NFC West: Mailbag
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
"In the age of instant analysis and gratification, seemingly everyone thinks the 49ers should cut A.J. Jenkins," Brad writes to the NFC West mailbag. "While I admit the situation is far from ideal given his lack of production, it seems to me that people need to take a deep breath and just let the guy develop."
Wait, you mean 35 regular-season snaps and 16 regular-season pass routes aren't enough to fully analyze a first-round NFL draft choice? I'm with you on this one, Brad. Jenkins hasn't done much to this point, but it's not like the 49ers have a long list of promising young wideouts commanding roster spots.
We should expect Anquan Boldin, Kyle Williams and Quinton Patton to stick on the 53-man roster. We know Michael Crabtree will remain on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Mario Manningham could remain on that list as well. Neither would count against the 53-man roster while on PUP. That would leave room on the roster for Jenkins and one or two others. Players such as Marlon Moore, Ricardo Lockette, Kassim Osgood, Austin Collie and Chad Hall would presumably be factoring for those spots based on a factors including special-teams value.
Jenkins and five other 49ers wideouts logged snaps on offense but not on special teams during the 49ers' exhibition opener. Osgood played nine special-teams snaps in that game. Hall and Lockette played three special-teams snaps apiece. If Osgood earns a roster spot, special-teams contributions will factor disproportionately.
The 49ers presumably are not going to base a Jenkins decision on his relevance as a gunner or coverage player. They drafted Jenkins to play offense. They must consider what he has shown on the practice field (not much so far), their reasons for drafting him (potential), their available alternatives (also undefined) and salary commitments (guaranteed money through 2014).
Three exhibition games remain for the 49ers. Jenkins could conceivably play his way out of a roster spot over that span. I don't think he's done that to this point. The 49ers could use Jenkins, but they don't necessarily have to make a final decision on him after just 35 regular-season snaps. They appear better off with what he might one day offer rather than what they know they could have instead.
Think of it another way. If every current 49ers wide receiver beyond Boldin were suddenly available to sign at low cost, which ones would the other 31 teams scramble to sign first? I have to think Jenkins would rank at or near the top of the list as a young player with potential who hasn't played enough for analysts to judge accurately.
Now, conventional wisdom has evolved to the point where mainstream analysis discounts those 4,000 yards because Palmer, entering his first season with the Arizona Cardinals, accumulated those yards in a losing context. Palmer went 4-11 as a starter.
Andy from New York hit the NFC West mailbag with a challenge we'll take up here. He thinks Palmer deserves more credit than he's getting.
"After two minutes of research, I found on the Hall of Fame's website that only 48 quarterbacks have thrown for more than 4,000 yards in a season (a combined 110 times)," Andy wrote. "Of those 110, only 18 times has it been done on a losing team (14 more times with a .500 record). If it is so 'easy' for a QB to rack up yards when playing from behind (when the defense knows it is a passing situation), why has it been accomplished only 18 times on a losing team in the entire history of the NFL?"
It's an interesting point. Passing for that many yards in a season requires some talent, obviously. But there is nothing inherently magical about the 4,000-yard plateau. Palmer passed for 3,970 yards while posting a 4-12 record in 2010. The 48-yard gap between 2010 (3,970 yards) and 2012 (4,018 yards) means nothing.
Palmer, Jon Kitna and Drew Brees each owns two seasons with at least 4,000 yards and a losing record. Elvis Grbac, Josh Freeman, Trent Green, Jeff Garcia, Bill Kenney, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Schaub, Matthew Stafford and Vinny Testaverde have each done it once.
Some of those quarterbacks were or are great players. Others were not so great.
ESPN developed the Total QBR metric to measure a quarterback's contributions to winning, whether or not the quarterback accumulated lots of passing yards. Manning scored a league-high 84.1 out of 100 last season. Mark Sanchez scored a league-low 34.0.
QBR can tell us something about the recent run on 4,000-yard seasons. Quarterbacks have combined for 42 of them since 2008. The QBR score Palmer posted last season (44.7) ranked 42nd out of those 42 on the list. The chart shows the seven times over the past five years when a quarterback passed for at least 4,000 yards without posting a winning record. Palmer probably had the worst supporting cast, but if anything, QBR affirms the general feeling on Palmer.
