NFC West: Kyle Orton

MNF preview: 49ers catching a QB break?

November, 17, 2012
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Jason CampbellMike DiNovo/US PresswireBears backup Jason Campbell's career stats are similar in many ways to starter Jay Cutler's.
The San Francisco 49ers won't have to face Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler on "Monday Night Football" in Week 11.

They'll draw backup Jason Campbell instead.

This would seem to increase the 49ers' chances for victory, but based on what? Cutler has a better won-lost record as a starter. He has greater experience running the Bears' offense. But if you're looking for additional evidence, you won't find it in the traditional or advanced stats used to evaluate quarterbacks over time.

You'll see a couple of quarterbacks who have produced similarly over the past five seasons. Cutler has played more and for better teams. But his NFL passer rating since 2008 is 83.0, compared with 85.1 for Campbell and 84.1 for every other NFL quarterback. Cutler's Total QBR score since 2008 checks in at 56.5 when 50 is about average and 65-plus represents Pro Bowl-caliber play. The figure was 50.9 for Campbell and 52.0 for all others.

The point is that the 49ers might not be catching a big break while Cutler sits out the game after suffering a concussion in a 13-6 home defeat to the Houston Texans in Week 10. The Bears paid a $3.5 million salary for Campbell to be their backup because they figured they could win with him.

"We feel like he is a starting quarterback in the NFL that we have being our backup, and we feel very comfortable with him leading us," Bears coach Lovie Smith told reporters.

NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert and I discussed on a recent Inside Slant podcast how aggressive the Bears should be in re-signing Cutler after the season. I had some general impressions of Cutler but was curious to see how he stacked up against the highest-paid quarterbacks the past few seasons.

Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan all had QBR scores in the 70s among regular starters over that period. Cutler was at 56.5. The figure for Cutler is 50.3 since 2009, compared with 50.5 for former Bears starter Kyle Orton and 47.7 for Campbell. Again, all the top quarterbacks were closer to 65-plus.

Cutler does have a 31-19 starting record with the Bears. That is far better than the 31-39 mark Campbell has posted for his career. But the Bears were 30-20 in the 50-game period before Cutler arrived. Orton, Rex Grossman and Brian Griese were their starting quarterbacks in that span.

Campbell's former team, Washington, was 31-39 in the 70-game span before Campbell posted the same starting record for the Redskins and Oakland Raiders. Tony Banks, Shane Matthews, Patrick Ramsey, Danny Wuerffel, Tim Hasselbeck and Mark Brunell were the starting quarterbacks during that run.

Quarterback play matters a great deal. Teams with the higher QBR scores have won 86 percent of games since 2008. Teams with higher NFL passer ratings have won 79.7 percent of the time over the same period. Those figures outrank even the winning percentages for teams winning the turnover battle (78.5 percent, a figure related to the previous two in that QBs are leading contributors to turnover stats).

The Bears are most dangerous for their defense, however. They rank among the NFL's top five on defense in passer rating, QBR, yards, rushing yards, net yards per pass attempt, interception percentage, third-down conversion rate and points. They were built to win without great quarterback play.

So, if Cutler has been only slightly above average and Campbell plays an average game Monday night, the drop won't be as pronounced as it usually is when a journeyman replaces a big-name quarterback. And if Campbell plays poorly, well, Cutler has done that, too. He has thrown more than three picks in a game four times since 2008, a league high.

Little precedent for Seahawks' Wilson

August, 27, 2012
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Five rookies are scheduled to start at quarterback in Week 1 this season.

The NFL has previously had no more than two rookie starters at QB on opening day since the 1970 merger, ESPN Stats & Information notes.

Seattle's Russell Wilson isn't quite the same as the other rookies scheduled to start in 2012. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden were drafted in the first two rounds. Wilson lasted until the third, presumably because teams were skeptical about his relative lack of height.

Wilson will become only the sixth rookie since the merger to make an opening-day start at quarterback after entering the NFL as a draft choice taken in the third round or later. That note comes from Elias Sports Bureau. Wilson stands out from that list as well in that he won the job outright, unlike most of the others.

A quick look at Wilson and the other rookie quarterbacks since 1970 to start in Week 1 as third-round-and-later picks:
  • 2012 Seahawks: The team appeared most likely to start free-agent addition Matt Flynn, but Wilson kept exceeding expectations. Their competition was close most of the way, particularly when viewed through the filter that tends to suppress expectations for rookie quarterbacks. The way Wilson performed in the preseason, especially against Kansas City, validated what the Seahawks were seeing behind the scenes. At that point, Wilson won the job decisively.
  • 2005 Chicago Bears: Fourth-rounder Kyle Orton became the starter by default after Rex Grossman suffered a broken ankle and backup Chad Hutchinson failed to impress. The Bears, with a defense that allowed an NFL-low 12.6 points per game, went 10-5 in games Orton started. Thomas Jones carried 314 times for 1,335 yards. Orton tossed nine scoring passes with 13 interceptions, completing 51.6 percent of his passes. The Bears attempted the third-fewest passes in the NFL that season.
  • 2001 Carolina Panthers: Fourth-rounder Chris Weinke became the starter after Jeff Lewis struggled during the preseason. This would be George Seifert's final season as an NFL head coach. Matt Lytle and Dameyune Craig were the other quarterbacks on the roster. Carolina ranked fourth in pass attempts that season. Weinke had 11 touchdowns and 19 interceptions while going 1-14 as the starter. Jim Harbaugh was on the roster that season, but did not play.
  • 1982 Baltimore Colts: First-round pick Art Schlichter's out-of-control gambling had to play a role in another rookie, Mike Pagel, emerging as the starter that year. The Colts went 0-8-1 during that strike-shortened season, all with Pagel as the starter. Pagel went 7-8 as a starter the following season.
  • 1977 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Eighth-round choice Randy Hedberg opened the expansion Bucs' second season as the starter. Gary Huff and Jeb Blount also started that season. Tampa Bay went 2-12, then used the 17th pick of the 1978 draft for Doug Williams.
  • 1973 Buffalo Bills: Joe Ferguson started as a rookie and held the job for 12 consecutive seasons. He won four of his first six starts and went 26-16 as a starter over his first three seasons. Ferguson beat out incumbent Dennis Shaw for the job. The Bills leaned heavily on a ground game featuring O.J. Simpson and future Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure.

