NFC West: Mario Williams

Karlos Dansby's addition to the Arizona Cardinals provides insurance at inside linebacker while the team prepares to play without suspended starter Daryl Washington.

The signing, announced by the team Friday, could signal other things as well.

"Dansby is a great fill-in for Washington during the suspension," ESPN's NFL scout, Matt Williamson, said, "but this move also further implies more 4-3 with Washington at weak-side linebacker and Kevin Minter at middle linebacker."

The Cardinals have run a traditional 3-4 defense in the Pittsburgh Steelers' mold over the past two seasons. New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is expected to trend away from that approach, but it's not yet clear to what degree.

"I usually don't like a shift in scheme," Williamson said. "Ninety percent of the time, you are creating holes and fixing what is not broken, like with Buffalo going to a 3-4 after spending all that money for Mario Williams, who really should be a 4-3 end, or with Kansas City and Glenn Dorsey a few years ago.

"But with the Cardinals, their outside linebackers in a 3-4 are a liability for them. They can make that liability go away if they play more 4-3."

Williamson worked with Bowles in Cleveland when Butch Davis was the Browns' head coach. Bowles assisted Chuck Pagano, then the Browns' secondary coach, as Cleveland ran a very straightforward 4-3 scheme. Bowles has subsequently worked in a 3-4 with the Miami Dolphins and a 4-3 with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Bowles and Dansby were together with the Dolphins when Miami ran a version of the 3-4 under then-coordinator Mike Nolan.

"Dansby is a taller, longer guy you could see lining up over the tight end," Williamson said. "He doesn't look like Minter or Jasper Brinkley or most 3-4 inside linebackers."

Dansby played strong-side linebacker during his first run with the Cardinals from 2004 through 2009. He worked at weak-side linebacker in the Dolphins' 3-4 before emerging in the strong-side "Mike" role. Dansby credited Nolan for expanding his game.

"He took my game to another level," Dansby said in 2010. "He put me in a new position that I had never played before in this defense and he really taught me the difference between the two positions and I just want to thank him for that opportunity to play the 'Mike' linebacker.

"It's totally different from the 'Will' linebacker and 'Sam' linebacker. And all I had done before was play 'Sam' linebacker. He’s a legendary coach in my book as a defensive coordinator and it was mind-blowing the difference in the two. He taught me a lot and he made me a better linebacker for that."

So, as Williamson noted, Dansby could play inside linebacker in a 3-4 if the Cardinals chose to run one. Or, more sensibly, he could play the strong side in a 4-3, with Minter in the middle and Washington on the weak side.

"You would want all three of those guys on the field on first-and-10," Williamson said.
The new contracts for Darrelle Revis in Tampa Bay and Kam Chancellor in Seattle will be interesting to analyze once the figures can be confirmed.

Initial reports tend to focus on maximum payouts, which can be misleading. Sometimes the new money available through an extension produces a misleading new average per year.

For context, John Parolin of ESPN Stats & Information recently put together charts showing how much money players received after signing deals reportedly worth at least $100 million. The answer was less than 50 percent in most cases.

The first chart examines the numbers for contracts that are no longer active.

The second chart shows how much money players have received on active contracts with maximum values of at least $100 million. It counts the $29 million signing bonus associated with Joe Flacco's deal as money already paid.

Two of the first 10 players selected in the 2006 NFL draft are scheduled to start in the Super Bowl on Feb. 3.

Both are starters for the San Francisco 49ers.

Both were arguably selected higher than their positions warranted in terms of value.

Both have earned Pro Bowl recognition in recent seasons. Both have made high-impact plays in postseason victories over the past two seasons.

Tight end Vernon Davis and strong safety Donte Whitner are key players for the 49ers heading into the team's Super Bowl matchup against Baltimore.

I've singled out Davis in this item because the seventh-year tight end provided yet another high-impact postseason performance Sunday, his third 100-yard receiving game in four playoff appearances over the past two seasons. Davis also had a 44-yard reception against Green Bay last week in his lone playoff performance totaling less than 100 yards.

As the chart below shows, Davis accounts for three of the five highest single-game postseason yardage totals for tight ends over the past two seasons. Davis and Dallas Clark are the only NFL tight ends with more than one 100-yard receiving game in the playoffs since 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Each has three.

The Ravens have allowed only one postseason touchdown pass to a tight end since 2001. They have allowed only two 110-yard receiving games to tight ends in regular-season or playoff games since 2001. Philadelphia's Brent Celek had 157 yards against the Ravens last season. San Diego's Antonio Gates had a 105-yard game against Baltimore in 2007.
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The Arizona Cardinals do not yet know which players will start at offensive tackle for them.

The Cardinals do have a pretty good idea which players those tackles will have to block in passing situations this season.

The list includes Jared Allen and Jason Babin, who combined for 40 sacks last season while ranking first and third, respectively, in that category. Overall, the Cardinals face nine of the 17 NFL players with at least 10 sacks last season, plus another player, John Abraham, who finished with 9.5. There are also players expected to reach double figures in sacks this season after failing to do so in 2011. Mario Williams and Clay Matthews head that list.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic identifies D'Anthony Batiste (left) and rookie Bobby Massie (right) as potential favorites to start at tackle after a triceps injury knocked out left tackle Levi Brown, perhaps for the season.

Batiste, 30, started four games for Atlanta in 2007. Massie, a fourth-round choice, started 29 consecutive games at right tackle to end his career at Mississippi.

The chart shows the Cardinals' 2012 schedule, plus projected top pass-rushers from the left and right sides of each opponent's defense. Those pass-rushers' sack totals from 2011 appear in parenthesis.
The San Francisco 49ers posted a 5-1 record in the NFC West last season while winning the division by a five-game margin.

