NFC West: Jake Locker

When the San Francisco 49ers claimed Chris Harper off waivers from the Seattle Seahawks in early September they had big plans for him.

The 49ers wanted the receiver to play a hybrid receiver-tight end role like the one former 49er Delanie Walker – who will face the 49ers on Sunday at Tennessee – had for the team. However, Harper, at least for now, won’t get the chance to develop in San Francisco. Harper, whom Seattle cut as a rookie despite being a fourth-round pick, was cut Thursday by the 49ers. They will likely add a defensive lineman to the 53-man roster.

Harper could end up on the 49ers practice squad if he is not claimed on waivers by Friday. Harper’s release is not a shock. He was never active this season and the 49ers roster is talented.

Meanwhile, Tennessee cleared quarterback Jake Locker for contact and he practiced more Thursday than he did Wednesday. He has missed the past two games with a hip injury. Ryan Fitzpatrick is expected to start Sunday, but it is not out of the question that Locker tries to play. On Wednesday, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said the team is preparing for both quarterbacks.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The San Francisco 49ers’ preparation for Sunday’s game at Tennessee took a slight turn when Titans quarterback Jake Locker returned to practice Wednesday.

Locker has been out for the past two weeks with hip and knee injuries, and the Titans still plan to start Ryan Fitzpatrick on Sunday.

Nevertheless, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said the team has to be aware that Locker could play, however unlikely that might be.

“You’re never in a position of knowing until you know, until they’re ruled out,” Harbaugh said. “So, yeah, I mean, there has to be awareness and a preparation there.”

Harbaugh knows plenty about Locker. He faced the University of Washington product while he was the coach at Stanford.

“Well, I’ve always thought this, he’s like a running back with his ability to run the football,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve always thought that. And I’ve seen it up close, been defeated by it. He’s evolved, grown. He’s always been an extremely tough competitor. That’s why you, knowing the competitor he is, if there’s any possible way that he would play he’ll be out there.”

Still, the 49ers are also preparing to face Fitzpatrick, because that is the more likely scenario.
Ryan Fitzpatrick and Richard ShermanUSA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesBackup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will have to face a stifling Seattle secondary and the league's best corner in Richard Sherman.
Sunday's game between the Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks is a matchup between two winning teams coming off losses, and both are missing key players on offense.

Quarterback Jake Locker is out for the Titans. Both starting tackles -- Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini -- are out for Seattle. Tight end Zach Miller could also sit.

The Seahawks have a 10-game home winning streak on the line, hoping to rebound after their first defeat of the season, 34-28 to the Indianapolis Colts.

The Titans hope to get a stagnant running game going and find some consistency with backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Paul, it looked like Fitzpatrick had a rough first outing for the Titans subbing for an injured Locker. Do you think Fitzpatrick will improve, and how difficult will it be for Tennessee to have success on offense while Locker is out?

Kuharsky: Fitzpatrick is certainly capable of playing better than he did in the loss to Kansas City, when he had three very bad quarters and one good one. I'm not sure what the Titans can do to help him if they are unable to run the ball. If they can bring some balance with Chris Johnson (and maybe Shonn Greene, who's still trying to get back after knee surgery), it could be a lot less difficult. Fitzpatrick hardly has Locker's excellent speed, but he scrambled around pretty well against the Chiefs. With Locker in the first four games, the Titans didn't turn the ball over and overcame their deficiencies running the ball. Without him, they need Fitzpatrick to imitate the mistake-free youngster. But Fitzpatrick is more of a gunslinger than Locker and is streakier, and that's probably too much to ask.

Terry, the Titans pledged to be a great running team. It hasn't really panned out that way. Last time Johnson was in Seattle, he had a 2,000-yard season. What's the run defense going to be like?

Blount: It's been all but impossible to run up the middle on the Seahawks. Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane is as strong a run stopper as there is the NFL, and it takes two blockers to handle 325-pound Red Bryant. If that fails, it's tough to get past middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. But Wagner probably won't play Sunday because of a high ankle sprain. Nevertheless, it's difficult to establish a running game on the Seahawks. Seattle is an aggressive outside pass-rushing team, so occasionally a back can get yardage outside, but not often.

Paul, Locker told us on the conference call Wednesday what a disappointment it is that he won't get to play this weekend in front of family, friends and University of Washington alumni who love him for all he did to help turn around the Huskies football program. He is a beloved guy here and a huge hero in this community. How is he viewed in Nashville?

