NFC West: Jason Jones

Snap judgments: Seahawks' mindset

June, 18, 2013
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Coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider made headlines in 2010 for their willingness to constantly churn the Seattle Seahawks' roster. Three years later, they've built the roster to a point where player retention has become a bigger focus.

As the chart below shows, Seattle has on its 90-man roster players responsible for logging 87.4 percent of offensive and defensive snaps last season. That is the highest percentage in the division.

The chart at right shows the 2012 contributors no longer on the roster. Note that tight end Anthony McCoy landed on injured reserve after suffering a torn Achilles' tendon during organized team activities.

Seattle moved on from defensive tackle Alan Branch, defensive lineman Jason Jones, linebacker Leroy Hill and cornerback Marcus Trufant after those players played fairly meaningful roles in 2012. The draft brought defensive tackles Jordan Hill and Jesse Williams. Free-agent addition Cliff Avril will affect the rotation at linebacker, where Hill's production had waned. Antoine Winfield replaced Trufant as Seattle sought to upgrade its nickel corner position.

Note: The percentages at defensive back changed slightly for Seattle since Monday when I included the 122 snaps safety Jeron Johnson played. I had accidentally excluded his snaps from consideration.
» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at whether each NFC West team has been a winner or a loser in free agency.

Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals set a low bar in free agency and cleared it pretty easily. They weren't in position to attack the market aggressively because they had some salary-cap and player-valuation issues to address in the immediate term. New coach Bruce Arians and new general manager Steve Keim parted with Kevin Kolb, Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes, William Gay, Beanie Wells and Early Doucet. Some of those moves cleared significant cap room, but the dead money left over was enough to crimp the Cardinals' style. The first nine players Arizona signed in free agency (Frostee Rucker became the 10th on Wednesday) counted $12.9 million against the salary cap in 2013. That was about how much the team cleared by releasing Kolb and Rhodes. Call it addition by subtraction and give the Cardinals a passing grade in free agency under difficult circumstances. Quarterback Drew Stanton and running back Rashard Mendenhall are the only offensive players added to this point in the process. Arians thinks better health will restore the offensive line. He also loves the talent at that position in the draft. The team is setting itself up to draft for offense, it appears.

St. Louis Rams: The Rams are losers in free agency if you think they "lost" Danny Amendola, Steven Jackson, Craig Dahl, Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Gibson and Robert Turner. The team was willing and sometimes even eager to move on from most of those players, however. The Rams plan to develop their younger players while acquiring more of them through free agency and the draft. They paid big money for two free agents, and both are relatively young, a plus. Tight end Jared Cook is not quite 26 years old. Left tackle Jake Long could be an old 27 based on recent injuries, but he's right around the league average for age. We could mark down St. Louis for losing both starting safeties (Quintin Mikell was released for cap purposes) and failing to land a replacement. The draft appears strong at that position, however, and Mikell could be re-signed at some point. We're only 10 days into the process, and the Rams haven't made any ridiculous moves. Getting Long on a relatively short-term deal (four years) seemed like a positive.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers watched longtime contributors Delanie Walker, Isaac Sopoaga and Dashon Goldson sign elsewhere. That was the plan given the price tags associated with all three players. The 49ers knew they couldn't pay premium dollars to those players after fielding the NFL's most expensive defense last season. Their disciplined approach to the market has served them well in recent seasons. This year, it helped them find room on the balance sheet for receiver Anquan Boldin, acquired from the Baltimore Ravens. The signing of Glenn Dorsey to the defensive line seemed curious at first, but it's clear to me the 49ers have special plans for the player drafted fifth overall back in 2008. Although Phil Dawson's signing stabilizes the kicking situation, his $2.35 million cap figure for 2013 means the team will again be paying a bit of a premium at the position, particularly with former kicker David Akers' terminated contract still counting against the cap. With 14 draft picks, couldn't San Francisco have found a rookie to do the job at lower cost?

