NFC West: Joe Thomas

Perhaps you've heard: The San Francisco 49ers are heading to the Super Bowl for a sixth time in franchise history.

A few other NFC West items have slipped through around here amid all the red and gold confetti. I'm going to touch on a few of them, beginning with Larry Fitzgerald's status as one of three finalists for Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.

Fitzgerald seems like such a worthy candidate for the causes he champions, the professionalism he consistently demonstrates and, of course, for his sustained excellence on the field. Cleveland's Joe Thomas and Dallas' Jason Witten are the other finalists. The three were among 32 player chosen for consideration, one from each team.

Winners must stand out for their work in the community and on the field.

From the Cardinals, on Fitzgerald:
"In August of 2012, he was honored with Pro Football Weekly’s Humanitarian of the Year Award for his outstanding community and charitable contributions. Through his two foundations -- the Larry Fitzgerald First Down Fund and the Carol Fitzgerald Memorial Fund -- he has helped thousands by providing funds for kids and families in crisis and to honor his late mother, Carol, has been heavily involved in furthering breast cancer awareness and research. He has served as a spokesman for the NFL’s A Crucial Catch campaign each of the last three seasons, donating funds for each reception and TD reception during the month of October.

"Globally, Fitzgerald has done extensive work with the Starkey Hearing Foundation, providing hearing aids for those in need throughout Africa. He has also traveled to Ethiopia with good friend and former teammate Anquan Boldin on behalf of Oxfam America, helping work on irrigation systems and digging wells in local communities. As part of his strong support of the military, Fitzgerald has helped raise money for the Semper Fi Fund, which benefits injured and critically ill members of the U.S. Armed Force; he also joined other NFL players on a USO Tour of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009."
Kurt Warner won the 2008 version of the award as a member of the Cardinals. Seattle's Steve Largent (1988) was the only other winner associated with a current NFC West franchise.

The winner for this past season will be announced Feb. 2 on CBS.

Johnny Unitas was first to win the award, in 1970. The NFL added Payton's name to the award following the Hall of Fame running back's death. Payton had won the award for his contributions during the 1977 season.
NFC West teams have loaded up on offensive linemen over the past several seasons.

They used first-round choices for Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis, Jason Smith, Levi Brown, Russell Okung and James Carpenter since 2007.

Only the AFC North (eight) and NFC North (seven) have used as many first-round choices for offensive linemen over the same span.

It was a little concerning, then, to see only one NFC West player on Matt Williamson's list Insider of 15 offensive linemen with the brightest long-term futures. Iupati, entering his third season as the San Francisco 49ers' left guard, was sixth behind Jake Long, Tyron Smith, Joe Thomas, Maurkice Pouncey and Mike Pouncey.

"This is the season that Iupati will establish himself as one of the elite guards in the NFL," Williamson wrote. "A project coming out of college, Iupati has progressed well and is loaded with great tools for playing the position. He is huge, extremely powerful and nasty. Run blocking isn't a problem at all, and his pass protection has consistently improved. Iupati and Joe Staley quietly make up one of the best left sides of any offensive line in the NFL and should continue to improve going forward."

Staley, the 49ers' left tackle, earned Pro Bowl honors last season. Williamson gave Staley and Seattle Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung honorable mention outside the top 15. Williamson has previously been extremely high on Okung, but injuries have made it tougher to project Okung's fortunes for the longer term.

Williamson was projecting for the 2015 season. The seven NFC West linemen mentioned above should remain in their prime years at that time. A quick look at where each of them stands heading toward 2012 training camps:
  • Staley, 49ers: started all 16 regular-season games and two playoff games last season after missing 14 games over the previous two.
  • Iupati, 49ers: played all but four snaps last season and has started all 32 games.
  • Davis, 49ers: improved last season and should benefit some from increased familiarity with the offense.
  • Smith, Rams: Rams think he'll benefit from Paul Boudreau's coaching in what could be a make-or-break year for Smith.
  • Brown, Cardinals: improved late last season and must continue on that trajectory after receiving $7 million signing bonus.
  • Okung, Seahawks: talented and possesses a nasty temperament, but hasn't been able to stay on the field.
  • Carpenter, Seahawks: devastating knee injury threatens his 2012 season, while Breno Giacomini's emergence could relegate Carpenter to guard.

Kevin Seifert of the NFC North blog tried to trade the third overall choice in the first-round mock draft we conducted Monday.

There were no takers, leaving Seifert to select USC tackle Matt Kalil -- a decision that seemed wholly unsatisfying for him.

What would it mean for the St. Louis Rams, owners of the sixth overall choice, if the Vikings selected, say, cornerback Morris Claiborne over Kalil? Cleveland, with perennial Pro Bowl choice Joe Thomas at left tackle, would have no use for Kalil at No. 4. Tampa Bay, picking fifth, has 2010 Pro Bowl choice Donald Penn at left tackle.

Most scenarios for St. Louis assume Kalil (and Trent Richardson) would be unavailable to the Rams, leaving them to choose between Claiborne, Justin Blackmon or a defensive tackle at No. 6. Could they justify passing on Kalil?

