NFC West: Kevin Faulk
Back in October, New England was looking like a good potential future fit for St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson.
Atlanta might be a better one now as we consider the possibilities following news that Jackson plans to void his deal with the Rams, becoming a free agent next month.
The Patriots have traditionally been open to older backs such as Kevin Faulk, Fred Taylor, Corey Dillon, Sammy Morris, Antowain Smith and LaMont Jordan. But with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden as the top three backs and Danny Woodhead also possibly in the mix, New England could be set at the position for the immediate future.
The Falcons, meanwhile, could plausibly stand to upgrade from Michael Turner, who recently turned 31 and is coming off an 800-yard season with a 3.6-yard average. Jackson, who turns 30 in July, is riding a streak of eight seasons with at least 1,000 yards.
Turner is scheduled to earn $6.9 million in salary with an $8.9 million cap number in 2013. Jackson, scheduled to earn $7 million from the Rams if he remains on the team, could save the Falcons against the cap relative to Turner by signing a deal for a few million per season.
Those are some initial thoughts, anyway, on potential landing spots for Jackson if and when he hits the market. Jackson will presumably seek a winning team. New England (.750) is first and Atlanta second (.700) in regular-season winning percentage over the past five seasons. The Rams are last (.244) despite going 7-8-1 last season.
Update: Denver could be another consideration. Look for a few thoughts from Bill Williamson on the AFC West blog in the not-too-distant future.
Mike Sando: Having a division winner with a losing record cannot overcome a one-game upset. The NFC South went 13-3 against the NFC West last season. I won't be surprised if the Dallas Cowboys exceed expectations this season in part because they're paired against this division. The NFC West needs to win non-division games more regularly to change perceptions.
This division should improve in 2011.
The St. Louis Rams were already improving. They should be better as Sam Bradford grows as a quarterback. Their defense appears solid again, and improved. Kevin Kolb improves the Arizona Cardinals even if he's only average. There's a good chance he'll be better than average with Larry Fitzgerald on his side.
The Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have made easy targets this offseason because neither did much, if anything, to upgrade at quarterback. I think both teams have improved their rosters overall, however. And neither team was particularly strong at quarterback last season. It's unlikely either team will be significantly worse off at the position despite perceptions.
Matt Hasselbeck accomplished many admirable things during his time with the Seahawks, but almost none recently. His performance against New Orleans in the wild-card round was a fitting way for him to perform during his final home game as a Seahawk, but it wasn't consistent with his body of work since 2008 or an indicator of what was to come. His passer rating over the past three seasons was the lowest in the NFL by more than 10 points among the 19 quarterbacks with at least 35 starts during that span.
In San Francisco, Alex Smith will never live up to draft-day hopes, but it's reasonable to expect improvement from him under Jim Harbaugh. A significant regression would come as a surprise.
So, if the Seahawks and 49ers have upgraded their rosters overall while staying roughly the same at quarterback, how much worse will they be?
Clemster from Fort Worth wants to know which wide receivers will start for the St. Louis Rams, and what Danario Alexander's role will be.
Mike Sando: Brandon Gibson and Mike Sims-Walker are the starters, with Danny Amendola expected to see significant playing time. The Rams want their receivers to be largely interchangeable, which means we could see quite a few combinations.
Alexander survived the cut to 53 players, but I don't get the sense he enjoys much roster security, particularly if his knee continues to limit him periodically.
A reporter asked coach Steve Spagnuolo about Alexander on Monday. Spagnuolo tends to choose his words with care anyway, but his answer to this question was particularly conservative.
"He is one of the six receivers that we have right now," Spagnuolo said. "We all know what he has to overcome and battle every week, and he toughs it out. So, he is one of the guys right now."
Nolan from Bakersfield, Calif., wasn't alone in hitting the NFC West mailbag with questions about Colin Kaepernick's status with the 49ers. They thought the 49ers' newest quarterback, third-string rookie Scott Tolzien, might threaten Kaepernick based on what they showed during preseason.
Mike Sando: There were reasons Kaepernick was a second-round pick and Tolzien was not drafted. Those reasons have not changed. Kaepernick is far superior physically in just about every way. If he and Tolzien both reach their potentials, Kaepernick will be the better player. The 49ers hired Harbaugh largely because they trusted his expertise with quarterbacks. Harbaugh played a leading role in selecting Kaepernick. Picking up Tolzien off waivers should have no bearing on the team's approach with Kaepernick.