Kuharsky: Nothing close to that yet. People who have given him a chance know he's an eminently likable guy, a hard worker and a well-respected leader, but plenty of fans called talk radio over the offseason talking about why Fitzpatrick would be a better choice or how it should at least be a camp competition. Even after Week 2's overtime loss in Houston, when he overthrew a wide-open Kenny Britt on a crucial third-and-1 late in the game, there were calls for change. (It's a throw he's got to make.) The game-winning drive against San Diego showed people what he can do. Locker also had a fantastic two-plus quarters against the Jets, which seems to have done a lot to win more people over. In playing style and development arc, I think he is a lot like Steve McNair so far. If that holds true, impatient fans will wind up happy.

Terry, home field is viewed as such a giant advantage for the Seahawks. Can you give us a tangible feel for just how loud and crazy the atmosphere is there?

Blount: In the San Francisco game, where the outdoor stadium decibel record was set at 131.9, it was so loud that it was difficult at times to even hear people talk in the enclosed press box. I know every team believes its stadium is one of the loudest, and I've been to most of them, but trust me, there is nothing like CenturyLink Field. It's deafening.

Paul, cornerback Alterraun Verner is off to an outstanding start this season with four interceptions and 11 passes defensed. Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman is viewed by some as the best corner in the NFL, but is Verner the most underrated?

Kuharsky: He could have had another two picks last week on balls he didn't manage to haul in. Verner has been really good. The team wasn't sure what it had in him. The Titans knew they got a good football player out of UCLA three years ago. But as they revamped this offseason, with Gregg Williams joining the coaching staff and the Titans determined to get more aggressive, they figured a big increase in press-man coverage would move them away from Verner's strengths. They wanted Tommie Campbell, a faster and bigger guy to win the job. (Some wrote about how Campbell has some of what makes Sherman so good.) But Campbell didn't catch on and bombed in training camp, and Verner proved to be better. If Coty Sensabaugh hasn't recovered from his concussion for Sunday, Verner will start in base and move into the slot in nickel, with Campbell replacing him outside.

The Titans rush pretty well, and Verner is getting his hands on balls all over the field. Who has had the best success slowing Russell Wilson and how?

Blount: Even though Seattle came back and won the game, the Texans had the most success because of their talented defensive front and all-everything defensive lineman J.J. Watt. Both Houston and Indianapolis took advantage of Seattle missing starters on the offensive line and teed off on Wilson on third down. Nevertheless, Wilson is the best I've ever seen making the most of a bad situation and finding the opening the defense gives him. Anticipating when Wilson will roll out and cutting off his running lanes is the key, but it is far easier said than done.

Final 2013 preseason QB snap counts

August, 30, 2013
Six projected starting quarterbacks played in their teams' final exhibition games of the 2013 preseason. The Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson and the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick were two of them, and both led touchdown drives before exiting after one series. None of the NFL's projected starters got hurt Thursday night.

The chart shows week-by-week snap counts for quarterbacks I singled out as projected starters heading into preseason. NFC West alums Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn might not start after all, but I've left them in the chart for context.

St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher has generally played starters in the final preseason game. He did not this time.

"Typically I have, but I guess in the new world that we’re in, it’s hard to," Fisher told reporters after the Rams' game against Baltimore. "What that implies is that I'm pleased with where they are right now, those guys that sat. They worked hard. We got a great workout and it allowed them to fast-forward their minds to Arizona."

Fisher could have been alluding to the run of higher-profile injuries around the league this summer. Last year, the Rams lost rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers to a high-ankle sprain in the final preseason game.

The Rams emerged from this preseason healthier than their division rivals. That did not stop the 49ers from playing their offensive starters or the Seahawks from playing starters on both sides of the ball Thursday night. The Arizona Cardinals rested most of their starters, though Michael Floyd was one notable exception.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh offered no explanation for playing his starting offense one series. Kaepernick hadn't gotten many snaps through the first three games, however. Getting additional reps for Kaepernick and the team's group of emerging receivers made some sense on the surface.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll went into the final preseason game saying he wanted starters to play because the team values this games as competitive opportunities.

NFL teams have played their most important snaps of the 2013 exhibition season now that every team has played at least three games.