Seattle Seahawks: Jason Jones is the only Seattle free agent to sign with another team this offseason. Seattle appeared to upgrade from Jones by getting Tampa Bay's Michael Bennett on a one-year deal counting $4.8 million against the cap. Signing Bennett and former Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril to short-term deals makes the Seahawks a pretty clear winner in free agency to this point. Percy Harvin was not acquired in free agency, so he isn't counting in the equation. His addition addressed the position, however, diminishing the need for Seattle to sign a veteran wideout. Upgrading the pass rush was really the only priority for the Seahawks once the Harvin trade went through. Bennett and Avril combined for 18.5 sacks last season. Both are playing on short-term deals with plenty to prove and only short-term cap ramifications for the team.

Updated snapshot for NFC West UFAs

March, 14, 2013
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With Ricky Jean-Francois leaving the San Francisco 49ers for a reported four-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts, I've updated the chart showing which unrestricted free agents from NFC West teams have landed elsewhere.

This chart also shows available UFAs from NFC West teams. UFAs are defined strictly as those veteran players who became free agents March 12 when their contracts expired. The list does not include released players.

It's looking like the 49ers will again be in position to reap compensatory selections awarded for net losses in free agency based on salary and playing time.
The market keeps moving and changing as the first day of 2013 NFL free agency winds down.

I've put together a chart showing some of the notable happenings for unrestricted free agents from NFC West teams.

NFC West teams are also looking at players from other teams, of course.

Glenn Dorsey and Charles Woodson are scheduled to visit the San Francisco 49ers, for example. The St. Louis Rams are planning to meet with Jake Long and Louis Delmas. The Arizona Cardinals are expected to meet with running back Rashard Mendenhall. Another running back of interest for Arizona, Reggie Bush, is expected to visit the Detroit Lions first.
 

2013 UFA counts for NFC West teams

March, 12, 2013
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The NFL has released its official list of restricted and unrestricted free agents.

The chart breaks down the UFA counts by team in the NFC West.

A quick look at the lists, which include a couple players who have already reached agreement on new contracts:

Arizona Cardinals

UFA offense (4): D'Anthony Batiste, Pat McQuistan, Rich Ohrnberger, LaRod Stephens-Howling

UFA defense (8): Michael Adams, Nick Eason, Quentin Groves, Vonnie Holliday, Rashad Johnson, Paris Lenon, James Sanders, Greg Toler

RFA: Brian Hoyer, tendered to second-round pick.

Note: The Cardinals announced Johnson's agreement to a three-year contract.

St. Louis Rams

UFA offense (8): Danny Amendola, Kellen Clemens, Brandon Gibson, Steven Jackson, Barry Richardson, Steve Smith, Robert Turner, Chris Williams

UFA defense (6): Craig Dahl, Bradley Fletcher, Mario Haggan, William Hayes, Trevor Laws, Rocky McIntosh

RFA: Darian Stewart, tendered to right of first refusal.

Note: The Rams announced Hayes' agreement to a three-year contract.

San Francisco 49ers

UFA offense (4): Leonard Davis, Ted Ginn Jr., Randy Moss, Delanie Walker

UFA defense (6): Dashon Goldson, Tavares Gooden, Larry Grant, Clark Haggans, Ricky Jean-Francois, Isaac Sopoaga

RFA: Tramaine Brock, tendered to right of first refusal.

Note: Walker has reportedly agreed to terms on a contract with the Tennessee Titans.

Seattle Seahawks

UFA offense (2): Cameron Morrah, Frank Omiyale

UFA defense (5): Alan Branch, Patrick Chukwurah, Leroy Hill, Jason Jones, Marcus Trufant

UFA special teams (2): Steve Hauschka, Ryan Longwell

RFA: Clint Gresham and Chris Maragos, tendered to right of first refusal; and Clinton McDonald, tendered to seventh-round choice.
The St. Louis Rams finished tied for the NFL lead in sacks with 52 last season.

William Hayes collected seven of them while playing on a one-year deal worth $900,000. That was a bargain by NFL standards.

The Rams rewarded Hayes on Tuesday with a three-year contract worth $10.5 million, ESPN.com's John Clayton reported. So, while other NFC West teams seek pass-rush help, the Rams can generally feel good about their abilities in that critical area.

Hayes, who played 34 percent of the defensive snaps last season, returns to a group already featuring 2008 first-round draft choice Chris Long and 2011 first-rounder Robert Quinn.

