NFC West: Mardy Gilyard

Trading down in the NFL draft to acquire additional picks sounds good in theory.

Sometimes, it's tough finding a trading partner. Other times, sacrificing quality for quantity hurts a team's prospects.

But in every case, making an effort to trade down requires a team to trust its ability to find quality players later in a draft -- often in the middle rounds.

This is the range where the Seattle Seahawks' Pete Carroll and John Schneider have fared well since taking over the team before the 2010 draft. The team has used seven fourth- and fifth-round choices during that time, most in the division. Those picks have produced a Pro Bowl safety (Kam Chancellor), a very good starting cornerback (Richard Sherman), a starting linebacker (K.J. Wright) and two players coming off injuries (Kris Durham, Walter Thurmond).

I would expect Durham to make a push for playing time in 2012 and make it tougher for Mike Williams to keep a roster spot.

Arizona has also done well drafting in the fourth and fifth rounds. Sam Acho came on strong as a pass-rushing outside linebacker last season, collecting seven sacks, the second-most for a Cardinals rookie since sacks became an official stat in 1982. Another outside linebacker, O'Brien Schofield, gained momentum as the 2011 season progressed, finishing with 4.5 sacks. Anthony Sherman met expectations as a starting fullback while John Skelton finished the season with four fourth-quarter comeback victories.

I've included in the chart below information for St. Louis, but the Rams have new leadership, so those choices tell us nothing about the team's ability to maximize draft choices in the middle rounds. The San Francisco 49ers have used only two picks in the fourth and fifth rounds since 2010. They have one in each round this year.

Overall, I'd say Seattle and Arizona have done well enough in the middle rounds recently to consider trading back in the draft to acquire additional picks in that range. It's a little early to make any declarations about the 49ers or Rams along those lines.

Hitting on picks in this range provides insurance against the occasional whiffs early in a draft, while also building critical depth.
The Seattle Seahawks can thank the division-rival San Francisco 49ers for adding a high-gloss shine to their 2010 draft class.

Kam Chancellor, a fifth-round pick for Seattle that year, is headed to the Pro Bowl after the 49ers' Dashon Goldson withdrew from the game, citing injury. Chancellor's presence on the NFC roster gives Seattle two Pro Bowl safeties from its 2010 class. Earl Thomas, chosen sixth overall that year, was named to the team as the starting free safety.

I went back through that 2010 class and noticed the St. Louis Rams (Mardy Gilyard) and Seattle Seahawks (E.J. Wilson) were the only NFC West teams to release players chosen earlier than the fifth round that year.

Chancellor and the Rams' Mike Hoomanawanui are the only current projected starters chosen later than the fourth round (they were taken one pick apart in the fifth). Hoomanawanui might not start; it's too early to say.

Taylor Mays and Jorrick Calvin were the only NFC West picks traded.

Seattle's Golden Tate, chosen 60th overall, is the highest choice remaining with his team as a backup, not a starter.

A quick run through the 2010 class for the NFC West:

Arizona Cardinals

Starters: Dan Williams, Daryl Washington, Andre Roberts.

Backups: John Skelton, Jim Dray, O'Brien Schofield.

Traded: Jorrick Calvin.

Released: none.

Comment: The Cardinals were picking later than their division rivals after winning the 2009 NFC West title. They still found four projected starters. Washington, a second-rounder, stands out as the best selection. Williams and Roberts have much to prove. Schofield appears to be ascending. He did not start in 2011, however, and will have to win the job.

San Francisco 49ers

Starters: Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, NaVorro Bowman.

Backups: Anthony Dixon, Nate Byham, Kyle Williams.

Traded: Taylor Mays.

Released: Phillip Adams.

Comment: Bowman's emergence as an All-Pro inside linebacker strengthens this class and helps offset Mays' disappointing stint with the team. Byham was emerging as a top blocker before suffering a season-ending injury. Iupati is a first alternate to the Pro Bowl. Williams is coming off a rough NFC Championship Game.

Seattle Seahawks

Starters: Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor.

Backups: Golden Tate, Walter Thurmond, Anthony McCoy, Dexter Davis, Jameson Konz.

Traded: none.

Released: E.J. Wilson.

Comment: Thomas and Chancellor are making this a successful class. Okung might be the best of the three, but only if he can get healthy. Thurmond was a starter until suffering an injury at Cleveland. He'll have a hard time winning back a starting job now that Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman have locked down jobs. But he could still factor. Tate made strides late in the 2011 season.

St. Louis Rams

Starters: Sam Bradford, Rodger Saffold, Mike Hoomanawanui.

Backups: Jerome Murphy, Eugene Sims, Marquis Johnson, Josh Hull.

Traded: none.

Released: Mardy Gilyard, Hall Davis, Fendi Onobun, George Selvie.

Comment: This class will succeed or fail based on how Bradford develops under new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Bradford and the rest of this class -- and the entire roster, pretty much -- struggled this past season.

The first chart breaks down NFC West teams' picks by projected status for 2012.

The second chart provides context. The Rams have released four players from their 2010 class, which could look bad. But they also had far more later-round picks than their division rivals. Those players have a harder time earning roster spots.
In one month's time, we've gone from discussing the St. Louis Rams' playoff prospects to how they might handle the first pick in the 2012 NFL draft.

The chances suddenly appear very real. The Rams are 0-4 heading into their bye week. Their top receiver and top three cornerbacks are out for the season. Their remaining receivers lead the NFL in dropped passes. Their offensive line and defensive front seven aren't meeting expectations. Their quarterback is on pace to absorb 72 sacks, three shy of the NFL record.