Now, back to Andy's point. Why aren't more quarterbacks from losing teams passing for 4,000 yards regularly? I'd venture that most quarterbacks good enough to pass for that many yards will be good enough to help their teams win most of the time. The question here is whether Palmer is one of those quarterbacks. Recent evidence suggests he might not be, but I think his prospects will improve with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Andre Roberts, Rob Housler and possibly even Patrick Peterson catching his passes.
"It seems to me that a coach becomes 'great' only after he has a 'great' quarterback," Jim wrote in the NFC West mailbag. "The coaches at the very top of the list might be exceptions, but let's look at some of the others."
The way Jim sees things, Bill Belichick struggled in Cleveland before he had Tom Brady in New England. Mike Shanahan struggled without John Elway. Mike Holmgren was considered a great coach in Green Bay, but he had Brett Favre. Tom Landry struggled after Roger Staubach retired. Tom Coughlin was fired by Jacksonville, but once he had Eli Manning, he became a great coach. Tony Dungy became great when he had Peyton Manning. Bill Walsh was innovative, of course, but he also had Joe Montana and Steve Young.
"The voting is a fun exercise and I don't mean to dismiss the importance of a coach," Jim writes. "Some are certainly much better than others and some are great, but I think people are overlooking the role that a franchise quarterback plays in how 'great' a coach is considered to be."
There is no doubt quarterbacks make a tremendous difference. Head coaches sometimes play leading roles in acquiring and developing quarterbacks. Let's take a quick run through the coaches Jim mentioned in search of added perspective:
- Belichick: We could say the Patriots lucked into Brady in the sixth round, but Belichick was ultimately responsible for drafting him and then sticking with him after Drew Bledsoe's return to health. Also, the Patriots had an 11-5 record when Matt Cassel was their primary quarterback in 2008.
- Shanahan: Shanahan deserves credit for getting the most from an aging Elway. The Broncos had six winning seasons, one losing season and one 8-8 season in the eight years immediately following Elway's retirement. The post-Elway Broncos went 91-69 under Shanahan overall. That works out to a .569 winning percentage in Denver after Elway. Bill Parcells was at .570 for his entire career.
- Holmgren: Even if we give Favre credit for the Packers' success in Green Bay, we still must account for Holmgren's winning with Matt Hasselbeck and a more run-oriented offense in Seattle. Hasselbeck was a sixth-round pick in Green Bay. Holmgren traded for him and eventually won with him. Hasselbeck went to three Pro Bowls. Holmgren didn't luck into Hasselbeck. He helped develop him.
- Landry: The Cowboys enjoyed their greatest postseason success under Landry when Staubach was the quarterback through the 1970s. However, the Cowboys were 31-10 under Landry in the three seasons before Staubach arrived. They were 21-6-1 in Staubach's first two seasons even though Staubach started only three of those games, posting a 2-1 record in his starts. Dallas went 24-8 in its first two seasons after Staubach retired. The Cowboys posted five winning records in their first six seasons of the post-Staubach era, going 61-28 over that span.
- Coughlin: Manning wasn't all that great for much of Coughlin's early run with the Giants. Players such as Michael Strahan have credited Coughlin for adapting his gruff personal style in a manner that allowed the Giants to become a championship team. That could be entirely true, or it could be convenient narrative. We can't really know. However, although the Giants might not have won titles without Manning, we can't ignore the role their defense played in defeating Brady's Patriots following the 2007 season in particular. They didn't win disproportionately because of their quarterback.
- Dungy: I listed Dungy 20th on my ballot because he won with two completely different types of teams. However, I also think a case can be made that the Colts should have enjoyed greater playoff success during the Peyton Manning years. Ultimately, I point to the success Tampa Bay enjoyed beginning in 1997 with a team built to some degree in Dungy's defensive image. The Buccaneers went 48-32 in their final five seasons under Dungy. That franchise was floundering previously.
I left off Walsh because Jim wasn't challenging his credentials as a great coach. Hopefully, the information above provides some context. I do think it's tough knowing to what degree a coach has facilitated his team's success. We're left to look at success over time, plus whatever contributions a coach seemed to make in terms of strategy, team building, etc.
