NFC West: Marques Colston
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
While the New Orleans Saints come to the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday with plenty to play for, the St. Louis Rams have been eliminated from playoff contention.
The scenario of the Rams playing out the string and the Saints pushing for prime seeding in the NFC is one we've seen before. But, for whatever reason, the Rams have beaten or played the Saints tough in recent meetings. In addition, Rams coach Jeff Fisher has a history of success against New Orleans.
In this week’s edition of Double Coverage, ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Saints reporter Mike Triplett discuss the Rams’ relative success against the Saints, and much more.
Wagoner: The Rams are out of the mix for the postseason and again playing a much better New Orleans team at home. In 2011, the Rams stunned everyone by knocking off the Saints in a somewhat similar situation. It seems New Orleans has struggled to find traction on the road this year. Anything in particular you can point to for those problems?
Triplett: Well, first of all, the Saints hate that question. But it keeps coming up this year because they have struggled quite a bit on the road -- they're 3-3, and two of their wins were surprisingly low-scoring. The Saints actually have the best road record in the NFL since 2009 (24-14). But part of the reason they catch so much heat for looking so human on the road is because they play so super-human at home (as former linebacker Scott Shanle said recently).
There’s no one real consistent theme for their road struggles. Sometimes it has been weather conditions or footing -- neither of which will be an issue on Sunday. And sometimes, of course, they just come out flat. But I don’t expect that from the Saints this week since they know how much is on the line with the playoffs looming.
Nick, with no playoff hopes to inspire the Rams, do you see them treating this game with the same intensity? I know they’re coming off two losses on the road. Have you seen any signs that they can bounce back and cause trouble for the Saints?
Wagoner: Speaking of questions teams hate, Fisher doesn't appreciate anything that looks at the big picture or beyond the next game. For all the problems this team has, effort and buy-in aren't on the list. The Rams have nothing tangible to play for this season, but this is the youngest team in the league and there are plenty at Rams Park who have long insisted that the target year for a breakout is 2014. To get there, they need to continue to make strides over the final three weeks, so I would expect them to put up more of a fight to close out the season.
As it pertains to the Saints specifically, the Rams have a habit this season of playing good teams pretty tough, save for San Francisco. They've beaten Arizona, Indianapolis and Chicago, and they gave Seattle all it could handle at home. There's no guarantee they can carry that over to Sunday, but after two bad performances the past two weeks, I expect a more representative performance against New Orleans.
One storyline that intrigues me here is the presence of Rob Ryan. The Saints went from a former Rams head coach at defensive coordinator (Steve Spagnuolo) in 2012 to one who looked like he was about to become the Rams' coordinator this year. How has Ryan been able to turn around that defense in one year, and what are the biggest differences?
Triplett: Yeah, the Saints definitely owe the Rams an apology for that one -- or a thank-you note. Ryan has made a huge impact. His two most important qualities are probably his attitude and his creativity. Players immediately responded to his enthusiasm and his energy level. They say Ryan makes the game fun, something players have said about him throughout his career. Just as important, he has shown enough flexibility to mold his defense around the players he’s working with (which became a necessity when they suffered a handful of key summer injuries).
I've been especially impressed by the way Ryan has featured young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, among others. And he’ll throw a ton of different looks at teams from week to week and series to series. I’m shocked that this is the first time Ryan’s had a winning season as a defensive coordinator. He obviously found the right fit for himself in New Orleans.
Tell me about the Rams' defense. Any chance they can hang with the Saints’ potent offense? Who might match up against tight end Jimmy Graham and the running backs who catch passes out of the backfield?
Wagoner: The Rams' defense has been especially hard to figure. They expected to be a top-10 group but haven't been able to do it for a few reasons. The pass rush has games where it absolutely dominates and takes over. Robert Quinn has emerged as one of the game's best and Chris Long is still dangerous. When the pass rush is humming, it makes life miserable for opponents. That's the Rams' best hope for slowing down the Saints.
