NFC West: Jason Smith
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
The injury was a tough one for the Cardinals. They are rebuilding their long-neglected offensive line around Cooper, the seventh overall pick in the draft. Injuries sidelined multiple starters on the line last season, including left tackle Levi Brown and center Lyle Sendlein. Losing Cooper before he plays a regular-season game reduces the margin for error even though overall line depth is improved.
There is hope for Cooper. Other highly drafted offensive linemen have bounced back from injury-shortened rookie seasons in recent years. Russell Okung, taken sixth overall by the Seattle Seahawks in 2010, rebounded to earn Pro Bowl honors in his third season. Cincinnati's Andre Smith and Atlanta's Sam Baker have been more durable lately after rough early stretches.
The chart below ranks first-round offensive linemen from 2008 through 2012 by most games missed as rookies.
Chris McIntosh, Steve Hutchinson, James Carpenter, Okung and Jason Smith are five first-round offensive linemen from NFC West teams to miss time early in their careers since the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions for the 2002 season. All but Hutchinson suffered significant injuries as a rookie. Hutchinson suffered a broken leg four games into his second season.
Four of the 29 players NFC West teams selected in that draft remain with their original teams: Michael Crabtree in San Francisco, James Laurinaitis in St. Louis, Max Unger in Seattle and Rashad Johnson in Arizona.
Unger is the only one of the 29 to earn Pro Bowl honors. Unger and Laurinaitis are the only ones to receive long-term contract extensions from their original teams.
NFC West teams have fired the head coaches and general managers associated with those 2009 selections.
Reasons for those firings went far beyond the 2009 draft, of course. Still, the massive turnover since that draft reflects poorly on what was, by most accounts, a weak class across the league. It also shows how frequently personnel turns over in the NFL. The league has 21 new head coaches and 19 new general managers since the 2009 season concluded.
Curry was widely considered the "safest" choice in that 2009 draft as a fearsome linebacker from Wake Forest. Seattle would trade him to Oakland for seventh- and fifth-round picks before Curry had finished his third season.
Jason Smith, chosen second overall by St. Louis in 2009, supposedly had a mean streak and was a natural leader. The Rams would trade him to the New York Jets for Wayne Hunter after three disappointing seasons.
Beanie Wells came to the Cardinals in the first round of that 2009 draft pretty much as advertised: highly talented, but not very durable. The Cardinals released him this offseason, and Wells remains unsigned amid questions about his knee.
2009 was also the year Arizona sought to upgrade its pass-rush by selecting Cody Brown in the second round. The 49ers tried to improve their depth at running back by using a third-round choice for Glen Coffee. Brown would never play in an NFL game. Coffee would retire after one season.
The chart shows how many regular-season NFL starts each 2009 NFC West draft choice has made, regardless of team.
PHOENIX -- Had the 2009 NFL draft gone as planned for the St. Louis Rams, the team would be thinking about a contract extension for tackle Jason Smith.
The 2009 draft did not go as planned for the Rams -- or for a long list of teams.
Smith struggled before St. Louis traded him to the New York Jets last year for journeyman Wayne Hunter. The Rams recovered Sunday. They reached agreement on a four-year contract with tackle Jake Long, the first player chosen in the 2008 draft.
Think of it as the Rams upgrading from Smith to Long at left tackle.
Smith played right tackle during his Rams career, but that was because the team realized he wasn't the answer on the left side, contrary to expectations on draft day. Smith was supposed to be the Rams' franchise left tackle. Long fills that role now.
The Rams are betting on Long to regain good health following two injury-shortened seasons. Their general manager, Les Snead, has said the team had no concerns about Long's health following biceps and triceps injuries.
The Rams' future at left tackle appears brighter than at any time since the Orlando Pace era.
BOSTON -- The San Francisco 49ers, having already spent big for Patrick Willis, engaged in a lengthy internal debate before deciding to invest heavily in a second inside linebacker, NaVorro Bowman, last season.
The St. Louis Rams also had big-picture NFL economics in mind when they sent the second pick of the 2012 NFL draft to Washington, a deal that stocked St. Louis with early picks while allowing Robert Griffin III to land in the nation's capital.