Joe Gibbs gets credit for winning three Super Bowls with three quarterbacks, none of them Hall of Famers. It's not as if Gibbs had horrible quarterbacks, however. Joe Theismann and Mark Rypien were both two-time Pro Bowl selections. Doug Williams obviously had talent. He was a first-round draft choice, after all.
Perhaps we'll find ways in the future to better measure a coach's contributions. Right now, there's a lot we do not know beyond the results on the field.
"One thing I noticed when watching Colin Kaepernick last year was that he seemed to either throw to Crabtree, throw to Vernon Davis or run," Jakob from San Francisco writes. "Could you expand your analysis to see if I'm right? Especially on third down?"
You're right about Crabtree on third down. However, the story was quite different for Davis.
The chart below ranks 49ers players by third-down target rate from Week 11, when Kaepernick made his starting debut, through the Super Bowl. Crabtree leads the way with 26 targets in 64 third-down routes, good for a 40.6 percent target rate. Davis ranked eighth -- last -- with six third-down targets on 61 routes.
Here are the target rates for 49ers players on first and second downs over the same time period (minimum 15 pass routes): Crabtree 37.5, Mario Manningham 32.4, Randy Moss 25.9, Delanie Walker 22.2, Davis 21.6, LaMichael James 20.7, Ted Ginn Jr. 20.0, Garrett Celek 20.0, Bruce Miller 9.4 and Frank Gore 6.8.
The 49ers will need other wide receivers to emerge while Crabtree recovers from surgery. And while Davis will be needed for blocking, the numbers suggest he needs to become a bigger part of the receiving game -- whether or not Crabtree is available.
On the one hand, I suggested losing Crabtree could be significant to the division race, particularly with the Seattle Seahawks adding Percy Harvin. On the other hand, I said Colin Kaepernick, not Crabtree, would be the key to the 49ers' season.
"Granted, Crabtree is a different type of receiver, but you do say Harvin's impact on the Seahawks could easily be huge," Seth writes. "How can the Seahawks gaining a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver make such a big impact, yet San Francisco losing a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver will have not much effect at all?
"Is this your way of saying you believe that Kaepernick is a better and more important QB for the 49ers than Russell Wilson is for the Seahawks?"
Not at all. Both teams are similarly dependent on their quarterbacks. Neither would fare very well with its backup quarterback starting for an extended period.
It's just that adding Harvin to Seattle while subtracting Crabtree from the 49ers represents a net change significant enough to affect a very close NFC West race. Also, I think Harvin is more dynamic than Crabtree even though Crabtree produced better receiving stats last season.
Matt Williamson, who scouts the NFL for ESPN.com, put it this way during our recent receiver rankings: "I'll take Harvin every day over Crabtree and that is not a knock on Crabtree. Harvin is more dynamic, more versatile. He frightens defenses way more. You can do so much more with him. He has big-play ability and is just a better football player. When I rank the wide receivers in this division, it goes Larry [Fitzgerald], Harvin and Crabtree, but Harvin is closer to 'Fitz' than Crabtree is to Harvin."
Even so, losing Harvin would not crush the Seahawks' chances in 2013. The team already was very good without him. A healthy Harvin will make them better. If an injury were to fell Harvin, I would acknowledge its significance to a close NFC West race while noting that the Seahawks' season was going to hinge on Wilson to a much greater degree.
Les from Philadelphia read our recent piece on quarterback victories over average and wondered if we could apply the same approach to other teams.
"Can you do the same analysis for other QB-challenged teams such as Philadelphia, Minnesota, etc.?" Les asked.
We can take a shot at it, Les. First, a quick primer on the methodology.
Total QBR measures quarterbacks' contributions to winning on a 100-point scale, with 50 as average. The scores correlate with a team's likelihood of winning a game. In other words, a team scoring 50 in Total QBR would, on balance, win about half its games. The chances for winning would be 75 percent for teams with QBR scores around 75, and so on.
With this established, we can calculate the wins over average a quarterback provides over the course of a 16-game season. We simply average his single-game QBR scores, subtract 50 from that number, convert the result into a percentage and multiply by 16.
A quarterback with a Total QBR score of 75.0 would provide four victories over average, for example (75 minus 50 equals 25, and 25 percent of 16 is four).
