NFC West: Justin Tuck
OFFENSE: The Giants came to life in the fourth quarter, a theme for them all season. They also avoided turnovers, a huge key. That excused their earlier offensive struggles, but we'll cover them anyway. New York twice committed drive-dooming penalties after crossing midfield. A first-half holding penalty against guard Kevin Boothe on a third-and-1 play proved pivotal. The infraction wasted Brandon Jacobs' 10-yard run, setting up third-and-1. The Giants went from driving toward likely points and a potential 16-3 lead to watching Tom Brady execute a 96-yard touchdown drive as New England pulled in front, 10-9. Then, with the Giants trailing 17-15 in the fourth quarter, a penalty for illegal procedure left the Giants in another third-and-10 situation, leading to another punt. The Giants did enjoy success early in the game. They were fortunate to recover their own fumbles, especially when Ahmad Bradshaw lost the ball deep in Giants territory. Losing tight ends Travis Beckum and Jake Ballard to injuries left New York with only one available tight end, Bear Pascoe. Grade: B
DEFENSE: Justin Tuck's pressure on Brady forced a safety on the Patriots' first offensive play. That was a sensational start for the Giants. Tuck closed out the game with a third-down sack with 39 seconds remaining. The Giants failed to get enough pressure between those plays, allowing Brady to shred their defense for stretches. But Brady averaged only 6.7 yards per attempt. The Giants held the Patriots to 17 points, about two touchdowns below their regular-season average. Jason Pierre-Paul was effective batting down passes. Chase Blackburn made his presence felt with a de-cleater hit on BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He also picked off a deep pass for Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots' quickness in general and Danny Woodhead's in particular gave the Giants problems, especially with Brady having time to operate. The Giants caught a break when Wes Welker got wide open and dropped a pass that would have moved New England into field-goal range while leading with about four minutes left. Grade: B-plus
COACHING: The Giants left 57 seconds on the clock when Bradshaw scored on a run up the middle to take a 21-17 lead. Bradshaw tried to sit down at the 1-yard line, but his momentum carried him into the end zone. The points were nice, but leaving that much time on the clock for Brady carried risk. The offensive plan seemed conservative and without enough play-action passing early. That was to be expected given Tom Coughlin's philosophy. That showed up when Coughlin handed off instead of taking a shot deep down the field on an early second-and-1. Grade: B
SPECIAL TEAMS: Lawrence Tynes made both field-goal attempts. The Giant did not allow a punt return. They forced New England to begin three drives inside their own 10-yard line. The Patriots never started a drive outside their own 29. No complaints here. Grade: A
The weather for Super Bowl week is exactly freezing at present, with moderate winds adding bite to the winter air, but I've felt a much colder chill while spending roughly two months of my life covering various combines over the years. And the forecast calls for unseasonably warm weather -- no snowstorms.
It's still strange being here for a Super Bowl instead of the NFL's signature predraft event. The combine will return in a few weeks, as usual.
The Monday before the Super Bowl is arrival day, even for teams getting into the host city a bit earlier. It's the day when players and coaches start to feel a gathering media storm unlike anything NFL players experience in any other setting. It's the day when they know they've arrived on sports' biggest stage.
The schedule calls for the AFC champion New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and various players, including NFC West alum Deion Branch, to appear beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET.
The NFC champion New York Giants are on the schedule an hour later. Seeing their various names listed on the schedule -- Tom Coughlin, Victor Cruz, Mathias Kiwanuka, Eli Manning, Antrel Rolle, Chris Snee and Justin Tuck are up Monday -- recalled in my mind the Giants' 20-17 victory against the San Francisco 49ers eight days ago.
This could have been the 49ers' stage.
The Super Bowl could have been welcoming Jim Harbaugh instead of Coughlin, Vernon Davis instead of Cruz, Patrick Willis instead of Kiwanuka, Alex Smith in stead of Manning, Carlos Rogers instead of Rolle, Joe Staley instead of Snee, Justin Smith instead of Tuck. The 49ers surely would have found a spot for Frank Gore in there, too.
Watching this week from afar will presumably magnify in the 49ers' minds just how close they came.
Not that the NFL has any reason to complain. A Giants-Patriots rematch of the Super Bowl four years ago carries obvious appeal.
I'll be heading to both teams' media sessions later Monday, with a few NFC West angles in mind.
