NFC West: Fred Miller
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
Also from Somers: a look at the rookie deal Arizona signed with safety Antrel Rolle, a deal that is blowing up in the team's face and giving Rolle a chance to hit the market, most likely. My understanding is that St. Louis-based agent Ben Dogra negotiated that rookie deal, only to lose Rolle, who is from Miami, to Miami-based agent Drew Rosenhaus. Somers: "The Cardinals could have avoided this by making the last year of Rolle's deal voidable. Rolle could have exercised that clause, but the Cardinals could have used the franchise or transition tags to maintain his rights. That option isn't available to them now. It's not the last time we'll be talking about such deals. Quarterback Matt Leinart's salary is due to climb nearly $5 million in 2011, the last year of his deal. He's also due a $5.5 million roster bonus. A year from now, the Cardinals could be in the same position with Leinart as they now are in with Dansby." Background info here.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the Cardinals have until Thursday to pay a $4 million bonus to Rolle. Rolle had previously said the deadline was March 1.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' planned restricted free-agent tender for Alex Barron would return a second-round choice if another team signed him, an indication the team would like to trade him. I don't think another team would give up a second-round choice for the right to pay Barron on a long-term deal, though. Thomas: "It's another deep year for offensive tackles in the draft. Early indications point to Jason Smith, the No. 2 overall pick in last year's draft, moving to left tackle next season. Some of the Rams' best right tackles since the team moved to St. Louis were middle-round picks. Ryan Tucker was a fourth-rounder; Fred Miller, a fifth-rounder."
Also from Thomas: Most NFL people seem to rate Gerald McCoy slightly higher than Ndamukong Suh, although the Rams aren't saying much.
More from Thomas: Medical reports on quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Jimmy Clausen mean a great deal to the Rams. Thomas: "Rams general manager Billy Devaney said Friday that besides Rams doctors and Dr. James Andrews (who performed the surgery), the Rams want a third opinion on Bradford's shoulder from an independent doctor."
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch thinks the Rams have to choose between Suh and Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford. Burwell: "When it comes to first-round picks, I want great almost immediately, or at the very least a strong beacon of potential greatness in that first season. And in a year when the NFL draft class is particularly strong at so many other positions, I don't understand why it is a smart move to draft a quarterback who barely played at all last season and is coming off of surgery and hasn't been cleared by anyone's medical staff or played in a pro-style offense in two years of college ball when the alternative is a monster defensive tackle who every NFL personnel department has listed as a once-in-a-generation beast (Suh)."
Jim Rodenbush of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat says Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo doesn't want the defensive label, even though he was a coordinator on that side of the ball.
Howard Balzer of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat says the Rams and Marc Bulger's representatives are working to resolve the quarterback's fate in St. Louis sooner rather than later, although there is no hard deadline in the short term. Balzer: "Because no trade can be consummated until March 5, the Rams would only release him prior to that date if they have exhausted all potential efforts to deal him. While a trade can’t be official until Friday, teams can have deals in place prior to then. Any team looking to trade for Bulger would likely be looking for him to accept a pay cut. Coach Steve Spagnuolo said Saturday that even though the Rams’ offseason program begins March 15, it’s not necessary that a decision on Bulger be made by then."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers are in good shape because the 2010 draft is strong in the areas San Francisco would like to address. Barrows also thinks the 49ers should strongly consider a certain speedy running back. Barrows: "If I was banging the drum for Clemson's C.J. Spiller before the combine, I'm pounding it with both fists afterward. He and Jahvid Best put on a show Sunday. The difference between the two is that Best has been injury prone; Spiller has not. I can't get past the fact that simply having this guy on the field makes the offense better because defenses must account for his speed."
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat checks in from the airport on his way home from the combine. Maiocco: "My initial thoughts are the 49ers would select Russell Okung and Trent Williams, for sure, with the No. 13 pick. They'd probably go with Bryan Bulaga and Anthony Davis, too. Bruce Campbell seems way too risky in the top half of the first round. I'd probably even place Charles Brown ahead of him."
