NFC West: Dexter McCluster
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
While the 49ers will surely address the position early in the draft, there has been enough whispers around the league to suggest they are not averse to bringing in a receiver earlier.
Golden Tate told a Seattle radio station, after he signed with Detroit, that the 49ers showed interest. It is doubtful they were willing to pay big dollars, though. Tate reportedly received $31 million over five years from the Lions.
The 49ers also had some interest in Dexter McCluster before he signed with the Titans and there has been some interest in Minnesota’s Jerome Simpson.
There could be some decent receivers available over the next several days. Among the top receivers who could potentially be signed at a reasonable price include Hakeem Nicks, James Jones, Santonio Holmes, Sidney Rice and Emmanuel Sanders. Then there’s the possibility Steve Smith could soon be free.
Again, the 49ers may not be big free-agent players at a position they will address in the draft, but they have been looking. And if the price is right, there could possibly be a connection.
- Career stats: Baldwin has 41 receptions for 579 yards (14.1-yard average) and two touchdowns in 26 games over two NFL seasons. He has run 477 pass routes. Quarterbacks have targeted him 100 times.
- Slot or not: Baldwin has made the vast majority of his receptions lined up wide to the left. He has 28 receptions from there and eight after lining up wide to the right. He has three receptions from the left slot and two from the right slot. The 49ers' Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin have significant receptions from each of those four areas. The chart breaks down Baldwin's production by where he lined up. "WL" is wide left, "SL" is slot left, and so on.
- Red zone: Baldwin is a big target at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, but he has only one career reception and eight targets inside the red zone. The lone reception was a 3-yarder for a touchdown. Dwayne Bowe (35), Tony Moeaki (16), Dexter McCluster (14) and Jamaal Charles (10) had more red zone targets for the Chiefs over that span. Crabtree (28), Vernon Davis (23), Frank Gore (17) and Delanie Walker (16) have led the 49ers in red zone targets over the past two seasons.
- Catches by down: Baldwin has a similar number of receptions across first (16), second (10) and third (15) downs. He has more targets on first down (43) than on second (28) or third (27). Not much to choose from there.
- Outlook: Trading A.J. Jenkins to Kansas City for Baldwin spared the 49ers from making a decision on Jenkins at the mandatory reduction to 53-man rosters. The move should buy a grace period for each player with his new team. Both players will need time to learn their new offenses. It's notable that Kansas City's new leadership gave up on Baldwin so quickly. The 49ers' front office and coaching staff remains largely unchanged since the team drafted Jenkins. San Francisco should have had a better feel for the player it was unloading.
Neither receiver has a contract for the 2013 season. Neither was named his team's franchise player. Both could become unrestricted free agents March 12.
McDaniels' presence in New England as the Patriots' offensive coordinator would seem to make Amendola a viable fallback option for the team if Welker were to leave in free agency. As Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com wrote Monday, there were increasingly reasons to think Welker and the Patriots would reach agreement before the signing period opens. But with ESPN's Adam Schefter reporting Wednesday that Welker planned to test the market, it's good to remember that there are no guarantees.
If Welker were to re-sign with the Patriots, where would Amendola fit beyond New England or St. Louis? Would any team value him more than the Rams would value him?
Those aren't easy questions to answer. Amendola, like Rams teammate and fellow free-agent candidate Brandon Gibson, was with Andy Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles before coming to the Rams. Before that, Amendola was with Jason Garrett and the Dallas Cowboys in 2008, when Garrett was offensive coordinator.
Sometimes those past connections come into play when a player reaches free agency. Reid is the new head coach in Kansas City. Garrett fills the same role in Dallas. Reid's receivers coach, David Culley, is the same one he had in Philadelphia when Amendola was there in 2009.
But even if Amendola's ties to those teams' coaches were relevant, neither Kansas City nor Dallas appears to have a pressing need for a slot receiver. The Chiefs' Dexter McCluster and Tony Moeaki combined for 62 receptions from the slot last season, according to game charting from ESPN Stats & Information. The Cowboys' Miles Austin and Jason Witten combined for 83 slot receptions.
There could be other suitors, of course. There are other connections, too.
Amendola's offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, Marty Mornhinweg, has the same role with the New York Jets. One of his former offensive coordinators in St. Louis, Pat Shurmur, has the same job with the Eagles.