Long has 42 career sacks, more than any player from the 2008 draft class. Cliff Avril (39.5), Calais Campbell (27.5), Lawrence Jackson (19.5) and Jason Jones (18.5) are next on that list. Hayes, a fourth-round choice in Tennessee that year, ranks eighth on the list with 15 sacks. Rams teammate Kendall Langford is 10th with 9.5 sacks since 2008.

Quinn's 15.5 sacks in two seasons rank fifth on the list of 2011 draft choices. San Francisco's Aldon Smith tops that list with 33.5 sacks. Von Miller (30), J.J. Watt (26) and Ryan Kerrigan (16) also outrank Quinn.

Quinn's 10.5 sacks last season ranked fourth among 2011 draft choices.

NFC West free-agency primer

March, 11, 2013
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» NFC Free Agency: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Arizona Cardinals
GENERAL MANAGER: Steve Keim
HEAD COACH: Bruce Arians

Cap Status: The Cardinals emerged from the weekend with moderate flexibility under the cap and a chance to gain additional room. Kevin Kolb's contract is counting $13.5 million against the cap, but Arizona could reduce that number significantly by releasing the quarterback or reworking his contract. Releasing Kolb would reduce his cap charge to $6 million. The team could lower the 2013 hit to $2 million after June 1 under NFL rules, but the remaining $4 million would hit the 2014 cap.

Strategy: Teams with first-year head coaches are sometimes more aggressive when taking over teams deficient in talent. That was the case for St. Louis in free agency last offseason. That was the case for Seattle in the trade market back in 2010, when new leadership took over the Seahawks. Arians and Keim seem to feel better about their talent than the leadership of those other teams felt about theirs initially. The Cardinals figure to make a few targeted strikes, but the list of available veterans isn't an impressive one. Keim and Arians have talked about relying more heavily on younger players, but Arizona needs upgrades, too.

St. Louis Rams
GENERAL MANAGER: Les Snead
HEAD COACH: Jeff Fisher

Cap Status: The Rams have more than $15 million in salary-cap space after Steven Jackson, Wayne Hunter and Quintin Mikell left the roster. They also have a league-low 44 players, so there's work to be done. But if St. Louis needed additional room, the team has other options. For example, James Laurinaitis and Cortland Finnegan are scheduled to earn $16 million in roster bonuses this offseason. Converting those into signing bonuses pushes most of the cap charges into the future.

Strategy: The Rams added 11 unrestricted free agents from other teams last offseason, tied with New England for most in the NFL. They signed Finnegan and Scott Wells to lucrative contracts. I would expect a slightly less aggressive approach to the market this offseason in part because the Rams' roster is in better shape. However, the freshly created cap room sets up St. Louis to go after a front-line player. The team could use another weapon on offense, for sure. And Kevin Demoff, the Rams' chief operating officer, has suggested teams are more interested in using their free-agent budgets for a smaller number of high-impact players, leading to fewer players signed for what passes as middle-class contracts worth $3 million to $4 million per year.

San Francisco 49ers
GENERAL MANAGER: Trent Baalke
HEAD COACH: Jim Harbaugh

Cap Status: The 49ers have been tight against the cap recently, but they'll gain breathing room when the Alex Smith trade becomes official. Smith had been scheduled to earn a $1 million bonus and $7.5 million in salary. The team has found creative ways to comply with the cap, including when it packed into its 2013 budget more than $17 million in charges for Patrick Willis, lessening the hits in other years. Willis' contract is scheduled to count only slightly more than that $17.7 million over the next three seasons combined. The 49ers took a similar tack in 2009, when contracts for Justin Smith and Joe Staley combined to use more than $30 million in cap space.

Strategy: The 49ers haven't been big spenders in free agency over the past several seasons. That trend should continue. San Francisco will have a league-high 12 draft choices once the Alex Smith trade is processed. The team's conservative approach to the market last offseason should net additional choices when the NFL hands out compensatory selections for teams suffering net losses in free agency a year ago. The 49ers have already identified and paid most of their core players. Now is the time for them to restock with cheaper labor through the draft, right?