Their division rivals did make up ground as the season progressed.

The 49ers outscored Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis by a combined seven points in rematches last season, down from a 58-point gap the first time around. The Cardinals defeated the 49ers in Week 14 while winning seven of their final nine games. Two weeks later, Seattle led San Francisco with three minutes remaining in an eventual two-point defeat.

The question this offseason was whether the 49ers' rivals could do enough to close the gap. That quest will continue with the draft, where the 49ers will be picking much later than the rest of the West.

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. joined the conversation Tuesday with a look at what NFC West teams have done and the possibilities that await. We begin with the Cardinals.

Arizona Cardinals

Best move: Using the franchise tag for Calais Campbell was smart, but also an easy call once the sides failed to reach agreement on a long-term deal before free agency. Williamson: "After that, picking up William Gay was probably their best move. Not that he is great, but he does not embarrass himself, the coordinator is very familiar with him, he can start and he is a solid nickel. I would rather have Richard Marshall, but not by leaps and bounds. Both are low-end starters. Signing Gay stops the bleeding a little bit. It means you don't feel the need to take a corner super high in the draft."

Worst move: Failing to buy insurance at tackle stands out as the obvious one. Demetress Bell was one option, but Philadelphia signed him for what amounts to a one-year deal with an option for more. Levi Brown's return to a cap-friendlier deal made some sense without upgrading anything. Williamson took issue with the team's decision to sign guard/tackle Adam Snyder from San Francisco for a deal including a $5 million signing bonus. Williamson: "The worst move would be an inability to upgrade on the offensive line. I don't like Snyder at all. I watched him and thought, 'Man, he is awful.' I can live with him as maybe the sixth guy because he can play multiple positions, but even then, I'm not thrilled. And the Cardinals played against him twice a year. I'll bet their defensive linemen are rolling their eyes."

Williamson's ideal first-round scenario: "I don't love where they sit based on their needs. They are a good candidate to trade down, and without a second-round pick, that makes more sense for them. They would jump on Michael Floyd, but I think he goes in the top 10. He would fit given their need for a solid receiver opposite Larry Fitzgerald, but it almost has to be offensive line. I don't love the tackles who are likely to be available in this spot. I would live with Riley Reiff, but he might not be there and he looks like just an average starting offensive tackle. They would be reaching on Mike Adams there. He can work out fine. David DeCastro would be great, but that is not really the need. They need tackles more than inside guys."

San Francisco 49ers

Best move: We could single out re-signing Carlos Rogers or franchising Dashon Goldson or even making sure Ahmad Brooks did not reach free agency. Or we could focus on the collective, as Williamson chose to do. Williamson: "I was extremely impressed in their ability to bring back the best defense in the league. They had guys who easily could have left in free agency. You would expect them to take a hit or two. Instead, the 49ers kept their guys. That was the home-run move of the Niners this offseason."

Worst move: We won't take issue with the 49ers' inability to land Peyton Manning. They tried, but in the end, they could not force Manning to make what arguably would have been the best football decision for him. While there was much to like about the 49ers' offseason, Williamson questioned Brandon Jacobs' signing: "I just don’t think he is all that good of a football player. He needs room to operate and isn't a very good receiver. I would rather use a third-round pick on back than sign Jacobs. He is not consistent. If you just watch his highlights, he's great. But he gets hit in the backfield, it takes him a while to get going and the Giants started using Ahmad Bradshaw, a much smaller back, more as the goal-line guy a lot of the time."

Williamson's ideal first-round scenario: "Addressing the offensive line, I think. They are another team that could trade up or down. I don't see a wonderful fit for them. The guard from Midwestern State, Amini Silatolu, might be a really nice player to plug in at right guard. I'll bet Jim Harbaugh is high on Coby Fleener and I would understand that. Delanie Walker is entering the final year of his contract. Fleener would be one more weapon to make Alex Smith's life easier. Maybe a Rueben Randle type of guy would work, too, but all of a sudden you can't keep all these receivers on the roster."

St. Louis Rams

Best move: Easy call here. The Rams got good value for the second overall choice, sending it to the Washington Redskins for the sixth and 39th choices this year, plus first-round selections in 2013 and 2014. They've got a veteran first-year head coach with the job security to use those selections over the next few seasons. With Sam Bradford already in place at quarterback, the Rams were not interested in taking Robert Griffin III second overall, so moving out of that spot made sense.

Worst move: While the draft choices acquired from Washington help for the long term, the Rams still haven't done much to improve the odds for Bradford in 2012. Williamson and I could not point to any one example of the Rams failing to add a specific player. The team did not have obvious options, in other words. Williamson: "They did not screw up in one instance, but collectively, not doing anything at tight end, receiver or running back beyond signing Steve Smith was not good. They will probably use some high picks in the draft on offense, but is that going to help this year? You have to get a guy or two to make Bradford's life a little easier. It wouldn't kill them to get a Jerricho Cotchery, a chain-moving veteran. But it is a deep receiver draft and they probably want to go young."

Williamson's ideal first-round scenario: "Matt Kalil will be gone, but I sit there and take Morris Claiborne, Justin Blackmon or Trent Richardson. I probably would take Claiborne first considering their needs, but he is probably not there. Blackmon would be my last choice because he is not as good as those other guys, but he certainly would address the biggest need. Richardson is the best prospect and has the Jeff Fisher mentality. He could be his Eddie George for years and years. I love where the Rams sit. I do not want them to trade back. They should not trade to No. 10 and lose one of those stud players. They need studs. They have so many picks in the coming years. They have to stay in the top six and get one of those three players I mentioned. There's a drop after that."