This becomes a good time to check out how many snaps each projected starting quarterback has played. The players listed in the chart below entered preseason as the quarterbacks I considered most likely to start season openers. We might have to make adjustments in some cases.

Teams have different priorities based on a range of factors. This snapshot does provide some context.

A few notes regarding the NFC West info:
  • Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer appeared sharper in the preseason opener than he did subsequently. Pass protection was one problem against San Diego on Saturday night. Palmer still got 37 snaps, his highest total of the preseason. But with the team losing key players Rob Housler and Jonathan Cooper to injuries, snap counts for Palmer were not a leading storyline.
  • St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford has played 25 snaps in each of the last two preseason games. He is averaging 10.2 yards per pass attempt in the preseason and has a 114.1 NFL passer rating to this point (he finished the 2012 preseason with five touchdown passes, no picks and a 116.3 rating). The team's most recent preseason game, at Denver, provided Bradford a good opportunity to connect with Jared Cook, the tight end St. Louis lured away from Tennessee in free agency with $19 million in guarantees. Cook caught four passes for 50 yards and a touchdown.
  • San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick has played fewer snaps than any projected starter other than the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III, who has not yet played in a game since suffering knee injuries in the playoffs last season. Kaepernick finished strong against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night, completing his final six passes, including one for a touchdown.
  • Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson took three sacks and threw two interceptions while playing 38 snaps against Green Bay in the most recent preseason game. The Packers, meanwhile, pulled Aaron Rodgers after 10 snaps. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the Packers came after Seattle with scheme-related wrinkles an offense would address in the regular season, but not preseason.
The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, among others, tried to maneuver in the 1983 NFL draft for a shot at selecting John Elway.

So did the Los Angeles Raiders.

Now, former Raiders coach Hue Jackson says via Peter King that the team also badly wanted Colin Kaepernick, another strong-armed quarterback whose athletic background included baseball.

King's piece has plenty of detail, including a captivating visual: Raiders owner Al Davis throwing a glass across the room when San Francisco traded up to select Kaepernick with the 36th choice of the 2011 draft.

Of course, teams miss out on players they wanted in every draft. Some of those players wind up leading their teams to the Super Bowl, as Kaepernick did last season. Other players fail to make much of an impact.

Since 1983, when Elway landed in Denver via the Baltimore Colts, the Raiders have drafted the following 13 quarterbacks: Tyler Wilson, JaMarcus Russell, Andrew Walter, Marques Tuiasosopo, Billy Joe Hobert, Todd Marinovich, Major Harris, Jeff Francis, David Weber, Steve Beuerlein, Rusty Hilger, Randy Essington and Scott Lindquist.

Those players were, by definition, quarterbacks the Raiders really wanted. To hear selectively about the ones that got away makes me wonder how many other forgettable ones the team also wanted at various points. We're unlikely to hear about those.

We should also acknowledge the role an organization plays in developing quarterbacks. Kaepernick had more than one season of seasoning in the 49ers' system before joining a talented, superbly coached offense, one that was backed by a strong defense. He gets credit for doing his part, but the situation obviously would have been tougher in Oakland.

The 49ers deserve tremendous credit for landing Kaepernick in the second round. They went into that 2011 draft without knowing how well Alex Smith would perform. They had the seventh overall choice and could have taken Blaine Gabbert or Christian Ponder. Instead, they used that pick for Aldon Smith, who has already set their franchise single-season record for sacks. Kaepernick, meanwhile, is looking far more dynamic than every other quarterback the 49ers were in position to select in that draft.

Note: The headline refers to JaMarcus Russell. Some in the comments section thought "Russell" referred to Russell Wilson. I'm sure the Raiders would like to have him, too, but they'll have to settle for Matt Flynn.
PHOENIX -- The Tennessee Titans knew re-signing Jared Cook would be rough when the sides couldn't initially agree over a basic detail.

Should Cook be paid like a tight end or a wide receiver?

"And really, I didn't want to mess with it," Titans coach Mike Munchak said from the NFL owners meeting at the Arizona Biltmore resort.

And so the Titans, fearful Cook would challenge his classification as a tight end if the team named him its franchise player, watched one of their core young players sign with the St. Louis Rams for $7 million a season.

"I think what he got from the Rams was not far off from what we would have done with him if there was more patience involved," Munchak said, "but it worked out that way and it made sense for us not to tag him."

