NFC West: Doug Nienhuis
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
"I call him a baby Patrick Willis because I hadn't seen a linebacker move like that since Pat," said Robinson, who played with Willis, a perennial Pro Bowl selection, on the San Francisco 49ers.
Wagner, a rookie second-round draft choice, did not stand out to me during the Seahawks' exhibition opener Saturday night, but perhaps a certain fullback inflated my expectations beyond reason.
Dave Wyman of 710ESPN Seattle gave high marks for Wagner's performance. Wyman played the position in the NFL for nine seasons. He certainly knows what to look for in one. Wyman: "I'm always impressed when I see a rookie have poise and look like he's in control. It's almost like he's back in college. I don't know what's going through his mind, so maybe there were some things out there that kind of threw him off, but it certainly didn't look like it. Bobby Wagner looked like he fit right in with that defense. Really fast, he had a really nice tackle, took on some blocks really well, made some little mistakes that you see rookies do, but other than that, I thought he showed really well." Noted: This assessment should be very encouraging for Seahawks fans.
Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune runs through the Seahawks' roster by position. He has a hard time envisioning Tarvaris Jackson figuring into the team's plans.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com recaps the exhibition opener, raising a question: Why not start Russell Wilson against Denver in Seattle's next game?
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks' approach to late-round draft choices -- going after players making position changes, in some cases -- has paid off under the team's current leadership, as the selection of J.R. Sweezy this year indicates. Noted: Former Seahawks president Tim Ruskell fared pretty well in seventh rounds especially. Doug Nienhuis, Ben Obomanu, Ryan Plackemeier, Steve Vallos, Justin Forsett, Courtney Greene and Cameron Morrah were among Seattle's seventh-rounders from 2005 through 2009. All played in the NFL. Obomanu, Vallos, Forsett, Greene and Morrah remain active.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals tight end Jeff King never missed a practice -- not even in junior high -- until sitting out with a quadriceps injury this offseason.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com saw a more spirited practice Monday as coach Ken Whisenhunt ramped up the intensity following two disappointing exhibition games. Also, the team is giving D'Anthony Batiste a shot at right tackle.
Also from Urban: Defensive coordinator Ray Horton thinks his players might be suffering from overconfidence.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams coach Jeff Fisher found some positives in the team's 35-3 defeat to open the exhibition season. Also: "On the 63-yard screen pass for a touchdown to Donald Brown, television replays showed a Colts blocker clearly grabbing the jersey of Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis to keep him from tackling Brown near the line of scrimmage. It also showed Michael Brockers being held by another blocker a few yards down the line of scrimmage. After the game Sunday, Fisher pointed out the missed calls but didn't dwell on them. On Monday, he made it clear he wasn't piling on the replacement officials."
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com lists Fisher's disappointments from the first game, and also this: "Fisher said his team was extremely vanilla while the Colts did quite a bit of scheming. That doesn’t mean there’s a right or wrong way to do but just different philosophies. Fisher said the Rams will steadily add more and more to the pregame schemes in each game though the final preseason contest will likely be fairly plain as well."
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com saw good things from Mario Manningham in the 49ers' practice Monday.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee quotes 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio on the team's defensive effort against Minnesota in the exhibition opener. Fangio: "I just think we got a little full of ourselves."
Taylor Price of 49ers.com saw good things from quarterback Alex Smith in practice. Price: "Smith displayed excellent downfield accuracy while completing three deep sideline throws in the same midfield team period. First, Smith found a familiar target, locating tight end Vernon Davis 30 yards down the field on a deep wheel route against the coverage of linebacker Michael Wilhoite. On the very next play, Smith attacked the left sideline again, this time on a 30-yard deep throw to veteran wideout Randy Moss. Smith completed his third deep sideline pass of the period to running back Kendall Hunter."
The San Francisco 49ers have gone for quality over quantity in trying to build a big, powerful offensive line.
The team has drafted seven offensive linemen since 2005, one below the NFL average. But the 49ers selected a league-high three of the seven in the first round and a league-high five of them in the first two rounds.
That jumped out right away when sizing up NFC West offensive linemen from the 2005-2010 draft classes for the latest "adventures in drafting" installment.
The Arizona Cardinals have taken a different approach, using a division-low one first-round selection for the offensive line since 2005. Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Oakland, San Diego, Tennessee, Dallas, Minnesota and the New York Giants have selected no first-round offensive linemen during that span.
The charts break out NFC West selections by general draft position, with a column showing how many starts each has made for his original team. I am using the term "not active" loosely to describe players who haven't been on rosters during the regular season recently.
Italics reveal what teams might have been thinking as they entered various stages of the draft.
We should find 10-year starters with Pro Bowl potential, most often at tackle ...
Every offensive lineman selected among the top 50 or so choices should contribute and hopefully start ...
The most athletic prospects are gone by now, but tough guys still have value ...
These guys have question marks, obvious limitations or both, but we'll still get some starts from them ...
Anyone seen the Seahawks or 49ers lately?
What are our numbers on the line again? Let's get another one here.
The centers, guards and tackles Seattle drafted from 1994 through 1998 -- the Randy Mueller and Dennis Erickson years -- have combined to start 818 regular-season games. Three of the five long-time starters from that era left Seattle relatively quickly, opening spots on the line for future Seahawks draft choices. But the 15 offensive linemen Seattle has drafted since 1999 have combined to start only 460 regular-season games, 132 by Steve Hutchinson.
What to make of this disparity? A few things:
- Quite a few of the players drafted more recently aren't finished. They'll rack up lots more starts. Hutchinson, Sean Locklear, Chris Spencer, Rob Sims, Max Unger and possibly Steve Vallos could combine for hundreds of starts over the next five seasons.
