NFC West: Fred Robbins
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
The story by itself shouldn't mean much to Rams fans.
Smith, after all, started only two games in 2012 while trying to overcome serious knee injuries. He was never a player the Rams were counting on for significant contributions.
Smith's retirement is notable in another context, however. His name tops what should be a relatively short list of players to disappear from the game in 2013 after making at least one start for the Rams last season.
Last season, 16 players made zero regular-season appearances in an NFL game after starting at least once for the Rams in 2011. One such player, linebacker Chris Chamberlain, probably would have played with New Orleans had he not suffered a knee injury. Many of the others languished for lack of interest.
A quick look at the list of 15 players beyond Chamberlain: Adam Goldberg, James Hall, Fred Robbins, Tony Wragge, Jason Brown, Cadillac Williams, Rod Hood, Al Harris, C.J. Ah You, Mark Levoir, Ben Leber, Nick Miller, A.J. Feeley, Mike Sims-Walker and Mark Clayton.
Hall, Robbins, Goldberg, Wragge and Brown started at least half the games in 2011. Some others found opportunities because the Rams suffered from an unusual number of injuries that season.
Still, as the Rams improve and build around younger players, including quite a few drafted in the first two rounds, they should have less room on their roster for stopgap veterans. At receiver, for example, none of the Rams' players is even 26 years old. Players such as Smith, Sims-Walker and Clayton wouldn't fit.
Half of the NFC West is sitting out this Sunday after San Francisco defeated Seattle in the Thursday night game.
We've got the Arizona Cardinals visiting the Minnesota Vikings, and the St. Louis Rams playing at home against the Green Bay Packers, both at 1 p.m. ET.
I'm in St. Louis and will be heading over to the Edward Jones Dome early.
The Rams are 3-3 after going 2-14 last season. Their entire starting defense is healthy heading into the game. That's a big change from last season, when the Rams went into their seventh game without either starting corner and a long list of others, including quarterback Sam Bradford.
Seven of the Rams' starters from their seventh game last season aren't on 53-man rosters at present. That's an indication how much roster work was needed, and how much injuries set back the 2011 team.
James Hall, Fred Robbins, Al Harris, Jacob Bell, Jason Brown, Adam Goldberg and A.J. Feeley started in that seventh game last season, a surprise 31-21 victory over the New Orleans Saints following six defeats to open the season.
Harris retired. The others were released and are not under contract. Bell also retired.
Much has changed for the Rams. A victory over the Packers would give them four victories through Week 7 for the first time since 2006.
Long, who led the Rams with a career-high 13 sacks last season, had been scheduled to become a free agent after the 2012 season. His deal now runs through 2016. Jay Glazer of Fox Sports reported the news.
The Rams had repeatedly said they hoped to have a new contract for Long. Getting this deal done seemed more like a matter of when, not if.
Long, 27, has improved his sack totals in every season. He's been a tenacious player and one the Rams envisioned building around when they made him the second player chosen in the 2008 draft.
The Rams are looking for Long to assume a larger leadership role now that veterans Fred Robbins and James Hall are no longer on the team. Long, though still young in the bigger picture, is the oldest defensive lineman on a Rams roster that is the NFL's youngest by average age.
The Rams are scheduled to begin their first camp practice at 3:30 p.m. CT. I'll be heading out to the fields shortly.
- QB: All four teams rank in the youngest third or so. The San Francisco 49ers have the most experienced starter in the division, but also the youngest group overall.
- RB: I was a little surprised to see Seattle (third-oldest) and San Francisco (fifth-oldest) rank among the five oldest at this position, with St. Louis considerably younger on average. The Seahawks' Leon Washington turns 30 next month. Teammate Michael Robinson turns 30 in February. The 49ers added 32-year-old veteran special-teamer Rock Cartwright, who counts as a fullback, and veteran halfback Brandon Jacobs, 30. Frank Gore turned 29 in May. The St. Louis Rams, despite Steven Jackson (29) and fullback Ovie Mughelli (32), have quite a few young players at the position.