Amid those troubling indicators, the Rams visit Green Bay and Dallas before returning home for a game against New Orleans. They then play two more games on the road before a four-game stretch of NFC West matchups. They have a road game against Pittsburgh later in the year.

Six division games in the final nine weeks still might save the Rams, but if the Arizona Cardinals could go 1-5 against the NFC West in 2010, which they did, the Rams in their current state could finish in that range.

To the point: The Rams already have 2010 No. 1 overall choice Sam Bradford on their roster. They're not in the market for a quarterback. They would have some thinking to do if sitting atop the 2012 draft with Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck available.

Let's get this conversation going.

Matt from Tucson, Ariz., asks whether the Seattle Seahawks would move to acquire the first pick from St. Louis.

Mike Sando: Yes, the Seahawks would certainly consider that type of move for a quarterback, in my view. I just do not see the Rams helping a division rival land a franchise quarterback. Instead, if the Rams traded the pick, I would look for them to deal it to an AFC team located far, far away. Miami?

Tim from Olympia, Wash., asks whether the Rams would consider trading Bradford if they entered the 2012 draft in position to draft Andrew Luck.

Mike Sando: Interesting concept. I question whether that would work very well from a salary-cap standpoint. I do not think the Rams' current leadership would consider making that move. If new leadership were in place, anything could be possible. But an organization cannot casually consider trading its franchise quarterback without risking its relationship with that player. The team would have to know for certain it could get a deal done.

William from Bloomington, Ind., isn't ready to give up on the Rams just yet given their second-half schedule, but he wonders what the team could expect the top pick to fetch. He notes that the Atlanta Falcons gave up quite a bit in moving up to the sixth pick in 2011.

Mike Sando: The Falcons paid such a high price because they were moving up from so far down in the draft order (27th overall). Any team moving up for Luck would likely be doing so from nearer the top of the order. Still, the price would have to be high. Multiple teams could be bidding, as well.

San Diego, having whiffed on Ryan Leaf in 1998, traded the first pick of the 2001 draft to Atlanta for the fifth pick, the 67th pick, a second-rounder the next year and receiver Tim Dwight. The Falcons then took Michael Vick. Rams general manager Billy Devaney had already left the Chargers when that deal went down.

The Cleveland Browns picked first overall in 2000, one season after making quarterback Tim Couch the top pick. That was an odd situation, however, because the 2000 draft featured no quarterbacks taken before Chad Pennington at No. 18. The Browns took defensive end Courtney Brown first overall.

The Indianapolis Colts picked fourth overall in 1999, a year after they took Peyton Manning first overall. Quarterbacks went 1-2-3 before the Colts made Edgerrin James the fourth player taken in that 2000 class.

Rob from Augusta, Ga., asks whether Josh McDaniels' hiring in St. Louis has done more harm than good because the personnel was acquired for another system. He thought a conservative, West Coast system helped the Rams compete in 2010, and he fears the team will need years to build its roster for McDaniels' more aggressive approach. He also thinks it's clear the Rams needed to pursue a top-flight receiver more aggressively.

Mike Sando: The Rams did not want to change coordinators. Pat Shurmur's departure forced the Rams to make a choice. They could promote continuity by hiring someone familiar with the system Shurmur was running. Or, they could search for the best candidate they could find, regardless of system. They chose the latter approach with an eye toward the longer term because they thought McDaniels was an excellent candidate.

This was before the lockout, at a time when teams did not know how the offseason would unfold. The Rams' thinking seemed sound at the time. In retrospect, I don't think the offense would be dramatically better had the team gone with someone else at coordinator. Injuries have played a significant role in the Rams' struggles.

Your thinking at wide receiver makes sense. The Rams were among the few who thought they were OK at the position in terms of top-end talent. McDaniels had gotten good production from Brandon Lloyd in Denver, counter to outside expectations, so there was some thought he might coax similar production from players already on the Rams' roster. While Danny Amendola was the one receiver he could least afford to lose, it's fair to say the Rams failed to sufficiently protect themselves at a position decimated by injuries in 2010.

Mackay from Pleasant Grove, Utah, thought the Arizona Cardinals failed to use play-action passes against the New York Giants even though Beanie Wells was on his way to a 27-carry, 138-yard performance. He would expect play-action passes to help Kevin Kolb, but wonders whether lack of success has steered the Cardinals away from using that tactic.

Mike Sando: It's a little early in the season to draw conclusions from the Cardinals' use of play-action passes. This is an area to monitor as the season progresses.

Kolb completed 4 of 7 passes for 78 yards and one interception against the Giants on play-action passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He has completed 12 of 22 passes for 231 yards with one touchdown, one interception and two sacks on play-action plays this season. Twenty-four quarterbacks have more play-action attempts than Kolb this season. Fourteen quarterbacks have at least 30 attempts.

Kolb ranks 24th in Total QBR (52.9) and NFL passer rating (87.5) on play-action passes this season. His yards per attempt on these throws, 10.5, ranks fifth in the league behind Matt Stafford, Matt Schaub, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo and Chad Henne. But four of those players (all but Henne) are completing at least 75 percent of these passes. Kolb is at 54.5 percent, which ranks 26th among the 32 quarterbacks with more than 10 such attempts.

Colin from Santa Rosa, Calif., agrees that San Francisco 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman has stood out this season, but he says this doesn't reflect poorly on teammate Patrick Willis. "It doesn't seem like Willis has stepped back at all," he writes. "Takeo Spikes isn't there eating up blocks, so Willis is having to take on more of that duty, and offenses are targeting Willis with more resources anyway, freeing up Bowman."

