NFC West: Maurice Stovall

The protocol becomes the same for nearly every freshly minted NFL draft choice, from first-round quarterbacks to seventh-round punters.

Not long after their selections, their new employers will connect them to local NFL reporters via conference call.

A surprise awaited the Arizona Cardinals after the team made Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd the 13th overall choice in the 2012 draft.

Floyd's college coach, Brian Kelly, made an unsolicited call to the Cardinals, availing himself to media questions regarding his former player.

Kelly has vouched for other players, including Minnesota Vikings first-round pick Harrison Smith. A college head coach certainly has a recruiting interest in getting his name out there in association with prominent draft choices.

But in publicly testifying for Floyd, whose draft file includes three three alcohol-related incidents and a resulting team suspension, Kelly extended himself to an extent that wasn't necessary. It was a notable early marker for the Cardinals, who have never drafted a player with such significant baggage since Ken Whisenhunt arrived as head coach in 2007.

Floyd could not have scripted Kelly's testimonial more favorably:
  • On Floyd in general: "Well, a kid who got his degree in three-and-a-half years from Notre Dame. Probably in my 23 years now as a head coach, the best practice player that I've ever had. He just has a passion and a love for the football."
  • On Floyd as a teammate: "Whether he is getting the football or not, he is a guy who has never complained. He certainly always wants the ball in critical situations. He has never been a diva, if you will, in terms of not getting his catches. If we're successful and we're making plays, he's on the other end making blocks. That's why it was such a pleasure to coach the kid."
  • On what changed in Floyd following a suspension: "To have an opportunity to come back and play at Notre Dame and get a degree and be successful in the NFL, he had to make some choices. And he made some great choices. Now, you've got a young man who had been through some adversity, has handled it, has been humbled because of it and the best is in front of him now."

Authorities cited Floyd for underage drinking in 2009 and 2010. A DUI conviction last year made for three alcohol-related incidents in three years, raising obvious questions about judgment and the potential for a more serious problem.

College programs can become enablers for troubled star athletes. Handing millions to those troubled athletes usually doesn't help.

Those are generalities. Floyd's situation stands on its own. Whether he has a problem or carries a heightened risk cannot be known for certain.

The Cardinals' decision to draft Floyd was an organizational one, with team owner Michael Bidwill, a former federal prosecutor, participating directly in the vetting process.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt said the team asked tough questions, thought Floyd provided honest answers and felt Floyd made a positive statement by returning to Notre Dame for his senior season amid quarterback uncertainty that could have hurt Floyd's status.

"I just basically told them it was a bad decision," Floyd told reporters following his selection. "I learned from it and I moved on. I know I can't be like every other college student, just doing what a college student does, because the spotlight is on me. They wanted to see if I had improvements since that time, and I have."

There is less uncertainty over the Cardinals' on-field plans for Floyd. They anticipate him becoming their flanker opposite split end Larry Fitzgerald, who had been the most recent first-round wideout chosen by Arizona. With Floyd projecting as a starter, Andre Roberts becomes a candidate for additional playing time from the slot, where Early Doucet was already a factor for the team.

Fitzgerald and Floyd present matchup problems with their size alone. Both are nearly 6-foot-3. Floyd weighed 220 pounds at the scouting combine. Fitzgerald weighed 225 upon entering the league in 2004. He has preferred playing at a lighter weight recently.

Size matters for receivers in the NFC West, a division featuring punishing safeties and Pro Bowl credentials in the secondary. Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman, Adrian Wilson, Patrick Peterson, Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner, Cortland Finnegan and Quintin Mikell come to mind immediately.

"You could consider Mike to be still a raw receiver in that he can get better in all the technical elements in route running and things of that nature," Kelly said of Floyd. "He is certainly a guy that attacks the football and attacks defenders and blocking -- he is an outstanding blocker."

Any rookie open to input from veteran players stands to benefit from joining a team with strong leadership at the player's position. Fitzgerald sets an impeccable standard for the Cardinals' receivers and the team in general. From that standpoint, Floyd couldn't have found a better working environment.
The list of available unrestricted free-agent receivers continues to dwindle.

The St. Louis Rams aren't going to find the playmaking help they covet on a list featuring Plaxico Burress, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Patrick Crayton, Rashied Davis, Deion Branch, Jerheme Urban, Bryant Johnson, Roy Williams, Greg Camarillo, Jerricho Cotchery, Mark Clayton, Roscoe Parrish, Michael Clayton, Courtney Roby, Michael Spurlock, David Anderson, Legedu Naanee, Devin Aromashodu, Donnie Avery, Maurice Stovall, Andre Caldwell, Ted Ginn Jr., Steve Smith (Philly version), Jerome Simpson and Devin Thomas.

