NFC West: Jake McQuaide
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 St. Louis Rams' Greg Zuerlein connected on all 13 field goal tries, including four from 50-plus yards, during his first five NFL games. He made 10 of 18 tries from that point forward, missing six of nine kicks from at least 50 yards.
Some of the misses were from unreasonable distances, but the pattern was pretty clear. That is why John Fassel, the Rams' special-teams coach, advised Zuerlein to spend much of his offseason resting. Zuerlein, who had kicked almost nonstop from college through the pro evaluation process and into his 2012 rookie season, did not kick for three months during the recently completed offseason. The idea was for Zuerlein to gain strength so he could remain more consistent throughout his second season.
Fortunately for us, Zuerlein, punter Johnny Hekker and snapper Jake McQuaide did participate in one of those "Dude Perfect" trick-shot videos. Hekker is the star of the show, but Zuerlein also makes an appearance, at one point banking a field goal try off a basketball backboard and through the hoop.
"I was out here while they were filming it," Fassel told reporters Sunday, "and it took them a couple hours, and every single one you see is legit -- no trick photography. The one off the roof 70 yards into the pool was ridiculous."
Some of the shots took about 20 takes to execute, Fassel estimated, a figure he considered amazingly low given the level of difficulty.
Defensive linemen (13)
Average number kept since 2003: 8.8
Safest bets: Chris Long, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, Robert Quinn
Leading contenders: William Hayes, Eugene Sims, Darell Scott, Matt Conrath, Jermelle Cudjo
Longer odds: Trevor Laws, Jamaar Jarrett, Cornell Banks, Scott Smith
Comment: The Rams have three relatively recent first-round draft choices starting on the line, plus Langford, a free-agent addition from Miami. The position should be a strength for years to come. Brockers and Langford give the team needed bulk in the middle. It's tough to know what the new coaching staff thinks about some of the other talent. Hayes received a $100,000 roster bonus, an indication the team has hopes for him. Sims and Scott each played more than 20 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Cudjo was on the roster but did not play.
Average number kept since 2003: 6.3
Safest bets: James Laurinaitis, Jo-Lonn Dunbar
Leading contenders: Rocky McIntosh, Mario Haggan, Josh Hull, Aaron Brown, Sammy Brown, Alex Hoffman-Ellis
Longer odds: Justin Cole, Noah Keller
Comment: Laurinaitis is the only mainstay player at the position. Dunbar projects as a starter after the Rams paid a $1 million signing bonus to him in free agency. McIntosh and Haggan are veteran newcomers with starting experience. They're stopgaps until the Rams can address the position next offseason. It's looking like at least one undrafted rookie linebacker will stick on the roster.
Defensive backs (14)
Average number kept since 2003: 8.2
Safest bets: Cortland Finnegan, Darian Stewart, Quintin Mikell, Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, Craig Dahl, Bradley Fletcher
Leading contenders: Matt Daniels, Josh Gordy, Jerome Murphy
Longer odds: Kendric Burney, Quinton Pointer, Jeremy Caldwell, Rodney McLeod
Comment: Secondary depth is vastly improved, and not just through improved health. Fletcher was arguably the most promising cornerback on the roster last season. Now, it's tough to know whether he fits into the team's long-term plans. Depth at safety might be better than it appears. The Rams had a high enough grade on Daniels to give him a $10,000 signing bonus as an undrafted free agent from Duke.
Special teams (4)
Average number kept since 2003: 3.1
Safest bets: Greg Zuerlein, John Hekker, Jake McQuaide
Leading contenders: Tom Malone, Garrett Lindholm
Longer odds: Travis Tripucka
Comment: McQuaide, the snapper, is back from last season, but this group lacks experience overall. Zuerlein was a sixth-round pick. Hekker was an undrafted free agent. The Rams wanted better directional punting than Donnie Jones provided, particularly after watching Patrick Peterson score twice on returns last season.
- The ball left punter Donnie Jones' foot at the St. Louis 35-yard line.