Again, though, does either team have a pressing need? Jeremy Kerley caught 43 passes for 612 yards from the slot for the Jets last season. Jason Avant had 50 catches for 609 yards from the slot for Philadelphia.
With Amendola coming off two injury-shortened seasons, the Rams should have a better shot at keeping him without overpaying, particularly if Welker re-signs. That would be good for St. Louis given the value Amendola has provided on third down in particular.
"He has great quickness in a short area and when you talk about a smaller guy, he has that great ability to create some separation," McDaniels said of Amendola in 2011, when he was the Rams' offensive coordinator. "You gotta be really tough, you gotta be able to create some separation quick because you don't have all day to run a 5-yard route sometimes. You gotta get open. He does that and he has great hands and he’s really tough. He is everything you want in that regard."
Amendola played in the game anyway, burning the Cardinals for a 38-yard reception.
The Rams listed Amendola as doubtful again Friday. Amendola's availability to the Rams against San Francisco appears critical. He caught 11 passes for 102 yards during a 24-24 tie against the 49ers in Week 10. Penalties wiped out an 80-yard reception and 62-yard punt return for Amendola in that game.
Amendola has already joined select company by playing in a game after being listed as doubtful. Against Arizona, he became the sixth player since 2008 to receive at least one pass target in a game after his team listed him as doubtful, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The chart shows stats for all six.
I'm hoping to find out how many players listed as doubtful wind up playing in games. That would provide some perspective for what seems like a rare occurrence.
1. First-team execution. The Rams scored touchdowns on their first two drives, marked improvement from their performance against Indianapolis last week. Sam Bradford found his favorite receiver, Danny Amendola, for a 35-yard gain off play-action on the first play. Steven Jackson powered through a huge hole for an 18-yard gain on the next play. Bradford soon found Lance Kendricks over the middle for a 23-yard touchdown. Bradford and Amendola connected for a touchdown on the Rams’ second drive. Bradford beat pressure and Amendola made an impressive adjustment on the ball. The Rams’ first-team offense accomplished its goals in this game.
2. Rookie RB rebound. Rookie running back Isaiah Pead was looking to bounce back from a couple miscues suffered in the opener. He scored a touchdown with a high leap over the Chiefs’ defense at the goal line. Pead also lost nine yards with an ill-advised reversal of course. Pead probably should have cut his losses on that run. He carried six times for minus-5 yards.
3. Pass defense. The Rams made progress in this area after a rough game against Andrew Luck. Chris Long batted down a pass early. Craig Dahl quickly brought down the elusive Dexter McCluster after a short gain. The Rams made Matt Cassel and McCluster work for a short completion on third-and-5. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins was right there. Later, rookie corner Trumaine Johnson broke up a pass, leading to an interception for defensive lineman Matt Conrath.
Please do partake in the transcript.
Tristan from San Francisco is claiming to have set an NFC West chat record with six questions or comments making it through our comprehensive screening process. Please don't tell him there were fewer questions than during a typical week, this being late June.
We did have some questions left over. Let's address one of them here.
EDTGO seeks counsel regarding minicamp reports on San Francisco 49ers receiver A.J. Jenkins.
"When drafted it was known he has speed, separation and hands," EDTGO writes. "But he is severely undersized both in height and frame. In a division with the physical Seattle corners and a talented corner such as Patrick Peters, not to mention the Rams' upgrades in that area, do you see him making any impact in his rookie year? What do you think he has to improve on (other then size) to compete?"
Mike Sando: First off, let's all relax about minicamp reports. We need to see Jenkins put on the pads and compete. He'll face plenty of competition from the 49ers' physical defensive backs.
Let's go back to what coach Jim Harbaugh said about Jenkins on draft day.
"I defy anybody to look at that tape and tell me that there's something wrong with it, that there's something that he doesn't do well," Harbaugh said.
Wide receiver was one position where the 49ers did not seem to have the right answers last season. They could have drafted Doug Baldwin, a player Harbaugh knew well, but took Ronald Johnson. The signing of Braylon Edwards also did not work out well (mostly because of injuries, I would say). So, it's possible the 49ers don't evaluate that position as well as they evaluate other positions. I'm just not ready to make that determination so early in the process.
General manager Trent Baalke had this to say about Jenkins on draft day: "Not only do we feel he has the skill sets we're looking for, explosive playmaking ability, but like we've always talked, he's our kind of guy. He's a football guy. He loves the game. He's very passionate. He lives for the games. He lives in the building. It was an easy decision when it came time to make the pick."
