as Tanier points out, losing Branch cost New England during the playoffs following the 2006 season. I thought the move cost the Patriots a trip to the Super Bowl, and Tanier agrees.

This was a bad move for both teams even though the Patriots came out ahead. New England's relationship with Branch had soured amid a contentious contract dispute. The Patriots got significant value for a player they were unable to sign, but they missed Branch.

One more NFC West trade made the list, but I'm guessing you'll have a hard time singling it out. Tanier went with the 1994 deal between the Indianapolis Colts and then-Los Angeles Rams. The Colts acquired the fifth overall pick from the Rams to select Alberts. The Rams traded the seventh pick to San Francisco, which selected Bryant Young, while using an additional pick from Indianapolis for running back James Bostic. The Rams drafted Wayne Gandy, Brad Ottis and Ernest Jones with the picks from the 49ers.

This deal was disappointing from the Rams' perspective if the team missed out on Young. I wouldn't necessarily view it that way. The Rams came out ahead by a wide margin when we examine the trade itself. Gandy became a long-term starter. Alberts lasted three seasons and made only seven starts.
The chart shows the wide receivers Josh McDaniels' teams have drafted over the years, including the St. Louis Rams' latest selection, Austin Pettis.

Note that most of the receivers are at least 6 feet tall and 200 pounds.

A few notes on the choices NFL teams hold in the 2011 draft:
  • The Seattle Seahawks have acquired a league-high four selections from other teams. They have a fourth-rounder acquired from New England for Deion Branch; a fifth-rounder from Baltimore for Josh Wilson; a sixth-rounder from Detroit for Lawrence Jackson; and a seventh-rounder from Cleveland for Seneca Wallace.
  • The high number of acquired picks reflects the team's decision to get value for players it did not envision keeping for the long term.
  • Only three teams -- New England, San Diego and Denver -- own picks in the first three rounds acquired from other teams. The Chargers have two, including the third-rounder they acquired from Seattle in the Charlie Whitehurst deal.
  • The Seahawks have also given up a league-high four 2011 picks, including selections in the third, fourth, sixth and seventh rounds. Those picks helped to acquire Whitehurst, Marshawn Lynch, Kentwan Balmer and Stacy Andrews.
  • The Arizona Cardinals are without the seventh-round pick they sent to the New York Jets in the Kerry Rhodes deal. They also parted with a 2010 fourth-rounder.
  • The St. Louis Rams are without the sixth-round pick they sent to Baltimore in the Mark Clayton trade. They have the Ravens' seventh-rounder as part of that deal.
  • The San Francisco 49ers hold the Chargers' fourth-round pick as part of a deal made with San Diego during the 2010 draft. San Diego sent the 91st and 173rd choices of the 2010 draft, plus the 2011 fourth-rounder, to San Francisco for the 79th pick last year. The Chargers drafted linebacker Donald Butler. The 49ers drafted NaVorro Bowman and Anthony Dixon with the picks from San Diego.
  • The 49ers also hold Seattle's sixth-rounder from the Balmer deal and a seventh-rounder acquired from the Detroit Lions in the Shaun Hill trade.

So many of the picks mentioned above were acquired in deals involving veteran players. Those types of deals will not happen during a lockout.
The latest NFC West chat went well even though I kicked it off from the 35-yard line and shortened the running start I usually get in covering questions. Transcript here. Highlights below:
Ben (Portland): It sounds like the Seahawks have been pretty transparent about negotiating a trade for Kevin Kolb. How would a hypothetical trade go down? Wouldn't it have to wait until a new CBA is in place? Wouldn't that likely rule out the use of 2011 picks?

Mike Sando: Yep. There could be no trade before or during the draft without a new labor agreement in place or an injunction wiping out the lockout. Which means we could be talking about something that is not even possible. Which would mean the Seahawks would need to address their quarterback situation through the draft and/or by promoting Charlie Whitehurst and using free agency whenever it begins. This is a subject worth breaking out on the blog at some point.

joe (sf): Hi Mike, like most Rams fans, I'm crossing my fingers Julio Jones is available to us, but I am not sure trading away a second-round pick to move into position for A.J. Green or Jones is a bad idea. This team must give Bradford a WR to grow with like Peyton Manning had in Marvin Harrison. I know this team has needs all over, and I also know we have found some gems recently in the second. What do you think?

Mike Sando: I don't think the situation at receiver is desperate enough for the Rams to spend a second-rounder for a big move up the board. The team picked up a starting left tackle (Rodger Saffold) and defensive leader (James Laurinaitis) in the last two second rounds. Those are tremendous value picks based on what those players provide. We should remember, too, that new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has gotten quite a bit from receivers who disappointed elsewhere. Deion Branch and Brandon Lloyd come to mind. The Rams have to figure one or two of their injured wideouts will return to form. They could get more from a healthier Mike Hoomanawanui at tight end. Take the receiver if he is there, but don't spend too much in an effort to move up.

Ben O (NYC): How different will the 49ers' offense be under Harbaugh?

Mike Sando: We'll still see quite a few two-back sets. This will still be a power-based offense. I suspect the play-calling will be more creative, the quarterbacks will be better prepared and the playbook will give the quarterbacks better bailout options so that Alex Smith or whichever player is under center doesn't have to eat the football while all his receiving options run downfield with their backs to him.

Aarron- Waukesha, Wisconsin [via mobile]: Hey Mike, who do you think the Cardinals should take, Blaine Gabbert or Cam Newton? I think Newton has more raw talent, but we do need a QB who can be accurate. Your thoughts?

Mike Sando: I haven't studied the players the way personnel people study them. My feel is that Arizona would prefer Gabbert over Newton, but I'm not sure whether they would take him at No. 5 overall. Newton can throw accurately. He had a high completion percentage in college. Teams look for functional accuracy, though, and I think there are some questions about his accuracy in some game situations. That could improve as Newton gains a better feel for the game through experience. He has not played as much as some college quarterbacks.

On the Kolb front, the assumption all along is that a trade would recoup a 2011 draft choice. So, if the signing period opens after the draft, that option goes out the window.
The full 2011 NFL draft order remains unknown for at least a few more days pending revelation of compensatory selections.

In the meantime, I've put together a chart showing how many picks in each round NFC West teams hold.

I'll provide a more comprehensive breakdown once the NFL announces compensatory picks, awarded to teams that suffered net losses in unrestricted free agency. The league generally announces compensatory choices during its spring owners meetings, which begins Monday in New Orleans. I'm attending those meetings and will update this chart from there.

Seattle, having lost Nate Burleson and Cory Redding in unrestricted free agency, could be in position to pick up a compensatory fourth-rounder. The team already has the fourth-round choice it acquired from New England in the Deion Branch trade. That pick originated in Denver and is the second pick in the round, at least until compensatory choices come out.

The fourth-rounder from New England and two fifth-round picks would put Seattle in position to trade into the third round, at least conceivably. Seattle has no third-rounder after trading its own to San Diego in the Charlie Whitehurst deal. Teams cannot trade compensatory picks.

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