NFC West: Matt Cassel

Kevin Williams and Russell WilsonAP Photo, USA Today Sports ImagesKevin Williams' Vikings will face a challenge with Russell Wilson and the Seahawks playing at home.
SEATTLE -- The Seattle Seahawks have amassed a 9-1 record despite playing with a patchwork offensive line and a receiving corps that lost one starter in Sidney Rice and never had its key offseason acquisition in Percy Harvin.

That's about to change. The offensive line could have all its starters on the field Sunday for the first time since Week 2, and Harvin could finally make his debut as a Seahawks receiver.

If Harvin plays, it would be against his former team, the Minnesota Vikings, adding more drama and intrigue to the moment. Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and Vikings reporter Ben Goessling discuss that, as well as the other storylines for Sunday's game.

Terry Blount: Ben, obviously, Seahawks fans are going crazy about the possible debut of Harvin and what he can add to the Seattle offense. But let’s look at this from the Minnesota side. The Vikings must feel like they got a pretty good deal out of this, don’t they?

Ben Goessling: I think they were pleasantly surprised to get as much for Harvin as they did. Everyone knew they were going to trade him, so for general manager Rick Spielman to get three picks, including a first-rounder, was quite the coup. He's done a good job over the years of creating a market for his players or picks, and the Harvin trade was no different. It will be a while, though, before we know if what they did with the picks worked. Xavier Rhodes, whom the Vikings took with Seattle's first-rounder, is being asked to play more zone coverage than he did in college, and he has struggled with that after coming out of Florida State as a press corner. He has the skills to be a good corner, but the learning curve is steep.

While we're on the subject of Harvin, how much of a factor do you think he'll be on Sunday? He probably wants to show up his old team, but will he get the opportunities to do so?

Blount: If he plays, I think it will be limited -- maybe 10 or 12 snaps, tops. We’re talking about a guy who hasn't played in an NFL game in more than a year. Pete Carroll has said over and over they will be very cautious with Harvin. They invested $67 million in the guy. They aren't going to risk everything in his first game back, especially in a game the Seahawks should win whether he plays or not. I know Harvin is fired up about playing against his old teammates, but the coaches want to hold him back a little. They probably want him to get his feet wet and save the real show for the New Orleans Saints on the Monday night after Seattle’s bye week.

Ben, there seem to be a lot of unknowns about the Minnesota quarterback situation, where the team is headed and with whom it’s headed there -- Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman, Matt Cassel or maybe someone who isn't there yet. What's the likely answer for the future?

Goessling: I think in the long run it's probably someone who isn't here yet. Spielman liked Freeman in the 2009 draft -- the Vikings might have drafted him if he were still on the board when their pick came -- and the Vikings are now getting a chance to work with him on a daily basis, though they don't seem to think they need to put him on the field to evaluate him. Cassel is probably a backup at this point, and though Ponder has been better lately, he just isn't consistent enough to count on long term. The Vikings will have a high pick in what looks to be a pretty good quarterback draft, and it would be a surprise if they didn't use the pick to take another crack at getting a franchise QB.

Terry, it’s been hard to get a read on the Seahawks' run defense this season. One week, they'll completely shut down an opponent's ground game. The next, they're giving up 200 yards to the Rams or the Buccaneers. Why has it been so inconsistent, and can Adrian Peterson exploit it this weekend?

Blount: That’s a great question. I think the Seahawks are better against the run than they were in those two games. But there are times when the front seven get so focused on rushing the passer that they discount the run, get out of position and end up missing tackles. The other problem in those two games was middle linebacker Bobby Wagner coming back too soon from a bad ankle sprain and not being able to play up to his usual standard. But last week against Atlanta he had nine solo tackles. The Seahawks know they are facing the best of the best Sunday, so they’ll be at their best for Peterson.

Ben, the Vikings haven’t won a road game this season. What would it take for them to win this one?

Goessling: Boy, this one seems tough for the Vikings. As we've discussed, they might be able to run the ball effectively against Seattle -- Peterson had one of his biggest games there last year -- but I don't think Ponder will have much success against that defense. I could see Marshawn Lynch giving the Vikings trouble, and if Harvin is in the lineup, there's part of me that thinks he'll have a big game.