The 49ers think Jenkins comes to them with relatively developed route-running skills. They think he has the versatility to play all three primary receiver spots (flanker, split end, slot). They think he needs time in an NFL conditioning program to develop the strength needed to become a more physical player. The knock on Jenkins is that he's too lean and lacks strength.
Sometimes teams overvalue speed. The 49ers could have been at risk for this because they so badly sought a speed element for their receiving corps. They might have been willing to overlook deficiencies so they could add a player with 4.31-second timed speed in the 40-yard dash. I'm not saying the 49ers did this, just that they could have been vulnerable to accepting such a tradeoff.
The 49ers, having added to the position in free agency, do not have a great need for Jenkins to produce this season. I think Jenkins will ease into the offense. I'd be a little surprised if he caught more than 30 or so passes as a rookie. He was the 30th overall choice, so expectations should be muted a little anyway.
NFL teams drafted five wideouts between the 20th and 39th picks over the past two drafts. Four of them caught between 21 and 25 passes as rookies (Demaryius Thomas, Jonathan Baldwin, Dexter McCluster, Arrelious Benn). One, Dez Bryant, had 45 receptions. McCluster is more of a running back; I'd put him in a different category. But the averages can still guide our expectations.
First, thanks to @Gofastleft for pointing out a story suggesting the team has asked for a retractable roof as part of its proposed renovations to the Edward Jones Dome.
Charles Jaco of Fox2now.com says experts generally suggest a price tag between $200 million and $300 million for retrofitting a stadium with such a roof. Jaco: "The Rams lease at the dome says the team is free to leave St. Louis in January 2015 if the dome is not among the top facilities in the National Football League. The Rams rejected an offer from the Convention and Visitor’s Commission to spend $124 million to upgrade the dome, half from taxpayers, half from the team. And this is their counter-offer. If the CVC rejects this proposal, which is pretty likely, then both sides go to arbitration June 15." Noted: Details for the various proposals become public Monday.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch details changes in the Rams' scouting department. Thomas: "The process is well under way, with general manager Les Snead bringing two Atlanta Falcons scouts into directors' positions in the front office. Falcons pro scout Ran Carthon is joining the Rams as director of pro personnel; Falcons area scout Taylor Morton is coming to St. Louis as director of college scouting. The Rams didn't have anyone with the title of director of pro personnel last season, so technically, Carthon isn't replacing anyone. John Mancini, who has been the Rams' director of college scouting for the past two years, is being retained with the title of assistant director of college scouting."
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com offers thoughts on Michael Crabtree's development through three seasons. Maiocco: "While fans expect 1,000-yard seasons from a player chosen with the No. 10 overall draft pick, the 49ers' offense is not one that features the outside receivers. Some view Crabtree as a bust. I am certainly not in that camp."
Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle looks at how rookie LaMichael James could change the 49ers' offense. Lynch: "At Oregon, he played in a spread and most of his carries came from a shotgun quarterback. That could continue with the 49ers. With the additions of Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and rookie A.J. Jenkins the team is showing signs of opening up the offense. Going into the shotgun frequently, could put James on the field more often. But for that to be the case, James will have to prove he’s more of a Darren Sproles than a Dexter McCluster. The revelation of just whom James will be, will start this Friday at the team's rookie minicamp."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee looks at the sorry recent history of the No. 81 jersey in San Francisco, asking whether there's been a T.O. curse.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com explains how receiver Larry Fitzgerald pushes teammates to work harder. Fitzgerald: "I'm just an extremely self-motivated person, that's all. Every day I am trying to run faster, jump higher, lift more. I have always been that way. Especially young guys like (Ryan Williams) … yesterday Patrick Peterson, we had a squat competition. I do it with (receivers) DeMarco Sampson, Jaymar (Johnson). I am into that. I love the competition, no matter if it is on the field, the basketball gym, the bowling alley, competition always makes the cream rise to the top. So I love to compete."
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com checks in with offensive line coach Tom Cable for thoughts on why the team drafted defensive lineman J.R. Sweezy with an eye toward converting Sweezy to offense. Cable: "It was his demeanor, first and foremost. His intelligence. His toughness. And how he played on defense."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Red Bryant is determined to fulfill expectations after signing a $35 million contract this offseason. Bryant: "A lot of guys get big contracts and they kind of go in the tank because you get comfortable. I feel like not so much to justify it, but I have bigger expectations than just a contract. You hear that all the time, but I definitely want to be a guy that when my playing days are over with and they think about the Seahawks, they think about big Red Bryant."
