NFC West: Jamell Fleming

NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each NFC West team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Arizona Cardinals: Patrick Peterson is back as the starting left corner in a revamped secondary. The team must discover during training camp which corner will start opposite him. Newcomers Antoine Cason and Jerraud Powers are the leading candidates. Arizona has quite a few options. Rookie Tyrann Mathieu figures prominently into the Cardinals' plans as a hybrid corner-safety type. Slot corner Javier Arenas, acquired from Kansas City, and 2012 third-round choice Jamell Fleming are also in the mix. The Cardinals will have three new starters in their secondary after parting with cornerback William Gay, free safety Kerry Rhodes and strong safety Adrian Wilson. Greg Toler, James Sanders and Michael Adams are also gone. Those six combined to play nearly 70 percent of the snaps in the secondary last season. Rashad Johnson was starting to overtake Wilson. He projects as the likely strong safety, with veteran newcomer Yeremiah Bell at the other safety spot. Bell played under new coordinator Todd Bowles previously.

St. Louis Rams: Cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins provide the foundation for a secondary that expects to play quite a bit of man coverage behind an aggressive front seven with improved speed. Finnegan is the most accomplished and highest-paid member of the secondary, but he insists Jenkins is the best defensive back on the team by a wide margin. That might be true from a talent standpoint. The team will be looking for Jenkins to demonstrate improved consistency in his second season. Trumaine Johnson, a third-round choice in 2012, also figures prominently. A DUI arrest and previous off-field troubles in college raise questions about his long-term reliability, however. The situation at safety is ... different. The Rams want to develop third-round pick T.J. McDonald quickly. Darian Stewart projects as the other primary safety. The team signed veteran Matt Giordano as insurance. Former starting safeties Craig Dahl and Quintin Mikell are gone. The Rams must determine this summer what they have at safety.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers demonstrated by their actions this offseason a general belief that the secondary's issues late last season stemmed more from a diminished front seven than from talent deficiencies on the back end. Dahl, signed from the Rams this offseason, provides a veteran insurance policy in case rookie first-round pick Eric Reid isn't ready to start immediately at free safety. San Francisco must replace former starter Dashon Goldson, who signed with Tampa Bay in free agency. C.J. Spillman, primarily a force on special teams to this point in his career, also factors as an option there. The 49ers have never appeared particularly concerned about losing Goldson over the years, but trading up 12 spots to select Reid showed they value talent at the position. Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner return as the other three starters. Beyond identifying an immediate starter at free safety, the 49ers need to figure out this summer whether free-agent addition Nnamdi Asomugha can help them.

Seattle Seahawks: All four starters return from arguably the best secondary in the NFL. Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and new nickel corner Antoine Winfield have all earned Pro Bowl or Associated Press All-Pro honors within the past three seasons. Jeremy Lane and Walter Thurmond are talented backups with limited starting experience. The team must figure out this offseason whether Thurmond factors in for the long term. Thurmond beat out Sherman for the starting job heading into the 2011 season. However, repeated serious injuries have derailed his career. Winfield is probably safe as the nickel corner this season, but the gap between Winfield and the team's other options is smaller than Winfield's credentials would suggest.
One year ago, a visitor to the NFC West blog warned against reading too much into Russell Wilson's strong showing at the Seattle Seahawks' rookie camp.

"A third-round QB looks good against other rookies and undrafted players? Who would have thunk it?" TheFault17 wrote May 14, 2012. "Not hating on Wilson at all, but there's way too much stock put in rookie minicamps. Is it September yet?"

The skepticism was warranted even though Wilson later validated the hype.

Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune joined Brock Huard, Danny O'Neil and me Monday in digesting the Seahawks' recently completed 2013 rookie camps. Williams in particular hit the brakes on post-camp excitement. I agree in general but also think he was on the low side in projecting how many 2013 draftees might earn spots on the 53-man roster this season.

710ESPN Seattle has posted the audio to rave reviews. Make that one rave review.

The chart ranks 2012 NFC West draft choices by most games started as rookies. The San Francisco 49ers had zero starts from their rookie draft choices. However, in looking at the 15 players listed in the chart, few would have likely started a game for San Francisco.
San Francisco 49ers fans periodically ask when the team's 2012 draft class might begin contributing on the field.

Like other top teams, the 49ers drafted late in the order. Their roster was already quite strong. That combination has made it tougher for the 49ers' rookies to earn playing time. It doesn't necessarily mean their draft choices are falling short. It just means they're not playing yet.

With an assist from Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information, I've put together charts showing games played, games started and offensive/defensive snap counts for every 2012 NFC West draft choice through Week 6.

The 49ers are the only team in the league with zero snaps from their 2012 class. The 6-0 Atlanta Falcons' draft choices have played 25 snaps, the second-lowest total. The 30 remaining teams have gotten at least 215 snaps and an average of more than 700.

Seattle ranks fifth with 1,092 snaps from 2012 draft choices, followed immediately by St. Louis at 988. Arizona ranks 14th with 806. Right tackle Bobby Massie has played 424 of those, more than any team has gotten from its fourth-round choices. Seattle leads the league in snaps from seventh-rounders while ranking second in snaps from third-rounders. The Rams are second in snaps from second- and seventh-rounders.

Arizona Cardinals

Quick notes: Michael Floyd is getting work as the fourth receiver. He had a 24-yard reception Sunday. He has seven catches for 84 yards and a touchdown. ... Massie is getting valuable experience. He's been a liability in pass protection against some opponents. That was to be expected. ... Cornerback Jamell Fleming's playing time has fluctuated based on Greg Toler's availability. ... Ryan Lindley becomes the No. 2 quarterback behind John Skelton now that Kevin Kolb is injured. The team could conceivably re-sign Rich Bartel in the future. The Cardinals do like Lindlely's potential, however.