The chart breaks out Wilson and the five others for a quick look at their combined 20-36-1 record as rookie starters

Last QB standing from 2005 NFL draft

January, 17, 2012
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One quarterback from the 2005 NFL draft class remains in the playoffs this season.

See if you can find him in the chart. A hint: Alex Smith is his name.

Bringing pressure? Some QBs simply shrug

November, 29, 2011
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The best NFL quarterbacks are good against standard and added pressure alike.

Aaron Rodgers comes to mind. The Green Bay Packers' quarterback leads the NFL in Total QBR when opponents send four or fewer pass-rushers, and also when they send five or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Alex Smith's stronger production against five or more pass-rushers has stood out all season.
  • Smith vs. four or fewer rushers: six touchdowns, four interceptions and 16 sacks in 222 dropbacks, with a 47.7 QBR (50 is average) and an 84.7 NFL passer rating.
  • Smith vs. five or more: seven touchdowns, one interception and 14 sacks in 106 dropbacks, with a 57.2 QBR and 105.9 NFL rating.

Multiple factors can produce such a disparity. A quick-thinking quarterback armed with a strong game plan and a solid protection scheme can have an advantage against added pressure. Quarterbacks working behind weaker offensive lines could suffer against standard pressure if opponents got to them without sacrificing coverage. Having additional players in coverage affords defenses with additional combinations in coverage, another consideration.

The chart immediately below ranks quarterbacks by the largest QBR disparity when facing five or more pass-rushers vs. four or fewer. Smith and Arizona's Kevin Kolb are among 11 quarterbacks with higher QBR scores against five or more rushers. They have done better against pressure, in theory. Ranking higher on the list isn't necessarily desirable; like Rodgers, a top quarterback should produce in both areas.

Fifty is an average score, with 100 as the limit.

QBR differential is an imperfect measure because point differentials nearer the margins (zero and 100) carry more significance than they do nearer the middle of the range. But the disparities are still helpful in showing how quarterbacks perform, in general, across these situations.

Rex Grossman, who heads the first chart, completed 9 of 12 passes for 117 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions and one sack when the Seahawks sent five or more rushers against him Sunday. He completed 17 of 23 passes for 197 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions and no sacks against standard pressure.

The final chart shows the 22 qualifying quarterbacks with better QBR numbers when facing four or fewer pass-rushers, again ranked by percentage difference.

Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson and St. Louis' Sam Bradford show up on this list. There is Rodgers, down at the bottom, nearly equally strong in each situation.

Kyle Orton? NFC West remembers that guy

November, 22, 2011
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Three NFC West teams went into the most recent NFL offseason with unsettled quarterback situations.

Among the potential options: acquiring veteran Kyle Orton from the Denver Broncos. It never happened, but Orton's viability is worth revisiting now that the Broncos are releasing him.

A few considerations:
  • Orton would be subject to waivers, meaning teams with poorer records would have priority in claiming him.
  • Any team receiving Orton on a waiver claim would inherit his contract, which has $2.5 million in salary remaining for this season.
  • Kansas City, Houston, Chicago, Indianapolis and Washington have immediate needs for starting quarterbacks.
  • Orton will want to play for a team with a shot at the playoffs. He cannot control where he goes via a waiver claim, but any team acquiring him will have to gauge Orton's receptiveness to the situation.
  • The Arizona Cardinals have committed to Kevin Kolb, but they have little invested in a backup. John Skelton is coming off a tough game. Orton would be affordable within the Cardinals' salary structure. He would upgrade depth, but could also threaten to undermine Kolb, a risk the team might not be willing to take.
  • The St. Louis Rams are committed to Sam Bradford, but they probably would have parted with backup A.J. Feeley had the lockout not wiped out the offseason. Feeley fit with former Rams coordinator Pat Shurmur. Orton and current Rams coordinator Josh McDaniels were together in Denver, so Orton would know the offense.
  • The Seattle Seahawks have pretty much given up on Charlie Whitehurst. It's unlikely Whitehurst will return in 2012. Why not accelerate the process by adding Orton to the mix for the remainder of the season? Seattle figures to draft a quarterback, with Tarvaris Jackson returning in some capacity. There might not be a spot for Orton, but Seattle's personnel department hasn't been afraid to churn the roster.
  • The San Francisco 49ers are pleased with Alex Smith, obviously, but they could use veteran depth at the position. Orton would provide that depth. But with a 9-1 record, the 49ers would not succeed on a waiver claim unless Green Bay were the only other team submitting one.

I doubt Orton will land in the NFC West. Teams already had a chance to pursue him, and did not. Orton would add valuable depth for every team in the division, however.

