NFC West: Matt Forte

In February, San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said he didn’t think the team would necessarily have to ask running back Frank Gore to take a pay cut.

Gore
Fast forward a month-and-a-half, with the heavy financial lifting of the offseason completed, the 49ers have not adjusted Gore’s pay. His 2014 salary cap number is $6.45 million. Barring an unforeseen development, the 49ers likely will not approach Gore to take a cap hit this year.

Gore has the highest salary-cap number among running backs in the NFL. Gore turns 31 in May. That is an ancient age for an NFL running back. Check out this Kevin Seifert piece on how running backs decline quickly.

But that’s the point about Gore -- he’s still productive. Gore had 1,128 yards and averaged 4.1 yards per rush in 2013. Four of the running backs with a higher salary-cap renumber in 2014 had more yards than Gore last season. They were Adrian Peterson, whose cap number is the highest for a running back at $14.4 million, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte and Marshawn Lynch.

Gore is older than all of the running backs with a higher salary cap number in 2014. But with his production in the same range, it doesn’t appear to be a stretch that Gore remains among the highest paid players at this position despite his advanced age.
The St. Louis Rams' defense could not stop the Green Bay Packers or New England Patriots from flourishing on third down.

Those teams converted 16 of 27 chances in recent victories over St. Louis.

Early downs could present the biggest challenge for the Rams against San Francisco in Week 10. The 49ers like to line up with multiple backs and/or tight ends to stress opponents' base defenses. That will be a key matchup Sunday at Candlestick Park.

As the chart shows, the 49ers are averaging 6.3 yards per carry and 9.2 yards per pass attempt against 4-3 defensive personnel on early downs. Those figures both rank third in the NFL.

The Rams allow 4.0 yards per rush and 7.9 per pass attempt from their 4-3 defense in those situations. League averages are 4.4 and 7.8, respectively, for the 20 teams regularly running 4-3 alignments as their base defenses. Those are respectable figures overall, but a look inside the numbers reveals some inconsistencies.

The Chicago Bears, playing without Matt Forte, managed only 2.8 yards per carry on 20 first- and second-down rushes against the Rams' base defense. Advantage, Rams.

The Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins fared better. Seattle carried 23 times for 141 yards while also averaging 8.2 yards per pass attempt in these situations. Washington used play-action from regular personnel to strike for a 68-yard touchdown when the Rams' base defense stacked eight in the box on first-and-10.

Former NFL assistant Rick Venturi, in grading the Rams' defense for 101ESPN St. Louis, gave high marks for linebackers Jo-Lonn Dunbar and James Laurinaitis. But that was only part of the story.

"The SAM backers, whether it was [Rocky] McIntosh or [Mario] Haggan, have just been a wash," Venturi said. "They've been totally mediocre, but they don't play very much. Very few people play 21 or base personnel [frequently] any more. That is going to change this week in San Francisco. Those guys are going to have to earn their money."

The 49ers have executed 65.6 percent of their first- and second-down rushes from two-back sets. They have averaged 5.5 yards per carry when doing so.

710ESPN Seattle audio: Week 8 preview

October, 27, 2012
10/27/12
8:00
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The week flew past without me getting a chance to share the weekly NFC West conversation on 710ESPN Seattle.

Thanks to @seahawkfan86 for the reminder.

Dave Wyman, Bob Stelton, Dave Grosby and I covered subjects ranging from the MVP race to Steven Jackson's potential future beyond St. Louis. We covered all four NFC West teams, as usual.

Here is the audio .

I can't recall discussing Marshawn Lynch in much detail, but when ESPN made available the pretty Lynch graphic late in the week, I figured the thing needed to appear somewhere on the blog while it was current.

Lynch faces a Detroit Lions defense that has allowed 102 yards to Adrian Peterson, 96 to Matt Forte and 89 to Frank Gore. Quarterbacks Michael Vick (59 yards), Jake Locker (35) and Jay Cutler (34) have found running room, too.