Terry, as I said, this matchup looks like a bad one for the Vikings. But time and again we've seen the Seahawks let inferior opponents hang around and nearly beat them. Do the Vikings have any reason for hope this weekend, or do you see this as an easy Seahawks win?

Blount: I think the Vikings are catching the Seahawks at the wrong time. The offensive line probably will have all five starters back for the first time in eight weeks. If Harvin makes his debut, it will add enormous energy and excitement for the team and the fans. And the Seahawks are coming off their best game of the season, a game in which they looked like the Super Bowl contenders everyone expected to see. This is their last game before the bye, so they will go all out to make sure they get there with their 13th consecutive home victory.

Mel Kiper Jr. is back Insider with his third 2013 NFL mock draft for the first round.

Our run through projected picks for NFC West teams concludes with a look at the Arizona Cardinals, who hold the seventh overall choice.

7. Arizona Cardinals: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia

Kiper's give: What stands out with Smith is his ball placement -- he can be extremely accurate when he's making the right reads, something he did often in 2012. Arm strength is good, not elite, and you can certainly contend that any good QB might put up good numbers in the system he was in, and with the receivers he had. It's not a great value on my board, but it's a major need pick. Smith's pro day is Thursday, and you can be certain the Cardinals will be present.

Sando's take: Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher was the projection in Kiper's previous mock. While no one could fault Arizona for taking a tackle early, the team's options at the position are much better than they were in September. Levi Brown is returning from injury. Nate Potter and Bobby Massie improved over the course of the season. Quarterback is clearly the No. 1 need and that isn't going to change before the draft, most likely. Kevin Kolb's release appears likely in the absence of a reworked contract. Ryan Fitzpatrick is available. Matt Cassel could become an option. Free agent Drew Stanton has ties to new Cardinals coach Bruce Arians. None of those veterans would preclude Arizona from drafting a quarterback early. The question is really whether Smith projects as a franchise quarterback. Yes, the rookie wage scale diminishes the risk associated with taking a quarterback so early. That is no reason to force the pick, however.
Eddie from Lancaster, Calif., read the item discussing NFL contracts and wanted to know the salary-cap implications facing Seattle if the team traded backup quarterback Matt Flynn.

Sando: Seattle could realize a $2 million gain against its cap for trading Flynn relative to releasing him. That difference represents the portion of 2013 salary that is guaranteed. Seattle would be on the hook for that money if the team released Flynn. The acquiring team would pay the guarantee if Seattle traded Flynn.

There are no indications Seattle would release Flynn. We're simply using his contract to illustrate how such a move would impact the cap.

Flynn's contract currently counts $7.25 million against the salary cap in 2013. Releasing Flynn would give Seattle two options for handling the cap implications. Flynn's contract would count $6 million against the cap this year under one scenario. It would count $4 million this year and $2 million next year under another scenario, but the 2013 savings would not be realized right away.

Flynn's contract would count $4 million against the 2013 cap if the team traded him.

The quarterback market is moving quickly. Kansas City has already lined up a trade for Alex Smith. News broke Friday that the Miami Dolphins were re-signing Matt Moore. Quarterbacks such as Matt Cassel could still reach the market, but supply is limited. Jason Campbell, Bruce Gradkowski and Derek Anderson are the highest-rated unrestricted free agent quarterbacks in our Free-agent Tracker Insider if Moore comes off the market.

Seattle is in position to sit back and see whether demand increases for Flynn. Trading Flynn could free up cap room for the Seahawks to use this season or push forward into 2014. A deal would also give the team additional draft capital.

The Seahawks and Dolphins were the teams expressing interest in Flynn last offseason. Both have subsequently acquired starting quarterbacks through the draft. There might not be much of a market for Flynn, in other words. Keeping him on the roster would give Seattle a backup it feels good about, at least.

Creating salary-cap room isn't all that important to the Seahawks right now. They don't need to move Flynn for cap relief, in other words. The gains wouldn't be as large as one might anticipate from afar, anyway.
» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week’s topic: How each NFC West team needs to address the quarterback position.

