NFC West: Jason Wright

2011 UFA market: NFC West scorecard

August, 23, 2011
8/23/11
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With training camps winding down, I've found time to update rosters and put together team-by-team reference material for unrestricted free agency.

The names below match official NFL counts.

These are for players with at least four accrued NFL seasons whose contracts expired following the 2010 season. I've added comments for each team.

Arizona Cardinals

Re-signed (8): Ben Graham, Matt Ware, Hamza Abdullah, Ben Claxton, Lyle Sendlein, D'Anthony Batiste, Deuce Lutui, Stephen Spach.

New to team (7): Chansi Stuckey, Richard Marshall, Daryn Colledge, Nick Eason, Stewart Bradley, Floyd Womack, Jeff King.

Still unsigned (3): Alan Faneca, Jason Wright, Bryan Robinson.

Signed elsewhere (5): Steve Breaston (Kansas City), Gabe Watson (New York Giants), Ben Patrick (Giants), Trumaine McBride (New Orleans), Alan Branch (Seattle).

Comment: Sendlein, Colledge and Bradley were the big signings. Marshall provides needed depth at cornerback. Faneca and Wright announced their retirements. The Cardinals weren't aggressive in trying to re-sign the players they lost to other teams. The biggest move Arizona made, acquiring Kevin Kolb from Philadelphia, did not involve a UFA.


San Francisco 49ers

Re-signed (4): Ray McDonald, Tony Wragge, Dashon Goldson, Alex Smith.

New to team (5): Braylon Edwards, Jonathan Goodwin, Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, David Akers.

Still unsigned (5): Brian Westbrook, Troy Smith, Demetric Evans, William James, Barry Sims.

Signed elsewhere (6): David Baas (Giants), Travis LaBoy (San Diego), Jeff Reed (Seattle), Aubrayo Franklin (New Orleans), Takeo Spikes (San Diego), Manny Lawson (Cincinnati).

Comment: Re-signing McDonald signaled Franklin's departure. Getting Goldson back on the relative cheap was a victory. The 49ers wanted to keep Baas, but not at the price he commanded. The team thinks NaVorro Bowman has a bright future in Spikes' old spot at inside linebacker. Lawson wasn't strong enough as a pass-rusher to stick around. Safety depth is improved.


Seattle Seahawks

Re-signed (7): Raheem Brock, Junior Siavii, Brandon Mebane, Leroy Hill, Matt McCoy, Michael Robinson, Kelly Jennings.

New to team (8): Branch, Zach Miller, Robert Gallery, Jimmy Wilkerson, Atari Bigby, Sidney Rice, Tarvaris Jackson, Reed.

Still unsigned (7): Jay Richardson, Craig Terrill, Chester Pitts, Brandon Stokley, Ruvell Martin, J.P. Losman, Lawyer Milloy.

Signed elsewhere (8): Will Herring (New Orleans), Olindo Mare (Carolina), Matt Hasselbeck (Tennessee), Chris Spencer (Chicago), Jordan Babineaux (Tennessee), Sean Locklear (Washington), Amon Gordon (Kansas City), Ray Willis (Washington).

Comment: Adding Jackson as the starting quarterback was the most significant move for the 2011 season. Mebane was the most important re-signing for the longer term. Hill was a bargain relative to how he's playing right now. Miller and Rice were the types of young, talented players who rarely change teams in free agency. The Seahawks were outbid for Herring and Mare. Can street free agent David Vobora fill some of the void Herring left?


St. Louis Rams

Re-signed (2): Adam Goldberg, Gary Gibson.

New to team (9): Daniel Muir, Quinn Ojinnaka, Harvey Dahl, Ben Leber, Zac Diles, Jerious Norwood, Cadillac Williams, Quintin Mikell, Mike Sims-Walker.

Still unsigned (5): Chris Hovan, Michael Lewis, Darcy Johnson, Clifton Ryan, Mark Clayton.

Signed elsewhere (4): Daniel Fells (Denver), Laurent Robinson (San Diego), Derek Schouman (Washington), Kevin Dockery (Pittsburgh).

Comment: Dahl and Mikell were the big additions. Clayton could return if and when his surgically repaired knee allows. Sims-Walker is a wild card. The team didn't flinch when any of its own UFAs signed elsewhere. Most of the moves made on defense were designed to improve St. Louis against the run. Remember that newcomer Justin Bannan was not a UFA. Denver released him.
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NFC West: What's left in free agency

August, 23, 2011
8/23/11
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The time has come for some accounting now that the top unrestricted free agents have found homes. Others continue to wait.

I've put together charts showing how many and which UFAs for NFC West teams remain unsigned. The deadline passed Saturday for teams to make qualifying offers to these players.

The charts rank unsigned UFAs from oldest to youngest. I've ordered the players this way because so many older players find out through free agency where they stand.

A couple players, Alan Faneca and Jason Wright, have announced intentions to retire. They have chosen to go out on their own terms. Retirement becomes a process for others. Free agency comes and goes, the phone seldom rings, teams get on with their lives and before long, a player realizes he is finished.

Some players listed below could help teams if they found the right situations. Lawyer Milloy started 16 games for the Seattle Seahawks last season. The St. Louis Rams have kept in touch with Mark Clayton to monitor the receiver's recovery from knee surgery.

Note: UFAs are defined strictly as players whose contracts expired following at least four accrued NFL seasons. Released players are not UFAs in the same sense even though they can sign with any team.

How NFL lockout was good for the game

August, 4, 2011
8/04/11
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Recently retired Arizona Cardinals fullback Jason Wright follows his piece on lockout implications for rookies with thoughts on how the lockout was ultimately good for the game.

The National Football League lockout was like a long Midwest winter, the kind that makes people save money for a home in Arizona.

Conflicting court decisions, leverage-minded news releases and false leads on resolution made the NFL skies appear grayer and grayer.

[+] EnlargeDeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireThe leadership of DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell was essential in navigating the NFL lockout.
The lockout’s end has brought the same enthusiasm as the first sunny day of spring. Players are excitedly returning to the game like kids on the first day of Pop Warner practice. Owners are elated that the money will indeed be rolling in by the bucketloads again. Team employees are glad that same money will put food on their families’ tables. And the fans are feasting on a frenzied free-agency period and a quick start to actual football!

In retrospect, the lockout was not all bad. I believe there was a shiny silver lining in its gloomy reign over pro football. I believe the game is now healthier than ever, and a robust framework is in place to prevent another nasty offseason battle from materializing. Now that the lockout has ended, there is an argument that it was “good” in a number of ways.

Valuable lessons

Owners and players have worked successfully together for years in a special employer/employee relationship; special because of the unique position of the players (a superemployee of sorts that is resource, labor and final product combined). Both sides likely thought they were familiar with their counterparts, but the lockout allowed the parties to truly become acquainted.

Owners learned that the players were more strategically and intellectually gifted than expected. They also learned that strong labor leadership could produce player solidarity even in the individualist era of pro football. Likewise, players found that the owners didn’t become wealthy by chance: They DO NOT play when it comes to the balance sheet. Although players will never know whether the league was truly hemorrhaging funds, they did learn that the NFL will do what it takes to ensure that all owners feel comfortable investing in the growth of America’s game.

Call it what you will, but as a businessperson, you must respect it.

