NFC West: Jason Pierre-Paul

Using an early draft choice for an unusually young player can carry risks.

The upside: a potentially longer career window.

As noted earlier Thursday, the San Francisco 49ers' Anthony Davis and the Seattle Seahawks' Earl Thomas are among three players to start all 48 games over the past three seasons before turning 24. Davis has already received a contract extension. Thomas is in line for one.

The chart breaks out all others with more than 35 starts over the past three seasons before they turned 24. Rolando McClain stands out as an exception for the wrong reasons. Most of the others have met general expectations.

That doesn't necessarily mean teams should rush out to draft especially young players. In some cases, it means exceptionally talented players were good enough to attract teams' interest in the absence of college seasoning.

Four of the players in the chart have achieved Pro Bowl and first-team Associated Press All-Pro status: Thomas, Pierre-Paul, Rob Gronkowski and Maurkice Pouncey. Thomas and Pouncey have also been second-team All-Pro choices.
@HavokHawk sized up the previous item and wanted to see the information narrowed for starting lineups.

Lineups aren't set in every case. Injuries are affecting a few situations. We're still able to put together a snapshot visible in the chart at the bottom of this entry.

Among the considerations:
Reid and Ogletree are the youngest projected starters in the division, followed by 22-year-olds Tavon Austin, T.J. McDonald, Michael Brockers, Williams and Bobby Wagner. Wagner, who started as a rookie for Seattle last season, turns 23 later this month.

Seattle's Earl Thomas and San Francisco's Anthony Davis are among three players from 2010 through last season to have started all 48 regular-season games before turning 24. The New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul is the other.

Rolando McClain's early retirement from the NFL comes three years after the Oakland Raiders made him the eighth overall choice in the 2010 draft.

While McClain is inviting derision, I wondered whether he was even the most disappointing choice from the first round of that 2010 class. He would fit right in with the 2009 group, for sure.

A quick check of games started by 2010 first-rounders showed four players with 48 starts in 48 possible regular-season games. Three of those four players were from the NFC West: Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis of the San Francisco 49ers, and Earl Thomas of the Seattle Seahawks.

Tyson Alualu, the player Jacksonville controversially selected 10th overall, rounds out the quartet.

St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford (42) and Seattle Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung (37) were relatively close behind. Dan Williams, chosen 26th overall by the Arizona Cardinals that year, ranked 26th on the list with 21 starts over the past three seasons.

All starts aren't quality starts, of course. McClain ranks relatively high on the list with 38 starts despite his bust status. Anyone familiar with the NFL would rather have Denver Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas (23 starts) than Alualu, who has struggled with knee trouble and generally been just OK.

First-round picks from 2010 have combined for 21 Pro Bowl honors.

Maurkice Pouncey leads the way with three. Thomas is one of five players with two. Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Eric Berry and Jermaine Gresham are the others.

Iupati and Okung are part of an eight-man grouping with one Pro Bowl. Ryan Mathews, Thomas, Devin McCourty, Gerald McCoy, C.J. Spiller and Trent Williams are the others.

Iupati, Pouncey, Suh, Thomas and Pierre-Paul have been first-team Associated Press All-Pro once apiece.

Bradford was offensive rookie of the year. Suh won defensive rookie of the year.
San Francisco 49ers defensive end Justin Smith is expected to need two or three months to recover from triceps surgery scheduled for this week.

That gives Smith ample time to ready himself for the 2013 season.

One question: How many miles remain on the odometer for Smith? The Pro Bowl lineman had started 185 consecutive regular-season games before the injury. He has said he doesn't want to become just a situational player, but it's reasonable to wonder for how long a 33-year-old defensive lineman can play nearly every snap without breaking down physically.

Ray McDonald, Smith's teammate on the defensive line, was one of three NFL defensive linemen to play at least 90 percent of his team's defensive snaps during the 2012 regular season.

Smith would have pushed for a spot on the list if an arm injury hadn't forced him to miss time. Even with the injury, Smith ranks among the NFL's top four defensive linemen in total snaps logged over the past two seasons, counting playoffs. McDonald is also on the list.

The 49ers' defensive players have logged high miles over the past two seasons. The team relies upon a smaller number of defensive players than most teams in part because their inside linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, stay on the field for passing downs.

That is only part of the story.

With Smith and the 28-year-old McDonald playing so extensively for a team that has also played five postseason games over two seasons, the 49ers could clearly use a depth infusion up front on defense.