Seattle Seahawks
GENERAL MANAGER: John Schneider
HEAD COACH: Pete Carroll

Cap Status: It was fair to wonder whether the team would carry $20.7 million in combined cap charges for tight end Zach Miller ($11 million) and receiver Sidney Rice ($9.7 million). There are no indications Seattle plans to re-work those deals for cap purposes, however. The team had enough flexibility to acquire and pay Percy Harvin on a long-term contract. The number for Miller drops next season, putting the Seahawks in position to ride out the contract if he remains productive. The numbers aren't yet in on Harvin, but Seattle presumably still has cap flexibility this year.

Strategy: Matt Flynn, Jason Jones, Barrett Ruud and Deuce Lutui were the only unrestricted free agents Seattle signed last offseason. The team appears likely to add a veteran or two for a few million per season, perhaps on one-year deals similar to the one Jones signed a year ago. That seems to be the team's strategy in free agency recently. Young stars such as Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor continue to play under their rookie deals. Paying top dollar for a free agent from another team could throw off the natural order of things for Seattle on defense. The 49ers have gone through a similar phase, rewarding their own players and staying away from big-ticket free agents. However, the Harvin deal shows Seattle will make an aggressive move for a young, dynamic player.

UFA market revisited: How NFC West fared

February, 28, 2013
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Those eagerly awaiting the start of NFL free agency March 12 with visions of your favorite team loading up on accomplished veterans should revisit the list of unrestricted free agents NFC West teams signed last season.

St. Louis, badly in need of a talent infusion following the worst five-year run in NFL history, opened its checkbook to sign a long list of veteran players, some of them at high cost.

That was the exception in the NFC West and I'd be surprised if St. Louis took a similarly aggressive approach this offseason. The Rams have stabilized their roster and positioned themselves to build around young talent.

With that in mind, I'll take a team-by-team look at the unrestricted free agents each NFC West team signed last offseason. UFAs are defined as veterans who reached the market when their contracts expired. Teams also acquired players by other means.

Arizona Cardinals

2012 UFA signings from other teams: cornerback William Gay, linebacker Quentin Groves, safety James Sanders and guard Adam Snyder

Comment: Gay started and played 93 percent of the defensive snaps as a replacement for Richard Marshall, who left in free agency. He wasn't a star, but the defense was solid. Gay gave Arizona the snaps it sought. Groves played 43 percent of snaps as a situational pass-rusher. The Cardinals needed him when an injury sidelined O'Brien Schofield. Sanders played 11 percent. Snyder started 14 games and played much of the season with an injury for a line that was among the NFL's least effective for much of the season. Arizona's young tackles made progress. I thought the team overspent for Snyder, a player San Francisco eagerly replaced with the undrafted Alex Boone, who provided a clear upgrade. Note that three of the four UFA additions last offseason played defense. Arizona needs to target offense this offseason. New coach Bruce Arians and new general manager Steve Keim have praised the existing talent. Arizona might not load up on free agents the way some teams do when new leadership takes over.

St. Louis Rams

2012 UFA signings from other teams: linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, cornerback Cortland Finnegan, linebacker Mario Haggan, defensive end William Hayes, defensive tackle Kendall Langford, defensive lineman Trevor Laws, guard Quinn Ojinnaka, tackle Barry Richardson, receiver Steve Smith, center Robert Turner and center Scott Wells

Comment: The Rams were major players in the UFA market. Results were mostly positive. Finnegan gave the Rams the production and veteran presence they sought. He was instantly a playmaker for St. Louis. Dunbar was much better than I had anticipated and well worth his contract, which included a $1 million signing bonus and $1.5 million annual average. Hayes provided good depth on the defensive line, and at a reasonable cost ($900,000 for one year). Langford needed time to transition from the 3-4 scheme he ran previously in Miami. The Rams signed him after Jason Jones signed with Seattle instead. Injuries prevented Wells from stabilizing the offensive line, a major disappointment and a reminder of the risks associated with signing older players from other teams.

