NFC West: Hines Ward

Torry Holt's formal retirement from the NFL -- as a St. Louis Ram, fittingly -- will touch off the usual discussions about Hall of Fame worthiness.

In the meantime, consider this an appreciation.

Holt was the NFC West wide receiver opponents feared most during the first five or six years following divisional realignment in 2002. He could beat defenses with his speed and then make spectacular, seemingly impossible plays on the ball against coverage.

Terrell Owens left the division following the 2003 season. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin were still ascending. Holt's teammate in St. Louis, Isaac Bruce, remained formidable, but Holt was increasingly the dominant force.

From 2000 through 2007, Holt strung together eight consecutive seasons with at least 81 receptions and 1,188 yards. That included two 1,600-yard seasons and four others with at least 1,300 yards. He averaged 19.9 yards per reception in 2000 and 106 yards per game in 2003, figures that led the NFL in those seasons.

My previous job as a Seattle Seahawks beat reporter provided a first-hand view for some of Holt's finest moments. His eight catches for 154 yards and three touchdowns against Seattle during a 2006 shootout at the Edward Jones Dome stands out. The Rams trailed 27-21 with three minutes remaining when Leonard Little forced a Maurice Morris fumble. Less than a minute later, Holt's 67-yard touchdown catch had the Rams in the lead.

Safety Michael Boulware had deflected the pass and nearly intercepted it. Holt somehow gathered the ball, a deep heave from Marc Bulger, and ran into the end zone for the go-ahead score.

"Until he caught it, I thought I was catching it," Boulware said at the time. "I'm still kind of ... I can't believe that he caught it."

Holt was a Seahawk killer in those days. He finished his career with 91 receptions for 1,247 yards and eight touchdowns in 16 games against Seattle. But Holt did not discriminate. He lit up Arizona with 101 receptions for 1,417 yards and nine scores in 15 games. Holt had 116 receptions for 1,542 yards and seven touchdowns in 21 games against San Francisco, a team he faced in the NFC West before and after realignment.

Purely by coincidence, I cued up that 2006 Seahawks-Rams game on Tuesday night when my kids asked if they could watch an old game on their DVD player before bedtime.

We watched Holt dominate, at one point catching a 9-yard scoring pass against Marcus Trufant before Trufant could even turn to locate the ball. After a while, my youngest son, 7, asked whether Holt was in the Hall of Fame. The question was premature, as Holt will not be eligible for another five years. But the case for him is a strong one.

Holt had more receptions and receiving yards than any player from 2000 to 2009. He was fifth in receiving touchdowns during that time, a respectable total that suffered because the Rams had other options. He won one Super Bowl and played in another.

The Rams have struggled to replace Holt in recent seasons. They hold the sixth pick in the 2012 draft and could select Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, if available. Holt, the sixth player chosen in 1999, set the bar high.

Scout's take: 49ers vs. Steelers on MNF

December, 15, 2011
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Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. offered thoughts Thursday heading into the San Francisco 49ers' game Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Candlestick Park.

Mike Sando: This game against the Steelers provides the 49ers with an opportunity to defeat a quality opponent on a national stage, while keeping control of the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoff race. My sense is that the 49ers, though still a good team, have plateaued a little bit lately.

Matt Williamson: I think that is a good word. They might have hit their head on the ceiling. The talent has taken them as far as it will. That does not mean they cannot win playoff games. But this is a bad matchup for them against the Steelers. The 49ers lost to Arizona and the Cardinals are running the Steelers' defense. They've gotten better at it, but that defense has been clicking for the Steelers for years. They know what they are doing and they are going to give San Francisco's offense a hard time.

Mike Sando: The 49ers have taken 18 sacks over their past three games after allowing seven in their previous six. They aren't getting Frank Gore going as well on the ground, and Gore is banged up.

Matt Williamson: Their young offensive line does not pick up blitzes very well. They get beat one-on-one, especially on the right side. Ike Taylor can do a good job against Michael Crabtree. Troy Polamalu and the Steelers do well against tight ends. I just do not know where the 49ers' offense is going to come from. Alex Smith is not a guy who, when everything is going wrong, puts the team on his back.

Mike Sando: Several key players could miss this game for both teams -- Joe Staley and Patrick Willis for the 49ers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley for the Steelers. And then Ben Roethlisberger's ankle is an issue.

Matt Williamson: Roethlisberger will have had 10 days to rest. Everyone in the world knows he is going to play. Charlie Batch is not good.

If Harrison doesn't play and Ben doesn't play, I'll take the 49ers. But if Ben is out there at even 50 percent, I am taking Pittsburgh. The matchup is not good for the 49ers.

Mike Sando: The 49ers are strong on defense. What makes you think the Steelers' offense would be OK without Roethlisberger near full strength?

Matt Williamson: If you are the Steelers and Ben is not moving well, put him in the shotgun, go three wide receivers all day with a back in the backfield and get it out quick. Don't even have him dropping back. Get the ball out quick to Antonio Brown especially, and Hines Ward. Do the quick three-step passing game out of the shotgun.