But the Rams don't match up all that well with New Orleans on the back end. The secondary has struggled mightily, especially at safety. Graham is a matchup nightmare for all teams, and he could really expose the Rams’ issues at safety. The Rams drafted linebacker Alec Ogletree to help neutralize guys like Graham, and he could get the call on Sunday. He's a former safety playing linebacker and has at times flashed elite cover skills for a linebacker. But I think he's flattened out a bit in that area in recent weeks while his run-stopping skills have improved. The secondary is going to require major upgrades in the offseason, and given the Saints' weapons, anything short of a dominant pass rush will make for a long day for the Rams.
While we're talking about the Saints' offense, it seems like it's as good as ever, with Drew Brees putting together another monster season. You see that group every day and every week in games. Are there weaknesses that can be exploited, and how have teams found success in slowing them down?
Triplett: Every once in a while, the Saints’ passing offense does get slowed down. The best way to succeed against them is to get physical and disruptive in coverage -- bumping and chipping guys at the line, pushing the envelope within the five yards of contact and trying to stay tight on them down the field. It worked for New England (in heavy man coverage) and Seattle (more zone coverage). But it’s easier said than done. The Panthers tried to play physical this past week, but they didn't have the manpower to stop Graham and receiver Marques Colston. The Saints usually burn defenses with their “pick your poison” offense since they are so deep and versatile.
Interesting that you brought up Ogletree. I liked him as a possible pick for the Saints in April. Instead, they drafted another disruptive athlete -- Vaccaro -- who has made a nice impact in a versatile role. One of the main reasons the Saints drafted Vaccaro was because they liked his ability to cover slot receivers like Tavon Austin. I saw Austin’s breakout performance a couple weeks ago. Any chance he can be that X factor on Sunday?
Wagoner: Well, Austin suffered an ankle injury against Arizona last week and Fisher has called him day to day. If Austin plays, it’s possible his ankle could slow him down a bit. Considering his game relies so much on speed and elusiveness, an ankle injury could affect him more than it might other players. If he’s OK, he certainly could be an X factor. Without Sam Bradford at quarterback, the Rams really struggle to put together long drives. They need big plays to keep up in most games, and Austin is the one guy capable of consistently providing them. If they don’t have him, it’s going to make an already difficult task even tougher.
Bonaddio explains why here. His expectations for Austin in 2013: somewhere around 59 receptions for 961 yards with eight touchdowns.
The Rams would presumably be OK with those types of numbers. However, I think Austin has a chance to exceed that total for receptions while heading to a team with relatively unestablished players at wide receiver.
The chart below ranks rookies since 2002 by most receiving yards while including their stats for receptions and receiving touchdowns. The projections for Austin would put him in the top 10 by that standard.
The Rams haven't had a receiver with 961-plus yards since Torry Holt had 1,189 yards in 2007.
This is a reminder to update your lineups before the remaining Week 6 games get underway Sunday.
My team is in the 73rd percentile after getting 128 points from Aaron Rodgers (26), Peyton Manning (25), Arian Foster (22), Marshawn Lynch (8), Brandon Lloyd (3), Julio Jones (15), Vernon Davis (10), David Akers (9) and the New York Giants' defense (10).
My lineup for this week is unchanged, except I've subbed in the Miami Dolphins' defense, figuring their game against St. Louis could be lower-scoring than the one between the Giants and San Francisco 49ers.
Best of luck this week.
Anyone with a strong grasp of NFL history would place Cris Carter, Raymond Berry and Steve Largent on a short list for receivers with the surest hands.
Hall of Famer Ken Houston, speaking for a 2008 piece on all-time great wideouts, stood up for AFL stars Otis Taylor and Lionel Taylor.
"Lionel Taylor, I mean, he would catch a BB," Houston said.
Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, speaking for the same piece, said Randy Moss, then with New England, had the best hands in the NFL at that time (2008).
"A lot of guys can catch," Thompson said then. "He can catch on any platform, as we say in scouting. He can adjust and catch it over the top of somebody's head, catch it falling down, and it doesn't matter if he is covered."
With Moss now on the 49ers, it is possible Crabtree does not possess the best hands among wide receivers on his own team.
Oops. I wasn't going to take the bait on this one, but now it's too late. Time to regroup.