"I don't think he gets past St. Louis at six," Scouts Inc.'s Steve Muench said in the video atop this entry. "I know they've drafted tackles high, i.e. Jason Smith, and it hasn't worked out with his concussion issues, but you still need that franchise left tackle and, again, I think that position is so important that you can't just pass on it because you haven't had luck in recent years."

Muench called Kalil a "no-brainer" selection for the Vikings, but will Minnesota agree? And how would the Rams respond if presented with an unexpected choice? They recently worked out a streamlined contract with Smith, allowing him to return as the projected starting right tackle. Rodger Saffold returns as the likely starting left tackle, but he could conceivably move to another position on the line if the Rams found a better option at tackle.

I'll follow up with Muench for additional thoughts -- not just on this situation, but on draft-related subjects around the division. Back in a bit.
The two weeks remaining before NFL free agency will feel like two months at the current pace of activity.

Don't bother with the disclaimers, either.

Yes, history says the best teams build through the draft over time, that free agency can be a fool's errand and bad money gets spent this time of year. We still want action.

I hadn't even arrived home from the combine Monday when free-agent hunger pangs led me to call Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. with an idea: singling out for discussion one potential free agent for each NFC West team, with the Houston Texans' Mario Williams in the spotlight.

Williamson was game. He's here with a quick free-agency fix to get us through another day.

Seattle Seahawks

Free agent to consider: Mario Williams, OLB/DE, Houston Texans

Quick primer: Williams, barely 27, could hit the market while the Texans focus their limited salary-cap resources elsewhere. He has 48.5 sacks in his last 66 games and would, at least in theory, help the Seahawks address their most glaring deficiency beyond quarterback.

Williamson's first take: Jacksonville has a chance and New England will be really involved. Seattle is a good one, but I'm not sure exactly where Williams fits. The way they play their scheme, they have Chris Clemons as that 'Leo' guy, the tweener type, and the other end is like a Red Bryant, a big guy. But they clearly need more pass rush. Clemons is fine. Williams is really versatile and that is why he is a great fit in New England. They play so much 3-4. Seattle is a goofy scheme because they do not have two perimeter guys.

Sando's counter: Clemons' contract runs through the 2012 season only. He is 30 years old and probably has some good years left, but Williams could project as their next Leo. In the meantime, the staff would find a way to get the best 11 players on the field. Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley have shown an ability to adapt. They converted Bryant from top-heavy defensive tackle to a pretty much immovable player at the five-technique.

Williamson's followup: The Leo would be a great role for Williams. You could play more base 3-4 stuff. They do need pass-rush help, but right now I do not see a wonderful fit for Williams. Where does he start?

San Francisco 49ers

Free agent to consider: Robert Meachem, WR, New Orleans Saints

Quick primer: Meachem, 27, has a 16.1-yard average per reception and would, in theory, give the 49ers a needed speed element at wide receiver. The 49ers ran low on healthy wideouts last season. They have acknowledged needing help at the position.

Williamson's first take: Quite a few of the top free-agent receivers could become franchise players. All of a sudden, Meachem and Mario Manningham could move up the list. All these receivers have warts. Marques Colston is a free agent, but he has had multiple knee surgeries. DeSean Jackson is fast, but he is little and a pain. Vincent Jackson has been suspended. I think Meachem moves on and winds up being a starter for somebody. His skill set would be real opposite Michael Crabtree. Crabtree is a big, physical, move-the-chains guy. Meachem can run. He gets deep. Even though Alex Smith is not a big-arm guy, Meachem is the type of wideout they should pursue.

Sando's counter: Meachem fits the profile also because the 49ers would rather target middle-tier free agents than spend huge sums on the big names. That is why I don't really see them paying what it would take for Mike Wallace, particularly if a trade were involved. The 49ers are picking only 30th in the draft, so they cannot be certain a top wideout will be there for them. They will be best off addressing the position in free agency, then considering their options in the draft without feeling pressure to find an immediate contributor.

Williamson's followup: The draft also sets up well for them at the position. They have to say, 'We are a contender, let's make a move in free agency.' Mike Wallace would make sense, too. They have to add a receiver of some sort, maybe in free agency and the draft.

St. Louis Rams

Free agent to consider: Cortland Finnegan, CB, Tennessee Titans

Quick primer: Finnegan, 28 last month, has given the Titans' secondary a tough edge in recent seasons. Finnegan played for Rams coach Jeff Fisher in Tennessee. He has started 16 games in four of the last five seasons. He has 14 interceptions, six sacks, one Pro Bowl (2008) and a reputation for nastiness.

Williamson's first take: They are obviously familiar with Finnegan. They do need wideouts and playmakers, but they could add Justin Blackmon after trading back from No. 2 overall. They have quantity at wideout. They need a stud. There is no use in getting Joe Blow C-plus free agent at that position. Corner is a huge need, too. I think Finnegan goes with St. Louis or Detroit. The Lions are a dirty team and Finnegan fits that persona. The Rams have more money to spend and I'm sure they would like to get Morris Claiborne, but not with the top pick. It would be nice to add a solid corner you can count on.