Mike Sando: Back to the 49ers' offense. One thing they've struggled with some is yards after the catch. They led the NFL at 6.8 yards after the catch per reception last season. That has fallen to 5.2 this season. And the Steelers' defense leads the NFL in fewest yards allowed after the catch on average at 4.3, an astounding 1.7 yards better than the next-best team, Houston.

Matt Williamson: I don't see a real good after-the-catch wide receiver in the group for San Francisco. Ted Ginn would catch only bombs. Michael Crabtree is not nifty. He is a slower, power guy. Vernon Davis can be, but his role has been diminished heavily and I'm not sure how well he grasps the offense, and they need him to help the tackles. I'm not sure who would be the guy, unless they dropped more passes off to Gore and Kendall Hunter.

Mike Sando: The 49ers have dramatically cut Gore's role as a receiver. That's one reason their team yards after the reception has fallen. Then there is the red zone. San Francisco ranks last in touchdown percentage there.

Matt Williamson: Every weakness is exaggerated in the red zone for a quarterback. There are a lot more bodies in a smaller space, a lot more molecules bouncing off the walls. You have to be a little more accurate, a little better anticipation. Donovan McNabb was not that great in the red zone. He was not an anticipatory thrower or very accurate. Smith has some of those qualities, too, but less. He is not as talented. But I know he's done well in the red zone before. One thing that comes to mind is a lack of involvement from Vernon Davis.

Mike Sando: Davis finished last season with eight catches for 50 yards and four touchdowns in the red zone. He has four catches for 48 yards and three scores there this season. Delanie Walker had five catches for 22 yards and no scores in the red zone in 2010. He has one catch for a 6-yard touchdown against Detroit in the red zone this season. But Smith's completion percentage has fallen from above 70 to around 40 in the red zone since last season. Sacks are up. Gore's carries in the red zone are up. His receptions are down. I'm not sure what is wrong down there, but improved efficiency in that area would certainly help Monday night.

Williamson and I will be among those participating in an in-game chat Monday night. I'll be at the game. Williamson will monitor remotely. Jamison Hensley from the AFC North blog will join us on the chat from Candlestick Park.
Steve Wyche of NFL.com says the Rams will hold workouts in Arizona beginning this week, with James Laurinaitis and Ron Bartell among those taking the lead. Wyche: "Not all of the work will be on field either. Bartell, Laurinaitis and other players have video of previous years' games, and players will get the chance to break down film during the minicamp. Laurinaitis stressed the importance of getting as much film and class work done now so players will be ready when the lockout ends. Laurinaitis added that quarterback Sam Bradford has plays from new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' playbook but without being coached how McDaniels wants the plays to be run, there is only so much to be gained."

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams coaches and staffers spent Tuesday building a playground for a school serving autistic children. Players generally would have participated in large numbers, but with the lockout, this year was different. Coats: "Other than second-year linebacker Josh Hull, who is rehabbing a knee injury, none of the players was on hand because of the lockout, although the NFL had granted a waiver for players and coaches to mix. Many were assembling in Phoenix, where a five-day session of player-organized workouts is to get under way."

Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis offers thoughts on the Rams' playground-building efforts.

Mindi Bach of CSNBayArea.com says veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes is not attending the 49ers' player-organized workouts because he's not sure whether he'll return to the team. Bach: "Spikes turns 35 in December and is preparing just as hard as he always has for an upcoming season. In another text message Spikes told me he is currently in his hometown of Atlanta working out daily with a group of 15 players which includes OT Wayne Gandy, T Osi Umenyiora, DE Charles Grant and WR Hines Ward. Spikes’ work ethic and leadership have never been questioned. Those who know him know he puts in the work. He runs the miles. He studies the film. He teaches that young player how to reach the next level. He carries himself in the same manner off the field. It takes just moments for anyone who meets Spikes to recognize those traits."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com offers updates from the 49ers' latest player-organized practice.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says left tackle Joe Staley has reduced his weight to 304 pounds in an effort to regain lost mobility. Durability is also key for Staley, who has missed 14 games over the past two seasons.

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree rested sore feet while teammates practiced Tuesday. Branch: "Fellow wideout Josh Morgan, who has worked with Crabtree during the offseason, said the third-year wide receiver had aching feet after wearing new cleats during Monday's minicamp-opening practice on San Jose State's field turf. Morgan said Crabtree sat out as a precaution. He wasn't sure whether Crabtree would return to practice today."

Also from Branch: "Given Crabtree’s history, it would be easy to automatically add today’s absence to his diva files. On the flip side, though, he did attend the classroom session and, if his feet hurt, why should he push himself during a lockout minicamp in early June? Let the debate continue and, of course, stay tuned for tomorrow’s edition of the Curious Case of Michael Crabtree."

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News provides a transcript from Morgan's post-practice interview.

Vittorio Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle credits 49ers defensive players for attending the player-organized practices despite not having a playbook.

The 49ers have announced a partnership with Stanford University, facilitated by former player Riki Ellison.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com profiles various classes of players by the years they joined the team.