Such are the calculations teams sometimes have to make. The Titans suspected Cook might wait until deep into training camp before signing if the team named him its franchise player. They moved on from Cook to the San Francisco 49ers' Delanie Walker. Both are tight ends, but Walker is a different type of player.

"It's hard to find a tight end that is comfortable inserting on the back side blocking through the A gaps and B gaps, and then he can be out and run routes that way," Munchak said. "A lot of guys don't know how to do that. They run into guys and don't have a knack for it. They lose the receiver getting out, they can't get to the linebacker."

Walker can do those things. That is why the stats listed in the chart explain only part of the story for Walker.

The Titans envision becoming more like the 49ers in how they run their offense.

Munchak, a Hall of Fame guard, said his teaching principles line up with the ones San Francisco advocates in utilizing Walker's versatility as a blocker on the back side of the formation. He thinks Walker and in-line tight end Craig Stevens can open up opportunities for running back Chris Johnson while making life easier on young quarterback Jake Locker.

"Since I've been the line coach there, when Chris Johnson has had his most success is when we've had a guy that can move and felt comfortable as that second tight end moving around and creating formations and opening up the defense," Munchak said. "[Walker] can line up in the slot, he can line up at tight end, he can line up in the backfield, he can start in the backfield and end up in the slot."

Walker did those things for the 49ers, especially since Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman took over the offense before the 2011 season. One question in San Francisco is to what degree the offense might change without Walker, a player whose role was more significant than his receiving stats would ever indicate.

Cook, meanwhile, gives the Rams a speed element the team hopes will stretch opposing defenses.

"Jared has a chance to do special things," Munchak said, "but maybe this guy [Walker] ultimately does more for us. I'm sure the Rams are happy, we're happy and so maybe it was good for both of us."

Around the NFC West: QB draft lessons

February, 19, 2013
The Arizona Cardinals head to the NFL scouting combine with the seventh overall pick in the 2013 draft and an unsettled situation at quarterback.

Their division rivals from San Francisco were in a similar spot two years ago. The 49ers passed on the available quarterbacks at No. 7, choosing outside linebacker Aldon Smith in that slot when Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder were available.

San Francisco took quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the second round.

Two years later, Smith set a franchise record with 19.5 sacks. Kaepernick played a leading role in the 49ers' push to Super Bowl XLVII.

The lesson learned was a familiar one. Do not reach for a need at the expense of talent.

NFL teams holding the seventh through 10th overall picks have drafted five quarterbacks in that range over the last 10 drafts. Ryan Tannehill, Locker, Gabbert, Matt Leinart and Byron Leftwich were the selections. Andre Ware (1990), Todd Blackledge (1983), Phil Simms (1979) and Marty Domres (1969) were the only other quarterbacks selected in that range during the common draft era.
Colin KaepernickKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsSan Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has three rushes of 50-plus yards in his past 41 carries.
Michael Vick, arguably the most feared rushing quarterback in NFL history, has run with the ball 828 times over 12 seasons, counting playoffs.

Three of those 828 rushes gained at least 50 yards.

Now, consider this: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has three 50-plus-yard rushes in his past 41 carries. That stands tied for second in the NFL for the full season with Chris Johnson and Jamaal Charles, each of whom have more than 275 carries. Only the incomparable Adrian Peterson has had more 50-plus rushes since Week 1 (seven).

There is no recent precedent for Kaepernick in the NFL. His NFL passer rating (98.7) and Total QBR score (82.8) through eight career starts (one of them postseason) both rank No. 1 for any player's first eight starts over the past five years.

Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Robert Griffin III and Aaron Rodgers are among those trailing Kaepernick by those measures.

The leading question heading into the NFC Championship Game was supposed to ask why coach Jim Harbaugh messed with a good thing by moving Kaepernick into the lineup over veteran Alex Smith. Smith, after all, had completed 25 of his previous 27 passes. He had a 104.1 passer rating, the NFL's highest completion percentage and a higher two-year winning percentage than Tom Brady when Kaepernick made his first start in Week 11.

The question now is more like, "What took Harbaugh so long?"

Perfect situation

Kaepernick, selected 36th overall in 2011, was the sixth quarterback drafted in his class. Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton went ahead of him. Those five have enjoyed varying degrees of success. None stepped into a situation nearly as favorable as the one awaiting Kaepernick.