Seattle Seahawks

Quick notes: Bruce Irvin has 4.5 sacks, including one to help preserve a victory at Carolina. ... Second-round choice Bobby Wagner has provided a significant upgrade at middle linebacker. He opened the season as a starter and member of the base defense. His has become an every-down player over the past two weeks, with positive results, including when he ran down Cam Newton for a loss. ... Russell Wilson owns two fourth-quarter comeback victories in his first six starts, two more than Seattle managed last season. He is the first rookie since the 1970 merger to throw winning touchdown passes in the final two minutes of two games. ... Robert Turbin's speed and power have impressed. ... J.R. Sweezy impressed in camp and started the opener, but he wasn't ready. ... Greg Scruggs is healthy again and figuring into the pass-rush rotation.

San Francisco 49ers

Quick notes: Trenton Robinson has played on special teams, but he has been inactive recently. A.J. Jenkins has been active without playing. The 49ers have established players ahead of him at wide receiver. They also use two backs and/or two tight ends frequently, diminishing opportunities for wideouts to get on the field. Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams and Randy Moss are competing for those limited snaps. ... LaMichael James' arrival provided incentive for Kendall Hunter, who has met the challenge. Might there be a role for James later in the season? So far, the 49ers haven't even activated veteran Brandon Jacobs. ... Joe Looney projects as a potential future starter at guard, but there might not be an opening if Alex Boone continues playing well. Boone seized the job while Looney was recovering from foot surgery. ... Darius Fleming suffered a knee injury and remains on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. ... The team released sixth-rounder Jason Slowey. ... Seventh-rounder Cam Johnson is on the practice squad.

St. Louis Rams

Quick notes: First-round defensive tackle Michael Brockers has recovered from an ankle injury well enough to become a big part of the Rams improving run defense. ... Brian Quick made a key reception over the middle to help the Rams beat the Seahawks, but fourth-rounder Chris Givens has made a bigger impact among the Rams' rookie wideouts. Givens has a reception of at least 50 yards in each of the Rams' last three games. That is a first for any NFL rookie since Willie Gault in 1983. ... Janoris Jenkins has been a playmaker at cornerback all season. He suffered a significant lapse in coverage at Miami, but overall, Jenkins has shined. ... Fifth-rounder Rokevious Watkins reported out of shape and landed on injured reserve. ... Sixth-rounder Greg Zuerlein has transformed the Rams' offense with his extended field-goal range, although he struggled some in Week 6. ... Seventh-rounder Daryl Richardson has a 5.2-yard average per carry and 246 yards rushing. He has won playing time from second-rounder Isaiah Pead, who has not been a factor.

A periodic look at which players are playing and when, continuing with the Arizona Cardinals' defense:

Around the NFC West: Rams' new moxie

October, 2, 2012
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The St. Louis Rams won a game Sunday despite allowing 179 yards rushing and failing to score a touchdown on offense.

Their 19-13 victory over Seattle made them 1-0 in NFC West games under Jeff Fisher after the team went 4-26 against the division over the previous five seasons.

One victory is not a trend, of course, but the Rams' performance in reaching 2-2 following a 15-65 run begs for some explanation.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch breaks down some of the differences between Fisher's Rams and previous St. Louis teams. Miklasz: "This group limits the damage. It cuts its losses. It makes plays. It puts up resistance. The Rams are 7th in the NFL in stopping opponents on 3rd down, allowing a conversion rate of 31.1 percent. The Rams lead the NFL with eight interceptions. They’ve been dinged by only two TD passes, which is tied for first. The Rams TD/INT ratio of 0.25 is the best in the league. They’re limiting quarterbacks to a passer rating of 64.2; that’s No. 2 in the league. And that Rams defense that isn’t so rigid against the run? Yesterday Seattle ran the ball four times on third down and short (0-2 yards). The Rams held them to six yards on the four rushes, and twice prevented a first down."

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News offers a report card for the 49ers' performance during a 34-0 victory over the New York Jets. On the pass defense: "Poor Mark Sanchez, he didn’t stand a chance against a revived pass rush that sacked him three times, forced him to commit two turnovers and limited him to 103 yards on 13-of-29 passing. Stars of the game: Aldon Smith (two sacks, forced fumble), Patrick Willis (interception off Ray McDonald tip), Ahmad Brooks (sack), Carlos Rogers (two fumble recoveries after receptions, plus TD return)."

Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle says 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh wasn't interested in promoting any frenzy over Colin Kaepernick's performance against the Jets. Ostler: "The coolest play of Kaepernick’s day was very subtle. Late in the second quarter, he handed the ball to Frank Gore. Then Kaepernick trotted toward the sideline, but stayed on the field and lined up as a wide receiver. The Jets saw him and called a timeout. What this showed: The 49ers’ secret weapon is cooler than the Jets’ secret weapon. The Jets have Tim Tebow, who makes foes nervous. Twice this year, Tebow’s presence caused the opposing team to burn a timeout. On Sunday, it was the Jets burning the timeout. Maybe Kaepernick’s appearance on the field early, just after Tebow made a cameo for the Jets, was Harbaugh’s way of giving the middle finger to the opposing coach. I’ll see your Tebow and raise you a Kaepernick."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says second-year guard James Carpenter exceeded expectations in his first game back from a knee injury. Coach Pete Carroll: "James played really well. He did a very, very good job. He had a couple errors in the game, which you just about have to anticipate. But we ran a lot to the left. He did a really good job of covering his guy up."

Also from Farnsworth: Seattle's defense, though generally stout, hasn't been as good on third down.

Art Thiel of Sports Press Northwest seeks meaning in Carroll's lengthy comments about Matt Flynn's health. Thiel: "Carroll has created a controversy when many Seahawks fans were willing to give the benefit of the doubt on Russell Wilson. His inexperience combined with protection failures and the absence of game-changing receivers has made a hash of the offense, failing to get more than one touchdown off an ordinary Rams’ defense in a half-empty road house. Unless Carroll activates Portis until Flynn heals, the Seahawks run a fairly high risk of disaster. Unless, of course, he wants to make another deal for the return of Charlie Whitehurst."