Also from Farnsworth: a look back at the Seahawks' 1998 season. Farnsworth: "The conventional thought at the time was that a one-point loss to the New York Jets in Week 14 -- when referee Phil Luckett mistook the white helmet of quarterback Vinny Testaverde for the ball in awarding the Jets a game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds left in the game -- had cost Dennis Erickson his job. The reality was that (team president) Bob Whitsitt had decided to move in another direction before that game was ever played. Whitsitt explained that he has reached the point where the Everett-born Erickson would either be fired with one year remaining on his contract, or have his contract extended."

Doug Farrar of Sportspress Northwest says quarterback Matt Hasselbeck appeared to be in full command during the team's player-organized practice Friday.

Jim Trotter of Sports Illustrated offers details from the Seahawks' and Cardinals' player-organized workouts in pointing out challenges players faces during the lockout. Trotter: "As well intentioned as those sessions are, they lack the NFL's full-service element. For instance, when Larry Fitzgerald and roughly 30 other players finished an on-field workout on a sunny morning in Tempe, they had to get in their cars and drive down the street to lift weights at Arizona State. Film study was done on personal laptops or in the theater room in Fitzgerald's Paradise Valley home."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic offers observations from the Cardinals' practice Tuesday. Second-year receiver Andre Roberts is looking good. Somers: "Roberts, I thought, looked very quick and confident. He has come a long way since being drafted a year ago. He didn't start catching the ball consistently until the season was well underway. Stephen Williams also looked good. No question he has the skills and we've seen them on display in the preseason. But can he show them in games that count? Roberts and Williams, by the way, were particularly impressive in one drill where players had to hop over a serious of hurdles. Roberts' feet were hardly ever on the ground, and Williams, well, I'd choose him in a pickup hoops game. He could rebound my missed three-pointers."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com looks back at Boomer Esiason's 522-yard passing performance for the Cardinals.

Also from Urban: a look at the Cardinals' cornerback situation.
A few thoughts on Plaxico Burress' availability as NFC West teams consider potential options at wide receiver:

  • By my count, six current NFL receivers are older than Burress, who turns 34 in August: Terrell Owens (37), Derrick Mason (37), Donald Driver (36), Brian Finneran (35), Hines Ward (35) and Brandon Stokley (35 in June);
  • Thirty players have caught at least 50 passes in a season at age 34 or older, according to Pro Football Reference; Jerry Rice, Isaac Bruce and Bobby Engram accomplished the feat for current NFC West teams;
  • [+] EnlargePlaxico Burress
    Al Bello/Getty ImagesPlaxico Burress seems unlikely to end up in the NFC West.
  • Burress caught 35 passes for 454 yards and four touchdowns over 10 games for the New York Giants in 2008, his last season before serving a jail term on a weapons charge; St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo was the Giants' defensive coordinator that year, giving the NFC West one solid connection to Burress;
  • Ken Whisenhunt, Russ Grimm and Ray Horton are among the Arizona Cardinals coaches who were with the Pittsburgh Steelers before Burress signed with the Giants in 2005, giving the NFC West another connection;
  • These types of connections can sometimes explain why teams do not pursue players; they know the bad as well as the good;
  • My initial feel is that Burress probably will not land in this division; Burress has played his entire career, from high school to the NFL, for teams in the East; I doubt he'll seek out a team in the West after spending two years away from his family;
  • Burress wore a Philadephia Phillies hat upon his release Monday, and the Eagles were the team considered most likely to sign him in a survey of ESPN.com bloggers;
  • The Rams' situation at receiver remains unsettled; bringing in Burress for a visit could make sense; the Cardinals' situation at receiver is more defined, and at least one Arizona-based reporter is saying there's no chance the Cardinals will sign him; I tend to agree and do not see the need, either;
  • Burress is five years older than any receiver on the Rams' roster and nine years older than the team's receivers on average, a potential consideration as the team decides how Burress would fit into the equation;
  • The Rams have previously resisted adding older receivers, passing on Owens and Moss over the last couple of seasons; Mark Clayton, who turns 29 in July, is the oldest receiver on the roster;
  • Seattle has been aggressive in considering unlikely options, making low-risk bets on Mike Williams, Reggie Williams, LenDale White and others; the team would ideally like to go with younger players at this stage;
  • Please let me know if you've seen anything, anywhere, suggesting the San Francisco 49ers would have interest; I do not see a great fit as the team establishes a new program under a first-year coach.

Would you want Burress on your favorite team?
A personal aside I shared with Facebook friends several weeks ago:

One day I looked outside my office window and saw our 9- and 6-year-old sons playing football with friends on a modest strip of severely worn grass in our side yard.

Our youngest was standing near one of the make-shift end zones, jumping up and down in an exaggerated fashion. He was raising both knees almost as though he were playing on a trampoline. What was this? Turns out he was "getting hyped" before the opening kickoff, just like the return specialists do in the "Madden" video games.