Final Word: NFC West

September, 23, 2011
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 3:

Larry Fitzgerald road show resumes. The Arizona Cardinals' Pro Bowl receiver caught a combined 23 passes for 251 yards in road games against Seattle over the 2008 and 2009 seasons. His production at the former Qwest Field dropped to three catches and 30 yards without a viable quarterback last season, but Kevin Kolb's addition puts Fitzgerald in position to pick up where he left off two years ago. The key variable this time is whether the Seahawks' improved size in the secondary can help them better combat Fitzgerald. Cornerback Brandon Browner, all 6-foot-4 of him, needs to fare better against Fitzgerald than he did against Pittsburgh's speedier Mike Wallace.

[+] EnlargeFrank Gore
Jason O. Watson/US Presswire49ers running back Frank Gore hopes to get on track this Sunday against the Bengals.
Frank Gore search party targeting Ohio. If tight end Vernon Davis was not happy with his production in the San Francisco 49ers' first two games, imagine what running back Frank Gore must be thinking. Gore hasn't disappeared from the 49ers' offense, but he's not getting the usual results. Gore has now gone five consecutive games without reaching 100 yards rushing, tying his longest streak since 2007. He has failed to exceed 2.68 yards per carry in consecutive games for the first time. He has failed to exceed that average three times in his past four games, another career first. The Bengals are allowing 3.5 yards per carry.

Sam Bradford's red zone adventure. The Denver Broncos scored touchdowns on 10 of their final 11 red zone possessions under Josh McDaniels last season. The Rams have one TD in five red zone trips with McDaniels as their offensive coordinator in 2011, good for a No. 31 ranking in red zone TD percentage. Quarterback Sam Bradford is tied with McDaniels' former quarterback in Denver, Kyle Orton, for the most goal-to-go pass attempts without a completion this season. Both have four, one more than the 49ers' Alex Smith. The Rams' Week 3 opponent, Baltimore, allowed touchdowns twice in two red zone opportunities against Tennessee last week. Getting running back Steven Jackson back would help keep defenses a little more honest around the goal line, most likely.

2009 NFL draft class blues. Aaron Curry's demotion from the Seahawks' starting lineup brought renewed scrutiny upon what is shaping up as a mostly forgettable draft class. Jason Smith (Rams), Michael Crabtree (49ers) and Beanie Wells (Cardinals) rounded out a so-far-disappointing first-round group for the NFC West. The 49ers' opponent this week, Cincinnati, fared no better by taking tackle Andre Smith with the sixth overall choice. The Rams' opponent, Baltimore, found a starting tackle in Michael Oher, but overall, this will be an underwhelming 2009 first-round class on display in NFC West games.

Seeking that Kendricks connection. Bradford's rapport with rookie tight end Lance Kendricks produced immediate positive results for the Rams through training camp and the preseason. Kendricks caught an 18-yard pass in the opener and a 26-yarder in Week 2, but he hasn't emerged as the consistent go-to target the Rams were envisioning. Bradford has targeted Kendricks only twice on third down, compared to six times for Greg Salas, four for Brandon Gibson and three for Danario Alexander. Kendricks hasn't helped his cause, dropping what could have been a touchdown grab against Philadelphia. But he's too good to be a one-catch-per-game player, particularly with Danny Amendola sidelined by injury. The Ravens have allowed six receptions for 80 yards to tight ends through two games.
The late Don Smith never claimed his passer-rating formula was perfect.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Al Bello/Getty ImagesAccording to an outline for the rating system, Tom Brady would fall in the "top tier" category.
"Some people call it a quarterback rating system, but that really is not what it is," Smith told me during a 2002 interview. "It’s simply a passing statistic."

I've actually defended Smith's rating system because the quarterbacks with the highest ratings -- Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers led the way last season -- usually are the best quarterbacks. But there's so much more to quarterbacking than passing stats for touchdowns, interceptions, attempts, completions and yardage.

Game situations should count for something, and now they do.

With input from football people, including ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, our statistical analysts have developed a 100-point ratings scale for quarterbacks taking into account advanced stats, game situations and relevant non-passing stats, including fumbles and sacks, to evaluate quarterbacks far more thoroughly. The methodology is complex -- one of the formula's key algorithms spans some 10,000 lines -- but the resulting "Total Quarterback Rating" (QBR for short) beats the old passer rating in every conceivable fashion. The ratings scale will debut this season.

I've been bugging the Stats & Information team for a sneak peak ever since learning former NBA statistical analyst Dean Oliver had joined our production analytics unit and was playing a prominent role in QBR development. Oliver, a Caltech grad with a Ph.D. in statistical applications, revolutionized how NBA teams use advanced statistics. Menlo College professor Ben Alamar, who has consulted with the San Francisco 49ers, is also part of the team.

Our stats team has been using game video to track stats relating to pressure, personnel, formation, game situation and more since 2008. The QBR stat represents a significant leap in harnessing those statistics for something more.

The old formula Smith created treated stats the same regardless of circumstance. A touchdown pass thrown against a prevent defense during a blowout defeat equals one thrown against pressure to win the game. A 5-yard completion on third-and-4 counts the same as a 5-yarder on third-and-15. A critical quarterback scramble, sack or fumble doesn't even factor.

"There is no way to statistically say how effective a guy is under fire," Smith lamented during our 2002 conversation. "None of that can be put into something like this."

Now it can, along with a whole lot more.