The 49ers had in Smith a veteran starter with an even temperament and a willingness to provide whatever support a young quarterback wanted.

Kaepernick, unlike the five quarterbacks drafted ahead of him, would have a retired quarterback as his head coach. Four of the five quarterbacks drafted ahead of Kaepernick would begin their careers under defensive-minded head coaches. The fifth, Tennessee's Locker, would have a former guard as his head coach. All but Kaepernick and Locker would make their starting debuts as rookies.

As things worked out in San Francisco, Kaepernick would have a full season and half of another to become acclimated before starting.

When Smith suffered a concussion and the 49ers finally needed Kaepernick to start, they could support him with a dominant rushing attack and one of the NFL's top defenses. The 49ers ranked among the NFL's top five in point margin per game, rushing yards, yards allowed and defensive EPA from the day they drafted Kaepernick to the night they started him for the first time.

Smashing debut

What a night it was for Kaepernick and the 49ers on Monday, Nov. 19, at Candlestick Park.

Kaepernick completed 16 of 23 passes (69.6 percent) for 243 yards and two touchdowns against a Bears defense that had been leading the NFL in defensive EPA while ranking first in NFL passer rating allowed (61.5) and second in Total QBR allowed (20.4) to that point in the season. The 49ers won, 32-7.

Weeks later, Kaepernick would become the NFC's offensive player of the week for tossing four touchdown passes against New England. The Patriots' Brady entered that game with an 84-14 career starting record at home, counting postseason. The 49ers built a 31-3 lead and won 41-34 after Kaepernick found Michael Crabtree for the winning 38-yard touchdown pass with 6:25 remaining.

Kaepernick's 181 rushing yards against Green Bay in the divisional playoffs set a record for an NFL quarterback in any game. But Kaepernick, reportedly the owner of a 94 mph fastball when he played baseball, stands out nearly as much for his arm.

One pass busted Randy Moss' finger. Another throw, this one on third-and-12 against Chicago, led veteran tight end and longtime Smith supporter Vernon Davis to bow before his new quarterback right there on the field.

"I'm just so proud of him in that moment because the ball that he threw me, it was just one of those balls that you see Tom Brady throw," Davis said at the time. "Second window, right on the money. Surprise. I didn't expect the ball to come, because we ran that play quite a few times, and the tight end usually don't get the ball on that play."

Third-down difference

Kaepernick (96.8) and Smith (94.5) have similar NFL passer ratings as starters on third down this season.

Kaepernick holds a striking lead (86.3 to 32.9) in Total QBR on third down, however.

Sacks and rushing plays account for the difference.

Kaepernick's 20-yard touchdown run against the Packers came on a third-and-8 play early in the game. It gave him 19 carries for 180 yards and two scores with nine first downs on third-down rushing attempts this season. Smith has seven third-down carries for 43 yards and one first down.

Kaepernick has taken four sacks on 77 third-down drop backs. Smith has five additional sacks on 10 fewer third-down drop backs.

The 49ers average an additional 2.2 yards per third-down drop back when Kaepernick is their starting quarterback relative to when Smith is the starter.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh
Jeff Lewis/Icon SMI49ers coach Jim Harbaugh says QB Colin Kaepernick's ability to rebound from bad plays is rare.
Another kind of resiliency

No quarterback can top Smith for resiliency over the past several seasons. Smith has survived nearly annual coordinator changes, criticism from former head coach Mike Nolan, excruciating pain associated with injury, and his unexpected benching this season.

Kaepernick has shown another kind of bounce-back ability.

The quarterback's 20-yard touchdown run against the Packers came one drive after Kaepernick threw an interception for a touchdown.

A 50-yard scramble in the fourth quarter at St. Louis in Week 13 set up the go-ahead field goal one drive after Kaepernick's errant pitch gave the Rams an easy touchdown.

Kaepernick has led 49ers touchdown drives on the possessions immediately following the four interceptions he has thrown. As Cam Inman pointed out, Smith has never done that following any of his 10 picks over the past two seasons.

Mere coincidence? The 49ers do not think so.

"I'm not making any statement like I know how to do it, or not do it," Harbaugh told reporters. "I'm just observing that he seems to have a rare ability to bounce back."

