NFC West: DeSean Jackson

It’s no secret that the San Francisco 49ers are a strong candidate to draft a wide receiver early.

The position is one of the team’s few needs. They have looked at receivers throughout free agency, and there is a report that the team is trying to arrange a visit with receiver DeSean Jackson, who is, by far, the best receiver currently on the market.

So, it’s not a surprise that, in this Insider piece, ESPN draft analyst Kevin Weidl identifies the 49ers Insider as one of the teams who most need to address the receiver position in the draft. Here is what Weidl had to say about the 49ers’ needs:
[+] EnlargeMartavis Bryant
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesThe 49ers would offer a low-pressure environment for Clemson receiver Martavis Bryant.
The Niners were able to work out a two-year deal to keep WR Anquan Boldin in San Francisco. Combined with Michael Crabtree, San Francisco has a pair of strong, reliable pass-catchers on the perimeter. However, there is a need to add a receiver who can pose a legitimate vertical threat outside the hashes. This not only would take pressure off Boldin and Crabtree but also free up TE Vernon Davis, who is one of the top pass-catchers at the position in the league.

With six picks within the top 100, general manager Trent Baalke will have plenty of draft options in May. Baalke can address the depth along the defensive line or take a cornerback with the 30th pick in the first round and still have plenty of ammunition to find a receiver on Day 2.

San Francisco has three picks in the third round, and Clemson's Martavis Bryant is an intriguing fit at that point. The 6-foot-4, 211-pound receiver has a loose, flexible frame and the speed to stretch the field vertically. He wasn't an ideal fit within Clemson's offense, has dealt with drops and comes with some immaturity concerns. However, his flashes on tape and upside are hard to ignore.

I've said for a few months that Bryant compares favorably to the late Chris Henry, who was a receiver for the Bengals. Much like Henry, who was a vertical complement to Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the late 2000s, Bryant could serve in a similar role to Boldin and Crabtree.

This would be an ideal situation for Bryant to land. He won't have the pressure of stepping in as a No. 2 receiver right away, which could end in him disappointing a team that drafts him earlier with those types of expectations. In this scenario, Bryant would have time to develop and mature while providing strong-armed quarterback Colin Kaepernick with a vertical threat on the perimeter.

Other Day 2 options for San Francisco could include Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin (should he fall), Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews and Rutgers' Brandon Coleman, who currently sits with a fringe Day 2 grade.

Weidl is right. The position is stacked and the 49ers have options. Somewhere early, they will be able to address the position. In another Insider piece, Todd McShay looks at some draft prospects who could fit on the 49ers’ defensive line. Insider
The San Francisco 49ers are open to the idea of signing DeSean Jackson. However, we do not have clarity on how far the 49ers will go in their pursuit of the receiver or if they will even get a chance.

Jackson
ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Tuesday that the 49ers are a team to watch in the Jackson pursuit, tweeting that their interest is "real but guarded." A Washington television station reported that the 49ers called Jackson to set up a visit while he was dining with Redskins officials Monday night.

While the 49ers are showing interest, there is no guarantee they will get the opportunity to execute their pursuit. There have been multiple reports that Jackson's agent is negotiating with the Redskins on a contract Tuesday afternoon.

If talks with the Redskins bog down, it may be time to look into the possibility of the 49ers making a successful pursuit of Jackson. There is no doubt he'd be a fit on the field, but there are major financial obstacles the 49ers will have to work out if it gets to that point.
The past week saw the St. Louis Rams finally dip their toes into the free-agent pool, signing a pair of veterans in defensive tackle Alex Carrington and quarterback Shaun Hill and taking a flyer on under-the-radar youngsters in cornerback Greg Reid and linebacker Etienne Sabino.

It was also a busy week for coach Jeff Fisher, who spent most of the time discussing potential rule changes and alterations at the owners meetings in Orlando. Fisher also spent some time chatting with reporters in Orlando, offering some thoughts on a variety of issues.

A look back at the week that was:
  • [+] EnlargeTavon Austin
    Tony Avelar/AP PhotoThe Rams are hoping to get more out of receiver Tavon Austin in his second season.
    After trading up to the eighth pick in the NFL draft last year, the Rams selected receiver/returner Tavon Austin in hopes that he'd provide a spark to an offense in desperate need of one. In his rookie year, Austin certainly flashed that game-changing ability, especially against Indianapolis and Chicago, but missed time at the end of the year with an ankle injury and fell short of the many lofty outside expectations for him.
But the Rams have no concerns about that. In Orlando, Fisher expressed confidence Austin would take the next step in 2014 and the team would have a better idea of ways to best use him.