These were a couple NFC West points of interest when 49ers chief operating officer Paraag Marathe and his Rams counterpart, Kevin Demoff, joined a football analytics panel Friday at the recently completed MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
Marathe sat at one end of the four-man panel. Demoff sat at the other. For one hour, the two joined Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz and former NFL executive Scott Pioli in discussing where the game is headed through increasingly sophisticated use of data.
There was some fun back-and-forth, including when Marathe, Demoff and Pioli dodged moderator Andrea Kremer's question about which players are most overrated. Demoff broke the tension by saying he hoped other teams would consider the Rams' impending free agents overrated, allowing St. Louis to re-sign them more easily.
On a more serious note, Marathe and Demoff expanded on how the 2011 collective bargaining agreement has changed the way teams build their rosters.
"There is a lot of discussion right now about the shrinking of the middle class in football," Demoff said. "Elite players continue to get paid at high levels and there are no more $3-4 million players. A lot of that is because teams are getting better at scouting college players and the draft has become efficient."
The rookie wage scale has made college players more affordable, particularly early in the draft. That could be allowing teams to concentrate their free-agent budgets on a smaller list of higher-priced veterans.
"If you have $8 million to spend in free agency, you might be better off spending $7 million on one guy and $1 million on the other than buying two players at $4 million," Demoff said.
That is because teams are increasingly focused on accumulating as many high-impact players as they can with less regard for the positions those players play, in Demoff's view. For the 49ers, that meant paying both Bowman and Willis instead of letting Bowman hit the market simply because the 49ers' budget for inside linebackers was tapped out.
Such thinking could come into play for Seattle if safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor still project as Pro Bowl players when their contracts wane. Thomas, as the 14th pick of the 2010 draft, was the more highly valued player. Re-signing him would be the higher priority, in my view, if Seattle had to choose between its safeties. But if the Seahawks can draft a lower-cost alternative in the meantime, the team will have additional options.
As noted last month, the Seahawks got exceptional value from their defense last season largely because they've drafted so well recently, finding low-cost-starters in the back seven especially. Seattle ranked first in point allowed and seventh in EPA despite ranking 30th in cap dollars committed to defensive players.
The 49ers also fielded a top defense, but they're further along in their development, which is a nice way of saying they've got more money tied up in veteran players. San Francisco led the league in cap dollars allocated to defensive players last season. The decision to re-sign Bowman was made in that context.
"We have the most expensive defense in the league on an average per-year basis, and that is not sustainable over time," Marathe said. "Because of the cap, if every veteran on the team took a 15 percent discount on their market value, you couldn't field that team still under the cap because the difference between wholesale [draft] and retail [free agency] is so wide.
"You have to figure out which players to keep and which players to let move on and churn out. Because you have to continue to replenish the system."
"Paraag makes a great point in that his defense right now, and they are fantastic, but ultimately a scheme like that is going to be very expensive to keep and get veterans to do," Demoff said. "So, either they are going to wind up changing schemes and adapting, or they are going to decide which positions are most valuable. I have long thought teams would go to a 3-4 because it was easier to find nose tackles, but now [top] nose tackles are worth $12 million."
The prices for positions change over time in relation to supply and demand. There's been a trend toward more 3-4 schemes in recent years. Those schemes tend to be more complex. They often work best with veteran players running them. Veteran players tend to cost more money. It gets back to wholesale vs. retail.
The 49ers' decision at inside linebacker came down to whether Bowman and Willis could still have sufficient combined value if the defensive scheme changed.
"There was a lot of debate about that before we decided to make the move," Marathe said. "Ultimately, we decided that, yes, having two position trend-setting players was worth having on our team. But it was not without hesitation because of system."
Demoff sees strong focus on making efficient use of, say, the 35th through 53rd salary slots on an NFL roster. Teams drafting well can leverage additional margin for error under the current labor structure because early draft choices cost less.
The change is one the Rams in particular should welcome.
The Rams are still digging out financially from the old system after funneling wildly disproportionate resources into their 2008, 2009 and 2010 first-round choices. Chris Long, Jason Smith and Sam Bradford all were chosen among the top two overall picks at a time when those choices carried premium price tags.