More personal in character were the opportunities for growth in individual players. While the NFLPA has always produced an intelligent, business-savvy player board, the average player hasn’t always been so conversant in the particulars of sports business. He certainly is now. Additionally, not knowing when the next paycheck will arrive allowed many players to get a feel for how they will have to live when they enter the “real world” after football. It is my hope that this will prevent the current crop of NFL athletes from following the disastrous financial paths walked by many former players.

Leaders coming of age

From my arm’s-length view, the heads of both the NFL and the NFLPA earned their stripes (and their paychecks) during this lockout. DeMaurice Smith always carried a charismatic presence. It’s why the player board elected him NFLPA chief a few years back even though he was the out-of-nowhere candidate. He turned out to be not only a dynamic speaker but also a visionary strategist.

Although things didn’t go perfectly according to plan, his vision proved resilient, and he was able to successfully steer the players home. His transparency with players was a new development in NFLPA conduct that, in my opinion, kept players from fracturing as the going got tough. His openness certainly converted this longtime union cynic to cautious-but-serious supporter. I am not nearly as familiar with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell but nonetheless give him credit for picking up the mantle of leadership. Getting the owners of 32 teams in 32 unique markets with 32 specific needs to coalesce is no small task.

Add to that the fact that owners are brilliant businessmen, confident in their respective business track records, and the commissioner’s work deserves a standing ovation.

Because these two men were made stronger through the lockout’s rigors, the business state of the game has been likewise strengthened.

Football is now truly a business

Most importantly, the way in which the NFL and the NFLPA interact over the collective bargaining agreement is forever changed. Under the leadership of Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw, collective bargaining got done, in large part, through the conduit of their friendship. It appears they each fully trusted that the other was able and willing to steer his constituents in the best direction for the long-term health of the game. They trusted each other to do this without screwing the other side over in the many dirty details of the negotiation.

Their respective constituencies had faith in their leaders to handle business this way.

As they opted out of the former CBA, owners claimed that the two men had a gentleman’s agreement that the deal would be redone at some point. If true, this is a case in point. This “golf buddy” method of doing business works rather smoothly. It is, however, completely dependent on the friendship of the two men at the top. Because of the nasty rhetoric voiced during the 2011 lockout, the relationship of players and ownership will likely never be like this again. There is now a mildly adversarial tension between the two groups expressed in a healthy distrust of each other. I believe this is a good thing.

I’ve done business with friends many times, and my attention to detail in those partnerships has been, admittedly, sloppier than usual. Because I had established a level of trust with them, I didn’t flesh out all the details. I foolishly figured we could adjust things later if an issue arose. As a result, most of these endeavors came back to bite me in some way. The times I’ve done business with strangers, especially hyperaggressive stereotypical business types, I was certain I’d closed every possible loophole and fully evaluated risk. Heck, I’d even had industry-specific experts sign off on the contract language. As a result, there were no surprises and far less drama as these ventures played out. This is the better way to do business.

The meticulousness that comes with an atmosphere of distrust produces sound business transactions and lasting agreements. I believe this is why there is now a decade-long CBA for which neither side seriously sought an opt-out clause. Both sides have checked every corner of fine print and read every footnote. They are fully aware of their respective “wins” and “losses” and are comfortable with them moving forward. As long as the two groups remain cordial but don’t go back to being “buddy-buddy” labor partners, this is likely the stability we’ll see from here on out. And for everyone who cares about the game of pro football, this is a very good byproduct of a very bad NFL offseason. Here’s to the sunny days that lie ahead.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals fullback Jason Wright is retiring. Somers: "Wright was productive as a situational player on offense and was an excellent special-teams player. He missed one game last season due to a concussion. Wright was admitted to the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, and he and wife Tiffany have already moved to the Chicago area. Wright played collegiately at Northwestern." The backfield became even more crowded in Arizona this offseason when the team used a second-round draft choice for Ryan Williams. LaRod Stephens-Howling has also factored more heavily into the offense recently.

Also from Somers: a big-picture look at the Cardinals. Somers: "Both impending doom and great opportunity await the Cardinals when the lockout ends. The team needs a starting quarterback. Its three interior offensive linemen are un-signed as is starting receiver Steve Breaston. Most of the 'star' defensive players are coming off disappointing seasons, a factor in Ken Whisenhunt’s decision to hire Ray Horton as his third defensive coordinator in five seasons. Horton, a disciple of Steelers’ coordinator Dick LeBeau, will bring that high-pressure philosophy to the Cardinals. But that effort has been hampered by the lockout."

More from Somers: New rules for training camps wouldn't affect the Cardinals much because Whisenhunt doesn't ask players to hit much in consecutive practices.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says there is "no doubt" the team will address the quarterback situation quickly in free agency, according to team president Michael Bidwill.

Also from Urban: He calls Wright one of the "anchors of the locker room" for Arizona. Urban: "Wright was the perfect fit as a fourth running back with Tim Hightower, Beanie Wells and LaRod Stephens-Howling. He was a mentor, a sounding board, a voice of reason for the backs and the entire team. (He was also a go-to quote in the locker room, able to speak eloquently on any subject). Wright did miss some time with a concussion last season, and for any player that can give pause, not to mention someone as brilliant as Wright. But he insisted his choice had nothing to do with concussions or bodily harm."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Kenny Easley was an easy choice as the strong safety on Seattle's 35th anniversary team. Jim Zorn: "I remember Kenny describing how he inflicted pain on people catching the ball in front of him. To get the guy thinking about him the next time, he would hold his thumbs in his fists and jam his knuckles into the guy’s rib cage. I thought, 'All right, nice technique.'" Easley's kidneys were failing during the latter portion of his career, affecting his play. Before that, he was one of the very best defensive players in the league, someone opponents considered to be as good or even better than Ronnie Lott. Easley, Lott and Lawrence Taylor came along at a time when some of the best athletes were showing up on defense, forcing offenses to make significant adjustments.

Also from Farnsworth: Career length is the primary reason Easley doesn't get more recognition as a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune takes a closer rook at Seahawks rookie safety Mark LeGree. Coach Pete Carroll: "He’s able to play strong safety and free safety. Right now, it’s just a matter of just learning the system and getting him going. Eventually, I think he’ll be able to play nickel free safety, and it helps him to learn the free safety spot first."

Dan Pompei of National Football Post sheds light on the Seahawks' plans for linebacker Aaron Curry. Pompei: "Seahawks coaches want to tweak the way they use linebacker Curry. They want to have him drop less, especially in space. When Curry does drop in the future, it likely will mostly be on hooks to the flat. The fourth pick in the 2009 draft is a more effective defender on the line with his hands on the tight end. That way, he can use his strength and length to his advantage, and he doesn’t have to think as much. Curry is a strong point-of-attack player who also could be an effective pass rusher. It’s possible he will get more chances to chase the QB as well." Curry could have more chances to rush the passer if the team does not re-sign Raheem Brock.

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle says the Giants' Osi Umenyiora could be a consideration for the Seahawks, according to ESPN.com's John Clayton. Clayton: "Seattle is one of the teams he's interested in. That could be the type of player at defensive end, as long as it doesn't cost a first-round pick, that maybe there'd be some interest." Chris Clemons provides a cheaper alternative. Clemons had 11 sacks last season despite playing through injury. Umenyiora had 11.5 sacks and also played hurt.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee offers thoughts on the HBO special focusing on 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, Ravens coach John Harbaugh and the Harbaugh family. Jack Harbaugh, father of Jim and John, breaks down game tape and offers feedback to his sons. Jack Harbaugh: "I'll tell you exactly what time the tape comes. The tape comes at 10 o'clock. I'm standing with the door open in the dead of winter waiting for that UPS truck to make the turn and stop at the door. Then it's down to the basement we go to put them in -- just for that feeling again to be involved with football." Jack Harbaugh coached for 45 years.