Around the NFC West: 2010 draft revisited

September, 28, 2012
There was some consternation during the 2010 NFL draft when the San Francisco 49ers traded up from 13th to 11th for a shot at Rutgers tackle Anthony Davis.

Was such a small move up the board really worth the fourth-round choice San Francisco had to sacrifice as a result?

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News says Davis has earned acclaim for his play to this point in the 2012 season. Frank Gore: "Watching from his rookie year, he's a totally different player now. These first three games, he's been balling. He came a long way." Noted: Davis remains only 22 years old. He is probably benefiting from steadier play at the right-guard spot next to him. The team did have other viable options at that juncture of the draft. Ryan Mathews, Brandon Graham, Earl Thomas and Jason Pierre-Paul were the players selected right after the 49ers took Davis. Thomas and Pierre-Paul have gone to the Pro Bowl already.

Matt Maiocco of expects Isaac Sopoaga to miss the 49ers' game against the Jets. That means Ricky Jean-Francois will likely start.

Also from Maiocco: a look at the list of players from the 49ers and other teams eligible for Hall of Fame enshrinement this year.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers' decision to stay in Ohio this week has made it easier to focus on work. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman: "I think it's positive because there are no distractions. It gives you the chance to hole up in a hotel room and, rather than play cards, we're studying film. It gives you chance to be real isolated and to put our collective minds together to come up with the best plan."

Dan Caesar of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with former Rams coach Mike Martz, who is set to call the team's game against Seattle from the Edward Jones Dome. Caesar: "Although he’s away from the day-to-day coaching grind, broadcasting still ties him to the game. But he is far from the national broadcasting spotlight, as he’s working primarily on telecasts that are seen by small audiences. On Sunday he and play-by-play announcer Ron Pitts, along with reporter Kristina Pink, do a broadcast going to just seven percent of the country -- the least for any of the six NFL games Fox shows that day. Portland, Ore., which is in Seahawks country, and Oklahoma City, where interest remains high in Rams and former Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, are the only major markets outside St. Louis and Seattle scheduled to get the game."

Nick Wagoner of says the team is gearing up for Seattle's formidable defense. Coach Jeff Fisher had this to say, jokingly, after watching Seattle collect eight first-half sacks against Aaron Rodgers: "I thought about starting Kellen Clemens, honestly. And you can go tell him that, too."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times wonders why the Seahawks invested so heavily in Sidney Rice and Zach Miller. O'Neil: "The two are making a combined $13 million this season, and neither was among the five players who caught a pass for Seattle in the first half. That discrepancy between performance and paycheck points to the fact that they're overpaid, underperforming or criminally underused. Rice didn't catch a pass until Seattle's final play, and Miller caught two passes for 12 yards."

Also from O'Neil: Seattle's offense in general isn't doing much, and Pete Carroll says he's the reason why.

Brock Huard of 710ESPN Seattle breaks down the Seahawks play that broke down when Golden Tate ran the wrong route, then broke up a pass for Rice.

Darren Urban of says running back William Powell is eager to get reps now that Beanie Wells is out until Nov. 25. Urban: "Despite a notable preseason that saw Powell lead the league in rushing yards, he was fourth on the depth chart and the odd man out on game days. But Powell has impressed coach Ken Whisenhunt enough for the coach to keep him as his fourth back -- in case a situation like this week’s arose. Thus far, he’s spent the regular season running opponents’ offenses waiting for the opportunity to play in his first regular season game."
Thoughts on Seattle Seahawks first-round pick Bruce Irvin after reading John Clayton's piece questioning the selection:
  • Specific role: The Seahawks envision Irvin as a situational pass-rusher for now and the evenutal successor to Chris Clemons in the "Leo" role. Clemons was a 236-pound linebacker coming out of college. He had a 4.7-second time in the 40-yard dash, went undrafted as a junior and floundered in Philadelphia. The Seahawks acquired him with a specific role in mind. Clemons ranks eighth in the NFL with 22 sacks over the last two seasons, more than Julius Peppers, James Harrison, Clay Matthews, Dwight Freeney, Trent Cole, Jason Pierre-Paul and others. Clemons now weighs 255 pounds and has become much stronger against the run. Irvin is Clemons' height (6-foot-3) and weighs 245 pounds, but he is much faster, having run the 40 in 4.4 seconds. The plan would be for Irvin to grow into a bigger role, not to remain a situational player forever.
  • Value at No. 15: Draft analysts did not anticipate Irvin's selection at No. 15. It's impossible to know whether the Seahawks could have drafted Irvin later than that. Three teams running variations of the 4-3 defense selected defensive ends in the first round. Irvin went first, followed by Shea McClellin to Chicago at No. 19 and Chandler Jones to New England at No. 21. Jacksonville, picking 38th, was the next 4-3 team to select a defensive end (Andre Branch). There was a six-pick window for 4-3 teams to select a pass-rusher in the first round. Seattle opened the window. Chicago and New England closed it, with the Patriots trading up to make sure the window did not slam on them. The Seahawks liked Jones, but concerns over a toe injury raised questions about how early they would select him. They were comfortable with the off-field issues Irvin carried into the draft.
  • Whether Irvin starts: Aldon Smith collected 14 sacks in a situational role with San Francisco last season. Robert Mathis had three seasons with double-digit sacks as a reserve at various points in his career with Indianapolis. Years ago, a young Anthony Smith put together three consecutive seasons with double-digit sacks despite rarely starting for the Los Angeles Raiders. The plan is for Aldon Smith to become a starter this year. Mathis continued to produce as a starter. Anthony Smith's sack numbers fell. Clemons is the best comparison for Irvin. They have physical similarities. They are playing in the same scheme. The same coaches and personnel people decided they fit the same role.

