NFC West: Joey Porter

Three-day NFL minicamps featuring no permissible contact aren't going to settle position battles. They're unlikely to set the tone for a season still three months away. They won't reveal where teams figure to stand in December.

I'm en route to the San Francisco 49ers' mandatory camp for veterans Tuesday in search of a better feel for the team five months after its appearance in the NFC Championship Game. Trips to the Arizona Cardinals (Wednesday), Seattle Seahawks (Thursday) and St. Louis Rams (extended training camp visit) await.

Once teams assemble on their practice fields, the focus invariably falls on those players present. These camps are also notable for the familiar faces, suddenly absent, that will soon fade from memory. For some longtime NFL vets, these camps are the beginning of the end. George Koonce's message about the difficult transition into retirement should resonate for them.

Some older free agents will surely catch on elsewhere. Some might re-sign with their most recent teams. Here's a quick look at four older 2011 contributors who remain unsigned as their former NFC West teams assemble this week:
  • 49ers: fullback Moran Norris (33). Norris suffered a broken fibula in Week 2 and did not return until a Week 14 game at Baltimore, when a concussion sidelined his replacement, Bruce Miller. Norris started two games and played in five, logging 10 percent of the 49ers' offensive snaps. Miller played three times as much and was also a key contributor on special teams. The 49ers are trying several non-fullbacks at the position this offseason. Norris became a free agent after the season.
  • Rams: defensive end James Hall (35). Hall had six sacks in 15 games, all starts, while playing about two-thirds of the defensive snaps last season. The team plans for 2011 first-round choice Robert Quinn to take over as the starter in Hall's spot on the right side. The Rams have become the youngest team in the NFL this offseason. They released Hall and former starting defensive tackle Fred Robbins as well.
  • Seahawks: defensive end Raheem Brock (34). Brock's playing time held steady at about 50 percent last season, but his sack production fell from nine to three. The Seahawks used their first-round choice, No. 15 overall, for defensive end Bruce Irvin. Irvin is expected to fill Brock's role this season. Brock became a free agent after the season.
  • Cardinals: outside linebacker Joey Porter (35). Porter collected one sack in six starts before knee problems forced him to the sideline. Rookie Sam Acho took over as the starter and showed considerable promise, finishing the season with seven sacks. The Cardinals placed Porter on injured reserve late in December. Porter became a free agent after the season.

My flight is landing shortly. More from 49ers camp as the day progresses. The team will not be off the practice field until around 5:30 p.m. PT.
Sam AchoAP Photo/Paul ConnorsArizona LB Sam Acho should be pumped as his playing time increased heavily late last season.


Pull up a chair. Now, hand it over to Chase from Arizona and watch him pummel me with it.

A good rant can be so cathartic. This one, delivered to the NFC West mailbag, stemmed from my contention that teams tend to sign 35-year-old veterans as backups when they haven't acquired or developed younger alternatives.

I think it's a fair point, except I didn't word it the same way when offering thoughts regarding Clark Haggans' recent re-signing with the Arizona Cardinals.

"Haggans was 30 years old and his sack numbers were declining when Arizona signed him in free agency from Pittsburgh before the 2007 season," I wrote. "The fact that Haggans remains viable five years later is a tribute to him. It also reflects the Cardinals' protracted search for anyone as good, let alone better. Missing on 2009 second-round choice Cody Brown remains costly."

The wording I used wasn't as precise as it should have been, and Chase took me to task for it. Did he ever.

"Mike, why do you continually talk bad about Arizona and their OLBs?" Chase wrote. "Sam Acho had a breakout year as a rookie and played on par with Ryan Kerrigan, who everyone loves right now. Two rookie OLBs outplayed Acho: Von Miller and Aldon Smith, both top 10 picks. So, where exactly is your lack of faith coming from?"

Chase had me ducking for cover at this point.

"You mentioned it was because we brought back Haggans, but you fail to realize Haggans was brought back on a one-year contract as a backup," he continued. "What's wrong with bringing in an experienced player, one familiar with the team, the personnel and the scheme, to be a backup?"

This was getting good. And it was about to get better.

"You act like that move reflects poorly on O'Brien Schofield. Schofield, after all he went through when he was drafted til now, has emerged as a talented young LB. He had 4.5 sacks in no starts! He made key plays to help win games! He's able to drop in coverage and he's adequate against the run!"

At this point, Chase reached into his wallet. I knew what was coming. It could be only one thing. The dreaded "homer" card. Chase didn't just play it, either. He flipped it at my Pacific Northwest chest.

"But you believe Seahawks LBs are set and K.J. Wright is the man," he concluded, "even though he didn't play as well as Acho, and only played as good as Schofield. You're such a damn homer, Sando."

A good rant can be so cathartic. This one stemmed from my contention that teams tend to sign 35-year-old veterans as backups when they haven't acquired or developed younger alternatives. I think it's a fair point.

