NFC West: Justin Green
Which one would get your vote?
I'll reveal my thoughts when the MVP Watch item publishes at noon ET. In the meantime, let's consider a few potential candidates from the first NFC West team to post a 4-1 record since the 2006 Seattle Seahawks.
- Alex Smith: The 49ers' quarterback makes for an unlikely candidate given his career trajectory before this season, but with a 7-1 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions, he's a big reason for the team's success to this point. Smith's performance during a 48-3 victory over Tampa Bay was among the most impressive by a quarterback in the NFL this season. Smith now has 15 touchdown passes with only two interceptions in his last 10 regular-season starts. The 49ers are 7-3 in those games.
- Frank Gore: For the season, Gore’s 400 yards and three touchdowns put him on pace for 1,280 and 10, respectively. But if the last two games represent a more meaningful representation of Gore’s projected production, the two-time Pro Bowl choice would be on his way to nearly 1,800 yards and 14 touchdowns. The 49ers have leaned on him heavily during victories over Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. He has 252 yards rushing over last two games, bouncing back from a slow start.
- Patrick Willis: The 49ers' defense is among the best in the NFL. Willis is the best player on that defense, although Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Carlos Rogers have also been outstanding this season. No defensive player has won MVP honors since Lawrence Taylor back in the 1980s. No defensive player is likely to win the award without lots of sacks or interceptions.
I've focused on 49ers players exclusively because they're the only team with a winning record in the division. There isn't a player from another team in the NFC West enjoying the right mixture of individual and team success for serious consideration.
That tells you we'll have a 49ers player on the MVP Watch list this week. But which one?
I've addressed the subject in depth across the division -- first May 26 and again July 30 -- and it's worth another look now that teams have reduced to 53 players for the regular season.
This time, I'm going to break down the changes by position, listing players no longer on the active roster at each main position group (with new players in parenthesis). Departures outnumber replacements because some players finished last season on injured reserve, meaning they were not part of the 53-man roster.
Some players no longer on the active roster remain with the team (they could be suspended, deemed physically unable to perform or part of the practice squad).
St. Louis Rams (34 off roster)
Defensive back: Eric Bassey, Quincy Butler, Danny Gorrer, Clinton Hart, Cordelius Parks, David Roach, Jonathan Wade (added Kevin Dockery, Jerome Murphy, Darian Stewart)
Defensive line: Victor Adeyanju, Adam Carriker, Leger Douzable, Leonard Little, LaJuan Ramsey, James Wyche (added Jermelle Cudjo, Fred Robbins, George Selvie, Eugene Sims)
Linebacker: K.C. Asiodu, Paris Lenon (added Na'il Diggs, Josh Hull)
Offensive line: Roger Allen, Alex Barron, Ryan McKee, Mark Setterstrom, Phillip Trautwein, Eric Young (added Renardo Foster, Hank Fraley, Rodger Saffold)
Quarterback: Kyle Boller, Marc Bulger, Keith Null, Mike Reilly (added Sam Bradford, A.J. Feeley, Thaddeus Lewis)
Running back: Samkon Gado, Chris Ogbonnaya (added Keith Toston)
Special teams: Ryan Neill
Tight end: Randy McMichael (added Mike Hoomanawanui, Fendi Onobun)
Wide receiver: Donnie Avery, Keenan Burton, Brooks Foster, Jordan Kent, Ruvell Martin (added Mark Clayton, Dominique Curry, Mardy Gilyard)
Seattle Seahawks (33 off roster)
Defensive back: Jamar Adams, Deon Grant, Ken Lucas, Josh Wilson (added Kam Chancellor, Kennard Cox, Nate Ness, Earl Thomas, Walter Thurmond)