“We’re not disappointed in what his production was last year at all," Fisher said. "One of the things that was misleading was he had two or three returns called back -- one against Dallas --and then he got hurt. I think another year in the program, in the offense, OTAs, training camp, you’ll see more production. I think we’ll do a better job of using him now that we know what he’s capable of doing. Kind of looking forward to see him improve from year one to year two.’’
  • Signing Carrington was no surprise in that the Rams were looking for help on the defensive line. It was a little more of a surprise that he was the team's first free-agent addition from another team. St. Louis saw great value in Carrington, who has the ability to play all over the line and signed a relatively cheap one-year deal.
“We just wanted rotational depth at the tackle spot," Fisher said. "We’ve had over 100 sacks the last two years, so we can rush the passer, I think we can continue (that). We just wanted some more experience at that spot. It will take a little of the draft pressure off us at some point. Alex has been injured, healthy now and has played a lot of different positions in a number of schemes in the last couple years and hasn’t been able to settle down. We liked him coming out, we thought he would be a disruptive type pass rusher and run defender and we’d like to give him a chance to do that.’’

Carrington is coming off a torn quad but the Rams have no concerns about his health moving forward.
  • It's no secret the Rams have interest in help on the offensive line as many have linked them to the top three tackles: Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan. The first two are expected to go in the top six or so but Lewan's status is a little more of a question mark given some off-field issues.
Fisher didn't want to speculate on how that might change the way the team views Lewan but said it will require a deeper look.

“It doesn’t cause you pause in evaluating, but it certainly going to cause to do more background and research on it,’’ Fisher said.
  • Finally, anytime a player like receiver DeSean Jackson comes available, the obvious question is whether the Rams would have interest in him. Clearly, the Rams could use a No. 1 type of receiver and a proven one like Jackson might make even more sense than taking a chance on even the most talented receiver in the draft.
Jackson is scheduled to visit Washington first and Oakland and Buffalo have also expressed interest. Indications from the Rams are that they won't be involved in this particular conversation in any sort of serious way. While the Rams could use the help, they don't have a lot of salary cap space to use on a player who would probably require another big cap number. Theoretically they could give him a smaller number in the first year but that would require them to backload the deal more than they'd like and eat up valuable space that could be used on extensions for current players in the next few years.

There's also the idea that Jackson would be a bit redundant with Austin, which is to say they are both smaller receivers with games built on speed and change of direction. Not that both players couldn't succeed but it still may not be the best fit.

Beyond all of that, there's the larger X-factor of why, exactly, Philadelphia released such a productive player under contract in the prime of his career. One way or another, the Eagles had their reasons and, like Fisher mentioned with Lewan, there will need to be some major legwork done by any team looking to add Jackson.
The past week saw the St. Louis Rams finally dip their toes into the free-agent pool, signing a pair of veterans in defensive tackle Alex Carrington and quarterback Shaun Hill and taking a flyer on under-the-radar youngsters in cornerback Greg Reid and linebacker Etienne Sabino.

It was also a busy week for coach Jeff Fisher, who spent most of the time discussing potential rule changes and alterations at the owners meetings in Orlando, Fla. Fisher also spent some time chatting with reporters, offering some thoughts on a variety of issues.

A look back at the week that was:
  • [+] EnlargeTavon Austin
    Tony Avelar/AP PhotoThe Rams are hoping to get more out of receiver Tavon Austin in his second season.
    After trading up to the eighth pick in the NFL draft last year, the Rams selected receiver/returner Tavon Austin in hopes that he'd provide a spark to an offense in desperate need of one. In his rookie year, Austin certainly flashed that game-changing ability, especially against Indianapolis and Chicago, but missed time at the end of the year with an ankle injury and fell short of the many lofty outside expectations for him.
But the Rams have no concerns about that. In Orlando, Fisher expressed confidence Austin would take the next step in 2014 and the team would have a better idea of ways to best use him.