Final Word: NFC West

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

Pressure situation. The San Francisco 49ers must pressure Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, of course. They'll be counting on second-year linebacker Aldon Smith to pick up where he left off last season. Smith, who set a 49ers rookie record with 14 sacks, goes from situational rusher to every-down player this season. Can he remain as effective over the course of a full game? The 49ers averaged one sack per 12.3 drop-backs with Smith on the field last season. The average fell to one sack per 23.2 drop-backs when Smith was on the sideline. Smith played not quite half of the defensive snaps. Side note: Rodgers took only 13 sacks at Lambeau Field last season.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiThe 49ers may have been 6-2 away from Candlestick Park last season, but Alex Smith did not perform very well on the road.
Road worrier. The 49ers went 6-2 on the road last season. Quarterback Alex Smith made key plays in road victories over Detroit, Seattle and Philadelphia in particular. Smith tossed only five touchdown passes in eight road games, however. He was one of only five qualifying quarterbacks whose contributions resulted in negative expected points, according to the Total QBR metric unveiled last season. John Skelton, Mark Sanchez and Blaine Gabbert were the only ones with lower QBR scores on the road (Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady were the three best).

Although Smith tossed only two interceptions on the road, he took a league-high 31 sacks. I'll be watching to see whether Smith and the 49ers can reduce the negative plays in their first road game. By the way, Smith was terrific at home in 2011. He trailed only Rodgers, Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan in home QBR.

Run, run, run. The NFC West was the NFL's only division with four 1,000-yard rushers last season. All four return as starters in 2012. The St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson opens in Detroit, where the Lions surrendered 100-yard rushing games to running backs Frank Gore, Michael Turner and Matt Forte last season. The Rams have built their offense around Jackson. They expect to be more run-oriented than at any previous time in Jackson's career. "We're going to use the run to set up the pass, the play-action, settle Sam [Bradford] down in the games. I have to set the tempo initially for each and every game," Jackson said. Bradford completed 50.6 percent of his play-action attempts last season. That ranked 32nd out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks.

Rookie QB rules. Conventional wisdom says Matt Flynn, not rookie Russell Wilson, should be starting at quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. Conventional wisdom says rookie quarterbacks should struggle, particularly on the road. Can Wilson, thus far exceptional for a rookie, be the exception to conventional wisdom at Arizona? Wilson's relatively short stature hasn't held him back so far. Conventional wisdom says he could be vulnerable to having passes batted down. If it happens, though, the Cardinals might deserve more credit than Wilson deserves blame. Arizona batted down 18 passes last season, third-most in the NFL. The rest of the league averaged 10.1 per team. The Cardinals batted six passes from 6-foot-4 Alex Smith, four from 6-1 Rex Grossman, two from 6-6 Joe Flacco, one from 6-2 Tony Romo and one from 6-2 Donovan McNabb. Wilson stands 5-foot-10 5/8.

Mismatch ... or not? The Seahawks invested heavily in upgrading their pass rush this offseason. They drafted defensive end Bruce Irvin in the first round and signed veteran interior pass-rusher Jason Jones. There will be cause for concern in Seattle -- and celebration in Arizona -- if the Seahawks' revamped pass rush can't generate pressure against the Cardinals' vulnerable offensive line. Arizona heads into this game with two unproven tackles. D'Anthony Batiste, 30, replaces injured Levi Brown on the left side. Batiste has never started at left tackle. He owns four career starts at guard, all in 2007. Five teams have cut him. Rookie fourth-round choice Bobby Massie starts on the right side.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Setting expectations for Pead, James

August, 8, 2012
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The St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers used second-round draft choices for running backs this year.

Both teams have established, older runners coming off productive seasons.

The Rams' Isaiah Pead got extensive reps Wednesday while veteran Steven Jackson received a day off. The 49ers' LaMichael James returned to practice after missing time with illness. Both young backs should get extensive work during the exhibition season, but what about when the games start counting?

Change-of-pace roles seem most likely. Jackson and the 49ers Frank Gore, while older, have remained productive lately. Both are good all-around players.

The Rams envision Jackson posting an eighth consecutive 1,000-yard season while Pead provides a few hundred yards. That was the model for Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer when he was running the New York Jets' offense.

For some perspective, I put together a list showing the 10 second-round draft choices with the most rushing yardage as rookies since 2000. Three of the 10 produced as rookies in tandem with 1,000-yard rushers:
I'm looking forward to seeing James in 49ers camp upon arriving there Sunday.