Seattle Seahawks

Best move: The Seahawks made a few good ones, from keeping Red Bryant to re-signing Marshawn Lynch before free agency. Adding quarterback Matt Flynn at a reasonable price (for a quarterback) stands above the others. Williamson: "I don't love Flynn, but I don't know how you can't commend a team when they get better at quarterback. They are not leaps and bounds better, but they are better and it's such an important position. Of all their moves, I cannot come up with an unimpressive one. Jason Jones will be a really good fit as well."

Worst move: The team did not improve its outside pass rush, watching Mario Williams and Kamerion Wimbley sign elsewhere. But Williams in particular was not a serious consideration. Williamson pointed to David Hawthorne's departure as potentially the worst move. Williamson: "Letting Hawthorne go was probably a mistake. They made a desperation signing with Barrett Ruud in the meantime because they need bodies. It is a position you can find in the draft and free agency. It's better than being light at tackle or wideout. Ruud is a very overrated player and I said it a year ago when he left Tampa. He is a decent tackler, but he is not physical, he lacks range and makes a lot of plays chasing guys eight yards downfield. He is a backup now, but people probably look at him as a starter. I just don't agree with that."

Williamson's ideal first-round scenario: They have to be looking at Luke Kuechly. He would be a leader of your defense and a great fit. They have to consider the rush end from USC, Nick Perry, if Pete Carroll likes him. He could be the next Chris Clemons and line up opposite him on passing downs for now. Carroll would know. You add Jason Jones with a hand on the ground at defensive tackle and Brandon Mebane or whoever next to him, and suddenly the front four can get after people. The draft will probably work out well for Seattle. Someone better than Perry will fall to them, whether it's David DeCastro, Kuechly, Michael Floyd or even Ryan Tannehill. I think they would jump on Ryan Tannehill if he is there at No. 12 and maybe even consider moving up to seven to get him. To me, he is a franchise quarterback and they do not have one on their roster, even though they got better at the position."
A look around the NFC West on the third day of NFL free agency:

Best re-signings: Defensive end Red Bryant in Seattle and cornerback Carlos Rogers in San Francisco. Both players earned new contracts. The Seahawks in particular made a strong positive statement. They have the youngest defense in the league. It's important for them to set an example by paying the right players. Bryant is the type of self-made team player they want to build around. So is Chris Clemons, who is entering the final year of his deal and could warrant an extension, in my view. Teams are better off taking care of their own core players rather than overpaying for castoffs from other organizations. The 49ers have taken this route. Looks like the Seahawks are taking it as well.

[+] EnlargeCortland Finnegan
Fernando Medina/US PresswireCB Cortland Finnegan brings an attitude, not just cover skills, to the St. Louis defense.
Best addition: Cortland Finnegan to St. Louis. The stuff referenced above about paying the right players only applies for teams possessing the right players. The Rams do not have enough of them. They are starting over. They will want to build through the draft mostly. In the meantime, they identified Finnegan as a player to help them establish their program. They paid a premium, but that was the price of doing business in free agency. At least they know what they're getting. Finnegan embodied the toughness and competitive spirit that coach Jeff Fisher promoted in Tennessee. He gives the Rams a player to help Fisher establish his program in St. Louis. Former coach Steve Spagnuolo took a similar approach last offseason by signing Quintin Mikell, a player he coached in Philadelphia. Fisher has more time.

Most surprising move: Randy Moss to San Francisco. When Moss worked out for New Orleans, I figured the Saints were looking to change the subject away from the bounty scandal. Turns out the reports about Moss looking impressive must have had at least some merit. The 49ers, mindful about overpaying for outsiders in free agency, also knew they could sign Moss without paying what it would have taken to secure Vincent Jackson or the other marquee receivers in free agency. Moss is a lower-risk gamble. The contract he signed does not affect the financial pecking order in San Francisco. That had to be important for the 49ers.

Toughest departure: Richard Marshall from Arizona to Miami. Free agency tends to be overrated. The Cardinals started 1-6 last season after basking in almost universal acclaim for the aggressiveness they showed in free agency and in acquiring a quarterback. Of all the deals Arizona made last year, the one for Marshall represented the greatest value. The money Marshall got from the Dolphins did not appear prohibitive. Cardinals coaches had held up Marshall as a leader and key contributor. Seems like the team would have been better off keeping him around.

Biggest dilemma: The Cardinals have until Friday afternoon to make a decision on quarterback Kevin Kolb. Barring some sort of compromise, keeping Kolb requires paying a $7 million bonus. But what if the team's first choice at quarterback, Peyton Manning, fails to choose his next team by then? Paying Kolb the bonus would make it tougher for the Cardinals to remain in the chase for Manning. Letting Kolb go without having Manning in place would risk heading into the 2012 season without sufficient options at the position.

Most overhyped storyline: Mario Williams to Seattle. The Seahawks showed no interest in the former Houston defensive end/outside linebacker. Looks like Buffalo was the only team interested in paying huge money for him. Why else would Williams spend three days visiting the Bills, make no other trips and then sign with Buffalo, a team that had to pay a premium to land a high-profile free agent?

Unfinished business: The Rams and 49ers still need receiver help. The Seahawks need another quarterback (Matt Flynn?). The 49ers have yet to re-sign Alex Smith. Those are the storylines lurking in the shadows while Arizona awaits word from Manning.