Also from Barrows: a 49ers preview for the Sporting News. Barrows: "The 49ers appear poised to head into yet another season with Smith as the starting quarterback. The difference this year is that he has an offensive-minded coach at the helm. The hope in San Francisco is that Harbaugh can play to Smith’s strengths and help mask his weaknesses. San Francisco has a strong offensive roster and a potentially good defensive one, too -- especially if Aldon Smith develops. How quickly the team can adjust to Harbaugh’s and Fangio’s new schemes will determine whether it can capture a division title in the weak NFC West."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, writing for the Sporting News, says a tough schedule could hold back the Rams this season. Thomas: "It’s possible St. Louis could play better in 2011, yet have the same record as it did in 2010. That’s because the schedule, particularly the first seven weeks of the season, could be crushing (Eagles, at Giants, Ravens, Redskins, at Packers, at Cowboys, Saints). In order to succeed, the Rams’ run blocking must improve and the receivers have to step up their play. To truly be a playoff contender, the Rams need to be about a touchdown per game better on offense. And that’s asking a lot."

Player's view: Lockout's vulnerable victims

June, 30, 2011
6/30/11
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Jason WrightChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesJason Wright is an eight-year veteran of the NFL and was an undrafted free agent out of college.
Arizona Cardinals fullback Jason Wright entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the San Francisco 49ers in 2004. He played for the Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Browns before signing with Arizona for the 2009 season. His lockout-related thoughts follow:

We are all glad that consistent discussions are happening between the NFL Players Association and league ownership. Especially because it means that resolution is on its way, and resolution is the only news any of us really wants to hear at this point.

By now, we’ve all read far too many stories about secret meetings and court-ordered mediation. It’s so nauseating that if I see another story promoting some obscure piece of information from some "source" I will likely vomit. There’s been so much coverage that even non-sports enthusiasts feel like they can confidently wax philosophic on the situation. The inevitable result is the frustrated cynicism that comes from information overload. Last week, Cardinals wide receiver Steve Breaston captured the sentiments shared by fans, players, coaches, and even some owners in a witty spoken word. He breathed life back into the story by providing a fresh perspective. Here, I endeavor to do the same.

As the lockout has dragged on through the last few months, a common phrase has come to express the annoyance of the general public with CBA disagreements: "It’s millionaires versus billionaires." This is obviously an oversimplification, but the gist is this: Most of America is struggling financially, and a group of people whose "poorest" make well into six figures should NOT make waves. Again, this argument lacks nuance, but I get it. Everyone gets it. There is, however, a group of guys that everyone can feel for. They are the group that suffers the truest "irreparable harm" from the NFL lockout. They are the undrafted college free agents.

I was still in school at Northwestern when the San Francisco 49ers signed me as an undrafted free agent in 2004. I decided to stay in school and finish my degree instead of participating in the offseason program. I had NO IDEA what a disadvantage I placed myself at from a football standpoint.

I am admittedly not the most talented guy to ever come through the league, but my play was terrible during that first training camp. I couldn't understand why a guy as smart as I considered myself to be was struggling to understand the offense. Well, the other guys had spent a minimum of four months doing nothing but studying the playbook and repeating plays! My play on special teams was probably the worst part, which is ironic considering that's what ended up defining my seven-year career.

The 49ers cut me at the first opportunity. By God's grace, I landed on Atlanta's practice squad under Jim Mora and finally had a chance to catch up. That following offseason, I was able to rapidly improve through the Falcons’ offseason program. I was able to make the necessary gains in physical strength. I became supremely comfortable in the offense. And, probably most importantly, I gained the foundations of being a good special-teams player. I performed very well that next preseason, but still fell prey to the numbers game. The difference was that I had a fair shot that time. And in the long run, I landed in Cleveland with the ability to actually compete at the NFL level and enjoyed four great years with the Browns.

None of it would have been possible without my full participation in an offseason program during my second year. Staying away that first offseason nearly cost me my career (although I’d risk it again to secure my degree). The lockout threatens to put the current undrafted free agents at risk.

Undrafted college free agents are some of the best NFL success stories because they are also the most unlikely. Josh Cribbs, Cleveland’s superstar utility man, started off as a rookie tryout for the Browns. Tony Romo went from "cap-and-clipboard" unknown to the face of the NFL’s most popular franchise. And the Steelers’ James Harrison was cut numerous times before becoming the Defensive MVP.

There are too many others to mention. We love these stories because we can relate. At one point or another, almost all of us have felt forgotten or insignificant. These stories tell us that our small beginnings are not the final word. They say that a combination of hard work, opportunity and providence can improve our standing. They are odds-defying, feel-good narratives that make us feel like there might really be something redeeming in watching hours of sports.

The lockout has lengthened the odds against this newest crop of undrafted free agents. The lack of an organized offseason makes the road toughest for all rookies, in fact. All but the very best will be hard-pressed to make a mark in their first season. For many it will be difficult to even make the team. They won’t get the valuable repetitions of minicamps and organized team activities. They’ll miss valuable classroom time with the coaching staffs. Linemen won’t have time to adjust to the significant speed difference of the NFL line of scrimmage. Skill players will only have a few days to become great on special teams in order to secure jobs.

The drafted guys, at least, know what team they will be on and have had a chance to see what’s in that team’s playbook. The undrafted guys will likely see the playbook only moments before having to physically compete with the best players in the world! The steep hike these guys take to NFL success has become a vertical climb.

So, let’s remember that these guys are innocent victims of this litigious offseason, along with the fans. Let’s also keep our eyes on this year’s crop of college free agents because those that make it may have the best stories yet. The seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against them may very well produce an inspiring story to rival Kurt Warner’s rise from the grocery store to the Super Bowl. I certainly hope they do. We all need the encouragement that no obstacle is too great to alter a destiny. And as life inevitably throws crappy circumstances our way, it’s great to be reminded that the guy who starts out with nothing can sometimes end up with everything.

Alex Smith and Matt HasselbeckGetty ImagesAlex Smith and Matt Hasselbeck are both eligible for free agency this offseason.
It is possible, even likely, that the NFL and its players will continue their staring contest through the 2011 draft -- even with a ruling from U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson.

The appeals process could take weeks or longer, during which time it's unlikely the league would open for business. We're probably doomed to status quo, in other words.

But if ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson is correct, Judge Nelson will most likely end the lockout, leading to an immediate appeal -- a scenario I think would lead, eventually, to the league opening for business under 2010 rules while the sides continued their battle in the courts.

Those 2010 rules set the bar high for free agency. Only players with six accrued seasons would qualify for the unrestricted market. Starters such as Arizona's Steve Breaston, San Francisco's Dashon Goldson and Seattle's Brandon Mebane would lose leverage and most likely return to their teams under relatively modest one-year deals.

The players listed in the chart -- those with at least six accrued seasons and no contracts for 2011 -- would be free to explore opportunities elsewhere.