San Francisco 49ers

2012 UFA signings from other teams: fullback Rock Cartwright, quarterback Josh Johnson, receiver Mario Manningham

Comment: Does this look like a team poised to strike for Darrelle Revis in the trade market? Does this look like a team ready to throw around cash in free agency? Not based on the list of signings last offseason. The interest San Francisco showed in Peyton Manning doesn't apply here. Indianapolis released Manning. Manning was not a UFA. I'd put him in a separate category, anyway. Teams make exceptions for Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Back to the 2012 UFA list. Cartwright and Johnson never played for the team. Neither earned a spot on the 53-man roster. Both served a purpose by initially increasing competition at their positions. For example, Anthony Dixon moved fro halfback to fullback and became a more valuable player, including on special teams. Johnson provided early insurance, but in retrospect, Colin Kaepernick was obviously ready to serve in the No. 2 role before becoming the starter. Manningham provided sufficient value before a knee injury ended his season. The 49ers missed him late in the season, including during the Super Bowl.

Seattle Seahawks

2012 UFA signings from other teams: quarterback Matt Flynn, defensive lineman Jason Jones, guard Deuce Lutui and linebacker Barrett Ruud

Comment: Flynn would have started if Russell Wilson hadn't emerged unexpectedly as the clear choice. Seattle invested $6.5 million per year in Flynn, a sum the team could live with even if Flynn became the backup. It's tough to fault the Seahawks for signing Flynn. They had no idea Wilson would be available in the draft, or that Wilson would perform at such a high level so early in his career. Jones finished the season on injured reserve. That made it impossible for him to provide the interior pass-rushing push Seattle sought when signing him to a one-year deal worth $4.5 million. Lutui and Ruud never earned roster spots. Neither was a liability financially. Both were low-cost insurance policies. Seattle parlayed Ruud into a 2013 draft choice by trading him to New Orleans after the Saints lost Jonathan Vilma.

2013 Kiper mock: Seahawks thoughts

January, 16, 2013
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Mel Kiper Jr. has released his initial 2013 NFL mock draft Insider for the first round. We discussed his St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals projections previously. Now, I'll do the same for Kiper's Seattle Seahawks projection. The Seahawks hold the 25th overall choice.

25. Seattle Seahawks: John Jenkins, DT, Georgia

Kiper's give: "John Schneider and Pete Carroll showed great instincts in the 2012 draft, adding players they felt could help them immediately, even as analysts (myself included) questioned slot value. The defense was very good this past season, but I think an interior defender who can occupy blockers, occasionally penetrate and even wreck the pocket from the inside is a need."

Sando's take: The Seahawks have recently given big contracts to defensive linemen Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Chris Clemons. They used the 15th choice in the 2012 draft for pass-rushing defensive end Bruce Irvin. Seattle has also gotten mostly good play from defensive tackle Alan Branch. Despite all the investments in the defensive line, I do think the Seahawks would be wise to address the position early in the draft if value warrants the pick. Adding Jenkins' 358-pound body to the line might help shore up a run defense that ranked 30th in yards per carry allowed from Week 7 through the end of the season. Improving the pass rush should stand as Seattle's No. 1 offseason priority, however. Clemons is 31 years old and suffered a torn ACL during the Seahawks' playoff victory at Washington. His status for the 2013 season is in question. Irvin's longer-term future was at Clemons' position. Perhaps Clemons' injury accelerates the transition. Pass-rushing defensive tackle Jason Jones, a free agent in 2013, also finished the season on injured reserve. Seattle could have used a stronger pass rush late in games against Chicago, Detroit, Miami and Atlanta. Addressing that deficiency in the draft seems like a must even though Irvin and fellow rookie Greg Scruggs showed promise.
The Seattle Seahawks added defensive end Chris Clemons and kicker Steven Hauschka to their injured reserve lists this week.

Rookie Bruce Irvin, the 15th overall choice in the draft, will start in Clemons' place. Recently signed veteran Ryan Longwell will handle kicking duties for Hauschka.

Those moves led me to compile IR lists for remaining NFC playoff teams. I used the reserve lists at Ourlads.com, which updates its rosters daily.

NFC West teams signed two defensive linemen from the Tennessee Titans during free agency this year.

Only one of them remains a factor after the Seattle Seahawks placed Jason Jones on injured reserve Thursday. Jones was signed to a one-year, $4.5 million contract as the team sought to upgrade its interior rush on passing downs. The move paid off at times, but knee trouble limited Jones as the season progressed.