Chase took my comments about Haggans -- specifically, the part about the Cardinals' inability to find anyone better -- as a criticism of Acho and Schofield, the Cardinals' promising young pass-rushers. That wasn't my intent.

I like the Cardinals' young outside linebackers and have said so. Acho and Schofield getting more opportunities as the 2011 season progressed, as it should have been (and as the playing-time percentages indicate in the chart).

My point on Haggans was this: Ideally, the Cardinals would have a hard time finding a spot for a 35-year-old backup outside linebacker. Ideally, they would have better options with younger players. Ideally, they would be thanking Haggans for all his contributions while moving forward with someone younger. They did that with Joey Porter and it was the right thing to do. Acho's emergence hastened the move.

San Francisco took this route with Takeo Spikes last offseason. The 49ers respected and valued Spikes, who was 34 at the time, but they knew NaVorro Bowman was ready to take his place. Bowman earned All-Pro honors. The Seattle Seahawks parted with Lawyer Milloy, then 37 and another respected vet, because they were so excited about Kam Chancellor. Chancellor went to the Pro Bowl.

Arizona is justifiably excited about Acho and Schofield. There's no shame in bringing back Haggans, either. He should be a good backup and spot starter when needed. I just thought it was fair to point out the other side as well.

As for Wright and the Seahawks' linebackers, there's really no comparison to make. Wright is not an outside pass-rusher. He's a strong-side linebacker in a different scheme.

Seattle does have question marks at linebacker, in my view. The position was a need heading into the draft. We've certainly covered the Aaron Curry mistake in detail. Meanwhile, Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. expressed strong reservations about Barrett Ruud, a linebacker Seattle signed in free agency.

In any event, thanks for the feedback, Chase. The chair didin't taste so bad.
NFC West teams added or re-signed 38 unrestricted free agents during the recently completed UFA signing period. They lost or did not re-sign 47 such players.

One key difference between those groups: age.

The St. Louis Rams in particular used the UFA signing period to get younger. The 12 UFAs they added (11) or re-signed (one) averaged 2.49 years younger than the 20 UFAs they lost (six) or have not re-signed (14). The gap was 1.39 years younger on average throughout the division. The Rams have the youngest roster in the NFL, based on averages I maintain for every team in the league.

Some older UFAs never sign another NFL contract. They disappear from rosters and realize, perhaps a year or two later, that they've been retired.

The chart shows age differences for the 38 UFA players added or re-signed versus the 47 lost to other teams or still unsigned. According to the NFL, 143 UFAs changed teams across the league this offseason. Another 112 re-signed with their 2011 teams.

Unsigned players remain free to sign with another team, but the NFL will not count them as UFA signings. The distinction matters in part because only UFA additions and losses count toward the formula for determining compensatory draft choices. That formula relies heavily on player salaries. UFAs available this late in the process generally wouldn't command enough money to affect compensatory picks, anyway.

A quick look at which UFA players from NFC West teams did not sign or re-sign as UFAs:
The 27 unsigned UFAs from the NFC West average 31.38 years old, about 3.3 years older than the 22 UFAs signed from other teams.

Nine of the 27 are at least 33 years old. Another 12 are between 29 and 32. Justin King, former cornerback for the Rams, is the youngest at 25 years old.

2012 NFC West UFA scorecard: update

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Michael Robinson's expected re-signing with the Seattle Seahawks would give the team a league-high four re-signings in the unrestricted free-agent market.

Red Bryant, Paul McQuistan and Heath Farwell previously re-signed.

Seattle and the other NFC West teams have added only two UFAs from other teams, however. I've put together UFA scorecards for each team in the division. Ages are in parenthesis. Here goes ...

Seattle Seahawks

UFA unsigned (age): defensive end Raheem Brock (33), defensive lineman Jimmy Wilkerson (31), safety Atari Bigby (30), quarterback Charlie Whitehurst (29), linebacker Leroy Hill (29), linebacker Matt McCoy (29), defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (28), linebacker David Hawthorne (26), running back Justin Forsett (26), linebacker David Vobora (25)

UFA re-signed: Farwell (30), Robinson (29), McQuistan (28), Bryant (27)

UFA added: none

UFA lost: tight end John Carlson (27)

Franchise player: none

Comment: Forsett has provided value, but the Seahawks will want to add a power back as depth behind Marshawn Lynch, who re-signed before free agency. Mike Tolbert, a free agent from the San Diego Chargers, could be worth a look if the running back market remains soft. Tolbert weighs 243 pounds, has 21 total touchdowns over the past two seasons, and caught 54 passes in 2012. The price would have to be right after Seattle committed to Lynch.