Arizona Cardinals: The options are straightforward for the Cardinals even though solving the position will not be easy. Renegotiating Kevin Kolb's contract and his $9 million salary for 2013 would be a good place to start. There's no sense losing options at the position by parting with Kolb if the sides can find middle ground on a new contract. From there, the Cardinals should consider adding a veteran before the draft. Arizona, with a division-low seven draft choices this year, would ideally add that veteran through free agency, not by trade. Matt Cassel and others come to mind. None would project as the long-term starter, but as the Cardinals found out last season, it's not fun playing Ryan Lindley types for extended periods. The drop from backup to replacement-level quarterback can be severe. Once Arizona has its veterans, the team can approach the draft with an open mind. Selecting a quarterback would be ideal, but the Cardinals shouldn't force anything with the seventh overall choice. As Seattle, San Francisco and Cincinnati showed recently, it's increasingly possible to find starting-caliber quarterbacks in the second and third rounds.

St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford made it through all 16 games last season, the second time in three years he has not missed a start. That was encouraging for St. Louis because the team was short-handed on its offensive line. The coaching staff gets some credit for shielding Bradford from the level and frequency of punishment the quarterback absorbed during his one season with Josh McDaniels as coordinator. Bradford also showed better ability to escape trouble with occasional scrambles. With Bradford's durability restored following a rough 2011 season, the Rams might feel better about carrying only two quarterbacks. Austin Davis is the favorite to fill that role. Veteran Kellen Clemens could make for a fallback option. He is an unrestricted free agent and could conceivably return. But coach Jeff Fisher publicly committed to Davis recently. Davis, drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 2012 but not by an NFL team, impressed during the exhibition season and could get a chance to develop behind Bradford.

Seattle Seahawks: There's clarity at the position in Seattle for the first offseason in a long time. Russell Wilson is the starter. Everyone else is pretty much irrelevant. But there is some minor intrigue surrounding backup Matt Flynn. The Seahawks appear content to carry Flynn on their roster in the No. 2 role despite a $6.5 million annual average for the former projected starter. That makes sense because the team would incur salary-cap charges totaling $4 million for trading or releasing him. The Seahawks could push half that total into the future, but Seattle has the cap flexibility to keep Flynn on the roster. Seattle should listen to offers for Flynn and see what the market might bring. And with 11 draft choices, second-most in the NFL pending disbursement of compensatory picks, Seattle should consider drafting a developmental quarterback somewhere along the way. But there's really no reason to act with urgency at the position now that Wilson is the starter.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers are expected to receive a 2013 second-round choice and a conditional 2014 pick once they follow through on the trade sending Alex Smith to Kansas City. That deal cannot happen until the trading period opens March 12. The trade will weaken the 49ers in the short term by leaving them with "only" one quarterback capable of leading the team deep into the playoffs. But it was the right thing to do, and the compensation far exceeded what I thought were reasonable expectations. San Francisco is making a move it had to make under the circumstances. The 49ers should proceed by signing a veteran such as Cassel to serve in the backup role behind Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers had an NFL-high 12 draft choices pending the Smith trade and disbursement of compensatory picks. That haul puts the 49ers in prime position to draft a quarterback to compete with Scott Tolzien for the No. 3 role (or even the No. 2 role, depending on how the 49ers fare in seeking a veteran replacement for Smith).

Inside Slant: Alex Smith vs. Matt Cassel

February, 27, 2013
Alex Smith, Tom Brady and the NFL scouting combine played starring roles in the Inside Slant podcast Wednesday.

Smith's unofficial trade from San Francisco to Kansas City invited comparisons between Smith and recent Chiefs starting quarterback Matt Cassel. Smith was much better than Cassel during the 2012 season. He has much better traditional passing stats over the past two seasons. But as the chart shows, Cassel and Smith have identical Total QBR scores over the past five years. They were at 46.6. All starting quarterbacks were at 53.0 over that period.

Cassel was slightly ahead of Smith, 46.4 to 45.8, when only starts were considered.

Smith's replacement in San Francisco, Colin Kaepernick, ranks second to Peyton Manning at 77.8 among starting quarterbacks with at least seven starts since 2008. Aaron Rodgers is third, Tom Brady fourth and Drew Brees fifth.