- Peterson positioned himself at the Arizona 10, just outside his left hashmark. Peterson tracked the ball initially, then sneaked a peak at the coverage teams. The Fox hangtime clock read 2.7 seconds at this point. In a split second, Peterson tilted his head upward again to track the ball. Coach Ken Whisenhunt: "To do that, with those guys screaming down the field, is very difficult. That's where he is really special."[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Ross D. FranklinArizona is hoping that Patrick Peterson is ready to develop into one of the league's top cornerbacks.
- Peterson moved backward and to his left, settling at about the 3-yard line. That is where he appeared to field the ball. The hangtime clock read 4.3 seconds.
- Peterson had only his right foot on the ground as he fielded the ball. Rams running back Quinn Porter was at the 9-yard line along the yard-line numbers to Peterson's left. Rams fullback Brit Miller was on the same side of the field between the yard-line numbers and the hash at the 15. Dominique Curry, the Rams' best special-teams coverage player, was between the hashes at the 14. Rams linebacker Chris Chamberlain was between the hashes at about the 22, with Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson running with him step for step nearer the middle of the field, allowing Johnson to shield Chamberlain from Peterson initially.
- Cardinals cornerback Richard Marshall made the key block, tossing Curry to the ground back near where Peterson fielded the ball. When Curry rolled over and looked up, Peterson was already at the 6-yard line outside the hash on the other side of the field, where Porter and Miller had chased him.
- Rams defensive lineman C.J. Ah You had run wide enough to force Peterson back to the middle beginning from about the Arizona 3 just outside the Cardinals' right hash. Ah You overran Peterson.
- Rams safety James Butler was at the 15-yard line to Peterson's right. He came off his block, but missed Peterson at the 17.
- Chamberlain caught up to Peterson at the 30 just as Peterson was weaving outside the yard-line numbers to his right. Chamberlain dove, but Peterson wasn't there. Chamberlain collided with teammate Eugene Sims, who was also making a diving attempt at a tackle.
- Jones, the punter, stood at the 35 obstructing Peterson's path. Peterson was still facing forward at his own 29. With Sims reaching for Peterson's ankles and rolling to propel himself along, Peterson rotated clockwise. His back was to the middle of the field at the 31. He was moving backward when he reached the 34. That is where Jones passed by, flailing like a matador. Peterson was facing the middle of the field as he crossed the 37, giving him a clear view of an onrushing Jake McQuaide, the Rams' snapper. McQuaide was already nearing the 40 outside the hash and had the angle. Peterson continued rotating and was facing forward again by the time he reached the 39. The race was on.
- McQuaide pulled even with Peterson at the St. Louis 46 and for a moment seemed to be within striking distance. If they had been cars on a two-lane highway, McQuaide would have been the guy in the four-door sedan. Peterson, driving the Ferrari, pulled away quickly and was gone. O'Brien Schofield made sure of it, cutting between McQuaide and Peterson at the St. Louis 30.
The game was over. Peterson had scored a touchdown on a punt return for the third time in his first eight NFL games, an NFL record. Only the Denver Broncos' Rick Upchurch has had more touchdowns on punt returns in the first eight games of any NFL season. He had four in 1976.
Also from Urban: The Cardinals saw good things from O'Brien Schofield against Green Bay. Urban: "Schofield was all but invisible in the preseason opener, but against the Packers in the second game, he had a sack, a forced fumble, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit that forced an incompletion."
More from Urban: Cardinals notes, topped by one on running back Alfonso Smith.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals are in no hurry to add a veteran running back following Ryan Williams' season-ending injury. Whisenhunt outlined what the team will be looking for at the position: "One that can do a little bit of everything. Obviously, someone that can help on third down, but be a good first- or second-down back. But it's not something we're just going to do overnight. We're going to do some research and try and get the right fit. There may be a player on another team right now that will become available at some point."
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic passes along Kevin Kolb's thoughts on Fitzgerald's new contract. Kolb: "Both of us are locked up for a long time so hopefully we can build this thing for the future. I told my wife this - I don't want to be anywhere else. I want to retire here. This is the place I want to be for a long time, so I want to make sure I can do all I can to make those hopes and dreams come true and make our own hopes and dreams come true."