The QBR formula takes into account down, distance, field position, time remaining, rushing, passing sacks, fumbles, interceptions, how far each pass travels in the air, from where on the field the ball was thrown, yards after the catch, dropped balls, defensed balls, whether the quarterback was hit, whether he threw away the ball to avoid a sack, whether the pass was thrown accurately, etc. Each play carries "clutch weight" based on its importance to game outcome, as determined by analyzing those 60,000 plays since 2008. The stats adjust for quarterbacks facing an unusually high number of these situations.

"If it is a running clock late in the game, maybe you only get a few yards here or there, that is the right football play to make," Jeff Bennett, senior director of ESPN's production analytics team, said Sunday. "We spent a month learning about ratings to make sure quarterbacks couldn’t game the system, so they're not afraid to throw that deep pass at the end of the first half and risk an interception."

I've seen an outline for the rating system breaking down 2010 quarterbacks into six general categories, from top tier to poor. Precise rating numbers were not yet available. The quarterbacks under consideration broke down as follows:
ESPN plans to enlist several quarterbacks when introducing the stat during an hour-long "SportsCenter" special Friday at 8 p.m. ET. We'll be referencing the stat on the blogs and elsewhere. Bennett said he's allocating enough manpower to produce ratings on game days, a huge help for those of us analyzing player performances shortly after games.

"We want to reward a good football play," Bennett said.
Anthony Becht closed out his 10-year NFL career with the St. Louis Rams (2008) and Arizona Cardinals (2009). He knows the NFC West.

Count the veteran tight end among former Arizona employees taking shots at the team's approach.

The Twitter account for Becht described the Cardinals as "sweating" and the Philadelphia Eagles as "in control" during trade talks for quarterback Kevin Kolb. There was praise for other teams as "proactive" in their quarterback searches after having months to formulate plans. There were harsh words for what was characterized as an unwillingness to pay for Marc Bulger last offseason (Becht and Bulger were teammates with the Rams).

Former players sometimes carry grudges. That could be the case here. Arizona cut Becht before last season. But these criticisms against the Cardinals have become familiar. The organization earned a negative reputation over the decades and hasn't fully shaken it despite clear progress in recent seasons.

Rather than rehash the merits of those criticisms in general, I'd like to consider the Cardinals' approach to Kolb in particular. My take Tuesday night was that Arizona should take its time in courting Kolb because the Eagles appeared to have few, if any, additional suitors for him. I thought Arizona would be wise to consider pursuing Kyle Orton and free-agent quarterbacks such as Matt Hasselbeck, if only to drive down the price for Kolb.

But Becht brings up good points, too: Getting the right quarterback is ultimately the most important thing, and if the Cardinals lose out, then what? Hasselbeck has already agreed to terms with Tennessee. The price for Orton could be higher than the Cardinals want to pay.

For now, we do not know for sure what Arizona is offering for Kolb. We only know the Cardinals need another quarterback, the Eagles need to trade Kolb or risk getting nothing for him next year, other teams are addressing the position and market forces could influence the price Kolb ultimately commands.

The Cardinals should not rush into a costly deal with Kolb as long as other options remain available to them. There's a right time to act and I'm not convinced that time has passed. But if the Cardinals wait too long and miss out on a viable quarterback, Becht and other critics will have an even easier time saying the team lacked a plan all along.

Note: I've reached out to Becht and hope to follow up with him. I've also confirmed his Twitter identity through 1040 AM ESPN Tampa Bay, which has employed him recently.
A few thoughts while wrapping up a frenetic but ultimately unsatisfying first day to the NFL free-agent negotiating period:
  • ESPN's Adam Schefter caught my attention Tuesday night with a tweet regarding Minnesota Vikings receiver Sidney Rice and San Francisco 49ers safety Dashon Goldson. According to Schefter, Seattle and Minnesota are targeting Rice, while Oakland and San Francisco go after Goldson. There weren't many bidding wars on Tuesday, leading me to believe some of these situations could play out a little longer. Players cannot take free-agent visits until the signing period opens Friday, making it tougher for teams to know what opportunities actually exist for players. In the past, a player emerging from a visit without a contract would lose leverage. In the current climate, top agents such as Drew Rosenhaus, who represents Rice and Goldson, can negotiate without the usual checks and balances. It's high-stakes poker.
  • Seattle's interest in Rice comes as no surprise. The team chased receiver Brandon Marshall in trade talks last offseason. Vincent Jackson was another big-name receiver under consideration. Rice would fit especially well in the Seahawks' offense now that former Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is installing Seattle's passing game. Seattle also has ample salary-cap space to land Rice. Bevell's familiarity with Rice could help ease concerns over the hip problems that have bothered Rice in recent seasons.
  • The 49ers want to bring back Goldson, but at what price? Goldson wasn't what was wrong with the 49ers' pass defense last season. Neither did he break through with a Pro Bowl-caliber season, as the 49ers had hoped. Still, San Francisco needs to keep together some of its defensive core. The 49ers could lose nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin. Linebacker Takeo Spikes agreed to terms with San Diego. Nate Clements' contract could precipitate his release. Keeping Goldson would help.
  • The Arizona Cardinals appear in strong position as they consider options at quarterback. The way they sat back and projected patience Tuesday is looking like a smart approach. I can't think of another team likely to trade for Philadelphia's Kevin Kolb. The Cardinals should be in no rush. Teams cannot sign players or visit with free agents from other teams until Friday. Kolb could not practice with them until Aug. 4 if Arizona acquired him and signed him to a new contract. Even if Kolb is the Cardinals' top choice, the team might be wise to play up interest in other candidates. Why not seek permission to meet with Kyle Orton? Why not bring in Matt Hasselbeck? There's no reason for Arizona to overpay for Kolb unless another team emerges as a serious suitor.
  • New York Giants defensive tackle Barry Cofield and Raiders guard Robert Gallery were free agents to watch in the NFC West as the negotiating period opened. It's looking like we can remove Cofield from consideration for the St. Louis Rams after he reached agreement with the Washington Redskins, according to a report by Schefter. Cofield's ties to St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo made him a natural fit for the Rams. Losing him to former Rams coach Jim Haslett won't sit well with fans who hoped Cofield would land in St. Louis. Gallery's ties to Seahawks assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable still make him a natural fit in Seattle. The team needs a starting left guard.
  • Back in Seattle, meanwhile, the Seahawks are trying to re-sign defensive tackle Brandon Mebane. The money Cofield commands could help shape the market for Mebane and other defensive tackles. Removing Cofield from the market also leaves one fewer defensive tackle available for teams to sign.