Irvin will be a fun player to watch during training camp. Dexter Davis is another Seattle pass-rusher to keep in mind. He missed all but one game last season after suffering a hip injury and could be overlooked heading toward the season.

Grading the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI

February, 5, 2012
QUARTERBACK: Eli Manning completed 30 of 40 passes for 296 yards, one touchdown and a 103.8 NFL rating. He did not turn over the ball, which was huge for the Giants during their 21-17 victory. Manning's 38-yard sideline strike to Mario Manningham showed the raw arm talent that made Manning the first player selected in the 2004 NFL draft. Not many quarterbacks can make that throw. Manning made it when the Giants trailed, 17-15, with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Manning completed his first nine attempts for 77 yards and a touchdown, staking the Giants to an early lead as they dominated time of possession to begin the game. Manning made effective use of his running backs and tight ends, executing a mostly conservative game plan. But the Giants settled for field goals too frequently. Both teams had trouble striking on pass plays down the field until Manning found Manningham in the clutch. The two had failed to connect deep down the right sideline earlier in the fourth quarter. Manning's pass was a bit wide. Manningham could have done a better job getting his feet down. Grade: A-minus.

OFFENSE: The Giants came to life in the fourth quarter, a theme for them all season. They also avoided turnovers, a huge key. That excused their earlier offensive struggles, but we'll cover them anyway. New York twice committed drive-dooming penalties after crossing midfield. A first-half holding penalty against guard Kevin Boothe on a third-and-1 play proved pivotal. The infraction wasted Brandon Jacobs' 10-yard run, setting up third-and-1. The Giants went from driving toward likely points and a potential 16-3 lead to watching Tom Brady execute a 96-yard touchdown drive as New England pulled in front, 10-9. Then, with the Giants trailing 17-15 in the fourth quarter, a penalty for illegal procedure left the Giants in another third-and-10 situation, leading to another punt. The Giants did enjoy success early in the game. They were fortunate to recover their own fumbles, especially when Ahmad Bradshaw lost the ball deep in Giants territory. Losing tight ends Travis Beckum and Jake Ballard to injuries left New York with only one available tight end, Bear Pascoe. Grade: B

DEFENSE: Justin Tuck's pressure on Brady forced a safety on the Patriots' first offensive play. That was a sensational start for the Giants. Tuck closed out the game with a third-down sack with 39 seconds remaining. The Giants failed to get enough pressure between those plays, allowing Brady to shred their defense for stretches. But Brady averaged only 6.7 yards per attempt. The Giants held the Patriots to 17 points, about two touchdowns below their regular-season average. Jason Pierre-Paul was effective batting down passes. Chase Blackburn made his presence felt with a de-cleater hit on BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He also picked off a deep pass for Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots' quickness in general and Danny Woodhead's in particular gave the Giants problems, especially with Brady having time to operate. The Giants caught a break when Wes Welker got wide open and dropped a pass that would have moved New England into field-goal range while leading with about four minutes left. Grade: B-plus