Sando's counter: The Rams liked the top of their depth chart at this position heading into last season, but things have changed. Ron Bartell is coming off a career-altering neck injury. His salary is $6.2 million this season, more than I would anticipate the Rams paying under the circumstances. Bradley Fletcher is a good player when healthy, but he's coming off ACL surgery. Adding Finnegan or another free-agent corner would make sense. The Saints' Tracy Porter played for Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in New Orleans. I doubt the Atlanta Falcons would let Brent Grimes get away, but he's someone the Rams would through their new general manager, Les Snead. The team needs a starting corner.

Williamson's followup: After Jim Schwartz left Fisher's staff for Detroit, he went out and signed Kyle Vanden Bosch. Fisher could sign Finnegan and essentially say, 'This is what I expect. This is how we are going to play defense around here. Watch Cortland.' They will bring in some of their own guys. This is clearly a need position.

Arizona Cardinals

Free-agent to consider: Jared Gaither, LT, San Diego Chargers

Quick primer: Gaither, 25, has all the physical qualities a team would want in a left tackle. He is also 6-foot-9 and 340 pounds. Gaither played well in five starts with San Diego last season, but he has been a tease throughout his career. Baltimore and Kansas City gave up on him.

Williamson's first take: The Cardinals' needs aren't crazy. They could add another outside linebacker type to the mix, but the two youngsters played pretty well. They will get Ryan Williams back at running back. Quarterback is the problem, but I just don't know if they will do anything about it. Their line needs to be rebuilt. Levi Brown, as much as I dislike him, did play better late in the season. I still think he is one of the worst starters in all of football when you look at every game he has started in the NFL. He is not a starting-caliber player. Russ Grimm is a good line coach. Gaither is the most volatile guy out there, but when he is right, he is a top-10 left tackle. Maybe Grimm can harness that. Gaither played well late and should not be overly expensive.

Sando's counter: The Cardinals haven't gotten much from Deuce Lutui or Brown, two players with talent. I'm not sure there's any evidence to suggest Arizona would suddenly get maximum value from another offensive lineman with question marks. Brown's return appears likely, but he will have to take a pay cut. The team doesn't really have another starting tackle, in my view. Brandon Keith's injury situation is a concern. The Cardinals basically have no young talent to draw from at the position because they have loaded up on older vets, largely ignoring offensive linemen in the draft. But they cannot be sure a starting-caliber tackle will be there for them with the 13th overall choice, either.

Williamson's followup: Gaither has some issues, but look, Joe Thomas is not available. They are not going to get Jake Long. They could use a first-round pick on one, too. I don’t know what Gaither's issues are, if he is a bad guy or just unmotivated or what. He was a very good left tackle in Baltimore and they cut him. The last tape of Gaither we saw was good. San Diego might want to keep him. Maybe he turns the corner after being cut by a couple teams. There will be a market for him. Another good tackle who may never leave his current team is Demetrius Bell from Buffalo. He was drafted as a project and is gradually getting better. Last year, he showed he can be an NFL left tackle. His best football might be ahead of him, too.
This was indeed a special season for the San Francisco 49ers and, by extension, the NFC West overall.

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

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

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

The chart shows All-Pro counts by division.

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

2011 49ers Week 8: Five observations

November, 1, 2011
Five things I noticed while watching the San Francisco 49ers' 20-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns in Week 8:
  • The 49ers had plans against pressure. Alex Smith is the only quarterback in the NFL with no interceptions and more than four touchdown passes against five or more pass-rushers. He is the only quarterback with no interceptions and more than two touchdown passes when opponents pressure with at least one defensive back. I can see why. The 49ers protected beautifully when Smith found Vernon Davis for a 19-yard gain and Michael Crabtree for a 41-yarder, both on third-and-9 plays against five-man pressure. Smith had a quick outlet against five-man pressure on a third-and-6 play (he found Braylon Edwards for a first down). And when the Browns rushed safety Usama Young near the goal line, Smith reacted quickly, finding Crabtree for a 2-yard touchdown with Young bearing down and leaping in the quarterback's face.
  • Joe Thomas met expectations. The Browns' Pro Bowl left tackle encountered very little trouble against the 49ers' talented defensive linemen and outside linebackers. Justin Smith nearly got around Thomas in a two-minute situation before halftime. Aldon Smith redirected the running back after slipping past Thomas to the inside. That was about it. On one play, Colt McCoy found Benjamin Watson for a 29-yard gain after Thomas shoved Parys Haralson backward hard enough for Haralson to knock down Justin Smith, removing both men from the play. Aldon Smith got his sack on an inside rush, not working against Thomas.
  • Free safety Dashon Goldson got caught letting up. Josh Cribbs beat 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown for a touchdown catch up the left sideline. It's tough to know whether Goldson should have arrived earlier to help, but it's clear Goldson should have run through the whistle on this one. He let up when it appeared either Brown was going to make the tackle or Cribbs was on his way out of bounds. Goldson accelerated when he realized Cribbs had broken free, but by then it was too late. Cribbs ran the remaining 15 yards to the end zone.
  • Alex Smith's running is OK, to a point. The 49ers called multiple designed runs for their quarterback. A shotgun run to the perimeter behind tackle Joe Staley worked near the goal line. Smith took a big hit on another outside run when the 49ers led 17-3 early in the fourth quarter. There's a fine line between outsmarting opponents and risking quarterback injury without good reason. Jim Harbaugh might think he can win with Colin Kaepernick, but there's no need to find out. Seattle lost Tarvaris Jackson to a pectoral injury on a designed run.
  • Patrick Willis the pass-rusher found the QB. Willis finished last season with six sacks, a career high. Expectations surged when new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said he thought pass-rushing was the one area Willis could improve to become an even more dynamic player. The 49ers haven't needed to blitz much this season. Willis went into Week 8 without a sack. He finally got one Sunday. Willis lined up wide to the right and easily overpowered running back Chris Ogbonnaya before taking down McCoy. As I recall, Willis has usually rushed up the middle when pressuring. Perhaps he'll get more pass-rushing chances after making this outside rush work.