Cole Schultz of Pro Football Focus gives high marks to Russell Okung, Brandon Mebane, Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin for their work against the Rams. Schultz: "Okung was adequate in pass protection (he gave up just a pair of hurries), but in the run game he made life miserable for Robert Quinn and Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Okung forced the duo out of the running lanes multiple times, as evidenced by Lynch’s eight yards per carry on runs to either side of Okung. Much of Okung’s good work was undone by his teammate on the other side. Breno Giacomini had a rough go of it in every facet of play."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the schedule can work in the Cardinals' favor once the team gets through its Thursday night game at St. Louis. Somers: "They will have played 10 games, including the preseason. They have four more before the off week (Nov. 11), then a seven-game run to finish the season. The Cardinals might have drawn up that schedule differently had they been in charge, but not that much differently."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com sizes up the Cardinals' situation at corner, where Greg Toler's return to health is a factor. Urban: "Toler ended up playing across from Patrick Peterson at cornerback instead of William Gay, and in nickel, instead of Jamell Fleming (with Gay staying at nickel). Gay played 50 defensive snaps Sunday, Toler 44 and Fleming 12."

Fantasy watch: Playing time in Week 2

September, 17, 2012
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The NFL is making available playing-time stats one day after games are played. A look inside some of the numbers, with a nod toward fantasy football when appropriate:
  • Arizona Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Roberts were again the primary receivers. Fitzgerald plays just about every offensive snap. Roberts was at 86 percent. No other Cardinals wide receiver played more than 42 percent (Early Doucet). First-round draft choice Michael Floyd played six snaps. Meanwhile, tight end Todd Heap suffered a knee injury of unknown severity. He played 55 percent. Second-year tight end Rob Housler saw his playing time roughly quadruple from Week 1 in snaps. On defense, nickel cornerback Jamell Fleming played all but two snaps.
  • Seattle Seahawks: Receiver Sidney Rice played only about half the offensive snaps, leaving the game after taking a hard hit. Golden Tate (54 percent), Rice (53) and Ben Obomanu (41) played more than Doug Baldwin (31) among the receivers. Braylon Edwards, a primary receiver in the opener, played only nine snaps (13 percent). At guard, John Moffitt played slightly more than J.R. Sweezy. Anthony McCoy actually played more offensive snaps than Zach Miller, a surprise at tight end. Miller was on the injury report last week and did not practice fully. The division of labor at running back looked like this: Marshawn Lynch 44 snaps, Robert Turbin 13 and Leon Washington 8.
  • San Francisco 49ers: Three receivers played more snaps than Randy Moss played. The 49ers don't need regular contributions from Moss. Perhaps they're keeping him fresh. They use two tight ends and/or two backs frequently enough to diminish the need for third receivers. Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham were the only San Francisco receivers to play a majority of snaps on offense. Kyle Williams was a distant third at 35 percent, followed by Moss at 25 percent. Frank Gore played 71 percent of the snaps at running back, with Kendall Hunter playing the rest. Fullback Bruce Miller has played extensively in the first two games. He was at 40 percent snaps Sunday.
  • St. Louis Rams: Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson and Steve Smith were the top three receivers against Washington. I see no reason for that to change in the near future. Amendola had 12 receptions in the first half. Gibson caught a touchdown pass for the second week in a row. Smith had a 25-yard reception. It's looking like the Rams can bring along rookies Brian Quick and Chris Givens at a slower pace. Rookie running back Daryl Richardson played 61 percent of the snaps because Steven Jackson (38 percent) injured a groin, and also because Richardson was running well enough to justify the playing time. Second-round choice Isaiah Pead was the odd back out. He played two snaps. Left tackle Rodger Saffold, starting despite a strained neck, left this game with a knee injury. He played 18 percent of the snaps.

These percentages count plays nullified by penalty. The NFL has not made available playing-time stats in the past.

NFC West: Injury situations that matter

September, 12, 2012
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Our midweek look at important injury situations in the division ...

Arizona Cardinals: Kevin Kolb heads into Week 2 as the presumed starting quarterback while John Skelton recovers from an ankle injury expected to sideline him for the next couple weeks. Skelton's injury gives Kolb an opportunity to build upon his game-winning drive against Seattle without pressuring coach Ken Whisenhunt to make a long-term decision right away. Kolb has had trouble staying healthy. If he gets hurt and Skelton cannot play, rookie Ryan Lindley is next in the line of succession. The team could consider signing a veteran at that point, but the Cardinals aren't in that position at present. Running back Beanie Wells' hamstring situation will merit monitoring later in the week. He missed practice Friday and did not start as a result. Rookie Ryan Williams lost a fumble. That position still needs to settle out. Good depth at cornerback allowed Arizona to arguably upgrade with Michael Adams after rookie Jamell Fleming left the Seattle game with a shoulder injury. Fleming was limited Wednesday, as were outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield (knee) and safety Adrian Wilson (ankle).

St. Louis Rams: Last season, the Rams suffered an inordinate number of injuries at cornerback. The offensive line is taking hits early in the 2012 season. The team placed veteran center Scott Wells on injured reserve with a designation for return at midseason. Left tackle Rodger Saffold practiced on a limited basis Wednesday after suffering a neck injury in the opener, a very encouraging sign. He's expected to miss this game against Washington. Rookie Rokevious Watkins, who finished the opener at left guard, suffered an ankle injury and was on crutches Wednesday. The team re-signed Quinn Ojinnaka and could start him at left guard. Robert Turner, who replaced Wells in the opener, will start at center. Wayne Hunter, acquired from the New York Jets in the Jason Smith trade, becomes the starter at left tackle. He started 16 games last season and knows the offense, as does Ojinnaka. Michael Brockers (ankle) remains out, compromising depth at defensive tackle. Darell Scott (knee) was limited and would help the rotation if available. The Redskins' Week 1 opponent, New Orleans, was in its base defense not quite half the time last week.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers' injury situation has improved from last week. Aldon Smith showed the hip injury he suffered during preseason wasn't going to be a factor entering the regular season. The team could still wind up missing former starting outside linebacker Parys Haralson, who landed on injured reserve. But that was not the case against Green Bay and should not be the case against Detroit. The Packers and Lions are largely passing teams. San Francisco still does not have receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle) or running back Brandon Jacobs (knee) back at practice. The rotations at their positions appear plenty deep anyway.