Paul from San Francisco was among those raising a natural question after reading about Football Outsiders' pessimistic projection for the 49ers in 2012.

"I'm not trying to criticize, but I do think that you, as someone reporting on Football Outsiders' stats/projections, have a responsibility to look into how accurate their projections have been over time," Paul wrote.

Criticism isn't a bad thing, Paul, so no worries there. Football Outsiders' win projection model came close to correctly forecasting the order of finish in the NFC West last season. The projected win totals for each team failed to match up.

Paul passed along a link to an Advanced NFL Stats thread featuring criticisms from Brian Burke regarding Football Outsiders' prediction results from the 2009 season. Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz also offered thoughts on that 2009 season.

I'm generally sympathetic to those making season-long predictions before training camps begin. They cannot account for key variables such as injuries. Some would say that makes predictions useless. I think there's value in searching for ways to figure out what might happen, or at least what should happen. It's a given that actual results will vary. How much those results vary matters, of course.

The first chart shows what Football Outsiders called its "mean win projection" for each NFC West team heading into the 2011 season.

A disclaimer says these are published "in response to reader requests" even though "we do not expect any teams to win the exact number of games in their mean projection -- particularly since no team can win 0.8 of a game."

Additional breakdowns offer the percent chance each team might win three or fewer games, four to six games, seven to eight games, nine to 10 games and 11-plus games.

The second chart compares projections against results for 2011, ranked by how much each team exceeded Football Outsiders' projections. Nine teams finished within one victory of the projections. That included three teams from the NFC East. Twenty-one teams finished within 2.6 victories of the projections.

Thirteen teams finished within one game of 8-8 last season. Predicting an 8-8 record for every team would have produced more outcomes within one game of projections than Football Outsiders managed. The fun, of course, is in figuring out which teams appear most likely to diverge from conventional wisdom.

The team with the largest disparity, Indianapolis, played the season without Peyton Manning. Football Outsiders predicted a decline for the Colts even with Manning still in the picture, saying "the run is over" and Indianapolis was now only an "average team, fighting decline and hoping for new stars to support the still-great Manning."

These comments on the Colts illustrate the futility of grading predictions in some cases. For while the chart says Football Outsiders was least accurate when it came to Indianapolis, the analysis holds up well in retrospect. The assumption before the season was that Manning would probably play, and play well.

Meanwhile, Football Outsiders appears to have been correct on the Chicago Bears, nearly nailing their actual win total. But the projection could not assume Chicago would lose Jay Cutler and Matt Forte to late-season injuries. Football Outsiders was arguably more "accurate" on the Colts than on the Bears.

We're free to run through the chart to see where injuries or other unpredictable factors came into play. I haven't gone through the predictions in enough detail to say with any certainty whether Football Outsiders consistently fares well or poorly with its projections. I do value some of the stats and analysis produced in their annual almanac, some of which I hope to pass along in the future.

Schatz, the Football Outsiders' founder, has said he doesn't always agree with his projection model's results. Like most of us, he takes into account subjective factors when making up his mind on a team. For example, he thinks the 49ers will exceed the model's 7.2-win projection for the 2012 season. He thinks San Francisco is more likely win the division with a record around 9-7.

Thanks to Paul for asking a fair question.
There will be no alleged "Madden 13" cover jinx for the NFC West.

Patrick Willis, the final representative from the division, fell to Cam Newton by a 53-47 percentage margin in the semifinals.

The fact that Calvin Johnson obliterated Aaron Rodgers in the other bracket (63-37 margin) might suggest Green Bay Packers fans were eager to keep their team's most important player off the cover. Some of them presumably voted for Johnson.

In any event, any associated drama for Willis and the NFC West has passed.

Willis had prevailed against Matt Forte, Maurice Jones-Drew and Victor Cruz.

Top five Monday night games for 2012

April, 17, 2012
4/17/12
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One man's opinion on the top five Monday night games for 2012:

1. Atlanta Falcons at Detroit Lions, Week 16. Call this one the Karma Bowl. The Falcons took offense when Ndamukong Suh allegedly celebrated Matt Ryan's ankle injury during an October game between the teams last season. Suh called the injury "karma" for the Falcons' allegedly dirty tactics. Good teams and bad blood should make for good theater.