Long signed a contract extension last season. Smith was traded to the New York Jets and subsequently released by them.
Bradford's rookie deal is scheduled to count $12.6 million against the cap in 2013, his fourth NFL season. The deal Andrew Luck signed with Indianapolis as the first pick under the new labor agreement could count closer to $7 million when Luck is in his fourth season in 2015. That's an advantage for the Colts.
The Rams have 10 contracts scheduled to count roughly $85 million against the $123.9 million cap for 2013, not counting the deal Steven Jackson is expected to void when free agency begins March 12. That is the highest projected figure in the NFC West. The Colts' 10 highest cap charges total less than $50 million. Factors beyond the rookie wage scale account for much of the difference. The Rams could reduce the figure through roster moves and renegotiation. But there's no getting around Bradford's rookie contract, either.
"When we did the RG III trade a year ago, we looked out and said, 'In 2014, we will have 12 players who were first- or second-round picks under the new rookie wage scale,' " Demoff said. "Twelve of our best players will make less than $25 million combined in 2014, which meant on the remainder of our team, we could overpay a few guys in free agency, we could make a few mistakes here or there and we would have a pretty good nucleus.
"We have all stopped looking at where you spend. It is, 'How do you accumulate the best players regardless of position?'"
That makes it tough to criticize the Bills too harshly for making a move that could cost them when the Seahawks face Buffalo in Week 15.
I thought I'd use the occasion to review NFC West player trade acquisitions since early 2010. The time period dates to John Schneider's arrival as the Seahawks' general manager. It also covers Trent Baalke's stint in the role for San Francisco and Les Snead's hiring as GM in St. Louis. Arizona fans might find the subject helpful, too, as they consider whether longtime GM Rod Graves, perceived as relatively inactive, has been aggressive enough in procuring talent.
Players acquired: 12
Overall impact: Significant
Best acquisitions: Lynch, Chris Clemons, Leon Washington.
Worst acquisition: Charlie Whitehurst
Also acquired: Clinton McDonald, Kellen Winslow, Kentwan Balmer, Kevin Vickerson, LenDale White, Robert Henderson, Stacy Andrews, Tyler Polumbus
Comment: Lynch has 3,043 yards rushing since making his Seahawks debut. Only Arian Foster, Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice have more over that span. His 27 rushing touchdowns rank tied for fourth. Seattle got him for a 2011 fourth-round pick and a 2012 fifth-rounder. Clemons, acquired from Philadelphia along with a fourth-round choice for Darryl Tapp, has 31 sacks since Seattle acquired him. That ranks eighth in the NFL. Washington, acquired for a 2010 fifth-round choice, has four kickoff returns for touchdowns since the Seahawks acquired him. That is tied with Jacoby Ford for most in the NFL. He averages 31.2 yards per kickoff return this season, a career-high figure that ranks third in the NFL among players with at least 10 returns. The Whitehurst deal was a rip-off, but a least the Seahawks didn't commit too much financially. It's a deal Seattle won't hear about much if current starting quarterback Russell Wilson continues on his current course.
Players acquired: 4
Overall impact: Moderate to high
Best acquisitions: Kerry Rhodes
Worst acquisition: Kevin Kolb
Also acquired: Vonnie Holliday, Charles Scott
Comment: Kolb cost too much for what Arizona has reaped in return. The team was desperate for quarterback help at the time, however, and the move was defensible under the circumstances. Rhodes has been a solid starter since Arizona acquired him from the New York Jets for a 2010 fourth-round choice and a 2011 seventh-rounder. His fumble-forcing sack against Michael Vick triggered a blowout. His pass defensed in the end zone helped preserve a victory at New England. His interception against Miami set up the winning field goal in overtime. Rhodes also had two picks and a forced fumble against the Jets. He and Green Bay's Charles Woodson are the only NFL players with at least eight picks and four sacks since 2010.
San Francisco 49ers
Players acquired: 1
Overall impact: Moderate
Best acquisitions: Ted Ginn Jr.