Options and implications for this type of free agency in the NFC West:

Arizona Cardinals

Overview: The Cardinals suffered more personnel losses than they could weather last offseason. They would benefit from a return to 2010 rules, however, because the restrictions would keep multiple starters off the market. Their list of potential free agents with six-plus seasons features no front-line players. The Cardinals would be better off focusing on a new deal with Larry Fitzgerald, who is entering the final year of his contract.

Top priority: Finding a veteran quarterback. Derek Anderson isn't expected back. Marc Bulger's name is heard most frequently in connection with the Cardinals. He turned 34 this week and did not attempt a pass in a regular-season game while with Baltimore last season. Bulger struggled during his final seasons with the Rams, but the team was falling apart around him. He last finished an NFL season with more touchdowns than interceptions in 2006. The down year has surely helped him get healthy.

Players in flux: Breaston, starting guard Deuce Lutui and starting center Lyle Sendlein wouldn't have enough accrued seasons to become unrestricted under 2010 rules. The situation is particularly difficult for Breaston, who has battled through knee problems without getting a long-term deal.

Veteran variable: Starting left guard Alan Faneca has considered retirement. The Cardinals invested in veteran guard Rex Hadnot for depth last offseason. The team lacks young depth on the line, but if Lutui and Sendlein return, the Cardinals have some flexibility.

Name to keep in mind: Ike Taylor, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cardinals are hoping Greg Toler can build upon an up-and-down 2010 season. Taylor would give the team options. He played under new Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton.

St. Louis Rams

Overview: The Rams' most important players tend to be younger starters under contract for the long term (Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Rodger Saffold, Sam Bradford, Jason Smith). Most of their top veterans are also under contract (Steven Jackson, Fred Robbins, James Hall). Free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe is out of the picture after signing with the Washington Redskins following his salary-related release.

Top priority: The Rams could use a veteran guard with some nastiness. The team has invested heavily in its line, but this group could use more of an edge. Bringing back receiver Mark Clayton should be another consideration even though Clayton is coming off a serious knee injury. The rapport Clayton had with Bradford was strong.

Players in flux: Defensive tackles Gary Gibson and Clifton Ryan would remain property of the Rams under 2010 rules, as would cornerback Kevin Dockery and receiver Laurent Robinson. Gibson was the only full-time starter of the group last season. The Rams are expected to seek an upgrade at that position even with Gibson coming back.

Veteran variable: Adam Goldberg started all 16 games on the offensive line last season. The Rams could stand to upgrade, but I see value in bringing back Goldberg as a backup. He can play every position on the line but center. Goldberg has also taken an interest in mentoring younger players. His value off the field is a consideration.

Name to keep in mind: Daniel Graham, TE, Denver Broncos. Graham could make sense for the Rams in free agency. He played under the Rams' new offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, and could help upgrade the run blocking. Seattle has connections to Graham as well.

San Francisco 49ers

Overview: The 49ers signed some of their better young players to long-term contracts well before labor pains became so severe. Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Joe Staley come to mind. The lockout has made it tougher for the 49ers' new coaches to get a feel for players. The 49ers like their talent overall and haven't been big players in free agency over the past couple of seasons. That isn't likely to change.

Top priority: Finding a starting quarterback trumps everything else. Alex Smith can become a free agent. Backups David Carr and Troy Smith are not expected back. The 49ers aren't expected to use the seventh overall choice to select or acquire a quarterback. Coach Jim Harbaugh prides himself in coaching up quarterbacks, but he needs quarterbacks to coach.

Players in flux: Goldson, outside linebacker Manny Lawson and defensive lineman Ray McDonald are among the 49ers players that would fall short of the six-season requirement for unrestricted free agency.

Veteran variable: Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin played last season under a one-year franchise deal. The price tag for re-franchising Franklin appears prohibitive. The 49ers took a wait-and-see approach with Franklin because they hadn't seen him perform at a high level over the long term. They'll need a new nose tackle if Franklin departs.

Name to keep in mind: The 49ers' staff is coming mostly from the college ranks, so there aren't obvious connections to players from other NFL rosters. I expect the 49ers to focus more on re-signing some of their own players, from Spikes to David Baas and beyond.

Seattle Seahawks

Overview: The Seahawks have a long list of players without contracts for 2011. That was mostly be design. The team would like to continue turning over its roster without investing too much in older players such as Matt Hasselbeck, Raheem Brock and Olindo Mare.

Top priority: Figuring out the quarterback situation. Hasselbeck is headed for free agency and could leave if another team gives him some of the longer-term assurances Seattle has resisted. The Seahawks have shown some interest in Philadelphia Eagles backup Kevin Kolb, a player they inquired about last offseason. They still have Charlie Whitehurst. They could draft a quarterback early.

Players in flux: Defensive tackle Mebane heads the list of Seattle players who would not reach free agency under the rules used in 2010. General manager John Schneider called Mebane a "steady pro" when asked about him at the combine. That sounded like faint praise and an indication the Seahawks are not yet prepared to pay top dollar for Mebane if, and when, he hits the market.

Veteran variable: The Seahawks have a few of them, including Mare and Brock. But let's focus on offensive linemen Sean Locklear and Chris Spencer. They combined for 31 starts, but neither appears to be a priority for re-signing. Stacy Andrews is a candidate to step in for Locklear at right tackle. Max Unger could replace Spencer. Coach Pete Carroll thinks the team has upgraded its young depth on the line.

Name to keep in mind: Robert Gallery, guard, Oakland Raiders. Tom Cable's addition as offensive line coach makes Seattle a logical destination for Gallery, who has declared his intention to leave the Raiders.

How the NFC West stacks up with Steelers

February, 4, 2011
2/04/11
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Sam Bradford/Matt Hasselbeck/Ben RoethlisbergerGetty Images/US PresswireHow do Sam Bradford, Matt Hasselbeck and the other NFC West QBs stack up against the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger?
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Close your eyes for a moment after reading this sentence and imagine your favorite NFC West team lining up against the AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl.

How would your team's offense measure up, starter for starter, against the one NFC champion Green Bay will face Sunday?

The chart compares NFC West teams' offensive starting lineups against the one Pittsburgh has listed on the official Super Bowl flip card. Doug Legursky will likely replace center Maurkice Pouncey, and injury situations could affect projected NFC West lineups.

I've generally recreated NFC West lineups as they were when each team's season concluded, just to see how offenses from the division might stack up against the one NFC champion Green Bay will encounter Sunday. An NFC West all-star team would produce an overall talent upgrade, but no single NFC West offense prevails in a head-to-head comparison, at least in my view.

For additional perspective, check out how NFC West offenses stacked up one year ago.

Enjoy the imaginary games.

Around the NFC West: Rams' criticisms

January, 4, 2011
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Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo expects the team to be hungrier next season after getting a taste of success. Spagnuolo on allegations the team didn't get the ball to Steven Jackson enough: "It's amazing … had we run the ball too much, we'd be asking, how come we didn't throw it? Here's the bottom line: You're doing what you can on offense to score points, to move the football. Sometimes you're in a situation where you think you need to throw it, loosen a team up. Run it, they take away the run and you've got to throw. What we tried to do was score as many points as we could. We didn't get very many, but that was the intent. You don't go in and say, 'We're going to do it this way.' You don't know what the defenses are going to decide to do." Most defenses are going to take away Jackson. The Rams needed to make the Seahawks prove they could take away Jackson. Instead, the Rams seemed to conceded the running game early.

Also from Coats: a Rams report card with an "F" grade for coaching in Week 17.