Mike Sando: One question would be to what degree the 49ers' new defense in combination with Bowman's abilities has affected what the team asks from its inside linebackers. I appreciate your points and will explore this subject in greater detail as the season progresses.

Terrell from San Francisco likes what he sees from the 49ers' front seven, but he thinks the team needs a playmaking safety to pair with Willis, giving San Francisco something along the lines of what Baltimore has enjoyed with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed working together.

Mike Sando: The 49ers had a chance to add a playmaking safety in the 2010 draft, but they traded up for right tackle Anthony Davis instead of drafting free safety Earl Thomas. The 49ers then used their second-round choice for safety Taylor Mays. I see absolutely no way to justify those decisions based on what we've seen from those players so far.

The 49ers' efforts to upgrade their offensive line by drafting Davis and guard Mike Iupati made sense in theory, but Davis hasn't become nearly the player Thomas has become, and Mays lasted only one season with the team. Worse, the 49ers will have to play against Thomas twice a season for years to come.

Lots of little moves as rosters in flux

September, 4, 2011
Catching up with various moves around the edges of NFC West rosters Sunday:
Teams are also assembling practice squads. The 49ers announced adding seven players to theirs, all released by the team on the reduction to 53 players. I'll round up those additions once they become official.
The following recently released and waived/injured NFC West players are eligible for practice squads if they clear waivers:
Arizona Cardinals

Jared Campbell, Marshay Green, Sean Jeffcoat, Ricky Lumpkin, Jeremy Navarre, Aaron Nichols, Bryant Nnabuife, Kris O'Dowd, Tom Pestock, William Powell, Steve Skelton, Kendall Smith, Thad Turner, Isaiah Williams, D.J. Young.

St. Louis Rams

Damario Ambrose, Tim Atchison, DeMarco Cosby, Tae Evans, Marlon Favorite, Pete Fleps, Cody Habben, John Henderson, Kevin Hughes, Randall Hunt, Thaddeus Lewis, Greg Mathews, Jeremy McGee, Ryan McKee, Jonathan Nelson, Fendi Onobun, Chase Reynolds, Van Stumon.

San Francisco 49ers

Chase Beeler, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Brian Bulcke, Jack Corcoran, Phillip Davis, Derek Hall, Joe Hastings, Chris Hogan, Ronald Johnson, Alex Joseph, Chris Maragos, Cory Nelms, Xavier Omon, Konrad Reuland, Kenny Rowe, Sealver Siliga, Monte Simmons, Curtis Taylor, Kenny Wiggins.

Seattle Seahawks

Pierre Allen, Dorson Boyce, Chris Carter, Paul Fanaika, Maurice Fountain, David Howard, Michael Johnson, Jameson Konz, Mark LeGree, Ricardo Lockette, Michael Morgan, Josh Pinkard, William Robinson, Owen Spencer, Vai Taua, Patrick Williams.

A few younger players are not eligible, including former St. Louis Rams receiver Mardy Gilyard, who spent 11 games on the game-day roster last season. Players with no accrued seasons or fewer than nine appearances on game-day rosters in their only accrued season are among those eligible. Players can spend a third season on a team's practice squad as long as their team keeps its 53-man roster full at all times.

St. Louis Rams cutdown analysis

September, 3, 2011
Surprise move: The situation at wide receiver carried the most intrigue through training camp and the exhibition season. Mardy Gilyard, Donnie Avery and Danario Alexander seemed to have the most to gain, with Mark Clayton's recent signing adding another dynamic. Alexander made it. So did Dominique Curry, a dominant special-teams player last summer until he suffered a season-ending knee injury. Gilyard and Avery missed the cut. That surprised me a great deal, given Alexander's injury history, Avery's recent surge and Gilyard's value on special teams. Clayton went onto the reserve/physically unable to perform list, meaning he'll miss the first six games.

Curry is a special-teams player and a receiver in name only. He made the team despite a broken hand. That's a victory for special-teams coach Tom McMahon.

Veteran defensive lineman Dan Muir, signed in free agency, was also among the cuts.

Gilyard was a fourth-round pick in 2010. The team has drafted 16 players in the first four rounds since Steve Spagnuolo became coach. Gilyard is the only one no longer with the team. He has no eligibility for the practice squad after appearing on the game-day roster more than eight times last season (11).

Unknown rookie Ben Guidugli was one of four tight ends to stick on the initial 53-man roster, beating out Fendi Onobun. Guidugli could be providing depth while the team waits to see whether Michael Hoomanawanui is available for Week 1.

No-brainers: The Rams weren't going to cut rookie receivers Greg Salas or Austin Pettis even though neither rookie lit up the preseason. They took precedence over Gilyard, who was selected when the Rams had a different offensive coordinator. Free-agent linebacker Zac Diles became expendable once the Rams added other veterans at the position.

What's next: Depth at cornerback was and is a potential concern. The Rams kept only eight offensive linemen, including veteran backup Adam Goldberg. They could be in the market for an interior offensive lineman with good size and strength. With seven wide receivers on the roster for now, the team has only four running backs. This is the initial 53-man roster, not the final one, however. There will be changes before Week 1, most likely.

Thoughts on Gilyard, Rams' initial cuts

September, 3, 2011
The St. Louis Rams promised to begin alerting players of their release early Saturday.

Receiver Mardy Gilyard, communicating through his verified Twitter account via Rams beat reporter Jim Thomas, was among those getting the dreaded news.