Roger Hensley of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked colleagues how the Rams will address the issue. Jim Thomas: "There’s not much left at the position in free agency. The wide receiver shelves were cleaned out quickly, so barring a trade of some kind -- which seems unlikely -- the Rams are almost limited to getting help via the draft. And at No. 6 overall, there’s no guarantee that Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State will be available. So yes, the team is in a bit of a predicament at wide receiver."

Also from Thomas, regarding Mike Wallace: "He has a first-round tender. And you can only use your original first-round pick as compensation. The Rams no longer have their original first-round pick after trading down with Washington. So they can't acquire Wallace through the regular process of restricted free agency. Now, the Rams could always offer less in a sign-and-trade situation. But why would the Steelers want less than a first-rounder? They put the tender on him in an attempt to keep him." Noted: The Rams could, in theory, offer the sixth overall pick, but that would be a steep price to pay.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch thinks the Rams should steer clear of Tim Tebow.

Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis says the Rams' search for a backup quarterback continues in the absence of attractive options.

Matt Maiocco of quotes 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh regarding Harbaugh's relationship with Alex Smith: "It's been good -- strong relationship, as always. It's a very strong relationship."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee has this to say about the situation with Smith: "It's unclear if Smith agrees with Harbaugh that they are as tight as they've ever been. The team's offer did not exactly mesh with Harbaugh's statements of devotion during and after the season. While it's all but certain Smith will be the 49ers' quarterback this season, it also leaves an opening for backup Colin Kaepernick to take over before the three years are complete. Kaepernick has been a regular at the 49ers' training facility this offseason."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers have ruled out Tebow, according to CEO Jed York.

Darren Urban of says Early Doucet's re-signing means the Cardinals will return their top receivers from last season. Urban: "Doucet set career-highs in 2011 with 54 receptions, 689 yards and five touchdowns in his fourth NFL season, playing in 16 games for the first time. He came up with a pair of long touchdown catches against Carolina (70 yards) and San Francisco (60 yards) and scored on a game-winning screen pass in Philadelphia."

Also from Urban: The Cardinals have little salary-cap room, and there are tradeoffs associated with gaining flexibility.

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle quotes Seahawks coach Pete Carroll as saying Peyton Manning reached out to the Seahawks while figuring out which team to join. Carroll: "He had contacted me about wanting to talk about coming here. By the time we got down to where we had our chance he had already set his sights on going in the direction wound up going, with Denver."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times looks at the market for free-agent linebacker David Hawthorne. O'Neil: "Hawthorne has led Seattle in tackles each of the past three years, but right now, the market for free-agent linebackers looks to be a little softer than some expected." Noted: Looks like we're approaching that period where players reset their expectations before taking deals for less than they had hoped.

Clare Farnsworth of puts together an overview of free agency from the Seahawks' perspective.
Wide receivers Vincent Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Reggie Wayne, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, Laurent Robinson, Josh Morgan, Eric Weems and Harry Douglas have found new homes after hitting the NFL's free-agent market.

Franchise tags essentially removed from consideration Dwayne Bowe, Wes Welker and DeSean Jackson.

Others, such as Marques Colston, re-signed before free agency.

Teams still searching for help at the position -- that would be pretty much everyone but Seattle in the NFC West -- are left with a picked-over group of free agents.

Jerome Simpson, Plaxico Burress, Brandon Lloyd, Legedu Naanee, Devin Aromashodu, Roy Williams, Mario Manningham and Early Doucet are the only ones remaining to have played at least half of their team's offensive snaps during the 2011 season.

As the chart shows, Burress was particularly effective in the red zone for the New York Jets. He converted first downs 38 times in 45 receptions for the third-highest percentage among wide receivers with at least 40 receptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Burress is also up there in age. He's among 12 available wideouts already in their 30s: Hines Ward (36), Burress (34), T.J. Houshmandzadeh (34), Kevin Curtis (33), Patrick Crayton (32), Deion Branch (32), Rashied Davis (32), Donte Stallworth (31), Jerheme Urban (31), Bryant Johnson (31), Lloyd (30) and Williams (30).

Of them, Lloyd has visited the San Francisco 49ers.

Nine more are 29 years old: Greg Camarillo, Keary Colbert, Mark Clayton, Jerricho Cotchery, Roscoe Parrish, Michael Clayton, Courtney Roby, Michael Spurlock and Braylon Edwards.

Still interested?

OK, let's check out 18 others, all younger than 29: David Anderson, Legedu Naanee, Devin Aroshamodu, Donnie Avery, Anthony Gonzalez, Maurice Stovall, Derek Hagan, Mike Sims-Walker, Ted Ginn Jr., Andre Caldwell, Steve Smith, Doucet, Brett Swain, Chaz Schilens, Simpson, Manningham, Devin Thomas and Kevin Ogletree.

