NFC West: Jaws' QB Countdown
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
With an eye toward the NFC West, we consider how quarterbacks from this division fared during the 2012 regular season and playoffs against the players listed above them in the rankings. Quarterbacks do not face one another directly, of course, but they're usually pivotal to a game's outcome. Teams with the higher Total QBR scores have won 86.3 percent of games since 2008 (1,103-175-2).
- 11. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers: 4-1 record, 84.4 Total QBR score, 103.0 NFL passer rating. Kaepernick completed 79 of 130 passes (60.8 percent) for 1,250 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions in these games. He averaged 9.6 yards per pass attempt. Kaepernick produced at an elite level (QBR between 72.3 and 94.7) in victories over Matt Ryan's Atlanta Falcons, Rodgers' Green Bay Packers, Tom Brady's New England Patriots and Drew Brees' New Orleans Saints. He was clearly the best quarterback in each of those games, and the 49ers won all four -- three on the road. While Kaepernick led a late rally against Joe Flacco's Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl, Flacco was nearly flawless and that was the difference in the game.
- 12. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: 3-1 record, 76.4 Total QBR score, 119.5 NFL passer rating. Wilson completed 65 of 105 passes (61.9 percent) with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. He averaged 9.3 yards per pass attempt. Wilson drove his team toward for the go-ahead touchdown in the final 1:30 of games against teams led by Rodgers, Brady and Ryan. He threw four touchdown passes with one pick when Kaepernick and the 49ers visited Seattle. Wilson went 3-0 against these quarterbacks when playing at home, where the Seahawks were 8-0 overall. Jaworski said he knew Wilson was legitimate when Wilson led the Seahawks back from a 20-0 deficit into the lead on the road against Ryan's Atlanta Falcons during the playoffs. Wilson played at a high level in every one of these games except for the one against the Packers in Week 3, several weeks before Wilson and the Seattle offense took flight.
- 22. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams. 4-5-1 record, 54.8 Total QBR score, 83.5 NFL passer rating. Bradford completed 210 of 336 passes (62.5 percent) with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He averaged 6.8 yards per pass attempt. Bradford was at his best (82.0 QBR score) during a Week 10 tie against the 49ers (Alex Smith started that game, but Kaepernick was behind center most of the way). Bradford also played particularly well during a 31-28 victory over Robert Griffin III's Washington Redskins. He completed 74.3 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and one interception in that game. The Rams either won, tied or lost by fewer than eight points in seven of the 10 games. Bradford was a footnote in lopsided defeats against Brady's Patriots and Rodgers' Packers. Those QBs tossed seven touchdown passes without a pick against the Rams.
- 23. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals. 1-9 record, 39.3 Total QBR score, 88.5 NFL passer rating. Palmer, playing for the Oakland Raiders last season, was very good (85.1 QBR score with three touchdown passes) during a 34-31 victory over Ben Roethlisberger's Pittsburgh Steelers. He played pretty well in defeat against Philip Rivers' San Diego Chargers. Palmer barely played at all (three pass attempts) during a 17-6 defeat to Cam Newton's Carolina Panthers. Setting aside the Carolina game, Palmer finished five of the remaining nine games with an NFL passer rating of at least 94.2. His Total QBR scores were quite a bit below average (no higher than 42.9) in seven of those nine games, however. That suggests Palmer put up decent passing stats in some of those games without doing much to affect the outcome.
My sense is that Kaepernick, Wilson and Bradford are gaining in these evaluations, and that Palmer should benefit from better talent around him this season. The NFC West in its current form has never projected more positively at quarterback.
We did not know how high Smith would rank, or what Jaworski would say about him in his ongoing "Countdown" segments for "SportsCenter."
Now we know.
Smith ranks 16th, ahead of Sam Bradford and two of the NFC West quarterbacks still fighting to win a starting job. The No. 27 ranking for Matt Flynn qualifies as the most provisional one of the four simply because he has played so little.
Smith ranked two spots higher than NFC West alum Matt Hasselbeck.
Some thoughts from Jaworski, courtesy of ESPN's Allison Stoneberg:
"Two statistics speak to Smith’s play in 2011. He threw the fewest passes of any 16-game starter, and he had the lowest interception percentage in the National Football League. Smith was managed brilliantly by first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh perfectly understood his quarterback's strengths and limitations.