Gilyard, a fourth-round choice in 2010, faced an uphill fight as a raw prospect trying to learn a new offense coming out of a shortened offseason amid increased competition. The Rams drafted two receivers this year. They got Donnie Avery back from injury, and Avery outperformed Gilyard in preseason.

Gilyard's immediate future appears clouded. Players with fewer than nine appearances on 45-man game-day rosters during their lone accrued season remain eligible for the practice squad. Gilyard played in 11 games last season, rendering him ineligible. That's a shame for him because Gilyard could use a place to develop. But with new coordinator Josh McDaniels taking over the Rams' offense, the dynamics changed for Gilyard and other holdovers.

Other Rams cuts so far, according to Thomas, included tight end Fendi Onobun and former Houston Texans linebacker Zac Diles, signed in free agency.

I thought Onobun might stick in the short term while the team figured out whether Michael Hoomanawanui would be available following a calf injury, but Onobun wasn't from the same physical mold. He's a converted basketball player without much of a blocking pedigree. Diles started 10 games last season. The Rams also added linebackers Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga in free agency, and Bryan Kehl had a strong camp.

Movement on NFC West receiver front

August, 31, 2011
Veteran receiver Mark Clayton is returning to the St. Louis Rams, adding intrigue to decisions the team must make in meeting the 53-man roster limit by Saturday.

Clayton announced the news through his verified Twitter account. Adding Clayton to the mix just as the Rams are approaching roster cuts will give us plenty to consider once the team does reduce to the 53-man limit.

Bringing back Clayton was an easy call once Clayton was healthy. He had 23 receptions through five games last season and instantly developed a rapport with quarterback Sam Bradford.

If Clayton is healthy, his presence imperils receivers fighting for roster spots. Mardy Gilyard, Donnie Avery and Danario Alexander come to mind immediately, assuming the team plans to keep drafted rookies Greg Salas and Austin Pettis.

The Seattle Seahawks also made a couple receiver moves Wednesday. With Sidney Rice and Ben Obomanu shaken up at practice Tuesday, the team re-signed receivers Patrick Williams and Chris Carter heading into the final preseason game Friday night. Punter John Gold and cornerback Ron Parker were released to make room on the 80-man roster.

Assessing 2010 NFC West draft classes

August, 31, 2011
The Arizona Cardinals' division rivals selected five players among the first 17 overall selections in the 2010 NFL draft.

The Cardinals weren't on the clock until they made nose tackle Dan Williams the 26th overall choice.

A year later, Arizona expects to have three members of its 2010 class starting in Week 1, a number that compares favorably within the division.

With the regular season less than two weeks away, I'll revisit the 2010 NFC West draft classes, pointing to injury considerations and key variables.

St. Louis Rams

Total 2010 picks: 11

No longer with team (1): Hall Davis, LB, fifth round (traded to Washington).

Projected starters (2): Sam Bradford, QB, first round; Rodger Saffold, LT, second round.

Others (8): Jerome Murphy, CB, third round; Mardy Gilyard, WR, fourth round; Michael Hoomanawanui, TE, fifth round; Eugene Sims, DE, sixth round; Fendi Onobun, TE, sixth round; George Selvie, DE, seventh round; Josh Hull, LB, seventh round; Marquis Johnson, CB, seventh round.

Injury considerations: Murphy underwent ankle surgery and is out indefinitely, a setback for the secondary. A series of injuries to Hoomanawanui makes it tougher for the team to count on him. If healthy, he's a key role player.

Key variable: Gilyard's development, discussed in some detail Tuesday. The Rams have other options at receiver. Gilyard suffered when the Rams lost their offensive coordinator heading into the NFL lockout.

Seattle Seahawks

Total 2010 picks: nine

No longer with team (1): E.J. Wilson, DE, fourth round (waived).

Projected starters (4): Russell Okung, LT, first round; Earl Thomas, FS, first round; Walter Thurmond, CB, fourth round; Kam Chancellor, SS, fifth round.

Others (4): Golden Tate, WR, second round; Anthony McCoy, TE, sixth round; Dexter Davis, DE, seventh round; Jameson Konz, DE, seventh round.

Injury considerations: Okung's repeated ankle sprains have kept him off the field for long stretches. The team needs him healthy to stabilize the line.

Key variable: Tate's development, discussed in some detail Tuesday. The section on Gilyard applies here. The Seahawks have other options. Tate suffered when the Seahawks fired their offensive coordinator heading into the lockout. It's looking like an upset if Tate becomes a key contributor this season.

San Francisco 49ers

Total 2010 picks: eight

No longer with team (1): Taylor Mays, SS, second round (traded to Cincinnati)

Projected starters (3): Anthony Davis, RT, first round; Mike Iupati, LG, first round; NaVorro Bowman, LB, third round.

Others (4): Anthony Dixon, RB, sixth round; Nate Byham, TE, sixth round; Kyle Williams, WR, sixth round; Phillip Adams, CB, seventh round.

Injury considerations: A season-ending knee injury will sideline Byham, who was looking like one of the better young blocking tight ends in the league.

Key variable: Davis' development. The 49ers need their young right tackle to gain consistency in his second season. Like other members of the 2010 draft class, Davis could have used a fuller offseason to develop in an organized setting. Instead, he's pretty much picking up where he left off last season.

Arizona Cardinals

Total 2010 picks: seven

No longer with team (1): Jorrick Calvin, CB, sixth round (traded to Philadelphia)

Projected starters (3): Williams, NT, first round; Daryl Washington, LB, second round; Andre Roberts, WR, third round.

Others (3): O'Brien Schofield, OLB, fourth round; John Skelton, QB, fifth round; Jim Dray, TE, seventh round.