Worst acquisition: N/A
Also acquired: N/A
Comment: Ginn has two kickoff returns for touchdowns and one punt return for a touchdown since joining the 49ers. He has averaged 11.9 yards per punt return, second only to Patrick Peterson's 12.2-yard average since 2010 among NFC West players with at least 10 returns over that span. Ginn's kickoff return average with the 49ers (23.5) ranks below the NFC West average (24.6) since 2010. Ginn has not made a significant impact as a wide receiver.
St. Louis Rams
Players acquired: 6
Overall impact: Low
Best acquisitions: Mark Clayton, Brandon Lloyd
Worst acquisitions: N/A
Also acquired: Bobby Carpenter, Dennis Morris, Kevin Payne, Wayne Hunter
Comment: Hunter is the only veteran player acquired through trade by the Rams' current leadership. He has been better than Jason Smith, the player St. Louis traded away in the Hunter deal. Clayton was looking like a terrific last-minute acquisition in 2010, but injuries prevented him from making a sustained impact. Lloyd wound up being a short-term rental during a lost 2011 season. He did provide a needed upgrade. I didn't see any "worst" acquisitions for the Rams. These were small-stakes deals.
I agree with Cimini's contention that the Jets, having recently lost slot corner Isaiah Trufant to a knee injury, appear poorly equipped to defend Rams receiver Danny Amendola.
Another matchup Cimini highlights -- Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez against the Rams' secondary -- is one I see as pivotal to how the game plays out. The Rams have zero interceptions in their past five games after collecting eight of them during their 2-2 start.
Rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins started quickly, but he was struggling before serving a one-game team suspension for violating team rules. I think the Rams need and will probably get a strong game from top cornerback Cortland Finnegan. He's been too consistently good to go much longer without forcing a turnover or otherwise making a game-turning play. The Rams' front four figures to pressure Sanchez into a couple mistakes. It's up to Finnegan and the secondary to capitalize on them.
Cimini did not mention Jason Smith, the offensive tackle St. Louis traded to the Jets before the regular season. Cimini's teammate on the Jets' blog, Jane McManus, checked in with Smith recently. Smith is not starting for the Jets. He serves as an extra tight end when the team needs another blocker.
That was the year St. Louis used the second overall choice for tackle Jason Smith, Seattle selected linebacker Aaron Curry over quarterback Mark Sanchez at No. 4, San Francisco used the ninth pick for receiver Michael Crabtree and Arizona snagged running back Beanie Wells at No. 31.
The Smith and Curry picks busted, but as Facebook friend Justin mentioned on my Wall, the Seahawks should be increasingly thankful they didn't select Sanchez over Curry with the fourth overall choice.
Drafting a quarterback that early practically requires staying the course with him for years in the absence of evidence the choice is working out favorably for the team.
Sanchez hasn't shown much improvement, by most accounts.
The quarterback's completion percentage and NFL passer rating have remained flat. He has never posted a single-season Total QBR score in the above-average range: 31.6 in 2009, 48.0 in 2010, 33.6 last season and 32.2 so far in 2012. The Jets have gotten worse around him, and Sanchez hasn't been able to pick up the slack.
The team has stuck with him except for when it signed Tim Tebow as insurance.
Investing so much in a quarterback is different from investing so much in a linebacker. It's like being pot-committed in poker.
Meanwhile, Seattle bailed from the Curry experiment last season and immediately got better at linebacker. The team kept open its options at quarterback longer than a lot of fans would have preferred, but with Russell Wilson making strides in recent weeks, Seattle appears more likely than the Jets to have solved its quarterback dilemma.
Arizona Cardinals: Kevin Kolb heads into Week 2 as the presumed starting quarterback while John Skelton recovers from an ankle injury expected to sideline him for the next couple weeks. Skelton's injury gives Kolb an opportunity to build upon his game-winning drive against Seattle without pressuring coach Ken Whisenhunt to make a long-term decision right away. Kolb has had trouble staying healthy. If he gets hurt and Skelton cannot play, rookie Ryan Lindley is next in the line of succession. The team could consider signing a veteran at that point, but the Cardinals aren't in that position at present. Running back Beanie Wells' hamstring situation will merit monitoring later in the week. He missed practice Friday and did not start as a result. Rookie Ryan Williams lost a fumble. That position still needs to settle out. Good depth at cornerback allowed Arizona to arguably upgrade with Michael Adams after rookie Jamell Fleming left the Seattle game with a shoulder injury. Fleming was limited Wednesday, as were outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield (knee) and safety Adrian Wilson (ankle).