2. Denver Broncos at Atlanta Falcons, Week 2. Peyton Manning's first post-Indy appearance on "Monday Night Football" takes him to Atlanta for only the third time in his career. The Falcons are a footnote in this matchup. Manning plays only one indoor game during the 2012 regular season. This is it.

3. Carolina Panthers at Philadelphia Eagles, Week 12. Neither team had a winning record last season, but who cares? This game presents a chance to see Cam Newton and Michael Vick on the same night in the same stadium for the first time -- assuming they're both healthy enough to play after running around, into and through defenses for two-plus months.

4. Chicago Bears at San Francisco 49ers, Week 11. Patrick Willis versus Matt Forte. Brian Urlacher versus Frank Gore. Expect a physical game and a big test for Jay Cutler on the road. The 49ers have arguably the NFL's best defense, and they'll be eager to show it in prime time.

5. Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks, Week 3. Two NFC West teams on the list? What is this, the NFC West blog? Yes, but this one's legit. Few venues can approach Seattle for atmosphere, especially in prime time. And this game marks Green Bay's lone appearance on Monday night. The Matt Flynn storyline adds interest.
An irate Matt Forte lashed out at the Chicago Bears after the team signed Michael Bush to a four-year contract Thursday.

Forte has reason to be mad -- at the Bears, perhaps, but mostly at his predicament.

"There's only so many times a man that has done everything he's been asked to do can be disrespected!" Forte tweeted. "Guess the GOOD GUYS do finish last ..."

Forte's situation illustrates how wise/fortunate Marshawn Lynch was to secure a long-term deal from the Seattle Seahawks before free agency. The free-agent market for running backs, safeties, inside linebackers and the like has been absolutely dead. As the NFL becomes more of a passing league, teams are building their rosters from the outside in, rewarding outside pass-rushers, cornerbacks and wide receivers.

Forte is panicking because he knows the guaranteed money allocated to Bush bites into the Bears' budget for the position. The team is now less likely to pay big money for Forte.

The deal Lynch signed reportedly featured $18 million in guarantees. If the Bears gave a similar deal to Forte, they would have roughly $25 million in guarantees tied up at running back, provided initial reports on Bush's deal are accurate. That seems unlikely to happen.

"Since drafting Matt in 2008, the Bears have signed Kevin Jones, Chester Taylor and Marion Barber, all ostensibly to serve as Matt's back-up," Forte's agent was quoted as saying. "To sign yet another running back, prior to completing a contract with Matt suggests disregard for Matt and his contributions to the Bears."

It also reflects the realities of the market for running backs. Special backs can still command lucrative deals, but very good ones are having a tougher time playing the leverage game.
Imagine how many yards Marshawn Lynch might gain if the Seattle Seahawks had a Pro Bowl fullback.

OK, now. Stop imagining.

The NFL has named Seattle's Michael Robinson to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement for Green Bay fullback John Kuhn. Robinson played an important role in Lynch's 1,200-yard season. He also remained a key player on special teams.

We should expect Lynch to join Robinson on the NFC's Pro Bowl roster if the San Francisco 49ers advance to the Super Bowl.

Lynch was a second alternate to the NFC squad. LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte and Frank Gore earned NFC Pro Bowl honors at the position. Forte plans to play in the Pro Bowl despite suffering a knee injury. The first alternate, Adrian Peterson, is out with a knee injury. That puts Lynch in line to replace Gore if the 49ers advance.

A 49ers victory Sunday would also send Seattle cornerback Brandon Browner and strong safety Kam Chancellor to the Pro Bowl as alternates. Browner would replace the 49ers' Carlos Rogers. Chancellor would replace the 49ers' Dashon Goldson.

Was 49ers' Roman right about Saints' D?

January, 12, 2012
1/12/12
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Greg Roman, the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator, naturally wasn't going to disrespect an opponent heading into a playoff game.

