NFC West: Michael Lewis

2011 UFA market: NFC West scorecard

August, 23, 2011
8/23/11
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With training camps winding down, I've found time to update rosters and put together team-by-team reference material for unrestricted free agency.

The names below match official NFL counts.

These are for players with at least four accrued NFL seasons whose contracts expired following the 2010 season. I've added comments for each team.

Arizona Cardinals

Re-signed (8): Ben Graham, Matt Ware, Hamza Abdullah, Ben Claxton, Lyle Sendlein, D'Anthony Batiste, Deuce Lutui, Stephen Spach.

New to team (7): Chansi Stuckey, Richard Marshall, Daryn Colledge, Nick Eason, Stewart Bradley, Floyd Womack, Jeff King.

Still unsigned (3): Alan Faneca, Jason Wright, Bryan Robinson.

Signed elsewhere (5): Steve Breaston (Kansas City), Gabe Watson (New York Giants), Ben Patrick (Giants), Trumaine McBride (New Orleans), Alan Branch (Seattle).

Comment: Sendlein, Colledge and Bradley were the big signings. Marshall provides needed depth at cornerback. Faneca and Wright announced their retirements. The Cardinals weren't aggressive in trying to re-sign the players they lost to other teams. The biggest move Arizona made, acquiring Kevin Kolb from Philadelphia, did not involve a UFA.


San Francisco 49ers

Re-signed (4): Ray McDonald, Tony Wragge, Dashon Goldson, Alex Smith.

New to team (5): Braylon Edwards, Jonathan Goodwin, Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, David Akers.

Still unsigned (5): Brian Westbrook, Troy Smith, Demetric Evans, William James, Barry Sims.

Signed elsewhere (6): David Baas (Giants), Travis LaBoy (San Diego), Jeff Reed (Seattle), Aubrayo Franklin (New Orleans), Takeo Spikes (San Diego), Manny Lawson (Cincinnati).

Comment: Re-signing McDonald signaled Franklin's departure. Getting Goldson back on the relative cheap was a victory. The 49ers wanted to keep Baas, but not at the price he commanded. The team thinks NaVorro Bowman has a bright future in Spikes' old spot at inside linebacker. Lawson wasn't strong enough as a pass-rusher to stick around. Safety depth is improved.


Seattle Seahawks

Re-signed (7): Raheem Brock, Junior Siavii, Brandon Mebane, Leroy Hill, Matt McCoy, Michael Robinson, Kelly Jennings.

New to team (8): Branch, Zach Miller, Robert Gallery, Jimmy Wilkerson, Atari Bigby, Sidney Rice, Tarvaris Jackson, Reed.

Still unsigned (7): Jay Richardson, Craig Terrill, Chester Pitts, Brandon Stokley, Ruvell Martin, J.P. Losman, Lawyer Milloy.

Signed elsewhere (8): Will Herring (New Orleans), Olindo Mare (Carolina), Matt Hasselbeck (Tennessee), Chris Spencer (Chicago), Jordan Babineaux (Tennessee), Sean Locklear (Washington), Amon Gordon (Kansas City), Ray Willis (Washington).

Comment: Adding Jackson as the starting quarterback was the most significant move for the 2011 season. Mebane was the most important re-signing for the longer term. Hill was a bargain relative to how he's playing right now. Miller and Rice were the types of young, talented players who rarely change teams in free agency. The Seahawks were outbid for Herring and Mare. Can street free agent David Vobora fill some of the void Herring left?


St. Louis Rams

Re-signed (2): Adam Goldberg, Gary Gibson.

New to team (9): Daniel Muir, Quinn Ojinnaka, Harvey Dahl, Ben Leber, Zac Diles, Jerious Norwood, Cadillac Williams, Quintin Mikell, Mike Sims-Walker.

Still unsigned (5): Chris Hovan, Michael Lewis, Darcy Johnson, Clifton Ryan, Mark Clayton.