COACHING: The Giants left 57 seconds on the clock when Bradshaw scored on a run up the middle to take a 21-17 lead. Bradshaw tried to sit down at the 1-yard line, but his momentum carried him into the end zone. The points were nice, but leaving that much time on the clock for Brady carried risk. The offensive plan seemed conservative and without enough play-action passing early. That was to be expected given Tom Coughlin's philosophy. That showed up when Coughlin handed off instead of taking a shot deep down the field on an early second-and-1. Grade: B

SPECIAL TEAMS: Lawrence Tynes made both field-goal attempts. The Giant did not allow a punt return. They forced New England to begin three drives inside their own 10-yard line. The Patriots never started a drive outside their own 29. No complaints here. Grade: A
Frank Gore's injury withdrawal from the Pro Bowl clears the way for Marshawn Lynch to participate as an alternate. It also amplifies questions about Gore's health late in the season.

Gore carried the ball 311 times in 18 games this season, counting playoffs. That was within one carry of his career high previously. But his 17 receptions were well less than half his previous single-season low since becoming a full-time starter in 2006.

Gore put together a string of five consecutive 100-yard rushing performances ending in Week 9. He finished with zero yards the next week after a hard tackle from the New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul left Gore with an apparent right knee injury. He suffered an ankle injury earlier in the season.

Gore never exceeded 89 yards in a game from that point forward. His yards per attempt exceeded 3.7 just once over the final eight regular-season games after five consecutive games between 4.3 and 9.4.

The chart, from Doug Clawson of ESPN Stats & Information, shows Gore's playing time over the course of the season.

I noticed Gore asking out of games following contact a few times, including early in a game at Arizona. Running backs come out on occasion; I have no way to know whether Gore did this more than usual in 2011. The 49ers like to mix up their personnel groups, anyway. Kendall Hunter is a big part of their ground game.

Someone suggested to me via Twitter -- I couldn't immediately find that tweet, unfortunately -- that Gore did not seem to be carrying the ball on back-to-back plays as frequently. I had the same feeling.

Clawson investigated. The results weren't conclusive. Gore had a season-high 11 back-to-back rushes in Week 8. He had seven in Weeks 1 and 11, six in Week 16, five in Week 5 and four in three games (two of them in Week 13 or later).

Gore still managed to rush for 1,211 yards, his highest regular-season total since 2006. His per-carry average spiked during the playoffs. Lots of players withdraw from the Pro Bowl. There should be no panic. But as Gore approaches his 29th birthday in May, about the age when running backs tend to slow, durability questions aren't likely to go away.

Final Word: Giants at 49ers

January, 20, 2012
Conference Championship Final Word: Ravens-Patriots | Giants-49ers

Three nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Giants-49ers NFC Championship Game:

1. Wide receivers wanted: Alex Smith's passes to tight end Vernon Davis were the difference in the 49ers' 36-32 victory over New Orleans in the divisional round. San Francisco could use more production from its wide receivers against the Giants. Smith averaged a whopping 20 yards per attempt when targeting Davis, but the averages were minuscule for wideouts Ted Ginn Jr. (3.7), Michael Crabtree (2.8) and Kyle Williams (2.4). Crabtree had only 21 yards against the Giants in Week 10, his second-lowest figure of the season. Time to step up?

[+] EnlargeMichael Crabtree
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireThe 49ers stand to benefit from better production from receiver Michael Crabtree against the Giants.
2. Breaking tendencies: In Week 10, the Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul injured 49ers running back Frank Gore with a violent tackle on a predictable running play from San Francisco's 22 personnel grouping (two backs, two tight ends). At the time, I thought the 49ers could benefit from mixing in downfield strikes when using heavier personnel, especially in short-yardage situations. They have not attempted a pass this season when using 22 personnel with 1-2 yards needed for a first down. They had 21 runs and a quarterback scramble on those plays. The 49ers have called passes 15 percent of the time when needing a yard for a first down. The league average is 30 percent. This might be a good week to break from tendency.

3. Keeping Manning honest: Giants quarterback Eli Manning was 7-of-9 for a season-high 155 yards and two touchdowns when using play fakes against Green Bay last week, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The 49ers should fare much better in this category if their run defense continues to hold up without committing additional defenders to the box. The 49ers' defense led the NFL in fewest rushing yards, yards per carry and rushing first downs allowed. The Giants' offense was 32nd, 32nd and 24th in those categories, respectively.
This was indeed a special season for the San Francisco 49ers and, by extension, the NFC West overall.