Meanwhile, in St. Louis, the Rams are getting good value from defensive end William Hayes, the former Titan they signed to a one-year deal worth $900,000.

Jones and Hayes have each played about one-third of their teams' defensive snaps this season. Jones has three sacks. Hayes has four. Hayes scored high marks from Pro Football Focus for his play against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 15. Jones stood out previously.

The Rams also visited with Jones during the offseason. Their decision to sign Hayes was unrelated.

Jones had played increased snaps over the past two weeks, including about two-thirds of them against the Buffalo Bills in Week 15. The Bills run their offense primarily from pass-oriented personnel groupings, inviting defenses to use sub packages favoring pass-rush players such as Jones.

Rookie Greg Scruggs could see additional playing time now that Jones is on injured reserve. The team will presumably address the position in the offseason. Seattle can expect to spend more time in its base defense against San Francisco in Week 16. The 49ers favor heavier personnel groupings on early downs.

NFC West: Injury situations that matter

December, 19, 2012
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Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals did not list running back Beanie Wells on their participation report after he played 46 percent of the snaps Sunday. Wells scored three touchdowns against Detroit and appeared to be moving well. The team had listed him on its injury report in each of the past four weeks, first with a toe injury and later for knee trouble.

Fullback Anthony Sherman (knee), tackle Nate Potter (knee), defensive lineman Ronald Talley (ankle), nose tackle Dan Williams (hamstring), cornerback Greg Toler (hamstring), defensive end Calais Campbell (calf), guard Mike Gibson (calf), linebacker Quentin Groves (foot) and tight end Rob Housler (knee) were limited. Receiver Early Doucet (concussion), safety Rashad Johnson (hamstring) and safety James Sanders (calf) did not practice.

St. Louis Rams: Cornerback Cortland Finnegan (thigh), cornerback Bradley Fletcher (illness), center Scott Wells (knee), running back Steven Jackson (illness), linebacker James Laurinaitis (back) and defensive end Robert Quinn (illness) did not practice Wednesday.

The Rams did not list receiver Danny Amendola on their injury report, a change from recent weeks. He played 75 percent of the offensive snaps against Minnesota despite the foot injury that had sidelined him previously. Amendola caught six passes for 58 yards. He averaged 1.3 yards after the catch, a season low, but he made five first downs on those six catches.

San Francisco 49ers: Defensive end Justin Smith (elbow) and outside linebacker Clark Haggans (shoulder) did not practice. Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks (shoulder), cornerback Tarell Brown (shoulder), linebacker Tavares Gooden (ribs), receiver Mario Manningham (shoulder), running back Bruce Miller (shoulder), linebacker Aldon Smith (shoulder) and defensive lineman Will Tukuafu (concussion) did not practice Wednesday.

Smith's status is a key variable given his 185-game starting streak and the 49ers' injury situation at the position. Other teams running 3-4 defenses tend to carry six or seven linemen on their 53-man rosters. The 49ers had greater flexibility when Tukuafu was healthy and before tight end Demarcus Dobbs, a former defensive lineman, landed on injured reserve. I found it telling -- concerning might be a better word -- that Smith returned to the game against New England for just one play before departing. He's as tough and durable as they come.

Kicker David Akers (pelvis), guard Alex Boone (knee), linebacker NaVorro Bowman (shoulder), running back Frank Gore (wrist), guard Mike Iupati (shoulder), cornerback Carlos Rogers (knee) and linebacker Patrick Willis (shoulder) were full participants.

Seattle Seahawks: Defensive tackle Alan Branch (ankle), defensive end Jason Jones (knee), running back Leon Washington (illness), receiver Sidney Rice (knee), cornerback Walter Thurmond (hamstring) and cornerback Marcus Trufant (hamstring) did not practice. Running back Marshawn Lynch (back) was limited.

The already diminished depth at cornerback would become a bigger issue if the NFL were to suspend starter Richard Sherman following his hearing Friday regarding a four-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. The league generally announces suspensions early enough in the week for teams to adjust their rosters in time for practices, however.