Defensive line: Lawrence Jackson, Patrick Kerney, Cory Redding, Nick Reed, Darryl Tapp, Craig Terrill (added Kentwan Balmer, Raheem Brock, Chris Clemons, Dexter Davis, Junior Siavii, E.J. Wilson)
Linebacker: Leroy Hill, Lance Laury, D.D. Lewis (added Matt McCoy; note that Hill is suspended for the first regular-season game)
Offensive line: Trevor Canfield, Brandon Frye, Walter Jones, Damion McIntosh, Rob Sims, Steve Vallos, Ray Willis, Mansfield Wrotto (added Stacy Andrews, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Ben Hamilton, Russell Okung, Chester Pitts, Tyler Polumbus)
Quarterback: Mike Teel, Seneca Wallace (added Charlie Whitehurst)
Running back: Justin Griffith, Louis Rankin, Tyler Roehl, Owen Schmitt (added Quinton Ganther, Michael Robinson, Leon Washington)
Special teams: Kevin Houser, Jeff Robinson (added Clint Gresham)
Tight end: John Owens (added Chris Baker, Anthony McCoy)
Wide receiver: Nate Burleson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh (added Golden Tate, Mike Williams)
Arizona Cardinals (24 off roster)
Defensive backs: Ralph Brown, Bryant McFadden, Antrel Rolle (added A.J. Jefferson, Trumaine McBride, Brandon McDonald, Kerry Rhodes)
Defensive line: Jason Banks (added Dan Williams)
Linebacker: Monty Beisel, Bertrand Berry, Cody Brown, Karlos Dansby, Gerald Hayes, Chike Okeafor, Pago Togafau (added Paris Lenon, Cyril Obiozor, Joey Porter, Daryl Washington; Hayes can return from the physically unable to perform list after six games)
Offensive line: Mike Gandy, Herman Johnson, Reggie Wells (added Alan Faneca, Rex Hadnot)
Quarterback: Matt Leinart, Brian St. Pierre, Kurt Warner (added Derek Anderson, Max Hall, John Skelton)
Running back: Justin Green, Dan Kreider (added Jerome Johnson)
Special teams: Neil Rackers (added Jay Feely)
Tight end: Anthony Becht (added Jim Dray)
Wide receiver: Anquan Boldin, Sean Morey, Jerheme Urban (added Andre Roberts, Stephen Williams)
San Francisco 49ers (24 off roster)
Defensive backs: Dre' Bly, Walt Harris, Marcus Hudson, Mark Roman (added Phillip Adams, Tramaine Brock, William James, Taylor Mays)
Defensive line: Kentwan Balmer, Derek Walker
Linebacker: Scott McKillop, Jeff Ulbrich, Matt Wilhelm (added NaVorro Bowman, Travis LaBoy)
Offensive line: Tony Pashos, Chris Patrick, Cody Wallace (added Alex Boone, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati)
Quarterback: Nate Davis, Shaun Hill (added David Carr, Troy Smith)
Running back: Thomas Clayton, Glen Coffee, Brit Miller, Michael Robinson (added Anthony Dixon, Brian Westbrook)
Special teams: Shane Andrus, Ricky Schmitt
Wide receiver: Arnaz Battle, Isaac Bruce, Jason Hill, Brandon Jones (added Ted Ginn Jr., Kyle Williams, Dominique Zeigler)
The first chart shows how many players are back -- at least for now -- from Week 17 rosters and injured reserve lists. Seattle has the fewest number back with 26.
The second chart shows how many players each team has shed since Week 17 last season. This counts players who were on injured reserve. Teams with lots of players on injured reserve had more players to lose.
A player, coach or issue that should be on your radar as training camp approaches.
A sore hip bothered Kurt Warner at Arizona Cardinals camp last summer. It wasn't a big deal.
Having the right feel for each injury situation can be tough. I'm sure a surprise injury or two will become a story after NFC West teams report for training camps in late July.
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis (knee), St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson (back), Arizona Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (knee) and Seattle Seahawks middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu (pectoral) are among the high-profile NFC West players coming off surgery rehabs. Their situations will bear monitoring.