St. Louis Rams: Last season, the Rams suffered an inordinate number of injuries at cornerback. The offensive line is taking hits early in the 2012 season. The team placed veteran center Scott Wells on injured reserve with a designation for return at midseason. Left tackle Rodger Saffold practiced on a limited basis Wednesday after suffering a neck injury in the opener, a very encouraging sign. He's expected to miss this game against Washington. Rookie Rokevious Watkins, who finished the opener at left guard, suffered an ankle injury and was on crutches Wednesday. The team re-signed Quinn Ojinnaka and could start him at left guard. Robert Turner, who replaced Wells in the opener, will start at center. Wayne Hunter, acquired from the New York Jets in the Jason Smith trade, becomes the starter at left tackle. He started 16 games last season and knows the offense, as does Ojinnaka. Michael Brockers (ankle) remains out, compromising depth at defensive tackle. Darell Scott (knee) was limited and would help the rotation if available. The Redskins' Week 1 opponent, New Orleans, was in its base defense not quite half the time last week.
San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers' injury situation has improved from last week. Aldon Smith showed the hip injury he suffered during preseason wasn't going to be a factor entering the regular season. The team could still wind up missing former starting outside linebacker Parys Haralson, who landed on injured reserve. But that was not the case against Green Bay and should not be the case against Detroit. The Packers and Lions are largely passing teams. San Francisco still does not have receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle) or running back Brandon Jacobs (knee) back at practice. The rotations at their positions appear plenty deep anyway.
Seattle Seahawks: Russell Okung's bruised knee kept him from practicing Wedneseday. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said he thinks Okung will practice later in the week, with a good shot at playing against Dallas. Frank Omiyale is getting first-team work in the meantime. Carroll has landed on the optimistic side in the past, so we'll be watching closely to see if Okung actually does practice this week. Okung fared pretty well against Cowboys pass-rusher Demarcus Ware last season. While he struggled against the Cardinals last week, Okung gives the Seahawks their best chance against Ware. Left guard Paul McQuistan finished last season at left tackle and could move there if needed. Seattle expects to have John Moffitt back from an elbow injury this week. Moffitt will replace rookie J.R. Sweezy at right guard if Moffitt holds up in practice this week. He's more experienced than Sweezy and would probably fare better picking up inside blitzes. Former starting right tackle James Carpenter is also back to full participation following knee surgery. He's an option at left guard, at least eventually. Receiver Golden Tate is returning from a knee injury suffered during the final preseason game. Doug Baldwin had teeth knocked out Sunday, but should play. Tate's return comes while receiver Charly Martin misses at least one game after suffering a bruised lung. Sidney Rice missed practice with a knee injury. He was expected to play against Dallas.
Wayne Hunter has taken over at left tackle. The Rams already lost center Scott Wells to a foot injury.
Saffold's injury appeared to be a freak one. He was providing pass protection for Sam Bradford's go-ahead touchdown pass to Brandon Gibson with 9:45 remaining in the fourth quarter when his head struck the back of the Lions' Sammie Hill. Saffold fell to the ground and stayed there.
Rams players gathered in a circle, apparently in prayer, as medical personnel tended to Saffold and transported him off the field.
The Rams have had bad luck with injuries at offensive tackle. Former starting right tackle Jason Smith, subsequently traded for Hunter, suffered a concussion while attempting to make a tackle following an interception at Dallas last season. Saffold suffered a torn pectoral while lifting weights late last season.
Depth on the offensive line was already a potential concern for the Rams.
The Lions have subsequently scored the tying touchdown, pending an extra point.
Fisher has been on the job less than eight months. Spagnuolo was head coach for the previous three years.
That should give you a feel for the degree to which St. Louis is remaking its roster under new leadership.