Sure, the New Orleans Saints' opponents have averaged 5.0 yards per rushing attempt this season, the 29th-worst figure in the NFL, but there was an explanation.

"Those guys do a really good job against the run; I think statistics are misleading," Roman said Wednesday. "A lot of people have popped runs on them down by 30. What does that do? It inflates the stats. When they had to run, I didn't see those 30-yard runs."

Roman was correct in a sense. Indianapolis did break runs covering 42 and 24 yards when trailing the Saints by at least 30 points. Those runs were pretty much meaningless.

But the Saints' opponents also broke runs covering 42, 41, 39, 34 and 29 yards when the scoring margin was eight or fewer points either way, what we would consider to be one-score differentials. Opponents had 16 runs of 15 yards or longer in these situations.

The 49ers, by comparison, gave up no runs longer than 34 yards and only four longer than 18 yards. They were leading by 23 when Arizona broke a 34-yarder in Week 11. They were up by 13 when the Rams broke a 27-yarder in Week 17. The trailed Philadelphia by seven and led Pittsburgh by six when those teams broke runs for 24 and 21 yards, respectively.

The first chart shows all runs against the Saints by score differential. The second chart shows each run against the Saints covering 15-plus yards. There were 27 of them. The Saints led by six points on average at the time of those runs. The 49ers gave up 10 such runs by comparison. They led by three points on average during those runs.

Thanks to Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information for his assistance.
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Passing league? NFC West runs strong

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
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Four of the 13 players with at least 1,000 yards rushing this season call the NFC West home.

All four run with power.

Two in particular -- Arizona's Beanie Wells and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch -- have racked up yardage after contact. Both rank among the NFL's top four in total yards after contact. And among those players with at least 1,000 yards, Wells and Lynch rank high in percentage of yards gained after contact (see chart, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information).

Week 17 gives us one last chance to see Wells, Lynch and St. Louis' Steven Jackson in action this season. Along with San Francisco's Frank Gore, they give the NFC West more 1,000-yard rushers than any division. The AFC North, AFC South and AFC West have two apiece. The AFC East, NFC East and NFC South have one apiece. The NFC North has none after injuries sidelined Matt Forte (997 yards) and Adrian Peterson (970).

Six other backs are within 150 yards of 1,000 this season: Shonn Greene (999), Chris Johnson (986), Fred Jackson (934), Michael Bush (911), DeMarco Murray (897) and Rashard Mendenhall (890). Murray is sidelined by injury.
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Around the NFC West: Surging Seahawks

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
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The Seattle Seahawks lost their leading receiver from 2010 to a serious injury Sunday without dramatically affecting their ability to win.

The broken ankle Mike Williams suffered during a 38-14 victory over the Chicago Bears would have been devastating had it happened a year ago. It should be devastating this season, too, given that projected 2011 receiver leader Sidney Rice is already out for the season.

But the way the Seahawks are winning these days, with young players emerging throughout the roster, little seems to cramp their style.

Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks' performance at Soldier Field proves they're more than just a novelty. Brewer: "You could shrug it off and caution that the Bears were without starting quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte. Or you could look more closely at the mounting evidence -- five victories in the past six games -- and acknowledge the Seahawks have learned how to win, at home and on the road." Noted: The truth probably lies somewhere in betwee. The Seahawks have learned how to win because they're playing better and they've done a good job developing young players. They've also faced some struggling teams with quarterback issues (St. Louis twice, Philadelphia, Chicago).

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Taravaris Jackson completed 15 of 19 passes in the second half. O'Neil: "For the past six weeks, Seattle has relied upon the run, while Jackson has been the bus driver whose job is just to keep the whole operation on the road. That changed in the third quarter Sunday. With the Bears playing a more aggressive coverage scheme, the Seahawks looked to push the ball downfield more aggressively. After not completing a single pass of more than 30 yards in any of his past three games, Jackson had two such completions among Seattle's first four plays of the second half. The first was a 33-yard gain to Golden Tate on third down, followed immediately by a 43-yard pass to Ben Obomanu against man-to-man coverage."