“We’re not disappointed in what his production was last year at all," Fisher said. "One of the things that was misleading was he had two or three returns called back -- one against Dallas --and then he got hurt. I think another year in the program, in the offense, OTAs, training camp, you’ll see more production. I think we’ll do a better job of using him now that we know what he’s capable of doing. Kind of looking forward to see him improve from year one to year two."
  • Signing Carrington was no surprise in that the Rams were looking for help on the defensive line. It was a little more of a surprise that he was the team's first free-agent addition from another team. St. Louis saw great value in Carrington, who has the ability to play all over the line and signed a relatively cheap one-year deal.
“We just wanted rotational depth at the tackle spot," Fisher said. "We’ve had over 100 sacks the last two years, so we can rush the passer, I think we can continue [that]. We just wanted some more experience at that spot. It will take a little of the draft pressure off us at some point. Alex has been injured, healthy now and has played a lot of different positions in a number of schemes in the last couple years and hasn’t been able to settle down. We liked him coming out, we thought he would be a disruptive type pass rusher and run defender and we’d like to give him a chance to do that."

Carrington is coming off a torn quad but the Rams have no concerns about his health moving forward.
  • It's no secret the Rams have interest in help on the offensive line as many have linked them to the top three tackles: Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan. The first two are expected to go in the top six or so but Lewan's status is a little more of a question mark given some off-field issues.
Fisher didn't want to speculate on how that might change the way the team views Lewan but said it will require a deeper look.

“It doesn’t cause you pause in evaluating, but it certainly going to cause to do more background and research on it," Fisher said.
  • Finally, anytime a player like receiver DeSean Jackson comes available, the obvious question is whether the Rams would have interest in him. Clearly, the Rams could use a No. 1 type of receiver and a proven one like Jackson might make even more sense than taking a chance on even the most talented receiver in the draft.
Jackson is scheduled to visit Washington first and Oakland and Buffalo have also expressed interest. Indications from the Rams are that they won't be involved in this particular conversation in any sort of serious way. While the Rams could use the help, they don't have a lot of salary cap space to use on a player who would probably require another big cap number. Theoretically they could give him a smaller number in the first year but that would require them to backload the deal more than they'd like and eat up valuable space that could be used on extensions for current players in the next few years.

There's also the idea that Jackson would be a bit redundant with Austin, which is to say they are both smaller receivers with games built on speed and change of direction. Not that both players couldn't succeed but it still may not be the best fit.

Beyond all of that, there's the larger X factor of why, exactly, Philadelphia released such a productive player under contract in the prime of his career. One way or another, the Eagles had their reasons and, like Fisher mentioned with Lewan, there will need to be some major legwork done by any team looking to add Jackson.
The NFL owners meetings get under way in earnest Monday in Orlando, Fla. Let’s take a look at some storylines that may involve the 49ers:

Harbaugh situation: At the NFL combine in February -- the last time league officials gathered at the same place -- talk of coach Jim Harbaugh’s friction with the 49ers’ front office was a major story. Harbaugh and the rest of the brass will be in Orlando. That story has cooled and they have all worked well together in free agency. If anything develops this week, I’d surprised if it is as strong as last month’s batch of speculation.

Comp pick: Compensatory picks could be announced as early as Monday afternoon. The 49ers are expected to get either a third- or fourth-round pick.

Week 1 in Seattle: The NFL season opener Sept. 4 at Super Bowl champion Seattle could be announced at the meetings. Such announcements have been made at the meetings in the past. However, Fox Sports reported it is not expected this year. From what I hear, the 49ers and Green Bay Packers are among the favorites to be the visiting team. Who doesn’t want to see an NFC Championship game rematch as soon as possible?

Trade talks? The 49ers reportedly called Philadelphia about receiver DeSean Jackson, although 49ers general manager Trent Baalke told CSN Bay Area that the team has not called about Jackson. With the brass of both teams in the same hotel there is potential for talks to develop. Yes, Jackson would be a great fit for the 49ers. But the problem was, is and will be how the 49ers would fit his hefty contract under their tight salary cap.

The NaVorro Bowman rule? Among the rule changes to be considered this week is one inspired by a controversial call in the San Francisco 49ers' NFC title game loss at Seattle, in which linebacker Bowman tore his ACL. The owners will vote on whether to expand replays to include the recovery of a loose ball in the field of play. The current rule is that post-fumble scrums are not reviewable. Bowman appeared to have stripped the ball during the play at the goal line in the fourth quarter at Seattle. The play was not reviewed and Bowman was hurt.
Perhaps the San Francisco 49ers' pursuit of an impact veteran wide receiver is not dead this offseason.