San Francisco 49ers

UFA unsigned: fullback Moran Norris (33), tight end Justin Peelle (33), safety Madieu Williams (30), quarterback Alex Smith (27), receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (26), guard Chilo Rachal (26), safety Reggie Smith (25)

UFA re-signed: cornerback Carlos Rogers (30), linebacker Tavares Gooden (27)

UFA added: none

UFA lost: guard Adam Snyder (30), linebacker Blake Costanzo (27), receiver Josh Morgan (26)

Franchise player: safety Dashon Goldson (27)

Comment: Randy Moss and potential addition Rock Cartwright do not appear in the listings because they were not unrestricted free agents. Re-signing Alex Smith and finding additional receiver help appear to be the top priorities. The 49ers are showing little outward urgency on either front, however.

Arizona Cardinals

UFA unsigned: defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday (36), kicker Jay Feely (35), long-snapper Mike Leach (35), outside linebacker Clark Haggans (35), outside linebacker Joey Porter (34), offensive lineman Floyd Womack (33), punter Dave Zastudil (33), tackle D'Anthony Batiste (29), safety Sean Considine (29), guard Deuce Lutui (28), safety Hamza Abdullah (28), tackle Brandon Keith (27), receiver Early Doucet (26)

UFA re-signed: none.

UFA added: Snyder (30)

UFA lost: cornerback Richard Marshall (27)

Franchise player: defensive end Calais Campbell (25)

Comment: The Cardinals have been in a tough spot. They would have faced criticism had they declined to pursue Peyton Manning. They could now face criticism for sacrificing the first week of free agency while waiting for Manning. The reality is that Arizona probably wasn't going to be all that aggressive in the market this offseason, anyway. It did hurt losing Marshall to the Miami Dolphins after coordinator Ray Horton called him the Cardinals' defensive MVP.

St. Louis Rams

UFA unsigned: cornerback Al Harris (37), quarterback A.J. Feeley (34), offensive lineman Tony Wragge (32), linebacker Brady Poppinga (32), punter Donnie Jones (31), offensive lineman Adam Goldberg (31), guard Jacob Bell (31), receiver Brandon Lloyd (30), cornerback Rod Hood (30), running back Cadillac Williams (29), defensive tackle Gary Gibson (29), receiver Mark Clayton (29), tackle Mark LeVoir (29), tight end Stephen Spach (29), safety James Butler (29), tight end Billy Bajema (29), quarterback Kellen Clemens (28), running back Jerious Norwood (28), linebacker Bryan Kehl (27), linebacker Chris Chamberlain (26), cornerback Justin King (24)

UFA re-signed: none

UFA added: cornerback Cortland Finnegan (28)

UFA lost: none

Franchise player: none

Comment: The Rams are not looking to re-sign many of their own free agents. They want to turn over the roster, and that is happening in a big way. The team's failure to secure playmaking help for quarterback Sam Bradford stands out as the biggest theme to this point. Finnegan was a welcome addition, but he isn't going to score many touchdowns.

The chart below shows a general overview.
We're still a month away from NFL free agency, but with the Super Bowl behind us, we'll start sizing up players without contracts for 2012.

Expanding upon Brian McIntyre's lists, I've plugged in offensive and defensive snap-count numbers for NFC West free agents, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.

The charts below cover the Arizona Cardinals' free agents. The final column shows what each player's previous contract averaged annually.

Re-signing defensive end Calais Campbell will be a top priority. I don't see the Cardinals letting him get away. They moved on from Antonio Smith a few years ago, but they did so with Campbell ready to take over. They would have a hard time replacing Campbell.

Cornerback Richard Marshall proved valuable on a one-year deal. Early Doucet was a primary threat on third down.

Overall, though, the Cardinals have a relatively modest group of unrestricted free agents.

Safety Sean Considine played extensively on special teams. I've listed him with the offensive and defensive UFAs, however.

The Cardinals' key specialists are without contracts. The team has turned over those positions in recent seasons.

The Cardinals can keep their restricted free agents, listed below, by making one-year qualifying offers to them, then matching any outside offers.
The San Francisco 49ers have become the hunted in the NFC West.

Having already take aim at their 2011 turnover differential, let us consider another reason for a potential 2012 regression from 13-3.

"Repeating the 2011 relative lack of injuries on the 49ers may be as hard as replicating the turnover ratio," Michael Rally contended via Twitter.

Injuries did slow and/or sideline some of the 49ers' most important players, including running back Frank Gore and linebacker Patrick Willis. Starting receiver Josh Morgan missed most of the season. A freak jaw injury sidelined tight end Delanie Walker late in the season. A hamstring injury slowed defensive end Ray McDonald.

But in looking at injured-reserve lists, the 49ers definitely fared better than their division rivals. They finished the regular season with five players on IR. The other three NFC West teams had a combined 39.

I've broken out the IR lists by team and position, based on where teams stood after Week 17. In some cases, teams released and/or reached injury settlements with players placed on IR previously. Teams usually keep on IR the players they value the most, however. The players listed below are the most relevant ones.