- WR: Randy Moss, 35, contributed to the 49ers fielding the 10th-oldest group of receivers on average as training camps were beginning. For Seattle, the newly signed Antonio Bryant, 31, contributed to a No 13 ranking. The Rams have youth, youth and more youth at the position.
- TE: Arizona ranks seventh-oldest at the position thanks to the presence of veterans such as Todd Heap, 32, and Jeff King, 29. But the team is most excited about second-year tight end Rob Housler. Seven of the Rams' eight tight ends are between 22 and 25 years old, helping St. Louis rank 30th in average age at the position.
- OL: The Cardinals have previously ranked No. 1 in average age at this position. They've dropped to seventh after addressing the position in the draft at the expense of a few veterans. Adding 34-year-old veteran Russ Hochstein upped the average, however.
- DL: The Cardinals have the oldest defensive linemen by average age. Darnell Dockett turned 31 this offseason. Vonnie Holliday is 36. Nick Eason is 32. Arizona has promising younger players at the position, notably nose tackle Dan Williams and defensive end Calais Campbell. But the group could use a youth infusion in the not-too-distant future. The Rams, meanwhile, got much younger by parting with James Hall, Fred Robbins and Justin Bannan. Chris Long, 27, is now the oldest defensive lineman on the team.
- LB: The Cardinals' Clark Haggans, 35, and Paris Lenon, 34, help give Arizona the ninth-oldest linebackers in the NFL. The Rams' No. 14 ranking reflects their decision to add veterans on the outside. The team needs to address that position in upcoming drafts, it appears.
- DB: The division features ample young talent in its secondaries. The Cardinals, despite fielding the oldest secondary in the division, have one of the most promising young cornerbacks in the NFL, Patrick Peterson. Seattle has the youngest secondary in the division. Three of four starters achieved Pro Bowl status last season. That's a great combination. The fourth starter, Richard Sherman, was arguably deserving of Pro Bowl honors as a rookie.
- ST: The Cardinals continue to field the oldest specialists in the NFL on average. The Rams field the youngest group after parting with Donnie Jones and Josh Brown. I'm interested in seeing how the Rams' decision plays out.
- Total: The Cardinals have some exciting young players, but their roster is third-oldest in the NFL. The team cannot realistically cite youth for any shortcomings this season. The Rams remain the youngest team -- slightly younger than Carolina -- despite adding Mughelli on Saturday. Seattle ranked among the youngest teams last season. Re-signing cornerback Marcus Trufant and adding Bryant, both 31, upped the Seahawks' average age. Unrestricted free-agent additions Deuce Lutui and Barrett Ruud are 29. The team now ranks 20th oldest in the NFL.
I'll pass along updated rosters once I've finished updating a few other categories. The chart shows age rankings by position group and overall for NFC West teams.
Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:
One thing I'm certain of: The offensive line will remain a work in progress. The Rams feel good about new line coach Paul T. Boudreau. They think he can help tackle Jason Smith and other young linemen realize more of their potential. Adding Pro Bowl center Scott Wells in free agency also should help.
This group will need time together on the field, however, and personnel-related question marks persist. Can Rodger Saffold rebound from a rough, injury-shortened season at left tackle? Does the team have a viable left guard? Is Smith the answer at right tackle? A realistic best-case scenario would not produce the preferred answers overnight. Expect a few bumps in the road, at least.
One thing that might happen: Defensive end Chris Long taking more of a leadership role. Long has become more productive in each of his first four NFL seasons. He collected 13 sacks in 2011 even though the Rams rarely faced favorable pass-rushing situations (they held fourth-quarter leads in only three games). Long, only 27, became the oldest defensive lineman on the team once the Rams parted with veterans Fred Robbins, James Hall and Justin Bannan.