710ESPN Seattle passes along comments from Seahawks coach Pete Carroll regarding Russell Wilson's arm strength.
A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 15.
Pickings were slim in the NFC West this week. Real slim. Oh-and-four slim.
The St. Louis Rams' Ron Bartell gets the call after tracking down the Kansas City Chiefs' Jamaal Charles following an 80-yard run Sunday.
Charles is fast. The Chiefs were already on their way to a likely victory when Charles broke through the Rams' defense with 4 minutes remaining. Bartell was coming off a shoulder injury that had sidelined him the previous week. He easily could have conceded the run out of self-preservation, but how a team loses can matter. The Rams did not quit. Bartell tracked down Charles and tackled him at the 2-yard line.
Kansas City scored on its next play to put away the game, 27-13.
Bartell finished with eight tackles. He brought down Chiefs running back Thomas Jones after gains of 1 and 3 yards. He tackled the Chiefs' Dexter McCluster for a 4-yard loss. He took down Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel after a 3-yard gain on first-and-10.
Seattle receiver Mike Williams and Kansas City receiver Dexter McCluster worked out at Qwest Field, but their teams named them inactive. Williams has been Matt Hasselbeck's go-to target for most of the season. Seattle's offense changes quite a bit without him.
Ben Obomanu, Brandon Stokley, Deon Butler, Golden Tate and Ruvell Martin are active at receiver for Seattle. Obomanu and Stokley played particularly well against New Orleans last week. Tate played well against Oakland before suffering an ankle injury. This is his first game back.
Butler will start in Williams' place, the Seahawks said.
McCluster has missed the Chiefs' last four games.
Also inactive for Seattle: fullback Michael Robinson, guard Chester Pitts, defensive end Clifton Geathers, tackle Will Robinson, nose tackle Colin Cole and defensive tackle Amon Gordon. J.P. Losman is the third quarterback.
Also inactive for Kansas City: cornerback Brandon Flowers, safety Donald Washington, running back Tim Castille, safety Jon McGraw, linebacker Charlie Anderson, linebacker Justin Cole and defensive tackle Anthony Toribio.
Six of the 14 play for NFC West teams. A seventh, Jorrick Calvin of Philadelphia, was a Cardinals draft choice this year.
Seattle's Golden Tate leads NFL rookies with a 25.2-yard average on five returns. The other five rookie punt returners from NFC West teams have 13 returns for 66 yards, good for a 5.1-yard average. They have also accounted for four of the seven fumbles by rookie returners this season.
The Arizona Cardinals' Andre Roberts did not fumble in his NFL debut as a returner Sunday, but two punts sent his way bounced off teammates. The Oakland Raiders recovered both times. Both punts were shorter than anticipated. Roberts might have been lined up too deep on one of them.
"I’m not down on Andre," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt told reporters Monday. "He is a young player. He has got skill in that area and we have to continue to work with him. Fortunately, we were able to still win the game and now we can work on that without the negativity of a loss."
The chart ranks NFL rookie punt returners by average yards per return. Tate looks like a natural for the role. He has returns of 63 and 31 yards in his first two games (Tate was inactive for the opener).
Big Revelation: The 49ers' powerful defense can be exposed by teams with speed on offense. New Orleans' Reggie Bush had some success early in the Saints' game at San Francisco last week. The Chiefs' Jamaal Charles was a track star in college. Fellow Kansas City running back Dexter McCluster has big-play ability. The 49ers countered with a big, rugged front seven, but they had problems containing the Chiefs' speed on the outside. With the 49ers paying attention to the Chiefs' big-play perimeter threats, Kansas City beat them for a 45-yard touchdown on a trick play. Running back Thomas Jones took the snap and handed off to McCluster, who tossed back to quarterback Matt Cassel. Cassel tossed three touchdown passes, becoming the third quarterback this season to post a passer rating in triple digits against the 49ers.