The Associated Press All-Pro Team, announced Friday, includes five 49ers, a league high for any team. Arizona's Patrick Peterson made the team as the return specialist, joining the 49ers' David Akers and Andy Lee to give the NFC West all three specialists.

The 49ers' Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman made it as inside linebackers. Teammate Justin Smith made it as a defensive tackle. He also got votes at defensive end. Smith moves around the line, playing end in the base 3-4.

Aaron Rodgers won 47.5 out of 50 votes at quarterback, a strong indication Rodgers will emerge as the leader in MVP balloting. Those results have not yet been revealed, but they draw from the same group of voters.

The chart shows All-Pro counts by division.

Also making the team: fullback Vonta Leach, center Maurkice Pouncey, guard Carl Nicks, guard Jahri Evans, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, running back LeSean McCoy, tackle Joe Thomas, tackle Jason Peters, tight end Rob Gronkowski, receiver Wes Welker, receiver Calvin Johnson, cornerback Darrelle Revis, cornerback Charles Woodson, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive end Jared Allen, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, linebacker Derrick Johnson, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware safety Troy Polamalu and safety Eric Weddle.

Expanded list: Most sacks per pass play

December, 8, 2011
Expanding on an earlier post, this one ranks NFL players by most sacks per pass play through Week 13.

The San Francisco 49ers' Aldon Smith ranks fourth on the list. The St. Louis Rams' Chris Long is 10th. The Arizona Cardinals' Sam Acho ranks 19th. Ex-Seattle Seahawk Lawrence Jackson is 14th. Ex-Ram Adam Carriker ranks 21st.

Smith is keeping impressive company. The next step for him, likely next season, will be to maintain his pass-rush production as an every-down player, when he'll also have to hold up against the run more frequently. So far, so good.

The St. Louis Rams' Robert Quinn did not quite make the chart. He has five sacks and a 2.2 percentage. Seattle's Chris Clemons has eight sacks and a 2.1 percentage.

Sacks are not the only measure of a player's performance, of course. The best pass-rushers tend to collect a lot of them, however.


2011 49ers Week 10: Five observations

November, 20, 2011
Five things I noticed while watching the San Francisco 49ers' most recent game, a 27-20 home victory over the New York Giants:
  • Akers' impressive form. Kicker David Akers' onside kick fooled the Giants for a couple reasons. Situation played a role. Teams generally do not opt for onside kicks with five minutes remaining in the first half. Akers' execution was also flawless. His run-up to the ball sold a regular kickoff. Two of the Giants' five up men had their backs to the ball as Akers followed through with the kick. Akers also struck the ball perfectly, producing a high kick.
  • A changeup on offense might help. The Giants stacked nine defenders near the line of scrimmage for one first-and-10 running play. It was hard to fault them. The 49ers had only one wide receiver on the field as part of their "22" personnel group with two backs and two tight ends. Frank Gore never had a chance. The Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul ran down the line unblocked and tackled Gore violently, injuring him. This play made me wonder whether the 49ers have become predictable from this run-oriented grouping. They have run the ball on 18 of their past 22 first-down plays using 22 personnel, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Previous 49ers coaches sometimes used 22 personnel to free Vernon Davis for long receptions in short-yardage situations. So far this season, the 49ers have run the ball on all six third-and-1 plays featuring 22 personnel.
  • Bear Pascoe's over-the-top celebration. The Giants' tight end and one-time 49ers draft choice celebrated wildly after running over Carlos Rogers and through Patrick Willis during a reception up the right sideline. Microphones picked up his primal howls. He was far less demonstrative when the 49ers' Parys Haralson flat-backed him during a pass-rush matchup in the backfield a few minutes earlier. Pascoe lined up at fullback on the play. Haralson ran over him violently. Eli Manning tossed a near-interception on the play (free safety Dashon Goldson could not get a second foot down inbounds).
  • Smith's mobility. Analysts sometimes praise a quarterback for his ability to "throw open" a covered receiver. The 49ers' Alex Smith doesn't seem to do this. His throws seem deliberate and reflective of the team's emphasis on avoiding turnovers. Smith does put his mobility to good use. This could have been a five-sack game for him. Instead, he took only two. Smith repeatedly bought time, sometimes changing direction abruptly within the pocket to avoid defenders. And his well-timed scrambles contributed to the 49ers' day-long advantage in field position.
  • About those controversial shifts. The Giants became the latest team frustrated by the 49ers' presnap tactics. Tight end Delanie Walker drew them offside by rising from his stance at the end of the line and backing up after receiver Ted Ginn Jr. went in motion to his side of the field. Ginn slapped Walker on the butt as he ran past. It's pretty clear the 49ers are trying to draw opponents across the line even though coach Jim Harbaugh says they're merely shifting to affect the strength of the formation. Walker's movement away from the line timed up with a hard count from Smith. I doubt that was a coincidence. It'll be fun to watch how the Arizona Cardinals react Sunday. Their defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, used the word "cute" to describe the shifting.