Injury considerations: A high-ankle sprain has sidelined Skelton, the No. 2 quarterback. The team signed Brodie Croyle as insurance in the short term. Rich Bartel could push for the No. 2 job as well.

Key variable: Schofield's development. The Cardinals knew Schofield would require time to more fully recover from the knee injury he suffered during 2010 Senior Bowl practices. They've seen flashes from Schofield during the preseason and badly need whatever he can give them from a pass-rushing standpoint.

Three things revisited: Rams-Chiefs

August, 26, 2011

Looking back on three things discussed here before the St. Louis Rams' 14-10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Friday night:

1. Run defense. Teams playing with purpose during the exhibition season often look very good. The Rams, unhappy with their performance against Tennessee last week, resembled such a team early in this game. They allowed no rushes longer than 4 yards in the first half. They sent linebacker Ben Leber, safety Craig Dahl and safety Quintin Mikell on blitzes. Cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Ron Bartell were hitting hard, too. This was the sort of defensive performance the Rams were seeking from their starting unit, against the run and everything else. Leber at halftime, courtesy of the Rams: "The defense is looking good right now. We had the one sudden change and we responded great. Overall, we’ve been in some good situations, some tough situations, and we’ve responded. I think the defense is playing good right now."

2. Offensive consistency. The Rams opened with 12- and 10-play drives for touchdowns. They established running back Steven Jackson early. Jackson, a non-factor against the Titans last week, carried 15 times for 72 yards in a performance that should serve as a tune-up for the regular season. The Rams were determined to get him going. Although new coordinator Josh McDaniels generally prefers a one-back offense, the Rams used fullback Brit Miller extensively, and with positive results. Quarterback Sam Bradford used the running game to beat the Chiefs with play-action passes, including a 6-yard scoring pass to receiver Mike Sims-Walker. Bradford did throw an interception deep in Rams territory when he didn’t see Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson dropping into coverage. Bradford completed nine of 16 passes for 95 yards with two touchdowns and one pick. Jackson: "Overall, we look good. I think we’ve been able to execute in the running game and the passing game. Last week, we had some up and down possessions, but this week we wanted to re-establish ourselves."

3. Wide receiver competition. Sims-Walker made an impact with his 6-yard scoring reception. Rookie Greg Salas made a positive impression with a reception across the middle for a first down. We saw, again, just how much Lance Kendricks will figure into the passing game. The rookie tight end caught another touchdown pass, this one an 11-yarder. But the focus remains on the wide receiver race. Donnie Avery, Mardy Gilyard and Danario Alexander are the three receivers I’ve singled out as likely fighting for a spot if the team keeps six at the position. None seemed to get much separation in this game, either from defenders or from each other. Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, providing commentary on the Rams’ broadcast, found fault with Alexander on two incomplete passes late in the first half. The way Faulk saw things, Alexander didn’t anticipate the ball well enough coming out of his break. Faulk thought Alexander rounded off another route, allowing the defensive back to make a play on the ball. Gilyard found little running room on punt returns and fielded one inside the 10, usually a no-no. The Chiefs picked off Rams backup A.J. Feeley on a pass intended for Avery. Faulk suspected Avery tipped off his route.

Three things: Rams-Chiefs

August, 26, 2011
Three things to watch for in the St. Louis Rams' preseason road game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Friday night at 8 p.m. ET:

1. Run defense: Coach Steve Spagnuolo blamed "gap integrity" for the Rams' generous run defense against Tennessee last week. He will be looking for improvement in this game. Veteran linebackers Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga are joining James Laurinaitis in the starting lineup for the first time since signing with the team this summer. I would expect them to remain in the lineup, most likely, for the regular season. It's important for them to get some time together in game situations before the regular-season opener against Philadelphia. Poppinga, 31, missed 10 games to a knee injury while with Green Bay last season. He started 15 games in 2007 and has subsequently seen his totals decline each season (12 in 2008, three in 2009 and one last season). The Rams held up well against Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles last season until allowing an 80-yard run. Kansas City led the NFL in rushing yards, so this should be a good test while the starters are on the field.

2. Offensive consistency. The Rams opened their most recent preseason game with an 83-yard touchdown pass from Sam Bradford to Brandon Gibson. The starters went to sleep on offense from that point forward. Steven Jackson found little room to run. Bradford took some big hits. The Rams will be looking for more consistency in this game. Their starting offensive line will be back together with left guard Jacob Bell's expected return from injury. Getting that group some time together will be welcome for the Rams.

3. Wide receiver competition. There should be time for Rams coaches to work backup receivers into the rotation while the starting offense is still on the field. Donnie Avery, Mardy Gilyard and Danario Alexander are the ones most likely fighting for a roster spot at this time, in my view. Avery and Gilyard appear to have the best chance in part because Alexander's chronic knee problems raise questions about his ability to hold up over time. Avery and Gilyard also made more of their opportunities in the game against Tennessee. Both need to play well, however, because the team could always bring back Mark Clayton once Clayton's surgically repaired knee has healed sufficiently.

Camp Confidential: St. Louis Rams

August, 22, 2011
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Unfazed by the NFL lockout and energized by a new offense, Sam Bradford shatters perceptions of him as a young player scrambling to make up lost ground.

"We’re going to push the ball down the field," the St. Louis Rams' second-year quarterback says with some excitement. "I think we’re going to be aggressive."

Building steadily for the long term isn't the focus for Bradford and the Rams' new offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels. They're living week to week, play to play.