Bottom line, I suspect Crabtree has impressed Harbaugh this offseason, and Harbaugh would like that to continue for as long as possible. By offering such strong public praise for Crabtree, Harbaugh is setting a standard for Crabtree to meet this season. He realizes Crabtree has the ability to meet that standard, or else he wouldn't make the statement.
We should all recall Harbaugh's calling quarterback Alex Smith "elite" and promoting him for the Pro Bowl last season. Then as now, Harbaugh was standing up for his guy. Smith enjoyed the finest season of his career and even outplayed the truly elite Drew Brees at times during the 49ers' playoff victory over New Orleans. The way Harbaugh backed Smith played a role in that performance, in my view.
Back to Crabtree. He has the ability to rank among the most sure-handed receivers in the game. He has not yet earned that status, but now he has little choice, right?
As the chart shows, Crabtree finished the 2011 season with 12.2 receptions per drop, which ranked 28th in the NFL among players targeted at least 100 times. Larry Fitzgerald led the NFL with 80 receptions and only one drop. Those numbers are according to ESPN Stats & Information, which defines drops as "incomplete passes where the receiver should have caught the pass with ordinary effort."
Crabtree suffered six drops last season by that standard, a few too many for the player with the best hands his head coach has ever seen on a wide receiver.
- The already shrinking receiver market got smaller Tuesday when Marques Colston re-signed with New Orleans. The 49ers have at least bought some protection at a reasonable price. Moss' one-year deal is for between $2.5 million and $4 million depending upon whether Moss reaches incentives, ESPN's Adam Schefter reports.
- Moss has said he's gotten a bad rap through the media. Whether or not that is true, quarterbacks sometimes value raw talent at the position enough to overlook other things. I can recall Matt Hasselbeck saying years ago he would have welcomed Terrell Owens to Seattle if the Seahawks had pursued him, even though perceptions at the time suggested Owens might be more trouble than he was worth. Jim Harbaugh is the 49ers' head coach, but he was a quarterback first. He thinks like a quarterback. That might partly explain why the 49ers have been willing to add Moss and, last year, Braylon Edwards to the mix. Quarterbacks value receivers.
- The 49ers came very close to reaching the Super Bowl last season. As a result, they naturally might wonder if they were a player or two away from breaking through. Each season is different. The 49ers know this. But it's tempting to add a player such as Moss after coming so close to the Super Bowl and getting so little from the wide receiver position during the playoffs.
A few more hours til free agency begins. Prepare to be disappointed in case your favorite team shows restraint.
Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET
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).
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.
The Saints were naturally impressed, Moss was naturally thrilled and the NFL news cycle took notice. It was enough to revive talk about whether Moss would fit with this team or that team, including some in the NFC West.
"Could the 49ers be that team?" Facebook friend Edward asked.
They tried Braylon Edwards last season, proving they'll consider a big-name receiver with some baggage.
But the circumstances surrounding Moss' workout invite questions about the session's authenticity. The Saints are surely weary of the bounty investigation swirling around them. Bringing in Moss and singing his praises also comes while New Orleans' own receivers, Marques Colston and Robert Meachem, head toward free agency. The thought of an all-time great receiver entering the picture could be designed to affect the market.
As for Moss, did he retire following the 2010 season, or did the NFL lose interest in him? He played for three teams that season, finishing with 28 total receptions. He was not in demand last season.
Moss, having been out of football, is probably healthier and feeling better than he has in some time. If he does prove to be in shape and ready to contribute at a high level, Moss will presumably want to connect with an accomplished quarterback. He'll want a chance at the playoffs, which the 49ers could provide.
St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher was with Moss in Tennessee for part of the 2010 season. Fisher has spoken highly of Moss' presence in the locker room that year, but that might not mean much. While the Rams have major needs at receiver, a 35-year-old wideout coming off a one-year layoff wouldn't seem to fit the profile for a rebuilding team.
- 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.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals have several hurdles to clear if they hope to add quarterback Peyton Manning, but that won't stop the speculation.
In this debate about potential free agent receivers, Steve Wyche of NFL.com says Marques Colston of the Saints might be a good fit with the Rams or 49ers.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com looks at the work done by defensive backs coach Ed Donatell, who was reportedly denied an opportunity to interview for Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator job.