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch explains how Jake McQuaide found out he'd won the snapping battle against longtime incumbent Chris Massey. Massey shared the news with McQuaide at his locker. Coats: "Age and finances almost certainly were factors in the decision. Massey was due to make $1,375,000 this year. McQuaide, a 23-year-old rookie from Ohio State, will receive the first-year minimum of $375,000. The net salary cap savings will be $500,000."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with unheralded rookies trying to earn roster spots with the Rams.
Also from Thomas: Rams injury notes, plus an item about Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga getting reps with the first-team defense. Sounds like the Rams' shaky showing against the run in the second preseason game provided an opportunity to implement moves the team was expected to make all along.
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com offers thoughts on one of the Rams' receivers fighting for a roster spot. Wagoner: "Receiver Danario Alexander got an MRI on his knee on Monday. Yes, that knee, the one that’s been surgically repaired multiple times. Alexander claimed it 'felt funny' and he and the Rams agreed it was best to get it checked out. Here’s hoping it’s nothing serious. Alexander has all the talent in the world and should be admired for even still playing after all he’s been through. But it’s hard to make a living in this game when you have constant problems. Here’s hoping it all works out."
Also from Wagoner: Expectations for third-year Rams tackle Jason Smith. Wagoner: "When Smith entered the league, he had a reputation for being a nasty run blocker capable of opening big holes. But Smith’s adjustment has taken some time and though he’s proved to be adept as a run blocker at times, he says he’d like to be more consistent. The addition of Harvey Dahl at right guard should help in that area. Dahl is known for his nasty disposition on the field and Smith says he can’t help but feel that attitude is infectious and going to help him be the hard-charging run blocker everyone though he could be."
Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times says there's no reason to get worked up about the Seahawks' quarterback situation following two preseason games. Brewer: "I'm only willing to declare one absolute about the Seahawks after two exhibition games: They have more depth. They'll have some difficult decisions to make at the 53-man cut. Unlike last year, when they only liked about 45 of their players and did the super roster shuffle after the cut date, they're more likely to keep all of their guys this time, barring some impact player becoming available."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times looks at Red Bryant's impact on the Seahawks' run defense.
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says this about Aaron Curry's restructured contract: "Because Curry’s salary is not guaranteed in 2012, the Seahawks could release him in February without any financial obligation. The restructured deal also makes it easier to move Curry in a trade."
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com looks at the good and bad from the team's most recent preseason game. Farnsworth: "The Seahawks were flagged 10 times for 84 wrong-way yards – eight times in the first half for 69 yards. That’s unacceptable, even if this was only the second preseason game. There were three false start penalties, a disconcerting continuation of the problem the linemen have been having in practice. But two of them were on wide receiver Mike Williams and Zach Miller. The worst infraction, however, was linebacker Aaron Curry ripping the helmet off Vikings guard Ryan Cook and then throwing it. Unacceptable? Carroll pulled Curry out of the game."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers made it clear, again, that Taylor Mays wasn't in their plans before finally trading the safety to Cincinnati. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio before the trade: "We feel good with (Donte) Whitner, him (Reggie Smith), (Dashon) Goldson, (Madieu) Williams, and (C.J.) Spillman. We feel like we've got five safeties there that can play in the NFL. Some of them have great special teams value over the others, so if we have to keep four, that will be a hard decision. If we keep five, I think they will all be different pieces that we will use during the season."
Also from Barrows: Frank Gore does not appear inclined to ask for a trade.
Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says 49ers-Raiders exhibition games had to die following recent postgame violence.
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News speaks with an NFL security official regarding the league's response to fan violence.
Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle offers 49ers notes, including one about Dominique Zeigler practicing for the first time since suffering a knee injury Nov. 30.
Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle has this to say regarding the violence: "The authorities saw the local rivalry as Saturday's main storm cloud, compounded by the 5 p.m. start and the nature of exhibition tickets, which frequently end up in the hands of people who paid little or nothing for admission. Without much of an investment in the product, and minimal meaningful action on the field, these patrons tend to arrive with other forms of entertainment on their itinerary."