The following players ended last season on injured reserve (some are no longer with NFC West teams):
Matt Ware, Mike Gandy, Justin Green, Cody Brown
San Francisco 49ers
Tony Pashos, Ricky Schmitt, Thomas Clayton, Jeff Ulbrich, Walt Harris, Kentwan Balmer, Curtis Taylor
Tyler Roehl, Walter Jones, Kevin Houser, Brandon Frye, Tatupu, Mike Hass
St. Louis Rams
Marc Bulger, Adam Carriker, Oshiomogho Atogwe, Eric Bassey, C.J. Ah You, Brooks Foster, Gary Gibson, Jacob Bell, Daniel Fells, Chris Massey, Bradley Fletcher, Laurent Robinson, Keenan Burton
The defending NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals have parted with 15 of the 53 players on their Week 17 roster from last season. Only the rebuilding Seahawks have parted with more -- 16 -- among division teams this offseason. The Rams have parted with 11. The 49ers, seeking continuity as they try to build on an 8-8 season, have parted with only three.
The first chart shows how many Week 17 starters and backups have returned to each NFC West team.
The second chart shows how many Week 17 starters and backups have left each NFC West team.
I'll first list the players by team.
Seattle (16): receiver Nate Burleson, quarterback Seneca Wallace, linebacker Lance Laury, defensive end Cory Redding, guard Trevor Canfield, quarterback Mike Teel, tackle Damion McIntosh, linebacker D.D. Lewis, snapper Jeff Robinson, fullback Justin Griffith, cornerback Ken Lucas, safety Deon Grant, defensive end Darryl Tapp, guard Rob Sims, tight end John Owens and defensive end Patrick Kerney.
Arizona (15): linebacker Pago Togafau, safety Antrel Rolle, receiver Jerheme Urban, receiver Sean Morey, kicker Neil Rackers, linebacker Bertrand Berry, fullback Dan Kreider, cornerback Ralph Brown, quarterback Brian St. Pierre, defensive end Jason Banks, receiver Anquan Boldin, linebacker Karlos Dansby, quarterback Kurt Warner, cornerback Bryant McFadden and linebacker Chike Okeafor. Note that Rolle did not start in Week 17.
St. Louis (11): defensive tackle LaJuan Ramsey, cornerback Jonathan Wade, receiver Ruvell Martin, quarterback Mike Reilly, defensive end Leonard Little, safety Clinton Hart, snapper Ryan Neill, running back Samkon Gado, linebacker Paris Lenon, tackle Alex Barron and tight end Randy McMichael.
San Francisco (5): receiver Arnaz Battle, cornerback Marcus Hudson, quarterback Shaun Hill, safety Mark Roman and cornerback Dre Bly.
The third chart shows what happened to players who were on injured reserve in Week 17.
I'll first list by team the players who were on IR but are no longer with their teams.
San Francisco (5): tackle Tony Pashos, punter Ricky Schmitt, linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, cornerback Walt Harris and running back Thomas Clayton.
Seattle (4): running back Tyler Roehl, tackle Walter Jones, snapper Kevin Houser and tackle Brandon Frye.
St. Louis (3): quarterback Marc Bulger, defensive tackle Adam Carriker and safety Eric Bassey.
Arizona (2): tackle Mike Gandy and fullback Justin Green.
Unrestricted free agents: TE Anthony Becht, LB Monty Beisel, LB Bertrand Berry (retired), LT Jeremy Bridges, CB Ralph Brown, LB Karlos Dansby, LT Mike Gandy, FB Dan Kreider, WR Sean Morey, LB Chike Okeafor, K Neil Rackers, NT Bryan Robinson, QB Brian St. Pierre, S Matt Ware.
Restricted free agents: SS Hamza Abdullah, WR Steve Breaston, G Ben Claxton, FB Justin Green, LG Deuce Lutui, TE Ben Patrick, C Lyle Sendlein, TE Stephen Spach, WR Jerheme Urban, NT Gabe Watson.
Franchise player: none
What to expect: The Cardinals generally do not pursue marquee free agents from other teams. That trend figures to continue. The Cardinals have too many of their own free agents to re-sign for them to worry about chasing other teams' castoffs. We might see Arizona plug the roster with a few lower-tier free agents. They had success doing that last offseason, particularly with Becht at tight end. Dansby leads the list of 2009 starters expected to depart. Arizona is reportedly interested in quarterback David Carr.