The first chart ranks 2012 quarterbacks with at least four regular-season starts by wins above average, based solely on their single-game QBR scores last season. The San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick and the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson ranked among the NFL's best.
The second chart shows the quarterbacks with the worst figures for wins above average. These quarterbacks' performances reduced their teams' chances for winning by 1.5 to 5.3 games per 16-game season.
The Arizona Cardinals' Ryan Lindley (minus-5.3) and John Skelton (minus-5.0) top that list. Kevin Kolb was better, but he was still eighth-worst in the league at minus-1.9. Note that the figures for these quarterbacks project their impact as if each played a full season. Skelton and Lindley combined to start 10 games.
Les asked about Minnesota and Philadelphia.
The Vikings' Christian Ponder was 19th at plus-0.2 wins above average. His single-game QBR scores averaged out to 51.5 in 16 starts. The Eagles' Michael Vick (minus-1.5) and Nick Foles (minus-0.8) ranked lower.
We'll revisit this information as the offseason continues.
The chart below takes a longer-term approach. It shows wins above average over a 16-game season based on single-game QBR scores since 2008. I added a column for expected wins if these quarterbacks played for teams that were average in other ways. By this method, expected wins are simply wins above average plus eight. We might think of Peyton Manning as a 12- or 13-win quarterback based on how he played last season. Note that some quarterbacks making surprise appearances on the list played fewer games.
Peyton Manning appears twice, once for his work with Denver last season and also for his contributions with Indianapolis previously. The Denver-era Jay Cutler also appears. The Chicago-era Cutler has been far less impressive, checking in at plus-0.3 wins over average. That version of Cutler doesn't appear in the chart.
Pete from Bremerton, Wash., is a San Francisco 49ers fan living in Seattle Seahawks country. He has tired of locals assuming Seattle has built the strongest roster in the NFC West, and so he asked through the mailbag how I would rank these division rivals by position.
We're going to expand this exercise to cover the entire division with a big assist from ESPN scout Matt Williamson.
This has the potential to become a week-long discussion on the blog. I'm going to follow up with Matt on the phone Tuesday. First, though, I've published his rankings in a chart that should get the discussion moving quickly.
My rankings would line up with Matt's just about across the board. My initial thought was to rank Arizona's defensive line higher and Seattle's lower. I also might have ranked the 49ers' cornerbacks higher. However, we're talking about small degrees of difference in some cases, so a ranking disparity of three spots can be misleading.
Matt and I will pick up the discussion Tuesday. I'll also run through some of the comments left beneath this item. This is a conversation I look forward to continuing.
Note: The rankings are for the 2013 season based on existing personnel. We were not projecting for the longer-term future.
Cornerback Antoine Winfield was the latest addition to the "Minnesota West" roster in Seattle.
"Ever since we controversially signed Steve Hutchinson from them," Aaron writes, "it has seemed as though the Seahawks go out of their way to snatch whatever Vikings they can to stick it to us. It started with them signing Nate Burleson, then Sidney Rice and Heath Farwell, Darell Bevell and Tarvaris Jackson (for whatever reason). They even outbid us for T.J. Houshmanzadeh a few years back. They signed Ryan Longwell at the end of this past season. Obviously, it has continued with Percy Harvin and now Winfield."
Sando: It's a remarkable pattern, but there's likely no revenge factor. The people running the Seahawks during the Hutchinson controversy are long gone from the organization. They were involved in adding Burleson and Houshmandzadeh, but they had nothing to do with the Seahawks' more recent deals for Rice, Farwell, Bevell, Jackson, Harvin or Winfield.
Bevell's hiring as the Seahawks' offensive coordinator stands out as a factor behind the team's decisions to sign Rice and trade for Harvin.
John Schneider's presence as the Seahawks' general manager since 2010 provides a strong link to the NFC North in general. Schneider, after spending much of his career with the Green Bay Packers, played a role in Seattle adding former NFC North players such as Breno Giacomini, Will Blackmon, Cliff Avril, Steven Hauschka, Brett Swain, Frank Omiyale and others. Also, Schneider and Bevell were together in Green Bay. However, Seattle has added many more players without ties to the Vikings or the NFC North.