Wrap-up: Seahawks 50, Bills 17

December, 16, 2012
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Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' victory over the Buffalo Bills in Toronto:

What it means: The Seahawks improved to 9-5, ensuring their first winning season since 2007. They strengthened their hold on a wild-card playoff berth, at least. This victory sets up a potentially pivotal Week 16 game against the NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers. A 49ers defeat at New England in the Sunday night game would put first place on the line at CenturyLink Field next week. The Seahawks have won five of their past six games thanks largely to outstanding play from rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.

What I liked: Everything about the Seattle offense. Three first-half rushing touchdowns from Wilson and consistently productive running from Marshawn Lynch allowed the Seahawks to control the game. Wilson entered this game without a rushing touchdown in the NFL, but his threat as a runner has become more pronounced. This marked a continuation of Wilson's late-game rushing against Chicago two weeks ago. He also threw the ball well, but Seattle did not need his arm much in this game.

Defensively, the Seahawks' rookie cornerback, Jeremy Lane, did a good job defending the deep ball early. Buffalo appeared interested in testing him deep downfield. Lane and the secondary fared well in that area even though corners Brandon Browner (suspended) and Walter Thurmond (injured) did not play. Second-year linebacker K.J. Wright picked off a pass in the third quarter. Up front, Chris Clemons had two sacks, including one producing a fumble return for teammate Bruce Irvin. Jason Jones pressured Ryan Fitzpatrick into a pick-six throw, one Earl Thomas returned 57 yards.

What I didn't like: The defense was too forgiving early in the game. C.J. Spiller found ample running room. The pass rush wasn't very effective until the score was out of hand. Kicker Steven Hauschka had an extra-point try blocked.

Running it up: The Seahawks executed a successful fake punt while holding a 47-17 lead in the fourth quarter. The play set up a field goal for a 50-17 lead. Last week, the Seahawks threw for the end zone on a fourth-and-23 play while holding a 51-0 lead over the Arizona Cardinals. Throwing a conventional pass while blowing out an opponent differs from using tactics such as onside kicks and fake punts.

Eye-popping numbers: The Seahawks have outscored their past two opponents by a 108-17 margin. They have exceeded 460 total yards against each of their past three opponents. The Seahawks and 49ers combined for more than 1,000 yards against the Bills this season.

What's next: The Seahawks close out the regular season with home games against San Francisco and St. Louis.

NFC West Stock Watch

December, 4, 2012
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RISING

1. Russell Wilson, Seahawks QB. Wilson was shockingly effective while leading 97- and 80-yard touchdown drives to beat the Chicago Bears by a 23-17 score at Soldier Field. Said Bears receiver Brandon Marshall: "He's a born leader. I listened to the guy talk. I watch how he conducts himself, how he handles himself. That's a guy I can watch and learn from. Even as a rookie, a young guy, Russell Wilson is a guy that is going to be special. He is special already." Wilson has 14 touchdown passes and two interceptions in his past seven games. He led the NFL in Total QBR from Week 6 through Sunday. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Robert Griffin III ranked second through fifth, respectively.

2. Greg Zuerlein, Rams K. The Rams' rookie kicker forced overtime with a 53-yard field goal as regulation expired before hitting the game-winner from 54 yards with 26 seconds remaining in OT. He also recorded touchbacks on both kickoffs.

3. Kerry Rhodes, Cardinals S. Rhodes picked off two passes, defended three others and forced a fumble during another strong performance from the Cardinals' defense. This game against the New York Jets carried additional meaning for Rhodes after Jets coach Rex Ryan called Rhodes "selfish" in print.

4. Jeff Fisher, Rams coach. The Rams went 0-6 in the NFC West last season. They are 4-0-1 in the division since Fisher took over as head coach. The Rams have allowed one touchdown pass while collecting seven interceptions during those five games. Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco have combined for 60 touchdown passes with 30 interceptions against everyone else.