It's a mindset change for Bradford and any quarterback transitioning away from a West Coast offense. Kevin Kolb is going through a similar adjustment after leaving Philadelphia for Arizona. Instead of honing a timing-based system designed to out-execute any defense, they're learning to change up their plan, sometimes dramatically, for each opponent. And they are reveling in the possibilities.

"We are not going to just keep the same stuff in from week to week and say, 'This is what we run, stop it,'" Bradford says. "We could come in and we could have 30 new plays in on Wednesday and they’re all designed to attack what the defense’s weakness is."

McDaniels retained portions of the offense Bradford learned as a rookie last season. The terminology for personnel groupings is largely the same. McDaniels also inherited most of the staff from former coordinator Pat Shurmur. But this will not be a 1-2-3 progression passing game to the degree it was last season. Bradford said he likes the changes in part because the new offense more closely resembles the one he ran at Oklahoma.

"Last year in the West Coast, you started in the same place every time, and no matter what the coverage is, you just kind of work through it and find the open guy," Bradford said. "This year, we still have progression plays where it is like that, but it’s a lot more, 'OK, if the defense gives us 2, this is exactly what we want. We’re going to work off the 'Mike' and we’re going to high-low it and we’re going to go right there. I really like that."

In another big change, Bradford will take over responsibility for making all of the pass-protection calls at the line of scrimmage. He previously leaned on his offensive line to make adjustments based on where specific defenders were lining up. That means Bradford, still only 23, will carry a heavier mental burden against a formidable schedule. The Rams play the Eagles, New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints among their first seven opponents. They'll find out quickly whether Bradford is ready for the new responsibilities.

"Giving it all to me, it’s definitely a lot more, but at the same time, it almost makes it easier once you get everything figured out," he said, "because you know exactly what could happen with all the different scenarios."


[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesSteven Jackson's role will change in Josh McDaniels' one-back offense.
1. Steven Jackson's role. The Rams' Pro Bowl running back has been an outspoken advocate for running behind a fullback in a traditional two-back offense. Jackson realized life would change as McDaniels installed what will be primarily a one-back system. He expects a less regimented running game and less reliance on pounding the ball between the tackles. More of his receptions will come by design instead of on checkdowns, flares and the like.

"This offense allows me to open my whole repertoire of talent and put on display the things I can do outside the tackles," Jackson said. "You don’t have a fullback and I hate to lose Mike Karney, but at the same time, it allows me on a bigger stage to show my overall talent as a football player."

The Rams ran one-back offenses earlier in Jackson's career. He'll have to set up his blocks instead of relying on a fullback to clear the way. A basic play called "Big Jab" illustrates the differences. It's a strongside run masquerading as an inside-zone play to the weak side. The back must freeze the weakside linebacker with his eyes long enough for the offensive lineman to reach the second level.

"Things like that, you can’t pick up on a live game, of course, but on the coaches’ film, it makes a difference," Jackson said.

2. The thinking at wide receiver. The Rams ran out of viable receiving options during their forgettable Week 17 defeat at Seattle last season. With an ascending young quarterback in place and multiple Rams receivers coming off injuries, this offseason seemed like a good time for the organization to invest heavily in a dynamic receiver.

Sidney Rice was available, but the Rams didn't flinch when the division-rival Seahawks signed him to a five-year contract. The Rams signed Mike Sims-Walker to a one-year deal and went to camp with a mostly undistinguished group.

"A lot of people think we have to have some guy that runs 4.25 [in the 40-yard dash] and weighs 230 pounds and he’s 6-foot-5," McDaniels said. "You don’t have to have that guy. You can do it different ways and that is what we are going to try to do."

Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, Sims-Walker, Austin Pettis and Greg Salas are heavy favorites to earn roster spots if healthy. Mardy Gilyard, Donnie Avery and Danario Alexander are fighting for one or two roster spots. None commands double-team attention or special game planning from opposing defensive coordinators.

Tight ends factor heavily into the Rams' plans for the passing game. The team envisions a "12" personnel grouping with Lance Kendricks and Mike Hoomanawanui at tight end with two wideouts and Jackson in the backfield. If teams stick with the base defense, the Rams expect Kendricks and Hoomanawanui to create coverage mismatches. If teams choose to play nickel, they can prepare to see a 6-foot-3, 240-pound running back coming their way. Either tight end could shift to fullback for another dimension.

3. Seeking to upgrade run defense. The Rams shelled out top dollar for only one free agent this offseason. Safety Quintin Mikell, who broke into the NFL with Philadelphia when current Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo ran the Eagles' secondary, brings a physical presence. The Rams are paying him $6.5 million per year because Spagnuolo pretty much had to have him.

[+] EnlargeQuintin Mikell
AP Photo/Jeff CurryThe Rams hope Quintin Mikell (27) can help improve the team's tackling in the secondary.
"I don't know if anyone else would be able to feel this or see this, and I can't remember when he was a rookie if he already had these mannerisms, but he plays the game like Brian Dawkins," Spagnuolo said. "His mannerisms, the way he's a knee-bender. He plays fast, he loves the game, he's matured."

Sitting in his office following a recent practice, Spagnuolo cued up a 2004 play he shows annually to defensive backs. Green Bay, facing first-and-goal from the Philadelphia 7-yard line in a 2004 game at Philadelphia, hands off to Najeh Davenport around the right side. One of the Packers' big tight ends engages No. 46 for the Eagles at the line of scrimmage. Before this year, Spagnuolo never revealed No. 46?s identity to his Rams players. It’s Mikell, far lighter than his opponent, disengaging from the block and cutting down Davenport for a 1-yard loss."