Quick scorecard: The 49ers have lost three unrestricted free agents (Josh Morgan, Blake Costanzo and Adam Snyder). Arizona has lost one, Marshall. Seattle has also lost one, John Carlson. The Rams have lost none, although Brandon Lloyd is making the rounds. The Rams (Finnegan) and Cardinals (Snyder) are the only NFC West teams to add a UFA from another team to this point in the signing period. Moss was not a UFA; he was a street free agent.

Next up: The NFC West chat begins at 1 p.m. ET Thursday. See you there.

Sando chat scheduled for 1 p.m. ET

March, 15, 2012
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"Nice, quiet day at ESPN," Adam Schefter wrote. "NCAA tourney begins, NBA trade deadline is at 3 p.m. ET, and decisions pending from Mario Williams and Peyton Manning."

Not that any of it can compete with the raw excitement of the next NFC West chat.

See you there at 1 p.m. ET.
The Seattle Seahawks wanted to keep Red Bryant, but they weren't going to name the big defensive end their franchise player.

The decision carried risk as Bryant headed toward free agency, but it all worked out in the end. The team reached agreement with Bryant on a five-year deal worth $35 million, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. Bryant would have received $10.6 million for one season as a franchise player, setting an inflated average for any long-term deal.

Seattle has now re-signed its top free-agent defensive lineman in back-to-back offseasons. Brandon Mebane re-signed with the team a year ago.

The Seahawks and Bryant, 27, were the best fit for one another. Coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley created a role for Bryant with the former defensive tackle's specific skills in mind. Bryant lined up over the tight end as a five-technique lineman, anchoring a Seattle run defense that ranked 15th in total rushing yards allowed and fourth in yards per carry allowed. Bryant played about two-thirds of the defensive snaps.

Seattle has now re-signed its top two free agents. Marshawn Lynch was the other. Finding pass-rush help remains a priority, but the Seahawks were not among the teams linked to Mario Williams as the signing period opened.

The Seahawks valued Bryant not only for his strength against the run, but also for his affable personality in the locker room.
The St. Louis Rams released or planned to release five starters Monday.

"Is this a signal they aren't trying to be competitive now?" a Rams fan named Rick asked. "They are going to do another full rebuild?"

The Rams were not competitive enough when Justin Bannan, Fred Robbins, Jason Brown, Ron Bartell and James Hall were on their roster. Robbins was very good two years ago. Bartell has serious injury concerns. Hall was a strong all-around defensive end for years, but with 2011 first-round pick Robert Quinn on the roster, Hall's age and salary likely worked against him.

As for the full rebuild part of Rick's question, yes, the Rams are undergoing one of those.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the five cuts will clear about $20 million in cap space, giving the team roughly $30 million of room heading into free agency. General manager Les Snead: "We will be active. Like I've mentioned before, we're going to try to be aggressive in acquiring players whatever the method ... we want to get the best players in."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the 49ers have demonstrated a willingness to take chances at wide receiver under Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke, as demonstrated by signing Braylon Edwards and Randy Moss over the past year. Maiocco: "Of course, the 49ers still have a need at wide receiver. Joshua Morgan is a free agent, and the 49ers want him back. Ted Ginn was a lot more valuable as a return man than as a wideout, so his return is anything but certain. Late in the season, the 49ers rolled the dice in a different way at the receiver position. After several key injuries, the 49ers decided not to address the position. Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams were the starters in the NFC Championship Game, with Brett Swain was the No. 3 wideout." Noted: The contracts with Edwards and Moss were low-risk deals.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Moss thinks he's gotten a bad rap in the media. Moss: "When it comes to world wide sports media, you know, I've gotten a bad rap. They've done their homework on me or they wouldn't have brought me in here. ... One thing I would like the sports world to understand is the love and passion I have for football."

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa-Press Democrat describes Moss as a one-dimensional player, and one the 49ers will have a hard time maximizing. Cohn: "Moss is a down-the-field receiver. Period. He does not run shallow crossing routes or underneath routes -- he avoids them. He's strictly a home-run hitter. To make use of Moss, the quarterback -- we're most likely talking Alex Smith here -- needs to throw the ball vertically, and the offensive coordinator must be willing to take long shots downfield. But that is not Smith's style, never has been. He is a meticulous, analytical player who likes to throw to receivers when he sees a nice, comfortable window accompanied by plenty of open space."

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers appear cocky going after Moss while ignoring Peyton Manning. Noted: Going after a wide receiver is far less disruptive than going after a quarterback. Manning would change every aspect of the offense, essentially forcing the team to part with Smith. Moss will be part of a rotation at the position, and he will not prevent the team from making other moves at his position.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times offers thoughts on Mario Williams as a potential fit for Seattle in free agency. O'Neil: "The Seahawks have stated a desire to improve their pass rush, and Williams isn't just one of the top pass rushers available in the open market, he's one of the top pass rushers in the game. This isn't a great pass rusher in his 30s. This is a great pass rusher in his prime. He played outside linebacker for the Texans last season, demonstrating a versatility that could give Seattle's defensive coaches a license to scheme with a roster that includes both Williams and Chris Clemons."

Also from O'Neil: thoughts on Matt Flynn as a potential QB signing for the Seahawks.

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle passes along John Clayton's thoughts on Williams. Clayton: "If you're going to be going for Mario Williams, the best value is to put him on the line of scrimmage and have him rush as a 4-3 defensive end. That's the way the league goes. You don't see $15 million linebackers. ... I think that when you look at the value, he's going to be more valuable to a 4-3 team, and the two 4-3 teams that appear to have either the most money or the most interest are Atlanta and Seattle."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals are hoping for a quick resolution to Peyton Manning's situation. Somers: "The Cardinals would prefer the process to proceed as quickly as possible for a couple reasons. They owe quarterback Kevin Kolb a $7 million bonus if he is on the roster Saturday. They likely would release Kolb if they sign Manning. And the Cardinals are expected to start the league year Tuesday with little room under the NFL's $120.6 million salary cap. It will be difficult for them to re-sign their players, or those from other teams, without knowing if they are going to sign Manning."