All for now. I'll be heading over to Candlestick Park in the not-too-distant future.

Around the NFC West: Frank Gore strategy

November, 15, 2011
Frank Gore was nearly on the ground when Jason Pierre-Paul, the New York Giants' 278-pound defensive end, rocked the San Francisco 49ers' running back with a clean, tough hit.

It was the sort of hit that is tough to anticipate, increasing vulnerability to injury. Gore got up, quickly located his backup on the sideline and signaled for Kendall Hunter to replace him.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Gore's knee injury does not appear to be serious. Barrows: "Gore was seen moving around Monday without a limp, and Jim Harbaugh said he thought the running back would be able to play Sunday against the Cardinals. Gore entered Sunday's game against the Giants with a sprained left ankle, then appeared to injure his right knee after a hard tackle by defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul in the second quarter." Noted: Do the 49ers absolutely need Gore to win at home against the Cardinals? They might. No victories are gimmes. Still, if the 49ers can get away with significantly scaling back Gore's work or holding him out of the game entirely, that could serve them well for the remainder of the season. Gore lasted 11 games in 2010 before suffering a season-ending injury.

Matt Maiocco of says Gore told him he felt fine.

Also from Maiocco: Harbaugh says multiple 49ers assistants project as head coaching candidates. Noted: Harbaugh is making a concerted effort to promote selflessness among the 49ers. He regularly gives all credit to players. Players regularly deflect praise. Winning makes everyone happy.

Scott Kacsmar of Cold, Hard Football Facts breaks down the 49ers' victory over the Giants. Thanks for passing along, Scott.

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says Alex Smith played Sunday with confidence he had not shown previously.

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle quotes Harbaugh as saying there was nothing lucky about the play Justin Smith made to preserve the victory Sunday.

Clare Farnsworth of says the team is more committed to running the ball lately. Farnsworth: "The coaches also have committed to the run, despite running into those defenses that had been allowing averages of 86.8 (Ravens) and 93.9 (Cowboys) rushing yards. The Seahawks’ 42 rushing plays on Sunday where the team’s most since Week 3 in 2008, when they ran the ball 46 times for 245 yards in a 37-13 win over the Rams." Noted: Leading the game or at least staying close makes it possible.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times offers thoughts on the Seahawks' victory over Baltimore, including this one on Alan Branch: "Typecast as an underachiever in Arizona, Branch has looked anything but as Seattle's nosetackle. He plays with passion, energy and he's built similarly to Red Bryant giving the Seahawks another long-limbed hulk on the defensive line. The Cardinals weren't all that sad to see him go, but he has been a key addition to Seattle's defensive line."

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune takes a closer look at the Seahawks' penalty problems.

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle says Russell Okung is playing with attitude and it's make a difference, according to coach Pete Carroll. Noted: I made a similar observation following the Seahawks' game at Dallas a week ago. I suspect this means Okung is more confident in his health.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic looks for reasons behind the Cardinals' improvement on defense. McManaman: "Maybe they've finally grasped all the endless details in coordinator Ray Horton's complicated system of schemes. Just a couple of weeks ago, however, Horton indicated that the team is running only about 30 percent of the total package. Perhaps then it's been a much-needed injection of youth and enthusiasm, which the team clearly seems to be getting from the likes of linebackers Daryl Washington, Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield. Or it could all just be a mirage. The Cardinals have allowed only one touchdown the past two weeks - and no passing touchdowns for the past three - and yet their past two wins have come against teams with a combined 5-13 record."

Also from McManaman: Ken Whisenhunt downplays talk of any Cardinals quarterback controversy.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic thinks the Cardinals are likely to give John Skelton another start while Kevin Kolb recovers from his toe injury. Somers: "If Skelton starts and struggles in San Francisco, then there is no decision for Whisenhunt to make. He goes back to Kolb. If Skelton plays well and Kolb returns to health, then Whisenhunt will have to participate in the quarterback discussion then. Not before."