Those personnel changes and Long's on-field credentials enhance his profile. The Rams now have three relatively recent first-round draft choices projected as starters on their defensive line. Robert Quinn (14th overall choice in 2011) and Michael Brockers (14th this year) would do well to follow Long's lead.
One thing we won't see: Gregg Williams. The Rams aren't listing Williams among their defensive coaches while the would-be defensive coordinator serves an indefinite NFL suspension. They have not named a coordinator in Williams' place.
Williams' suspension has faded from prominence among NFL storylines in recent months. That figures to change some once the Rams and their coaching staff are on the field for practices. Seeing how the staff operates will provide a better feel for how the Rams plan to proceed this season. Coach Jeff Fisher probably becomes more directly accountable.
Highlights and interpretations from the recently concluded hour-long "SportsCenter" Special focusing on the NFC West:
- ESPN's Tedy Bruschi played for Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll in New England years ago and seemed to have a strong feel -- and respect -- for Carroll's current team. He picked Seattle as an upset division winner in 2012. He pointed to Earl Thomas as the heir to Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. He picked Marshawn Lynch as the division's MVP for the upcoming season. Bruschi was high on Seattle all the way around. He also defended Carroll's handling of the quarterback situation, noting that it's only May -- too early to worry about having a starter in place. Bruschi also thought Matt Flynn would become the signing of the year in the division.
- Fellow analyst Tim Hasselbeck picked the San Francisco 49ers to defend their division title. He and Bruschi both picked the Arizona Cardinals third and the St. Louis Rams fourth. Hasselbeck thought Seattle would challenge the 49ers and finish as close as one game behind them. But he also thought Carroll needed to settle on Flynn as the starter sooner rather than later. Quarterbacks like clarity at the position. Hasselbeck went with Flynn as his breakout player from the division and Patrick Willis as the MVP.
- The quarterback-related analysis from Hasselbeck stood out. He pointed out Sam Bradford's struggles locating open receivers after turning his back to the defense for play-action fakes last season. He thought the Rams needed to treat Bradford as a young quarterback only two years removed from a spread system at Oklahoma, not as a third-year pro. He pointed to offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's voluminous playbook as something the Rams might want to streamline for now.
- Hasselbeck, who played for Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona, suggested Kevin Kolb hasn't shown himself to be the leader Whisenhunt wants at the position. He thought Kolb needed to win over the team this offseason. Bruschi encouraged the team to go with John Skelton instead if Kolb doesn't step forward and distinguish himself as a team leader. Sound familiar? It should, at least to anyone familiar with Matt Leinart's time under Whisenhunt. Is Kolb the next Leinart, a highly paid player unable to win over the team? That was the comparison drawn during this special.
- Fantasy analyst Eric Karabell singled out Arizona's Ryan Williams, St. Louis' Danny Amendola and Seattle's Flynn as breakout fantasy players from the division. He thought Flynn would rank among the 20 best fantasy quarterbacks.
- Defensive end Chris Long noted the Rams' relative youth on the defensive line. This line is Long's to lead. Long has the capacity to take that role, I think. He might have deferred some to Fred Robbins and James Hall in the past. Both were valued veterans. They're gone now. Long had 13 sacks last season. His time is now.
Anyone else catch this special? I'd be interested in your thoughts.
As much as I'd like to comply with requests to publish specific roster breakdowns for age and other factors, the changes require quite a bit of time to process.
A few trends are coming into focus regarding the NFC West already:
- The St. Louis Rams keep getting younger. I'm projecting them to be the youngest team in the league by a relatively wide margin, pending a few missing dates of birth for undrafted rookies on other teams. Mario Haggan (32), Quintin Mikell (31), Scott Wells (31) and Harvey Dahl (30) are the oldest players on the team. Gone are Fred Robbins (35), James Hall (35), Justin Bannan (33), Ben Leber (33) and Josh Brown (33). The Rams have not re-signed any of their own unrestricted free agents, including A.J. Feeley (35), Tony Wragge (32) and Brady Poppinga (32). Al Harris, 37, is retiring.
