NFC West: Delone Carter

Was 49ers' Roman right about Saints' D?

January, 12, 2012
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Greg Roman, the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator, naturally wasn't going to disrespect an opponent heading into a playoff game.

Sure, the New Orleans Saints' opponents have averaged 5.0 yards per rushing attempt this season, the 29th-worst figure in the NFL, but there was an explanation.

"Those guys do a really good job against the run; I think statistics are misleading," Roman said Wednesday. "A lot of people have popped runs on them down by 30. What does that do? It inflates the stats. When they had to run, I didn't see those 30-yard runs."

Roman was correct in a sense. Indianapolis did break runs covering 42 and 24 yards when trailing the Saints by at least 30 points. Those runs were pretty much meaningless.

But the Saints' opponents also broke runs covering 42, 41, 39, 34 and 29 yards when the scoring margin was eight or fewer points either way, what we would consider to be one-score differentials. Opponents had 16 runs of 15 yards or longer in these situations.

The 49ers, by comparison, gave up no runs longer than 34 yards and only four longer than 18 yards. They were leading by 23 when Arizona broke a 34-yarder in Week 11. They were up by 13 when the Rams broke a 27-yarder in Week 17. The trailed Philadelphia by seven and led Pittsburgh by six when those teams broke runs for 24 and 21 yards, respectively.

The first chart shows all runs against the Saints by score differential. The second chart shows each run against the Saints covering 15-plus yards. There were 27 of them. The Saints led by six points on average at the time of those runs. The 49ers gave up 10 such runs by comparison. They led by three points on average during those runs.

Thanks to Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information for his assistance.
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.
Tanner from Southern California writes: Mike, what will Larry Fitzgerald's status be when the NFL and NFL Players Association come to a new collective bargaining agreement? If he becomes an unrestricted free agent, I could see Pete Carroll being very interested. They've got money to spend in Seattle, right? Your thoughts?

Mike Sando: Fitzgerald will remain under contract to the Cardinals for the 2011 season regardless of what happens with the labor situation. His contract features a no-trade clause and a provision preventing the Cardinals from naming him their franchise player, should such a provision exist under a new labor agreement. Fitzgerald could always waive the no-trade clause if he wanted to do so, but that seems unlikely. He'll have a long list of suitors if he does hit the market.

The Seahawks will have salary flexibility, but so will a lot of teams. They have considerable financial resources -- no team has a wealthier owner -- but several teams could find the money to sign a player of Fitzgerald's caliber.

Fitzgerald holds all the leverage in this situation. He's likely to continue saying the right things publicly while watching very closely to see how the Cardinals improve their roster, specifically at quarterback.

Joe from Phoenix writes: Hi Mike, I'm a life-long Rams fan transplanted to Phoenix and a daily reader of the blog. Everyone knows that Steven Jackson is going to need another back to pick up some slack. Jackson already shortened his career by carrying the Rams for so long. I'm excited about Delone Carter from Syracuse. He has great burst and is built like a bowling ball, just like Maurice Jones-Drew. The problem as I see it, though, is that the Rams have too many immediate needs to invest a third-round pick on a back. What are the chances of St Louis using a mid-round pick on a back? And who would you consider to be their best options?

Mike Sando: We are thinking along the same lines. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. and I were discussing this on the phone Tuesday. We agreed that the Rams would probably be best waiting until later in the draft before selecting a back this year. But we thought the Rams could justify using an earlier selection, perhaps even a first-rounder, for the right running back as early as 2012, depending upon how well Jackson holds up this season.

The idea would be to extend Jackson's career while lining up a replacement. The Rams still had Marshall Faulk when they drafted Jackson. The Seahawks still had a productive Ricky Watters when they drafted Shaun Alexander. The Cardinals arguably should have drafted Adrian Peterson even though they had Edgerrin James, based simply on value.

If I were the Rams, I would want to upgrade at receiver, defensive tackle and outside linebacker in this draft. I would probably look for an affordable veteran safety. I would consider signing a veteran back or using a later choice for a backup/developmental player. And then I would come back a year from now looking at a front-line back more seriously.

Paul from San Francisco writes: While Niner fans are criticizing the secondary, which they should, they seem to be solely focused on the cornerback play. Did we have two elite safeties last year that I happened to completely miss? From my recollection, the safeties were routinely torched last year, gathering exactly zero All-Pro votes. They are young and can improve, but that doesn't mean they should escape the same searing scrutiny the cornerbacks regularly endure.

Many of the most impactful defensive players around the NFL play the safety position -- quarterbacking their defenses, disguising coverages, coming up to make stops in the running game, blitzing the QB, and making interceptions. Let's not forget about these guys.

Mike Sando: Pass coverage was the issue for the secondary overall, not just the corners or safeties. We saw poor coverage and sometimes poor tackling as well, notably against the Packers in Green Bay. That game was a horror show. The team's secondary coach cited personal reasons for resigning within a couple days of that game. It was a tough way to go out.

This was supposed to be a breakout season for free safety Dashon Goldson, with rookie strong safety Taylor Mays joining him in the lineup eventually and finishing the season strong. Goldson did not stand out as the 49ers had hoped he would. Mays took over for Michael Lewis, as expected, but he failed to hold the starting job. Reggie Smith took over and held the job. It's unclear whether Goldson will return. It's unclear what the new staff will think of Mays.

The secondary could turn over quickly. Nate Clements will not be back under his current contract. Goldson could become an unrestricted free agent. Mays has no guarantees.

Randy from Peoria, Ariz., writes: What are the NFL rules/limitations with respect to undrafted free agents? Limits to number? Limits to amount and type of contact? Does a prospect have to go through the scouting combine to be available to a team? Of those that do drop off the map, not having been signed by anyone after all draft rounds have been exhausted, what can teams do with them? And what of the wisdom of pursuing untaken talent? It would be good to hear your thoughts.

Mike Sando: About 330 players go to the combine each year. Teams draft 255 players, including some who were not at the combine. Teams then sign roughly 10 or 15 undrafted free agents right after the draft. Some went to the combine. Others did not. There are no requirements along those lines.

All players signed to contracts count against the 80-man offseason limit. This includes undrafted free agents. Once teams reduce to 53 players for the regular season, they still have an 80-man limit encompassing those 53 players and any players on various reserve lists -- reserve/injured, reserve/retired and the like.

Rules apply to undrafted free agents the same as they apply to other players.