The latest name connected to the team is Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson.

Jackson
Earlier Tuesday, ESPN Insider Adam Schefter reported that the Eagles were not necessarily shopping the dynamic receiver but they would be willing to listen. Later, CSN Philadelphia reported that the 49ers and the Patriots called about Jackson. The report stated that the Eagles would like at least a third-round pick for Jackson, who starred at nearby Cal.

Do I believe the report? You bet.

There's no doubt the 49ers are interested in receivers, and general manager Trent Baalke can be aggressive. They were connected to trade talks last year for receivers such as Josh Gordon and Hakeem Nicks. In recent days, they've been connected to Nicks, Julian Eldelamn (who visited) and Emmanuel Sanders.

Now that I have brought up the idea, do I like it?

Yes. A lot.

The 49ers don't have a lot of needs. However, a speed receiver is at the top of the list along with a cornerback. Jackson would answer half of that problem as much as any receiver the 49ers could get at the No. 30 pick. Jackson, 27, is coming off a huge season with 82 catches for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns.

The addition of Jackson would make the 49ers offense -- and quarterback Colin Kaepernick -- wildly dangerous. A combination of Jackson, Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis would make the 49ers a defensive coordinator's worst nightmare. Add in a promising receiver in Quinton Patton, one of the league's most consistent run games and Kaepernick's dual-threat abilities and the possibilities are limitless.

If the 49ers are going to bypass Super Bowl champion Seattle in the NFC West, it will be because they have improved enough on offense to overtake the Seahawks' defense. This trade could do the trick.

There are obstacles, of course. Jackson has a big price tag, but his contract is not guaranteed so the 49ers can get out of it. That could come into play since they have big-money deals looming with Kaepernick, Crabtree, pass rusher Aldon Smith and guard Mike Iupati.

But there are reasons to think the 49ers could make a Jackson trade work for the short term. Let's face it, the short term is all that really matters right now for a team that has been to three NFC title games and a Super Bowl, and saw their last two seasons end with their offense in the red zone with a chance to win.

The 49ers are in business to win a Super Bowl right now. Adding a player like Jackson for a reasonable compensation package (the 49ers are set to have 11 picks and up to six in the first three rounds) makes perfect sense.
The target percentages posted earlier are open to interpretation. Drop percentages are a little more straightforward.



Six current or former NFC West players ranked among the NFL's top 20 qualifying wide receivers and tight ends last season in lowest drop percentage, defined as drops divided by targets.

Percy Harvin and Mario Manningham went without a drop. Neither played a full season, but each had enough targets to qualify for inclusion in the chart below.

You might recall some of these players suffering more drops than we've listed in the chart. ESPN's standard for drops could be stricter than the ones our uncles apply when deciding which objects to throw at the television following frustrating plays. Our game charters count drops as "incomplete passes where the receiver SHOULD have caught the pass with ORDINARY effort" and only when the receiver is "100 percent at fault" for the incompletion.

The first chart shows where NFC West teams' wide receivers and tight ends ranked in the league in drop rate. The Seattle Seahawks ranked third. However, their running backs ranked only 29th in drop rate (9.3 percent), one spot ahead of running backs for the San Francisco 49ers (9.4 percent). The Arizona Cardinals' backs were fourth at 2.7 percent. The totals for running backs affected the overall team percentages, which we can check out separately another time.

I've singled out wide receivers and tight ends because we've been looking at players from those positions while discussing potential changes to the 49ers following Michael Crabtree's recent injury. Getting Manningham back to health could help the 49ers.

Nik Bonaddio of numberFire expects relatively big things from St. Louis Rams rookie Tavon Austin based on similarities with other receivers.

Bonaddio explains why here. His expectations for Austin in 2013: somewhere around 59 receptions for 961 yards with eight touchdowns.

The Rams would presumably be OK with those types of numbers. However, I think Austin has a chance to exceed that total for receptions while heading to a team with relatively unestablished players at wide receiver.

The chart below ranks rookies since 2002 by most receiving yards while including their stats for receptions and receiving touchdowns. The projections for Austin would put him in the top 10 by that standard.

The Rams haven't had a receiver with 961-plus yards since Torry Holt had 1,189 yards in 2007.