Hindsight: The 49ers might have been better off sticking with Adam Snyder at right guard. Snyder started the Monday night game against New Orleans and the offensive line played what Singletary called its best game since he's been on staff. Snyder is a versatile veteran. Singletary put youngster Chilo Rachal back into the lineup against the Chiefs, as promised, once doctors cleared Rachal to return. I wondered why the 49ers would mess with a good thing, particularly given that Rachal has hardly been a consistently productive performer. The offensive line seemed to fall apart Sunday. Officials flagged Rachal for holding to wipe out an 11-yard scramble by Alex Smith. The 49ers probably could have used a veteran at right guard to help calm rookie right tackle Anthony Davis, who struggled and lost his cool, drawing a 15-yard penalty for fighting.
It's a team game: Smith's success against the Saints had much to do with the 49ers' strong running attack in that game. The Chiefs took away the 49ers running game and Smith wasn't going to make up the difference, particularly in that environment. Smith needs strong support to succeed.
Trending: The 49ers haven't looked very good when trying to get cute. They stalled on a third-down play last week when Brian Westbrook took a direct snap and found no running room. They tried a flea-flicker against the Chiefs and fooled no one. Trick plays are not the sign of creativity on offense. They're also tougher to pull off when key elements of the offense aren't working very well. The Chiefs had the 49ers' running game under control.
Trending II: Smith is not having much success connecting with tight end Vernon Davis on those familiar routes down the middle. The team hasn't tried many of them, either. Are defenses taking it away? Have the 49ers not done enough to exploit Davis' physical advantages? Those are questions I'd like to see answered.
Youth not served: San Francisco entered the 2010 season with the youngest starting offense in the league. That youth should serve the team well in the long term, but the immaturity has betrayed the 49ers in both road games this season. Michael Crabtree struggled in the opener at Seattle. Davis' struggles at right tackle stood out Sunday.
Coaching watch: The Chiefs were the second team this season with answers for everything the 49ers tried. Seattle had some additional familiarity with San Francisco based on having Jeff Ulbrich, Michael Robinson and Scot McCloughan on their side. That type of familiarity can be overrated, but it probably helped Seattle because the Seahawks had a new staff. Seattle also made some in-game adjustments that paid off well. Chiefs coach Todd Haley had a handle on the 49ers' defense after a successful run as the Cardinals' offensive coordinator. My initial impression was that Kansas City won the coaching battle in this game. Of course, the 49ers also got beat Sunday on both lines and that has much to do with making coaches look smart.
What's next: The 49ers visit the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4, followed by home games against Philadelphia and Oakland.
The reality, of course, is that Jackson didn't make it through last season and the team could use a competent backup anyway.
If the Rams sign veteran Brian Westbrook, who visited team headquarters recently, they'll have some measure of insurance. But it's clear Westbrook would serve only as a stopgap player, not a longer-term solution to an issue that figures only to grow in importance with every hit Jackson takes.
And if Jackson misses time in 2010 or injuries again affect his performance, the Rams' decision against drafting a running back this year will come under additional scrutiny regardless of whether the resulting criticism is fair.
It's important to frame the discussion properly. We can accomplish this by weighing which running backs the Rams could have drafted against which players they actually drafted.
The first chart shows every player the Rams drafted in 2010 and the running backs selected next (fullbacks excluded). The findings:
- The Rams passed on Clemson's C.J. Spiller to draft quarterback Sam Bradford. No surprise there. Franchise quarterbacks take precedence over franchise running backs.
- They passed on Mississippi's Dexter McCluster to draft offensive lineman Rodger Saffold. This choice seemed reasonable given predraft grades suggesting Saffold as a first-round value.
- They passed on USC's Joe McKnight twice to draft cornerback Jerome Murphy and receiver Mardy Gilyard. The Rams had to get a receiver at some point, it seemed, and cornerback was another need area.
- They passed on Mississippi State's Anthony Dixon three times to take tight end Mike Hoomanawanui, defensive end Hall Davis and tight end Fendi Onobun. These decisions should be fun to monitor. If Dixon shines for the 49ers while Hoomanawanui or Onobun struggles, the Rams arguably overvalued tight end at the expense of running back depth.
- They passed on Buffalo running back James Starks to draft defensive end Eugene Sims. Starks was the last running back drafted.
Having Jackson healthy would severely diminish the Rams' short-term need for a running back. Keeping Jackson healthy could depend on the Rams' ability to limit his carries without sacrificing too much production.
The second chart shows the Rams' current running backs (fullbacks excluded).