"Boom, bang, bang, get out of here, and make the tackle," Spagnuolo says, taking on the voice of narrator. "I want to teach the smaller guys that size isn't a big deal, that it's about power and leverage, and if you run fast at 200 pounds and a 300-pounder is running slow, you can do that."

The Rams gave up too many long runs last season. They're expecting Mikell and fellow defensive newcomers Justin Bannan, Daniel Muir, Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga to upgrade that area.


Gibson's development at receiver. The Rams have felt better about their restraint at receiver in part because Gibson, 24, showed up for camp ready to build on a 53-catch 2010 season. Gibson and the tough, steady Amendola have been the two best receivers in camp.

"Gibby has had a great camp," Bradford said. "He looks faster than last year. He looks more confident."

Gibson's 83-yard touchdown reception against Tennessee in the Rams' preseason game Saturday night was more than twice as long as any pass he's caught in a regular-season game.

"His route running has been great, he’s picking up schemes, learning how to block and he’s more of a complete receiver than he was," said Mikell, Gibson's former teammate in Philadelphia.


Jerome Murphy's broken ankle. Bradley Fletcher and Ron Bartell arguably give St. Louis the best starting cornerback tandem in the division, at least until Patrick Peterson gets up to speed in Arizona. Depth is a concern after the Rams lost Murphy. Al Harris, 36, adds toughness and experience, but there isn't enough depth to comfortably weather another injury at the position. The Rams would be wise to monitor the waiver wire for cornerbacks and consider potential trade options as the regular season approaches.

[+] EnlargeHarvey Dahl
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonThe Rams expect Harvey Dahl to give the offensive line more of an edge.

  • The Rams added veteran right guard Harvey Dahl to upgrade their talent and give their offensive line an edge. NFC West fans should remember Dahl. While with Atlanta, he enraged then-49ers coach Mike Singletary to such a degree that Singletary got into a verbal sparring match with Dahl during a game. The Rams would have reason to celebrate if Dahl's mean streak rubbed off on third-year right tackle Jason Smith.
  • Dahl's reputation as a brawler created an image in my mind of a player supplementing average talent with toughness. Dahl is better than that physically. He looks more like a tackle than a guard, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing about 305 pounds. He has thicker legs than Smith and has showed good athleticism in camp. McDaniels favors big guards.
  • Veteran newcomers have transformed the Rams from one of the NFL's youngest teams to one of the older ones, based on average age. The team took advantage of a flooded market in free agency. Most veterans signed one-year deals without salary-cap ramifications beyond this season. With so many veterans taking one-year deals around the league, a similar market could await next offseason. Teams like the Rams can have it both ways. They're relying most heavily on a young core featuring Bradford, Smith, Rodger Saffold, James Laurinaitis, Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Fletcher and others. But they also have veteran depth.
  • Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood are giving Jackson something he hasn't had in the recent past: veteran backups who command respect through their accomplishments. Jackson: "Yeah, coming here, they had their hands full. I think between my mentality on the field and how I felt as a player about the organization and what I would like to see, I think I kind of showed them in a way without saying it, 'Go fill the other areas of need and I’ll take care of the running back position. I can hold down the fort and when we feel comfortable enough, then go get another running back or two.' "
  • Laurinaitis is seeking to become more aggressive now that he has a fuller grasp of the defense entering his third season under Spagnuolo. ESPN credited him with four tackles for loss in 2009 and eight last season. Laurinaitis wants that number to climb. "We would rather have tough, physical play where you are attacking downhill than being assignment perfect every time," he said.
  • Long made an interesting observation about players the Rams have added in recent years. Several were coming off recent Super Bowl victories. Fred Robbins, Poppinga and Harris are three. Long: "I don’t think that’s an accident."
  • Quinn has a chance to play about 40 percent of the defensive snaps if all goes to plan. The Rams aren't counting on him for every-down production as long as veteran James Hall remains productive. Quinn couldn't have a better mentor. Hall, 34, still goes out to practice early for one-on-one work with retired defensive tackle La'Roi Glover.
  • Kendricks' addition through the draft raised questions in my mind about whether Hoomanawanui still figured prominently in the Rams' plans. He does. Bradford shot me an are-you-crazy look when I shared those thoughts with him at camp. "There is definitely a place for him," Bradford said.
  • Jackson's carries per game could fluctuate more in McDaniels' offense because so much of the plan hinges upon what the opposing defense offers. Jackson: "That is exactly what this will represent."

Three things: Rams-Titans

August, 20, 2011
Three things to watch for in the St. Louis Rams' preseason game against the Tennessee Titans on Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET:

1. Three wide receivers: Not just any three. Mardy Gilyard, Danario Alexander and Donnie Avery are battling for what could be a single roster spot. Each offers something different to the offense. Each carries injury baggage. Gilyard's shiftiness and special-teams value sets him apart from the other two. Alexander has size on his side. Avery's pure speed and past production has some appeal. Gilyard had wrist surgery this offseason and has suffered from migraines in the past. Alexander has had five surgeries on his left knee. Avery is coming off a torn ACL that sidelined him last season. Avery's knee has required rest during training camp. Of the three, Avery was most impressive during practices late in the week.

2. Steven Jackson's debut. The Rams expect running back Steven Jackson to make his 2011 preseason debut. It's the first time we'll see Jackson working within the Rams' new offense in a game situation. The team rested Jackson to protect a sore hip during the week. Keeping him healthy is critical. The Rams expect Jackson to catch more passes out of the backfield this season. Jackson expects to have more options running on the perimeter. It's doubtful Jackson will play enough to explore all the offense offers him, but we should see a few glimpses.