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says USC safety Taylor Mays enjoyed seeing Seahawks coach Pete Carroll at the combine. Mays: "It’s like seeing your dad, kind of."
Also from Farnsworth: Clausen chose Notre Dame over USC so he wouldn't have to play behind Mark Sanchez, Carroll notes.
More from Farnsworth: The Seahawks seek to upgrade their pass rush this offseason. Farnsworth: "The scavenger hunt for help has moved into high gear at the combine. It’s fitting that the event is being held at the Lucas Oil Stadium, because it was in Week 4 last season that the Colts’ Peyton Manning victimized the Seahawks in this very building. Unable to generate enough pressure with a four-man rush, the Seahawks were forced to blitz. Almost every time they did, Manning beat it by throwing to the vacated area."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the "vote of confidence" the Seahawks paid to Deion Branch could be designed to enhance the receiver's trade value.
Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune provides a transcript to an interview with Carroll and Seahawks general manager John Schneider. Schneider on Nate Burleson: "We've talked to him. We totally understand he’s going to explore free agency. We’re just going to stay in touch. Nobody really knows where this market is going to go in free agency. We sure don’t. He needs to do what’s best for himself and for his family. We like Nate and we’re going to stay in touch with him the whole way. And that was expressed to him."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The 49ers confirmed tackle Marvel Smith's retirement Saturday morning. What now?
Adam Snyder is still the starter on the right side. That was not going to change even if Smith tried to continue playing despite back trouble.
Depth is the problem and this situation was predictable, even likely, given what we knew about Smith's health and how the 49ers' neglected to draft a tackle or sign a younger veteran in free agency (as someone suggested they should).
None of this will matter much if Snyder returns from his knee injury to start most of the games. The 49ers could then try to develop Alex Boone and/or target a tackle in the draft. Their thinking in drafting Michael Crabtree with the 10th overall selection hasn't worked out as anticipated so far, but I think the reasoning was sound and No. 10 was too early to select one of the remaining tackles. Right tackle is not a premium position.
Some have asked why I suggested former Eagles tackle Jon Runyan as a possibility for the 49ers without mentioning the Seahawks as a logical destination as well. Runyan is strictly a right tackle. Seattle has two players able to start at right tackle (Sean Locklear and Ray Willis) but only one player (Locklear) able to start at left tackle. Adding Runyan would not improve the Seahawks' depth at left tackle, which is their position of need while Jones is unavailable.
The 49ers need a right tackle for insurance. Runyan is coming off knee surgery. He might not be ready right away. The 49ers do not need him right away. They need insurance. I have no idea if Runyan would even consider moving across the country. But when I think of tough, physical tackles in the 49ers' mold, Runyan comes to mind.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Jesse asks via Facebook what the Seahawks can do to improve their situation at offensive tackle. He wants to see a list of available free agents.
Mike Sando: The best way to upgrade this situation is to welcome back Walter Jones from knee surgery and push him into the lineup early in the season.
The Seahawks could stand to add a veteran tackle as insurance. They cannot assume Jones will come back and play at a high level. They cannot even assume Ray Willis will make it through a full season at right tackle, in my view. Willis has been dealing with knee pain. It's apparently nothing major, but if he's limping in August -- and he was on the sideline Saturday night -- how will he feel 10 starts into the season? Seems like a reasonable question.
Willis has started 10 games in his career, all last season. The other starting tackle, Sean Locklear, has missed at least four games to injury in two of the last three seasons.
The good, healthy NFL offensive tackles are under contract. The list of available tackles includes Wayne Gandy, Fred Miller, Jon Runyan, Jason Whittle, Mark Tauscher, Jonas Jennings, Levi Jones, Chad Slaughter and Kwame Harris. The chart shows their ages and number of starts last season.
Gandy was with Seahawks coach Jim Mora in Atlanta, but he is also 38 years old. The Seahawks had conversations with Levi Jones' agent earlier in the offseason. Tauscher and Runyan are veteran right tackles. Jennings' injury issues make him a high-risk option. Harris was with Seahawks offensive coordinator Greg Knapp in Oakland last season.