This wasn't a perfect performance, but the 49ers were in control all the way. They did more than enough to win the game, rarely taking risks beyond the quarterback rushes.

Scout's take: 49ers vs. Joe Thomas

October, 28, 2011
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. breaks down the San Francisco 49ers' game against the Cleveland Browns from just about every angle in his Insider scouting report.

I followed up with him on the phone Friday for thoughts on matchups involving the two best players on the field Sunday: Browns left tackle Joe Thomas and 49ers defensive end Justin Smith. Williamson ranks Smith among the 10 best players in the NFL regardless of position. He ranks Thomas among the top 50.

Matt Williamson: Thomas is playing really well -- not as well as he has in the past, but he's in the conversation for best left tackle. He is a great left tackle without any weaknesses. There is no certain type of player Thomas does well against. He does well against everybody, but so does Justin Smith.

Mike Sando: What should we expect Sunday?

Matt Williamson: Smith is a better player than Thomas, a top 10 guy. But the 49ers' front looks like a 5-2 on early downs and Thomas will be blocking the outside linebacker, which is exactly what San Francisco wants. If the 49ers can get Ray McDonald and Smith on either one of the Browns' guards, they are going to torment them. This will not be like Dwight Freeney against Joe Thomas all game because Smith moves around.

Mike Sando: Sounds like this could be a quieter game for 49ers rookie outside linebacker Aldon Smith, assuming Smith winds up matched against Thomas a fair amount.

Matt Williamson: Thomas against any of their outside linebackers has a distinct advantage, and I like the 49ers' outside linebackers. Great left tackles rarely get beat. I could see this not being a big Aldon Smith game. The 49ers' speed should give Tony Pashos some problems at right tackle, though. Pashos is a heavier footed mauler type. He will do better against McDonald than any of the edge players there.

Mike Sando: What's your take on the game overall?

Matt Williamson: Cleveland's offense is so inept. I don't know that San Francisco is going to beat them 30-0, though. It's probably going to be closer even though San Francisco will control the whole game, most likely. Colt McCoy's yards per attempt are about the worst in the league (only Kerry Collins is worse in this category). The Browns have no vertical dimension to their offense.

Two Smiths plus one McDonald equal sacks

October, 28, 2011
Good question from Tre9er this week regarding the San Francisco 49ers' pass rush: "Is there info available breaking down how many sacks from Justin Smith and Ray McDonald have come from the base and nickel defenses?"

Yes, there is. Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus covered some of this ground Friday. I'll provide charts from ESPN Stats & Information showing the 49ers' sack numbers by defensive personnel and where they lined up on the field.

Justin Smith plays in all packages and produces from each as well. Rookie Aldon Smith, who has played mostly with the nickel defense, has collected all his sacks within sub packages (those featuring more than four defensive backs).

The 49ers have zero sacks from their defensive backs. That reflects the 49ers' ability to get sufficient pressure without blitzing. Opponents have attempted passes 19 times when San Francisco rushed a defensive back, the seventh-lowest figure in the NFL.

I'm most interested in seeing whether the Smiths, Justin and Aldon, can get pressure against the Cleveland Browns' Pro Bowl left tackle, Joe Thomas. The Browns will presumably try to run the ball, even if they do not gain many yards. That was their strategy against Seattle last week. But if the 49ers' offense scores enough points to force the Browns into more obvious passing situations, the Smiths could achieve more favorable matchups.
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. ranks the top 15 players in the NFC West. Today: Nos. 6-10.

6. Aubrayo Franklin, San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle: Franklin, a free agent-to-be, will be highly sought after once the bell sounds for free agency to open. Teams such as Washington and Kansas City should covet him to anchor the middle of their 3-4 defenses, because Franklin does that very well. A pure nose tackle who is very difficult to move off his spot, Franklin makes everyone around him better. He offers little as a pass-rusher but is extremely effective against the run. Trust me, Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes are extremely grateful to him. San Francisco should do everything possible to keep him. Whatever he signs for, Franklin is worth it.

7. Brandon Mebane, Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle: Like Franklin, Mebane should become a free agent. Mebane isn’t a slouch against the run, but he is much better suited for a 4-3 where he can use his array of abilities, including a quick get-off.

Mebane doesn’t get the publicity that he deserves, but he does everything asked of him well. Carolina or Denver would love to have him.