The media workroom here at the J.W. Marriott hotel was empty when I arrived early Monday. That is beginning to change, but it's still early. Momentum will begin to build late this afternoon.
I wondered how long it would take for that interview, or others like it, to repackage itself as disrespect for the Giants. Three days was the answer.
Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPNNewYork.com has the details, including this quote from Giants safety and NFC West alum Antrel Rolle: "If he said that, I can only hope that he was saying just because they wanted to get a home game. You know, they better be careful for what they ask for because their wish has been granted and we will see those boys come Sunday." Noted: The 49ers naturally wanted to play at home. The Giants naturally did not want to play in the Superdome, a brutally tough environment for opposing offenses.
Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News says a couple 49ers took the talk to Twitter. Anthony Davis: "Are the Giants doing drunk interviews? Lol." Inman also revisited comments from the Giants heading into Week 10, specifically one by Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, who had called 49ers quarterback Alex Smith a game manager, in a bad way.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com offers his offensive player review from the divisional round against New Orleans. On Michael Crabtree: "Started at played 56 plays in the game. He caught four passes for 25 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown on a quick slant in the first quarter. He made a crucial block on Alex Smith's TD run. He had one flat-out drop and did not secure catches on two other passes that hit his hands."
Also from Maiocco: his defensive player review. On Patrick Willis: "He played the entire game and had the difficult assignment of trying to keep up with 6-foot-7 tight end Jimmy Graham in coverage. Willis recorded 10 tackles and recovered a fumble in the first quarter after Donte Whitner's big hit on running back Pierre Thomas. Graham twice elevated over Willis for receptions that turned into touchdowns. The first was on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Brees in the second quarter. On the second touchdown, Willis ran with Graham down the field but didn't find the ball on the back-shoulder throw. Willis was then taken out of the play, as Donte Whitner arrived and Graham turned it into a 66-yard touchdown."
Jim Trotter of SI.com takes a closer look at Smith's redemption this season, noting that friends and family had urged the 49ers' quarterback to start fresh elsewhere.
Monte Poole of Bay Area News Group checks in with Vernon Davis, who remains thankful for all he went through under former coach Mike Singletary.
Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says Roger Craig expects the 49ers to win multiple Super Bowls.
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com passes along thoughts from Rams players regarding Jeff Fisher's hiring as head coach. Steven Jackson: "I'm very excited. I think what Jeff brings is that he's been a head coach and he has been successful in this league. The other coaches that I've had after Mike Martz were all successful at the time and trendy and hot, but Jeff brings stability, he brings credibility. He's played in the league. He was 1-yard away from winning the Super Bowl."
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Fisher brings a strong presence.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams owner Stan Kroenke would not commit to keeping the team in St. Louis for the long term. Kroenke: "I think this is all out there. The chronology of what occurs with the lease is public knowledge. I think for me to comment on that process is particularly (un)timely. The city, or the (stadium) authority, they're dealing with their side of it. And they present a proposal to us by Feb. 1. So there's a team in place that deals with all that. So we'll see how that process sorts itself out. But it's a thing that takes place over time."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says this marks the first time since 2001 that the Seahawks have gone into an offseason without appearing in the postseason or making a significant front-office change. O'Neil: "It's good for the Seahawks in terms of continuity. The franchise has had four different offensive coordinators the past four seasons. There are no indications that Tom Cable, the team's offensive-line coach and associate head coach, is headed elsewhere. Seattle lost assistant offensive line coach Luke Butkus, who went to his alma mater at Illinois. Assistant special teams coach Jeff Ulbrich took a spot on Jim Mora's coaching staff at UCLA. Those are minor changes, though."
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Seattle or its division rivals have won a playoff game every year since 2004. No other division can make that claim.
Also from Farnsworth: Seattle rookies K.J. Wright and Ricardo Lockette reflect on the Seahawks' home-field advantage.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals have re-signed members of their coaching staff, ending speculation that Russ Grimm, Freddie Kitchens and others might find opportunities elsewhere. Somers: "Meanwhile, the Cardinals are said to still be interested in bringing former offensive coordinator Todd Haley back to the coaching staff. It remains to be seen what position he might be offered and how head coach Ken Whisenhunt might shuffle his staff. The team has only its quarterbacks-coach vacancy to fill following the dismissal of Chris Miller. The team was expected to interview candidates this week at its Tempe training facility. No names have surfaced publicly. It is doubtful Haley, fired this past season as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, would return to coach the quarterbacks."
