NFC West: Justin Roland

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
video
Catch us if you can.

That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.

It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.

By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.

It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.

So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?

The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.

Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.

The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.

First Down

The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?


Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.

Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.

Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.

Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.


Second Down

The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?


Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.

Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.

Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.


Third Down

Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?


Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.

Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.

Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.

Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.


Fourth Down

If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?


Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.

Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.

Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.

Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.

 

Catching up with the 49ers' cut list

September, 10, 2009
9/10/09
10:55
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando


49ers Player Released on Cutdown Pos. Current Team Capacity
Brit Miller
RB 49ers Practice Squad
Kory Sheets
RB 49ers Practice Squad
Alex Boone
OL 49ers Practice Squad
J.J. Finley
TE 49ers Practice Squad
Dobson Collins
WR 49ers Practice Squad
Dominique Zeigler
WR 49ers Practice Squad
Terrail Lambert
DB -- --
Matt Spanos
OL -- --
Pannel Egboh
DL -- --
Khalif Mitchell
DL -- --
Bill Rentmeester
RB -- --
Jacob Bender
OL -- --
Kyle Howard
OL -- --
Jay Moore
LB -- --
Justin Roland
LB -- --
Mark Washington
LB -- --
Joe Toledo
OL -- --
Bear Pascoe
TE -- --
Maurice Price
WR -- --
Eric Green
DB -- --
The tough decisions teams face in reducing their rosters to 53 players sometimes aren't so tough.

"The 49ers released Kory Sheets!" loses some of its drama when Sheets quietly re-signs to the 49ers' practice squad after none of the other 31 NFL teams submit a waiver claim for him.

I've gone through the initial NFC West cut lists -- those players released at the 53-man deadline -- to see which ones have returned to their teams or caught on elsewhere.

The chart shows results for San Francisco.

The 49ers' initial cut list featured only one vested veteran, cornerback Eric Green. The other 19 players had practice-squad eligibility and the 49ers brought back six of them in that capacity.

The remaining 14 players are unsigned.

Offensive lineman Jacob Bender had a tryout with the Seahawks. The Jets showed interest in tight end Bear Pascoe, only to receive another tight end via waivers.

Sheets impressed during the preseason, but the 49ers were stacked at running back with Frank Gore and Glen Coffee. They valued the versatile Michael Robinson far too much to carry a rookie runner on their 53-man roster in his place.

Ex-49ers with practice-squad eligibility

September, 6, 2009
9/06/09
11:12
AM ET
Ex-49ers eligible for
practice squad
Pos.
Jacob Bender
OL
Alex Boone
OL
Dobson Collins
WR
Pannel Egboh
DL
J.J. Finley
TE
Kyle Howard
OL
Terrail Lambert
DB
Brit Miller
FB
Khalif Mitchell
DL
Jay Moore
LB
Bear Pascoe
TE
Maurice Price
WR
Bill Rentmeester
FB
Justin Roland
LB
Kory Sheets
RB
Matt Spanos
OL
Joe Toledo
OL
Mark Washington
LB
Dominique Zeigler
WR

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando


NFL teams can begin forming eight-man practice squads once released players clear waivers this afternoon.

Every player the 49ers released on the reduction to 53 players -- minus cornerback Eric Green -- possesses eligibility for the practice squad. Tackle Alex Boone, guard Matt Spanos, fullback Brit Miller, defensive lineman Khalif Mitchell and running back Kory Sheets could make sense as options. The team will presumably keep one of the tight ends it released, Bear Pascoe or J.J. Finley. Cornerback Terrail Lambert could provide another option.

Some 49ers fans have expressed to me surprise over Sheets' release in particular. The depth San Francisco enjoys at that position made Sheets' release likely.

We likewise should not be surprised if backup running back Glen Coffee plays sparingly as a rookie. Like Sheets, Coffee showed promise during the exhibition games. But with offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye having already committed to Frank Gore as the workhorse back, there won't be many carries left over.

As long as Gore is healthy and his usually productive self, I think Coffee would have to break long runs when given opportunities to siphon significant carries in the No. 2 role.

49ers: Cutdown analysis

September, 5, 2009
9/05/09
5:40
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando


Biggest surprise: The 49ers kept only four running backs, two tight ends and eight offensive linemen on the initial cutdown to 53 players, suggesting the team will consider adding players at those positions. This is a power running team, after all. The decision to release both Bear Pascoe and J.J. Finley was a bit of surprise. One of them was expected to serve as the third tight end. Undrafted free agent Diyral Briggs earned a spot at linebacker, edging out Jay Moore. Fullback Brit Miller, running back Kory Sheets and receiver Dominique Zeigler had made positive impressions with fans, but none enjoyed strong roster security. Their releases were not surprising in that context. Coach Mike Singletary had said the 49ers faced few significant roster decisions heading into the final exhibition game. The team did not cut any big-name players.

No-brainers: The 49ers' cut list ran 20 deep and also featured tackle Jacob Bender, tackle Alex Boone, receiver Dobson Collins, defensive end Pannel Egboh, cornerback Eric Green, guard Kyle Howard, cornerback Terrail Lambert, defensive lineman Khalif Mitchell, receiver Maurice Price, fullback Bill Rentmeester, linebacker Justin Roland, offensive lineman Matt Spanos, tackle Joe Toledo and linebacker Mark Washington.

What's next: The 49ers could use a veteran offensive tackle after Marvel Smith retired. They will presumably scan the waiver wire for a fullback. The team will also likely want to add a third tight end.