- The Seattle Seahawks have quietly gotten older. They ranked among the one or two youngest teams in the NFL last season and could regain that status once roster cuts are made. For now, however, I'm projecting the Seahawks to rank just outside the 10 youngest teams. Seattle brought back Marcus Trufant (31), Leroy Hill (29) and Michael Robinson (29) while adding Alex Barron (29), Frank Omiyale (29), Deuce Lutui (29) and Barrett Ruud (29 this week).
- The Arizona Cardinals could get older on defense. Arizona has gotten younger overall, but re-signing Vonnie Holliday (36) and Clark Haggans (35) would probably move the Cardinals back among the 10 oldest teams. Some of Arizona's age is concentrated with its specialists, however. That is also true for the San Francisco 49ers. Sometimes age is a good thing at those positions.
- The 49ers are young up front on offense. I'm projecting San Francisco to take one of the two or three youngest offensive lines to camp. Parting with 30-year-old Adam Snyder in free agency affected the equation once the 49ers decided to let youngsters Alex Boone and Daniel Kilgore compete for the job at right guard.
Enjoy your Friday. Hope to see you at the rescheduled NFC West chat. I'll publish a reminder later Friday.
The first chart shows where teams in the division rank after subtracting from rosters those players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents at 4 p.m. ET. I also eliminated from consideration kickers, punters and long-snappers because age variations matter less at those positions.
Levi Brown, Justin Bannan, Jason Brown, Fred Robbins, James Hall and Ron Bartell were among the players I removed from rosters based on reports indicating their releases were imminent.
A relatively small difference in average across 50 or 60 players can give us a general feel for a roster. NFL careers can be short. Every year counts. That is why general managers and salary-cap analysts pay attention to where their teams stand in these areas.
The Rams have the youngest offensive players in the league. The Seahawks have the youngest defensive players by a wide margin. The 49ers have the oldest specialists, and their overall team age increased after adding 35-year-old receiver Randy Moss.
Last offseason, the Rams patched their roster with veterans signed to one-year deals. In retrospect, that reflected a team with less young depth than would have been ideal.
The Cardinals have the second-oldest offensive linemen in the NFL. That is not always bad. The New York Giants have the oldest offensive linemen on average; they just won a Super Bowl. AFC champion New England has the fourth-oldest players at the position.
Having an older line is tolerable and even preferable if that line has strong talent and has played together for years. But the combination of advanced age and below-average talent signals an inability to improve over time.
The Cardinals will presumably add younger linemen through the draft and possibly free agency.
The 49ers, though strong along the defensive line, have the fourth-oldest players at that position when we count Aldon Smith as an outside linebacker. That is one area the team could address for the future. Justin Smith, arguably the NFL's best defensive lineman, turns 33 before the season and has started 171 consecutive games, 92 more than any active defensive lineman in the NFL.
The chart below shows age ranks for teams by position and overall, counting specialists.
"Is this a signal they aren't trying to be competitive now?" a Rams fan named Rick asked. "They are going to do another full rebuild?"
The Rams were not competitive enough when Justin Bannan, Fred Robbins, Jason Brown, Ron Bartell and James Hall were on their roster. Robbins was very good two years ago. Bartell has serious injury concerns. Hall was a strong all-around defensive end for years, but with 2011 first-round pick Robert Quinn on the roster, Hall's age and salary likely worked against him.
As for the full rebuild part of Rick's question, yes, the Rams are undergoing one of those.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the five cuts will clear about $20 million in cap space, giving the team roughly $30 million of room heading into free agency. General manager Les Snead: "We will be active. Like I've mentioned before, we're going to try to be aggressive in acquiring players whatever the method ... we want to get the best players in."