The Seahawks made an all-time list of worst team videos.
Mike Sando: There will almost certainly be no trade for Manning. The Colts could not trade Manning without first paying a $28 million bonus to him. Failing to pay that bonus by March 8 would make Manning a free agent when the trading period opened five days later.
My early take on Manning was that the Colts would keep him as long as he were healthy. Sweeping changes in the organization have created the impression Indianapolis anticipates making a clean break at the position. Indianapolis appears increasingly likely to part with Manning unless the sides adjust that bonus to buy time. Manning will not want to do that, most likely, if he knows the Colts are going to draft his replacement, Andrew Luck.
This has become a perfect storm. Manning's injury was worse than anticipated. He missed the entire season, longer than expected. The Colts were worse than anticipated without him, so bad they secured the top pick. Manning's health did not improve as anticipated. One of the brightest college quarterback prospects in years happened to be available in the next draft. And then Manning had that $28 million lever in his contract.
Those are all extreme circumstances. Throw them together and it's tough to envision the Colts keeping Manning. That $28 million price tag is too high amid questions about Manning's health.
We're in a holding pattern until the March 8 bonus date. Perceptions could change by then. If Manning does become a free agent, his health will remain the key variable. It's too early to know where he might land.
I suspect the 49ers will re-sign Alex Smith before or around the March 13 start to free agency. Arizona has until March 17 to pay a $7 million bonus to keep Kevin Kolb. The gap could give the Cardinals a chance to at least consider Manning. Lots of other teams would have interest as well.
Manning's recent comments to Bob Kravitz were illuminating. Manning said he felt as though sweeping changes in the Colts' organization had left people there "walking on eggshells." But Manning is the one with reason to feel that way. He's no longer in control of his immediate future.
Dan from Portland asks why few people seem to be connecting Manning to the Seattle Seahawks. He thinks Kolb should get another chance in Arizona. He thinks Alex Smith should be the starter in San Francisco. And he sees Sam Bradford as the quarterback in St. Louis. Doesn't that leave Seattle as the most logical destination among NFC West teams?
Mike Sando: Yeah, I've wondered why Arizona has been mentioned in so many of the reports. It is possible people close to Manning are pushing Arizona as a possible destination because, one, Manning might see that as an appealing place to land and, two, the Cardinals do have that $7 million decision to make on Kolb. I see no reason for the Cardinals to push the Manning angle in the news, unless they hope to pressure Kolb into an adjusted contract.
I agree with you on Seattle making the most sense from a quarterback-need perspective. The fit from a system standpoint would take some adjusting. I also wonder how much the Seahawks would want to commit financially to such a high-profile player with clear health concerns. Would they see this as a risky two-year rental, or as a chance to become a championship contender quickly?
Manning's health is the No. 1 variable. If he hits the market in good physical condition, lots of teams will be interested.
Jeremiah from Germany thinks 49ers fans should be clamoring for Dwayne Bowe, not Marques Colston, in free agency this offseason.
Mike Sando: It's tough for me to envision the Chiefs letting Bowe get away. Smart teams re-sign their best players, especially when those players are young. I would also favor Bowe over Colston, all else being equal. But I also think the 49ers would be more likely to address the position in the draft and with a lower-priced free agent. That is how they believe in putting their team together. They have been averse to overpaying for players other teams have let hit the market. That was the case last offseason when the 49ers showed no interest in Nnamdi Asomugha and other top free agents.
Scott from Epsom, N.H., thinks I've failed to pay the New York Giants their proper respects and have instead sought to diminish their victory by branding them as concussion-inflicting cheaters. "Grow up," he writes. "It's a game."
Mike Sando: The stories about the Giants trying to inflict a concussion upon Kyle Williams originated in the Newark Star-Ledger and New York Magazine. I simply linked to them, which was pretty much a no-brainer from an NFC West perspective. These were direct quotes from Giants players speaking on the record in well-established publications.