Enjoy the rest of your Tuesday night. Wait, it's Wednesday already in the Eastern time zone. Must be free agency.
The Arizona Cardinals were prepared to "make a move quickly" for Kevin Kolb or another quarterback once the lockout ended.

That might not be necessary.

"I would be surprised if something happened today," Whisenhunt told reporters Tuesday after the trading period opened without fanfare.

The Cardinals can afford to wait if they're confident in their ability to land Kolb or if they're comfortable with options in free agency. They've spoken to the Philadelphia Eagles about Kolb and to the Denver Broncos about Kyle Orton, while also reaching out to Matt Hasselbeck and Marc Bulger, according to Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic.

How strong is the market for Kolb outside Arizona? A little time and a few phone calls could provide answers. Playing the field gives Arizona options and leverage.

Also, if the Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles have already agreed to something in principle for Kolb, rushing into a formal trade could fuel tampering perceptions.

Contract considerations also come into play on trades for quarterbacks.

So far, teams have appeared more focused on subtracting players than on adding them. Along those lines, Arizona plans to release linebacker Gerald Hayes and quarterback Derek Anderson, players made vulnerable by high salaries and diminished roles.

NFC West free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC West team:

Arizona Cardinals

1. Sign or acquire a quarterback: You've heard all the potential names by now. Kevin Kolb, Kyle Orton, Carson Palmer, Marc Bulger and Matt Hasselbeck all could be available. The same goes for Donovan McNabb, but the Cardinals aren't interested in him. How much interest they have in the others remains less clear. They liked Bulger as an option last offseason, but the timing wasn't right. Kolb reportedly stands atop their wish list now, although price is a consideration. One way or another, the Cardinals will go into the 2011 season with fresh veteran blood at the position.

2. Firm up the offensive line: Left guard Alan Faneca retired. Center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui have expiring contracts. Brandon Keith showed promise at right tackle, but he's coming off knee surgery. A better quarterback would help take pressure off the line, but Arizona isn't going to find another Kurt Warner. The team has loaded up at running back, adding second-round choice Ryan Williams to an already crowded backfield. The Cardinals need to re-sign Sendlein. Letting Lutui depart would put them in the market for veteran help. I've looked through the free-agent lists for guards already familiar to the Cardinals. Pittsburgh's Trai Essex, a starter in 21 games over the past two seasons, played for Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm with the Steelers.

3. Work toward a deal with Larry Fitzgerald: Ideally, the Cardinals would have landed their next quarterback in March, then spent the offseason working toward extending Fitzgerald's contract beyond the 2011 season. Fitzgerald is an NFL rarity. He's in line to sign three massive contracts during the course of his career. He signed the first one as the third player chosen in the 2004 draft. That deal ultimately became untenable for the Cardinals, giving Fitzgerald the leverage to get $40 million over four seasons, plus assurances Arizona would not name him its franchise player once the deal ended. Fitzgerald, still only 27, will cash in at least one more time.

Top five free agents: Sendlein, Lutui, receiver Steve Breaston, defensive lineman Alan Branch, defensive lineman Gabe Watson.

St. Louis Rams

1. Upgrade the run defense: The Rams could use another defensive tackle to take their promising defensive front to another level. Adding Fred Robbins in free agency last offseason was a good start. Barry Cofield (New York Giants) and Brandon Mebane (Seattle Seahawks) are scheduled to become free agents this offseason. Cofield played for Steve Spagnuolo and would transition to the Rams' system easily. The Rams could use an in-the-box safety, something they addressed later in the draft. They need to find one and possibly two starting outside linebackers. Chase Blackburn projects more as a backup, but he was also with Spagnuolo on the Giants. Blackburn has played all three linebacker positions. Minnesota's Ben Leber would make sense as well. Paul Ferraro, the Rams' linebackers coach, was with the Vikings previously.

2. Help out Steven Jackson: Adding a third-down back such as Darren Sproles would lighten the load for Jackson, who has played through several injuries in recent seasons. Jackson has 654 rushing attempts over the past two seasons despite missing one game and playing for a team that has often trailed its opponents. Only Chris Johnson (674) has more carries during that span. Sproles isn't the only viable potential option. Jason Snelling, DeAngelo Williams and Reggie Bush also could become available. Upgrading at right guard would also help out Jackson.