"The majority of Smith's 20-plus-yard completions came on first down, primarily out of base personnel. Play-action was also utilized. The 49ers got a lot of single-high safety coverages. That defined the reads for Smith. Here [refers to video highlight], he initially looked left; he saw the safety match up to Vernon Davis. He knew he had Michael Crabtree man-to-man on the crosser. The shot plays also came on first-and-10; the result of great design, attacking and breaking down anticipated coverages. Again, it was single high. When the safety jumped the crossing route, Smith hit Crabtree over the top. The wheel route was featured in the 49ers pass game. That played to Smith's passing strengths. He throws with excellent touch and consistent accuracy.
"I was really impressed with Smith in the playoff win against the Saints. He read the blitz, he was decisive and accurate. He pulled the trigger on the tight-window throws. The winning touchdown showed his development as a quarterback. Davis was in the tight slot. Smith's throw had to beat the deep safety to that side. You have to throw it early with great anticipation.
"Right here [more video], Smith began his delivery. That is as good as it gets, folks. The throw made this touchdown. You know what offensive coaches always emphasize? Run the offense the way it is structured and designed. Alex Smith did that with great efficiency. He's not the most physically gifted and talented thrower in the league, but he played at a very high level in 2011, and I expect the same in 2012."
I suspect Harbaugh and Smith can live with that assessment relative to so many others. Jaworski did mention Smith's limitations early. He did credit Harbaugh for "managing" Smith. Those types of comments diminish Smith; Smith and Harbaugh have appeared sensitive to those types of characterizations.
But Jaworski also hailed Smith for his touch and consistent accuracy. He said he expected Smith to continue producing at a high level. If that happens, the already shrinking references to "limitations" and "managing" might disappear from the analyses altogether.
The thought caught me a bit off-guard. Sam Bradford seemed to be ascending. The Arizona Cardinals were excited about Kevin Kolb. Smith hadn't even consistently proved he could be the best quarterback on the 49ers' roster.
When I followed up with Dilfer -- we had been speaking informally at 49ers headquarters following a practice -- he wasn't necessarily down on Bradford, Kolb or the other quarterbacks. He just thought Smith was better prepared than the others to succeed under the circumstances.
Smith was the best quarterback in the division last season, and now we know another ESPN analyst, Ron Jaworski, expects more of the same this season. "Jaws' QB Countdown" unveiled the St. Louis Rams' Sam Bradford as the 20th-ranked projected starter in the NFL, ahead of Kolb (25th) and Seattle's Matt Flynn (27th). We do not yet know how high Smith will rank, just that it'll be somewhere among the top 19.
In the meantime, Jaworski offered the following on-air thoughts regarding Bradford:
"I remember studying him when he came out of Oklahoma in 2010. What I really liked was his ability to sit in the pocket on his back foot, then drive through his throws and deliver with velocity and accuracy. Then I saw this red-zone throw in his fourth game in his rookie season [20-3 victory over Seattle in 2010], and I was even more impressed.
"Let me show you why that touchdown [a 15-yarder to Brandon Gibson] was so special. The defense dropped eight in coverage. That really squeezes your passing lanes. Here’s the throw. That is where Brandon Gibson caught the ball. Bradford delivered it right here. That is rare anticipation, for any quarterback, much less a rookie. There is no question Bradford is a top arm talent. At his best, he is a commanding pocket passer with a compact delivery and a strong arm. He can also get outside the pocket, extend plays and throw accurately on the run, even deep down the field.
"In 2011, Bradford, with very few exceptions, did not look like the same confident pocket quarterback that I saw as a rookie. He was tentative in the pocket, a function of both erratic offensive line play and receivers that could not win on the outside. But I was troubled by Bradford’s increasing tendency to anticipate the rush. I call that cabin fever. And Bradford struggled with that.
"2012 is an important year. The Rams' new coaching staff will manage Bradford in a run-first approach that ideally limits risk. But this is the NFL. You have to stand firm in the pocket and deliver the football. Right now, Bradford is a question mark."
I think it's clear Bradford has the talent. It's also clear the window could close on him if the Rams don't improve around him. Early indications suggest the Rams' new leadership is on its way to upgrading the roster. The team also has four first-round picks over the next two seasons.
The arrow continues to point up for Bradford's career, in my view. He has shown the competitive drive and toughness players need to persevere. We saw that when Bradford took every offensive snap as a rookie amid concerns over his durability. We saw it again last season when he fought through a high-ankle sprain to return ahead of schedule and stay on the field when he could hardly move.