The 49ers felt good enough about Kaepernick after seven regular-season starts and three playoff games to make the move away from Smith permanent. They're reportedly getting the Chiefs' 2013 second-round draft choice and a 2014 pick as compensation. That's a very good deal for the 49ers, in my view. They wanted Smith off their roster before he received a bonus of $1 million on April 1, at which point his $7.5 million salary would have become guaranteed.

The Chiefs, meanwhile, weren't targeting the Smith who struggled with injuries and constant coordinator turnover years ago. They hope they're getting the Smith who ranked among the NFL's better quarterbacks recently, especially last season.

The second chart shows why Smith could be appealing as an alternative to Cassel. He led the NFL in completion percentage (70.2), ranked seventh in Total QBR (70.1) and was third in NFL passer rating (104.1). He also had a 19-5-1 starting record over the past two seasons.

However, Smith's strong numbers in 2012 reflected his abilities on early downs. His third-down Total QBR (33.1) trailed Cassel's (44.5). It's fair to wonder whether Smith will produce as well overall on a weaker team that could face predictable passing situations more frequently. Smith was at his best last season changing plays and keeping defenses off-balance. That's tougher to do when the defense knows a pass is coming.

NFC West blogger Kevin Seifert and I discussed these possibilities during the podcast.

Donovan McNabb can provide one point of reference. He succeeded under Chiefs coach Andy Reid as a high draft choice in Philadelphia. McNabb benefited from the organizational continuity Reid and the Eagles provided for more than a decade. Smith never benefited from that type of environment until the past couple seasons. Perhaps he can pick up in Kansas City where he left off in San Francisco.

The Chiefs certainly hope that will be the case.

Randy Moss the greatest? Let's discuss

January, 29, 2013
Randy MossDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe 49ers' Randy Moss doesn't lack self-confidence during Tuesday's Super Bowl media day.
NEW ORLEANS -- One day after San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh took on President Barack Obama, receiver Randy Moss challenged Jerry Rice's status as the NFL's greatest receiver.

Wait, weren't the AFC champion Baltimore Ravens supposed to be the big talkers during Super Bowl week? They're multiple-syllable underdogs at this point.

Moss stole the show at Super Bowl media day by declaring himself the greatest receiver of all time.

"I think I'm the greatest receiver to ever do it," Moss said. "Because I think back when Jerry was playing -- and no disrespect to Jerry Rice, because he's arguably the greatest -- but for me to be able to go out here and change and revolutionize the game from a single safety to a Cover 2 safety and dropping three guys deep and dropping four guys deep and still be able to make it happen? That is why I really hold my hat on that, that I really feel in my heart and in my mind that I am the greatest receiver to ever play this game."

If Rice had the greatest career of any receiver in NFL history, which seems indisputable based on longevity and raw numbers, Moss at his best was arguably the most feared.

Moss was faster. I think he was more athletic. If both receivers were to line up on opposite sides of the formation while in their prime, defenses would face a dilemma. I think they would fear Rice more on shorter and intermediate routes. I think they would fear Moss more on deeper routes.

Rice benefited from beginning his career under Bill Walsh and spending most of it with either Joe Montana or Steve Young throwing passes to him. That doesn't diminish his achievements, in my view.

Rice dominated. He reached 1,000 yards receiving 14 times. Moss did it 10 times. Rice scored at least nine touchdowns in a season 12 times. Moss did it nine times. Each had nine seasons with at least 10 touchdowns. Rice had four seasons with at least 1,500 yards. Moss had one. Rice had six seasons with at least 1,400 yards. Moss had four.

Moss also played with a couple of Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Brett Favre, but the years he spent with them were exceptions, not the norm. Brad Johnson, Randall Cunningham, Jeff George, Daunte Culpepper, Todd Bouman, Spergon Wynn, Gus Frerotte, Kerry Collins, Andrew Walter, Aaron Brooks, Matt Cassel, Vince Young, Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick have also thrown passes his way.

To this point, Rice's status as the greatest has been pretty much assumed. Those with a strong grasp of league history might acknowledge Don Hutson's achievements as unique. However, Rice is an overwhelming choice as the best receiver in NFL history.