The Arizona Cardinals held a 17-0 lead over the Philadelphia Eagles with six seconds before halftime Sunday. What happened next sent Arizona on its way to a 27-6 victory and the Cardinals' first 3-0 start since 1974:
    [+] EnlargeJames Sanders
    AP Photo/Paul ConnorsJames Sanders (39) returned a Michael Vick fumble for a touchdown just before halftime.
  • The Eagles went with three wide receivers, two to the left side of the formation. Tight end Brent Celek lined up to the right side, on the line. LeSean McCoy was alone in the backfield behind quarterback Michael Vick.
  • Quentin Groves, Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell had a hand on the ground as defensive linemen for Arizona. Safety James Sanders, subbing for Adrian Wilson, stood up over Celek. Sam Acho and Kerry Rhodes stood at the line near the left offensive tackle.
  • Vick took the snap and looked to his right, away from Acho and Rhodes. McCoy went to the strong side in pass protection even though Arizona had a numbers advantage on the weak side. The left guard and center blocked Campbell. The left tackle blocked Acho. That left Rhodes with a free path to Vick, who was looking the other way.
  • Sanders engaged Celek initially. Vick apparently wanted to find DeSean Jackson in the end zone, but Patrick Peterson and linebacker Daryl Washington had tight coverage. Vick seemed to hold the ball too long, but the on-screen clock showed five seconds remaining when Rhodes first made contact with the quarterback.
  • Sanders could see what was happening. Celek could not; his back was to Vick. Sanders shed Celek, scooped up the ball and raced up the left sideline. The Eagles would have tackled him had Washington not hustled down to block McCoy.
  • Acho was also part of the escort. He noticed receiver Damaris Johnson closing from the outside. Acho accelerated and reached his right arm forward in an effort to grab Johnson's left arm. This was at the 25-yard line. The game clock had expired. Sanders was at the 18. Acho quickly disengaged and held up his hands as if to show he hadn't done anything wrong, but he did appear to make contact with Johnson. Was it a hold? That would have been a controversial call. The chase continued. Johnson tripped at about the 12. He and Acho might have had their feet tangle inadvertently.
  • Larry Fitzgerald had picked up the chase along the sideline at this point. He was running along the sideline, helmet in hand, and actually beat Acho to Sanders in the end zone. Fitzgerald leaped and wrapped his right arm around Sanders' head.

That sequence turned a potential 17-7 halftime lead into a 24-0 blowout. I'll be interested in seeing where it ranks among impact plays for the week, as determined by the change in win probability for each team.

2012 NFL Preview: Arizona Cardinals

August, 31, 2012
8/31/12
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Five notes on the Arizona Cardinals from our recently published 2012 preview page:
1. Levi Brown is finally appreciated: The much-criticized tackle has never appeared more valuable than in the days since a torn triceps knocked him out for at least three months. The Cardinals' pass protection has been abysmal since Brown left the lineup. Arizona will do more to help its tackles once the regular season begins, but from what we've seen so far, the team's quarterbacks will have a tougher time making it through the season healthy. John Skelton has been more durable than Kevin Kolb. That is something to keep in mind.

2. There's competition at RB: Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams are both talented enough to start. Both are coming off knee surgeries. One or the other could be a 1,000-yard rusher. It would be no surprise, as well, if one or both missed extended periods to injury. This is a difficult situation to read from a fantasy football standpoint. At best, Wells and Williams will push each other. They'll compete for carries and give the Cardinals a one-two punch featuring power (Wells) and explosiveness (Williams).

3. Peterson is more than a returner: Patrick Peterson earned Pro Bowl honors as a rookie for his work as a punt returner. Four return touchdowns, each covering at least 80 yards, will get anyone noticed. The goal this season is for Peterson to land in Hawaii for his efforts at cornerback. Games against Tom Brady (Week 2), DeSean Jackson (Week 3), the Packers (Week 9), Roddy White/Julio Jones (Week 11), Calvin Johnson (Week 15) and Brandon Marshall (Week 16) should put Peterson in the spotlight, for better or worse.

4. Finding Fitzgerald: Larry Fitzgerald is coming off the fourth season of his career with at least 1,400 receiving yards. Only three players in NFL history have as many seasons with at least 1,400. The milestone was significant for Fitzgerald because it marked the first time Fitzgerald had reached 1,400 yards without Kurt Warner as his primary quarterback. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald's yards per reception spiked from 12.6 in 2010 to a career-high 17.6. Fitzgerald proved he can produce at the highest level with or without a top quarterback. The Cardinals do a good job making sure he gets his touches.