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat sends Joe Haden and Anthony Davis to the 49ers in his latest mock draft. He has Maurkice Pouncey going to Arizona at No. 26, although the Cardinals are on the record saying they don't want to select offensive linemen early. Russell Okung and Earl Thomas are the choices for Seattle. Sam Bradford is the choice for St. Louis. Maiocco: "What about C.J. Spiller? I don't think the 49ers would take him at 13 or 17. And if my mock miraculously falls the way I diagram, we won't find out."
Also from Maiocco: A scout familiar with the 49ers said he thought the team would be wise to select quarterback Jimmy Clausen because the 49ers are presently working on a year-to-year basis at quarterback.
Tom Abate of the San Francisco Chronicle details the kicking battle between the 49ers' Joe Nedney and a robot. Abate: "The lighthearted contest, a stunt to highlight the three-day RoboGames competition that opens Friday at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds, ended when Nedney easily kicked a football 45 yards while his mechanical adversary twice failed to clear the goalposts at that distance."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks have not drafted an offensive tackle since selecting Ray Willis back in 2005. Chris McIntosh was the last tackle Seattle drafted in the first round. Those streaks should end this year.
Greg Johns of seattlepi.com says draft analyst Rob Rang expects the Seahawks to select an offensive tackle -- probably Russell Okung -- with the sixth overall choice. A personnel person familiar with Seattle line coach Alex Gibbs told me he thought Gibbs might prefer Bryan Bulaga over Okung, but it's tough to know for certain how much input Gibbs will have if Seattle does take a tackle in that spot.
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune thinks Georgia Tech's Derrick Morgan could make sense for Seattle with the 14th overall choice. Williams: "Seattle's tentative starting defensive front line, defensive ends Lawrence Jackson and Chris Clemons, who came to Seattle in the (Darryl) Tapp trade, and defensive tackles Colin Cole and Brandon Mebane, combined for nine sacks last season."
Also from Williams: defensive linemen and linebackers the Seahawks could consider on a round-by-round basis, according to Rang.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic considers options at nose tackle for Arizona heading into the draft. Somers: "Weight is a problem for Alabama nose tackle Terrence Cody, who is listed at 360 pounds. Tennessee's Dan Williams likely will be gone by the time the Cardinals pick. The club could decide to gamble and hope that someone such as North Carolina's Cam Thomas or East Carolina's Linval Joseph is available in the second round."
Also from Somers: a chat transcript featuring thoughts on Deuce Lutui, among other Cardinals subjects.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says he thinks the Cardinals could be more likely to move back in the draft than move up, even though general manager Rod Graves sounded more excited about using the team's extra third-round choice as ammunition.
Also from Urban: The proliferation of 3-4 defenses in the NFL makes it tougher for Arizona to find a nose tackle. Urban: "A player like Alabama’s Terrence Cody is considered by many best-suited for the second or even the third round because of ongoing weight issues. Others, like East Carolina’s Linval Joseph or North Carolina’s Cam Thomas, can be had after the first round as well."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says sources close to Rams minority owner Stan Kroenke say the billionaire remains focused on acquiring full ownership of the team, independent of whatever dealings Kroenke might have had with bidder Shahid Khan. Thomas: "Meanwhile, a backlash continues to grow over the absence of comments or statements by Kroenke about a commitment to keeping the Rams in St. Louis. The controversy began when Kroenke did not mention St. Louis in his April 12 announcement that he was exercising his right of first refusal. Radio personality McGraw Milhaven, who hosts a morning drive show on KTRS (550 AM), is asking fans to boycott Rams games if Kroenke doesn't make some kind of statement about keeping the team in St. Louis by the start of Thursday's draft."
Also from Thomas: Defensive tackle Gary Gibson has re-signed with the Rams.
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says fans should not trust Kroenke. Burwell: "As far as I can tell, what we have learned about Kroenke is that every move he makes is straight out of a Machiavellian playbook. From his cunning 11th hour maneuver to gain complete financial control of the franchise, to this latest reported strategy to seek an eight-figure 'compensation' from would-be buyer Shahid Khan to step out of the buying process, his actions reek of cold-blooded duplicity."
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' ownership uncertainty is hurting the team with fans. Miklasz: "So the Rams’ ownership saga gets crazier and more confusing by the day, which only creates distraction and frustration at a time when Rams fans would like to be in a happier mood, looking forward to this week’s NFL Draft. By the time this nasty ownership mess is sorted out, there may be about 248 Rams fans left in St. Louis."