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the 49ers have demonstrated a willingness to take chances at wide receiver under Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke, as demonstrated by signing Braylon Edwards and Randy Moss over the past year. Maiocco: "Of course, the 49ers still have a need at wide receiver. Joshua Morgan is a free agent, and the 49ers want him back. Ted Ginn was a lot more valuable as a return man than as a wideout, so his return is anything but certain. Late in the season, the 49ers rolled the dice in a different way at the receiver position. After several key injuries, the 49ers decided not to address the position. Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams were the starters in the NFC Championship Game, with Brett Swain was the No. 3 wideout." Noted: The contracts with Edwards and Moss were low-risk deals.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Moss thinks he's gotten a bad rap in the media. Moss: "When it comes to world wide sports media, you know, I've gotten a bad rap. They've done their homework on me or they wouldn't have brought me in here. ... One thing I would like the sports world to understand is the love and passion I have for football."
Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa-Press Democrat describes Moss as a one-dimensional player, and one the 49ers will have a hard time maximizing. Cohn: "Moss is a down-the-field receiver. Period. He does not run shallow crossing routes or underneath routes -- he avoids them. He's strictly a home-run hitter. To make use of Moss, the quarterback -- we're most likely talking Alex Smith here -- needs to throw the ball vertically, and the offensive coordinator must be willing to take long shots downfield. But that is not Smith's style, never has been. He is a meticulous, analytical player who likes to throw to receivers when he sees a nice, comfortable window accompanied by plenty of open space."
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers appear cocky going after Moss while ignoring Peyton Manning. Noted: Going after a wide receiver is far less disruptive than going after a quarterback. Manning would change every aspect of the offense, essentially forcing the team to part with Smith. Moss will be part of a rotation at the position, and he will not prevent the team from making other moves at his position.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times offers thoughts on Mario Williams as a potential fit for Seattle in free agency. O'Neil: "The Seahawks have stated a desire to improve their pass rush, and Williams isn't just one of the top pass rushers available in the open market, he's one of the top pass rushers in the game. This isn't a great pass rusher in his 30s. This is a great pass rusher in his prime. He played outside linebacker for the Texans last season, demonstrating a versatility that could give Seattle's defensive coaches a license to scheme with a roster that includes both Williams and Chris Clemons."
Also from O'Neil: thoughts on Matt Flynn as a potential QB signing for the Seahawks.
Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle passes along John Clayton's thoughts on Williams. Clayton: "If you're going to be going for Mario Williams, the best value is to put him on the line of scrimmage and have him rush as a 4-3 defensive end. That's the way the league goes. You don't see $15 million linebackers. ... I think that when you look at the value, he's going to be more valuable to a 4-3 team, and the two 4-3 teams that appear to have either the most money or the most interest are Atlanta and Seattle."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals are hoping for a quick resolution to Peyton Manning's situation. Somers: "The Cardinals would prefer the process to proceed as quickly as possible for a couple reasons. They owe quarterback Kevin Kolb a $7 million bonus if he is on the roster Saturday. They likely would release Kolb if they sign Manning. And the Cardinals are expected to start the league year Tuesday with little room under the NFL's $120.6 million salary cap. It will be difficult for them to re-sign their players, or those from other teams, without knowing if they are going to sign Manning."
Also from Somers: The Cardinals aren't worried about dire salary-cap characterizations regarding the team.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the team expects to be less aggressive in free agency this offseason, in part because it perceives fewer needs.
They are now one of the five youngest after parting with veterans Jason Brown, Justin Bannan and Fred Robbins. The new average, based on rosters I maintain for every team, also reflects subtracting more than 400 projected free agents around the league.
The moves will create about $9.5 million in salary-cap space, according to Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis. The Rams will get another $1.6 million in space, as will every other NFC West team, after the league took away cap space from Washington and Dallas for accounting tactics they used in 2010.
Defensive end James Hall (35), kicker Josh Brown (32), safety Quintin Mikell (31), guard Harvey Dahl (30) and cornerback Ron Bartell (30) are the only Rams players in their 30s with contracts for the 2012 season. Mikell and Dahl project as starters. It's tougher to say how Hall and Bartell might fit.