The 11 players drafted under Fisher include nine members of the Rams' 2012 class, plus two of Fisher's former players in Tennessee: cornerback Cortland Finnegan and defensive end William Hayes. The 12th member of the Rams' latest draft class, seventh-round linebacker Aaron Brown, has signed to the practice squad.
Starters Sam Bradford, James Laurinaitis, Rodger Saffold, Lance Kendricks and Robert Quinn remain from the Rams' drafts under Spagnuolo and former general manager Billy Devaney.
Backups Bradley Fletcher, Josh Hull, Michael Hoomanawanui, Eugene Sims and Darell Scott also remain as picks from the previous leadership.
Pettis, a third-round choice in 2011, becomes eligible to join the roster after Week 2. He would also be a backup.
The Rams have recently traded 2009 first-rounder Jason Smith and 2011 fourth-rounder Greg Salas. They released 2010 third-rounder Jerome Murphy. Those three players once figured prominently into the Rams' plans. They are now footnotes.
As the chart shows, St. Louis has four tight ends, a high number reflecting the team's offensive philosophy. The Rams have one fewer offensive lineman than usual. They simply did not have nine worth keeping, in my view. It's debatable if they have even eight, but teams keep seven active on game days, making eight a low number. Injuries on the defensive line, specifically to rookie first-round draft choice Michael Brockers, account for the Rams keeping 10 at that position, a relatively high number.
For download: This Rams roster features 27 columns of info on all active and practice-squad players, plus every player on the roster since roughly 2007.
Injuries knocked out starters Sam Bradford, Steven Jackson, Danny Amendola, Ron Bartell, Quintin Mikell and Jason Smith for all or parts of the team's opening-week defeat to Philadelphia. It only got worse from there.
The Rams have new leadership and new hope, but my mind flashed back to early last season when first-round draft choice Michael Brockers fell to the ground in obvious pain Thursday night. The Rams were about one quarter into their final game of the 2012 exhibition season when Brockers exited the game. It was only one injury, but losing a rookie first-round pick for any significant stretch was going to come as a significant disappointment for a team that has endured too many of them.
The diagnosis, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (via Nick): a high-ankle sprain.
This is grim news for the Rams in the short term. Brockers could miss the first month of the season. The injury weakens one area where the Rams were determined to improve: their overall stoutness against the run.
We should expect the Rams to consider using their No. 2 order in waiver priority to claim a defensive tackle. The team could also consider trading for one. The Rams need to do something because the depth behind Brockers was already running low once Trevor Laws landed on injured reserve.
The Rams face Detroit, Washington, Chicago and Seattle in September.
1. Fourth place not a given: One year ago, the Rams were riding a wave of positive feelings. They were a near-consensus choice to win the NFC West title. They finished 2-14 instead. Injuries and a tougher-than-expected schedule played a role in the Rams' demise. The team is clearly more talented at this time. Quarterback questions elsewhere in the division give the Rams a chance to surprise by finishing outside the cellar this year. For that to happen, however, the Rams will need to build some continuity on the offensive line. That has been a huge challenge to this point.Earlier: Rams Camp Confidential.
2. The offense has come full circle: The Rams were determined to lean on the ground game when Sam Bradford was a rookie in 2010. They wanted Bradford to carry the offense last season. Now, under new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, the Rams hope to be more run-oriented again. This will be the most run-oriented scheme the Rams have run since Scott Linehan was head coach, and probably longer. Running back Steven Jackson feels a responsibility to "set the tempo" for the Rams' offense to a degree he hasn't had to do in the past. He's going to get his carries. Only an injury figures to prevent Jackson from topping 1,000 yards rushing for an eighth consecutive season.
3. MLB has a chance to grow: London Fletcher, Antonio Pierce, Jonathan Vilma and Mike Singletary are among the middle linebackers to play in the general defensive system Jeff Fisher has brought to the Rams. James Laurinaitis is next in line. Laurinaitis has been a good player already. The Rams have gotten bigger at defensive tackle. Their new defensive system should let Laurinaitis grow. Laurinaitis: "When the quarterback makes a check, the mike 'backer has to be able to counter. When the quarterback makes a check, the mike 'backer has to be able to make a countercheck and just get a feel for a football game. I relish that role, I relish that responsibility. I love the fact that the coach is going to say to me, 'If you see something on the field, you make the call. You're not going to be wrong, you're the one playing, you make the call.'"