Also from O'Neil: a look at the Seahawks' diminished playoff hopes.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com names rookie linebacker K.J. Wright the team's player of the game Sunday. Farnsworth: "The rookie strongside linebacker did a lot of the dirty work that led to a lot of the big plays, as well as making a game-high eight solo tackles. Red Bryant’s interception and 20-yard return for a touchdown to ignite the Seahawks’ 31-0 run in the second half? It was Wright who hit Bears QB Caleb Hanie to set up the pick-six."

John McGrath of the Tacoma News Tribune says Seattle's Pete Carroll is putting together his best coaching job. McGrath: "Through eight games, his team was 2-6 and all but eliminated from the playoff race. Beyond the bleak numbers, the Hawks were a chore to watch and difficult to appreciate, often cheap-shot artists who did nothing else remotely artistic. How does a football team manage to be dirty and dull at the same time? Carroll needed two months to clean up the slop, but clean it up he did."

710ESPN Seattle's Liz Mathews says Williams suffered a broken ankle against the Bears.

Sando's best guesses: Week 15 predictions

December, 16, 2011
12/16/11
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Significant quarterback considerations affect every game involving NFC West teams in Week 15. That makes the picks tougher than usual.
  • Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears, 1 p.m. ET. The Bears should win home games in December against West Coast teams with losing records. Subtracting Jay Cutler and Matt Forte from the Bears' lineup dramatically improves the Seahawks' chances. But the Seahawks' reshuffled offensive line faces difficult matchups. Let's pick against the team with Caleb Hanie at quarterback. Sando's best guess: Seahawks 13, Bears 10.
  • St. Louis Rams vs. Cincinnati Bengals, 1 p.m. ET. The Bengals have lost four of five, but nothing about the Rams suggests they'll win another game this season. Sam Bradford's injury status -- and his stats -- keep getting worse. Sando's best guess: Bengals 17, Rams 10.
  • Arizona Cardinals vs. Cleveland Browns, 4:15 p.m. ET. The Browns have exceeded 14 points twice in their last 10 games. Having Seneca Wallace at quarterback probably helps, but the Cardinals are playing well enough on defense to control this game. The Cardinals, for all their struggles earlier in the season, lead the NFL in touchdowns covering at least 50 yards (nine). The Browns have given up only two. Sando's best guess: Cardinals 20, Browns 13.
  • San Francisco 49ers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, 8:30 p.m. ET. This is the toughest NFC West outcome to predict. The Steelers are traveling across the country with an injured quarterback to face one of the toughest defenses in the NFL. But the 49ers' offense is struggling and, as Matt Williamson pointed out, the matchups favor Pittsburgh. The Steelers' last three opponents have combined for 19 points. The 49ers gave up 21 to Arizona. Sando's best guess: Steelers 17, 49ers 16

My record picking NFC West games stands at 28-15 after going 1-1 last week amid indecision over the 49ers-Cardinals game.

Where am I wrong this time?

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

December, 7, 2011
12/07/11
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Rob Gronkowski Charles LeClaire/US PresswireRob Gronkowski has scored at least two touchdowns in five of the Patriots' 12 games this season.

It seems excessive to have three New England Patriots on the MVP Watch.

Could be that dreaded East Coast bias, except the MVP Watch guy (yours truly) is a West Coast lifer and the NFC West delegate to the ESPN blog network.

Tom Brady certainly belongs on the list. The case for Brady's top receiver, Wes Welker, is an easy one to make. What's one more Patriot?

Tight end Rob Gronkowski appears in the No. 10 spot this week for two basic reasons.

One, he's been phenomenally productive. Gronkowski has scored nine of his 14 touchdowns this season over the Patriots' past five games. New England is 4-1 during that stretch and 9-3 overall.

Two, some of the other viable candidates aren't so viable at this point in the season. Matt Forte's injury likely removes him from the discussion. Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions have cooled considerably over the past month.

Still, even AFC East blogger James Walker thought three Pats were too many.

"They're not undefeated," Walker said. "Gronkowski and Welker are both stellar, but between the two, I would choose Welker by definition of 'most valuable.' The Patriots would do fine on offense with Aaron Hernandez starting at tight end."

Walker wasn't quite finished.

"Maybe Tim Tebow should be considered at No. 10 for what he's doing in Denver," he added.


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