St. Louis Rams
Unrestricted free agents: QB Kyle Boller, DE James Hall, SS Clinton Hart, LB Paris Lenon, DE Leonard Little, LS Chris Massey, TE Randy McMichael.
Restricted free agents: S Eric Bassey, S Craig Dahl, TE Daniel Fells, LS Ryan Neill, DT Clifton Ryan, CB Jonathan Wade, DE Victory Adeyanju, FS Oshiomogho Atogwe, T Alex Barron, RB Sam Gado, DT Gary Gibson, WR Ruvell Martin, G Mark Setterstrom.
Franchise player: none
What to expect: The Rams could be in the market for a veteran quarterback such as Chad Pennington. Beyond quarterback, coach Steve Spagnuolo said the Rams could use a little more seasoning in the form of veteran role players. The Rams will remain a young team, but they could add some experience. The team parted with players fitting that profile last offseason, but most had inflated salaries. The ones St. Louis adds this year figure to carry lower price tags in most cases. The Rams have said they want Little and Hall back. McMichael figures to be gone.
Unrestricted free agents: WR Nate Burleson, FB Justin Griffith, LS Kevin Houser, LB D.D. Lewis, CB Ken Lucas, T Damion McIntosh, S Lawyer Milloy, DE Cory Redding, LS Jeff Robinson.
Restricted free agents: T Brandon Frye, WR Ben Obomanu, LB Lance Laury, G Rob Sims, G Chris Spencer, DE Darryl Tapp.
Franchise player: K Olindo Mare
What to expect: The Seahawks are a little difficult to figure. Their owner has the money to bankroll aggressive spending if Seattle chooses to go that route. Coach Pete Carroll surely realizes the team could use talent upgrades. The new general manager, John Schneider, comes from the Ted Thompson school of personnel. Thompson's aversion for free agency is well established, although Schneider has characterized himself as slightly more aggressive. The problem, of course, is finding good players on the market. Burleson will hit the market. He could return if the price is right. Carroll has said nice things about Redding, who should be affordable.
San Francisco 49ers
Unrestricted free agents: WR Arnaz Battle, CB Dre Bly, CB Walt Harris, T Tony Pashos, FS Mark Roman, T Barry Sims, LB Jeff Ulbrich (retired), LB Matt Wilhelm.
Restricted free agents: LG David Baas, LB Ahmad Brooks, CB Marcus Hudson.
Franchise player: NT Aubrayo Franklin
What to expect: The 49ers have largely turned their back on free agency now that they feel better about their roster. I would expect the team to lay low again when the signing period begins late Thursday night on the West Coast.
Basically, these players might have to wait an extra couple seasons to become unrestricted free agents.
Among NFC West players, this could prove particularly costly for Ahmad Brooks, Oshiomogho Atogwe and Deuce Lutui.
1. NFC window is open. No matchup in the conference should scare the Cardinals unless they have to visit the Eagles. New Orleans appears shaken. Arizona has already beaten the Vikings. Think Kurt Warner is worried about playing an indoor game against either of those two teams? He would probably rather play those teams on the road than the 49ers at home.
2. The road is their friend. Arizona posted a 6-2 record in road games this season. That included 6-1 with Warner in the lineup and 3-0 in early games. Those are signs of a team that can rise to challenges.
3. Their ground game is improved. The Cardinals are averaging 124 yards rushing per game in their last eight games, up from 62 yards per game over the same stretch last season (and 64.9 yards per game over the first seven games this season).
4. Arizona is more efficient. The Cardinals have scored touchdowns on 69.8 percent of possessions in the red zone, best in the league and up from 58.5 percent last season. Their defense is allowing touchdowns on 45.2 percent of their opponents possessions in the red zone, ninth-best in the league and down from 63.6 percent last season.
5. The Cardinals are relatively healthy. Left tackle Mike Gandy is the only Cardinals starter on injured reserve. The IR list also features safety Matt Ware, outside linebacker Cody Brown, defensive tackle Keilen Dykes and running back Justin Green. The drop from Gandy to backup Jeremy Bridges isn't as large as the gap between some left tackles and their backups.