My wife and I got a good laugh out of that one. It was yet another example of the Madden game's cultural influence. As much as my kids love playing football outside, they learn the game through "Madden." The game has taught them the dangers associated with throwing near Ed Reed in coverage, the tactical trade-offs when playing against a mobile quarterback, how to use timeouts in a 2-minute situation and so much more.

When Matt Hasselbeck threw incomplete in the red zone during a televised game last season, our then-5-year-old turned to my wife and said, "Mom, he should have audibled there."

That's why I was intrigued to see the "Madden" creators saying they wanted to emphasize concussion awareness in the latest version of the game. This is a fantastic idea and not just a politically convenient one. Kids really do learn the game through "Madden." If they see dangerous tactics penalized and concussed players sidelined, they'll accept that as part of the game. They'll take into account ways to avoid concussions -- something I've thought about quite a bit as our 9-year-old has pressed us to play tackle football beginning this summer.

Also on the "Madden" front, we'll find out Monday whether Sam Bradford and Patrick Willis have pulled upsets in the ongoing race to grace the cover of the 2012 game.

Bradford is facing Aaron Rodgers. Willis is facing Hines Ward.

Jon Robinson of The Gamer blog says it's looking as though Michael Vick has more momentum than any other candidate, no surprise to anyone who has played "Madden 11." The game was shipped with Kevin Kolb as the default starter, but every time I see my kids playing the game, the Philadelphia Eagles are on the screen and our oldest has subbed Vick into the starting lineup.

Kids know which players are the most dynamic.

The Bradford-Rodgers winner is likely to face Danny Woodhead in the next round, according to Robinson. If Willis moves past Ward, he'll be facing Vick, most likely.
The Seattle Seahawks' 12th Man has good company among NFC West also-rans in the race to grace the "Madden NFL 12" cover.

Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald also tasted first-round defeat in the online voting contest to determine a winner.

The St. Louis Rams' Sam Bradford cruised past Fitzgerald by a 57-43 percentage margin. Fitzgerald has already graced the cover. His status in the league is secure. Bradford represents that most marketable of qualities: vast untapped potential.

The 12th Man, meanwhile, put up a strong and presumably noisy fight against San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, but it was not enough. Willis prevailed by a 54-46 percentage margin.

Bradford, listed as a No. 8 seed, is taking on No. 1 seed Aaron Rodgers in the second round. Willis, seeded seventh, is battling Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward, a No. 2 seed. Step between Willis and Ward at your own risk.

I fully expect a push for re-seeding if an NFC West representative prevails after Seattle won the division with a 7-9 record.

How the NFC West stacks up with Steelers

February, 4, 2011
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Sam Bradford/Matt Hasselbeck/Ben RoethlisbergerGetty Images/US PresswireHow do Sam Bradford, Matt Hasselbeck and the other NFC West QBs stack up against the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger?
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Close your eyes for a moment after reading this sentence and imagine your favorite NFC West team lining up against the AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl.

How would your team's offense measure up, starter for starter, against the one NFC champion Green Bay will face Sunday?

The chart compares NFC West teams' offensive starting lineups against the one Pittsburgh has listed on the official Super Bowl flip card. Doug Legursky will likely replace center Maurkice Pouncey, and injury situations could affect projected NFC West lineups.

I've generally recreated NFC West lineups as they were when each team's season concluded, just to see how offenses from the division might stack up against the one NFC champion Green Bay will encounter Sunday. An NFC West all-star team would produce an overall talent upgrade, but no single NFC West offense prevails in a head-to-head comparison, at least in my view.

For additional perspective, check out how NFC West offenses stacked up one year ago.

Enjoy the imaginary games.

Draft hindsight: Big Ben and beyond

January, 31, 2011
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SteelersUS PresswirePittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward and LaMarr Woodley are all playing in Super Bowl XLV, but could they have ended up in the NFC West coming out of college?
FORT WORTH, Texas -- The Pittsburgh Steelers appeared loose and comfortable during their first Super Bowl 45 media session.

They've been in big games before, and frequently, thanks largely to shrewd drafting.

This is the Steelers' third Super Bowl appearance in the last six seasons.

The team made available James Farrior, Flozell Adams, Hines Ward, Brett Keisel, Ben Roethlisberger and LaMarr Woodley during its initial media session Monday -- just the opportunity I needed to produce an item corresponding to the one titled, "Draft hindsight: Aaron Rodgers and beyond".

The idea: to examine a Super Bowl team's featured players -- in this case, the ones made available Monday -- with an emphasis on draft status and the decisions NFC West teams made in the same rounds. Not every team held a choice in every featured round.

The Arizona Cardinals had a shot at Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but they came out OK.

Here goes ...

1997 Draft: James Farrior, LB, Virginia

Round: First (eighth overall, by the New York Jets)

NFC West spin: Farrior is a two-time Pro Bowl choice, but the NFC West offers no apologies for passing over him. Orlando Pace and Walter Jones became perennial Pro Bowl tackles. Jones became the best player in Seahawks history, in my view. Shawn Springs made one Pro Bowl trip and picked off 33 passes during a 13-year career. The Cardinals had no shot at Farrior. They chose Tommy Knight one pick later. He started 54 games in six NFL seasons. Rumor says the 49ers selected a quarterback in the first round of this draft.