Seattle Seahawks: Russell Okung's bruised knee kept him from practicing Wedneseday. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said he thinks Okung will practice later in the week, with a good shot at playing against Dallas. Frank Omiyale is getting first-team work in the meantime. Carroll has landed on the optimistic side in the past, so we'll be watching closely to see if Okung actually does practice this week. Okung fared pretty well against Cowboys pass-rusher Demarcus Ware last season. While he struggled against the Cardinals last week, Okung gives the Seahawks their best chance against Ware. Left guard Paul McQuistan finished last season at left tackle and could move there if needed. Seattle expects to have John Moffitt back from an elbow injury this week. Moffitt will replace rookie J.R. Sweezy at right guard if Moffitt holds up in practice this week. He's more experienced than Sweezy and would probably fare better picking up inside blitzes. Former starting right tackle James Carpenter is also back to full participation following knee surgery. He's an option at left guard, at least eventually. Receiver Golden Tate is returning from a knee injury suffered during the final preseason game. Doug Baldwin had teeth knocked out Sunday, but should play. Tate's return comes while receiver Charly Martin misses at least one game after suffering a bruised lung. Sidney Rice missed practice with a knee injury. He was expected to play against Dallas.
The Arizona Cardinals drafted three offensive linemen and found spots for all of them on their initial 53-man roster.

That's good for a team that could use a youth infusion up front. It's unfortunate to the extent that Levi Brown's season-ending triceps injury made room on the roster for another young tackle, such as seventh-round rookie Nate Potter.

The Cardinals' starting offensive line was stable last season. The same players started every game at every position but right tackle, where Jeremy Bridges made six starts subbing for an injured Brandon Keith.

Arizona will have new starters at left tackle, right guard and possibly right tackle this season. The lineup has the potential to get younger if rookie Bobby Massie starts at right tackle.

The nine linemen making the initial cut: starting center Lyle Sendlein, starting left guard Daryn Colledge, starting right guard Adam Snyder, potential starting left tackle D'Anthony Batiste, rookie guard Senio Kelemete, guard Rich Ohrnberger, Massie, Potter and Bridges.

It's looking like Batiste and Massie will open the season as the starting tackles. Bridges provides an experienced alternative at either spot. Sendlein has started every game over the past four seasons, plus six playoff games. He would be the lineman most difficult to replace if lost to injury.

Arizona could be set up to lean more heavily on its ground game. Quarterback John Skelton remains unestablished. Questions persist at offensive tackle. The team has two talented running backs, four tight ends instead of three and five wide receivers instead of six. Then again, teams rarely use more than two tight ends at a time, and sixth receivers rarely factor.

While game situations can dictate run-pass ratios, a handful of teams were far more likely than Arizona to run on first down when the score was close (defined as a one-score differential or less). Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Houston were among teams running at least 60 percent of the time in these situations. Philadelphia, New Orleans, Green Bay, Detroit and New England -- all teams with top quarterbacks -- were below 48 percent. Arizona was at 53 percent.

This could be a storyline to monitor. As noted, game situations can override the best intentions. But with a defense that appears strong, Arizona might be in position to make a more run-oriented offense work.

Elsewhere on the roster, the Cardinals remain deep at cornerback even after trading former starter A.J. Jefferson to Minnesota. They still have Patrick Peterson, William Gay, Michael Adams, Jamell Fleming and Greg Toler.

Receiver is another position of strength even though Arizona kept only five, one fewer than in recent seasons. First-round pick Michael Floyd joins a group already featuring Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts and Early Doucet. Rookie LaRon Byrd is the developmental player among the group.

The chart shows roster counts for Arizona by position. The asterisk in the headline reflects unofficial counts for the practice squad. The Cardinals have not announced their initial practice squad. Their website does refer to a few possibilities, culled from media reports.

For download: This Cardinals roster features 27 columns of info for every player on the roster since roughly 2007. It also feature summary info comparing the Cardinals against league averages.

Camp Confidential: Cardinals

August, 23, 2012
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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- One quarterback at Arizona Cardinals camp was fighting to win back the starting job he'd never really earned. The team had paid millions to him, but questions persisted over his toughness, durability and leadership.

Another quarterback at Cardinals camp had outperformed his status as a late-round draft choice. He was bigger and had a stronger arm. Teammates responded more favorably to his presence on the field, it seemed, but he wasn't the most accurate passer, which was a concern.

If those descriptions stirred thoughts of Kevin Kolb and John Skelton, respectively, you'd be correct. But the same passages applied to the Cardinals' ill-fated 2010 quarterback race between Matt Leinart and Derek Anderson. Back then, Arizona cut Leinart, struggled with Anderson and finished with a 5-11 record.

The comparison naturally did not sit well with Ken Whisenhunt, the Cardinals' sixth-year head coach. He sees a team that has won with both Kolb and especially Skelton behind center. He sees a team returning a 1,000-yard rusher, a fleet of perimeter playmakers featuring the incomparable Larry Fitzgerald and a defense that dominated during a 7-2 run to finish last season.

"The biggest difference, in 2009, we were a damn good football team at 10-6, but how many [key] players did we lose after that year, five?" Whisenhunt said.

Four, if we count Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle.

"This year, we didn’t lose that," Whisenhunt said. "That is the biggest difference in how I feel from 2010 and the way I feel in 2012."

How the quarterback situation plays out will largely determine whether Whisenhunt is right.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Kolb's adjustment. Going from Philadelphia's West Coast system to the Cardinals' offense has been tougher than anticipated for the Cardinals' would-be starting quarterback. The goal seems so simple: Find ways for Kolb to remain in the pocket and trust the offense. But the instincts Kolb developed with the Eagles keep getting in the way. That could explain what Raiders defensive lineman Tommy Kelly indelicately called "skittishness" -- the tendency for Kolb to bail from the pocket at the first sign of trouble.