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic checks in with former Cardinals tackle Lomas Brown.
Not to worry, Seattle Seahawks fans. Russell Okung does not appear on the list. He's improved recently, perhaps becoming more confident the longer his ankles hold up.
Arizona's Levi Brown and St. Louis' Rodger Saffold are tied for the NFL lead with 8.5 sacks allowed. As Cooper notes, offensive linemen aren't always responsible for sacks. Quarterbacks are often more responsible for them, in my view. But Cooper said the stats take care to focus only on plays when a blocker fared poorly in pass protection. He also said physical limitations appear more to blame for Browns' troubles than for Saffold's troubles.
Seattle right tackle James Carpenter ranks tied for fourth on the list with six allowed. San Francisco's Joe Staley is tied for eighth with 4.5 allowed.
These numbers line up with perceptions. NFC West teams have used quite a few early draft choices for tackles, with mixed results.
San Francisco 49ers right tackle Anthony Davis has become more consistent. He faces a tough matchup against the New York Giants' Justin Tuck. Staley faces Osi Umenyiora. Okung faces the Baltimore Ravens' Terrell Suggs.
Tuck, whose New York Giants face the 49ers at Candlestick Park, is coming off a game against Tom Brady. His thoughts on Smith:
"He is a guy who they are trying to keep out of position to win the football game. Obviously, with a back like Frank Gore and the O-Line keeping them in third-and-short situations and even if it is third-and-6 or 7, they still feel that they can pick it up running.Sando's take: With a quarterback like that, the 49ers will have a hard time overcoming a big second-half deficit or beating a good team with a winning drive in the final minutes. And they'll never blow out an opponent on the strength of a superior passing performance.
"I think they are asking Alex not to lose the game. He is playing decent with 10 touchdowns and two picks. He is not putting them in situations where they are going to be pinned back or their defense is going to be put in bad situations.
"If they get in field-goal range, they are going to run the ball and make sure they come away with some points. If they are not in, they are going to run the ball and make sure they punt to put their defense in good positions to stop the offense."
Just not going to happen.
The Giants are expected to have both top pass-rushers available in the same week for the first time this season.
While the Cardinals have been generally pleased with their play at offensive tackle this season, this matchup favors the Giants. Arizona might be wise to use the no-huddle offense to test both Giants pass-rushers' conditioning. Both have missed extensive practice time. Umenyiora hasn't played since undergoing knee surgery Aug. 19.
The accompanying video offers a short Giants-Cardinals preview noting that Eli Manning's 20-4 record in October ranks among the NFL's best in the past 60-plus seasons.
This just feels like a tough matchup for the Cardinals, but they're not alone among NFC West teams Sunday.
- Rams: receiver Danny Amendola, running back Steven Jackson, receiver Austin Pettis, safety Jermale Hines, linebacker Jabara Williams, tight end Stephen Spach and defensive end C.J. Ah You. Jackson tested his strained quadriceps during warmups, but was never expected to play. Amendola is recovering from a dislocated elbow. Rookie defensive end Robert Quinn is active after sitting out the opener. Ah You underwent wrist surgery recently. Right tackle Jason Smith, who suffered an ankle injury in the opener, is active.
- Giants: receiver Jerrel Jernigan, cornerback Prince Amukamara, running back Da'Rel Scott, tight end Travis Beckum, guard Mitch Petrus, defensive end Osi Umenyiora and tackle James Brewer. Umenyiora and fellow Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Tuck missed the opener with injuries. Tuck is active and, if sufficiently healthy, will likely present matchup problems for the Rams, particularly when lined up against Smith.
We're about an hour from kickoff. I'm seeing Rams fans wearing Eric Dickerson and Jack Youngblood jerseys, and another with a Sam Bradford jersey. The stadium remains mostly empty at this time, however.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 2:
About those early kickoffs. For years, the Seattle Seahawks struggled to win games kicking off at 10 a.m. PT unless they were played in St. Louis, where the long-struggling Rams made for an inviting opponent. Times changed last season. The Seahawks went 1-1 in early games, beating the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field after losing in St. Louis. Seattle joins Arizona among Western teams playing early games Sunday. The Cardinals were 3-0 in 10 a.m. PT kickoffs the last time they felt good about their quarterback situation, in 2009. They were 0-4 in early kickoffs for 2010.