Darren Urban of has this to say about former Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart, the new starter in Houston following Matt Schaub's injury: "Leinart will take over the reins of a 7-3 team that is in control of its division. The Texans have a favorable schedule, a great run game and a good defense. I was surprised Leinart passed up a chance to sign with Seattle this offseason and possibly become the starter. It worked out for him. It will be interesting to see how life in Houston plays out with Leinart as QB."

Kathleen Nelson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams quarterback Sam Bradford left for one play against Cleveland after getting hit in the thigh, not after aggravating his ankle injury. No walking boot for Bradford this week, either.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch runs through the Rams' lengthy injury list. Thomas: "Spagnuolo mentioned 15 injured players, or nearly one-third of a game-day roster. Among them, cornerback Al Harris and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui are out for the season with knee injuries suffered Sunday in Cleveland. ... Cornerbacks are all but an endangered species at Rams Park. The Rams also are running low on offensive tackles and tight ends, and they aren't exactly swimming in wide receivers."

Nick Wagoner of expects Chris Long to finish with around 13 sacks this season. Long has eight heading into a matchup with Seahawks right tackle James Carpenter.
Joe from Fort Collins, Colo., writes: Hey Mike, do you think the Arizona Cardinals should think about trading down from the No. 5 posititon if Blaine Gabbert and Patrick Peterson are both gone? I think it's too high for pass-rusher Von Miller, and the defensive linemen would be there between No.s 14 and 22. If they could, say, grab an extra third-round pick and drop down, I would do it. If Gabbert and Peterson are both there, grab the QB. Thanks!

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
AP Photo/Darron CummingsLSU's Patrick Peterson might be available for the Cardinals, who hold the No. 5 pick in the NFL draft.
Mike Sando: We'll want to see how a new labor agreement (if there is one) treats draft choices. A cap on top draft choices' salaries could affect how teams view those choices. Chatter about trading down is usually overrated because teams aren't excited about jumping into those premium-dollar slots. And when there are obvious top-five choices available, teams can be less eager to trade out of those spots.

In general, the Cardinals need difference-makers, so if they can get one of the five best players in the draft, they should do so. Gabbert would qualify as a difference-maker by the nature of his position, provided Arizona had him rated highly enough.

Pass-rushers are difference-makers, too, but you raise a good point. Teams have gotten productive pass-rush help outside the top five choices. No pass-rush types went among the top 12 choices in the 2010 NFL draft. Brandon Graham (13th), Jason Pierre-Paul (15th) and Derrick Morgan (16th) were the first defensive end/outside pass-rushers taken. Aaron Maybin, drafted 11th overall in 2009, was the first selected in his draft class. Chris Long went second overall in 2008 and Mario Williams was first overall in 2006, but they were very strong all-around prospects.

I don't see the value being there, necessarily, for the Cardinals at cornerback. That could change depending upon what new defensive coordinator Ray Horton wants for his defense relative to what Arizona already has on its roster. But with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie coming to Arizona as a first-round pick in recent seasons, the Cardinals would ideally target another position at No. 5 overall.

Also: Tony Softli's review on Peterson makes me think the Cardinals couldn't even think about passing on him, if they have a shot at him at all.

Sizing up NFC West mock drafts

April, 6, 2010
Draft analysts Nolan Nawrocki and Rob Rang posted updated mock drafts Monday.

I've singled out their selections for NFC West teams and run them alongside the Insider projections Mel Kiper and Todd McShay made March 11.

Nawrocki says he thinks Williams' skills mesh perfectly with what the Seahawks want to do offensively, offsetting questions about Williams' work ethic.

Three of the four analysts have Clemson running back C.J. Spiller landing in the NFC West.

Nawrocki and Rang line up on Sam Bradford (Rams), Williams (Seahawks), and Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.

Weatherspoon would replace Karlos Dansby at inside linebacker in these projections. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was with the Steelers when they used a second-round choice for a 3-4 inside linebacker with similar height and weight (Kendrell Bell).

I'm just not sure if using a first-round pick for an inside linebacker qualifies as an ideal scenario. Nose tackle Dan Williams remained available for the Cardinals' choice at No. 26 on Nawrocki's mock draft (landing with San Diego at No. 28).