On the game itself, the 49ers blew a prime opportunity to reach the Super Bowl, giving up 10 points on uncharacteristic special-teams turnovers. That was my focus from a 49ers/NFC West standpoint coming out of the game. There's no shortage of favorable Giants coverage out there. I just thought the 49ers did more to lose the game than their opponent did to win it. This being the NFC West blog, the 49ers were going to be my focus.
Adam from El Paso noticed that the last quarterbacks drafted in first rounds tend to struggle. He pointed to Patrick Ramsey (2002), Rex Grossman (2003), J.P. Losman (2004), Jason Campbell (2005), Jay Cutler (2006) and Brady Quinn (2007) as examples. He pointed to Joe Flacco (2008) and possibly Cutler as exceptions, but wondered if there was something to it.
Mike Sando: Interesting observation. There is nothing dooming these players. Overall, though, the quarterbacks with the most obvious skills tend to get drafted earlier. If you've reached the late first round and are thinking about a quarterback, you're probably gambling more than teams selecting them earlier. Perhaps you're more apt to be reaching for a prospect because you need one and fear missing out.
Joe from Phoenix sees Jeff Fisher delivering credible coordinators and asks whether we should expect him to land top free agents as well. He points to Cortland Finnegan as a possibility and wants to know if there are others with ties to Fisher or the current Rams coordinators.
Mike Sando: Yes, we should expect the Rams to have interest in free-agent players Fisher and his coordinators coached in the past. Finnegan is one of them.
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer spent the last six seasons with New York, but the Jets do not have many potential offensive free agents of note. The list includes quarterback Mark Brunell, receiver Plaxico Burress, tight end Matthew Mulligan, quarterback Kevin O'Connell, running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tackle Robert Turner.
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams spent the last three seasons with New Orleans.
The Saints' potential defensive free agents include linebacker Jonathan Casillas, defensive end Jeff Charleston, linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, linebacker Ramon Humber, defensive end Turk McBride, cornerback Tracy Porter, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and cornerback Leigh Torrance.
Williams was also with 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers, another potential free agent, years ago in Washington.
Fisher's roots as head coach in Tennessee provide additional connections. The Titans' potential free agents include snapper Ken Amato, safety Jordan Babineaux, linebacker Patrick Bailey, defensive end Dave Ball, Finnegan, safety Michael Griffin, running back Ahmard Hall, receiver Lavelle Hawkins, defensive end William Hayes, safety Chris Hope, defensive end/tackle Jason Jones, tackle Mike Otto, guard Jake Scott, linebacker Tim Shaw and safety Anthony Smith.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Thoughts after the San Francisco 49ers' 36-32 divisional playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints on Saturday at Candlestick Park:
What it means: The 49ers are headed to the NFC title game against the winner of the New York Giants-Green Bay Packers game Sunday. They will play at home if the Giants win. They will visit Green Bay if the Packers win. Alex Smith and Vernon Davis showed their playoff mettle in leading the 49ers back from fourth-quarter deficits not once, but twice. This will go down as one of the great games in 49ers history and in NFL postseason history.
What I liked: Smith's winning 14-yard touchdown pass to Davis showed the 49ers were playing to win, not for overtime. On the 49ers' previous drive, Smith's 37-yard strike to Davis up the left sideline and 28-yard touchdown run on a beautifully executed keeper put the 49ers ahead with 2:11 remaining. The 49ers played the game on their terms early, delivering punishing hits while hawking the ball. They forced three first-quarter turnovers and built a 17-3 lead. Dashon Goldson outfoxed Drew Brees to pick off one pass. Tarell Brown made an athletic play for another interception. Smith capitalized on the turnovers, finding Davis for a 49-yard touchdown and Michael Crabtree for a 4-yarder that showed San Francisco has indeed made progress in the red zone recently. Donte Whitner in particular roughed up the Saints, knocking out running back Pierre Thomas with a concussion and pounding tight end Jimmy Graham. The defense held firm after the 49ers suffered their first turnover in six games, right before halftime.