Sam Bradford's downfield throws. Bradford and Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels went into the season saying they planned to incorporate more downfield throws into their offense. It did not happen during an opening-week defeat against Philadelphia. Four of Bradford's 30 attempts (13.3 percent) traveled at least 15 yards in the air. The percentage for Bradford was 13.7 last season, lowest among qualifying quarterbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Bradford and the Rams should have additional downfield opportunities against the New York Giants' injury-depleted secondary.
49ers' offensive aggression. Coach Jim Harbaugh kept a straight face while telling reporters the team was being aggressive against Seattle when it ran the ball in traditional passing situations. The 49ers ran the ball six times on third-down plays when they needed more than a yard for a first down. This included four plays of third-and-4 or longer. The 49ers converted none of these six rushing plays. The approach was good enough to defeat a Seattle team that wasn't getting much accomplished offensively until late. How well the 49ers fare when opening up the offense against Dallas stands as a leading NFC West storyline for Week 2.
Tough duty for tackles. NFC West offensive tackles face some brutal matchups this week. DeMarcus Ware (Dallas), Brian Orakpo (Washington), Ryan Kerrigan (Washington) and James Harrison (Pittsburgh) are coming after NFC West quarterbacks. The Giants have been playing without injured defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, but if either one plays against St. Louis on Monday night, add their names to the list.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL
Smith was also faring well in unscientific polling here on the NFC West blog.
Smith's teammate, Patrick Willis, was the only NFC West player to earn a spot in ESPN.com's top 10. He and Smith were the only NFC West players to draw votes.
Let the debate continue for the division's best defensive player not named Willis.
"I see Chris Long along the same lines as Justin Smith," joe_cool585 wrote. "An ironman of sorts who doesn't take a play off at defensive end."
Smith has 21.5 sacks in three seasons as a 3-4 defensive end. He's a power player and was one of the keys to the 49ers' success against Arizona when Kurt Warner should have given the Cardinals a significant advantage.
Long will get more acclaim if the Rams keep improving. His sack numbers are on the rise and should continue rising.
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said he thought Long would become St. Louis' version of Justin Tuck now that the Rams have added a pure pass-rusher, Robert Quinn, to the rotation. Tuck has reached double-digit sacks in three of his last four seasons. He and Long are similar in weight. Tuck is a couple inches taller. The idea, though, is that Long could move around more.
Arizona's Darnell Dockett was polling second behind Smith among candidates as the best defensive player in the division beyond Willis. That did not sit well with Furfanam, who noted that Seattle's Chris Clemons (11 sacks) and Raheem Brock (nine sacks) were more productive rushing the passer.
All three played defensive end, but Dockett (five sacks) played the position in a 3-4 system. Comparing sack numbers doesn't really apply because Dockett was not asked to be a pure pass-rusher. He had other responsibilities. Clemons was very good as a pass-rusher last season. Brock was very good as a situational player. Dockett has been better for longer even though injuries hurt his performance in 2010.
Furfanam wasn't the only one taking shots at Arizona.
"It wouldn't have shocked me at all if 'super hype' Patrick Peterson somehow made it on this list," Lotharun wrote. "I still wonder if he can throw the ball because it looks like Arizona is going to need him there too."
"It is going to be Earl Thomas, but right now, it has to be Justin Smith," Tigre1629 wrote.
Tigre1629 closed with a question: "Sando, are you going to do a best NFC West offensive player, as well?"
That is coming next week.
Todd McShay had the St. Louis Rams selecting Missouri's Aldon Smith at No. 14.
Quinn and Smith are indeed heading to the NFC West, but the draft fell counter to expectations. The 49ers took Smith at No. 7. The Rams chose Quinn seven spots later.
Why the surprise? Wasn't Quinn the more highly rated player?
"When San Francisco took Aldon Smith, it was a huge red flag that Quinn's medical report is worse than people think," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "Quinn is better than Smith. It tells me team doctors probably took him off the 49ers' board. You wonder if the Rams got damaged goods. If not, I'm all for it."
Team doctors evaluate risks differently. The benign brain tumor doctors discovered in Quinn four years ago could have conceivably made him too great a risk for one team at one position in the draft, but not too great for another team later in the draft. And it might not have factored significantly at all for some.