Signed elsewhere (4): Daniel Fells (Denver), Laurent Robinson (San Diego), Derek Schouman (Washington), Kevin Dockery (Pittsburgh).

Comment: Dahl and Mikell were the big additions. Clayton could return if and when his surgically repaired knee allows. Sims-Walker is a wild card. The team didn't flinch when any of its own UFAs signed elsewhere. Most of the moves made on defense were designed to improve St. Louis against the run. Remember that newcomer Justin Bannan was not a UFA. Denver released him.
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NFC West: What's left in free agency

August, 23, 2011
8/23/11
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The time has come for some accounting now that the top unrestricted free agents have found homes. Others continue to wait.

I've put together charts showing how many and which UFAs for NFC West teams remain unsigned. The deadline passed Saturday for teams to make qualifying offers to these players.

The charts rank unsigned UFAs from oldest to youngest. I've ordered the players this way because so many older players find out through free agency where they stand.

A couple players, Alan Faneca and Jason Wright, have announced intentions to retire. They have chosen to go out on their own terms. Retirement becomes a process for others. Free agency comes and goes, the phone seldom rings, teams get on with their lives and before long, a player realizes he is finished.

Some players listed below could help teams if they found the right situations. Lawyer Milloy started 16 games for the Seattle Seahawks last season. The St. Louis Rams have kept in touch with Mark Clayton to monitor the receiver's recovery from knee surgery.

Note: UFAs are defined strictly as players whose contracts expired following at least four accrued NFL seasons. Released players are not UFAs in the same sense even though they can sign with any team.

The San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks are off Sunday.

The St. Louis Rams are scrimmaging.

This mostly quiet day in the NFC West departs from the recent frenzied pace. I'm home briefly and using the slower pace to get caught up. I've got rosters to update, a Cardinals "Camp Confidential" to write for publication Monday, recorded interviews to transcribe and two young sons eager to play catch with their old man.

Among the things I'm monitoring:
  • Adrian Wilson's injury situation: Last I heard, the Cardinals were not expected to announce results from an MRI before Monday. Wilson suffered what appeared to be an injured elbow and/or biceps, according to reports. The team was expected to re-sign safety Matt Ware. Wilson is the highest-profile NFC West player to suffer a significant injury during training camp. Wilson played hurt last season, affecting his play, and he turns 32 in October. A significant injury at this stage of his career would carry added significance.
  • Dashon Goldson's status: The 49ers have moved on at safety, so what happens with Goldson is a secondary concern in the division at this point. But the New England Patriots are reportedly interested in him. Goldson has been better against the run than pass, but he doesn't project as a replacement for Wilson in Arizona, based on previous evaluations from Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. Williamson nailed the evaluation for Goldson back in June: "He is not a Michael Lewis, not an Adrian Wilson. He is good at a few things, but not great at any and I am not really sure what his niche is. ... If you had one more top-20 corner to add to that secondary, all of a sudden he might look a little better. But if you are needing him to make up for deficits on the edges, no. There are a ton of safeties on the market who are better than him. ... You might tell him, 'See what you can get, let us know,' and if he can get a big number he goes, but if he comes back, you get him back at your price and everyone is happy.
  • Comments sections on the blog: Some have complained about technical difficulties when leaving comments on blog items. Others have said the comments are working as usual for them. I've relayed concerns to the appropriate people and will keep you updated. Sorry for the difficulties. I value the conversations we have around here and look forward to engaging more regularly as the NFL calendar settles into a more regular rhythm. The frenzy over the past 10 days has been unprecedented, at least in my experience covering the league.

Enjoy your Sunday. I'm heading to 49ers camp early Monday and will report from there through Wednesday.
The second in a series of items analyzing one player per NFC West team without a contract for 2011.