Roger Hensley of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asks colleagues how long they think Jackson can play at a high level. Three more seasons seems to be the consensus.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch outlines keys for the Rams to build on their improvement. Miklasz: "You can't count on a natural progression in this league. You have to push to supplement the talent on hand. And if there's stagnation in the coaching ranks, then you have to freshen up your staff. If you aren't advancing in the NFL, then you're going into reverse. From a franchise-building standpoint, 2010 was a good year. But if nothing else, the mess in Seattle was valuable in that it reminded the Rams of how far they have to go to join the winner's circle to stand with the NFL elite."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' schedule makes it clear the team could play better next season and still finish with a lesser record.

Kathleen Nelson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Jackson plans to play in the Pro Bowl.

Dan Caesar of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams drew strong TV rating Sunday night.

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com offers Rams-related notes, including this one: "The Rams will draft 14th in this year’s NFL Draft. You probably already know what the needs are: WR, OLB, DB, DT, more help on the interior of the offensive line. But the Rams are a long way from locking in on anything and, as always, general manager Billy Devaney will explore all options and look for the best player available when the Rams time comes."

Also from Wagoner: The Rams raised expectations this season.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says coach Pete Carroll hasn't named a starting quarterback for the wild-card playoff game against New Orleans. Carroll on Matt Hasselbeck: "It’s just how functional can he be, is really the issue that we have. He looked terrific in pregame, way ahead of where we probably would have pictured him to be. But everything was controlled. I just felt like he could be vulnerable, and if he didn’t need to play, it would be best for us to see if we could make it through it and fortunately we did. Now we have better options than we did last week at this time."

Also from Farnsworth: Only New England, Philadelphia and Indianapolis have more playoff appearances than Seattle over the past 12 seasons.

More from Farnsworth: Mike Williams surprised even himself and his friends by earning a roster spot and new three-year contract in Seattle. Williams: "I was talking with some friends, and they were saying they didn’t even expect me to be here. They thought I would come here and get released and then maybe make it somewhere else. So no, I didn’t expect things to go like they have at all."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times looks at the Seahawks' choice at quarterback. Also: Tight end Chris Baker and guard Chester Pitts will not play Saturday after incurring injuries.

Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks' losing record takes nothing away from Williams' accomplishments.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune passes along Brian McIntyre's weekly personnel notes on Seattle. Lofa Tatupu was the only player outside the secondary to play every defensive snap against the Rams in Week 17.

Art Thiel of Sportspress Northwest says the Seahawks have little choice but to start Hasselbeck against New Orleans. Thiel: "The game’s only touchdown was set up on a 61-yard pass from Whitehurst to wide receiver Ruvell Martin, who was so alone the Coast Guard was alerted for a possible rescue. But Whitehurst, operating in the shotgun, was looking the wrong way. Thanks to great protection, he eventually spotted Martin and flung a ball that was well underthrown, forcing Martin to come back for the catch. The play’s design was to simulate a screen pass that included Martin blocking on a cornerback, then releasing downfield. The Rams were well fooled, and it should have gone for a touchdown. But Whitehurst misplayed it, and knew it right away."

Doug Farrar of Sportspress Northwest says the Seahawks' offensive game plan helped them beat the Rams. Farrar: "By tailoring the game plan to Whitehurst’s relatively limited skill set and option-based background as a quarterback at Clemson (which was the last time Whitehurst threw meaningful passes at any level before this season), offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates gave his backup quarterback a window to NFL success he’s never had before. Instead of a full NFL playbook, Whitehurst went with a play sheet very much like the one Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur designed for rookie quarterback Sam Bradford."

John Morgan of Field Gulls says Hasselbeck's big game against New Orleans during the regular season came after Seattle established the deep ball against an aggressive Saints defense.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic explains why Cardinals offensive lineman Deuce Lutui hasn't opened a paycheck in weeks. Lutui: "Those checks will cash, but the commitment and pride I have for this team is way beyond what anybody knows about Deuce Lutui. You could ask my wife. I opened the first check just to see what it was going to be like, but after that, it didn't matter to me. It was like, 'Put them all away and let's just play football.'" Direct deposit?

Also from McManaman: John Skelton thinks he should be in position to compete for the starting job next season.

More from McManaman: Cardinals assistant coach Russ Grimm could have opportunities elsewhere.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic takes a closer look at the Cardinals' performance in Week 17. Somers: "The Cardinals showed they can run the ball competently when they stayed in manageable down and distance situations. When they didn't, the 49ers came after Skelton with a variety of blitzes that the line, backs and tight ends had trouble picking up."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com looks at potential plays of the year for Arizona.

Also from Urban: Cardinals running back Jason Wright said labor uncertainty has affected contract negotiations. Wright: "They talked to fewer guys than they normally would have at this point because they don’t really know how to negotiate the contract [because of the CBA]. I think they have approached guys these last couple weeks and said, ‘Hey, we want to talk to you, we just don’t know at this point.’ The guys upstairs do a great job … and there will be good communication here the next few days."

More from Urban: Adrian Wilson offers thoughts as the Cardinals disperse for the offseason.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says 49ers tight end Vernon Davis thought the team played "tight" under former coach Mike Singletary. Davis said Singletary was good for his career, but not always good for the entire team.

Also from Maiocco: The 49ers are expected to be among several teams pursuing Jim Harbaugh as head coach. The team said it would hire a general manager before hiring a coach, however, and that could complicate the team's ability to land coaches without ties to whichever GM the team hires. One potential GM candidate, Mike Lombardi, said the team was not considering him. Maiocco: "There is a feeling within the 49ers that Lombardi would be able to land Harbaugh, said one source. (Of course, every NFL team must also adhere to the Rooney Rule and interview at least one minority candidate.)"

More from Maiocco: Trent Baalke handled the 49ers' exit interviews.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says 49ers receivers coach Jerry Sullivan will not return to the team, most likely. Sullivan could retire.

Also from Barrows: Lombardi still thinks Baalke is the GM favorite.

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers had a hard time watching Seattle claim the NFC West crown. Davis: "We really deserved that. We had the better team. We were better than anybody -- anybody we played. We were just as good, if not better. But we just couldn't pull it off."

David White of the San Francisco Chronicle says 49ers left tackle Joe Staley also had a tough time watching Seattle win the NFC West after getting blown out at Candlestick Park.

Also from White: He calls Baalke the "clear" front-runner for the GM job.