Learning the Cardinals' offense hasn't been a problem. Unlearning what he did in Philly? That's another story.

"It's just the way they create the pocket, there versus here," Kolb said. "They teach us to really push up in the pocket in Philly. Two, three hitches up in the pocket when you get up there. You can see that. If you watch Mike [Vick], he has got two really big hitches into his throws. If it’s not there, it’s go or throw, you know what I mean?

[+] EnlargeKevin Kolb and John Skelton
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinJohn Skelton, right, appears to have the upper hand over Kevin Kolb for the Cardinals' starting quarterback job.
"Here, when you get to that 8-yard range [on a drop-back], they want you to hang in that vicinity and just stay there. It is just a different deal. A lot of it is rhythm. As a quarterback, you always want to be on rhythm."

Coaches would rather have Kolb throw the ball away immediately than take off running without clear purpose. The line has a hard enough time protecting Kolb when it knows the quarterback's location. Unscripted relocation has proved costly.

Kolb has a firm command of the offense. He's football savvy and fully capable of processing information at the line of scrimmage. That's what makes his difficulties confounding.

"There haven't been any problems mentally," quarterbacks coach John McNulty said. "He is on top of things, he anticipates things. I think sometimes it’s not as clean or as clear as he wants and then all of a sudden you start moving. And when you make those big, violent moves when the line is not expecting it, then you’re kind of on your own. If we’re not making plays out of it, they’re not worth doing, because all you’re going to do is get hit or go backwards."

2. Shaky offensive line. The Cardinals were auditioning left tackles as camp broke after Levi Brown suffered a potentially season-ending torn triceps tendon. For all the criticism Brown has taken over the years, he was clearly the best offensive tackle on the team. The line was a concern even before Brown's injury. Now, it's bordering on a crisis.

Jeremy Bridges, D'Anthony Batiste, Bobby Massie, D.J. Young and Nate Potter are the other tackles on the roster. Bridges has started 55 regular-season NFL games. Batiste has started four. Massie and Potter are rookies. Young has no starts after entering the NFL in 2011 as an undrafted free agent.

One more time: The Cardinals have drafted zero offensive linemen in the first three rounds over the past five drafts. They did not draft an offensive lineman in any round of the 2011 or 2010 draft. The 2012 draft didn't fall right for them when it came to adding a tackle early. They got Massie in the fourth round, which seemed like good value. He'll start at right tackle eventually, and perhaps right away.

3. Running back health. Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams are coming off knee surgeries. The Cardinals felt good enough about their prospects to sail through the offseason without addressing the position. That seemed a little risky.

Likely troubles in pass protection could lead the Cardinals to lean more heavily on their ground game, at least in theory. Wells and Williams would appear to carry greater injury risks than backs without recent knee troubles. Utility back LaRod Stephens-Howling was banged up during camp.

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

The team showed dramatic improvement, particularly on defense, while finishing with that 7-2 record over the final nine games last season.

Sometimes momentum doesn't carry over. In the Cardinals' case, however, there are reasons to expect sustained improvement.

The 2011 team was breaking in a first-time defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, following a lockout-shortened offseason. Players needed time to grasp the concepts. They got better late in the season. They should be better yet following a full offseason.

Arizona has front-line talent at every level of its defense. End Calais Campbell, inside linebacker Daryl Washington and cornerback Patrick Peterson are dynamic young players on the rise. End Darnell Dockett and strong safety Adrian Wilson are in their 30s now, but both remain productive.

The team has gone 7-4 with Skelton as its starter. That figure doesn't even count Skelton's most impressive performance of the 2011 season, when he replaced an injured Kolb and helped Arizona upset San Francisco.

Skelton might not be pretty to watch, but six game-winning drives in 13 career appearances give him credibility in the locker room. Whisenhunt was with the Pittsburgh Steelers when the team won ugly with a young Ben Roethlisberger. Skelton is not Roethlisberger, but he is a big, strong quarterback with some moxie.

The Cardinals have big-play threats on offense. They finished last season with 15 pass plays of at least 40 yards, more than New England and every team but the New York Giants (18), Detroit Lions (16) and Green Bay Packers (16).

Greater consistency from the quarterback position isn't out of the question. If the Cardinals get it, they'll surprise skeptics.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

The team that finished last season on that 7-2 hot streak also went 1-6 to open the season.

And let's face it, the Cardinals, while unfortunate in a few instances early in the year, were fortunate to win seven of their final nine. They claimed four of those seven victories in overtime. Five came against teams with losing records at the time.

[+] EnlargeLevi Brown
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireThe Cardinals may have lost arguably their best offensive tackle, Levi Brown, for the season.
The young talent on defense is backed up with the oldest reserves in the league. The offensive line is solid at center and left guard, but the other three positions should strike more fear in the Cardinals' quarterbacks than in the opposition. Removing Brown from the equation was devastating, given the already tenuous nature of the tackle situation.

Kolb hasn't been able to stay healthy or produce when on the field. That isn't going to change with the floodgates likely opening at both tackle spots.

Skelton has shown greater ability to keep his wits against pressure. Whichever QB starts will need every bit of resourcefulness he can muster against a schedule featuring a long list of able pass-rushers: Jared Allen (22 sacks last season), Jason Babin (18), Aldon Smith (14), Chris Long (13), Chris Clemons (11), Julius Peppers (11), Cliff Avril (11), Trent Cole (11), Mark Anderson (10), John Abraham (9.5), Cameron Wake (8.5), Kyle Vanden Bosch (8), Justin Smith (7.5), Clay Matthews (6) and Mario Williams (5).