FALLING

1. Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals coach. Arizona's eight-game losing streak is the team's longest since 2006, the Cardinals' final season under Dennis Green. The Cardinals are the only team in the NFL with a losing streak of at least six games in each of the past three seasons. Whisenhunt's decision to play rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley has backfired so far. There's no excuse for managing only five first downs and failing to convert any of 15 third-down chances, as the case was for Arizona during its 7-6 defeat to the New York Jets. The Cardinals' current regime has not shown it can identify top talent at quarterback, acquire that talent, protect it and develop it. That reflects on Whisenhunt. Entering Week 14, defensive coordinator Ray Horton's side of the ball is about all the Cardinals have going for them at this point.

2. Jim Harbaugh, 49ers coach. Fisher has gotten the better of Harbaugh in each of the teams' two meetings this season. Harbaugh, perhaps covering for young quarterback Colin Kaepernick, took responsibility for the unfortunate decision to call a pitch play to Ted Ginn Jr. late in the 49ers' defeat at St. Louis. Harbaugh is also accountable for the decision to switch quarterbacks from Alex Smith to Kaepernick. Kaepernick wasn't horrible against the Rams, but he did make crucial mistakes, including on that errant pitch. Kaepernick also scrambled back into his end zone, risking intentional grounding and taking a safety.

3. David Akers, 49ers K. Akers had a chance to beat the Rams with a 51-yard field goal in overtime. Percentages are lower for longer field goals, but this one was indoors. It was also Akers' fourth miss from 50-plus yards in five attempts this season. He made 7-of-9 last season. Akers has been playing through an injury.

4. Seahawks pass-rush investment. The Seahawks used their 2012 first-round draft choice for pass-rusher Bruce Irvin. They signed interior pass-rusher Jason Jones to a one-year deal worth $4.5 million. They rewarded Chris Clemons with a contract extension. Seattle has one sack in each of its past two games despite facing Jay Cutler, who entered Week 12 having taken 29 sacks, third-most in the NFL.

NFC West: Injury situations that matter

November, 14, 2012
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Arizona Cardinals: Running back Beanie Wells continues to practice in anticipation of his return from a toe injury for the Nov. 25 game against St. Louis. He will not play against the Atlanta Falcons this week. It's looking very likely that John Skelton will remain the starting quarterback while Kevin Kolb continues his recovery from a sternoclavicular injury. Kolb is not yet practicing. Defensive end Calais Campbell missed practice with a calf injury suffered before the bye. Guard Adam Snyder (quadriceps) and tight end Todd Heap (knee) were among the notable players limited in practice. Heap's situation is of heightened interested amid indications coach Ken Whisenhunt expected him to return long ago.

St. Louis Rams: The Rams are about as healthy as they've been all season. Receiver Austin Pettis (toe), defensive end Eugene Sims (knee) and safety Darian Stewart (knee) were limited in practice Wednesday. Receiver Danny Amendola and left tackle Rodger Saffold made it through the game against San Francisco without complication. Both were returning from extended injury layoffs. Center Scott Wells is practicing but has not yet been activated from the physically unable to perform list. Coach Jeff Fisher was vague when asked whether or not Wells might make his regular-season Rams debut Sunday. Wells will return either this week or next.

San Francisco 49ers: Quarterback Alex Smith practiced with the team Wednesday after clearing initial tests. He said the concussion suffered Sunday was much worse than the one he suffered against Dallas in Week 2 last season. Early indications suggest Smith will play against Chicago on Monday night. Having an additional 28 hours til kickoff should only help. The final verdict depends upon how Smith fares during the week. The 49ers otherwise appear to be mostly healthy. Guard Mike Iupati briefly left the St. Louis game with an apparent leg injury, but he returned. Running back Frank Gore has been beat up since suffering injured ribs against Seattle, but he continues to play well.

Seattle Seahawks: The bye week gives guard James Carpenter and linebacker K.J. Wright additional time to recover from their concussions. Center Max Unger, safety Kam Chancellor, receiver Doug Baldwin, defensive tackle Jason Jones, running back Marshawn Lynch, defensive end Red Bryant and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald all appeared on injury reports recently. They'll benefit from the down time as well. One question is whether or not cornerback Walter Thurmond will emerge from the bye as a contributor in the secondary. Veteran Marcus Trufant has been the nickel corner to this point. Thurmond was activated from the PUP list before the bye. He has not yet played, however.

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