For a while, the Detroit Lions signed or otherwise acquired a long list of players with Seahawks ties. There were some connections between the organizations -- former Lions coach Rod Marinelli and former Seahawks GM Tim Ruskell shared a history with Tampa Bay, for instance -- but some of the overlap defied explanation.
Tyler Polumbus, Burleson, Will Heller, Rob Sims, Lawrence Jackson, Maurice Morris, Julian Peterson, Trevor Canfield, Marquand Manuel, Kole Heckendorf, Kevin Hobbs, Logan Payne, Chuck Darby, Keary Colbert, Billy McMullen, Travis Fisher, Cory Redding, John Owens, Joel Filani, T.J. Duckett, Kevin Kasper, Etric Pruitt and Mike Williams were among the players to play for both organizations.
Update: The Burleson signing did have a retaliatory aspect, as ZippyWasBanned noted in the comments section. Seattle signed him to an offer sheet featuring "poison pills" similar to the ones that helped the Vikings land Hutchinson.
"Considering how good the Arizona Cardinals' defense is and having good receivers," he writes, "why don't the Cardinals explore a trade?"
Sando: Mike Jurecki of XTRA Sports 910AM says the Cardinals are looking into such a move. Acquiring Palmer makes no sense financially unless the Cardinals can work out a more favorable contract. However, the Raiders tried and failed to reduce Palmer's salary. Why would Palmer agree to a pay cut in Arizona when becoming a free agent is the likely alternative? Once released, Palmer could survey his options without needing Oakland to play along.
The Cardinals need all the draft choices they can get as they restock their roster with younger talent. Trading a pick to the Raiders for Palmer would hurt Arizona's youth movement in two ways. One, the team would lose a draft choice representing a young, low-cost player. Two, Palmer would give the Cardinals a 33-year-old roadblock to developing someone else for the role. Some might reasonably consider Palmer a bridge to such a player. If the Cardinals think Drew Stanton has a good shot at becoming a solid starter, why send him to the sideline? It wouldn't make sense unless the team thought Palmer would be significantly better -- good enough to make the Cardinals a playoff contender, even.
Arizona fans enter this discussion having suffered through three years of horrendous quarterbacking. When they see the chart showing Palmer's production over the past three years, they see a huge upgrade. New coach Bruce Arians shared in none of the Cardinals' recent pain. He is starting fresh. He might be more apt to see mediocrity in Palmer's production. He might see a quarterback ranked 23rd in Total QBR and 20th in NFL passer rating out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks since 2010.
I suspect Arians realizes the Cardinals would be better off with Palmer as part of the mix. That seems obvious. The question then becomes one of price and whether Palmer would want to play for the Cardinals. Mike Garafolo of USA Today reported that Palmer would have interest in starting for the Cardinals or even backing up Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco. The thought of losing Palmer to a division rival could, in theory, drive up the price. That is the sort of information an agent might want out there. It also might be the truth. Sometimes, it's tough to tell the difference.
"There has been a lot of talk about Jeff Fisher being a strong reason that players sign with us in free agency -- Jake Long, Jared Cook, Cortland Finnegan, etc.," he writes. "Why didn't playing with Fisher have a bigger impact on keeping this year's free-agent class? Steven Jackson, Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, Robert Turner, Craig Dahl and Bradley Fletcher come to mind. We wanted at least a couple of these guys back, right?"
Sando: The Rams made little or no effort to keep those players. They felt now was a good time to make the break with Jackson. They could not justify paying a $7 million salary to an older running back while building around younger players. Jackson wasn't interested in taking a pay reduction after all he'd given to the organization. Both sides had good reasons for following the courses they chose to follow.
The Rams ideally would have kept Amendola, but at what price was that going to make sense? And if that price were high enough, would it affect the team's ability to land other free agents such as Long or Cook? I've felt for some time that Gibson was an adequate player, but not the answer, either. The longer he was starting, the more clear it was that St. Louis was not improving sufficiently at the position. The same could be said for Turner and Dahl, who were good role players.
Now, that doesn't mean every one of those players had to go. The Rams could pay a higher price if their younger players aren't ready.