St. Louis Rams (16)

Fullback: Brit Miller

Receiver: Danny Amendola, Mark Clayton, Greg Salas

Tight end: Mike Hoomanawanui

Offensive line: guard Jacob Bell, Rodger Saffold, Jason Smith

Defensive line: Jermelle Cudjo

Linebacker: Josh Hull

Cornerback: Ron Bartell, Bradley Fletcher, Al Harris, Brian Jackson, Marquis Johnson, Jerome Murphy

Comment: Quarterback Sam Bradford was injured much of the year without landing on IR. The Rams ran through several unlisted cornerbacks as well. That position was hit hard. Losing both starting offensive tackles is never good, but Smith wasn't a huge positive factor on the right side. The team was arguably better off without him in the lineup.

Seattle Seahawks (15)

Receiver: Kris Durham, Mike Williams, Sidney Rice

Tight end: John Carlson

Offensive line: John Moffitt, James Carpenter, Russell Okung

Defensive line: Jimmy Wilkerson

Linebacker: Jameson Konz, Matt McCoy, David Vobora, Dexter Davis

Cornerback: Marcus Trufant, Walter Thurmond, Ron Parker

Comment: The Seahawks remained strong against the run largely because their line was healthier this season. Losing three-fifths of the starting offensive line could not stop Marshawn Lynch from producing at a high level. Rookie Richard Sherman capitalized on injuries at cornerback. Good, young depth helped Seattle weather injuries well.

Arizona Cardinals (8)

Quarterback: Max Hall

Running back: Ryan Williams

Offensive line: Brandon Keith, Floyd Womack

Defensive line: Dan Williams

Linebacker: Joey Porter

Cornerback: Crezdon Butler, Greg Toler

Comment: Ryan Williams' knee injury affected the team significantly. The injury situation was worse overall than the list would indicate. Quarterback Kevin Kolb missed seven starts with foot and concussion problems. Running back Beanie Wells played hurt much of the year and had a hard time producing late in the season. Adrian Wilson played through a torn biceps and got better as the season progressed.

San Francisco 49ers (5)

Receiver: Dontavia Bogan, Josh Morgan

Tight end: Nate Byham

Defensive line: Will Tukuafu

Cornerback: Curtis Holcomb

Comment: Byham was a solid blocking tight end. The team missed Morgan, especially late in the year. Gore's production diminished after he suffered an apparent knee injury in Week 10. Overall, though, the 49ers were healthy. They inflicted more injuries than they suffered, knocking out several opposing runners, including Felix Jones, LeGarrette Blount, Jahvid Best, Steven Jackson and Pierre Thomas.

NFC West injury situations that matter

December, 21, 2011
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Arizona: Quarterback Kevin Kolb practiced on a limited basis while continuing his return from a concussion. Coach Ken Whisenhunt remained noncommittal on a starter for Saturday's game at Cincinnati. Kolb has suffered significant injuries in two of his past three starts, missing games following each one. Kolb appears unlikely to start if his reps do not increase Thursday. The team has won enough with backup John Skelton to consider giving Kolb additional recovery time. Right tackle Brandon Keith (ankle) did not practice Wednesday. Jeremy Bridges' presence gives the team insurance. Beanie Wells remained limited while dealing with a knee injury likely to bother him the rest of the season. Wells' production has fallen off as a result. The team's decision to place outside linebacker Joey Porter on injured reserve changes nothing. The team has gone with younger alternatives, and Porter wasn't playing.

St. Louis: The Rams remained without quarterbacks Sam Bradford (ankle) and A.J. Feeley (thumb). Bradford has shed the walking boot he wore last week, but it's unclear whether he'll return this week. Kellen Clemens could start again. The Rams were also without cornerbacks Justin King (shoulder) and Josh Gordy (abdominal) in practice Wednesday. Depth at the position is pretty much tapped out, a huge concern heading into a matchup against Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Mike Wallace. Gordy appears more likely than King to play. Earlier injuries at wide receiver became more significant Wednesday when the NFL levied a four-game suspension against rookie receiver Austin Pettis for using performance-enhancing drugs. The team's best receiver, Brandon Lloyd, did practice fully. He had been ill.

San Francisco: Receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle) and linebacker Patrick Willis (hamstring) missed practice. Ginn's injury is new. Willis remains on course to return at an unstated point in the future. As much as the 49ers want Willis back on the field right now, they need to make sure he's ready for the postseason. Hamstring injuries tend to recur, so the team might be erring on the side of caution. Left tackle Joe Staley did not finish the game Monday night after suffering a bruised leg. The 49ers did not list him on their injury report Wednesday. The team listed receiver Braylon Edwards as limited with a knee injury. He was inactive for performance-related reasons Monday night, but with Ginn's status unclear, the team needs numbers at the position. Ginn's absence would leave the 49ers with a less dynamic and experienced return specialist, a concern heading to Seattle.