Under the microscope: 15 little things

December, 16, 2010
12/16/10
5:17
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Fifteen little things I noticed while watching NFC West teams play in Week 14:
  • Referee Jerome Boger suffered two replay reversals during the Arizona game. I thought his crew should have flagged Denver Broncos tight end Daniel Graham for a facemask penalty to end Michael Adams' interception return. Speaking of Adams, he's all over the place, including on special teams.
  • Cardinals rookie linebackers Daryl Washington and O'Brien Schofield caught my attention. Washington had close to a breakout game. He hit hard on defense, picked off a pass and downed a punt at the Denver 3.
  • What's with all the dropped passes, Arizona? The Cardinals are strong at receiver, but that group is failing to make the routine plays, let alone the big ones Arizona needs to spark its offense. Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Early Doucet dropped passes early in the game Sunday. Fullback Jason Wright dropped one, too.
  • Quarterbacks sometimes look silly trying to make blocks. Arizona's John Skelton looked good cracking back on Broncos linebacker Jason Hunter during Breaston's reverse. Separately, Skelton showed good athleticism for a big quarterback when he avoided the initial rush, stayed on his feet by touching one hand to the ground, escaped outside and cut up the sideline for extra yardage. Skelton wasn't particularly fluid, but he moved effectively.
  • Darnell Dockett can't get a break on the health front. He tried to pummel Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno on one play, only to miss high and suffer a head-on collision with 330-pound teammate Dan Williams. Dockett, slowed by shoulder issues this season, including stinger issues, was clearly hurting after this play.
  • Fitzgerald and Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey went after one another with vigor. Bailey drew offensive interference against Fitzgerald on one play. Fitzgerald drove Bailey 13 yards downfield while blocking for Tim Hightower's 11-yard run on third-and-5.
  • St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford took a beating against New Orleans. His offensive line held up OK for the most part, however. The Saints got pressure by freeing defenders via effective blitz calls. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma sneaked around the outside on a delayed blitz and hit Bradford's arm hard just as the quarterback was throwing. Bradford easily could have been injured here.
  • Along the same lines, a well-conceived Saints blitz forced Bradford into intentional grounding.
  • Rams left tackle Rodger Saffold shows good athleticism. He pulled across the formation and picked off a linebacker on the other side while springing Steven Jackson for a 10-yard gain in the second quarter.
  • Bradford wasn't solely to blame for the costly interception he threw right before halftime. Saffold set to the outside in pass protection and quickly lost inside leverage against defensive end Will Smith. Smith got immediate pressure on Bradford, affecting the throw. Malcolm Jenkins' 96-yard interception return for a touchdown changed the game.
  • Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe is playing aggressively. He'll probably get fined for delivering a clothesline-type hit against the Saints' Reggie Bush. Those types of hits can make offensive players wary.
  • There's still a place for San Francisco 49ers fullback Moran Norris in the 49ers' offense even though quarterback Alex Smith sometimes plays his best without a fullback on the field. Norris dominated individual matchups against Seattle linebackers in the running game. I saw him flatten Lofa Tatupu, drive back David Hawthorne and move out Aaron Curry.
  • 49ers right guard Chilo Rachal still has some troubles, as when Curry beat him for a shot on the quarterback. Rachal did some good things in this game, too. Tatupu got too high on one play and Rachal made the linebacker pay. Rachal lifted Tatupu, drove him onto his back and flopped on him.
  • The Seahawks' injury-induced personnel changes on offense cost the team sometimes. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck spent extra time getting players lined up right before taking a third-and-2 sack in the second quarter.
  • The rushing numbers weren't there for Seattle's Marshawn Lynch -- he's not going to make big plays on his own when the holes aren't there -- but there's a lot to like about how he plays. I saw him make positive contributions in pass protection, as a receiver and as a tone-setter with stiff-arms and high-impact collisions. Not many players at any position can say they dropped the 49ers' Patrick Willis in a collision both players saw coming. Lynch made it happen in the second quarter.

We're at 15 already. Thanks for the positive feedback on the inaugural "15 little things" item, which ran last week. I'll keep these coming.

Around the NFC West: Jay Feely's day

December, 13, 2010
12/13/10
10:19
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Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says Jay Feely's touchdown run was the play of the game for Arizona against Denver. Feely's 22-point performance against the Broncos stands out as one of the most refreshing stories in the NFC West this season. Feely scored 22 points in a row. When was the last time one player accounted for 22 consecutive points in a game? Ernie Nevers famously scored all 40 points for the Chicago Cardinals during a 40-6 victory over the Chicago Bears, but the Bears scored six points between 20-point runs from Nevers. The score was 20-0 and then 20-6 before Nevers scored the final 20 points.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic checks in with Feely, who reveals why he has worn gloves despite playing the game largely with his feet. Feely: "Yeah, I can stop getting all those questions from people about why I wear the gloves," said Feely, who also booted five field goals to help the Cardinals snap a seven-game skid and beat the Denver Broncos 43-13 at University of Phoenix Stadium. If you have the fake and you want gloves on to handle the ball, you don't want to tip them off by putting them on. It's for tackles as well as onside kicks, and it looks kind of cool, too."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals weren't overly excited following their victory Sunday. But they were happy. Fullback Jason Wright: "It's like you've been holding your breath for two months."

Also from Somers, with McManaman: Larry Fitzgerald set two team records Sunday.

More from Somers: He used ESPN.com's Playoff Machine to find at least one way Arizona could still earn a playoff berth. Somers: "The Cardinals can go to the playoffs if they win out, the 49ers go 1-2 and Seattle and St. Louis lose their next two and then tie in their season finale. That way Arizona would be 7-9. Seattle and St. Louis would be 6-9-1 and the 49ers would be 6-10. It doesn't look like Arizona could win any tiebreakers within the division."

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says rookie quarterback John Skelton provided a spark for the Cardinals. Bickley: "Ken Whisenhunt is notorious for practicing tough love with his quarterbacks. He wouldn't even declare Skelton his starter for next week's game at Carolina. But in this case, I'm going to credit the player, not the coaches. Skelton is the first Fordham quarterback to take a snap in a NFL game since 1941, and yet he handled the moment with great maturity. He had no trouble falling asleep Saturday night, dozing off while watching a documentary on Vince Lombardi. And when the big moment arrived Sunday, television cameras caught him whistling on the sideline." I'm going to exercise restraint on this one. Max Hall's fearless demeanor helped spark Arizona to victory over New Orleans earlier this season. It's unrealistic to expect sustained success from most rookie quarterbacks.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Feely was enjoying a Pro Bowl-caliber year before Sunday. Perhaps this performance will help him get noticed.

Also from Urban: a closer look at Feely's touchdown run.

More from Urban: Skelton showed some steadiness. Urban: "Even-keeled is a phrase made for Skelton, and if the Cardinals learned anything Sunday, it was that Skelton would carry that personality into games. His first start ended in a 43-13 victory over the Broncos, and while Skelton wasn’t the reason for the win, he wasn’t doing anything to lose it either, and that was enough. He didn’t throw an interception. He didn’t blink at the end of the first half when center Lyle Sendlein’s thumb problems caused two straight botched shotgun snaps. He didn’t flinch when, in his first four pass attempts -- all incompletions -- he watched Fitzgerald, receiver Steve Breaston and running back Jason Wright make drops."

NFC West: Injury situations that matter

November, 24, 2010
11/24/10
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Arizona: The Cardinals' injury report is not due until Thursday, one day later than usual, because the team is playing on Monday night. Running backs LaRod Stephens-Howling and Jason Wright could return this week, restoring flexibility to the offense and pop to the kick-return game. The team expects outside linebacker Clark Haggans to return, and just in time. Backup Will Davis landed on injured reserve with a broken leg. Rookie O'Brien Schofield could get some snaps, but the team is reluctant to play him extensively at this point. Cornerbacks Greg Toler and Michael Adams have injury concerns. Expect more details to emerge Thursday.

St. Louis: Left tackle Rodger Saffold plans to play against Denver after a shoulder injury prevented him from finishing the Atlanta game. He participated fully in practice Wednesday. Saffold has missed parts of multiple games, however. At receiver, Danario Alexander returned to practice Wednesday and declared himself ready to play for the first time since undergoing his most recent knee surgery. How the knee holds up over multiple days will determine whether the Rams can count on Alexander against the Broncos. The Rams expect to have veteran safety James Butler available. They held him out as a precaution against Atlanta.