3. Quinn off the edge. Rookie first-round draft choice Robert Quinn has gone through camp without attracting a great deal of attention. That is because the Rams are already set at defensive end with Chris Long and James Hall. Having Long and Hall in place allows Quinn to come along at a slower pace after sitting out his final season at North Carolina. The Rams have seen flashes of the pure pass-rush ability that led Mel Kiper Jr. to say Quinn could have been a No. 1 overall pick had the NCAA not ruled him ineligible last season. Quinn was active during his preseason debut. He should become increasingly comfortable after the long layoff.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- NFL free agency was brutally unaccommodating for quite a few players this offseason.

Players dreaming of lucrative long-term agreements awoke to an unreceptive market. One-year deals proliferated even for younger starters such as San Francisco 49ers safety Dashon Goldson and new St. Louis Rams receiver Mike Sims-Walker.

I spoke with Sims-Walker at Rams camp this week and asked him what he possibly could have done to go from No. 1 receiver in Jacksonville to essentially unwanted by a Jaguars team without proven replacements for him. He had no answer.

"Man, you couldn’t even imagine the chip I have on my shoulder," Sims-Walker said. "I call it a cracker. It’s bigger than a chip. I’m walking around with a cracker on my shoulder."

The Rams signed Sims-Walker to a one-year agreement that will count about $1.2 million against the cap.

With so many free agents signing one-year deals, the market figures to be flooded with free agents again next offseason. The process could repeat itself for some. They'll have extra incentive to play well in 2011 after realizing the market isn't going to give them the benefit of the doubt.

As for Sims-Walker, I see him sticking with a receiving corps likely to feature Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, Austin Pettis and Greg Salas. Donnie Avery, Mardy Gilyard and Danario Alexander could be fighting for one roster spot unless the Rams surprisingly keep seven receivers. That's how I see it heading into the second preseason game, anyway.

Sims-Walker, who returned to practice late in the week after injuring his groin in the first preseason game, expects to play against Tennessee on Saturday night at the Edward Jones Dome.
A link to the latest NFC West chat transcript, plus one newly addressed subject per division team, not appearing in the transcript:
Chris from Fresno, Calif., thought the San Francisco 49ers' offense looked "pathetic" in the preseason opener. "Should 49ers fans be concerned?" he asks.

Mike Sando: Preseason final scores are pretty much meaningless. How players perform while learning a new offense matters more, but it's too early for panic. You can bet the 49ers will be determined to improve upon their showing against New Orleans. If they look the same or worse, they'll be disappointed and they'll hear about it, but they'll still have time to figure out things before the regular season. If I were the 49ers, I'd be more concerned about losing a key player to injury, particularly a quarterback, than incurring criticisms from those who complain about paying full price for meaningless games, only to analyze those games as if they were worth every penny.

William from Oklahoma City has heard the term "gunslinger" attached to Kevin Kolb, triggering visions of careless play and turnovers. "I don't think the Cards have the defense to cover more turnovers and win games," he writes.

Mike Sando: The gunslinger talk stems at least in part from Kolb's swashbuckling ways off the field. Tales of Kolb disarming a rattlesnake with a boot and killing it with a firearm contribute to the image. There is also this: 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions over the past two seasons, and more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (11) overall for his career. Kolb thinks the Cardinals' offensive system will allow him to exploit coverages more precisely than he could running a West Coast system in Philadelphia. A few numbers to consider: Kolb has thrown interceptions on 3.5 percent of pass attempts over the past two seasons. That compares to 4.9 percent for Alex Smith over the same span and 2.7 percent for Kurt Warner in 2009, his final season with Arizona.

William from St. Louis thinks the Rams could wind up keeping seven wide receivers on their initial 53-man roster, or possibly spread across the active roster and practice squad. He sees Danario Alexander, Mike Sims-Walker, Danny Amendola, Donnie Avery, Austin Pettis and Greg Salas making it, with Mardy Gilyard beating out Brandon Gibson thanks to superior special-teams value.

Mike Sando: Gibson has worked with the starters all through camp. Teammates have raved about his approach to the game. Gibson will almost certainly be part of the 53-man group. Teams keeping seven receivers generally do so when injuries force their hand. Perhaps a starting wideout is injured, so the team carries another one as insurance while the starter heals. The Rams do have some flexibility at the position because they'll be primarily a one-back team. They do not need to carry a pure fullback on the roster. They could have one of their tight ends, Lance Kendricks or Michael Hoomanawanui, shift into the fullback spot on an as-needed basis.

Back to which receivers will earn roster spots. Amendola makes it for sure. I think both draft picks, Pettis and Salas, will stick on that initial 53. Sims-Walker will make it and could start. Then it comes down to health. Injuries have a way of solving these dilemmas. If Alexander and Avery are healthy and playing at a high level, the team has a choice to make. Avery has practiced well the last couple days, but can he stay on the field? Gilyard has had his moments in camp. I'm just not sure whether the Rams will find a spot for him.

Trenchbroom from Spokane, Wash., wonders what position besides offensive line figures to be most improved for the Seattle Seahawks in 2011.

Mike Sando: Wide receiver is a good place to start after the team added Sidney Rice in free agency. The Seahawks have caught the ball exceptionally well this summer. They now have two big targets at receiver. They have a pass-catching tight end (Zach Miller) to give opposing secondaries more to think about. And if they get any consistency from Golden Tate this season, that would further elevate the group. Seattle was better than expected at receiver last season after trading Deion Branch and releasing T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Expectations are higher heading into the upcoming season, and for good reason. The talent is better.

All for now.