Schilens visited Arizona and San Francisco. Manningham visited the 49ers and the St. Louis Rams.

I've also broken down the available wideouts by drafted round:
  • First: Williams, Burress, Ginn, Stallworth, both Claytons, Johnson, Gonzalez and Edwards
  • Second: Avery, Thomas, Simpson, Smith, Parrish, Branch, Colbert
  • Third: Roby, Doucet, Hagan, Stovall, Manningham, Caldwell, Curtis, Sims-Walker, Ward
  • Fourth: Cotchery, Lloyd
  • Fifth: Legedu Naanee
  • Sixth: none
  • Seventh: Houshmandzadeh, Crayton, Schilens, Aromashodu, Anderson, Swain
  • Undrafted: Davis, Urban, Camarillo, Spurlock, Ogletree

Only a handful of the available receivers project as starters. None would qualify as an outright game-breaker.

The Rams in particular need playmakers, but in looking at what is available, how many would qualify as dramatically better than what they already have? Austin Pettis, Brandon Gibson, Danario Alexander, Dominique Curry, Greg Salas and restricted free agent Danny Amendola are their current wideouts.
The famous slap on the back San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh delivered against his Detroit Lions counterpart wasn't the most questionable one Sunday.

As Jim Schwartz pointed out Monday, the 49ers never should have taken over possession in Lions territory after Ted Ginn Jr.'s 40-yard return in the final six minutes of a game Detroit was leading, 19-15. That is because 49ers safety Reggie Smith committed a blatant block in the back during the return, first pulling and then shoving the Lions' Maurice Stovall with enough force to expose the receiver's right shoulder pad.

Stovall was within three yards of Ginn and directly in front of him as Ginn gathered himself at the San Francisco 35-yard line, but Smith shoved him out of the play.

Update: One of my officiating contacts watched this play and said Smith was not guilty of a foul in part because one hand was on Stovall's side, Smith merely drove Stovall through the play and Smith was not in a chase position. Tavares Gooden also might have blocked John Wendling in the back.

Questionable penalties happen, of course, and the 49ers had legitimate beefs in this game as well, but nothing quite so ill-timed as this one. shows the block at the 2:47 mark of its 49ers-Lions highlight package.

A penalty against the 49ers during the return would have changed game dynamics considerably.

"It was a little disappointing on that when there was a pretty significant block in the back," Schwartz told reporters Monday. "Geez, you talk about one play in the game; that might have been the one right there. It was a significant flip in field position because it's penalties from that point rather than from the end of that [return]."

Had officials administered a 10-yard penalty from the San Francisco 37, the 49ers would have taken over at their own 27. Win probability statistics say the 49ers would have had only a 29.5 percent chance of prevailing in the game had their drive begun that deep in their own territory, according to Alok Pattani of the ESPN analytics team.

Ginn ran out of bounds at the Detroit 40 on the play, but officials moved the ball to the 35 for the start of the drive. I reached out to the NFL for an explanation and will update with a response should I receive one. There was no penalty on the play. This appeared to reflect an error of basic administration.

"You expect officials to get balls spotted in the right spot and have the right down marker up and correct timing, things like that," Schwartz told 97.1-FM in Detroit, according to the Detroit Free Press. "Those really aren’t subjective things like the spot of a ball when a runner’s down by contact or something like that. And that was obviously an unfortunate thing that went on in the game. It still doesn’t change the fact that we have fourth-and-goal from the (6) and weren’t able to get them stopped, because we make that play, then things are obviously a lot different."

Win probability stats gave the 49ers a 39.8 percent chance from the Detroit 40 and a 41.6 percent chance from the 35. The 1.8 percent difference is slim, but so was the margin by which officials declared Delanie Walker had moved the ball across the goal line with the winning 6-yard scoring reception before his right knee touched the ground.

Looks like this game will be memorable on many fronts: the 49ers getting to 5-1 for the first time since 2002; Alex Smith delivering the team's first winning touchdown pass in the final two minutes of a game since Jeff Garcia, also in 2002; the 49ers playing what coordinator Vic Fangio called the finest defensive performance he had been associated with; Frank Gore matching his career best with a third consecutive 100-yard rushing performance; and, of course, Harbaugh and Schwartz overshadowing it all with their postgame confrontation.

Also: The NFL acknowledged the error in spotting the ball at the 35 instead of the 40. "The officiating crew incorrectly spotted the ball at the Detroit 35 instead of the 40 where Ted Ginn went out of bounds," a league spokesman said.