San Francisco: The 49ers' injury report is not due until Thursday because the team plays Monday night. Joe Staley's continuing absence on the offensive line could become a more prominent storyline if the 49ers' running game continues to stall. The line struggled against Tampa Bay. Barry Sims started at left tackle in that game. Adam Snyder is a candidate to start there as well. Tight end Vernon Davis has had to fight through knee and ankle injuries this season. He expects to start against the Cardinals, but he has missed parts of games this season. On defense, pass-rusher Ahmad Brooks has had trouble regaining his form after missing the start of the season with a lacerated kidney, coach Mike Singletary suggested. That caught my attention because Brooks has previously given the Cardinals problems. He has two sacks this season after collecting three in a single game against Arizona in 2009.

Seattle: The Seahawks have not disclosed specifics on Mike Williams' foot injury. The team's leading receiver wore a boot on his foot while watching practice Wednesday. The team brought in former Seattle receiver Bobby Engram for a tryout Tuesday, but the Seahawks should be able to get by with Ben Obomanu, Brandon Stokley and Deon Butler at home if Williams misses time. On the offensive line, Seattle expects to use its ninth starting combination in 11 games after left guard Chester Pitts suffered an ankle injury against New Orleans. Mike Gibson is the favorite to start if he can get back from an ankle injury in time. Tyler Polumbus, a starter at both tackle spots, would start at left guard if Gibson were unavailable. Fullback Michael Robinson is expected back, a potential boost to the running game. On defense, Seattle remains without nose tackle Colin Cole, a concern against Kansas City's running game. It's also unclear whether cornerback Marcus Trufant will play. He suffered a concussion Sunday.

Around the NFC West: Rams' chances

November, 24, 2010
11/24/10
9:27
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Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams have become a little too consistent on offense, at least in terms of how many points they score. Thomas: "Ten games into the season, the Rams have topped 20 points only once, in a 30-16 victory over Washington in Game 3. At a point in the season where there is next to nothing left on the street in terms of free agents, it could very well be that the Rams have reached their level of competency for this season. Compared to last year, the offensive improvement has been significant. With six games still to go this season, the Rams already have scored more touchdowns (18 to 17) and scored more points (177 to 175) than they did in the entire 2009 season."

Also from Thomas: a chat transcript featuring his thoughts on the Rams' chances in the NFC West. Thomas: "I think Arizona and San Francisco are out of it. If the Rams can win two of these next three road games, I think they're very much in the mix. If they win one of the three, they're hanging by a thread, if they lose all three forget about it."

Roger Hensley of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch polls colleagues on the legacy of Steven Jackson. Bill Coats: "It’s been interesting to watch Steven Jackson mature over his seven seasons with the Rams. He was open with his feelings and thus misunderstood for a few years. Ultimately, I think his legacy will be as a fierce competitor, the most productive running back in franchise history, as well as a devoted team leader."

Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com says Sam Bradford's success as a rookie contrasts sharply with experiences elsewhere around the league.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com offers a player-by-player review from the 49ers' game against Tampa Bay, noting that the offensive line struggled. Maiocco on rookie tackle Anthony Davis: "He had another difficult game with a couple pressures surrendered. Although none of the sacks were entirely on him, his protection could've been a lot better on half of those six sacks. Defensive lineman Michael Bennett beat him on a fourth-quarter sacks, and linebacker Quincy Black got pressure that contributed to a sack, too."

Also from Maiocco: Mike Singletary would need lots of breaks to return as head coach in 2011. Maiocco: "True, the 49ers are not inclined to make any dramatic move during the season. But the attention brought on by a national-TV audience for "Monday Night Football" against the Arizona Cardinals could also factor into the equation. If the wheels come off Monday night -- as they did Sunday against the Buccaneers -- it might force Jed York to expedite his next move."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee lists Jon Gruden, Jim Harbaugh and Brian Billick as likely candidates to replace Singletary.

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Troy Smith needs to do a better job avoiding sacks. Branch: "Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson said Troy Smith was responsible for at least three of the six sacks the Niners allowed against Tampa Bay, which had managed eight sacks in its first nine games. On two occasions, Smith held the ball too long and on another occasion he rolled out and, instead of throwing the ball away, ran out of bounds for a two-yard loss, which goes as a sack in the stat book."

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says Singletary appears to hold the Cardinals in low regard. Also from Kawakami: "If John and Jed York really want to change the culture -- and GET A QUARTERBACK --they’d have to spotlight the offensive wizard in Stanford, which also happened with Eddie D more than 30 years ago. And if the Two JYs don’t check out Harbaugh because they’re either scared of the money terms or don’t want to change up their Jed/Paraag Marathe/Lal Heneghan/Trent Baalke bland hierarchy, then we’ll know things aren’t likely to change for a great while."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Justin Forsett, the only Seattle running back on the roster from last season, has played well when called upon for the Seahawks.

Also from Farnsworth: a look at roster moves Seattle made Tuesday.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the relationship between Pete Carroll and Matt Hasselbeck resembled an arranged marriage, but that doesn't mean it cannot work.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune posts Brian McIntyre's weekly snap counts and personnel notes for Seattle. McIntyre: "Against Seattle’s base defense, Drew Brees completed 14-of-24 pass attempts for 175 yards with 2 touchdowns and 2 interception. Brees was 6-for-7 for 91 yards against the Seahawks’ “Bandit” package, converting 5-of-7 third down conversion attempts. Brees was 5-for-6 for 85 yards and a touchdown when Seattle was in dime, 3-for-5 for 27 yards against nickel and 1-for-1 for 3 yards and a touchdown against Seattle’s short-yardage package."

Also from Williams: a look at the Seahawks' issues in the red zone on offense.

John Boyle of the Everett Herald says the Seahawks should win the NFC West this season. Boyle: "With six games left on the schedule, the Seahawks are alone in first place in football’s worst division. They play four of those six games at Qwest Field and the team closest in the standings, St. Louis, has to come to Seattle at the end of the season. So we should no longer be asking if the Seahawks can make the playoffs; the discussion should instead be what a disappointment it would be if they don’t."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic checks in with Cardinals president Michael Bidwill, who says the team will fight through its current struggles. Bidwill: "I'm a fan and this is really frustrating to all of us. I know the guys are working hard and we're trying to get this thing rectified. The good news is we're only two games out of first, but we have to focus on getting out there on Monday [vs. the 49ers], against an NFC West opponent, and take care of business."

Also from Somers: The Cardinals' roster moves suggest the team expects LaRod Stephens-Howling and Jason Wright to return from injuries.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says he sees Larry Fitzgerald re-signing with the Cardinals as the most likely scenario. I think that depends largely on what the team does at quarterback before Fitzgerald's contract expires following the 2011 season.

Cards get Dockett back, but offense limited

November, 21, 2010
11/21/10
12:16
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Darnell Dockett's injured shoulder prevented him from playing for the Arizona Cardinals against Seattle in Week 10.

The Pro Bowl defensive lineman is active against the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Cardinals will be without defensive starters Clark Haggans (groin) and Greg Toler (foot). Arizona lacks depth at linebacker. Haggans seemed to be playing well when healthy.

Injuries have affected Arizona more this season than in recent seasons.

Running backs LaRod Stephens-Howling (hamstring) and Jason Wright (concussion) are inactive against the Chiefs. Playing without them will limit which personnel groups the Cardinals use against Kansas City.