3. Figure out the situation at receiver. It's questionable whether the Rams will find any clear upgrades at receiver in free agency. That could lead them to stand pat at the position. They have quantity, but not enough high-end quality. Adding more quantity wouldn't solve much. Plaxico Burress gets mentioned as an option for his ties to Spagnuolo, but he's been out of the game and might not offer much. The Rams thought about claiming Randy Moss off waivers last season. Moss could make more sense for the Rams now that Josh McDaniels is offensive coordinator. He worked well with Moss in New England. Sidney Rice could also have appeal.

Top five free agents: receiver Mark Clayton, guard Adam Goldberg, defensive tackle Clifton Ryan and tight end Daniel Fells.

Seattle Seahawks

1. Sign or acquire a quarterback: Bringing back Hasselbeck remains an option. The team expressed interest in Kolb last offseason. The team could also add a lower-profile veteran to the mix -- perhaps a Matt Leinart type -- for an open competition with Charlie Whitehurst. That would not excite Seattle fans, of course. Getting a young quarterback to build around would be ideal, but the Seahawks are adamant they will not force the situation in the absence of viable options. They weren't going to do it in the draft, when they passed over Andy Dalton for tackle James Carpenter. They probably aren't going to do it in free agency, either.

2. Solidify the offensive line: Tom Cable's addition as assistant head coach/offensive line puts the Seahawks in position to court Oakland Raiders guard Robert Gallery in free agency. Gallery has said he's not returning to the Raiders. Seattle has drafted its starting tackles, starting center and starting right guard in the past few seasons. Max Unger and Russell Okung need better luck with injuries. Okung would also benefit from an experienced presence next to him at left guard. Gallery qualifies as such and he would fit the zone system Cable wants to run. Green Bay's Daryn Colledge could be available, too. He has ties to Seahawks general manager John Schneider. Former Seattle starters Chris Spencer, Sean Locklear, Chester Pitts and Ray Willis might not return.

3. Plug holes on defense. Mebane appears headed for free agency. The Seahawks want him back, but how badly? Mebane could fit better in a purer 4-3 defense. He also might command more money elsewhere. Injuries along the defensive front could also affect the Seahawks' needs. Red Bryant is coming off season-ending knee surgery. Injuries affected Colin Cole and Chris Clemons last season as well. Cornerback is another area to monitor once free agency opens. Does Marcus Trufant still fit at his relatively high price? The Cincinnati Bengals' Johnathan Joseph and other free-agent corners could appeal.

Top five free agents: Hasselbeck, Mebane, Locklear, linebacker Will Herring, defensive end Raheem Brock.

San Francisco 49ers

1. Re-sign Alex Smith: Smith and the 49ers renewed their vows informally this offseason. The official ceremony should come when free agency opens and Smith signs with the team. Smith's name continues to show up on free-agent lists in the interim, but there's no chance he'll sign elsewhere. He's given his word to the 49ers. The team, in turn, has entrusted him with its playbook. Smith even took the lead in teaching what he knew of the offense to teammates. Re-signing Smith takes pressure off rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick. With a new coaching staff, a young prospect in Kaepernick and no access to players during a lockout, this wasn't the year for San Francisco to make a bold play for a veteran passer from another team.

2. Make a decision on Aubrayo Franklin. The 49ers' plans on defense remain a bit mysterious. Coordinator Vic Fangio did not distribute playbooks to players. The team's needs could change based on whether Franklin, a solid nose tackle, leaves in free agency. Franklin's status as a franchise player last season raised the stakes for a new contract. What does Fangio think of him? What specifically does Fangio want from his defensive linemen? How much will Fangio change to suit the 49ers' personnel? How much new personnel might he want? General manager Trent Baalke said the 49ers will not be aggressive in free agency. The team has shown restraint on that front in recent seasons. Losing Franklin would hurt.

3. Figure out the secondary: The pass defense was problematic last season. Personnel changes in the secondary are on the way. Veteran cornerback Nate Clements stands to earn more than $7 million in base salary in 2011. That price appears prohibitive. The team could release Clements or find a way to keep him at a lower rate. Free safety Dashon Goldson does not have a contract for 2011. How much is he worth? Baltimore's Chris Carr is one free-agent cornerback with ties to the 49ers' staff. He and Fangio were together in Baltimore.

Top five free agents: Smith, Franklin, outside linebacker Manny Lawson, center David Baas, linebacker Takeo Spikes.

Cardinals back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
2:00
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: It's tough going this deep into an offseason without a starting quarterback. Any veteran the team acquires through trade or free agency will have relatively little time to learn the offense and adjust to his teammates. The Cardinals were so shaky at the position last season, however, that any significant upgrade behind center will energize the team. Moving quickly to land a quarterback will improve the Cardinals' readiness. But with key offensive linemen unsigned and a new defensive coordinator in place, the Cardinals face difficulties.

Biggest challenge: Ray Horton, the new defensive coordinator, will have relatively little time to establish the aggressive mentality he promised to instill when the Cardinals hired him. He'll also have an abbreviated window to install schematic changes and get players accustomed to his approach. Horton is the Cardinals' third defensive coordinator in four seasons, so continuity is an issue. Horton was already going to face challenges as a first-time coordinator. The lockout magnifies those challenges.