OBSERVATION DECK

  • William Gay appears to be running unopposed at right cornerback. Opportunistic rookie Jamell Fleming, a third-round choice, will factor one way or another at the position. Fitzgerald: "[Fleming] is extremely talented. The thing I like about him is he can move around. They’ve got him playing inside a little bit, playing outside. What it shows you is that he is intelligent, he can pick up the defense. He understands terminology, what’s going on, and he plays fast. And the ball just seems to find him."
  • Coaches noticed a big jump from the spring to June to training camp in Skelton's ability to handle pre-snap responsibilities. They hope that progress can help him fare better early in games. One theory holds that Skelton's grasp of a game would improve as he had a chance to study photos of opposing formations on the sideline between possessions. By the fourth quarter, he was up to speed. "We're trying to get to where we have the handle before the game," McNulty said.
  • Losing Brown hurt, but center Lyle Sendlein is arguably the offensive lineman Arizona can least afford to lose. He has started every game over the past four seasons and, like many centers, holds everything together up front. Left guard Daryn Colledge: "If we had to replace one guy, he would be the worst one probably on the whole football team. He is the key cog, especially for this offensive line. He is the captain and he is our guy. Without him, the wheels just might come off."
  • Sixth-round choice Justin Bethel, a free safety, looks like a keeper after making a positive impact on special teams.
  • Inside linebacker Stewart Bradley appears more comfortable in the Cardinals' defensive scheme, but the team still appears to value Paris Lenon as the starter next to Washington. That arrangement is more palatable after Bradley, one of the team's big free-agent signings in 2011, took a pay reduction.
  • First-round draft choice Michael Floyd hasn't stood out yet. Fitzgerald will continue to carry the passing game. Rob Housler will emerge as more of a threat at tight end. Andre Roberts and Early Doucet give the team two strong inside options. Getting Floyd going will be one key to unleashing Roberts from the slot. Roberts has good quickness and instincts. The Cardinals' quarterbacks like the way he moves within zones, but they need to do a better job locating him.
  • The Cardinals think they have a great one in Peterson. The physical attributes are obvious. Peterson also has the necessary desire. Arizona saw it last season when Peterson played through an Achilles injury suffered at Cincinnati.
  • This season as last, the Cardinals are counting on young outside pass-rushers O'Brien Schofield and Sam Acho. Schofield is fighting through knee problems, a potential concern given the career-altering surgery he underwent coming out of college. He played 38 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Arizona will need him to play a much higher percentage in 2012. Can Schofield hold up? Clark Haggans, 35, is the backup.
  • Arizona should be strong at nose tackle with a leaner Dan Williams and underrated backup David Carter at the position.
  • It's tough to envision Kolb emerging as the starter based on what we've seen to this point. There's no clear indication Kolb is close to breaking through. "The only thing I can do is stay patient, know that it’s all part of God’s plan," Kolb said. "My mentality is that I’m going to get through the bad to get to the good. Something good is going to come of it."
Revisiting three under-the-radar moves for the Arizona Cardinals to see how well these June storylines are holding up:

1. Cornerback shuffle. Improved depth at cornerback gave the Cardinals renewed confidence at the position even after losing productive veteran Richard Marshall in free agency. This angle holds up decently even though the competition at right cornerback hasn't been all that fierce. William Gay seems to be holding onto the position. Rookie Jamell Fleming appears on track. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. singled out Fleming for impressive work during the Cardinals' preseason game against Oakland. The Cardinals would like to see other players step up.

2. Naming John McNulty as QB coach. McNulty moved from receivers coach to replace Chris Miller. The idea was for McNulty to put more emphasis on the fundamentals, helping Kevin Kolb do a better job staying in the pocket and finding receivers. No one expected miracles, but some improvement seemed reasonable. The results have not been promising to this point. Kolb has struggled through the preseason. The quarterback competition between Kolb and John Skelton isn't inspiring much confidence.

3. Re-signing Levi Brown. Forget about this one. The torn triceps Brown suffered against Oakland could end the left tackle's season. I had pointed to Brown's re-signing as an under-the radar move because Brown made strides late last season. There seemed to be some similarities in career trajectory between Brown and San Francisco's Alex Smith. Both struggled and were heavily criticized early in their careers, failing to fare as well as other prominent players their teams could have selected. Smith rebounded last season. Brown appeared headed in the right direction.

Three things: Cardinals-Saints

August, 5, 2012
8/05/12
12:34
PM ET
Three things to watch for in the Arizona Cardinals' preseason game against the New Orleans Saints at 8 p.m. ET:

1. Kevin Kolb's performance. The Cardinals' quarterback competition includes John Skelton as well, so his performance also matters. But Kolb is the most intriguing variable on the team's roster this summer. Can he command the offense and finally appear comfortable running it? Can he make it through the game healthy after injuries derailed his 2011 season? We shouldn't expect an all-world performance right out of the gates. We shouldn't read too much into a seemingly shaky one, either. Quarterbacks and offenses in general can struggle during preseason if opponents decide to crank up the pressure or get creative. But perceptions matter for Kolb or any highly paid player trying to prove his worth. In a best-case scenario, Kolb connects with Larry Fitzgerald and rookie first-round choice Michael Floyd for meaningful gains. For reference, Kolb completed 4 of 7 passes for 68 yards in his 2011 Cardinals preseason debut. Skelton completed 6-of-10 for 94 yards and a touchdown in that game.

2. Right side of the OL. The Cardinals have a new look on that side of their offensive line. Right guard Adam Snyder signed from San Francisco in free agency. Veteran Jeremy Bridges remains at right tackle for now after replacing Brandon Keith during the 2011 season. The team hopes rookie Brian Massey can grow into the starting role and take over for Bridges at some point in the near future. This game against New Orleans provides a first look. The Saints have been working with left defensive end Cameron Jordan to drop into coverage in zone-blitz packages, a change for him. We should still see Jordan, a 2011 first-round choice, get some pass-rushing reps against the right side of the Cardinals' line.