8. Russell Okung, Seattle Seahawks offensive tackle: Rookies are not supposed to make the game look as easy as Okung did last season. If had been healthy for 16 games, he might already be considered amongst the best left tackles in the league. That might be a bit premature, but he is quite high on my left tackle list. Okung is very fluid for his size and light on his feet. His technique in both protection and as a run blocker is refined for someone his age. He will only get better. It won’t be long before people are comparing Okung to Joe Thomas and Jake Long as the best player at the position. As long as Okung can stay on the field, he is the cornerstone of Seattle’s offense.

9. James Laurinaitis, St. Louis Rams linebacker: Laurinaitis is improving rapidly. He is already a fixture in the middle of the Rams’ defense and has the intelligence and toughness to lead for years to come. He is still developing as a coverage linebacker, but he isn’t a liability. Laurinaitis is exceptional against the run. He is quick to diagnose and wastes little time getting to the ball carrier. Fred Robbins (who nearly made this list) does deserve an assist here, because he was great on the interior in front of Laurinaitis last season.

10. Mike Iupati, San Francisco 49ers guard: This guy is just a masher. He was outstanding as a rookie and got better as the season went along. That is a fantastic accomplishment, considering that his adjustment from the University of Idaho to the NFL was a very drastic one. Iupati still has a lot of technique work to do, especially with his hand placement in pass protection. But he is extremely nasty, massive and moves very well for his size. Led by Iupati, expect the 49ers' young offensive line to take a major step forward in 2011.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL
NFC West teams have drafted a league-high 10 offensive linemen in the first two rounds since 2007.

Seven of the 10 were tackles.

Four of the seven tackles play on the left side.

One of the four left tackles, Russell Okung of the Seattle Seahawks, showed up in voting when's power rankings for the position went live Tuesday.

I ranked Okung 10th as a projection for 2011 even though the St. Louis Rams' Rodger Saffold was arguably the best left tackle in the NFC West last season.

My thinking on Okung: There are not 10 complete, elite left tackles in the NFL. Okung belongs on a very short list of players with the talent and makeup to be elite at that position. He hasn't played enough to this point, but I think he'll join that group. Listing someone with less ability was the alternative.

"Okung would be in my top five a year from now," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said, "but to say he is as good as, say, D'Brickashaw Ferguson is hard to do right now."

My rankings took into account a range of factors: what players have accomplished to this point, what they are likely to accomplish in 2011 and whether they are one-dimensional or more complete. Some left tackles would have a harder time flourishing in run-oriented offenses. Others aren't as good protecting the passer. The best ones could do either well.

[+] EnlargeRussell Okung
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonSome scouts believe Seattle left tackle Russell Okung has that talent to develop into an elite player at the position.
Speaking with Williamson and other evaluators helped to supplement my own impressions of players, including some players I have not seen regularly.

One NFC scout ranked Joe Thomas and Jake Long in the top two spots even though he thought Ryan Clady and Jason Peters were more talented. Consistency and dependability were what gave Thomas and Long the edge. This scout also thought Michael Roos had played at a high level despite being less impressive physically. He liked Donald Penn and also thought Okung would work his way into the top few spots.

Saffold and the Arizona Cardinals' Levi Brown started every game at left tackle last season. Okung missed six starts to injury. San Francisco 49ers left tackle Joe Staley missed seven, also to injury.

Saffold's ability to start 16 games and hold up relatively well made him one of the more impressive rookies in the NFL last season. Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian even suggested his team might have erred in passing on Saffold.

Polian thought Saffold would project as a right tackle. The NFC scout I referenced above thought Saffold could be better at guard. Staley and Brown have played both tackle spots.

There is no debate as to where Okung should line up. His physical skills make him a natural left tackle. He also seems to have the right mindset. How well he avoids injuries will likely determine whether my No. 10 projection was on target.
Of all the 2007 NFC West draft picks, the Cardinals' Levi Brown and the 49ers' Patrick Willis have started the most games.US PresswireOf all the 2007 NFC West draft picks, the Cardinals' Levi Brown and the 49ers' Patrick Willis have started the most games.
JaMarcus Russell's demise as an NFL player is back in the news, shining light upon the perils of investing millions in unproven prospects.

The 2007 NFL draft was about more than Russell, of course.

That draft also produced Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis, Darrelle Revis and Lawrence Timmons among the top 15 choices.

For as much criticism as the Arizona Cardinals have taken for selecting tackle Levi Brown fifth overall, Brown has started 59 regular-season games, second only to Willis (63) among NFC West draft choices that year. He has also started six playoff games, including a Super Bowl, and coach Ken Whisenhunt expects good things from him.

I've put together a couple charts showing what NFC West teams have gotten from their draft choices that year. More on those in a bit.

First, I've taken a team-by-team look at the players selected, whether they remain with their original teams and how many games each has started for his drafted team.

The 49ers had the best draft among NFC West teams. They also had the most draft capital to work with, selecting twice in the first round. The Seattle Seahawks had no first-rounder that year thanks to the Deion Branch trade, so expectations were lower.