If Quinn is healthy, the Rams appear to have gotten very good value based on scouting reports.
"Chris Long all of a sudden becomes Justin Tuck in Steve Spagnuolo's defense," Williamson said. "They can move Long inside on early downs. They can play him everywhere. He'll take on that Justin Tuck strongside end/move-him-over-a-heavy-guard role. Quinn is a great player. I just wonder if there is something we don't know about him."
Not so, according to the Rams.
"Obviously, our doctors spent a lot of time researching and talking to experts and talking to people at Chapel Hill," general manager Billy Devaney said. "He's never had any problem when he was at North Carolina. They discovered this when he was in high school and he’s played with it and our doctors, as we called around the league, the majority of the teams were comfortable with his condition, also."
The 49ers have big plans for Smith. They think he can play multiple positions within their front seven. And at age 20, he is only getting started.
"To me, Aldon Smith isn't really a 3-4 outside linebacker," Williamson said. "He is going to be 285 pounds. He is so young. We will look at his [college] highlights three years from now and say, 'Wow, he does not look like that.' I see the attraction, too. He can still rush the passer. Just watching what they bring to field, I would rather have Quinn, clearly, but not if my doctor advises against it."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee offers thoughts on why Harbaugh is a hot coaching candidate. Rich Gannon: "I have vivid memories of him entrenching himself in an office and doing everything he could to learn. He was willing to do the grunt work. He was the quality control guy but he was staying until three in the morning pulling the game plan together, the QB quick tips ... He would be exhausted the next day."
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says the Dolphins' push for Harbaugh could ruin the 49ers' chances at landing the Stanford coach. Kawakami: "According to a source, everything went smoothly during the face-to-face discussions between Harbaugh and the 49ers today. He and Baalke meshed well and the money terms were being negotiated with agent David Dunn. Then Harbaugh said he would talk to Ross, and the 49ers heard that the Dolphin offer could blow theirs away." Dunn's involvement was something I had not anticipated. Harbaugh previously listed Jack Bechta as his agent. Recent reports have noted that Harbaugh and 49ers general manager Trent Baalke share an agent. I had thought Baalke's agent was Peter Schaffer. That aspect of the negotiations begs for some elaboration.
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says Jed York's comment about money being no object might not be exactly true.
David White of the San Francisco Chronicle updates the 49ers' coaching search in a story featuring a photo of York and Baalke riding in a car together.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Darnell Dockett's comments on Twitter about an Arizona mall shooting stirred controversy. No shock there. Dockett has cranked out politically incorrect comments on Twitter for as long as I can remember him being on Twitter. Dockett's latest dispatch, according to Somers: "Was the guys who shot some1 & the mall today was they Black? Cuz its hard 2 believe they would run in the mall!! Probaly white or mexicans!" Dockett followed up those comments with additional comments seeking to explain his stance, such as: "Cuz blacks wouldn't run in a mall after shooting chances on getting caught is 100% that's why!!" Dockett then tried a little damage control, defending himself against charges of racism. The sheer number of potentially objectionable tweets from Dockett over an extended time period diminish the impact of subsequent objectionable tweets. It's rhetorical inflation.
Also from Somers: Staff changes could be on the way for Arizona as coach Ken Whisenhunt winds down meetings with assistants. Somers: "His decision is complicated by the labor disagreement between the NFL and the players' union, as well as the number of coaches' jobs that have opened. If no collective-bargaining agreement is reached by March 4, the owners are expected to lock out the players. A prolonged lockout means a new coordinator might have little time with which to install a new system. It also means owners could be paying former and current staff members while no games are being played. If Whisenhunt does want to make new hires, he likely would face competition. Eight teams are making changes at head coach, and one other, Houston, is hiring a new defensive staff."
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says punter Jon Ryan has become adept at avoiding touchbacks and pinning opponents deep in their own territory.
Also from Farnsworth: Pete Carroll isn't saying which quarterback will start against New Orleans.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times takes a closer look at the relationship between Seattle safeties Lawyer Milloy and Earl Thomas.
Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times says Carroll finds himself in an unfamiliar position: as the underdog. Brewer: "He hasn't been called such a thing before a game this big in ages. For most of his nine-year run at USC, the first-year Seahawks coach was known more for instructing a giant to stomp on the little guys. And he did that job well, managing to meet the demanding expectations of a college football powerhouse so flamboyantly the Trojans became a cultural phenomenon."
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says Raheem Brock's productivity as a pass-rushing defensive end caught the Seahawks by surprise. Boling: "He and fellow defensive end Chris Clemons now have a total of 20 sacks, giving them the league’s third-highest sacks total for ends behind the Giants’ Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora (23), and the Colts’ Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis (21)."
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks' quarterback gamesmanship affected Seattle and New Orleans. Williams: "Initially, the Seahawks planned to make both quarterbacks available but then chose to deny access to both because no decision on the starter had been made. Carroll’s indecision also affected New Orleans-area reporters, who were expecting to talk to Hasselbeck on conference call but got Mike Williams instead. That decision led to Seattle-area reporters getting receiver Lance Moore on conference call instead of quarterback Drew Brees."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says drafting later in the first round is a new feeling for the Rams. Thomas: "Strategically, when you're picking first, you don't have to worry about anybody else. And picking second, you only have to worry about the one team ahead of you, or the possibility of someone trading up to that spot. But at No. 14, there are tons of variables and 13 other teams to worry about. You have to be ready to go in a lot of different directions, depending on what happens ahead of you."
Also from the Post-Dispatch: a look at hits and misses in the 14th overall spot.
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com says rookie quarterback Sam Bradford learned plenty during his first season in the NFL. Bradford joined Peyton Manning, David Carr and Matt Ryan as the only rookies to play every offensive snap for their teams. Wagoner: "Bradford set a rookie record for consecutive attempts without an interception, going 174 straight without a pick. He set a rookie record for attempts (590) and completions (354), passing future Hall of Famer Manning in both categories. He finished second among rookie quarterbacks in passing yards with 3,512, behind only Manning and fifth in touchdown passes with 18. He was the Rookie of the Month two times, becoming the first rookie quarterback to achieve that feat."
Brian Stull of 101ESPN St. Louis says Rams receiver Mark Clayton would like to return in 2011.
As usual, it appears as though a few fans have not spent the season carefully studying players throughout the league.
San Francisco 49ers rookie Taylor Mays might develop into an elite player. For now, he's having trouble beating out Reggie Smith. No matter. Mays, with six starts in 10 games, ranks fifth among strong safeties in fan balloting.
Arizona Cardinals veteran Adrian Wilson ranks second. That would normally be about right, but the Cardinals are struggling on defense and Wilson hasn't performed well consistently.
A few other notes on fan balloting, which continues through Dec. 20 (with players and coaches voting Dec. 22-23 and the NFL announcing rosters Dec. 28):
- Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald ranks fifth among NFC receivers. He's on pace for close to 90 receptions and is almost always worthy of consideration, even during a rough season. Roddy White, DeSean Jackson, Hakeem Nicks and Calvin Johnson rank ahead of him.
- The San Francisco 49ers' Vernon Davis ranks second among tight ends. Five tight ends in the conference have more receptions. No NFC tight ends have more TD receptions or more receptions covering at least 20 yards.
- The Cardinals' Alan Faneca ranks third among guards. Faneca was supposedly about finished. He's been better than that, but not exceptional.
- The Cardinals' Darnell Dockett ranks fifth in voting among defensive tackles even though he plays defensive end in a 3-4 scheme. Dockett has been hurt and has not been dominant. His defense has struggled badly.
- The Cardinals' Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie ranks fourth among NFC cornerbacks. He has two picks.
- The 49ers' Patrick Willis ranks first among inside linebackers. Willis hasn't had a season packed with highlights. He has gotten better as the season has progressed, however. Willis has stood out in the last couple games, including when he collected two sacks Sunday.
- St. Louis Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe ranks third among free safeties in the NFC. Antrel Rolle, formerly of the Cardinals, ranks first. Seattle Seahawks rookie Earl Thomas ranks fifth. He has five picks. Two defensive backs have more.
- The 49ers' Andy Lee ranks fifth among punters.
- The Seahawks' Leon Washington ranks fifth among return specialists. The Cardinals' LaRod Stephens-Howling did not crack the top five. Washington leads the NFL in kick-return average among players with more than two returns. He also has a 23.8-yard average on five punt returns.