The Rams are taking a leap of faith this year. They're moving on from the known to the unknown. In most cases, the known was not all that great. There's still risk involved, but overall, I appreciate the Rams' willingness to build around young draft choices. They have decided to pay top dollar for a couple younger free agents such as Long and Cook. They have generally decided against signing role players for a few million dollars per year, figuring drafted players can perform as well or better at more affordable prices.
Fans will feel better about things, most likely, when the Rams select two more players in the first round next month.
"Let's face it, everyone is worried about the 49ers' defensive line," Andrew from Minnesota wrote. "I think, however, most people are overlooking the Ian Williams contract extension. We all gave puzzled looks at the Ray McDonald extension a few years ago, and that move paid off. Maybe Williams will be an awesome new anchor in the D-line? Thoughts?"
Sando: The five-year extension McDonald signed before the 2011 season did come as a bit of a surprise, mostly for its timing and $20 million value. The 49ers had a new coaching staff, so it was tough to know from the outside which players the team might value most.
McDonald had played more than half the defensive snaps in two of the previous three seasons, however. He had played in 47 of the previous 48 games. McDonald was an established player and someone the team had valued as a third-round choice in 2007.
Williams, 23, was undrafted in 2011. He has played 39 snaps in four games over two seasons. His contract averages $1.5 million per year, less than half the $4 million average for McDonald. The deal for Williams included $2 million in guaranteed money, one-third what McDonald's contract contained.
I tend to think Glenn Dorsey's signing is the more significant one for the 49ers' defensive line. I'm not quite sure what the 49ers have in mind for him, but that signing indicates to me a specific plan is in place for the line in 2013.
As for the draft, I do think the 49ers need to address that position regardless.
McDonald and Justin Smith had both played at least 85 percent of the defensive snaps through Week 15, which was when an arm injury forced Smith to the sideline until the playoffs. Tampa Bay (three) and New Orleans (two) were the only other teams with more than one defensive lineman logging 85-plus percent of his team's snaps to that point in the season. The Bucs and Saints had a combined seven other defensive linemen logging at least 30 percent of the snaps to that point. The 49ers had none.
Tampa Bay and New Orleans ran different defensive schemes, of course. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith played on the line a fair amount for the 49ers depending on the situation. Still, it's a position the 49ers could stand to address. Smith is 33 years old and arguably the most important player on the defense. His contract runs through 2013 and the team will need to find a successor.
"It seems like a team desperate for bodies this year would gladly give up future picks," Kevin writes via the NFC West mailbag. "With the glaring needs of some teams, wouldn't it be possible for them to go into the 2014 draft with six or seven picks in the first three rounds, or even the 2015 draft with 10 such picks?"
Sando: I think the 49ers would like to use some of those 14 choices to set up future drafts. Eleven of the 14 picks are eligible for trading. The three compensatory choices are not.
The chart shows which picks the 49ers hold at present. The 31st or 34th choices come to mind as ammunition for landing a first-round choice next year. A look back at recent drafts could provide some precedent.
In 2009, the Seattle Seahawks sent the 37th overall choice to the Denver Broncos for a 2010 first-round pick. This trade worked out great for Seattle. Denver used the 37th pick for Alphonso Smith, who lasted one season with the team. The pick Seattle got from Denver wound up being 14th overall. The Seahawks used that choice to select Earl Thomas, who has become a Pro Bowl safety.
The Broncos made that trade with Seattle in part because they had an additional 2010 first-round choice acquired from Chicago in the Jay Cutler trade. The 49ers' division rival, St. Louis, has an additional first-rounder in 2014. I don't think the Rams will be trading that pick to San Francisco.
In 2007, the New England Patriots traded the 28th overall pick to the 49ers (used for tackle Joe Staley) for the 110th pick and a first-rounder the next year.
In 2006, the New York Jets traded the 35th pick to the Washington Redskins for the 53rd and 189th choices, plus a second-rounder the next year. The Redskins made that move because they wanted Rocky McIntosh.
Those are a few examples of teams acquiring future picks. The 49ers are in prime position to do the same. They appear to have more picks than available roster spots. There are no guarantees another team will play along, however.
That turn of events came to mind upon reading an NFC West mailbag submission from Vladimir, a San Francisco 49ers fan in Belgrade.
"I wanted to ask if you can compare two recent college coaches, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, as to how many of their former players each has drafted," Vladimir wrote.