Arizona Cardinals

Total picks: five

Still with team (4): Brown (59), Steve Breaston (26), Ben Patrick (20), Alan Branch (3)

No longer with team (1): Buster Davis (0)

Comment: The Cardinals had fewer total selections than any team in the division. Hitting on Breaston in the fifth round was outstanding, but the Cardinals haven't gotten enough from their top three selections that year. Branch never panned out as a second-rounder. Davis, the third-rounder, didn't make it out of camp. Whisenhunt takes pride in making roster decisions with less regard for draft status. He wasn't going to give Davis or anyone a free pass. That's admirable, but in the bigger picture, Arizona still came up short in this draft.

San Francisco 49ers

Total picks: nine

Still with team (5): Willis (63), Joe Staley (50), Ray McDonald (9), Dashon Goldson (34), Tarell Brown (5)

No longer with team (4): Jason Hill (2), Jay Moore (0), Joe Cohen (0), Thomas Clayton (0)

Comment: Former general manager Scot McCloughan gets credit for selling former coach Mike Singletary on Willis as an elite prospect. That seems odd given Singletary's background as a Hall of Fame linebacker, but the 49ers got the right guy, so the "how" part matters less. That one selection makes this draft the best in the division for 2007. Staley is the starting left tackle. McDonald has been a solid rotation player. Goldson became a starter. All in all, this was a strong draft.

Seattle Seahawks

Total picks: eight

Still with team (2): Brandon Mebane (53), Will Herring (7)

No longer with team (6): Josh Wilson (24), Steve Vallos (8), Mansfield Wrotto (5), Courtney Taylor (4), Jordan Kent (1), Baraka Atkins (0)

Comment: Not having a first-round selection severely hurt this class' overall potential. Wilson seemed like a solid selection in the second round given the playmaking value he offered, but multiple changes in organizational leadership left him on the outside in terms of fit. Mebane was a solid choice in the third round. Vallos and Wrotto remain in the league elsewhere.

St. Louis Rams

Total picks: eight

Still with team (1): Clifton Ryan (27)

No longer with team (7): Adam Carriker (25), Brian Leonard (7), Jonathan Wade (6), Dustin Fry (0), Ken Shackleford (0), Keith Jackson (0), Derek Stanley (0)

Comment: This draft was a disaster for the Rams and made worse by massive organizational changes. On the bright side, the Rams might not have been in position to select Sam Bradford first overall in 2010 without selecting so many non-contributors in 2007.

Now, on to the charts. The first one takes a round-by-round look at the number of starts each team has gotten from its 2007 selections. I have used dashes instead of zeroes to show when teams did not have a selection in a specific round.

The second chart divides the number of starts by the values of the selections each team held, using the draft-value chart.

For example, the value chart said the Seahawks' picks that year were worth 669.2 points, far less than the picks for other NFC West teams were worth. Using this measure, Seattle got more bang for its buck if we valued all starts equally (and we should not value them all equally, but we can still use this as a general guide).

Some of the choices were compensatory and could not be traded, so the chart would not have valued them for trading purposes. I assigned values to them for this exercise, however, because we were not considering the picks for trading purposes.

Ken Whisenhunt is right when he says Levi Brown takes more criticism as a high draft choice than he would take as someone selected later in the process.

That's the way it works. The highest picks in a draft class should outperform their peers.

[+] EnlargeLevi Brown
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesLevi Brown, drafted fifth overall in 2007, can still become an "outstanding" player according to Ken Whisenhunt.
The Arizona Cardinals don't need anyone to remind them that they selected Brown over some All-Pro performers, including Adrian Peterson and Patrick Willis. But it's not as though Brown, a player with 56 consecutive regular-season starts, qualifies as a flat-out bust, either. He moved to left tackle from the right side last season and will stay there.

"He improved last year," Whisenhunt said this week from the NFL owners meeting in New Orleans. "As a left tackle, it's not an easy position to move from right tackle. He will continue to get better. He is a talented football player. The biggest thing he has struggled with is the consistency of his play. But a lot of times you are under the microscope more because you were the fifth pick in the draft."

I would rank Brown, chosen fifth overall in 2007, somewhere around 20th out of 32 first-round picks that year.

Brown has obviously or arguably outperformed the following first-round selections from 2007: JaMarcus Russell, Jamaal Anderson, Ted Ginn Jr., Amobi Okoye, Adam Carriker, Justin Harrell, Jarvis Moss, Aaron Ross, Reggie Nelson, Brady Quinn, Anthony Gonzalez and Craig Davis. Gaines Adams, chosen fourth that year, passed away after Tampa Bay traded him to Chicago.

The following first-rounders from 2007 have obviously or arguably outperformed Brown: Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, LaRon Landry, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis, Marshawn Lynch, Darrelle Revis, Lawrence Timmons, Leon Hall, Michael Griffin, Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Meriweather, Jon Beason, Anthony Spencer, Robert Meachem, Joe Staley, Ben Grubbs and Greg Olsen.

"The reason we drafted Levi where we did was because we had him rated high enough to go in that position, but we also felt like we had to develop our offensive line and defensive line at that point, because that is where the most critical component of your team," Whisenhunt said. "That is the only way you are going to have a chance to compete. Levi has been a good player. He is often criticized, but I think that comes with being the fifth pick, and I don't understand how you evaluate offensive linemen, because they are not catching passes or running touchdowns in."