5. Small margins for error: The Cardinals have generally been a resilient team under coach Ken Whisenhunt. They'll need that to remain the case if the quarterback play remains spotty. Arizona overcame fourth-quarter deficits in six of its eight victories last season, one off the NFL record for a season since 1970. The Cardinals went 4-0 in overtime games and are 7-2 in OT games under Whisenhunt. The 2011 team tied a franchise record with seven victories by seven or fewer points. The Cardinals' eight victories were by 4.25 points on average, the lowest average margin since at least 1970 for teams with eight or more victories in a season. Overall, the 2011 Cardinals played a league-high 13 games decided by seven or fewer points, going 8-5 in those games.
Earlier: Cardinals Camp Confidential.

Parting shot from Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.: "You look at the offensive line and it could be the worst in the league, but it probably gets a slightly bum rap. They can run block OK. Their quarterbacks don't help them at all in protection. But if I'm in charge of that team, they have to go into Jets mode. They have to try to win 10-9. Can their defense pull that off? Maybe. I think it can be a top 10 defense. Patrick Peterson is going to be a star. They found some youngsters in the secondary. I really like the defensive line. It looks like Dan Williams is on his way. Daryl Washington could lead the league in tackles. I don't like the outside linebacker situation, which is just such a far cry from James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. But Ryan Williams looks phenomenal at running back. If you made him the feature of your offense and fed it to Larry Fitzgerald, you could mask some of those deficiencies and pull out more wins than we think."
Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson belong on any list featuring wide receivers with the ability to make plays well downfield.

New England's Brandon Lloyd, formerly of St. Louis, lacks their breakaway speed, but he's deceptively fast. And if you're familiar with the elevated yards-per-reception stats he's posted in recent years, you know he deserves a mention as well.

Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald fits a different mold physically. He's at least three inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than the others. He's not scary fast by NFL standards.

But in a rankings package ESPN Stats & Information distributed recently, Fitzgerald showed up with Wallace, Jackson and Lloyd as the only NFL players with more than 25 receptions covering 25-plus yards over the past two seasons. Fitzgerald averaged a career-high 17.6 yards per reception last season, up from 12.6 in 2010 and 11.3 the year before. I'm not entirely sure why the average jumped so much, but its' something that could be worth investigating as the offense takes shape for this season.

The chart, provided by Kareem White of ESPN Stats & Information, breaks out additional information on the receptions covering at least 25 yards since 2010. We see that Fitzgerald gained a higher percentage of his yardage after the catch, no surprise given his size and the others' speed. Lloyd gained far less of his yardage that way, a reflection of the downfield passing attack Josh McDaniels ran in Denver and St. Louis.

The Cardinals struggled with consistency on offense last season, but they did connect for big plays in the passing game. They finished with 15 receptions of at least 40 yards, fifth-most in the league. Arizona had sufficient playmakers even before adding Michael Floyd in the first round of the draft this year. The key for the Cardinals will be gaining consistency without losing explosiveness.
It was good reconnecting Tuesday with St. Louis sports institution Bernie Miklasz now that the Rams are close to opening training camp.

We generally discuss most or all teams from the NFC West during our weekly conversations. This time, it was all Rams, with no apologies. They've posted the audio.

Bernie asked about prospects for the Rams' receivers, including rookie draft choices Brian Quick and Chris Givens. I happened to have open a Pro Football Reference query ranking rookies since 2007 by receptions. Like Quick, a few of the leaders were second-round choices: Eddie Royal (2008), DeSean Jackson (2008) and Greg Little (2011) among them.

But only one first-year receiver since 2007 has reached 1,000 yards (A.J. Green). Seven others have finished their first seasons with between 841 and 995 yards. Most of them were full-time starters.

Quick and Givens should have opportunities for playing time because the Rams lack established starters and have decided to go young.

Some will also depend upon how frequently the Rams use more than two wide receivers on early downs. The Rams could be more apt to use additional tight ends, cutting into opportunities for wideouts. Before Brian Schottenheimer came to the Rams this year, his 2011 New York Jets ranked 24th in the percentage of first- and second-down plays with more than two wide receivers on the field (36.6 percent), according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Rams ranked 20th (38.9). Six teams were above 50 percent.