Who will Arizona target at quarterback? Reports strongly suggest Arizona will pursue Philadelphia's Kevin Kolb right away when the signing period opens. Speculation suggests a deal for Kolb was already in the works. What if it's not that simple? If the Eagles want too much in return and if acquiring another veteran such as Denver's Kyle Orton isn't a realistic option, then what? The Cardinals' prospects in 2011 rest on the team's ability to upgrade the position. Extending Larry Fitzgerald's contract will also be tougher without a viable quarterback.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Guard Deuce Lutui, defensive lineman Alan Branch, defensive lineman Gabe Watson, receiver Steve Breaston, center Lyle Sendlein.
Jesse Reynolds, an Arizona Cardinals fan deadlocked in a debate over quarterbacks, turned this way for a resolution.

"I have searched everywhere but haven't been able to find the data that supports (or contradicts) my argument that the Cardinals were one of the most-blitzed teams last year because no one feared our quarterbacks," Jesse wrote to me via Facebook. "Could you help find the numbers? I'm sure other NFC West teams' fans would love to know their numbers, too."

Blitz numbers usually tell us which defenses were more aggressive. But if we flipped our perspective, as Jesse suggested, we could find out which quarterbacks commanded the most respect, at least by this measure. Where to turn? Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats & Information put me in touch with colleague Jason Starrett, who came through with numbers for all 32 teams and for 40 individual quarterbacks.

Thanks to Jason, Jesse is going to win his argument by a knockout.

Opponents blitzed the Cardnials 37.2 percent of the time overall, the sixth-highest percentage in the league. Oakland (39.8), St. Louis (39.4), Chicago (38.4), Carolina (37.5) and Baltimore (37.5) faced blitzes more frequently.

We defined blitzes as plays when defenses rushed five or more defenders.

As the first chart shows, Max Hall, John Skelton, Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford -- all rookies playing for losing teams season -- faced blitzes most frequently.

As the second chart shows, five highly experienced quarterbacks -- Peyton Manning, Jake Delhomme, Drew Brees, Matt Hasselbeck and Tom Brady -- faced blitzes least frequently.

Hall and Skelton combined to start seven games for Arizona. Teammate Derek Anderson ranked 17th among the 40 players listed in terms of being blitzed most frequently.

In looking at the charts, a few names showed up in surprising places.

The San Francisco 49ers' Smith ranked higher than expected on the list of quarterbacks facing blitzes less frequently. Was he really "commanding respect" the way Brady commanded respect? Of course not. Does he really qualify as a wily veteran such as Delhomme or Hasselbeck? The answer is "no" on that front as well.

Likewise, quarterbacks such as Hill and Henne wouldn't provide a strong deterrent to blitzing, would they? Why would Green Bay's Rodgers face blitzes more frequently than them?

Other variables come into play. Some teams blitz more frequently than others regardless of opponent. A quarterback facing these teams more frequently would see his numbers shift accordingly.

How well an offensive line picks up blitzes could influence how a defense attacks. How well receivers adjust to blitzes could matter, as could the confidence a defensive coordinator has in his secondary during a given week. A quarterback's running ability and ability to read defenses accurately could factor.

Overall, I'd say it's telling to see the Cardinals' Hall and Skelton blitzed so frequently, particularly relative to the numbers for the more experienced Anderson. It's also telling to see some highly experienced quarterbacks blitzed so infrequently by comparison.
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch caught up with Rams running back Steven Jackson, no small feat during the offseason. Burwell: "Over the past three years alone, he has been to about a dozen foreign countries, swam with blood-thirsty sharks, zip-lined through the tree tops of tropical rain forests against howler and Capuchin monkeys, sat in the stands in South Africa cheering at the World Cup, walked through the catacombs of the Roman Colosseum, co-produced award-nominated documentaries, studied the architecture of Europe's great cities and gotten an up-close-and-personal glance at Mona Lisa's smiling face. So, when I ask him how he spent this summer's vacation, Jackson is eager to retell this year's odyssey." Jackson says he did not attend player-organized practices this offseason in part because he's better served learning from coaches on the field than by studying a playbook on his own. Also, Jackson said he was concerned about injuries.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams have so far weathered the lockout well from a business standpoint, according to team executive Kevin Demoff. Miklasz: "The Rams have season-ticket renewal rate of 94 percent -- assuming that fans follow through on their deposits, which is a fairly safe bet. According to Demoff, this will be the Rams' highest season-ticket renewal rate in more than a decade. The Rams already have sold 4,000 new season tickets, which doubles what they sold in new season tickets a year ago. And the Rams figure to get another boost from the end of the lockout and the start of camp."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com sizes up the Cardinals' situation at quarterback heading toward free agency. Urban: "Speculation has made Kevin Kolb, the Eagles’ backup to Michael Vick and a free-agent-to-be after the 2011 season, the name to watch once teams can begin to make moves. The price the Eagles demand for Kolb figures to be a factor. His potential is just that -- potential -- and no sure thing. Does Kyle Orton make more sense? Or, given the fact both Orton and Kolb are scheduled to become free agents after 2011, maybe the Cards wait and pick up a free agent this year. After the position as a whole underperformed last season, any added veteran projects to an upgrade."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com checks in from Jacob Green's annual charity golf tournament in the Seattle area, noting that the retired pass-rusher has raised millions to fight cancer. Farnsworth: "Green [led] the Seahawks in sacks nine times -- including 1983, when he had a career-best 16; and the four-season stretch from 1983-86 when he produced 54.5. He was inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor in 1995, selected to the Seattle Post Intelligencer’s 25th Anniversary team in 2000 and voted the Seahawks’ 35th Anniversary team last year."