Dashon Goldson, FS, San Francisco 49ers

Age: 26

NFL seasons: four

Dash Goldson
AP Photo/Ben MargotDashon Goldson had 80 tackles and one interception in 16 games for San Francisco last season.
Situation: Goldson's status for free agency hinges upon the next labor agreement or whatever system goes into effect in the absence of one. Before 2010, players needed only four seasons to become unrestricted free agents. Goldson could revert to restricted free agency if players need more than four seasons. In that case, the 49ers would probably be able to re-sign him on a relatively modest one-year deal.

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.: Goldson is better against the run than against the pass. I don't know that he recognizes things exceptionally well from a deep center-field perspective. But with his size, you want him at free safety, not strong safety. He is not a Michael Lewis, not an Adrian Wilson. He is good at a few things, but not great at any and I am not really sure what his niche is. He is an upgrade over what they have had in the past. You can win with him. He is a good player, but I don't think he is a featured player. If you had one more top-20 corner to add to that secondary, all of a sudden he might look a little better. But if you are needing him to make up for deficits on the edges, no. There are a ton of safeties on the market who are better than him. Eric Weddle, Michael Huff, those guys. You might tell him, 'See what you can get, let us know,' and if he can get a big number he goes, but if he comes back, you get him back at your price and everyone is happy.

My thoughts: The 49ers' pass defense was worse than anticipated in 2010. Goldson went into the season with a chance to prove himself worthy of a lucrative long-term deal. He was definitely ascending coming out of his first season as a full-time starter. Goldson failed to continue on that trajectory. It wasn't all his fault, but the season showed that Goldson, unlike elite safeties, was not going to transcend a bad situation. Williamson's point about Goldson needing help at cornerback is well taken. The 49ers addressed the position in the draft, but not early enough to signal they've solved the problem altogether. Keeping Goldson as a restricted free agent would be ideal for San Francisco. The team's new defensive staff could then evaluate him over a full season. Goldson would also have much to prove.
Alex Smith and Matt HasselbeckGetty ImagesAlex Smith and Matt Hasselbeck are both eligible for free agency this offseason.
It is possible, even likely, that the NFL and its players will continue their staring contest through the 2011 draft -- even with a ruling from U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson.

The appeals process could take weeks or longer, during which time it's unlikely the league would open for business. We're probably doomed to status quo, in other words.

But if ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson is correct, Judge Nelson will most likely end the lockout, leading to an immediate appeal -- a scenario I think would lead, eventually, to the league opening for business under 2010 rules while the sides continued their battle in the courts.

Those 2010 rules set the bar high for free agency. Only players with six accrued seasons would qualify for the unrestricted market. Starters such as Arizona's Steve Breaston, San Francisco's Dashon Goldson and Seattle's Brandon Mebane would lose leverage and most likely return to their teams under relatively modest one-year deals.

The players listed in the chart -- those with at least six accrued seasons and no contracts for 2011 -- would be free to explore opportunities elsewhere.

Options and implications for this type of free agency in the NFC West:

Arizona Cardinals

Overview: The Cardinals suffered more personnel losses than they could weather last offseason. They would benefit from a return to 2010 rules, however, because the restrictions would keep multiple starters off the market. Their list of potential free agents with six-plus seasons features no front-line players. The Cardinals would be better off focusing on a new deal with Larry Fitzgerald, who is entering the final year of his contract.

Top priority: Finding a veteran quarterback. Derek Anderson isn't expected back. Marc Bulger's name is heard most frequently in connection with the Cardinals. He turned 34 this week and did not attempt a pass in a regular-season game while with Baltimore last season. Bulger struggled during his final seasons with the Rams, but the team was falling apart around him. He last finished an NFL season with more touchdowns than interceptions in 2006. The down year has surely helped him get healthy.

Players in flux: Breaston, starting guard Deuce Lutui and starting center Lyle Sendlein wouldn't have enough accrued seasons to become unrestricted under 2010 rules. The situation is particularly difficult for Breaston, who has battled through knee problems without getting a long-term deal.