First-round selections in the division:

  • Rams (first overall): Pace, T, Ohio State
  • Seahawks (third overall): Springs, CB, Ohio State
  • Seahawks (sixth overall): Jones, T, Florida State
  • Cardinals (ninth overall): Knight, CB, Iowa
  • 49ers (26th overall): Jim Druckenmiller, QB, Virginia Tech
1998 Draft: Flozell Adams, T, Michigan State

Round: Second (38th overall, by Dallas)

NFC West spin: Adams became a five-time Pro Bowl choice with Dallas. His career appeared finished, or close to it, until injuries led the Steelers to call on him this season. Arizona passed on Adams twice. Safety Corey Chavous, chosen five spots before Adams, went to a Pro Bowl with Minnesota. He was a productive player for roughly a decade. Tackle Anthony Clement, chosen two spots before Adams, started more than 100 games for three teams.

Second-round selections in the division:

  • Cardinals (33rd overall): Corey Chavous, SS, Vanderbilt
  • Cardinals (36th overall): Anthony Clement, T, Louisiana-Lafayette
  • Rams (37th overall): Robert Holcombe, FB, Illinois
  • Seahawks (47th overall): Todd Weiner, T, Kansas State
  • 49ers (58th overall): Jeremy Newberry, C, California
1998 Draft: Hines Ward, WR, Georgia

Round: Third (92nd overall, by Pittsburgh)

NFC West spin: The Rams and Seahawks found Pro Bowl-caliber players when they passed over Ward in the third round. Seattle gave up on Ahman Green prematurely, however, after coach Mike Holmgren grew weary of early fumble problems. The 49ers missed on tackle Chris Ruhman three choices before Ward went to Pittsburgh. Ruhman played in six games with the 49ers, starting none. He played in 11 NFL games with two starts overall. The 49ers passed on Ward even though Jerry Rice had suffered a devastating knee injury in the 1997 opener.

Third-round selections in the division:

  • Rams (65th overall): Leonard Little, DE, Tennessee
  • Seahawks (76th overall): Ahman Green, RB, Nebraska
  • 49ers (89th overall): Chris Ruhman, T, Texas A&M
2002 Draft: Brett Keisel, DE, BYU

Round: Seventh (242nd overall, by Pittsburgh)

NFC West spin: The 49ers drafted longtime starting guard and center Eric Heitmann three spots before the Steelers found Keisel. Pittsburgh could use Heitmann this week after the Steelers' starting center, Maurkice Pouncey, suffered a severely sprained ankle during the AFC Championship Game. Keisel became a Pro Bowl choice for the first time this season, distinguishing him from 2002 NFC West seventh-rounders. The Rams found their mainstay snapper in this draft. Keisel was gone when the 49ers found guard Kyle Kosier, who started 29 games for them and remains a starter with Dallas.

Seventh-round selections in the division:

  • Cardinals (223rd overall): Mike Banks, TE, Iowa State
  • Seahawks (232nd overall): Jeff Kelly, QB, Southern Mississippi
  • 49ers (239th overall): Heitmann, C, Stanford
  • Rams (243rd overall): Chris Massey, LS, Marshall
  • 49ers (248th overall): Kyle Kosier, G, Arizona State
  • 49ers (256th overall): Teddy Gaines, DB, Tennessee
2004 Draft: Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Miami of Ohio

Round: First (11th overall, by Pittsburgh)

NFC West spin: The Cardinals passed over Roethlisberger and came away with a potential Hall of Fame receiver. No complaints there, even though quarterbacks are more valuable than receivers. None of the other NFC West teams had a shot at Roethlisberger. Seattle and St. Louis were set at quarterback, anyway.

First-round selections in the division: 2007 Draft: LaMarr Woodley, OLB, Michigan

Round: Second (46th overall, by Pittsburgh)

NFC West spin: The Cardinals could certainly use Woodley now, and badly, but they had already invested millions in the position heading into the 2007 draft. Free-agent additions Chike Okeafor and Bertrand Berry had combined for 14.5 sacks during the 2006 season. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they haven't gotten enough from their second-round investment in Alan Branch.

Second-round selections in the division:

  • Cardinals (33rd overall): Branch, DL, Michigan
  • Rams (52nd overall): Brian Leonard, FB, Rutgers
  • Seahawks (55th overall): Josh Wilson, CB, Maryland

OK, all done, and just in time. ESPN.com teammates Mike Reiss, Kevin Seifert and I are heading out to the Packers' media session next. Seifert is driving and he doesn't wait for anyone. Gotta jam.

Alex Smith, Vernon Davis connection back

December, 11, 2010
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The San Francisco 49ers' Vernon Davis caught a touchdown pass in four consecutive games this season.