Robbins was outstanding for the Rams in 2010, the first of two seasons he spent with the team. He wasn't as effective last season -- the team struggled as a whole, of course -- and will turn 35 next month. Brown, 28, started each of the 46 games he played in three seasons for the Rams, but the coaching staff benched him last season. Bannan, a free-agent addition during camp last summer, started 14 games. He turns 33 in April.
The Rams are only getting started on their roster makeover. They added veteran seasoning to patch holes on their roster coming out of the lockout last offseason. The contracts for most of those players had no bearing on the salary cap beyond 2011.
Now, with additional draft choices acquired from Washington, the Rams are in position to stock their roster with younger players. They had fallen behind their division rivals in developing young talent.
St. Louis: Quarterback Sam Bradford played hurt Monday night and continues paying the price. He did not practice Wednesday and told reporters the situation had gotten worse. Bradford is back in a walking boot. The team placed fullback Brit Miller on injured reserve. Tackle Mark LeVoir, defensive end James Hall, defensive end Chris Long, cornerback Josh Gordy, safety Craig Dahl and defensive lineman Eugene Sims missed practice, as did Bradford and backup quarterback A.J. Feeley. Injuries are preventing a struggling team from competing for a full game. Defensive tackle Fred Robbins, sidelined by back trouble against Seattle, did return on a limited basis.
San Francisco: The 49ers do not play until Monday night, pushing back by one day the requirement for publishing an injury report. Left tackle Joe Staley (concussion) and linebacker Patrick Willis (hamstring) are the two most important players likely to appear on the injury report. Staley or backup left tackle Alex Boone will not have to face suspended Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison. That will presumably help. Then again, the Steelers were 4-0 and had 13 sacks when Harrison missed four games earlier in the season. The team has not had more sacks in any four-game stretch. The season appears to be wearing on 49ers running back Frank Gore. His snaps were limited against Arizona and could be in the future.
Seattle: Linebacker Leroy Hill practiced fully Wednesday despite a neck injury, a good sign for Seattle given the team's depth issues at the position. Linebacker David Hawthorne rested his injured knee, no surprise. He's playing with an MCL injury that needs monitoring. Receiver Doug Baldwin (ankle), left guard Robert Gallery (hip), defensive end Raheem Brock (calf) and linebacker David Hawthorne (knee) did not practice. They were expected to play Sunday against the Chicago Bears. Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson remained a full participant in practice despite his pectoral injury. Jackson seems to be getting stronger.
The Rams will be without veteran defensive tackle Fred Robbins, who was questionable on the injury report and did not practice during the week. Robbins' absence means more playing time for Darell Scott and Gary Gibson.
Also inactive for the Rams: quarterback A.J. Feeley, quarterback Tom Brandstater, running back Quinn Porter, fullback Brit Miller, linebacker Justin Cole and guard Kevin Hughes. Kellen Clemens will serve as the backup quarterback to Sam Bradford.
For Seattle, linebacker David Hawthorne is active. The Seahawks' inactive list features quarterback Josh Portis, safety Jeron Johnson, cornerback Kennard Cox, linebacker Adrian Moten, guard Mike Gibson, guard Paul Fanaika and defensive tackle Pep Levingston.
- Defensive scheming still evident. It's been a tough season for the Rams' defense. I'm inclined to think personnel, not scheming, is primarily at fault. The coaching staff continues to draw up blitzes producing free shots on opposing quarterbacks. That was the case about five minutes into the game when the Rams brought safety Darian Stewart to the line of scrimmage at the last moment, suggesting seven defenders could be coming on a blitz. Two defenders on the left side dropped into coverage, leaving Cardinals right guard Rex Hadnot with nobody to block. The left guard and left tackle went in opposite directions to pick up their rushers, leaving a free path for Stewart to shoot into the backfield unblocked. Stewart sacked quarterback John Skelton quickly, killing the drive.