What else belongs on a list such as this one? And what liabilities might hold back this team?
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
A quick look at 53-man rosters from Feb. 1, date of Super Bowl XLIII, provides a reference point for seeing how NFC West teams have changed so far this offseason.
I'll continue with Arizona.
Gone from the Cardinals' 53-man roster and injured reserve list in the 58 days since the Super Bowl (9):
Pat Ross, C
J.J. Arrington, RB
Terrelle Smith, FB
Jerame Tuman, TE
Scott Peters, OL
Eric Green, CBMonty Beisel, LB
Antonio Smith, DE
Nathan Hodel, LS
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Former Browns running back Jason Wright could conceivably fill J.J. Arrington's former role on the Cardinals now that Arizona has agreed to contract terms with him. Though Wright is not a return specialist, his contributions on special teams also made him attractive to the Cardinals.
The agreement, announced by the team, would not appear to affect the Cardinals' draft plans at the position. The team could still use a starting-caliber halfback. Edgerrin James remains on the roster for now. His eventual release still appears likely.
The Scouts Inc. profile for Wright describes him this way:
While he certainly isn't flashy and doesn't have exceptional physical prowess, Wright is tough, determined and very reliable in all facets, including special teams -- where he shines. He doesn't get a lot of action, but is a change of pace to the bruising [Jamal] Lewis. He isn't particularly big, strong, nifty or fast, but he studies the game and gets the very most out of his abilities. He sees the hole and attacks it. He also shows good patience, balance and keeps his feet churning on contact. He has soft hands and consistently secures the ball away from his frame, dropping very few passes. He is very impressive in pass protection.
Wright will not run away from anyone at this level and doesn't have the girth or power to carry the load for an extended period of time. He isn't real abrupt in his cuts and lacks the explosiveness you look for from this position. As a special teams player, he shows grit and enthusiasm. He is also a good tackler and a core contributor in all facets. His best role would be as a No. 3 running back, rather than a No. 2, and a valuable contributor on special teams.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Cardinals' Edgerrin James is the only NFC West halfback in his 30s. He almost certainly will not return for another season in Arizona.
The second-oldest halfback in the division, 28-year-old T.J. Duckett, is not an every-down runner. He's built more like a fullback and he spent last season as a short-yardage specialist.
The two best backs in the division -- the Rams' Steven Jackson and the 49ers' Frank Gore -- are 25 years old. And we all know what happened to Shaun Alexander as he approached 30.
By my count, NFL teams feature only 10 halfbacks in their 30s: James, Ricky Williams (Dolphins), Thomas Jones (Jets), Sammy Morris (Patriots), Fred Taylor (Patriots), Kevin Faulk (Patriots), Kenny Watson (Bengals), Correll Buckhalter (Broncos), LaMont Jordan (Broncos) and Michael Bennett (Chargers).
Three of the 10 play for the Patriots and five of the 10 are in the AFC East.
I've updated the NFC West roided-out rosters to include moves made this week. Those are available for download.
I'll tack on a Steelers version in the next edition, scheduled for Super Bowl week. In the meantime, let's take a quick look at players NFC West teams have signed to future contracts. These players will become part of the 80-man rosters after the Super Bowl.
Arizona: punter Waylon Prather, quarterback Tyler Palko, running back Justin Green, guard Ben Claxton.
St. Louis: receiver Nate Jones, defensive tackle Willie Williams, receiver Joel Filani, receiver Travis Brown, running back Samkon Gado, defensive end C.J. Ah You.
San Francisco: tight end J.J. Finley, tackle Joe Toledo, receiver Mark Bradford, linebacker Justin Roland and kick returner Michael Spurlock.
Seattle: defensive back Marquis FLoyd, tight end Joe Newton, receiver Michael Bumpus, defensive tackle Kevin Brown, tight end John Tereshinski, long snapper Ryan Senser, receiver Mike Hass and Receiver Billy McMullen.