The 49ers have yet to draft a player from Stanford since Harbaugh became their coach in 2011. The Seahawks have drafted two players from USC since Carroll became coach in 2010.
The chart shows which NFL head coaches have drafted more than one player from Stanford and/or USC since 2010. We should note that the coaches themselves don't make draft decisions autonomously. There could have been times when the 49ers' and Seahawks' personnel people steered their head coaches away from drafting players each had coached in college. Conversely, Harbaugh and Carroll would have been more familiar with their former players' weaknesses, not just strengths. In some cases, they might have been the driving forces' behind their teams' decisions to steer clear of certain players from their pasts.
Carroll and Minnesota's Leslie Frazier are the only head coaches whose teams have selected more than one player from USC since 2010. Coaching turnover affects the number of opportunities. Fifteen current NFL head coaches have held their jobs since at least 2010.
Harbaugh and Stanford
2012 draft: The 49ers drafted A.J. Jenkins 30th when Stanford's Coby Fleener (the 34th choice that year) and Jonathan Martin (42nd) were available.
2011 draft: The 49ers drafted Chris Culliver 80th when Stanford's Sione Fua (97th) was available. Also that year, the 49ers selected Kendall Hunter 115th when Stanford's Owen Marecic (124th) and Richard Sherman (154th) were options. They also drafted Daniel Kilgore 163rd when Stanford's Ryan Whalen (167th) was an option.
Carroll and USC
2012 draft: Carroll's Seahawks drafted Bruce Irvin 15th when USC's Nick Perry (28th) was available. They drafted Bobby Wagner (47th), Russell Wilson (75th), Robert Turbin (106th) and Jaye Howard (114th) before the Vikings made Rhett Ellison (128th) the next USC player off the board.
2011 draft: Seattle drafted John Moffitt 75th when USC's Jurrell Casey (77th) and Shareece Wright (89th) were options. They drafted K.J. Wright 99th when USC's Jordan Cameron (102nd) was available.
Seattle drafted four additional players before USC's Ronald Johnson (182nd) and Allen Bradford (187th) were chosen. The Seahawks made Pep Levingston the 205th choice before USC's Stanley Havili (240th) and David Ausberry (241st) were chosen. Seattle then took USC linebacker Malcolm Smith with the 242nd choice.
2010 draft: Seattle chose Russell Okung sixth and Thomas 14th before Mays became the first USC player selected at No. 49.
The Seahawks took Golden Tate 60th when USC's Charles Brown (64th), Damian Williams (77th), Kevin Thomas (94th) and Everson Griffen (100th) were options. They took cornerback Walter Thurmond 111th when USC's Joe McKnight (112th) was available. Seattle drafted two more players before selecting USC's Anthony McCoy with the 185th choice.
"If you think the Rams will use one of their first-round picks on a WR, why not sign Victor Cruz, a young known quantity, to a deal and give up the pick -- or force the Giants in to a bad cap place by keeping him," Bill wrote. "Either way you are hurting one of your competitors for a wild-card slot."
Sando: Salary is the No. 1 reason. The Rams hold the 16th and 23rd picks in the draft. The cap charges associated with those picks will fall far short of the cap charges associated with a long-term deal for a veteran receiver.
Now, if the Rams saw Cruz as a Percy Harvin-type talent, the price could be worth considering. But if they see Cruz as merely a good receiver, they should proceed with caution when considering the costs.
The chart illustrates the point by comparing annual salary-cap charges for Vincent Jackson, the receiver Tampa Bay signed in free agency last offseason, to the cap charges for Kendall Wright, the wide receiver Tennessee drafted with the 20th pick of the draft.
I'm not comparing Jackson to Wright as players. I'm not comparing either one of them to Cruz, either. The point is one of cost, and I make it under the assumption the Rams would be getting a very good receiver in the first round.
As noted in the chat, Wright's contract as the 20th pick is scheduled to count $8.2 million against the cap over four years. The contract Jackson signed counted nearly twice as much in 2012 alone. It is scheduled to consume $55 million in cap space over five seasons.
So if the Rams can find their version of Cruz in the first round, they will come out far ahead. The question, of course, is whether the Rams can find that kind of value, and whether the cost associated with Cruz is worthwhile.