Seattle: An ankle injury limited receiver Doug Baldwin in practice Wednesday. Having Baldwin ready is crucial now that Mike Williams has joined Sidney Rice on the Seahawks' injured reserve list. Baldwin is the team's best option on third down. The Seahawks figure to need their tight ends in protection against the 49ers' formidable defensive front seven. Linebacker David Hawthorne's full participation in practice despite a knee injury comes as a positive sign. The team has been resting Hawthorne during the week recently. Getting Hawthorne healthier is important because the team's depth at linebacker has run low in recent weeks. The 49ers favor heavier personnel groupings, so a full contingent of linebackers would have greater value this week than in some others.

Explaining Cards' defensive improvement

December, 15, 2011
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Many factors could be contributing to the Arizona Cardinals' dramatic defensive improvement over the past six games:
  • Learning a new system. This narrative blames early-season struggles on adopting a new scheme with a first-year coordinator (Ray Horton) following a lockout. There is logic behind the thinking even though the team was already running a base 3-4 defense and felt good about the transition. Coach Ken Whisenhunt in March: "What Ray has done a very good job of is trying to assimilate his system into our terminology.

    That is one less hurdle our players will have to deal with. His scheme might be a little bit different, but at least our alignments, what we are calling our defensive schemes, will not be so foreign to them."
  • Playing poorer opponents. Cam Newton, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco were on the schedule during the first seven games. The team has faced Sam Bradford twice, Alex Smith twice and an injured Michael Vick (minus DeSean Jackson) since then. There's some merit to this thinking, no question. But the Cardinals' defense was arguably at its best in holding Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys to 13 points. Romo suffered a season-high five sacks and tossed only one touchdown pass, still his lowest single-game total since Week 8.
  • Personnel changes. Arizona has given young outside linebackers Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield additional playing time, with positive results. The chart below shows which Cardinals defensive players have seen the greatest changes in playing time from the first seven games to the most recent six. Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information provided the snap counts. I calculated the percentages and point changes. The chart shows only those players with swings of at least 15 percentage points. The playing-time changes have limitations. For example, it's possible the defense would have been even better recently if players with diminished snaps had played more.
  • Top players healthier. One of the team's best defensive players, inside linebacker Daryl Washington, missed two early starts with an injury. Another, strong safety Adrian Wilson, has steadily gotten better after playing through a torn biceps tendon early in the season. Both players appear healthier. The team did lose second-year nose tackle Dan Williams to a season-ending elbow injury, however.
  • Peterson emerging. Rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson, the fifth player chosen in the 2011 draft, has four punt returns for touchdowns, two during the last six games. Peterson has also made strides in coverage. The secondary in general has played better. Some of the personnel changes could come into play here as well.

These are a few of the reasons for improvement that come to mind readily. Reporters covering the Cardinals' next opponent, Cleveland, asked Whisenhunt for his take on the subject Wednesday.

"I think they are getting more comfortable with the scheme and understanding how it fits together, how they have to play together," Whisenhunt said. "We tried to put a lot in early in the season and we were making a lot of mistakes and we scaled it back, and we have built from there. It is a confidence thing, too."
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Cardinals' youth movement is old news

November, 30, 2011
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If the headline above this item sounds confusing, that was the point.

The Arizona Cardinals are at once a young, emerging team and an old, declining one.

As discussed earlier Wednesday in the Arizona section of this item, the Cardinals have the 15th-oldest players on offense and the second-oldest players on defense. No team in the NFL has older defensive backups in terms of average age. But that is only part of the story.

The Cardinals' five youngest players are starting. Their eight youngest players all own at least two starts this season. Their ninth-, 10th- and 11th-youngest players -- David Carter, LaRod Stephens-Howling and O'Brien Schofield -- are getting significant playing time and making positive contributions.

By my calculations, the Cardinals would go from third-oldest to roughly 15th-oldest in average age (not counting specialists) simply by replacing Vonnie Holliday, Clark Haggans, Joey Porter and Paris Lenon with players averaging 25 years old.

Haggans and Lenon remain productive players, but the team hopes to replace them with younger players. Schofield could realistically step in for Haggans next season. Free-agent addition Stewart Bradley, 28, will presumably play more next season as well.

Porter appears on his way out now that rookie Sam Acho is starting and producing (two sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery against St. Louis). Acho has started the last five games. He has four sacks in those five starts, plus a fifth sack one game before he replaced Porter in the lineup. The 2011 fourth-round draft choice looks like a keeper.

The Cardinals will also get younger next season by welcoming back Ryan Williams from injured reserve. The team signed 32-year-old Chester Taylor as an emergency replacement when Williams, still not yet 22, landed on injured reserve with a knee injury. Nose tackle Dan Williams, 24, went on injured reserve more recently. His return will also make the Cardinals younger on average.

The goal should be to get better, not just younger. But if you're going to suffer through losing seasons, it's best to develop young talent along the way. The Cardinals are doing that. They could still stand to add young players throughout their roster.

For example, Arizona's backup offensive linemen are 28, 29 and 31 years old when 27-year-old Brandon Keith is healthy enough to start at right tackle. That gives the Cardinals the oldest backup offensive linemen in the league, by my calculations.