Also from Somers: The Cardinals aren't worried about dire salary-cap characterizations regarding the team.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the team expects to be less aggressive in free agency this offseason, in part because it perceives fewer needs.
Peyton Manning, Mario Williams, Matt Flynn, Kevin Kolb, Randy Moss and the St. Louis Rams' recent trade with Washington were among the subjects Dave Grosby, Bob Stelton and I discussed Monday.

710ESPN Seattle has the audio.

I promoted Williams as a potential pass-rush solution for Seattle when Grosby, Stelton and I spoke during the combine. This time, we considered the other side of free agency, specifically that players reaching the market tend to come with question marks. If Williams met expectations as the No. 1 overall choice in his draft class, why would the Texans let him reach the market? Don't point to the salary cap, either. Teams can find ways to keep their very best players.

Meanwhile, ESPN's Adam Schefter says the Arizona Cardinals expect to release tackle Levi Brown, a move long anticipated in the absence of a contract restructuring. Also, the Rams plan to release defensive end James Hall and cornerback Ron Bartell, two players singled out earlier Monday.

NFC West: Free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
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AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Arizona Cardinals

Key free agents: DE Calais Campbell (franchise tag), CB Richard Marshall, OLB Clark Haggans, WR Early Doucet, T Brandon Keith, G Deuce Lutui, K Jay Feely.

Where they stand: A strong finish to the 2011 season on defense gives the Cardinals a glass-half-full feel heading into free agency. Going from 1-6 to 8-8 was an impressive achievement. Arizona does have serious concerns on its offensive line. The situation at tackle is particularly questionable even if Levi Brown returns (and maybe especially if he returns, depending on your view). The line concerns might actually dissipate some if the team lands Peyton Manning, a quarterback with the ability to beat pressure with quick throws. But tackle is still an area that needs addressing for the long term. Injuries throughout the offensive backfield raise questions about that area as well. Kevin Kolb (concussion), Beanie Wells (knee), Ryan Williams (knee) and Anthony Sherman (ankle) missed extensive time or played at a diminished level for stretches.

What to expect: The Cardinals are one of the teams chasing Manning. That pursuit could consume them for the short term. Landing Manning would signal the end for Kolb in Arizona. The Cardinals have until March 17 to exercise a $7 million option on Kolb, the quarterback they acquired from Philadelphia for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a fat contract. I'm expecting a resolution to Manning's situation before the Kolb bonus comes due simply because interest in Manning should be high enough to accelerate the process. The Cardinals had about $3 million in salary-cap space entering the week, according to ESPN's John Clayton. That figure could increase substantially once the team releases Brown or reworks his contract. Arizona still has strong coaching ties to Pittsburgh on both sides of the ball, but it's an upset if the Cardinals seriously pursue any of the aging veterans recently released by the Steelers. Developing young talent is the priority now. Re-signing Marshall, who fared well at corner, should be a priority. Does free-agent linebacker Stewart Bradley still factor prominently into the team's plans, particularly at such a high price?

St. Louis Rams

Key free agents: WR Brandon Lloyd, G Jacob Bell, CB Justin King, OL Adam Goldberg, LB Chris Chamberlain, G Tony Wragge, TE Billy Bajema, WR Mark Clayton, DT Gary Gibson, P Donnie Jones.

Where they stand: The Rams have no interest in staying the course from a personnel standpoint after going 15-65 over the past five seasons. They will seek fresh talent almost across the board as Jeff Fisher's new coaching staff seeks players for its schemes. The Rams are seeking playmakers in particular, starting at wide receiver. The offensive line needs addressing, although the Rams might try to minimize the turnover at offensive tackle for the short term, figuring they cannot afford to create new needs. But former starting center Jason Brown, benched last season, appears unlikely to return. The team also needs two starting outside linebackers, starting defensive tackles and perhaps two starting cornerbacks on defense.

What to expect: Mass roster turnover. I could see the team retaining as few as one or two players from its list of 21 projected unrestricted free agents. The Rams have a disproportionate amount of their salary cap tied up in recent high draft choices Sam Bradford, Chris Long and Jason Smith. The rookie wage scale will provide them cap relief even if the team remains among the teams picking very high in the 2012 draft. Bradford and Long are cornerstones. Smith could stick around at a reduced rate. The team still has hope for him under new offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan and defensive lineman Jason Jones, both free agents from Tennessee, have ties to Fisher and could make sense for the Rams. Despite the need for playmakers on offense, the Rams did not use the franchise tag on Lloyd, their most talented receiver. Questions persist about how effective Lloyd might be outside Josh McDaniels' offense.

San Francisco 49ers

Key free agents: QB Alex Smith, CB Carlos Rogers, FS Dashon Goldson (franchise tag), G Adam Snyder, WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Josh Morgan, G Chilo Rachal, FB Moran Norris, LB Blake Costanzo.

Where they stand: Coach Jim Harbaugh has said it's a bit unsettling heading through the offseason with his starting quarterback unsigned. Smith and the 49ers are expected to reach agreement eventually. This relationship will almost certainly continue even if Smith does reach free agency without a deal in place. Smith would not fit nearly as well anywhere else. Harbaugh likes to use the word "equity" when describing players he wants to keep. The 49ers would rather bring back Smith than invite the disruption that Manning would bring, were they able to land him. The team needs help at wide receiver and possibly cornerback, depending upon what happens with Rogers. Getting Goldson at the relatively reasonable franchise rate ($6.2 million) was a plus for the 49ers' continuity in the secondary.