Restraint will be in order if Quick or Givens flashes promise during camp. Some rookies look great, then hit bumps during the regular season (tight end Lance Kendricks comes to mind in 2011). We'll start to get a feel once the Rams open training camp Sunday. I'm looking forward to being there.
There's little sense in taking the bait when San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh tells a radio program Michael Crabtree "has the best hands I've ever seen on a wide receiver."

Anyone with a strong grasp of NFL history would place Cris Carter, Raymond Berry and Steve Largent on a short list for receivers with the surest hands.

Hall of Famer Ken Houston, speaking for a 2008 piece on all-time great wideouts, stood up for AFL stars Otis Taylor and Lionel Taylor.

"Lionel Taylor, I mean, he would catch a BB," Houston said.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, speaking for the same piece, said Randy Moss, then with New England, had the best hands in the NFL at that time (2008).

"A lot of guys can catch," Thompson said then. "He can catch on any platform, as we say in scouting. He can adjust and catch it over the top of somebody's head, catch it falling down, and it doesn't matter if he is covered."

With Moss now on the 49ers, it is possible Crabtree does not possess the best hands among wide receivers on his own team.

Oops. I wasn't going to take the bait on this one, but now it's too late. Time to regroup.

Bottom line, I suspect Crabtree has impressed Harbaugh this offseason, and Harbaugh would like that to continue for as long as possible. By offering such strong public praise for Crabtree, Harbaugh is setting a standard for Crabtree to meet this season. He realizes Crabtree has the ability to meet that standard, or else he wouldn't make the statement.

We should all recall Harbaugh's calling quarterback Alex Smith "elite" and promoting him for the Pro Bowl last season. Then as now, Harbaugh was standing up for his guy. Smith enjoyed the finest season of his career and even outplayed the truly elite Drew Brees at times during the 49ers' playoff victory over New Orleans. The way Harbaugh backed Smith played a role in that performance, in my view.

Back to Crabtree. He has the ability to rank among the most sure-handed receivers in the game. He has not yet earned that status, but now he has little choice, right?

As the chart shows, Crabtree finished the 2011 season with 12.2 receptions per drop, which ranked 28th in the NFL among players targeted at least 100 times. Larry Fitzgerald led the NFL with 80 receptions and only one drop. Those numbers are according to ESPN Stats & Information, which defines drops as "incomplete passes where the receiver should have caught the pass with ordinary effort."

Crabtree suffered six drops last season by that standard, a few too many for the player with the best hands his head coach has ever seen on a wide receiver.
Every team in the NFC West had a 1,000-yard rusher last season.

Coaches in Seattle, San Francisco and St. Louis have promoted run-first philosophies. Arizona has invested first- and second-round picks in running backs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams, respectively.

Run, run, run.

And yet the division focused on the passing game quite a bit during the 2012 NFL draft -- on both sides of the ball. NFC West teams drafted a league-high three wide receivers in the first two rounds. Teams from the division drafted three cornerbacks in the first three rounds, tied with the NFC North for most in the league.

The charts show how many receivers and corners each division added through the first three rounds. The combined total for the NFC West (six) was the most for any division, one more than the NFC North.

St. Louis drafted cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins (second round) and Trumaine Johnson (third round). Arizona used a third-round choice for cornerback Jamell Fleming. Arizona (Michael Floyd) and San Francisco (A.J. Jenkins) used first-round picks for receivers. St. Louis added receiver Brian Quick in the second round (and another receiver, Chris Givens, in the fourth).

NFC West pass defenses could face additional pressure given the scheduling rotation in 2012.

Every NFC West team faces New England with Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker.

The division also faces Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers, Jermichael Finley, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson), Detroit (Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew) and Chicago (Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall).

San Francisco draws New Orleans (Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston) and the New York Giants (Eli Manning, Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz). Arizona faces Philadelphia (Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin) and Atlanta (Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones). Seattle faces Dallas (Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant) and Carolina (Cam Newton, Steve Smith).

The top five teams in 2011 passing yardage -- New Orleans, New England, Green Bay, Detroit and the Giants -- show up on NFC West schedules. Green Bay, New England, the Giants and Saints comprised the top four in yards per passing attempt. The top seven teams in passing touchdowns -- Green Bay, New Orleans, Detroit, New England, Dallas, Atlanta and the Giants -- play a combined 16 games against the NFC West.

And, of course, NFC West teams must face each other, which means games against Larry Fitzgerald, Vernon Davis, Randy Moss, Sidney Rice and others.
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.

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