The streak ended when a shoulder injury sidelined quarterback Alex Smith. Davis failed to catch a scoring pass in his first four games with Troy Smith at quarterback, finally catching one against Green Bay last week.

Alex Smith's return to the 49ers' lineup Sunday could give Davis a boost. The two go back as far as any current quarterback-receiver or quarterback-tight end tandem in the NFC West. Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck and Ben Obomanu also date to 2006, but Obomanu became a regular contributor only recently.

Alex Smith has thrown 18 of his 46 career touchdown passes to Davis. No active quarterback with at least 20 touchdown passes has thrown a higher percentage of his scoring throws to the same player since 2001, according to Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information.

The chart ranks the 10 highest active percentages.

The dreaded instant messages began popping onto my screen this morning while preparing this update on the ESPN.com Blog Network Gridiron Challenge.

My wife never misses a chance to bust chops. Especially mine.

"I don't see anywhere on the blog how your wife whooped on you last week in the Gridiron Challenge," she wrote.

Unnecessary roughness? Taunting? Helmet-to-helmet contact?

Where's NFL policeman Ray Anderson when you really need him (on second thought, any fines against my wife would come out of my pocket, too).

"Actually working on that item now," I replied meekly.

No mercy.

"And how many points do you have?" she shot back.

OK, here's the deal. My Gridiron Challenge team can't get a break to save my marriage (or at least save face within my marriage). Miles Austin? One point for my team in Week 6. Dallas Clark? Wrist injury. Philip Rivers? Thirteen measly points. Colt McCoy had more!

It's gone this way all season. The guy who lucked into the 94.4th percentile in the 2009, well ahead of a certain instant-messaging harasser, suddenly can't figure out anything.

"What matters is today," my wife said, brushing off her 2009 finish in the 67th percentile. "Where are you today?"

Answer: in the 47th percentile.

Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Frank Gore and the San Francisco 49ers' defense did come through as expected from a fantasy standpoint in Week 6. My expectations for Josh Scobee and Michael Crabtree fell through (Scobee's Jaguars suffered two turnovers in the red zone, while the Oakland Raiders did not use Nnamdi Asomugha to lock down Crabtree).

The chart shows the top 10 overall competitors in the Blog Network group, plus a few stragglers. The AFC North's James Walker isn't really straggling, though. He ranks 71st overall and resides close to the 99th percentile. Way to go, James.

Three leaders remained in the top 10 overall among more than 3,500 entries despite failing to reach 100 points in Week 6. It was a tough week for quite a few teams, but my wife's squad somehow managed 140 points, outscoring all but one member of the top 10 and moving her team into the 87th percentile (up from 69.6).

Not that I've heard about it much.

Gridiron Challenge: Week 6 fantasy ideas

October, 14, 2010
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Congrats to Cullen_Powers_Dominates for putting together the highest-scoring Week 5 team from among more than 3,500 entrants in the ESPN.com Blog Network Gridiron Challenge.

Starting Matt Forte (30 points), Ray Rice (27), Malcolm Floyd (27) and the Chicago Bears' defense (23) helped produced a 176-point total.

Meanwhile, my team continued heading south for the winter (point totals for the last four weeks: 146, 118, 101 and 100). The new week brings renewed hope.

Please do point out the errors of my ways in thinking these fantasy thoughts for Week 6:
  • Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee looks like a solid play, and not just because he's coming off an 18-point performance. He's also facing the Tennessee Titans, owners of the top red zone defense in terms of lowest touchdown percentage allowed. Tennessee's opponents this season have attempted 17 field goals in five games, including seven in the last two games.
  • The San Francisco 49ers' defense could come out OK at home against the Oakland Raiders. The 49ers' defense ranks 31st in fantasy points. I'm proceeding under the assumption turnovers will even out at some point, and the 49ers have too much talent on defense to struggle all season.
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers' Hines Ward carries a relatively low price tag. Might his production spike some with Ben Roethlisberger returning?
  • The Cleveland Browns have allowed five touchdown passes in two road games. They're on the road against Pittsburgh this week. Might this be a good time to pick up Roethlisberger, who is carrying a relatively low price tag in his first week of eligibility? I've had Aaron Rodgers to this point, but he's coming off a concussion and his offense is suffering from injuries.
  • As much as it appears Michael Crabtree's production is ascending, the Raiders' Nnamdi Asomugha could erase him from the stat sheet in Week 6, no?
  • Frank Gore fumbled twice last week. Now he faces the Raiders' 31st-ranked run defense. Seems like a good play.

The chart shows the top 10 overall competitors in the Blog Network group, plus a few stragglers (yes, my wife's team continues to lead my team, and I hear about it once or twice every day, usually when she asks from the other room if I know my point total).