What I didn't like: The 49ers' defense, ranked fourth overall in yards allowed per game during the regular season, gave up go-ahead pass plays covering 44 and 66 yards in the final five minutes. The 49ers forced four first-half turnovers and still led by only three. Smith paid for the aggressive offensive plan, taking third-down sacks, including one that led to the 49ers' first turnover since a Week 12 game at Baltimore. Crabtree, after making his scoring grab, had trouble holding onto the ball on contested throws. The 49ers needed him to win those battles. Goldson went for the big hit on Marques Colston, but Brees led Colston away from trouble, producing a 31-yard gain when the 49ers led by only six points in the third quarter. Frank Gore had seven drops during the season and had a hard time throwing in this game, sending one back to Smith on a hop to sap the potential from a trick play. The 49ers' defense cracked with the game on the line, allowing Darren Sproles' go-ahead 44-yard touchdown reception.
Play calling raised eyebrows: The 49ers' aggressiveness on offense led them away from the ground game. The early passing helped the 49ers take a 14-0 lead with scoring passes to Davis and Crabtree. Pass plays continued outnumbering runs as the game progressed, however, and the 49ers did not get into a rhythm on the ground. The 49ers had 29 pass attempts and 15 rushes through three quarters. They also had taken four sacks to that point, widening the disparity. The strategy was easy to question because the 49ers' wide receivers were not playing at a high level.
Defensive player of the year: It would be tough to argue against the 49ers' Justin Smith, the team's most consistent and consistently dominant player. Smith's brute power won out when he sacked Brees on third down when the 49ers absolutely needed a stop in the third quarter. Later, with 49ers up only three, Smith drove Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod into Brees for a sack. These were Reggie White-type plays at critical moments.
Injury notes: The 49ers got receiver Ted Ginn Jr. back from injury, but Ginn spent as much time on the exercise bike as on the field, it seemed. His knee was a problem. Ginn had trouble getting much traction in the return game and was called for pass interference late in the third quarter. Officials flagged receiver Kyle Williams for offensive interference on the next play. Both calls appeared straightforward. The Saints declined both.
What's next: The NFC title game.
Randy Moss and Terrell Owens must be running fade routes.
Neither iconic receiver drew even one vote when ESPN.com asked eight panelists to rank the top 10 receivers in the NFL today.
"When three different teams can't use a player," AFC East blogger Tim Graham said of Moss in particular, "then he can't be considered elite anymore."
That's fine. Our top 10 list aspires to be one for the ages, not for the aged.
The Indianapolis Colts' Reggie Wayne, 32, was the only one in our top 10 older than 29. Owens, 37, and Moss, 34, could serve as chaperones for this bunch.
The Houston Texans' Andre Johnson, 29, edged the Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald, 27, for the top spot. AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky made it so by ranking Johnson first on his ballot and Fitzgerald only ninth, five spots lower than any other panelist ranked Arizona's five-time Pro Bowl wideout.
"I have nothing against Larry Fitzgerald -- I think he's fantastic," Kuharsky explained. "I just found so many receivers to love, and consider most of the guys I put ahead of him as having more upside."
Divergent views on Johnson and Fitzgerald made this a hotly contested battle for the No. 1 spot. Johnson might have won in a runaway if NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert and NFC South counterpart Pat Yasinskas hadn't ranked the Texans' five-time Pro Bowler only sixth.
That was a tough sell in the AFC South.
"Andre Johnson is an incredible combination of power and speed, and I think of him as at the forefront of an anti-diva wide receiver movement, which is refreshing -- though not a big factor in his being No. 1 on my list," Kuharsky said. "In three seasons of covering him, I've never heard anyone talk of the smallest hole in his game."
Some of our NFC West fans might poke a few holes in Kuharsky's ballot. Giving Fitzgerald even a No. 5 ranking from Kuharsky would have moved Fitzgerald into the top spot.
More from Kuharsky in a bit. First, let's take a closer look at the rankings.
How we scored it: First-place votes were worth 10 points, second-place votes were worth nine, and so on.
Sixteen receivers drew votes.
Close calls: The Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Wallace and the New England Patriots' Wes Welker each scored seven points, coming within three of tying the Miami Dolphins' Brandon Marshall for the 10th spot.
Seifert had Welker seventh. Williamson had him eighth. Yasinskas had Wallace seventh. I had Wallace ninth. John Clayton had him 10th.