Andrew from Seattle says he's hearing more Carson Palmer comeback rumors and he wants to know what are the chances Seattle might make a move for him. Andrew sees a talented group of receivers in Seattle, including tight end Zach Miller, and he thinks Palmer could help get the most from them.
Mike Sando: At no point have I heard anything to substantiate those rumors, but they are definitely there, and not just among fans. One NFL executive I spoke with during training camps said he expected the Seahawks to make a move for Palmer, one way or another, in time for the regular season.
My sense is that people outside the organization (and probably a few inside it, as well) cannot believe a team would go into a season with Tarvaris Jackson as its starter by design. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has repeatedly said this is what he plans to do. Carroll also values mobility in a quarterback. Palmer doesn't move well.
This is something we'll hear about until something happens or the trading deadlines passes. But if you're looking for real evidence that a move is likely, there is none to be found.
Casey from Phoenix asks whether Chester Taylor projects as a good compliment to Beanie Wells in Arizona.
Mike Sando: Taylor gives the Cardinals experience at the position and someone they could trust in small doses. I just see no reason to expect much from him at this stage of his career.
Age and recent production seem like reliable indicators for running backs. Taylor turns 32 this month. He averaged 2.4 yards per carry last season, the lowest single-season mark in the NFL since 1970 among players with at least 100 carries in a season.
Thirteen running backs since 2000 have rushed for at least 500 yards in a season after age 31: Emmitt Smith, Ricky Williams, Warrick Dunn, Fred Taylor, Lamar Smith, Curtis Martin, Antowain Smith, Garrison Hearst, Kevin Faulk, Corey Dillon, Jerome Bettis, Mike Anderson and Terry Allen. Williams, Anderson and Smith (Emmitt) are the only ones to reach 1,000 yards.
Ryan Williams' season-ending knee injury forced the Cardinals to get older at a position where youth is served. It's clearer than ever the Cardinals need a strong season from Wells. An injury to Wells or poor play from him would leave Arizona in a difficult position.
There's already enough pressure on Kolb without adding more.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the San Francisco 49ers will meet with Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Maiocco: "Gabbert has already met with the teams holding the top four picks in the April 28 draft: Carolina, Denver, Buffalo and Cincinnati. The Arizona Cardinals, who hold the No. 5 selection, may also be in the market for a quarterback. Veteran David Carr is the only quarterback the 49ers have under contract for 2011. The 49ers own the No. 7 overall draft pick. Coach Jim Harbaugh also attended Gabbert's pro day on March 17."
Also from Maiocco: a look at some of the local prospects scheduled to visit the 49ers on Wednesday.
Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider says the 49ers are looking at bigger wide receivers.
Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Harbaugh has valued fullbacks as blockers, not as multidimensional players. Branch: "Harbaugh’s use of his fullback obviously could change in the NFL, but the way he used Owen Marecic and Jon Polk primarily as lead-blocking battering rams reflects a trend in the league. Last year, for example, Atlanta’s Jason Snelling was the only fullback with more than 25 receptions. In 2000, eight NFL fullbacks had more than 25 catches and five had at least 35. The 49ers will no doubt be looking for a fullback in the draft, if for no other reason than the 250-pound Moran Norris, who had seven touches in 2010, will turn 33 in June."
Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times says Seahawks general manager John Schneider offers "cool, confident and quirky" leadership. Brewer: "Schneider will guide the franchise through a well-thought-out and solid process next week. And when he's finished, he'll make some self-deprecating jokes, tease Pete Carroll, crack on reporters and make it seem like he didn't do anything but entertain the masses. Don't let him fool you, though. He knows his stuff. His staff knows its stuff. All kidding aside, the Seahawks figure to do a trustworthy job in this awkward draft."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times passes along Schneider's thoughts on the quarterback situation, noting that Seattle hopes to draft at least one quarterback every year. O'Neil: "That is not a formula followed recently in Seattle, though. In Tim Ruskell's five years as president, the Seahawks chose just two quarterbacks: David Greene of Georgia in 2005, and Mike Teel of Rutgers in 2009. Neither developed enough to ever appear in a regular-season game."
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune joins Brian McIntyre for a Seahawks chat. McIntyre on Aaron Curry: "I'm not as down on Curry. Needs to make more splash plays (sacks, forced fumbles, INTs), but he did a lot of the grunt work last year, playing tackle and nose in dime and 'Bandit' packages, allowing teammates to make plays. Is signed through 2014. Most ($8M) of his base salary in 2011 and 2012 base salaries are guaranteed."