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

A few thoughts as NFC West games approach in Week 8:
  • The 49ers need more from their offensive line. I'm not sure why the team hasn't given Tony Wragge a chance at one of the guard spots, but perhaps it is time.
  • Recently benched 49ers quarterback Shaun Hill seemed reluctant to push the ball down the field, perhaps a reflection of the coaching staff's emphasis on avoiding mistakes. Alex Smith seemed more comfortable taking those chances. Smith has nothing to gain by mimicking Hill. He needs to cut loose a little bit. I expect him to play aggressively.
  • Nate Clements is not finished as a starting cornerback for the 49ers. He hasn't looked right at times this season, particularly recently, and he was never a shutdown cornerback, but Clements can still be a good player, in my view.
  • Kurt Warner should pay special attention to getting rid of the ball quickly early in the game against the Panthers. He basically needs to convince Carolina that its pass rush isn't going to get there no matter how well Julius Peppers and the Panthers apply pressure. Warner did this effectively in the playoff game against the Panthers last season, as I recall. Once that happens, a quarterback can take more time later in the game.
  • Jake Delhomme's interceptions appear almost entirely responsible for the Panthers' struggles this season. Carolina seems to have a good offensive line. Massive turnover on the coaching staff could be hurting the Panthers, but this team shouldn't be nearly this bad. Delhomme's problems have transcended situations, but his numbers against added pressure are second-worst in the league among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts. The numbers, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information: 22-of-47 passing for 315 yards with one touchdown, six interceptions and a 36.5 rating. Ouch. Delhomme has three touchdowns and seven interceptions against standard pressure.
  • The Seahawks expected their running game to hit stride at about this part of the season, but that assumed at least some continuity on the offensive line. The constant shuffling up front will likely delay the ground game's emergence, putting additional pressure on Matt Hasselbeck to carry the offense -- a tough task for a team that seems to change left tackles every week or two.
  • Nate Burleson has been the Seahawks' best wide receiver. He ranks ninth among NFL wide receivers with 157 yards after the catch, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The top eight: Wes Welker (266), Hines Ward (235), Miles Austin (225), Andre Johnson (224), DeSean Jackson (208), Santonio Holmes (206), Hakeem Nicks (173) and Roddy White (171).
  • Something has to give when the Rams' weak pass offense meets the Lions' weak pass defense. Detroit has allowed 17 passing touchdowns this season. The Rams have scored only five. Opposing quarterbacks have a 117.8 rating against the Lions this season. If the Rams cannot have success against this pass defense, then what?
  • The Lions' Calvin Johnson and the Rams' Steven Jackson have combined for one touchdown this season (Johnson scored it). I like both players' chances of finding the end zone in Week 8, assuming Johnson's injured knee allows him to contribute. (Update: Calvin Johnson is inactive for today's game)

I'm heading to University of Phoenix Stadium shortly to watch the early games on TV and the Panthers-Cardinals game in person. Have a great first day of November.

49ers' Willis brings down the hammer

September, 9, 2009
9/09/09
12:40
PM ET
Getty Images
Linebacker Patrick Willis, shown taking cues from 49ers coach Mike Singletary, cannot tolerate opponents putting him on the ground.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Retired NFL players tend to miss the camaraderie. The 49ers' Patrick Willis will miss the violence.

Nine months after obliterating Jets receiver Brad Smith -- view the devastation 57 seconds into this highlight video -- Willis welcomed a chance to relive it.

"Oh, man, it felt amazing," he said. "I'm not going to lie."

Or lay down. The hit on Smith came a few plays after an unknown Jets player put Willis on the ground.

"I got up and it's the worst feeling," Willis said. "I cannot stand being on the ground unless I'm hitting somebody else. I feel like somebody just tried to take my manhood from me. At all costs, the only time I'm going to be on the ground is if I'm delivering the lick."
Cary Edmondson/US Presswire
Patrick Willis recalls the hit he put on Jets receiver Brad Smith: 'Oh, man, it felt amazing.'

The conversation reinforces what's apparent from watching Willis on the field. Among NFC West players, perhaps only the Cardinals' Adrian Wilson projects strength, power and ferocity to such degrees. Both can knock out an opponent at any time.

Willis, unable to identify which Jets player knocked him down during the 49ers' 24-14 victory in Week 14, found Smith to be an inviting target. Strong safety Michael Lewis was chasing Smith across the middle when the receiver seemed to notice Willis approaching from the front. Smith slowed and started to duck. Lewis was tackling Smith from behind when Willis lowered his shoulder and hit Smith high, twisting Smith's body awkwardly. The sound at impact might have sickened a neurologist, but not Willis.

"Sometimes the ones that look like they shouldn't hurt are the ones that hurt, and the ones that look like they don't hurt just kill you," he said. "This one felt good. When I hit him, people don't understand, I didn't really hit him with everything I had because I was still getting over a rib injury that I was dealing with from the Buffalo game."

Against the Cardinals last season, Willis hit tight end Leonard Pope in the ribs with a shot that also knocked the air from Willis' lungs. As a rookie, Willis once thought his shoulder "came out of the socket" during a hit on Steelers receiver Hines Ward. He recalled his entire right side giving out for two or three plays, to the point where Willis told then-teammate Derek Smith he feared what might happen if the Steelers ran the ball in his direction. The hit on Smith might be his most devastating one yet.