Veteran variable: Starting left guard Alan Faneca has considered retirement. The Cardinals invested in veteran guard Rex Hadnot for depth last offseason. The team lacks young depth on the line, but if Lutui and Sendlein return, the Cardinals have some flexibility.

Name to keep in mind: Ike Taylor, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cardinals are hoping Greg Toler can build upon an up-and-down 2010 season. Taylor would give the team options. He played under new Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton.

St. Louis Rams

Overview: The Rams' most important players tend to be younger starters under contract for the long term (Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Rodger Saffold, Sam Bradford, Jason Smith). Most of their top veterans are also under contract (Steven Jackson, Fred Robbins, James Hall). Free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe is out of the picture after signing with the Washington Redskins following his salary-related release.

Top priority: The Rams could use a veteran guard with some nastiness. The team has invested heavily in its line, but this group could use more of an edge. Bringing back receiver Mark Clayton should be another consideration even though Clayton is coming off a serious knee injury. The rapport Clayton had with Bradford was strong.

Players in flux: Defensive tackles Gary Gibson and Clifton Ryan would remain property of the Rams under 2010 rules, as would cornerback Kevin Dockery and receiver Laurent Robinson. Gibson was the only full-time starter of the group last season. The Rams are expected to seek an upgrade at that position even with Gibson coming back.

Veteran variable: Adam Goldberg started all 16 games on the offensive line last season. The Rams could stand to upgrade, but I see value in bringing back Goldberg as a backup. He can play every position on the line but center. Goldberg has also taken an interest in mentoring younger players. His value off the field is a consideration.

Name to keep in mind: Daniel Graham, TE, Denver Broncos. Graham could make sense for the Rams in free agency. He played under the Rams' new offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, and could help upgrade the run blocking. Seattle has connections to Graham as well.

San Francisco 49ers

Overview: The 49ers signed some of their better young players to long-term contracts well before labor pains became so severe. Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Joe Staley come to mind. The lockout has made it tougher for the 49ers' new coaches to get a feel for players. The 49ers like their talent overall and haven't been big players in free agency over the past couple of seasons. That isn't likely to change.

Top priority: Finding a starting quarterback trumps everything else. Alex Smith can become a free agent. Backups David Carr and Troy Smith are not expected back. The 49ers aren't expected to use the seventh overall choice to select or acquire a quarterback. Coach Jim Harbaugh prides himself in coaching up quarterbacks, but he needs quarterbacks to coach.

Players in flux: Goldson, outside linebacker Manny Lawson and defensive lineman Ray McDonald are among the 49ers players that would fall short of the six-season requirement for unrestricted free agency.

Veteran variable: Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin played last season under a one-year franchise deal. The price tag for re-franchising Franklin appears prohibitive. The 49ers took a wait-and-see approach with Franklin because they hadn't seen him perform at a high level over the long term. They'll need a new nose tackle if Franklin departs.

Name to keep in mind: The 49ers' staff is coming mostly from the college ranks, so there aren't obvious connections to players from other NFL rosters. I expect the 49ers to focus more on re-signing some of their own players, from Spikes to David Baas and beyond.

Seattle Seahawks

Overview: The Seahawks have a long list of players without contracts for 2011. That was mostly be design. The team would like to continue turning over its roster without investing too much in older players such as Matt Hasselbeck, Raheem Brock and Olindo Mare.

Top priority: Figuring out the quarterback situation. Hasselbeck is headed for free agency and could leave if another team gives him some of the longer-term assurances Seattle has resisted. The Seahawks have shown some interest in Philadelphia Eagles backup Kevin Kolb, a player they inquired about last offseason. They still have Charlie Whitehurst. They could draft a quarterback early.

Players in flux: Defensive tackle Mebane heads the list of Seattle players who would not reach free agency under the rules used in 2010. General manager John Schneider called Mebane a "steady pro" when asked about him at the combine. That sounded like faint praise and an indication the Seahawks are not yet prepared to pay top dollar for Mebane if, and when, he hits the market.