Plugging in an experienced player can be more comforting than turning to a raw rookie, but teams hire coaches to develop talent, not just manage it. Drafting for the offensive line (there's a thought) and defense would go a long way toward changing the overall makeup of the Cardinals' roster.

NFC West Stock Watch

November, 29, 2011
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Steve Spagnuolo, St. Louis Rams coach. The Rams went 0-2 against Seattle and Arizona during their recently completed two-game homestand, likely the Rams' best remaining chance to get something going under their embattled coach. The Rams created turnovers and built early leads in both games, but they were too fragile to withstand any challenges from their opponents. Allowing 268 yards rushing against the Cardinals left the Rams appearing helplessly overmatched at home against a previously 3-7 team with John Skelton at quarterback. The team now must play 9-2 San Francisco (twice), 8-3 Pittsburgh, 7-4 Cincinnati and the same Seattle team that dominated the Rams in the Edward Jones Dome.

2. Mike Williams, Seattle Seahawks receiver. The team's leading receiver from 2010 dropped passes and did not adjust to his scrambling quarterback during a 23-17 home defeat to the Washington Redskins. Williams' career revival made for an appealing storyline last season. Lately, though, Williams is more closely resembling the disappointing player he became earlier in his career. He finished with zero receptions against the Redskins.

3. Braylon Edwards, San Francisco 49ers receiver. Injuries have played a role in Edwards' struggles lately. Still, he's squandered chances to make plays. The 49ers could have used Edwards to fight for position and the ball to prevent Alex Smith's deep pass from being intercepted shortly before halftime during the team's 16-6 defeat at Baltimore. Edwards attributed the play to a misunderstanding with Smith over the best route to run against the Ravens' coverage on the play. Edwards has only 14 catches this season. His yards per reception have fallen from 17.1 with the New York Jets last season to 12.3 in 2011.

RISING

[+] EnlargeBeanie Wells
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesBeanie Wells had a career day in Sunday's win over the Rams.
1. Beanie Wells, Arizona Cardinals running back. Wells had rushed for 198 yards over his previous four games before gashing the Rams for a franchise-record 228 yards Sunday. The total was the second highest in the NFL this season, trailing only the 253 yards Dallas' DeMarco Murray racked up against ... yes, the Rams. Wells' 8.44 yards per carry was the most since 1960 for a Cardinals player with at least 25 attempts in a game. Wayne Morris set the previous record (6.56) against Minnesota in 1977.

2. Patrick Peterson, Cardinals return specialist. Peterson's 80-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Rams gave him four of that distance or longer in only 11 games as a professional. Peterson is one of six players in league history with four punt returns for touchdowns covering at least 80 yards apiece. He needed only 31 returns to do it. Devin Hester has five in 197 career returns. Peterson and Hall of Famer Jack Christiansen are the only players with four punt returns for touchdowns during their rookie seasons. Christiansen did it in 1951.

3. Sam Acho, Cardinals outside linebacker. The rookie fourth-round draft choice has five sacks since Week 7 after collecting two against the Rams. Arizona badly needed to develop young outside pass-rushers this season. Acho has made a positive impression during his first five starts. The team should know by season's end whether Acho projects as a starter for years to come. With Acho developing, it's looking like Joey Porter has played his final game for the Cardinals.

Taking stock: NFC West defensive rookies

November, 3, 2011
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Playing-time percentages for NFC West defensive rookies tell us a few things:
  • Draft order matters. The three defensive players chosen in the first round are the three with the most playing time. Starting cornerbacks stay on the field for almost all the snaps. That, more than performance, explains why Arizona's Patrick Peterson has played so much more than pass-rushers Aldon Smith and Robert Quinn.
  • Fifth-round safeties did not last. The Seattle Seahawks cut Mark LeGree. The St. Louis Rams cut Jermale Hines.
  • Good values at cornerback. The San Francisco 49ers found a quick contributor in third-round cornerback Chris Culliver, who has seized the nickel job. The Seahawks' fifth-round corner, Richard Sherman, is also looking good early. Injuries forced him into the starting lineup last week. Sherman picked off one pass and tipped a ball that teammate Kam Chancellor intercepted.
  • Mid-round linebackers ascending. Seattle's K.J. Wright and Arizona's Sam Acho are dissimilar as linebackers. Wright has played the middle after entering the draft as a strongside type, and now he is starting on the strong side. Acho is converting from college defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker. There are similarities as well. Both have replaced big names in their starting lineups. Wright replaced Aaron Curry. Acho replaced Joey Porter. Both players have impressed their teams with their smarts. Acho has one sack in each of the Cardinals' last two games.
  • Late-round find. The Cardinals have been pleased with sixth-round defensive lineman David Carter, even though another sixth-rounder, Quan Sturdivant, came to the team with higher expectations for making an immediate impact. Carter has pushed 2010 first-round pick Dan Williams for playing time. Williams has 152 snaps. Carter has 105.

Thanks to Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information for passing along the numbers. Dashes represent bye weeks in the chart.