An panel featuring Raymond Berry, Boyd Dowler, Mike Holmgren, Ken Houston, Warren Moon, Keyshawn Johnson and Ted Thompson voted Rice first and Moss second in anonymous voting five years ago.

"Jerry Rice, he's so obvious, it scares me," Dowler said at the time.

Bat-downs revisited: Where Wilson stands

September, 19, 2012

An NFL quarterback standing 3 feet tall surely would be at heightened risk for having passes batted down.

Russell Wilson stands much taller than that, ESPN's Trey Wingo notes during a height-related conversation with Tim Hasselbeck and Jerry Rice in the video above. And in looking at stats for batted passes, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, it's clear that factors beyond height influence the numbers.

Drew Brees, roughly an inch taller than the nearly 5-foot-11 Wilson, had only seven passes batted down in 657 attempts last season. Six other quarterbacks had at least twice as many, even though each attempted at least 100 fewer passes. The towering Joe Flacco (6-6) had seven of his 542 passes batted.

Thirty-six of the 44 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts last season suffered a higher percentage of batted-down passes than Brees suffered while topping 5,000 yards passing. Arizona's Kevin Kolb, who is 6-3, topped the list with 10 of his 253 attempts (4.0 percent) batted down. San Francisco's Alex Smith was 12th at 2.7 percent (12 of 445). He's had none batted so far this season, even though he is just an inch taller than Kolb.

Brees has had five batted down this season already. That probably has more to do with being under siege than being under prototypical height. The Saints are struggling.

Hasselbeck suggested to Wingo and Rice that Wilson has a higher release point than some taller quarterbacks. Another ESPN analyst, Trent Dilfer, has pointed to a quick release, not height, as key to getting passes over opposing linemen.

The chart ranks NFL quarterbacks through Week 2 by percentage of attempts batted by opposing defenses. The sample size remains small this early in the season. I'll revisit the numbers as the season progresses.

The first four NFL quarterbacks drafted in 2012 have already won starting jobs as rookies.

Seattle's Russell Wilson, third-round choice from Wisconsin, has a chance to make it five of the top six. He'll get a chance to work with recently cleared receiver Sidney Rice when the Seahawks visit Kansas City for their third exhibition game, set for Friday night.

We can excuse Denver's Brock Osweiler, the only second-round quarterback this year, for failing to crack the lineup. He'll get time to develop behind Peyton Manning.

"What it tells you that this is probably the most talented class since the '83 Marino-O'Brien-Kelly class," ESPN's Bill Polian said on NFL Live.

But there was also a word of caution from Polian, the former Indianapolis Colts exec, regarding the current crop of rookies: "Let's take a look three years from now. Then we'll know."

Recent history backs up the cautionary tone.

Three of the first four quarterbacks from the 2010 class have lost their starting jobs (Tim Tebow, Jimmy Clausen and Colt McCoy). St. Louis' Sam Bradford is the exception among the four. The sixth quarterback drafted that year, fifth-rounder John Skelton, could start in Arizona. None of the eight quarterbacks drafted later than Skelton holds a starting job.

The first five quarterbacks drafted in 2011 are starters now that Jake Locker, chosen eighth overall by Tennessee, has ascended into the Titans' lineup over Matt Hasselbeck. Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton are the others. Locker, Gabbert and Ponder have the most to prove.

San Francisco backup Colin Kaepernick was the sixth quarterback drafted in 2011, ahead of Ryan Mallett, Ricky Stanzi, T.J. Yates, Nathan Enderle, Tyrod Taylor and Greg McElroy. Kaepernick might be starting by now if Alex Smith hadn't put together a career-best season.

Twenty-three of the named 30 starters for 2012 entered the NFL as first-round draft choices. Dalton and Drew Brees were second-rounders. Matt Schaub, like Wilson, was a third-round pick. Tom Brady (sixth), Ryan Fitzpatrick (seventh) and Matt Cassel (seventh) were late-round picks. Tony Romo was the only one undrafted.

RENTON, Wash. -- Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was definitely joking when he said Deuce Lutui, the team's new guard, checked in at 208 pounds for the offseason conditioning program.