Howard Balzer of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat says Kroenke's reported dealings raise questions about what kind of owner he might become. Balzer: "No one can convince me that the fingerprints of Rams senior adviser John Shaw aren’t all over Kroenke’s tactics. Remember, it was Shaw who orchestrated the move of the Rams to St. Louis in 1995 and then, at the 11th hour, with the papers ready to be signed, suddenly demanded the controversial 25-percent clause be included in the lease that could end up allowing the Rams to move after the 2014 season. What choice did we have but to acquiesce?"
Also from Balzer: The Rams and player agents don't think it's necessary to begin early negotiations with the future No. 1 choice in the draft.
- How is Reggie Smith? Could he transition into a starting role a la Dashon Goldson? The safety class looks good, but maybe not ...
- Should we be concerned about C.J. Spiller going to the Seahawks and make a defensive play for him?
- Would we take Rolando McClain or Brandon Spikes (!) if for some reason safety is not our first-round pursuit?
- Can Manny Lawson and Ahmad Brooks function as one complete and versatile player, or should we chase after Julius Peppers/Joey Porter?
- Will Tony Pashos return to function adequately as our tackle, freeing up draft options?
- The teams in the NFC that went deep into the postseason all seem to have that electrifying player that the 49ers really lack -- Reggie Bush, Percy Harvin/Adrian Peterson, DeSean Jackson, Felix Jones. I feel like Spiller is the real ticket, but Dexter McCluster is the next Darren Sproles.
- Assuming the gradual cohesion of the offensive unit, are we desperate for that building block, or will the team make a statement that they are only a couple key players away from a run?
Love your stuff. Representing the Faithful from SoCal.
Mike Sando: OK, let's knock these out one by one. Smith is a converted cornerback. I'm a little skeptical about him transitioning into a starting-caliber safety anytime soon. The 49ers can try to develop him along those lines, but they probably should not count on him. That means they should address strong safety this offseason. Michael Lewis had three concussions. Even without those concussions, he was getting to the point in his career where the 49ers needed to address the future of the position.
On Spiller, there's no way the 49ers should draft him as a defensive move. That is not how good teams draft. The 49ers need to worry about their own draft priorities. I wouldn't have a problem with them drafting a dynamic change-of-pace running back. They already brought in Glen Coffee as a direct backup to Frank Gore. Their styles were not dissimilar enough for the 49ers to justify putting Coffee on the field much as a running back when Gore was healthy. Spiller would get on the field two ways. One, he would qualify as a change-of-pace back, providing value on offense (sort of the way Arizona worked in LaRod Stephens-Howling during the 2009 regular season). Two, Spiller has shown a tremendous knack as a return specialist. He could potentially win a game in that capacity, based on what he has shown in college. Taking him in the first round would qualify as a bit of a luxury pick, but the team does have two first-round choices.
At linebacker, how wise is it to use first-round picks for inside linebackers? It's pretty wise if you're getting Brian Urlacher or Patrick Willis, but it's harder to justify investing so much in that position without getting a dynamic athlete in return. Perhaps McClain is that type of guy. I do not know. But the 49ers have indeed gotten more from Takeo Spikes than they might have reasonable expected. Getting some young help for Willis inside would be a wise move. As much as the 49ers were happy to add Scott McKillop in the draft last year, he is not a dynamic athlete by NFL standards.
On the Peppers/Porter front, I could see adding Porter if the price were reasonable. Why not add to the depth? If he doesn't look like a good fit, cut him before the season. Peppers is in another category. A 3-4 team such as the 49ers would have to really do its diligence before committing huge money for a player who has previously been effective as a 4-3 defensive end. I'm not yet convinced that would be the wisest use of the 49ers' resources, although it would sure look good on paper.
At offensive tackle, I think the 49ers need to view Barry Sims and Tony Pashos as depth. They should not bank on those players as starters. In other words, they should not automatically remove offensive tackle from first-round consideration just because Pashos could be one option.
Your observation about playmakers in the playoffs has some merit, I think, but those teams you referenced also had Pro Bowl quarterbacks. I would rather have a Pro Bowl quarterback than Bush, Harvin/Peterson, Jackson or Jones.
As for making a statement about being only one or two players away, I can't stand that sort of thinking. The Browns tried that a few years ago. They traded away picks and tried to make that final push after finishing 10-6 and out of the playoffs. Everyone got fired.