Harbaugh, the owner of 129 touchdown passes and 117 interceptions during his regular-season playing career, would seem to have a feel for such things.

"As a quarterback, you throw an interception in a game, there's just a tendency the next time to double-check things," Harbaugh said. "And that's not the way to do it. You want him to be trusting what he sees and cut it loose. And I think he’s shown a rare ability to not have to double-check."

What's next

Critics unmoved by the evidence supporting Kaepernick could have questioned Harbaugh's decision more credibly had the 49ers failed to advance past the divisional round. That's no longer possible now that Kaepernick has advanced as far as Smith did last season.

Smith completed 46.2 percent of his passes with two touchdowns, three sacks, a 97.6 passer rating and 30.7 QBR score during the 49ers' 20-17 defeat against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game last season. The 49ers, playing with a severely diminished receiving corps, converted just once on 13 third-down opportunities.

Kaepernick appears well positioned to improve upon that standard. He posted five single-game QBR scores in the 80s or higher since becoming a starter in Week 11, counting his 94.7 figure while amassing 444 total yards and four touchdowns against the Packers. Kaepernick is tied with Seattle's Russell Wilson for the most 80-plus games over that span. Ryan, Peyton Manning and Rodgers are next with four apiece.

Not bad company for the sixth quarterback selected in his draft class.

Where Kaepernick stands through five starts

December, 19, 2012
Colin Kaepernick's status as the NFC's offensive player of the week compels updating our earlier look at where he stood relative to other quarterbacks with the same number of starts.

Kaepernick ranks No. 1 since 2008 in Total QBR through a player's first five starts. The chart shows the top five. Kevin Kolb was seventh (56.5). Sam Bradford was 19th (41.1). Russell Wilson was 25th (33.9). John Skelton was 28th (29.6).

How recently drafted QBs are stacking up

December, 5, 2012
Every team in the NFC West has been starting a quarterback drafted since 2010 in recent weeks.

The trend will likely continue unless Kevin Kolb returns from injury and gets the start for Arizona against Seattle.

I've put together a chart showing 2012 stats for all quarterbacks drafted since 2010 (minimum 10 attempts). They're ranked by Total QBR, which is a rate stat, not a cumulative stat. The order doesn't necessarily reflect how much each player has contributed to his team over the full season. It does generally reflect how well each quarterback has played when given a chance.

710ESPN Seattle audio: Week 8 preview

October, 27, 2012

The week flew past without me getting a chance to share the weekly NFC West conversation on 710ESPN Seattle.

Thanks to @seahawkfan86 for the reminder.

Dave Wyman, Bob Stelton, Dave Grosby and I covered subjects ranging from the MVP race to Steven Jackson's potential future beyond St. Louis. We covered all four NFC West teams, as usual.

Here is the audio .

I can't recall discussing Marshawn Lynch in much detail, but when ESPN made available the pretty Lynch graphic late in the week, I figured the thing needed to appear somewhere on the blog while it was current.

Lynch faces a Detroit Lions defense that has allowed 102 yards to Adrian Peterson, 96 to Matt Forte and 89 to Frank Gore. Quarterbacks Michael Vick (59 yards), Jake Locker (35) and Jay Cutler (34) have found running room, too.