But when Carroll indicated Lutui had indeed dropped considerable weight, the coach was serious. Carroll also dropped a shocker when he said Lutui, notorious for his weight troubles while with the Arizona Cardinals, had become a vegan.

That's right, a vegan.

[+] EnlargeDeuce Lutui
AP Photo/Greg TrottCoach Pete Carroll says the Seahawks were happy to add former Cardinals guard Deuce Lutui to the roster.
There were so many other angles to cover following the Seahawks' 45-minute voluntary workout for veterans Friday, but none could match this one for the double-take factor. Lutui's long history of weight issues invite skepticism. I followed up with Carroll twice in an effort to make sure the coach wasn't joking. He stuck with his story, but conceivably could have been kidding.

Weight troubles had, after all, derailed Lutui's signing with Cincinnati last offseason, leading the Bengals to fail him on a physical examination. The Cardinals valued Lutui as a starter for years, but they grew weary of the weight issues, relegating the former second-round draft choice to a backup role in 2011.

Lutui signed with Seattle this offseason and was reunited with Carroll, his former coach at USC. He was also reunited with the Trojans' former strength coach, Chris Carlisle.

"Deuce Lutui, he is a joy to have out here," Carroll said. "He has got such a great spirit. He always did. We looked at opportunities to get him on this club just because of that. He looks good. His weight is down -- I mean, way down from where he can be. He's a vegan, too, now, so he has really made a big turn, if you can imagine, yes."

Several reporters blurted out responses conveying surprise.

"Yeah, I wouldn't make that up," Carroll said.

Or would he? I'm not buying this one all the way. Lutui was not available for interviews. The team had a small window between its on-field session and meetings. Carroll, Flynn and Jackson were the ones made available.

The offensive players wore dark jerseys Friday, so there might have been a slimming factor to the visual, but all in all, I thought Lutui looked pretty good.

On to other subjects:

  • The quarterback competition between Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson is under way, with third-round choice Russell Wilson scheduled to join the fun once rookies report. Jackson, as the incumbent, took the initial snaps and was the first to speak with reporters afterward. But Carroll stressed that this was the most open competition he'd had since Matt Leinart and Matt Cassel were competing at USC.
  • Quick initial impression on Flynn and Jackson: Flynn appeared more accurate, while Jackson appeared to have the stronger arm. There wasn't much to go on, but those impressions line up with expectations.
  • Third- or fourth-team quarterback Josh Portis isn't getting many reps. The team is giving additional reps to Flynn, helping him to learn the system.
  • Receivers Sidney Rice and Mike Williams were not present. They're rehabbing from injuries. Cornerback Walter Thurmond watched from a scooter, his injured lower leg in a boot. Tackle James Carpenter watched practice, but his knee will not be ready until the season, if then. Russell Okung and John Moffitt participated. Rules mandating light on-field duty with no contact during the second phase of the voluntary conditioning program are allowing Okung and Moffitt to ease their way back from injuries.
  • Newly signed defensive tackle Jason Jones is tall (6-foot-5) and lean (276 pounds). One look at him and there's no question of his primary role. It'll be as a pass-rusher.
  • Receiver Golden Tate, trying to build on a strong finish to last season, made a one-handed grab in stride. Catching the ball in an environment so relaxed means little, but it beats the alternative, especially for a young player trying to build momentum.

That's it for now. The NFC West chat begins at 3 p.m. ET.
Justin from Davis, Calif., asks whether there's something more to Alex Smith. Specifically, can he become truly elite? "What is the hope of someone transforming into a superstar quarterback after so many non-performing years?"

Mike Sando: Before analyzing Smith as a player, let's tip our caps to him for helping the coordinated search for a missing Bay Area teenager over the weekend. His presence helped bring awareness to the search beyond whatever direct assistance he provided. That is commendable.

As for your question, Justin, let's more clearly define the word "elite" for these purposes. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees strike me as truly elite quarterbacks. Smith probably is not going to suddenly put up 30-40 touchdown passes per season.

Smith was most remarkable last season for avoiding mistakes. His interception percentage, 1.1, was third-lowest in NFL history for a player with at least 400 pass attempts. His numbers were good -- 17 touchdowns, five interceptions, 90.7 NFL passer rating -- but far from prolific. They were not elite QB numbers. They were smart, cautious numbers.