What to expect: Not a whole lot, most likely. The 49ers were a good team last season after taking a low-keyed approach to the free-agent market. They will presumably show interest in Vincent Jackson, Mike Wallace and any high-profile, productive receiver with the talent to upgrade their offense. It's a small upset if the 49ers land one of them, however, because their philosophy is built on a measured approach resistant to overpaying. They will have to address the receiver position in free agency one way or another, however. Re-signing Morgan would help. Pierre Garcon, Marques Colston, Mario Manningham, Plaxico Burress and Robert Meachem are among the other options in free agency. An upgrade at right guard would help the line, but the 49ers might be apt to develop 2011 draft choice Daniel Kilgore after investing first-round choices in their left tackle (Joe Staley), left guard (Mike Iupati) and right tackle (Anthony Davis).

Seattle Seahawks

Key free agents: DE Red Bryant, LB David Hawthorne, LB Leroy Hill, OL Paul McQuistan, DE Raheem Brock, DL Tony Hargrove, FB Michael Robinson, RB Justin Forsett, QB Charlie Whitehurst, LB Matt McCoy, TE John Carlson, LB Heath Farwell.

Where they stand: The Seahawks' long-term quarterback situation hangs over them as they head toward the 2012 draft with only the 12th overall choice. The team has built up the rest of its roster to a point where sticking with Tarvaris Jackson as the primary starter could hold back the team to a degree it did not through much of last season. Upgrading the pass rush is another priority for the Seahawks. With defensive end Raheem Brock publicly stumping for Seattle to land Manning, his former teammate, I couldn't help but wonder which one of them had a better shot at earning a roster spot with the team in 2012. It might be Manning, even if the Seahawks are relative long shots for his services. Brock failed to provide the pass-rush push Seattle needed opposite Chris Clemons. Linebacker is another position the Seahawks need to address, whether or not Hawthorne and Hill return.

What to expect: The Seahawks have roughly $30 million in cap space, according to Clayton, and will make every effort to land Manning. They feel they've got a shot as long as they can persuade him to get on a plane and check out what they have to offer in terms of the roster, coaching, facilities, ownership and more. If Manning goes elsewhere, I would expect the Seahawks to consider Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn. Securing him at a price lower than what Arizona paid for Kolb would be the goal. As badly as the Seahawks want to upgrade the position, they have said they will not panic. Overpaying for Flynn could represent panic in their eyes. On the pass-rush front, I'm increasingly skeptical the team will shell out for Mario Williams. The price could be too high for a player Houston has decided to let hit the market. Re-signing Bryant is a priority, but using the franchise tag for him was never an option given the $10.6 million price. A deal slightly north of the one teammate Brandon Mebane signed seems likelier if Bryant returns.
A few considerations after the NFL's 2012 deadline for naming franchise players passed Monday:
  • Two tagged: San Francisco's Dashon Goldson and Arizona's Calais Campbell were the only NFC West players to receive the tag. That was no surprise after the Seahawks re-signed running back Marshawn Lynch. Brandon Lloyd was the only Rams player worth considering for the tag. The Rams badly need receivers. There was some uncertainty over how well Lloyd might produce outside Josh McDaniels' offense.
  • No tag for Bryant: A four-year deal with Lynch gave Seattle other options for the tag. The team decided to pass. This was understandable. Seattle values Red Bryant on the field and in the locker room. He's a great fit. But using the franchise tag on him would have required the team to pay about twice the annual rate defensive tackle Brandon Mebane received a year ago. Mebane got $5 million per season. Bryant, as a defensive end, would have commanded an estimated $10.6 million for one year at the franchise price. We'll now find out how much Bryant values the fit he has enjoyed in Seattle.
  • Alex Smith update: The San Francisco 49ers still have a week to strike a long-term deal with their quarterback. The franchise tag would have set Smith's annual value at an estimated $14.4 million, perhaps around $5 million more than Smith might receive annually on a multi-year deal. There should be enough good faith between Smith and coach Jim Harbaugh for the 49ers to reach a resolution without much worry. Smith is better off with the 49ers than elsewhere, in my view, and he has to know this.
  • Matt Flynn's status: The Packers decided to let their backup quarterback head toward free agency unrestricted by the tag. I had a hard time picturing by-the-book Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson essentially gaming the system by tagging Flynn. Thompson might have realized the trade market for Flynn could be soft if the $14.4 million value set the baseline for any contract another team might sign with the quarterback. No tag means more teams figure to have interest. Would Seattle have interest? Still haven't heard anything substantive along those lines. The assumption here is that Miami will pay a higher price.
  • Mario Williams free: The deadline passed without Houston using the tag for outside linebacker Mario Williams. The Seahawks need a pass-rusher. Williams would probably fit best in the "Leo" role Chris Clemons currently fills. Seattle badly wants to upgrade its pass rush, but I haven't sensed the Seahawks will go after Williams at any price. The Texans knew him best and decided against making every effort to keep him.
  • Receiver market: Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston were two of the bigger-name receivers to escape the tag. Dwayne Bowe isn't going anywhere after Kansas City franchised him. Pierre Garcon, Robert Meachem and Mario Manningham are three middle-tier wideouts with a shot at free agency. Most NFC West teams could use help at the position. Seattle and St. Louis had some interest in Jackson when he was a franchise player previously. The Rams have changed leadership since then. The receiver pool could dry up further if players get deals done before free agency opens March 13. Teams interested in Pittsburgh restricted free agent Mike Wallace would have to part with a 2012 first-round pick if the Steelers did not match an offer. I'm skeptical the 49ers would go that route.
  • Corners of note: The 49ers' Carlos Rogers remains without a deal and could hit the market. Tennessee has no plans to bring back Cortland Finnegan, who has ties to Rams coach Jeff Fisher. Those will be two corners to watch.