Practice-squad report: 49ers

August, 21, 2009
8/21/09
11:29
AM ET
49ers eligible for
practice squad
Pos. Perceived Status
Terrail Lambert
DB
Likely cut
Reggie Smith
DB
Keeper
Curtis Taylor
DB
Likely cut
Carlos Thomas
DB
Likely cut
Jahi Word-Daniels
DB
Likely cut
Pannel Egboh
DL
Likely cut
Ricky Jean-Francois
DL
Bubble
Khalif Mitchell
DL
Bubble
Diyral Briggs
LB
Likely cut
Scott McKillop
LB
Keeper
Jay Moore
LB
Bubble
Justin Roland
LB
Likely cut
Mark Washington
LB
Likely cut
Brit Miller
FB
Bubble
Matt Spanos
OL
Likely cut
Cody Wallace
OL
Keeper
Jacob Bender
OL
Likely cut
Kyle Howard
OL
Likely cut
Alex Boone
OL
Bubble
Joe Toledo
OL
Likely cut
Nate Davis
QB
Bubble
Glen Coffee
RB
Keeper
Bill Rentmeester
RB
Bubble
Kory Sheets
RB
Likely cut
Alex Romero
ST
Likely cut
J.J. Finley
TE
Likely cut
Bear Pascoe
TE
Keeper
Mark Bradford
WR
Likely cut
Dobson Collins
WR
Likely cut
Maurice Price
WR
Likely cut
Dominique Zeigler
WR
Bubble

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The quarterback race between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith commands much 49ers-related attention.

The race for the No. 3 job behind them deserves some attention. Veteran Damon Huard has a 15-12 record as an NFL starter. He provides value as an experienced backup. The team also wants to develop fifth-round rookie quarterback Nate Davis.

What to do?

Davis is a project. He will not help the 49ers this season. The question becomes whether another team would sign him to its 53-man roster if the 49ers waived Davis and tried to sign him to their practice squad.

As noted, NFL teams selected 19 quarterbacks in the fifth round from the 2000 through 2008 drafts. Eighteen earned opening-day spots on 53-man rosters as rookies. The Steelers' Omar Jacobs was an exception in 2006, the year Ben Roethlisberger opened on the bench following a motorcycle accident.

The factors that pushed down Davis in the draft -- notably a learning disability that the 49ers see as overstated -- still exist. If teams fear Davis might struggle to learn their system -- and for the sake of this discussion, it doesn't matter if such fears are justified -- the 49ers might have an easier time getting
Davis onto their practice squad.

What would you do?

The chart shows all 31 current 49ers players with eligibility, arranged by position. I left first-round choice Michael Crabtree off the chart because he has not signed with the team.

NFL teams must reduce rosters from 80 to 75 players Sept. 1. They must reduce to 53 players Sept. 5. They can begin forming eight-man practice squads Sept. 6 at noon ET.

As the NFL puts it:

After 12 noon, New York time, clubs may establish a practice squad of eight players by signing free agents who do not have an accrued season of free-agency credit or who were on the 45-player active list for less than nine regular-season games during their only accrued season(s). A player cannot participate on the practice squad for more than three seasons.

The 49ers also face dilemmas at other positions, including what to do at receiver while Crabtree and Brandon Jones are not available, but that third quarterback race stands out.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The 49ers' roster appears most interesting at running back and receiver.

The more I think about how much the 49ers want to pound the ball on offense, the more I see them keeping two fullbacks on the Week 1 roster.

Zak Keasey's broken forearm prevents him from becoming part of the equation early, and it's tough to see a team waiting two months for a backup fullback to get healthy. Enter Bill Rentmeester. Formerly of the Chargers, Rentmeester offers what preseason touchdown machine Brit Miller does not: experience at fullback. For the sake of this roster exercise, I'll pencil in Rentmeester for Week 1.

The numbers at receiver figure to swell while the team waits for Brandon Jones to heal and Michael Crabtree to sign and get ready to contribute.

San Francisco 49ers Week 1 Roster Counts since 2003 QB RB WR TE OL DL LB DB ST
Fewest 3 4 5 2 8 5 6 7 2
Most 4 7 7 4 10 9 8 11 4
Average 3.2 5.2 5.8 3.2 8.8 7.2 7.3 9.3 3.0
Currently on roster
4
8 12 4 14 9 12 14 4

The chart provides a framework for how many players the 49ers might keep at each position heading into the regular-season opener against the Cardinals.

Here's a quick look at which 49ers players I might keep on the cutdown to 53 players (I made one change, moving Cody Wallace into the group of offensive linemen at Joe Toledo's expense):

(Read full post)

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 start with San Francisco.

Gone from the 49ers' 53-man roster and injured reserve list in the 58 days since the Super Bowl (13):

 
  Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
  J.T. O'Sullivan is a former 49er.

Offense

Jamie Martin, QB

J.T. O'Sullivan, QB

Billy Bajema, TE

DeShaun Foster, RB

Sean Ryan, TE

Bryant Johnson, WR

Jonas Jennings, T

Damane Duckett, T

Defense

Keith Lewis, S

Donald Strickland, CB

Roderick Green, LB

Ronald Fields, DL

Tully Banta-Cain, LB

(Read full post)

Roided-out NFC West rosters: Week 20.5

January, 24, 2009
1/24/09
10:58
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

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.

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