Around the NFC West: Cards' draft issues

November, 2, 2011
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Kevin Kolb is taking much of the blame for the Arizona Cardinals' 1-6 record. So is coach Ken Whisenhunt.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says some of the blame lies with a series of blunders in the draft. Somers: "Trade away a chance to take an elite pass rusher (Terrell Suggs, 2003), and a team could find itself trying to find a similar player for years. Miss on a quarterback (Matt Leinart, first round, 2006), and a team finds itself trying to solve the problem via free agency (Derek Anderson) or trade (Kevin Kolb). Miss on an outside linebacker (Cody Brown, second round, 2009), and a team has to gamble that an old free agent (Joey Porter) has something left. Miss on a left tackle (Levi Brown, first round, 2007), and a team might be continually reminded that it passed on a star running back (Adrian Peterson)."

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic checks in with Cardinals backup quarterback Rich Bartel, who offers hunting advice. Bartel: "Feral hogs and javelinas are completely different, though. We've got javelinas here in Arizona, and they're smaller. They're really dangerous, and you can't use your (hunting) dogs on them because they'll kill your dog. Feral hogs you can use dogs on. They're bigger, but it's no problem for your dog."

Also from the Republic: reasons why the Cardinals' streak of no local TV blackouts has a chance to continue against the Rams even with about 2,000 tickets remaining.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says backup John Skelton is a popular guy with Kolb and the Cardinals struggling.

Brock Huard of 710ESPN Seattle goes to the whiteboard to break down the Seahawks' problems on fourth down Sunday, pointing to left guard Robert Gallery among the culprits for the failed Marshawn Lynch run as the first half ended.

Dave Wyman of 710ESPN Seattle says the Seahawks, and NFL referees, need to pick up their games when it comes to the rules.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Chris Clemons has been playing at a Pro Bowl level against run and pass alike. Farnsworth: "It’s not just that the 254-pound Clemons gets sacks, it’s how he gets them -- with relentless efforts against offensive linemen who outweigh him by 70-80 pounds. And it’s not just the sacks that define his role as the 'Leo' end in the Seahawks defense. As underrated as he is as a pass-rusher, Clemons is even more overlooked when it comes to his contributions to a run defense that ranks 11th in the league and tops the NFL in per-carry average allowed (3.16)."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times offers thoughts on the Seahawks, including this one: "Seattle finished with 411 yards of net offense, 159 more than the Bengals. It's the second time the Seahawks have lost despite outgaining their opponents while Seattle has been outgained in both of the games it has won this season. It's something to keep in mind as everyone goes ga-ga over the large passing totals this season. Yards don't always translate to victories."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sees good things from Rams linebackers Chris Chamberlain and Bryan Kehl. Thomas: "Chamberlain really has good range, doesn't he? He got to start several games last year on the weakside but wasn't nearly as effective. But he was playing hurt all last year, and is healthy this year. But he looks like he's blossoming as a player. He's a bit undersized, so he's not always going to hold up against the run. But he's looked good in space. Kehl made at least one eye-opening hit Sunday and also runs around well. Again, he's not ideal size, particularly for strongside linebacker, but he did bring some energy to the position."

Also from Thomas: a look at the Rams' patchwork secondary, which held up better than anticipated against Drew Brees and the Saints.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com notes in his offensive player-by-player review that Frank Gore played 53 snaps to Kendall Hunter's nine during the 49ers' victory over the Browns. Also, regarding Alex Smith: "Again, he did not have any turnovers. . . Showed athleticism in first quarter when he avoided pass-rusher Jabaal Sheard in the pocket about 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, scrambled right, avoided cornerback Joe Haden and dove head-first, eluding defensive tackle Phil Taylor to pick up 3 yards on a third-and-2 play. . . . Opened himself up to a big hit from safety Usama Young with a late slide at the end of a 9-yard keeper in fourth quarter. . . . On next play, overshot a wide-open Michael Crabtree 20 yards down the left sideline."

Also from Maiocco: player-by-player review on defense. On rookie corner Chris Culliver: "Entered game as 49ers' third cornerback and played 35 snaps. He had another good showing in coverage and he broke up one pass and recorded five tackles. . . . Had good coverage on pass intended for Little on third down down in first quarter."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee runs through the injury list for running backs who start games against the 49ers this season.

Ailene Voisin of the Sacramento Bee says Gore is perfectly happy. Gore: "I'm so happy, man. We're 6-1. We're winning. I'm just having fun.” In previous season's, “I was young, man. I was thinking about the Pro Bowls and other crazy stuff. I was selfish. Now, I'm not thinking about yards, just enjoying the ride."

Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers' Alex Boone has, by all accounts, overcome the off-field issues that threatened his career.

Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle offers thoughts on the 49ers' first-half performance against the Browns. Second half here.