Worst NFL contracts? We've got one here

October, 25, 2012
Some context after seeing Kevin Kolb's six-year, $62.1 million deal ranked fourth on a list of the 10 worst current contracts NFL teams have signed:
  • Desperate situation: Arizona needed a new quarterback badly after suffering through a 5-11 season in 2010. Kolb was widely regarded as the best one available for trade. The Cardinals made an aggressive move to get him.
  • Other options: Arizona used the fifth pick of the 2011 draft for cornerback Patrick Peterson. Other teams selected quarterbacks Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder over the next seven picks. Given a chance to re-draft, I feel confident the Cardinals would not select one of those quarterbacks over Peterson. In that context, it's tough to fault the Cardinals for failing to select a quarterback fifth overall.
  • 20-20 hindsight: How a contract turns out is one thing. What a team should have known in advance is another. The Cardinals should have known how well Kolb would fit in their offensive system. Circumstances such as the lockout and injuries did not help, but some of the issues with Kolb have been fundamental. The way Philadelphia coached Kolb to play has complicated the transition. Arizona wound up firing its quarterbacks coach after Kolb's first season with the team. That suggests the team could have done a better job evaluating Kolb and adapting him to their offense. He had been around a few years, after all.
  • Fitz factor: Receiver Larry Fitzgerald was nearing the end of his contract when the Cardinals made their move to get Kolb. Fitzgerald's contract prevented the Cardinals from using the franchise tag to keep him. There was also a no-trade clause. Moving aggressively to get a quarterback might have helped the Cardinals re-sign Fitzgerald. That shouldn't have been the driving force behind the deal, but it was a factor worth a mention, at least.
  • The price paid: Price for a quarterback is almost irrelevant (within reason) if the quarterback plays well. The Cardinals gave up cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who was not ideally suited for their new defensive scheme. They gave up a second-round pick in 2012, which could have been used for an offensive tackle such as Mike Adams, the player Pittsburgh selected five spots later than where the Cardinals were scheduled to pick. Again, small price to pay for a franchise quarterback. Kolb has not played well enough or frequently enough, of course, and that makes price relevant.
  • The future. Kolb's deal included $20 million in compensation for the first two seasons. His salary is scheduled to be $9 million in 2013. The team must account for $6 million in future salary-cap charges related to Kolb whether or not he remains on the roster. That $6 million charge could be spread across more than one year. Seeking a reduced salary for Kolb could make sense if the team thinks he can still provide value in the future.
  • Implications: When the Cardinals acquired Kolb, there was a chance coach Ken Whisenhunt was betting his future on the quarterback. How quickly might that analysis be put to the test? The Cardinals are 4-3 this season and 11-5 over their last 16 games. They have also lost three in a row. Kolb is injured and out indefinitely.

QBR ranks: Russell Wilson stands tallest

October, 15, 2012
At least one NFC West game from Week 6 followed its expected course.

The Seattle Seahawks indeed had problems against New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker. And the Patriots were indeed vulnerable on deep passes.

The Seahawks prevailed, 24-23, largely because quarterback Russell Wilson and his receivers exploited those vulnerabilities down the field.

Wilson completed 5 of 9 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns on passes traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Patriots had given up 11 such completions for 340 yards and three TDs through Week 5. Only Buffalo (11) had allowed as many heading into Week 6. The other 30 NFL teams had allowed 5.8 on average.

Wilson's deep strikes stood out for a few reasons:
  • Accuracy: Wilson never seemed to be taking chances with his deep throws. The Patriots' coverage problems contributed, but still, Wilson hit receivers in stride. That was impressive.
  • Ease of delivery: The winning 46-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice traveled farther than that in the air, obviously. Wilson delivered the ball with ease. He wasn't stepping into it the way a quarterback would deliver a desperation heave. Wilson played minor league baseball. He has ample arm strength. The Seahawks gave him very good protection on this play, too.
  • Coordination: Wilson and his receivers showed improved rapport, especially after Wilson left the pocket. Even the 10-yard scoring pass to Braylon Edwards looked like something resulting from red zone work in practice. The two had failed to connect in the clutch at Arizona in Week 1 even though Edwards was open.
  • Timing: Wilson continues to perform well in the clutch. The 46-yarder to Rice came with 1:18 remaining. Wilson has led the Seahawks into scoring range during the final two minutes of games against Arizona, Green Bay, St. Louis and New England.

Those are a few observations. This performance from Wilson keeps him on track to remain the starter without grumbling from those thinking the team would have been better off with Matt Flynn. He'll face a tougher test at San Francisco on Thursday night.