Whisenhunt said he thought Brown can and will become an "outstanding" player.

"Any time an offensive lineman gets drafted that high, especially in a fantasy football world where people want you to get dynamic playmakers, you are going to face some kind of criticism," Whisenhunt said. "I have to give Levi some credit. As tough as it's been, he hasn't let it affect him. He has continued to work and get better and I think this will be a big year for him. This is a chance for him to show that he can play this position very well."
The 49ers' draft should give them three of their own first-round draft choices on the offensive line.

No other team in the league figures to line up with as many of its own first-rounders on the offensive line this season. Seattle is the only other team with three of its own first-round offensive linemen on its roster, but that will change when Walter Jones announces his retirement, probably this week.

The Rams have first-round choices Jason Brown and Alex Barron, plus Rodger Saffold, the first player chosen in the second round of the 2010 draft. But Saffold wasn't a first-round choice and Barron might not fit into the Rams' long-term plans for the line.

All three 49ers first-rounders -- Joe Staley, Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati -- were drafted in 2007 or later. Not counting San Francisco, only the Ravens (Michael Oher, Ben Grubbs) and Browns (Alex Mack, Joe Thomas) have even two such players.

Seattle briefly had three of its own first-round offensive linemen on its roster in 2005, but center Chris Spencer never started in the same line as Steve Hutchinson and Jones.

49ers fans can expect to see Staley remain at left tackle, with Iupati working his way into the lineup at left guard and Davis taking over for Adam Snyder at right tackle. The 49ers will talk about players having to earn their jobs, but they did not draft Davis or Iupati to have them sit on the bench. Staley started all 16 games as a rookie after the 49ers made him the 28th overall choice in 2007.

The 49ers expect lots from new offensive line coach Mike Solari, so it's an upset if Davis and Iupati do not start in Week 1. With Seattle last season, Solari got second-rounder Max Unger into the lineup right away. Unger started 16 games.

The 49ers should have five of their own draft choices starting on the offensive line. Center Eric Heitmann was a seventh-round choice in 2002. Right guard Chilo Rachal was a second-round choice in 2008. Even the players Iupati and Davis could beat out -- David Baas and Snyder -- were 49ers draft choices.

Mailbag: Elite tackles found early

April, 10, 2010
S.L. from Tulsa writes: Your blog item on Pro Bowl players versus draft position was quite interesting. Because the Pro Bowl selects all 22 positions, I would expect certain positions (kicker, center, guard, safety) to have far fewer very high picks than, say, quarterback, defensive end or cornerback. If you filter for position and apply this standard, it might show that the top choices at each position produce even more Pro Bowlers. I would like to see this extra detail to prove or disprove the apparent value of early picks. It could give you a followup column.

Mike Sando: Good idea. I did have a positional filter at my disposal. The filter lumped all defensive backs together, and some positional designations changed or could use updating (Leonard Davis was listed at tackle coming out of college, for instance, but he has gone to Pro Bowls as a guard).

I toyed with a couple ways to answer your question. In the end, I created categories for players with no Pro Bowls, one to two Pro Bowls and three-plus Pro Bowls. I then set up a table showing average draft positions for these players, sorted from earliest to latest. The chart shows defensive ends were drafted about 120th on average, with punters and kickers drafted in the 160s on average. This information covered the 2000 through 2009 draft classes.

Check out the row for players listed as offensive tackles. They were drafted 126th overall on average from 2000 to 2009, but the averages changed dramatically based on Pro Bowl appearances (134th for tackle with no Pro Bowls, about 39th for tackles with one or two Pro Bowls and about third overall for tackles with three-plus Pro Bowls). The latter group featured Davis, Joe Thomas and Chris Samuels.

Nick from Tampa writes: Mike, with the state of QBs in this year's draft and the need by the Rams to hit the nail on the head with this pick, how does this senario fare for you:
  • Pick up Jason Campbell from Washington with possibly a third- or fourth-round pick;
  • Use your first-rounder on Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy to help give immediate improvement to the defensive line.

I see the QB pool in this year's draft to be extrememly slim, with the top three prospects coming off injuries. Instead of taking a big-money and possibly not fully healed guy in this draft and thowing him head first to be eaten alive, pick up Campbell, who still has gas in the tank, draft your QB in the second round, or wait until the pool inproves. Additionally, there is a large chance that you can get Colt McCoy or another project QB at the No. 33 spot, making the No. 1 pick a greater chance of success.

Mike Sando: It depends wholly on what you think of Sam Bradford relative to Jason Campbell. The Rams want a face-of-the-franchise guy, someone to lead the team and rouse the fan base. I don't think Campbell would be that guy. The book on Campbell says he's not much of a leader. That was the read on him coming out of Auburn in 2005. For the Rams, drafting a quarterback first overall would provide some needed sizzle. Now, does that mean Bradford will be any good? Not necessarily.

Your idea has some appeal. Trent Dilfer, speaking on 101ESPN St. Louis, suggested the Rams go that route. It makes sense if the Rams aren't sold on Bradford. But if they think Bradford is the franchise quarterback they want to build around, picking him is pretty easy to do.