The percentages say Smith will have a hard time Insider maintaining such a low interception rate. However, I do think it's possible for him to improve upon his 2011 numbers. Matt Cassel is not an elite quarterback, but he had a 27-7 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions in 2010. Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman have put together similar ratios in recent seasons.

The 49ers probably will not ask Smith to carry their team. They will want him to protect the football. But with more opportunistic play in the red zone and improved efficiency on third down, Smith can make progress in 2012.
The Washington Redskins look like an early favorite to acquire the second overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft from the St. Louis Rams.

Jim Thomas' update for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch covers quite a few angles.

Another came to mind while reading the piece. What if the Redskins were the only team drafting among the top six with serious interest in Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III?

Such a thought seemed improbable while Griffin was lighting up the NFL scouting combine recently, but a post-combine report from Fox Sports' John Czarnecki lingers in my mind.

According to Czarnecki, Browns president Mike Holmgren and the team's coaching staff aren't necessarily sold on Griffin.

Under this thinking, Holmgren would prefer a quarterback to fit his system, not the other way around. Griffin's winning personality and phenomenal athleticism might make him a great prospect, but would the Browns see him as an ideal fit for their system -- enough so to justify parting with significant draft capital to get him?

Holmgren is not the Browns' coach, but he is particular about his offense and quarterbacks. He hired Pat Shurmur as head coach in part because Shurmur shared his vision for offense. Then again, Shurmur worked under Andy Reid in Philadelphia. Reid has obviously adapted his offense for a range of quarterbacks, notably Michael Vick.

All of this might be over-thinking things. My AFC North colleague, Jamison Hensley, thinks the Browns have little choice but to make a strong play for Griffin. That would serve the Rams well.

But if the Browns aren't all in for Griffin, what team represents the Redskins' competition for the second pick?

Minnesota picks third and Tampa Bay picks fifth. Both teams have invested in quarterbacks recently. Jacksonville, which picks seventh, has publicly committed to Blaine Gabbert as its franchise quarterback. Miami picks eighth, and as Thomas notes, the Dolphins might not be interested in dealing with St. Louis after the teams battled over Jeff Fisher. Miami also has ties to free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn.

Carolina picks ninth and already has Cam Newton. Buffalo picks 10th and has already publicly ruled out trading up for Griffin. Kansas City holds the 11th choice and could have interest even though Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli has said Matt Cassel is the clear starter. Seattle (12th) and Arizona (13th) hold the next two picks, and both can forget about the Rams sending a franchise quarterback their way.

Griffin might be worth taking second overall. That doesn't necessarily mean the market will allow the Rams to maximize the value of that choice.

The Rams do not necessarily need to make a killing in a trade. Griffin isn't in their plans, so they could conceivably get the player they really wanted a little later, plus whatever comes their way by trade. That would still represent a net gain.

Things to consider while the Rams weigh their options.

Last QB standing from 2005 NFL draft

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

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

When coaches heap praise upon their QBs

December, 22, 2011
Hearing Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh gush about their starting quarterbacks can create confusion over their teams' intentions.

How serious are Carroll's Seattle Seahawks and Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers about moving into the future with Tarvaris Jackson and Alex Smith as their respective quarterbacks?

Both coaches have had their quarterbacks' backs, and then some. Even before Seattle rebounded from a 2-6 start to reach 7-7, Carroll said he could envision Jackson as the Seahawks' long-term starter. Harbaugh recently called Smith a Pro Bowl-caliber player and long-term answer at quarterback for the 49ers.

What coaches say does not always line up with what NFL owners pay.

Smith has earned a raise, but would the 49ers pay him what Pro Bowl quarterbacks typically earn?

Fourteen QBs earned Pro Bowl honors over the 2009-10 seasons: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Cassel, Brett Favre, David Garrard, Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, Michael Vick and Vince Young.

Most were playing under and/or subsequently earned massive contracts.

Jackson is entering the final year of a contract that scheduled to pay him $4 million in base salary. Smith is earning $4 million in base salary this season.

Those salaries represent good money for backup quarterbacks.