3. Cornerback competition. The Cardinals know Patrick Peterson will be starting at left corner this season. They feel great about the likelihood of him emerging as a Pro Bowl-caliber force at that position. Arizona also likes the possibilities on the other side, but it's unclear how that race will settle out. Free-agent addition William Gay represents the known. Greg Toler, coming off ACL surgery, has starting potential. So does A.J. Jefferson, who made seven starts last season after Toler was injured. Throw in third-round choice Jamell Fleming, the team's most impressive rookie during minicamps, and the Cardinals have a genuine camp competition on their hands. The assumption is that Michael Adams would project more in a nickel role, not as a starter. He's as competitive as anyone in the Cardinals' corner mix.
Good morning, NFC West.

Chris Clemons' recent agreement with the Seattle Seahawks leaves the NFC West with few unsettled contract situations heading into training camps.

The San Francisco 49ers' Dashon Goldson remains unsigned as a franchise player, but he'll sign a one-year deal at some point.

Janoris Jenkins' negotiations with the St. Louis Rams will bear watching as the week progresses. Jason Cole of Yahoo! has the details on that one. While it's tough to fault the Rams for seeking protection given Jenkins' troubled off-field history, the team built its protection already by drafting Jenkins later than the cornerback would have been available in the absence of that history.

Meanwhile ...

Brian McIntyre of NFL.com takes a closer look at the Rams' receivers. Among his thoughts: "Last year's fourth-round pick Greg Salas posted big numbers out of the slot at Hawaii and was having a promising rookie season before suffering a broken leg midway through the season. Injuries to Amendola and Salas is what got 2011 third-round selection Austin Pettis on the field as a rookie. Pettis' performance is why the Rams invested so heavily in the wide receiver position again this April. Brandon Gibson currently sits atop the depth chart, but he's a player the current coaching staff and front office inherited, has a seven-figure salary ($1 million) and can be released with no cap implications. The new regime also inherited Danario Alexander, who is a game-changing deep threat when healthy, which he rarely is."

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com analyzes the Rams' roster heading into camp. He lists Danny Amendola, Brian Quick, Chris Givens, Steve Smith and Salas as five leading candidates to secure up to six spots on the initial 53-man roster.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee previews a few potential camp battles for the 49ers. He anticipates fewer carries for Frank Gore. Barrows: "It's clear that Frank Gore won't have the workload he's had since becoming the featured running back in 2006. What's unclear is how those non-Gore carries will be divided this season. Second-year player Kendall Hunter and second-round draft pick LaMichael James are assured spots on the team while Rock Cartwright could win one based on his special teams ability. Brandon Jacobs' and Anthony Dixon's spots, however, are fuzzier."

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News checks in with 49ers rookie receiver A.J. Jenkins, who says he's made significant strides since minicamp. Jenkins: "Obviously I had criticism when I first came in as far as being in shape. That’s irrelevant now. I’m just trying to help the team win, whether that’s playing special teams, offense or being a real good teammate."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com reflects on Grant Feasel's recent passing at age 52. Feasel played for the team in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Former teammate Jeff Kemp: "Grant was the quintessential sacrificial warrior. He wrapped himself up in the duty to clear the way for and protect his teammates. He took his job so seriously. Our families grew up together and Grant deeply loved his family. He had a great sense of humor but never during the heat of battle."

Also from Farnsworth: expectations for the Seahawks' running backs.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic takes a look at the Cardinals' secondary with training camp approaching. Somers: "After Patrick Peterson, there is considerable sorting out to do in training camp. There are four solid contenders for other starting position: William Gay, Greg Toler, A.J. Jefferson and rookie Jamell Fleming. Based upon off-season work, Gay and Toler lead the pack. By the end of the summer workouts, they were splitting time with the first team. Toler missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but his recovery is on schedule. In one practice, he was matched up against Larry Fitzgerald and leaped to break up and pass. He fell to the ground, and everyone held their breath. Fitzgerald quickly leaned over Toler, checking on him. Toler was fine. It's recovering from those kinds of plays that will build his confidence."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com previews training camp for Arizona. Urban: "The Cards won’t be able to ease into anything. The first practice is Wednesday afternoon, and by Saturday afternoon they will have the Red-White practice, which usually features a live goal line situation. With so much to determine -- not the least of which will be the starting quarterback -- Ken Whisenhunt embraces an extra preseason game and some extra days in camp because of it. The new collective bargaining agreement essentially took away a week of offseason on-field work. Whisenhunt looks forward to recouping some of that."
Our two-day look at NFC West rosters concludes with projections for the Arizona Cardinals' defense and special teams.

Defensive linemen (9)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.2

Safest bets: Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Dan Williams, David Carter, Nick Eason, Vonnie Holliday

Leading contenders: Ronald Talley

Longer odds: Ricky Lumpkin, Landon Cohen

Comment: The position should be a strength for the Cardinals. Campbell and Dockett have earned most of the attention. Carter stood out immediately as a rookie in training camp last year. He came out swinging and quickly moved up the depth chart at nose tackle. Carter impressed enough as a rookie for Pro Football Focus to feature him in its "Secret Superstar" series. Williams has gotten his weight down. This is a big year for him coming off a season-ending arm injury.

Linebackers (15)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.2

Safest bets: Daryl Washington, Sam Acho, O'Brien Schofield, Paris Lenon, Clark Haggans, Stewart Bradley

Leading contenders: Reggie Walker, Quentin Groves

Longer odds: Quan Sturdivant, Marcus McGraw, Paul Vassallo, Colin Parker, Brandon Williams, Antonio Coleman, Zack Nash

Comment: Washington is an emerging star and should command more widespread respect if the Cardinals' defense continues to improve. Lenon remains an integral part of the defense. He's the link between coordinator Ray Horton and the rest of the defense. Bradley hasn't come close to unseating him. A full offseason should give Bradley a better chance to earn playing time, at least. The Cardinals are counting on Acho and Schofield to provide their outside rush. The coaching staff also wants to get pressure with its inside linebackers. Washington has shown he can make that happen.