4. Onward and upward: The Rams weren't the only team to whiff with their first-round choice in 2009, the year they made Jason Smith the second overall pick. Tyson Jackson, Aaron Curry and Andre Smith haven't exactly lit up the league as players drafted among the top six. The Rams' decision to trade Smith for Jets tackle Wayne Hunter shows that new offensive line coach Paul T. Boudreau was serious about playing the best five players, regardless of draft status. Boudreau never catered to early draft choices while with Atlanta, where Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo rose to prominence as undrafted players. The Rams are following a similar path.
5. Plenty of action for Jenkins: If the preseason is any indication, opposing quarterbacks will be firing quite a few passes Janoris Jenkins' way. The rookie cornerback has impressed during camp, but Tony Romo and others have had their moments against the second-round choice from North Alabama. Teams could be more willing to test Jenkins than veteran Cortland Finnegan on the other side. Jenkins has the talent to capitalize on the opportunities. He might need to be a little more patient, however.
Parting shot from Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.: "They had as good an offseason as anybody out there. They had a good free agency. The draft did not treat them perfectly but the trade with Washington was huge. They can build the team in Jeff Fisher's likeness. This defense has a chance to be quite good now, and only get better. Offensively, I still have my questions. The line is a mess. Is Sam Bradford going backward? I'm questioning that for the first time in his career. The receivers, they've thrown so much at the fan and I'm not sure it's going to stick. The vibe long term is favorable but they are in for a long year."
The situations at right tackle in St. Louis and quarterback in Arizona come to mind. The results tend to be more positive, in some cases, when a player's entire career, not just a starting job, is on the line.
Two notable cases in the NFC West come to mind.
Braylon Edwards stepped up his game when the Seattle Seahawks signed Terrell Owens a few weeks back. Edwards now appears likely to earn a roster spot in Seattle. Meanwhile, in Santa Clara, Calif., the San Francisco 49ers have watched running back Anthony Dixon rededicate himself following the arrival of Brandon Jacobs, Rock Cartwright and, to a lesser extent, rookie LaMichael James.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers are talking as though Dixon, once considered a sure roster casualty, will stick around at the mandatory reduction to 53 players Friday. Barrows: "Dixon, who seemed hopelessly buried on the 49ers' depth chart at running back when training camp began, has taken advantage of recent injuries at the position and has strung together two solid games. On the radio Tuesday, both general manager Trent Baalke and offensive coordinator Greg Roman sounded optimistic about Dixon's chances of making the final roster." Noted: Might Dixon, who has gotten work at fullback, stick at the expense of Cartwright?
The 49ers' website has this to say about receiver Michael Crabtree: "Teammates and coaches have raved about Crabtree’s leaner build this offseason and how his improved health has enabled him to develop a greater rapport with starting quarterback Alex Smith. This time last year, Crabtree was battling a foot injury that remained with him through the start of the regular season. But now, Crabtree’s summer of work has translated into consistent preseason playing time. His role in the 49ers offense to date, five catches for 28 yards, is one of many reasons Harbaugh believes the team is much improved heading into the 2012 season."
Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News checks in with third-string quarterback Scott Tolzien, who slept in the 49ers' player lounge during a two-week period.
Also from Inman: a look at the 49ers' player ratings on "Madden NFL 13."
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says Jacobs gave fans a window into the hatred directed at players anonymously.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Matt Flynn was back at practice in a reserve role.
Also from Farnsworth: Robert Turbin steps in for Marshawn Lynch.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says ESPN's Jon Gruden expected Russell Wilson to win the Seahawks' starting job if given a legitimate chance. Noted: That was the word from Wisconsin's coach and others who knew the quarterback well.
Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle says Wilson runs the ball on instinct, not by design. Wilson: "I'm always wanting to throw the ball and if something closes, if I go through my progression and it closes, it's like, 'Bam.' It happens so fast and you're out. You're just trying to get something positive."
