NFC West: Jason Kidd
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
Mike Sando: This one looks better on paper than it might look in reality. The Patriots would be fortunate to make such a move. Light appears to be on his way down, as you surmised. His salary is $4.5 million, compared to $3 million for Boldin. That salary difference isn't a huge deal, but I just don't think the Cardinals would be getting good enough value in return. When I think of Light, I see Ravens pass-rusher Terrell Suggs beating him to sack Tom Brady and forcing a fumble in the wild-card round. I don't see an upgrade, particularly given the price.
Ty from Washington, D.C., writes: Mike, the problem with overtime rules starts with kicking. When the first sudden-death game was played in 1958, kickers were making about 47 percent of their field-goal attempts. Even when the overtime rules were expanded in 1974 to include the regular season, kickers were averaging less than 61 percent on all field-goal attempts and less than 40 percent beyond 40 yards. Those percentages have been trending upward ever since. Even in a supposed down year in 2009, kickers made 73 percent of their attempts from 40-49 yards and 53 percent from beyond 50.
With percentages like that, all a team needs in overtime is a good kick return and one or two first downs to have a nearly three-in-four chance of winning. The obvious, though most controversial solution to sudden death is to eliminate a victory by field goal. It can either be eliminated from scoring altogether, or a hybrid version of overtime can be created, in which a touchdown or safety is sudden death but a field goal allows the opponent another possession to respond. Thoughts?
Mike Sando: I like the last option. Kick a field goal and be prepared to let the other team have the ball. Score a touchdown and the game ends in your favor. Makes some sense. Outlawing field goals changes the game more dramatically. A team facing, say, fourth-and-20 at the 38 should still have a field goal as an option. Thanks for weighing in. I'll put together another mailbag-type item focusing on this issue in greater depth.
Dan from Scottsdale, Ariz., writes: Mike, I would like nothing more than to have Mike Vick as our QB for the next five years here in Arizona. However, you have to remember a few things. This is the state that really doesn't like trouble, as was obvious when we gave away Jason Kidd (domestic), Stephon Marbury (DUI, although he stinks anyways), forced Mike Tyson to move to Las Vegas (my favorite athlete), put Charles Barkley in jail, etc. It's just always been a state where the people didn't like athletes with checkered histories. The Bidwill family is huge on this as well. I can't see it happening. However, Donovan McNabb lives here and I can see that happening.
Mike Sando: I might have said the Cardinals could do worse than having Vick and Matt Leinart compete if Warner retired. That is presumably what prompted your line of thinking here. McNabb would make lots of sense in Arizona if the Eagles were willing to part with him. I've been a little skeptical on that happening, though.
CowboyP893 from Dallas writes: In past years, teams have released many players in the week just prior to the start of Free agency, at the end of February, with the term "cap casualty" often used. But with the uncapped year of 2010, won't teams just keep these players, at least until the draft (and likely longer), as their is no reason to cut these players that early, without a salary cap.
Mike Sando: That makes some sense. Organizations will need to protect themselves from having these players suffer injuries. Sometimes you see teams release players before the first minicamps. That could happen. Injured players can sometimes command all or part of their scheduled salaries.
Nate from Danville, Va., writes: Needing both a change of pace back and help in the return game, do you think the 49ers should target Leon Washington. I know he will probably end up a RFA, however with the emegrence of Shonn Greene the Jets may let him walk.
Mike Sando: Washington was with Jimmy Raye for a bit, too. On the other hand, Washington's production in the return game has diminished substantially since his breakout season of 2007, and now he is coming off a broken leg.
Allen from Phoenix writes: Hey, Sando, I heard something I found rather interesting on local sports talk radio the other day. They were saying that the departure of Kurt Warner (retirement), Antrel Rolle and Karlos Dansby (free agency) would be the equivalent of about $35 million freed up next year and that some of that could be used to sign Darnell Dockett long term and bring in some big-time free agents in need areas. I've heard something about the top eight teams not being able to go after some unrestricted free agents. Can you tell me more about this and how it would affect the Cards and your thoughts on extra money the Cards might have should Warner, Rolle and Dansby all depart?
Mike Sando: Teams that lost in the divisional round can sign one unrestricted free agent for $5.5 million or more in the first year of the deal, plus however many of their own UFAs sign elsewhere. These teams can also sign any UFAs for less than $3.7 million in the first year of the deal, with limitations on the annual increases, according to an NFL primer on the situation. "In the case of all final eight teams," the primer said, "the first year salary of UFAs they sign to replace those lost cannot exceed the first year salary of the player lost with limitations on the per-year increases."
On Dockett, there are no guarantees the Cardinals will move quickly. Dockett has two years left on his deal.
Colton from Friendsville, Pa., writes: Someone mentioned the possibility of moving Levi Brown over to the left side of the Cardinals' line and it brought up some old thoughts. I remember OTAs and training camp the year Brown was drafted. The coaching staff made the point of moving him over to the right side so he could be groomed as a blindside protector. To be more precise, Matt Leinart's blindside protector. Of course, we all know the story of who eventually won the Arizona starting QB gig.
Moving further back in time, when Leinart was drafted I was under the impression (and still am to some degree) that he would need a system revolving around him and his left-handedness in order to succeed. So, two questions for you: How much does a quarterback's throwing arm truly affect the offense? And ... do you think if and when Kurt Warner retires do you think a guy like Jim Zorn could fill the long-vacant offensive coordinator's job in Arizona?
Mike Sando: Yes, the Cardinals did think Matt Leinart would be their starter, and Brown would protect his blind side. NFL offenses are traditionally "right-handed" because most quarterbacks throw with their right hands. That is where quarterbacks have traditionally been more comfortable throwing. The right side is the side of the field they see the best. A great quarterback probably transcends such things. Leinart is not a great quarterback, so it's possible the offense could become more left-handed.
As for Zorn, he would probably be a good quarterbacks coach for Leinart. I'm not so sure about being a coordinator in that system, though, given that Zorn is so closely associated with the West Coast principles he learned from Mike Holmgren. Plus, Ken Whisenhunt likes to call the plays, and has had success doing so.