Doug Farrar of Sportspress Northwest says Schneider has settled into his role.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic will be watching to see how many 10 a.m. PT games the Cardinals get when the NFL announces dates and times for its 2011 regular-season schedule. Somers: "Under Ken Whisenhunt, the Cardinals have adjusted their travel schedule on East Coast trips. They usually leave on a Friday, giving them two days to acclimate to a possible time change. In 2008, the Super Bowl, they stayed in Washington D.C., the week between games against the Redskins and Jets. The Cardinals lost both of those games."
Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis sizes up draft needs and possibilities for NFC West teams. He sees Gabbert and Von Miller as first-round possibilities for Arizona. Softli: "John Skelton coming into his second season could be called upon to deliver in flashes but is not ready to compete at the level coach Ken Whisenhunt needs."
Mike Sando: Yeah, we can take a look. Carroll insisted on having personnel powers in Seattle largely because he felt doomed by the lack of power he wielded in New England. We can then assume the Patriots didn't always pick the players Carroll would have picked. We might also consider that Carroll has probably changed some since then.
But if nothing else, we can gain some perspective. The Patriots drafted five players in the first round -- all between the 17th and 29th picks -- when Carroll was coach from 1997 to 1999. Then-center Damien Woody, running back Robert Edwards, safety Tebucky Jones, linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer and cornerback Chris Canty were the first-rounders.
The Patriots used 27 total draft choices during that time. Woody and 1999 seventh-rounder Sean Morey eventually earned Pro Bowl honors. There were a few good picks along the way -- running back Kevin Faulk was a second-rounder in 1999 -- but quite a few misses as well.
This file contains a spreadsheet with all 27 players New England drafted during the Carroll years. The chart breaks them down by round and position.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Alexander says he's ready to resume his career and that any team signing him would be getting a bargain. I question whether the league has a place for a 31-year-old running back unsuited for playing on third down or special teams.
And in looking at NFL rosters, I see five halfbacks age 31 or older: Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris of the Patriots, Kenny Watson of the Bengals and Ricky Williams of the Dolphins. That's an extremely short list given that NFL teams are carrying 85 players on average (including unsigned draft choices).
Alexander seems better suited as an emergency injury replacement. Do you think he'll get another chance in the NFL? The Seahawks are not interested. The Redskins do not appear to be interested. That could make it tough.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Former Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander hopes the Redskins bring him back, according to Redskins.com via Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
This recalls our earlier item about halfbacks in their 30s. Alexander turns 32 in August. NFL teams are employing two running backs older than 31 at present. Both players -- Fred Taylor (33) and Kevin Faulk (32) -- play for the Patriots.
A quick look at the number of NFL halfbacks by current age:
- Older than 33: none
- Age 33: Taylor
- Age 32: Faulk
- Age 31: Ricky Williams, Kenny Watson, Sammy Morris
- Age 30: Edgerrin James, Thomas Jones, Correll Buckhalter, LaMont Jordan, Michael Bennett
Thirteen backs are 29 years old. Four are 28. Ten are 27. Eighteen are 26. Nineteen are 25. Twenty-three are 24. Twenty-three are 23. Eleven are 22. Four are 21.
These numbers count only halfbacks on active 53-man rosters. At least seven fullbacks are in their 30s (some tight ends double as fullbacks, making the number an estimate).
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.
Rob from San Diego writes: Sando, Is Seattle going to re-think their pick of Jim Mora as head coach in 09'? Our DB's are awful and he is responsible for that unit. Granted there are many other holes in the D.... But it seems to me like it might not be best to decision to hand over the team to a coach that is responsible for the 4th worst rated pass D in the NFL (that just got torched by TB!).
Mike Sando: Mora got credit for the secondary showing improvement in 2007. Are we to assume that he has become a bad secondary coach in the last few months, and that he therefore would not be the right head coach?
My analysis of the Mora hiring would include looking at how defenses have performed when he was a coordinator, and how teams have performed when he was the head coach. That is what I did when the Seahawks hired Mora as defensive backs coach in January 2007. Results here.
To answer your question: No, I do not expect Seattle to change its mind on Mora.
JThomas from Ephrata, Wash., writes: Mike, Given Jim Mora jr.'s U of W ties, do you see him backing out of the Seahawk coaching job to become the Huskies' head coach?
Mike Sando: I wouldn't assume Jim Mora wants the University of Washington job more than the NFL job based on offhand remarks Mora made to his college roommate on a radio show two years ago.