"People don't understand it, but I don't know how you can get a thrill like that," Willis said. "You get angry, you get mad, you just go and just put it all in someone else."

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson recently spent an extended period in studio with XTRA 910 radio in Phoenix. His wife, Alicia, was also in studio. They discussed issues ranging from Darnell Dockett's Twitter account to the Feb. 14 due date for their third child (with Wilson taking credit for being a lover, not a fighter).

Hour one here. Hour two here.

Wilson and host Mike Jurecki seemed to have fun discussing Wilson's battles with Hines Ward in the Super Bowl. Jurecki noted that Wilson and Ward went at it repeatedly during the game.

"Yeah, it's football," Wilson said. "Hines is a football player. I'm not going to back down."

Jurecki then pointed out Ward's reputation as a player who might take a shot at an unsuspecting opponent,.

"I ain't worried about that," Wilson said. "Come on. People know how I play. Hines knows how I play."

But it wasn't just one play, Jurecki pointed out.

"Yeah, but I'm not one of those little guys in the AFC," Wilson said. "I'm not none of those guys. I could hold my own. I'm not going to back down from a challenge. He's not going to back down from a challenge. It was a good little battle that we had and he ends up on top winning. That is the main thing. He ends up winning the game."
 
  Crystal LoGiudice/US PRESSWIRE and Vic Stein/NFL
  Football looked very different when Bears Hall of Famer George Connor, right, played. Modern players like Reggie Bush, left, are more protected by the rules.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Jeremy Green of Scouts Inc. invited me onto his ESPN Football Today podcast to debate a question on the minds of tough guys and gals everywhere: Is the NFL a "pansy" league? Officials in Bristol cut off the argument before anyone got hurt -- fines could be pending -- but this one was competitive well into the later rounds.

As Mills Lane used to say before boxing referees became softies, "Let's get it on."

Mike Sando: It is great to be here.

Jeremy Green: Is it?

Mike Sando: It is. I have always considered your show to be a pansy show, but I've got no problem coming on and taking the gloves off and hashing this out with you.

 
  Cary Edmondson/US Presswire
  Rodney Harrison feels the NFL has gone too far in protecting offensive players.

Jeremy Green: I'm going to say this. You look at what is going on in the NFL right now with big hits, guys coming across the middle, guys getting knocked out. And I say, you know what, it has become, Mike, a little bit of a pansy league from this standpoint. [NFL executive vice president of football operations] Ray Anderson, and I love Ray -- he represented my dad, Dennis Green, when he was an agent in the NFL and my father was a head coach in the NFL -- but when you have Ray Anderson ... giving out fines for players that haven't even been penalized in a game? What do they do, Mike? Do they just sit there and watch every game tape and say that's a fine even though it wasn't foul in the game?

Mike Sando: This might come as a shock to you, but the officiating is not 100 percent accurate. You go to the film and it's like if you are sitting at the blackjack table and you move like five black chips into your pocket from the guy next to you, they may not catch you right away, but the eye in the sky doesn't lie.

And I think there does have to be a line here, obviously. We can't go back and reofficiate the games. But I mean I think they are saying, 'Look, if we catch you on the surveillance video here walking out with five of those black $100 chips that aren't yours, you are going to hear about it.' And so I think that is the spirit of it. And I agree. Sometimes the execution of it is sloppy and they are over the top a little bit, but I'll give you an analogy, OK? When I grew up, there were no seat-belt laws. You didn't have to have a car seat. You could ride on daddy's lap when you were 5 years old with no protection, OK.

Jeremy Green: So mom and dad tell us.

Mike Sando: Yeah. Do I sit here and say this is a pansy generation [today]? No. It's called progress to a degree and I don't think we need to go back to leather helmets just to prove that everybody is tough.

Jeremy Green: But Mike, I don't think we have to go back to that, either. But there are so many games decided on a weekly basis and we have seen this down the stretch in terms of the NFL season and in terms of games going down the stretch. We see players getting flagged for what I would say is not illegal contact, for what I would say is not an illegal hit. And the game, Mike, the game has increased in terms of speed. We have safeties running 4.3. We have linebackers running 4.3. The speed of the game has increased and I'm not sure the officials can keep up with the speed.

Mike Sando: That might be true. The officiating issue, we can talk about that all day and we might find some common ground. I find it so self-serving for guys like -- a guy like Rodney Harrison, a great player, a tough player. The minute he retires, it's a pansy league. Well, who does that make look good? It makes Rodney look good. Like he was a big tough guy and now everyone else is a bunch of pansies.

If you go to a game and you go in the locker room and you see a Ray Lewis play, a Steve Hutchinson play, a Hines Ward play, a Patrick Willis play -- hey, these guys would line up and stare Dick Butkus in the face and not blink. To say it's a pansy league, to me, are you watching the players? Are you seeing these guys after the games? Are you seeing these guys pop their shoulders back in? Are you seeing guys play with incredible injuries? Anquan Boldin last year gets his face shattered. He misses two games!

Jeremy Green: Right.

Mike Sando: I don't think that is a pansy league.

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