With that, let's take a look at how NFC West passers graded out for Week 6 in relation to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point (thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for the charting info):
  • Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (133.7 NFL rating, 91.4 QBR): Wilson completed 16 of 27 passes (59.3 percent) for 293 yards with three TDs, no INTs and one fumble, which New England recovered. He took two sacks and rushed five times for 17 yards, gaining one first down. Wilson completed 12 of 20 passes for 206 yards with two TDs from inside the pocket, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He hurt the Patriots outside the pocket as well, completing four of those seven attempts for 87 yards and a score. Last week, Wilson improved on third down. This week, he improved in his ability to strike downfield after escaping the pocket. What's next for Wilson? He could stand to step up in the pocket more regularly, it seems. Wilson put right tackle Breno Giacomini in a tough spot on one play Sunday, a big reason behind the holding penalty Giacomini incurred. Wilson might have been better off stepping forward on such a play. Wilson would have run into a sack, most likely, had Giacomini not held his man while Wilson ran toward the pressure. Giacomini was better off holding than allowing the sack. He prevented a loss of down.
  • Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (91.3 NFL rating, 77.3 QBR): Bradford completed 26 of 39 passes (66.7 percent) for 315 yards with no touchdowns, no interceptions and no fumbles. He took three sacks. Bradford rushed four times for 34 yards and a TD. He also completed a pass for a two-point conversion to pull the Rams within a three-point deficit late in the game. Bradford is playing with great energy. So are the Rams. They know they're competitive each week and it's making a difference in how they carry themselves. The way Bradford scrambled and threw for a critical two-point conversion was impressive. It was even more impressive given the torque applied to Bradford's body in multiple places when he scored on a 1-yard keeper for the Rams' final TD. Bradford continues to connect on deep passes with rookie fourth-round choice Chris Givens. Their 65-yard connection was the third in three games longer than 50 yards.
  • Kevin Kolb, Arizona Cardinals (64.3 NFL rating, 26.1 QBR): Kolb completed 14 of 26 passes (53.8 percent) for 128 yards with one TD, one INT and no fumbles. He took five sacks, one of them for a safety, before leaving the game with injured ribs. Backup John Skelton completed 2 of 10 passes for 45 yards with no TDs and one INT. His QBR score was 2.4. QBR is a rate stat. Suffering a critical turnover as part of an abbreviated performance contributed to the low score. Injury issues are dramatically affecting the Cardinals' offense. Kolb isn't transcending those. He completed only 10 of 19 passes for 57 yards with one TD and one pick on short passes (those traveling no more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage). Andre Roberts dropped one of those on third-and-5.
  • Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers (43.1 NFL passer rating, 24.8 QBR): Smith completed 19 of 30 passes (63.3 percent) for 200 yards with no TDs, three INTs and one fumble, which the 49ers recovered. He took four sacks. Backup Colin Kaepernick completed 4 of 7 passes for 82 yards with no TDs, no INTs and two sacks. His QBR score was 70.8. Smith had gone 26 consecutive starts without throwing more than one INT in a game. His two third-quarter picks gave the Giants possession deep in 49ers territory. Smith had ample time to throw early in the game, but he appeared tentative and late with throws. The Giants presumably had something to do with that. They took away Vernon Davis and seemed to play more man coverage. Smith has played well enough to earn a pass for the occasional bad game. Will the coaching staff become more conservative, turning Smith back into game-manager mode?

The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 6, provided they played enough to qualify for inclusion.

The column showing point above average reveals the "number of points contributed by a quarterback over the season, accounting for QBR and how much he plays, above the level of an average quarterback."

Bat-downs revisited: Where Wilson stands

September, 19, 2012

An NFL quarterback standing 3 feet tall surely would be at heightened risk for having passes batted down.

Russell Wilson stands much taller than that, ESPN's Trey Wingo notes during a height-related conversation with Tim Hasselbeck and Jerry Rice in the video above. And in looking at stats for batted passes, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, it's clear that factors beyond height influence the numbers.

Drew Brees, roughly an inch taller than the nearly 5-foot-11 Wilson, had only seven passes batted down in 657 attempts last season. Six other quarterbacks had at least twice as many, even though each attempted at least 100 fewer passes. The towering Joe Flacco (6-6) had seven of his 542 passes batted.

Thirty-six of the 44 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts last season suffered a higher percentage of batted-down passes than Brees suffered while topping 5,000 yards passing. Arizona's Kevin Kolb, who is 6-3, topped the list with 10 of his 253 attempts (4.0 percent) batted down. San Francisco's Alex Smith was 12th at 2.7 percent (12 of 445). He's had none batted so far this season, even though he is just an inch taller than Kolb.

Brees has had five batted down this season already. That probably has more to do with being under siege than being under prototypical height. The Saints are struggling.

Hasselbeck suggested to Wingo and Rice that Wilson has a higher release point than some taller quarterbacks. Another ESPN analyst, Trent Dilfer, has pointed to a quick release, not height, as key to getting passes over opposing linemen.

The chart ranks NFL quarterbacks through Week 2 by percentage of attempts batted by opposing defenses. The sample size remains small this early in the season. I'll revisit the numbers as the season progresses.