The 49ers should be able to keep Smith without paying him what those Pro Bowl passers earned. They've already paid millions to him as the No. 1 overall choice in the 2005 NFL draft. Smith has expressed in the past an interest in rewarding the 49ers for an investment that did not work out as intended before this season.

Smith has proven to be a good fit for the 49ers under Harbaugh. Jackson is fitting with Seattle under Carroll. I suspect both have come on strong with their public support to combat lingering negative perceptions about both quarterbacks.

If Jackson or Smith were obviously franchise quarterbacks and long-term solutions behind center, their coaches wouldn't have to convince anyone. It would be obvious. The praise from Carroll and Harbaugh has likely helped both quarterbacks exceed outside expectations no matter what their teams have in mind for them beyond this season.

QBR ranks: John Skelton, the closer

December, 19, 2011
The Arizona Cardinals have a 5-1 record when quarterback John Skelton plays this season.

They are 2-6 when he does not.

The disparity raises questions about how the team should proceed if doctors clear starter Kevin Kolb to return this week from a concussion. The numbers say Kolb or just about anyone else should start, but the team might want to keep Skelton around for fourth quarters and overtimes.

Skelton, who played a leading role in the Cardinals' comeback from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit Sunday, owns four game-winning drives after third quarters in his last eight appearances. But he has been much worse than average earlier in games.

In fact, Skelton ranks last among 36 qualifying quarterbacks in first-quarter Total QBR this season, posting a 6.3 score that lags far behind average (50) on a 100-point scale. Skelton improves to 28th in second quarters (32.0) and 28th in third quarters (35.9) before making a striking transformation. Skelton ranks 12th in fourth-quarter QBR (66.5) and ninth in fourth quarters and overtimes combined (71.4).

That 71.4 figure in fourth quarters and overtimes ranks just ahead of those for Tom Brady (68.2), Matt Cassel (66.1), Matt Ryan (65.2) and, yes, Tim Tebow (63.0).

Tebow outranks Skelton in fourth-quarter QBR, 73.5 to 66.5, but Skelton has done more to help his team win in overtimes.. The Cardinals are 3-0 in overtime games this season, including 2-0 with Skelton. They visit Cincinnati in Week 16.

Quick thoughts on how NFC West passers graded out in Week 15 according to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point:
  • John Skelton, Arizona Cardinals (55.6 QBR, 79.3 NFL rating): Skelton completed 28 of 46 passes for 313 yards with one touchdown, one interception, four sacks and two runs covering seven yards. He did not fumble. Skelton completed passes of 21, 23 and 24 yards during a roughly two-minute period of the fourth quarter. His longest completion, a 32-yarder to Larry Fitzgerald, set up the winning field goal in overtime. Skelton completed no passes longer than 12 yards to his running backs or wide receivers before the fourth quarter. Tight end Todd Heap played a more prominent role.
  • Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle Seahawks (42.6 QBR, 94.4 NFL rating): Jackson completed 19 of 31 passes for 227 yards with one touchdown no interceptions, one sack and three rushes for minus-2 yards. The Bears recovered his lone fumble for a touchdown. Jackson completed 15 of 19 passes after halftime. That included a deep pass to Ben Obomanu for a 43-yard gain to the Chicago 3-yard line on the Seahawks' opening drive of the second half. Marshawn Lynch scored on the next play, tying the game and beginning a 31-0 scoring run for Seattle.
  • Kellen Clemens, St. Louis Rams (24.0 QBR, 95.7 NFL rating): Clemens completed 25 of 36 passes for 229 yards with one touchdown, no interceptions, three sacks and two rushes covering 9 yards. The Rams recovered his lone fumble. Clemens was impressive for a quarterback joining his team only recently. His team trailed for all but five minutes of the game, however. QBR rewards quarterbacks for improving win probability for their teams. The Rams converted twice in 13 third-down chances. They managed two first downs on three drives while the Bengals turned a 6-6 game into a 20-6 blowout. A touchdown with 1:14 remaining proved inconsequential.
  • Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers: plays Monday night.

The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 15.

The clutch-weight average column reflects game situations, not how well players performed during those situations. Any clutch average above 1.0 reflects a quarterback performing in higher-pressure situations.

Bringing pressure? Some QBs simply shrug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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