Doug from Washington, D.C., writes: Hey Mike, big fan of the blog and the Seahawks. I was just wondering why no one is talking about the Seahawks being interested in Jared Gaither? I understand that he's likely to fetch a high second-rounder, but couldn't the Hawks package their late second-rounder and a fourth- or fifth-round pick to grab a young left tackle with lots of upside?

Mike Sando: Thanks, Doug. Gaither is 6-foot-9 and 340 pounds. The Seahawks won't want someone that massive for their zone blocking scheme. Also, a young left tackle on the rise should be worth more than the price you outlined. Something isn't right with the Gaither picture. Any young starting tackle available for that price must have some drawbacks.

Kenny from Spokane writes: It doesn't seem like Pete Carroll is making any major moves yet. In fact, it seems like he's getting rid of more players than he's adding. A lot of his deals so far haven't made any sense. One of the theories I have is that Carroll really wants Washington quarterback Jake Locker as the future of the Seahawks franchise, even if it means throwing away a season. Do you think this is on the back of Carroll's mind?

Mike Sando: No. New coaches identify players they do not want before they can add players they do want. Free agency doesn't provide many good opportunities for upgrades. The Seahawks will probably go young and build through the draft. This is a long-term rebuild.

Lon from Okanogan, Wash., writes: Why does it seem like most people don't trust Pete Carroll and (general manager) John Schneider? Why are they so impatient about letting them have a chance to get something done? It seems to me that they deserve a chance to at least put a team on the field before people look to have them canned.

Mike Sando: Some people want immediate results. They want to feel as though the team is making progress every day of the offseason. It's not realistic. Of course, you can't single out only the fans. The Seahawks themselves fired Jim Mora after only one season.

Travis from Socorro, N.M. writes: I can't help but think that the dethroning of Ndamukong Suh at No. 1 is, in some part, due to the 24/7 sports news cycle. Having the No. 1 pick pegged so early just doesn't build a story. I'm vaguely reminded of the Mario Williams/Reggie Bush 'controversy' -- which surprisingly went the 'safe' route, which would be a case where management diverged from the media as opposed to this draft, where there seems to be convergence between management and media. Thoughts?

Mike Sando: The Rams have hardly discouraged the Bradford talk. They've made roster moves suggesting they'll add a franchise quarterback. If they wanted to discourage the Bradford talk, they could have floated concerns about Bradford's health.

Kevin from Sylmar, Calif., writes: Hey, Mike, I've seen you say that it is a good possibility that all the top-tier tackle prospects could be gone by the 13th pick. If you're right and C.J Spiller is gone as well, and let's say that the 49ers pick up someone like Joe Haden with the 13th pick and Sergio Kindle with the 17th pick, do you think that they go with a tackle in the second round? Or do you think that's too early for the second-tier of tackles and they should go with someone like Jahvid Best from Cal, who would be a change-of-pace that they could really use?

Mike Sando: I have wondered what would happen if the top four tackles were gone by No. 13. It does seem like a possibility. You're probably right in thinking there might not be a tackle worth the risk in the second round. A general manager I trust told me he thinks Rodger Saffold will also be part of the first-round group. At running back, Best could go in the first round if a team feels OK about his medical. They'll have a value judgment to make at tackle in the first round, I think. Someone will be there for them, but will the value line up?

Spenser from Danville, Calif., writes: Hey Sando, with the release of Flozell Adams from the Dallas Cowboys, and the growing concern that there won't be a top-tier tackle available at pick No. 13 of the draft, why haven't the 49ers considered signing Flozell Adams? This team seems primed for a playoff run this year, and I think they could benefit from having a proven starter, like Adams. What do you think?

Mike Sando: That could be a move best left for after the draft. If the 49ers draft a tackle at No. 13 or even No. 17, Adams might not be worth what he would otherwise command.

How much to value a right tackle

April, 6, 2010
Matt Maiocco's take on the 49ers possibly having to trade up from No. 13 for an offensive tackle hits on a significant theme in the 2010 NFL draft.

Seattle might have a shot at only the third-rated tackle -- all the way up at No. 6. That would make it tough for the 49ers and teams picking later in the round to feel as good about their options.

In 2007, the 28th overall choice landed the third-rated tackle, Joe Staley, and the 49ers were happy to draft him. Joe Thomas (third overall to Cleveland), Levi Brown (fifth to Arizona) and Ben Grubbs (29th to Baltimore) were the only other offensive linemen drafted in the first round.

The 49ers' need for a right tackle shouldn't blind them to value. Right tackles are still right tackles, not left tackles or quarterbacks. But finding a good one in the second round could be tougher if a first-round run on the position depletes the pool. Massachusetts' Vladimir Ducasse projects as a possible second-round choice with the size San Francisco might like at the position, but the 49ers aren't picking until 17 choices into the round.

As the chart shows, eight of the 12 playoff teams from last season used starting right tackles drafted in the first two rounds (by other teams in two cases). Brown was the only one chosen in the first half of the first round. The Cardinals drafted him to protect the blind side for left-handed quarterback Matt Leinart, although plans have changed. Brown is moving to left tackle this year, just as Leinart has become the starter following Kurt Warner's retirement.