The chart shows which players received franchise tags Monday. The NFL has yet to announce the associated values. Franchise players rarely change teams. Drew Brees, as a non-exclusive franchise player, cannot negotiate with other teams. Most franchise players are free to negotiate, but their current teams would receive two first-round draft choices in return if they decided against matching a formal offer.
The two weeks remaining before NFL free agency will feel like two months at the current pace of activity.

Don't bother with the disclaimers, either.

Yes, history says the best teams build through the draft over time, that free agency can be a fool's errand and bad money gets spent this time of year. We still want action.

I hadn't even arrived home from the combine Monday when free-agent hunger pangs led me to call Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. with an idea: singling out for discussion one potential free agent for each NFC West team, with the Houston Texans' Mario Williams in the spotlight.

Williamson was game. He's here with a quick free-agency fix to get us through another day.

Seattle Seahawks

Free agent to consider: Mario Williams, OLB/DE, Houston Texans

Quick primer: Williams, barely 27, could hit the market while the Texans focus their limited salary-cap resources elsewhere. He has 48.5 sacks in his last 66 games and would, at least in theory, help the Seahawks address their most glaring deficiency beyond quarterback.

Williamson's first take: Jacksonville has a chance and New England will be really involved. Seattle is a good one, but I'm not sure exactly where Williams fits. The way they play their scheme, they have Chris Clemons as that 'Leo' guy, the tweener type, and the other end is like a Red Bryant, a big guy. But they clearly need more pass rush. Clemons is fine. Williams is really versatile and that is why he is a great fit in New England. They play so much 3-4. Seattle is a goofy scheme because they do not have two perimeter guys.

Sando's counter: Clemons' contract runs through the 2012 season only. He is 30 years old and probably has some good years left, but Williams could project as their next Leo. In the meantime, the staff would find a way to get the best 11 players on the field. Pete Carroll and Gus Bradley have shown an ability to adapt. They converted Bryant from top-heavy defensive tackle to a pretty much immovable player at the five-technique.

Williamson's followup: The Leo would be a great role for Williams. You could play more base 3-4 stuff. They do need pass-rush help, but right now I do not see a wonderful fit for Williams. Where does he start?

San Francisco 49ers

Free agent to consider: Robert Meachem, WR, New Orleans Saints

Quick primer: Meachem, 27, has a 16.1-yard average per reception and would, in theory, give the 49ers a needed speed element at wide receiver. The 49ers ran low on healthy wideouts last season. They have acknowledged needing help at the position.

Williamson's first take: Quite a few of the top free-agent receivers could become franchise players. All of a sudden, Meachem and Mario Manningham could move up the list. All these receivers have warts. Marques Colston is a free agent, but he has had multiple knee surgeries. DeSean Jackson is fast, but he is little and a pain. Vincent Jackson has been suspended. I think Meachem moves on and winds up being a starter for somebody. His skill set would be real opposite Michael Crabtree. Crabtree is a big, physical, move-the-chains guy. Meachem can run. He gets deep. Even though Alex Smith is not a big-arm guy, Meachem is the type of wideout they should pursue.

Sando's counter: Meachem fits the profile also because the 49ers would rather target middle-tier free agents than spend huge sums on the big names. That is why I don't really see them paying what it would take for Mike Wallace, particularly if a trade were involved. The 49ers are picking only 30th in the draft, so they cannot be certain a top wideout will be there for them. They will be best off addressing the position in free agency, then considering their options in the draft without feeling pressure to find an immediate contributor.

Williamson's followup: The draft also sets up well for them at the position. They have to say, 'We are a contender, let's make a move in free agency.' Mike Wallace would make sense, too. They have to add a receiver of some sort, maybe in free agency and the draft.

St. Louis Rams

Free agent to consider: Cortland Finnegan, CB, Tennessee Titans

Quick primer: Finnegan, 28 last month, has given the Titans' secondary a tough edge in recent seasons. Finnegan played for Rams coach Jeff Fisher in Tennessee. He has started 16 games in four of the last five seasons. He has 14 interceptions, six sacks, one Pro Bowl (2008) and a reputation for nastiness.

Williamson's first take: They are obviously familiar with Finnegan. They do need wideouts and playmakers, but they could add Justin Blackmon after trading back from No. 2 overall. They have quantity at wideout. They need a stud. There is no use in getting Joe Blow C-plus free agent at that position. Corner is a huge need, too. I think Finnegan goes with St. Louis or Detroit. The Lions are a dirty team and Finnegan fits that persona. The Rams have more money to spend and I'm sure they would like to get Morris Claiborne, but not with the top pick. It would be nice to add a solid corner you can count on.

Sando's counter: The Rams liked the top of their depth chart at this position heading into last season, but things have changed. Ron Bartell is coming off a career-altering neck injury. His salary is $6.2 million this season, more than I would anticipate the Rams paying under the circumstances. Bradley Fletcher is a good player when healthy, but he's coming off ACL surgery. Adding Finnegan or another free-agent corner would make sense. The Saints' Tracy Porter played for Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in New Orleans. I doubt the Atlanta Falcons would let Brent Grimes get away, but he's someone the Rams would through their new general manager, Les Snead. The team needs a starting corner.