- The Rams' Chris Long and James Hall did not crack the top five at defensive end. Neither did the Seahawks' Chris Clemons. All three have produced. The top five: Julius Peppers, Osi Umenyiora, Jared Allen, Justin Tuck and John Abraham.
Sometimes it's tough to know how well some players are performing. The Seahawks' Washington should get strong consideration as a return specialist. Earning a Pro Bowl spot would carry extra value for him after recovering from a career-threatening leg injury.
Mike Sando: Hill is scheduled to earn $6 million in salary this season and he's likely facing an NFL suspension of some sort. Would the Giants or another team be willing to absorb that contract? Would Hill be willing to rework his contract? Those are the two primary questions I have when considering what value Hill might have in a trade.
Is Hill available? I would certainly think so. The Seahawks asked him to stay away from their offseason camps to this point. It's clear they are assessing their options at the position to determine whether they feel comfortable moving on without Hill.
As for the Giants, middle linebacker seemed to be their primary need in light of Pierce's demise. They drafted Nebraska's Phillip Dillard in the fourth round and it's looking like he could compete for the starting job. I just think the Giants would have been more aggressive in addressing linebacker to this point if they felt the position were one of great need. This could be a situation where the team likes its young talent better than outsiders like that talent.
Hill can be a good player, but he's not a middle linebacker. He wouldn't offset Pierce's departure. The writing is on the wall that Seattle wouldn't mind trading Hill. But would anyone take on that $6 million salary under the circumstances?
Mike from Costa Mesa, Calif., writes: Hey Sando, love your blog. I read it every day to keep up with my Cardinals and events in the NFC West. It's the essential resource for any FAN-atic pining away for the start of another NFL season.
Just a note to encourage you to keep an eye on Andre Roberts, the Cards' third-round choice out of the Citadel. I will admit that I didn't know much about this guy before the draft, but after doing my online research, I think the Cardinals may have a potential Steve Smith on their hands. This is especially true since, in the Cardinals' lineup, Roberts is likely to be covered one-on-one (with Larry Fitzgerald and sometimes Steve Breaston getting double coverage), and by the opponents' weakest defender at that.
If Early Doucet fails to impress this year, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Roberts as the No. 3 receiver by the end of the year. To tell you the truth, with the possible exception of Golden Tate, I believe the Cards may have landed the best receiver in the 2010 draft. In any case, we will have a pretty good idea if I'm right or not by the end of the upcoming season.
Mike Sando: Thanks for the compliments, Mike. The Cardinals hope you're better at evaluating receivers than evaluating blogs. I'm always skeptical regarding rookie receivers. They tend to flash some abilities during training camp, but it's tough to make the production carry over to exhibition games, let alone the regular season.
Breaston caught eight passes as a rookie. Doucet caught 14 as a rookie. It's possible for Roberts to ease into this season and develop over time, so I wouldn't judge him too definitively after one season. It's a bonus if a rookie receiver provides the type of production Arizona got from Anquan Boldin (101 receptions in 2001) or Fitzgerald (58 in 2004).
Jay from Sacramento writes: Mike, I noticed that the 49ers' new corner, William James, had a safety in last years Lions-49ers game. Anything from that game that made him stand out as a Mike Singletary type player? Enough to be so patient through the draft?
Mike Sando: Nothing I recall. James did not have a safety in that game. He did tackle Frank Gore for a 1-yard loss at one point, but he also made the tackle after a 50-yard pass from Alex Smith to Michael Crabtree (see video here). Crabtree got James turned around early in his route and there wasn't safety help at any point. The play-fake was very effective.
Julian from Ridgecrest, Calif., writes: First off, Sando, love your blog. Secondly, kind of a two-part question, I was just wondering if there have been any more developments with the approved L.A. stadium as far as getting a team to go there. And whichever team they get to play there (save 49ers or Rams), do you think there would be an impending division realignment for the NFC West or AFC West. The only reason I ask is because the Vikings and and 49ers haven't gotten their stadiums approved -- yet. With only six true West Coast teams (seven if you include Dallas), the addition of an L.A. team would bring the total eight. How do you see this all play out for the NFC West?