"I like Mike Wallace’s game as much as anyone, but he only has one year as a starter and is still in the developmental stages," said AFC North blogger James Walker, who did not rank Wallace in his top 10. "Wallace’s route-running remains pretty raw, and he needs to continue working on his short and intermediate game to pair with his blazing speed. Once he does that, Wallace will be among the NFL’s best."
Honorable mention: Santonio Holmes (three points), Vincent Jackson (two), Miles Austin (one) and Marques Colston (one) also drew votes.
Holmes was ninth on Seifert's ballot and 10th on Graham's ballot. Kuharsky and Williamson had Vincent Jackson 10th.
"I think Vincent Jackson is a special talent," Williamson said. "Don’t be skewed by his holdout. This is a player who has a special blend of size and speed. He has terrific hands and he has a great chemistry with Philip Rivers. He can easily be a top-five receiver in a year."
Walker had Austin 10th. Yasinskas had Colston 10th.
Very shiny third wheel: The Falcons' White ranked among the top three on four ballots, matching the Texans' Johnson and trailing only Fitzgerald.
"I put White, who I thought had a shot at MVP in the first half of the season, No. 1 because I saw this guy single-handedly win games for the Falcons, who won 13 of them," Yasinskas said. "White’s numbers and Atlanta’s success speak for themselves, but White made perhaps the play of the season when he chased down San Francisco’s Nate Clements on an interception return and stripped the ball. That led to Atlanta’s victory. How many other wide receivers can win a game for you when they’re playing defense?"
I saw Arizona's Steve Breaston do it against St. Louis last season, but White is on another level as a receiver.
Do not forget about Calvin Johnson: The top four spots were clearly defined, with the Detroit Lions' dynamic wideout firmly in that group. He ranked among the top five on seven of eight ballots. Only Fitzgerald and White could make that claim.
Biggest debate: We're back to Fitzgerald versus Johnson, but not necessarily in that order. Seifert and Kuharsky in particular might need to borrow federal mediator George Cohen from the NFL labor mess to work through their differences.
Not really. Seifert put candor before rationalization.
"Andre who?" Seifert kidded. "No, seriously, sometimes in this job you can become narrowly biased toward the players you see most often. I believe I have covered one of Andre Johnson's 115 career games. That one was in 2003, I believe. You can watch all the highlights you want, but you tend to trust your instincts based on personal viewing. This was more a reflection of my own visual catalog than it was an assessment of Johnson's game."
Fitzgerald has spent more time than Johnson on the national stage, including when his 64-yard touchdown reception gave Arizona a late fourth-quarter lead against Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII following the 2008 season. Fitzgerald managed 90 receptions during the 2010 season despite playing for a struggling offense.
"Context has to be factored in and Fitzgerald has the worst quarterback situation of anyone in my top 10," Kuharsky said. "I also put a lot of weight in yards per catch -- the only guys lower than Fitzgerald on my list in 2010 were Roddy White and Reggie Wayne."
Speaking of Wayne: Kuharsky ranked the Colts' wideout only seventh while acknowledging Wayne's consistent production.
"He showed hints in 2010 of starting to slip -- more drops, and a career-low 12.2 yards per catch," Kuharsky said. "That's not entirely in his control, I know. But he's less threatening deep than he used to be and that moved him down my list."
Playing with a Brandon: The Dolphins' move to acquire Marshall from Denver gave them the second-best Brandon on our list. The Broncos' Brandon Lloyd led the NFL in receiving yards while finishing with an 18.8-yard average and 11 touchdowns. He edged Marshall for the ninth spot.
Graham, our AFC East blogger, had Lloyd ninth. He did not include Marshall on his ballot, opting for Holmes in the 10th spot. Graham also left off Welker.
"Marshall and Welker had impressive reception totals, but it's difficult to put him in the top 10 when he scored only three touchdowns," Graham said. "The Dolphins had one of the NFL's worst red zone offenses. A top-10 receiver should be able to make a difference there. Marshall also had the lowest yards per catch of any receiver with at least 850 yards. Welker's average was lower even though half of his yards came after the catch. ESPN Stats & Information had him down for a league-high 11 drops."