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune updates Bruce Irvin's progress. Seattle's first-round draft choice has no sacks or tackles through three exhibition games. Line coach Todd Wash: "Out here (on the practice field), he plays very carefree. He just plays, (but) he gets into the game and he’s worrying about keeping contain and whatever else he might need to do. He knows how to play; we just need him to cut loose."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic looks at how injuries are forcing the Cardinals to adjust their thinking on the offensive line. Somers: "The unit that opens Thursday night's game against the Broncos likely will feature three different starters from the one that opened the preseason. D'Anthony Batiste is scheduled to move from right tackle to left, with rookie Bobby Massie starting on the right side. The two played those positions beginning in the second quarter last week against the Titans, and the entire unit played better after the move. Rich Ohrnberger is expected to start at right guard in place of Adam Snyder, who missed Tuesday's practice in order to have an elbow examined."
Also from Somers: thoughts on John Skelton's struggles in practice.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the team's final exhibition game could determine whether the team pursues Alex Barron, Chad Clifton or another veteran tackle.
Also from Urban: William Powell's fight for a roster spot.
Dan O'Neill of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sees the Rams' moves to trade Jason Smith and release Danario Alexander as part of the delineation between previous and current team leadership groups. O'Neill: "Fisher just got here. He can't account for Smith, be held accountable for where he was drafted or how he has performed. What he can do is turn the page, for the organization and for Smith."
Also from O'Neill: Janoris Jenkins hit a bump in the road against Dallas.
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says trading Smith was easy for the team. Burwell: "This was not a colossal bruise to the football smarts of the existing Rams brain trust, merely a little necessary clean up on Aisle One from a big mess left behind by previous failed regimes. General manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher were able to ditch Smith with a clean conscience, mainly because this mistake doesn't count against their records. Trading him away was not only the smart thing to do, it was also the most compassionate thing to do, because after all those concussions, Smith was no longer the big, mean and bruising young prospect that was drafted three years ago, and because of that he may never live up to the high expectations of the organization and the fan base."
- Rams ate some money: Jason Smith's trade from St. Louis to the New York Jets will not cost the fourth-year tackle in the wallet. The Rams will pay $1.55 million of Smith's already reduced $4 million salary. The Jets will pay the rest. Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had the news.
- 49ers OLB update: News that Parys Haralson and Eric Bakhtiari missed practice while Aldon Smith was recovering from a hip injury highlighted potential depth concerns at outside linebacker for San Francisco. In looking for ways to maximize roster spots, I wondered earlier in the week if the 49ers could save a spot at linebacker, keeping seven. The 49ers have kept eight linebackers on their Week 1 roster every year since 2006, but with Blake Costanzo gone, Tavares Gooden is the only elite special-teams player among the group. Haralson can play both both outside spots. The 49ers have options with their defensive front. Keeping three outside linebackers is still an option. Keeping a fourth could come at the expense of a superior special-teams player at another position, such as running back.
- Lynch's back: Buzz over Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks' quarterback situation has drowned out other issues, including Marshawn Lynch's continued back-related absence from practices. Re-signing Lynch was one of the team's key moves this offseason. Seattle built its offense around his powerful running. Lynch has missed two of three exhibition games. Cause for concern? I doubt it. Lynch has missed at least two preseason games in each of the past three summers. Looks like he's on schedule.
- Cardinals' tackles: The 2012 second-round pick Arizona traded to Philadelphia in the Kevin Kolb deal wound up being the 51st overall choice. Arizona had no picks between Nos. 13 and 80. With the Cardinals hurting for tackle depth with Levi Brown on injured reserve, I revisited the draft to see which tackles went between the 51st and 80th choices. Kelechi Osemele (Baltimore), Mike Adams (Pittsburgh) and Donald Stephenson (Kansas City) fit into that window. None is a projected starter. Osemele was initially projected at guard, but he's a backup right tackle for the Ravens. It's looking like Cardinals fourth-rounder Bobby Massie will start at right tackle.
All for now. Enjoy your Tuesday night.