Stephens-Howling, beyond providing a game-breaking threat as a kickoff returner, had become a threat on offense, particularly from the team's 20 personnel group (two backs, no tight ends). Quarterback Derek Anderson has averaged 12.7 yards per attempt from that grouping on first down, according to my charting. He has completed 8 of 10 passes for 72 yards and a 96.7 rating from that grouping on second down.

Stephens-Howling and Wright often play together within that pass-oriented grouping.

NFC West High Energy Player of the Week

November, 9, 2010
11/09/10
3:00
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NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 9.

I'd be OK renaming this award for the Arizona Cardinals' LaRod Stephens-Howling if his name would fit in the headline.

Perhaps we could simply hyphenate the "High Energy" part in his honor.

[+] EnlargeLaRod Stephens-Howling
AP Photo/Andy BlenkushLaRod Stephens-Howling returned a kick 96 yards for a score in Sunday's loss at Minnesota.
Stephens-Howling would merit consideration even without the game-breaking kickoff returns he provides on occasion. The second-year running back has been a force on special-teams coverage units, putting his 5-foot-7 frame on the line against much larger men. He's also a threat on offense, having scored on a 30-yard run in Week 8.

A seventh-round draft choice from Pitt in 2009, Stephens-Howling broke a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Minnesota in Week 9, giving Arizona needed life right after the Vikings took a 7-0 lead. The Cardinals had lost the early momentum after Kerry Rhodes failed to protect the football during the final stages of an interception return, ultimately losing the ball as he approached the goal line for what should have been a Cardinals touchdown.

Stephens-Howling caught the kickoff just inside the Cardinals' left hash and cut to his right. He crossed the right hash at the 15, hit full stride inside the yard-line numbers near the 30 and then cut back toward the right hash as Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell flailed at him helplessly. There were key blocks -- safety Hamza Abdullah and linebacker O'Brien Schofield on Vikings linebacker Jasper Brinkley, defensive end Alan Branch on Vikings cornerback Chris Cook, fullback Jason Wright on Vikings cornerback Asher Allen, tackle Jeremy Bridges on Vikings running back Toby Gerhart, tight end Jim Dray on Vikings safety Husain Abdullah, Hamza's brother -- but the little guy with the football made them all look good.

"He’s obviously a dynamic player," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt told reporters Monday. "He does a lot of things very well for us. We all see the kickoff returns, but he does some other things for us in coverage and those aspects that are invaluable to us. We really have a good young player in LaRod."

Stephens-Howling has two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season and three in his career. Only Ollie Matson has more in franchise history (six between 1952 and 1958). Only Stephens-Howling, Matson and Les Goble have scored more than once on kickoff returns in the same Cardinals season. League-wide, Stephens-Howling is one of three players this season with multiple kickoff returns for touchdowns, joining New England’s Brandon Tate and Seattle’s Leon Washington.

Post-camp roster analysis: Cardinals

August, 30, 2010
8/30/10
5:50
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Matt Leinart apparently has no idea where he stands with the Arizona Cardinals. That makes it tough for the rest of us to predict exactly what might happen.

Will Leinart start at quarterback for the Cardinals in Week 1? Will he serve as the backup? Will the Cardinals release him? Might they trade him?

The next week to 10 days should provide answers. NFL teams have until Saturday to reduce their rosters to 53-man limits, with the 75-man deadline passing Tuesday.

After looking at the Seahawks' roster earlier Monday, here's a quick run through the Cardinals:

Quarterbacks (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.0

Keepers: Derek Anderson

Looking safe: Max Hall

On the bubble: Leinart, John Skelton

Comment: Coach Ken Whisenhunt's handling of Leinart suggests there's more than tough love at work here. It's fair to question whether Leinart fits into the team's plans at all this season. The smart move, it seems, would be to keep Anderson, Leinart and the winner of the Hall-Skelton competition. But it's clear Whisenhunt isn't convinced Leinart has what it takes to be a starting quarterback.

Running backs (8)

Average number kept since 2003: 5.3

Keepers: Tim Hightower, Beanie Wells, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Jason Wright

On the bubble: Reagan Maui'a, Charles Scott

Also: Alfonso Smith, Nehemiah Broughton

Comment: Scott arrived via trade this week after Broughton suffered a season-ending knee injury. Maui'a could be the choice heading into the regular season. Scott provides depth for the final exhibition game, but it's unlikely he would be refined enough as a blocker to factor into the offense in a meaningful way. Smith's speed caught my attention early in camp.

Wide receivers (11)

Average number kept since 2003: 6.1

Keepers: Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, Early Doucet

Looking safe: Andre Roberts, Stephen Williams

On the bubble: Onrea Jones, Max Komar

Also: Isaiah Williams, Darren Mougey, Mike Jones, Ed Gant

Comment: Gant serves a suspension to open the season. Roberts will make the team as a third-round pick. Williams pretty much wrapped up a spot with his latest strong performance (at Chicago). Jones and Komar could be competing for a sixth and final spot at the position.

Tight ends (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.1

Keepers: Ben Patrick, Anthony Becht, Stephen Spach

Also: Jim Dray

Comment: The team released Dominique Byrd on Monday. The top three appear set. Not much drama here. Dray looks like practice-squad material.

Offensive linemen (12)

Average number kept since 2003: 8.9

Keepers: Lyle Sendlein, Alan Faneca, Brandon Keith, Reggie Wells, Levi Brown, Deuce Lutui, Rex Hadnot, Jeremy Bridges

Looking safe: Herman Johnson

Also: Ben Claxton, Tom Pestock, Jonathan Palmer

Comment: Lutui could be trending toward a spot back in the starting lineup despite reporting to camp overweight. Johnson also reported overweight. He isn't a starter, and that's why I listed him separately from the keepers (even though it's an upset, most likely, if Johnson does not stick).

Defensive line (9)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.4

Keepers: Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, Dan Williams, Bryan Robinson

Looking safe: Alan Branch, Gabe Watson, Kenny Iwebema

Also: John Fletcher, Jeremy Clark

Comment: This position appears pretty much set. I would expect seven to earn roster spots.

Linebackers (14)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.1

Keepers: Gerald Hayes, Paris Lenon, Clark Haggans, Joey Porter, Daryl Washington

Looking safe: Will Davis, Cody Brown

Bubble: Monty Beisel, Reggie Walker

Also: O'Brien Schofield, Steve Baggs, Mark Washington, Chris Johnson, Pago Togafau

Comment: Hayes and Schofield could open the season on reserve/physically unable to perform, opening two roster spots. Beisel and Walker could be competing for the final spot at this position.

Defensive backs (13)

Average number kept since 2003: 8.9

Keepers: Adrian Wilson, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Kerry Rhodes, Greg Toler, Trumaine McBride, Matt Ware

Looking safe: Michael Adams, Hamza Abdullah, Rashad Johnson

On the bubble: Marshay Green

Also: A.J. Jefferson, Trevor Ford, Justin Miller

Comment: Toler could be passing McBride on the depth chart as the starting right cornerback, fulfilling expectations. Johnson appeared more physical early in camp. Haven't heard much about him lately, though.

Specialists (3)

Average number kept since 2003: 2.9

Keepers: Jay Feely, Ben Graham, Mike Leach

Comment: Arizona has three on the roster and that's how many the team will keep. Simple enough.

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