Second opinion: Another Williamson -- not Bill, but Matt of Scouts Inc. -- liked our top 10 list overall, with a couple of exceptions.
"The one name that really seems to be missing to me is Hakeem Nicks," Matt Williamson said. "I can also understand why you guys would think it is just too early in his career to include him here, but I think I would take him over Dwayne Bowe or Brandon Lloyd, for sure. I also think Holmes would climb up this list in a different offense and Vincent Jackson and Miles Austin are much better players than this past season would indicate. I would also put Greg Jennings over Reggie Wayne."
Nicks nearly drew votes. Kuharsky had him ninth on an earlier version of his ballot. I would have ranked Nicks among the top seven if he hadn't missed three of the New York Giants' final six games last season. Maybe next year.
Everyone but right tackle Sean Locklear participated in practice Wednesday. The team excused Locklear from practice to tend to an undisclosed family matter. The Seahawks lack depth on their line. Seattle placed guard Chester Pitts on injured reserve. That means former starting right guard Stacy Andrews could be active for the first time since Week 14. Andrews is better suited at tackle. He's been working at right tackle with Locklear unavailable. Left tackle Russell Okung continues to fight through ankle problems. He wore down against the Rams and could be vulnerable as the game progresses. Pitts' replacement, Tyler Polumbus, was also limping at times Sunday. Receiver Brandon Stokley could return from his latest concussion. He has reportedly suffered more than 10.
New Orleans: The Saints lost running backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory for the season this week, affecting their ground game. Ivory had 99 yards against Seattle in Week 11. Former Seahawk Julius Jones figures to play a more prominent role. Reggie Bush did not play against Seattle in the previous matchup. He'll play Saturday.
Linebacker Danny Clark (hamstring), tight end Jimmy Graham (ankle), defensive tackle Tony Hargrove (knee) and safety Malcolm Jenkins (knee) did not practice Wednesday. Tight ends Jeremy Shockey (groin) and David Thomas (knee) were limited. Defensive end Alex Brown (shoulder), receiver Marques Colston (knee) and linebacker Anthony Waters (ankle) participated fully. Colston missed Week 17. Having him back gives Drew Brees one of his favorite weapons. Colston caught eight passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns against Seattle during the regular season.
For more on the Saints' injury situation, check out Pat Yasinskas' report.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13:
Turning it over. The Arizona Cardinals were plus-three in the turnover column the last time they won a game (Oct. 10). They have committed 28 turnovers this season, two off the NFL high. Their opponent Sunday, St. Louis, has committed only 13, tied for sixth-fewest in the league. The Cardinals lost a tone-setting turnover on their first offensive play last week.
First-round differential. The Seattle Seahawks' problems on the offensive line have nothing to do with rookie left tackle Russell Okung, who is playing quite well. Seattle's other rookie first-round choice, free safety Earl Thomas, has five interceptions and a touchdown return on a blocked punt. The Seahawks' Week 13 opponent, Carolina, hasn't selected a player in the first round since taking Jonathan Stewart and Jeff Otah in 2008. Otah is on injured reserve.
Stopping the streak. The Rams head to Arizona riding an eight-game losing streak against the Cardinals dating to the 2006 season. When is enough finally enough? This could be the week. The last time the Rams beat the Cardinals, Marc Bulger passed for 309 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions at Arizona on Sept. 24, 2006. Steven Jackson managed only 62 yards on 24 carries. The Cardinals will probably gang up on Jackson again. Rookie Sam Bradford proved last week that he can carry the offense on the road.
Feeding Fitz. The Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald leads the NFL in wide receiver targets with 124, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of the 50 wideouts with the most targets, however, Fitzgerald ranks 48th in percentage caught. His percentage has fallen from 63.8 last season with Kurt Warner as his primary quarterback to 47.5 percent this season. Of those 50 most-targeted wideouts this season, the five with the highest percentages of passes caught play with top quarterbacks. They are: Austin Collie (Peyton Manning), Danny Amendola (Sam Bradford), Wes Welker (Tom Brady), Marques Colston (Drew Brees) and Roddy White (Matt Ryan).