- Defense vulnerable on early downs. The Rams allowed 5.1 yards per play on first down, 8.1 yards per play on second down and 3.9 yards per play on third down. They allowed only 3.2 yards per play and no plays longer than 14 yards when using sub packages on defense, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But with Beanie Wells gashing the Rams' base defense, it's clear St. Louis needs the most improvement from its front seven, even while injuries at cornerback get most of the attention.
- Stewart could be missed in run game. The 228 yards Wells gained could have been much more without a couple open-field tackles by Stewart, the Rams' big-hitting, somewhat inconsistent safety. A concussion will prevent Stewart from playing against San Francisco.
- Rough one for Laurinaitis. The Cardinals, specifically left guard Daryn Colledge, effectively blocked Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. I'll be interested in seeing how Laurinaitis fares when the 49ers' left guard, Mike Iupati, comes his way. Inside linebackers benefit or suffer from the defensive tackles playing in front of them. The Rams were without Justin Bannan in the Arizona game. Fred Robbins, coming off a career-best performance in 2010, hasn't stood out this season.
- Sharing the blame for punt return. Patrick Peterson's 80-yard touchdown on a punt return stretched a 13-10 Cardinals lead to 20-10 late in the third quarter. So many factors beyond punt coverage enabled the return. Two plays before the return, guard Jason Brown and tackle Harvey Dahl whiffed on their blocks, allowing the Cardinals to tackle Steven Jackson for a loss, setting up third-and-long. Peterson made a physical tackle to stop the Rams short on third down. And with the Rams facing fourth-and-1, a false-start penalty against C.J. Ah You prompted the Cardinals to change their personnel. Arizona had its defense on the field to prevent against a fake on fourth-and-1. The punt-return team came onto the field once Ah You's penalty changed the situation to fourth-and-6.
I'll be heading over to Candlestick Park shortly. No NFC West teams play early games this week. Sounds like a chance to check out the tailgating scene. The forecast calls for clear skies, moderate temperatures and the 49ers' first NFC West title since 2002.
Their best bet could be trying to emulate the Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers. Both teams flopped early last season despite elevated expectations. Both teams also recovered, and both have played well enough to post winning records heading into Week 8 this season.
The Lions opened 2-10 last season. The 49ers were 0-5. Both finished 6-10. They are a combined 10-3 this season (9-2 if we discard the game they played against one another).
The Rams still have two game against 1-5 Arizona, two against 2-4 Seattle and one against a Cleveland team that has gotten to 3-3 with victories over winless Miami and Indianapolis.
Sam Bradford's injury is complicating efforts to build on a 424-yard performance at Green Bay two weeks ago. I think the offense will improve and build momentum once he returns, particularly with Steven Jackson healthy and Brandon Lloyd in the lineup at wide receiver.
The problems on defense are what could drag down the Rams and possibly even precipitate sweeping organizational changes, in my view.
The inability of coach Steve Spagnuolo to coax better play from that side of the ball has been surprising. The problems go beyond injuries at cornerback. The inability to acquire and develop young defensive players for the future stands out when analyzing the roster.
As the chart shows, the Rams have allowed more rushing yards through six games than all but two teams since the 2000 season. Worse, they have very few ascending young players to develop on that side of the ball. James Butler and Craig Dahl are their backup safeties. Ben Leber, Josh Hull and Bryan Kehl are their backup linebackers. Darell Scott and Gary Gibson are their backup defensive tackles.
Of all the backups on defense, only rookie defensive end Robert Quinn projects as a potential front-line player for the future. That would be OK if the defense were playing at a high level and featured ascending young players. But starters James Hall, Fred Robbins, Justin Bannan, Brady Poppinga, Chris Chamberlain and Al Harris are either nearing the end or qualify as veteran stopgaps.
The prospects for sustained long-term improvement on defense appear limited as a result.