Defensive backs (17)

Average number kept since 2003: 9.2

Safest bets: Patrick Peterson, Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes, Jamell Fleming, Greg Toler, William Gay, Rashad Johnson

Leading contenders: A.J. Jefferson, Michael Adams, James Sanders

Longer odds: Justin Bethel, Marshay Green, Blake Gideon, Eddie Elder, Crezdon Butler, Larry Parker, James Nixon

Comment: Fleming, the Cardinals' third-round choice, stood out among rookies at organized team activities and minicamps. Coach Ken Whisenhunt commended his quickness and ability to change direction fluidly. The team plans to try him in the nickel role during training camp. The other nine defensive backs listed among "safest bets" and "leading contenders" have started regular-season games in the NFL. Barring injuries, one or two players released from this group figures to play elsewhere this season.

Special teams (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 2.9

Safest bets: Jay Feely, Mike Leach, Dave Zastudil

Leading contenders: none

Longer odds: Ricky Schmitt

Comment: Feely's field-goal percentage last season (79.2) was his lowest since 2004. Four of his five misses were outdoors. Arizona plays six games outdoors in 2012 (Arizona counts as indoors even though the roof can open).
Brandon from Winston-Salem, N.C., thinks the Arizona Cardinals affected the Seattle Seahawks' quarterback situation more than some might realize.

"Being a Niners fan, I think the Seahawks should thank the Cardinals 7-9 times for beating the 49ers last year," Brandon writes, taking a now-obligatory jab at Seattle's recent won-lost records. "If they had not, then the Niners would have been within one game of Green Bay at the end of the season, which means Aaron Rodgers would have played in Week 17, which means Matt Flynn never would have enjoyed the breakout game that made him the top free-agent quarterback, leaving Seattle with even more quarterback issues than the team has right now."

[+] EnlargeFlynn
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesMatt Flynn passed for 480 yards and six touchdowns against the Lions in Week 17 last season.
Mike Sando: Looks like we can call off our regularly scheduled afternoon stretch. This should cover us. I'm kidding, Brandon, but I wouldn't reach quite as far as you have here.

A 49ers victory over Arizona in Week 15 would have put them in position to take a 13-2 overall record into Week 17. The Packers were 14-1 at that point and would have needed a victory to maintain their seeding, based on my initial look at tiebreakers.

Flynn did help himself in that Week 17 game against Detroit. He completed 31 of 44 passes for 480 yards with six touchdowns, one interception and a 136.4 NFL passer rating.

However, I tend to think Seattle would have shown interest in him even without that performance.

Seahawks general manager John Schneider had ties to Flynn. There weren't any other viable quarterbacks for the Seahawks to pursue once it became clear Peyton Manning wasn't coming their way. I don't think San Francisco would have let Alex Smith get away to a division rival. And at that point, there were no assurances the Seahawks would land Russell Wilson or another quarterback they liked in the draft. Adding Flynn was going to make sense either way.

Flynn's asking price might have been lower without that Week 17 showing. But to hear the Seahawks tell it, Flynn won them over during a workout at their facility and in classroom work with the coaching staff. Those factors would have been even more important in the absence of Flynn's six-touchdown game against the Lions.


Andrew from Phoenix wants my take on offseason additions and subtractions for NFC West defenses.

"Who is getting better or worse?" he writes. "How do the NFC West defenses compare with others around the league?"

Mike Sando: Seattle and St. Louis made the biggest personnel additions on defense this offseason. First-round pick Bruce Irvin and free-agent defensive tackle Jason Jones should upgrade the Seahawks' pass rush. The Rams added defensive tackle Michael Brockers in the first round, plus free-agent cornerback Cortland Finnegan.

The 49ers re-signed their key players and added cornerback Perrish Cox, who could push for playing time in the nickel defense. But their offseason was more about sustaining what they've built on defense, not adding to it. Arizona also did little to help its defense in free agency, adding William Gay to replace Richard Marshall.

San Francisco and Arizona also used first-round picks for offense. The 49ers used their second-round and fourth-round choices for offense as well. They had no third-rounder. The Cardinals had no second-rounder. They used a third-round choice for cornerback Jamell Fleming, who has impressed them so far. Arizona did not use another pick for defense until the sixth round.

As for my thoughts on the best defensive divisions, I'll pass along a couple thoughts from a recent chat wrap:
"Pittsburgh and Baltimore are strong on defense every year, but all four teams from that division finished among the top 10 in fewest yards allowed last season. There are superior ways to measure a defense, but the best defenses tend to allow fewer yards. Teams still aspire to rank among the top 10. It's not a perfect measure, but it's a decent one. And it's readily accessible, plus widely understood.

"NFC West teams ranked fourth (San Francisco), ninth (Seattle), 18th (Arizona) and 22nd (St. Louis) last season. Arizona improved significantly late in the season. I do think this will be an increasingly physical and ferocious division on defense. Let's revisit this one as the 2012 season unfolds."

We saw increasingly physical and competitive division games late last season. I would expect that to intensify. Every NFC West defense has reason to expect improvement.
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

The Arizona Cardinals might wind up releasing a player they now or recently considered as a starting cornerback. They also have reason to expect more from safeties Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson as both players operate nearer to full health.

Those and other factors made the Cardinals' defensive backfield a worthy choice for this exercise, particularly after cornerback Richard Marshall's departure in free agency raised concerns about the secondary's strength early in the offseason.

Third-round choice Jamell Fleming was arguably the Cardinals' most impressive rookie during organized team activities and minicamps. The non-contact sessions offered only limited glimpses of what players have to offer, but Fleming's quickness stood out to the coaching staff. The Cardinals want to see how he operates as the nickel. William Gay was a veteran addition in free agency.

Patrick Peterson is locked in as the starter on the left side and should be primed to take a big step forward after finishing strong as a rookie first-round choice in 2011. Former starters A.J. Jefferson and Greg Toler join Gay as candidates to start on the opposite side. Fleming is in the mix. Michael Adams, who played a third of the defensive snaps last season, offers veteran depth (he is 27).

The backup safeties, Rashad Johnson and free-agent addition James Sanders, each played 450-plus snaps on defense last season.

Tight end was another position I considered here. Todd Heap, Jeff King, Rob Housler and Jim Dray give the Cardinals variety, depth and upside.

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