Williamson's followup: After Jim Schwartz left Fisher's staff for Detroit, he went out and signed Kyle Vanden Bosch. Fisher could sign Finnegan and essentially say, 'This is what I expect. This is how we are going to play defense around here. Watch Cortland.' They will bring in some of their own guys. This is clearly a need position.

Arizona Cardinals

Free-agent to consider: Jared Gaither, LT, San Diego Chargers

Quick primer: Gaither, 25, has all the physical qualities a team would want in a left tackle. He is also 6-foot-9 and 340 pounds. Gaither played well in five starts with San Diego last season, but he has been a tease throughout his career. Baltimore and Kansas City gave up on him.

Williamson's first take: The Cardinals' needs aren't crazy. They could add another outside linebacker type to the mix, but the two youngsters played pretty well. They will get Ryan Williams back at running back. Quarterback is the problem, but I just don't know if they will do anything about it. Their line needs to be rebuilt. Levi Brown, as much as I dislike him, did play better late in the season. I still think he is one of the worst starters in all of football when you look at every game he has started in the NFL. He is not a starting-caliber player. Russ Grimm is a good line coach. Gaither is the most volatile guy out there, but when he is right, he is a top-10 left tackle. Maybe Grimm can harness that. Gaither played well late and should not be overly expensive.

Sando's counter: The Cardinals haven't gotten much from Deuce Lutui or Brown, two players with talent. I'm not sure there's any evidence to suggest Arizona would suddenly get maximum value from another offensive lineman with question marks. Brown's return appears likely, but he will have to take a pay cut. The team doesn't really have another starting tackle, in my view. Brandon Keith's injury situation is a concern. The Cardinals basically have no young talent to draw from at the position because they have loaded up on older vets, largely ignoring offensive linemen in the draft. But they cannot be sure a starting-caliber tackle will be there for them with the 13th overall choice, either.

Williamson's followup: Gaither has some issues, but look, Joe Thomas is not available. They are not going to get Jake Long. They could use a first-round pick on one, too. I don’t know what Gaither's issues are, if he is a bad guy or just unmotivated or what. He was a very good left tackle in Baltimore and they cut him. The last tape of Gaither we saw was good. San Diego might want to keep him. Maybe he turns the corner after being cut by a couple teams. There will be a market for him. Another good tackle who may never leave his current team is Demetrius Bell from Buffalo. He was drafted as a project and is gradually getting better. Last year, he showed he can be an NFL left tackle. His best football might be ahead of him, too.

Expanded list: Most sacks per pass play

December, 8, 2011
12/08/11
7:55
PM ET
Expanding on an earlier post, this one ranks NFL players by most sacks per pass play through Week 13.

The San Francisco 49ers' Aldon Smith ranks fourth on the list. The St. Louis Rams' Chris Long is 10th. The Arizona Cardinals' Sam Acho ranks 19th. Ex-Seattle Seahawk Lawrence Jackson is 14th. Ex-Ram Adam Carriker ranks 21st.

Smith is keeping impressive company. The next step for him, likely next season, will be to maintain his pass-rush production as an every-down player, when he'll also have to hold up against the run more frequently. So far, so good.

The St. Louis Rams' Robert Quinn did not quite make the chart. He has five sacks and a 2.2 percentage. Seattle's Chris Clemons has eight sacks and a 2.1 percentage.

Sacks are not the only measure of a player's performance, of course. The best pass-rushers tend to collect a lot of them, however.

.
Joe from Fort Collins, Colo., writes: Hey Mike, do you think the Arizona Cardinals should think about trading down from the No. 5 posititon if Blaine Gabbert and Patrick Peterson are both gone? I think it's too high for pass-rusher Von Miller, and the defensive linemen would be there between No.s 14 and 22. If they could, say, grab an extra third-round pick and drop down, I would do it. If Gabbert and Peterson are both there, grab the QB. Thanks!

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
AP Photo/Darron CummingsLSU's Patrick Peterson might be available for the Cardinals, who hold the No. 5 pick in the NFL draft.
Mike Sando: We'll want to see how a new labor agreement (if there is one) treats draft choices. A cap on top draft choices' salaries could affect how teams view those choices. Chatter about trading down is usually overrated because teams aren't excited about jumping into those premium-dollar slots. And when there are obvious top-five choices available, teams can be less eager to trade out of those spots.

In general, the Cardinals need difference-makers, so if they can get one of the five best players in the draft, they should do so. Gabbert would qualify as a difference-maker by the nature of his position, provided Arizona had him rated highly enough.

Pass-rushers are difference-makers, too, but you raise a good point. Teams have gotten productive pass-rush help outside the top five choices. No pass-rush types went among the top 12 choices in the 2010 NFL draft. Brandon Graham (13th), Jason Pierre-Paul (15th) and Derrick Morgan (16th) were the first defensive end/outside pass-rushers taken. Aaron Maybin, drafted 11th overall in 2009, was the first selected in his draft class. Chris Long went second overall in 2008 and Mario Williams was first overall in 2006, but they were very strong all-around prospects.

I don't see the value being there, necessarily, for the Cardinals at cornerback. That could change depending upon what new defensive coordinator Ray Horton wants for his defense relative to what Arizona already has on its roster. But with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie coming to Arizona as a first-round pick in recent seasons, the Cardinals would ideally target another position at No. 5 overall.

Also: Tony Softli's review on Peterson makes me think the Cardinals couldn't even think about passing on him, if they have a shot at him at all.

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