Mike Sando: Any team other than the Rams moving to Los Angeles would make divisional realignment a logical step. If the Jaguars moved to L.A., why not move them into the NFC West, with the Rams joining the AFC South? The old 49ers-Rams rivalry in the NFC West doesn't really resonate in St. Louis, anyway. The Vikings would be a more interesting case because of their stronger rivalries with teams in the NFC North, but those rivalries wouldn't mean a great deal to the people of Southern California.
As for new developments, I've seen none. The people trying to bring football to Southern California have done a good job making noise over the years, but nothing meaningful ever seems to happen. That makes it tough to take the speculation too seriously.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Parys Haralson could "easily" finish the season with 10 or more sacks if he could stay healthy. Twelve NFL players reached double-digit sacks last season: Demarcus Ware (20), Joey Porter (17.5), John Abraham (16.5), James Harrison (16), Jared Allen (14.5), Julius Peppers (14.5), Justin Tuck (12), Mario Williams (12), Robert Mathis (11.5), LaMarr Woodley (11.5), Dwight Freeney (10.5) and Darren Howard (10). Note that none of the 12 played in the NFC West.
Also from Maiocco: Rookie Glen Coffee has stepped up in earning the No. 2 job behind Frank Gore.
The 49ers' Web site runs a fan question-and-answer transcript involving Parys Haralson. Haralson: "Basically we simplified our scheme and he let us do what we do best. He let guys go after the quarterback and let us play football."
John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle profiles 49ers running backs coach Tom Rathman. Crumpacker: "Although he loves his job, Rathman said he's no NFL lifer in the making. He said he'd like to put in 15 years as an assistant coach, get his pension, and retire to enjoy life sans air horns, blocking sleds and film study."
Also from Crumpacker: Rathman's recollections about lining up incorrectly on the winning play against the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.Mark Emmons of the San Jose Mercury News checks in with 49ers fullback Brit Miller, who has caught the 49ers' attention as a converted linebacker.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says it's unclear why Larry Fitzgerald restructured his contract with the Cardinals. The usual reason -- to clear cap space in the short term -- does not appear to be the motivation.
Also from Somers: Anquan Boldin thinks the Cardinals' approach to training camp helped cut down on injuries.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Early Doucet made a spectacular one-handed reception upon returning from a shoulder injury.
Also from Urban: Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt would have liked a longer training camp. Urban: "The NFL calendar began later and NAU begins at the same time, forcing the Cards to leave after just 3.5 weeks."
Art Thiel of seattlepi,com says Seahawks rookie Max Unger impressed during the team's exhibition opener.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawk's offensive linemen are sporting mohawks.
Steve Kelley of the Seattle Times considers whether Walter Jones' latest knee surgery marks the beginning of the end for Seattle's best offensive lineman.
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune thinks Julius Jones and Aaron Curry will be questionable for the Seahawks' second exhibition game.
Also from Williams: Sean Locklear will get extended work at left tackle for the Seahawks against Denver. The team needs him in that capacity while Jones recovers. This line would be in trouble if something happened to Locklear.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says the Seahawks found their first training camp under Jim Mora to be a grind. Farnsworth: "This camp was shorter, even if it didn't seem that way to the players. The Seahawks have traditionally broken camp before the third preseason game. This year, with Mora contorting tradition at seemingly every turn, camp broke before the second preseason game. But the gap was bridged by rapidly paced, high-tempo practices, and that lone day off for the players."
Also from Farnsworth: Matt Hasselbeck and T.J. Houshmandzadeh are getting in sync.
More from Farnsworth: Red Bryant stood out at the Seahawks' morning practice Thursday.
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams can take their cue from the crosstown Cardinals. Burwell: "Watch very carefully as the Rams get closer to the end of the preseason, because there will probably be a lot of changing faces. This is the new reality at Rams Park, and it is another sign of a franchise moving in the right direction. There are only a handful of players on this Rams team who should rest easy. When you've won only five games in two seasons, nearly everyone is replaceable."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo established a fast tempo during training camp, according to safety James Butler. Thomas: "If you include the Aug. 7 scrimmage at Lindenwood, nine of the first 11 full-squad days of camp featured live tackling."
Also from Thomas: Five things to watch when the Rams face the Falcons in their second exhibition game. Rookie Jason Smith could win the starting job at right tackle with a strong performance, Thomas suggests.
More from Thomas: The Rams put veteran running back Ahman Green on their "ready list" after working him out this week.
how Times' VanRam says Falcons injuries could help the Rams.