Wrap-up: Ravens 30, Cardinals 27

October, 30, 2011
10/30/11
4:23
PM ET

Thoughts on the Arizona Cardinals' 30-27 road defeat against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 8:

What it means: The Cardinals have now blown second-half leads in losing to Washington, Seattle, the New York Giants and Baltimore, making it tough to build on what progress they did show while building a 24-6 halftime lead against the Ravens. At 1-6, the Cardinals face three consecutive road games following a Week 9 home date with St. Louis, which appeared reborn while upsetting New Orleans.

What I liked: Kevin Kolb absorbed quite a bit of punishment early, but hung tough and drove the Cardinals in position to take a first-quarter lead. His 66-yard completion to Larry Fitzgerald was the longest play against the Ravens this season. Beanie Wells played despite a knee injury and scored a go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter. Rookie first-round pick Patrick Peterson, having already revived the Cardinals' punt-return game this season, scored on an 82-yarder to give Arizona welcome breathing room. The Cardinals finally turned the page at outside linebacker, giving rookie Sam Acho the start over an inactive Joey Porter while also finding time for O'Brien Schofield. Both players recorded sacks. Richard Marshall's interception was a big play for Arizona. The Cardinals held Joe Flacco without a touchdown pass. They allowed only 107 yards rushing, a respectable number.

What I didn't like: The passing game remained inconsistent. The pressure Baltimore put on Kolb was a big factor. Kolb remained hit-and-miss in how he dealt with the pressure. Sometimes, he scrambled to make plays, as when he found Early Doucet in the first half. He somehow avoided a sack that might have moved the team out of realistic field-goal range while trailing 27-24. Other times, Kolb risked sacks and turnovers. He's an adventure at a position where teams need consistency over time. The Cardinals converted just twice on 11 third-down opportunities. The offense managed only 207 yards compared to 405 for the Ravens. On defense, cornerback A.J. Jefferson had a rough game against Anquan Boldin. The Cardinals eventually changed up their coverage plan as a result. Jefferson was not on the field late.

What's next: The Cardinals are home against the St. Louis Rams in Week 9.

Youth served? Rookie gets bigger chance

October, 27, 2011
10/27/11
4:17
PM ET
A few notes on how the Arizona Cardinals use their defensive personnel, followed by an ESPN Stats & Information chart with playing-time percentages:
  • The Cardinals would like to develop linebackers O'Brien Schofield and Sam Acho. Schofield played a season-high 25 snaps in Week 7. Acho, a rookie fourth-round choice, played a season-high 24 snaps. Schofield's playing time fell during the third, fourth and fifth games. The team wants both to play more as the season progresses. Snaps for Clark Haggans and Joey Porter have fallen as a result.
  • Inside linebacker Stewart Bradley played 21 snaps against Pittsburgh, his highest count since Week 2. He hardly played in the previous two games, however, and that explains why his percentage has fallen since the first three games. Week 7 snap counts for inside linebackers: Paris Lenon 70, Daryl Washington 47, Reggie Walker 23, Bradley 21.

On to the chart ...

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Joey Porter played his final game for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2006 season. Clark Haggans was gone from the team a year later.

The veteran outside linebackers, now 34 years old, are scheduled to start for Arizona against their former team Sunday, a reflection of how the teams have drafted for defense recently.

In 2007, the year coaches Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm left Pittsburgh's staff for the Cardinals, the Steelers drafted mainstay linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. Much of the Steelers' defense is aging, but Timmons and Woodley are ascending young players approaching their primes. Woodley represents the type of outside linebacker the Cardinals have coveted, but have yet to land.

Arizona takes criticism for drafting tackle Levi Brown over running back Adrian Peterson in 2007, but decisions made in addressing the defense stand out with Timmons and Woodley coming to town. That was the year Arizona used a second-round choice for defensive lineman Alan Branch, now reborn in Seattle after falling short of expectations in Arizona. The Cardinals used their third-round pick in 2007 on linebacker Buster Davis, who was cut as a rookie.

The Cardinals bounced back in 2008 by drafting defensive end Calais Campbell in the second round. Two other early defensive choices that year -- Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for Arizona and Bruce Davis for Pittsburgh -- have changed teams. Rodgers-Cromartie went to a Pro Bowl with the Cardinals before the team traded him to Philadelphia. Davis, a third-round choice, was released after one season.

In 2009, the Steelers landed defensive lineman Ziggy Hood, who has played more than 70 percent of the defensive snaps this season. Arizona drafted Cody Brown, a second-round choice who never contributed, before selecting defensive backs Rashad Johnson (starting for the injured Kerry Rhodes) and Greg Toler (incumbent starter now on injured reserve).

The Cardinals have initially fared better than the Steelers in drafting for defense in 2010. They got nose tackle Dan Williams, ascending inside linebacker Daryl Washington and pass-rushing project O'Brien Schofield. The Steelers drafted linebacker Jason Worilds, who has made a positive contribution on special teams without factoring into the defense yet.

The chart shows defensive players the teams drafted in the first three rounds from 2007-09.

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