Also from Farnsworth: The Seahawks' facility got high marks from Manchester United players visiting over the weekend.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee passes along a story from an HBO show reflecting early signs of the competitiveness that typifies 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. Barrows: "Jim Harbaugh once beaned a little girl square in the back with a fastball. He was only nine years old at the time, but that didn't seem to make a difference to the horrified parents watching from the stands."

Also from Barrows: 49ers fullback Bruce Miller is hanging out with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Barrows: "Kaepernick said he trained with Miller before the combine in February. Back then Miller thought he would play defensive end, his position at Central Florida, at the NFL level or perhaps try his hand at outside linebacker. The 49ers, however, view Miller to as a fullback, and Kaepernick has been impressed with what he's seen from him at that position so far."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says 49ers snapper Brian Jennings has been teaching his craft to youngsters this offseason, including during a camp Saturday. Branch: "Jennings hosted a long-snapping camp at San Jose State on Saturday for 20 high-school-aged hopefuls and has plans to develop an online long-snapping school. The six-hour camp was filmed and Jennings will use the footage as content for his online school, which will feature drills and coaching tips. Jennings is passionate about providing an affordable way to teach others across the nation the finer points of his craft."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com asks whether the lockout will lead to more false-start penalties as the 49ers break in a new offensive scheme.

Also from Maiocco: He offers thoughts on the comments 49ers general manager Trent Baalke recently made to San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami. Maiocco: "Outside linebacker Manny Lawson and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin will get some free-agent attention around the league. The 49ers drafted Lawson's replacement, Aldon Smith, with the No. 7 overall pick. And the 49ers have contingency plans to place a priority on re-signing defensive end Ray McDonald, starting him at left defensive end, and shifting Isaac Sopoaga to nose tackle to replace Franklin."

Hasselbeck, Kolb and QB prospects

July, 12, 2011
7/12/11
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Highlights and interpretations from Tim Hasselbeck's appearance Tuesday with Brock Huard and Mike Salk on 710ESPN Seattle:

  • This discussion focused on Matt Hasselbeck's future with the Seattle Seahawks or elsewhere, with a long look at Kevin Kolb's prospects as a franchise quarterback. Tim Hasselbeck endorsed Kolb as a prospect more likely to become a "very good starter" than to fail. He had no doubt an NFL team could win with Kolb. But he also thought Arizona, not Seattle, would be more likely to invest heavily in Kolb as the future of its franchise. I tend to agree. There's less urgency in Seattle for several reasons, including the fact that coach Pete Carroll is entering only his second season. The team is rebuilding.
  • [+] EnlargeMatt Hasselbeck
    Otto Greule Jr./Getty ImagesQuarterback Matt Hasselbeck's future with the Seahawks remains up in the air.
  • Salk has said it's tough to know whether the Seahawks value Kolb highly enough to part with a first-round draft choice (or more) in a trade. That type of commitment would also require rewarding Kolb with a lucrative long-term deal. If Seattle did view Kolb as that type of player, I suspect the team's conversations with Philadelphia would have gained more momentum last offseason.
  • This was a fairly dispassionate conversation until Charlie Whitehurst's name came up. "Guys don't have press conferences unless they are expected to be the starter," Tim Hasselbeck said. Press conferences? What was this about? Tim Hasselbeck pointed to the long-forgotten (by most of us) news conference Seattle held announcing Whitehurst's acquisition as evidence the team would not invest heavily in another quarterback, Kolb in particular. Seattle played the news conference more as a means to prove all jobs were open to competition, but it naturally felt more personal to the Hasselbeck camp. I don't get the sense the Seahawks' commitment to Whitehurst is great enough to preclude them from seeking an upgrade. The team did not bet its future on Whitehurst. I'm also not convinced Seattle sees clear upgrades available.
  • While Tim Hasselbeck had generally positive things to say about Kolb, he discounted Carson Palmer's level of play and bristled at the idea Seattle would offer Matt Hasselbeck anywhere close to the one-year, $5 million deal Alex Smith is expected to sign with San Francisco. I get it. Matt Hasselbeck is far more accomplished than Smith. He's been to three Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl. Smith has better stats and a better starting record over the past two seasons, however. Hasselbeck should get more -- he was outstanding during the playoffs last season -- but he hasn't been challenging for Pro Bowls recently, either.
  • Tim Hasselbeck expressed respect for Kyle Orton while questioning whether Orton would fit well with the offensive scheme Seattle will run under new coordinator Darrell Bevell. Tim Hasselbeck also acknowledged that Matt Hasselbeck would have to learn new terminology if he signed with Tennessee, a team with interest in a veteran bridge to rookie Jake Locker. I don't think the Titans will offer substantially more than Seattle ultimately offers Hasselbeck.
  • Matt Hasselbeck has said he wants to re-sign with Seattle. Tim Hasselbeck affirmed that thinking. Matt Hasselbeck has reportedly sought a deal offering security beyond one season. I doubt he could get such a deal from Tennessee given Locker's presence. Minnesota likely wouldn't offer longer-term security with Christian Ponder in the picture. What is the market for Hasselbeck outside Seattle?

Expectations for a new labor deal include the potential for a three-day window during which teams could try to sign their own free agents. Such a window could prove critical in making sure there's time to let cooler heads prevail should negotiations become emotional.

I have a hard time envisioning Hasselbeck relocating his family at this stage of his career as long as the Seahawks make an honest offer while treating Hasselbeck with the respect he has earned over the past decade.

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