Jaworksi's thoughts on Kolb from his ongoing QB Countdown series, which aired over the weekend and will conclude July 10:
"Many forget that Kevin went through the 2010 offseason and training camp as the Eagles' starting quarterback. 2011 was not his first year as an NFL starter. And quite honestly, I was a little disappointed in Kolb last year in Arizona.
"But Kevin has always been very good recognizing pressure and coverages. He’s an intelligent quarterback who sees the field very well. It’s one reason he was efficient versus the blitz in 2011. Kolb read the blitz before the snap [during a play for which ESPN showed highlights]. He knew he did not have enough blockers. He had three to block four; the outside rusher could not be accounted for. So Kolb moved away from the pressure to give himself room and time to deliver the ball. He knew he would get hit; that was a big-time throw.
"When Kolb reads pressure and coverage correctly, he’s decisive. He looks like a quality starter. If what he expects is not there, he’s prone to sacks and turnovers. In addition, Kolb is not very good outside the pocket. He did not show the ability to effectively extend plays.
"Entering 2012, Kolb is a pocket quarterback who must sharpen and further develop his pocket skills. That’s the objective. One final point I need to make that relates to that -– Kevin missed too many open receivers. He left far too many plays on the field. I always liked Kevin Kolb as a quarterback. I know he approaches the game the right way. 2012 is his crossroads season. I would expect to see improvement. But right now, he’s in the bottom-third of my quarterback rankings."
Those criticisms match up with my perceptions and with what the numbers say. Kolb's NFL passer rating against five or more rushers was an impressive 92.5. But he took sacks on 11.2 percent of these plays, the eighth-highest rate in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 70 attempts in these situations (Tarvaris Jackson, John Skelton and Alex Smith ranked among the five worst in this category). That high sack percentage against five-plus rushers helped explain why Kolb scored only 37.9 out of 100 in Total QBR in these situations.
Kolb's numbers were worse when opponents rushed at least one defensive back (70.7 NFL passer rating, 27.1 QBR).
Durability is a primary concern for Kolb. He suffered a concussion in the 2010 opener. He missed seven games last season. He'll need to do a better job responding to the rush. That's been a point of emphasis for the Cardinals this offseason and one I'll explore more closely later in the week.
Jaws' QB Countdown, the 30-part series featuring analysis from ESPN's Ron Jaworski, put Flynn at No. 1 in Seattle and No. 27 among projected NFL starters for 2012.
Jaworski's take on Flynn:
"Matt Flynn has started two games in his four-year NFL career. To his credit, though, he played well in both, including a record-setting performance at the end of 2011. But, make no mistake, Flynn is a projection at this point. That's why he's 27th on my list.
"I broke down both of Flynn's starts: New England in 2010 and Detroit last season. What I saw was a timing and rhythm passer who's decisive with his reads and his throws. He was consistently accurate in the short to intermediate areas. He displayed a nice feel in the pocket with some subtle movements, like this slight shoulder roll to manipulate the coverage."
At this point in the analysis, SportsCenter showed a clip of Flynn, then with Green Bay, tossing a touchdown pass to James Jones against New England.
"Flynn also showed the ability to get out of the pocket and throw on the run. But the more throws I watched, the more his arm strength limitations were evident. The fade is not an arm-strength throw. It's more of a touch throw. In fact, I was concerned that his few deep balls lost energy at the back end. They had a tendency to die."
The video then showed another Flynn touchdown pass, this one against Detroit.
"This touchdown came off play-action. And, of course, in Seattle with Marshawn Lynch, I would expect to see a heavier dose of it. But, what have we always known about play-action? You do not have to be a strong running team to execute it effectively. Look at that safety react to the stretch-run action [also vs. Detroit]. That left Jordy Nelson one-on-one with the corner with no safety help in the deep middle. It was a shock play, a specific call in a specific situation, designed to produce a big play.
"I believe Flynn can be a successful NFL starter. I'm reminded of Bill Walsh and his strong belief that a good coach manipulates the play of his quarterback with his play concepts and his play-calling. That will have to be the case with Flynn in Seattle."
Jaworski was a strong-armed quarterback when he played. Strong-armed quarterbacks -- think Phil Simms, who raised questions about Andrew Luck -- might place additional value on that trait. I don't know if that's the case with Jaworski in relation to Flynn, but the thought came to mind.
The series continues Friday with Jaworski's 26th-ranked starting quarterback.