- Four of the five primary starters drafted from 1994 to 1998 -- Kevin Mawae, Pete Kendall, Walter Jones and Todd Weiner -- were selected among the top 47 overall choices (27.5 on average). The five most promising active linemen from the more recent group -- Hutchinson, Locklear, Spencer, Sims and Unger -- were drafted 61st overall on average.
- Chris McIntosh, the 22nd player chosen in 2000, suffered a debilitating neck stinger early in his career. His early retirement was a freak occurrence costing the 1999-present group quite a few starts. McIntosh wasn't necessarily impressive early in his career, but it's reasonable to think he would have started for years and improved.
- It's important for Seattle to find another long-term starting tackle in this draft. Seattle holds the sixth overall choice, a slot once used to find Walter Jones. It's unrealistic to think Seattle could find a tackle of Jones' caliber with the sixth pick this year, but it's reasonable to expect any tackle taken that early to start a lot of games.
The charts rank these two groups of Seattle draft choices by most games started.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The first six players NFC West teams selected that year have not met expectations: quarterback Alex Smith (49ers), cornerback-turned-safety Antrel Rolle (Cardinals), tackle Alex Barron (Rams), Spencer, guard David Baas (49ers) and running back J.J. Arrington (Cardinals).
The next four players NFC West players selected -- Lofa Tatupu (Seahawks), Ron Bartell (Rams), Frank Gore (49ers) and Oshiomogho Atogwe (Rams) -- have either achieved Pro Bowl status or become front-line starters.
The Seahawks, Rams and 49ers each have four members of their 2005 draft classes on their active rosters. The Cardinals have two.
The Rams found four current starters in Barron, Bartell, Atogwe and third-rounder Richie Incognito.
The 49ers found Gore and right tackle Adam Snyder, while Baas and Smith could wind up starting this season.
The Cardinals have only Rolle and backup guard Elton Brown to show for that 2005 class.
Tatupu and Gore are the only Pro Bowl players from the 2005 NFC West draft class.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Cardinals hold the 31st, 63rd, 95th, 131st, 167th, 204th, 240th and 254th choices in the 2009 draft. For perspective, I've singled out the last four players chosen in those spots.
Teams have certainly found tight ends at No. 31 in recent years. The Bears drafted Greg Olsen (2007). The Ravens drafted Todd Heap (2001).
In 2005, my first year of NFL blogging, more than a few Seattle fans wanted the Seahawks to select linebacker Darryl Blackstock. The Cardinals drafted him instead at No. 95. They have the 95th pick again this year. Blackstock is the only linebacker drafted in that spot since the 49ers drafted Mitch Donahue from Wyoming in 1991.
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was with the Steelers in 2006 when they drafted guard Willie Colon with the 131st overall choice. Colon has started every game over the last two seasons. Arizona could stand to find starting-caliber depth for its line at some point in the 2009 draft.
Whisenhunt was also with the Steelers in 2005 when they drafted eventual starting guard Chris Kemoeatu with the 204th choice, another slot Arizona inhabits this season. In 2001,
the Bengals found T.J. Houshmandzadeh in that slot. Hall of Famer Art Donovan was also drafted 204th -- in 1947.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Ikee from Philadelphia writes: Ok Mike, I asked you a question before asking if Nolan was fired do you think Alex Smith might come back to San Francisco for a pay cut or if he still had a chance to be the No. 1 QB.
|Michael Zagaris/Getty Images|
|Could Mike Holmgren make a return to the 49ers?|
I would still like to know if Smith may be back next year, but I also would like your thoughts on the future of the franchise. Do you think Mike Singletary will remain the head coach and what about Mike Holmgren? Everyone knows he wants to join the 49ers in some way in the future. Could that be as a head coach or a GM and if so how soon?
Mike Sando: Mike Holmgren told his family he would take the 2009 season off. I expect Holmgren to honor that promise. He'll have other opportunities, perhaps even in San Francisco. But unless his family urges him to dive back in right away, Holmgren will probably sit out next season. I have wondered, however, if his thinking could change based on what happens this season. If the Seahawks finish with a horrible record, would it make Holmgren need the year off even more, or would he be itching to bounce back sooner?
Whatever timeline Holmgren follows, I'm sure he will do his homework about an organization before taking a job, for reasons explained in this 2005 Holmgren profile I wrote from the NFL meetings in Hawaii. In short, Holmgren clashed with then-Seahawks president Bob Whitsitt. As Holmgren put it then:
"I really came to Seattle thinking it was something else. I'm not throwing anybody under the bus, but I thought it was going to be something, and it wasn't that, and then you kind of live with it. Then at some point you say, 'Man, what was I told when I first came here? This is not even close.' But you know what? Having said that, I don't regret my decision at all."
You can count on Holmgren taking precautions to ward off a repeat in his next job. He'll get things in writing to make sure the organization is set up the way he wants it set up.
As for Mike Singletary, I think he'll have to grow into the role in a hurry and win games to keep the job. Nolan was learning how to be a head coach while being a head coach. He wasn't very presidential in his dealings with people. The head coach should be able to handle people more effectively. And by people, I mean people beyond the players. Holmgren does that very well. Singletary must prove he can do that better than Nolan. He has to win games and this is not going to be a consistent team with a first-year starting quarterback.
It's too early to make a call on Alex Smith's future with the 49ers past this season. Having Nolan leave doesn't hurt the odds, that's for sure. But we still do not know who will be coaching the team in 2009. That's the key.