Veteran variable: The Seahawks have a few of them, including Mare and Brock. But let's focus on offensive linemen Sean Locklear and Chris Spencer. They combined for 31 starts, but neither appears to be a priority for re-signing. Stacy Andrews is a candidate to step in for Locklear at right tackle. Max Unger could replace Spencer. Coach Pete Carroll thinks the team has upgraded its young depth on the line.

Name to keep in mind: Robert Gallery, guard, Oakland Raiders. Tom Cable's addition as offensive line coach makes Seattle a logical destination for Gallery, who has declared his intention to leave the Raiders.
Tanner from Southern California writes: Mike, what will Larry Fitzgerald's status be when the NFL and NFL Players Association come to a new collective bargaining agreement? If he becomes an unrestricted free agent, I could see Pete Carroll being very interested. They've got money to spend in Seattle, right? Your thoughts?

Mike Sando: Fitzgerald will remain under contract to the Cardinals for the 2011 season regardless of what happens with the labor situation. His contract features a no-trade clause and a provision preventing the Cardinals from naming him their franchise player, should such a provision exist under a new labor agreement. Fitzgerald could always waive the no-trade clause if he wanted to do so, but that seems unlikely. He'll have a long list of suitors if he does hit the market.

The Seahawks will have salary flexibility, but so will a lot of teams. They have considerable financial resources -- no team has a wealthier owner -- but several teams could find the money to sign a player of Fitzgerald's caliber.

Fitzgerald holds all the leverage in this situation. He's likely to continue saying the right things publicly while watching very closely to see how the Cardinals improve their roster, specifically at quarterback.


Joe from Phoenix writes: Hi Mike, I'm a life-long Rams fan transplanted to Phoenix and a daily reader of the blog. Everyone knows that Steven Jackson is going to need another back to pick up some slack. Jackson already shortened his career by carrying the Rams for so long. I'm excited about Delone Carter from Syracuse. He has great burst and is built like a bowling ball, just like Maurice Jones-Drew. The problem as I see it, though, is that the Rams have too many immediate needs to invest a third-round pick on a back. What are the chances of St Louis using a mid-round pick on a back? And who would you consider to be their best options?

Mike Sando: We are thinking along the same lines. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. and I were discussing this on the phone Tuesday. We agreed that the Rams would probably be best waiting until later in the draft before selecting a back this year. But we thought the Rams could justify using an earlier selection, perhaps even a first-rounder, for the right running back as early as 2012, depending upon how well Jackson holds up this season.

The idea would be to extend Jackson's career while lining up a replacement. The Rams still had Marshall Faulk when they drafted Jackson. The Seahawks still had a productive Ricky Watters when they drafted Shaun Alexander. The Cardinals arguably should have drafted Adrian Peterson even though they had Edgerrin James, based simply on value.

If I were the Rams, I would want to upgrade at receiver, defensive tackle and outside linebacker in this draft. I would probably look for an affordable veteran safety. I would consider signing a veteran back or using a later choice for a backup/developmental player. And then I would come back a year from now looking at a front-line back more seriously.


Paul from San Francisco writes: While Niner fans are criticizing the secondary, which they should, they seem to be solely focused on the cornerback play. Did we have two elite safeties last year that I happened to completely miss? From my recollection, the safeties were routinely torched last year, gathering exactly zero All-Pro votes. They are young and can improve, but that doesn't mean they should escape the same searing scrutiny the cornerbacks regularly endure.

Many of the most impactful defensive players around the NFL play the safety position -- quarterbacking their defenses, disguising coverages, coming up to make stops in the running game, blitzing the QB, and making interceptions. Let's not forget about these guys.

Mike Sando: Pass coverage was the issue for the secondary overall, not just the corners or safeties. We saw poor coverage and sometimes poor tackling as well, notably against the Packers in Green Bay. That game was a horror show. The team's secondary coach cited personal reasons for resigning within a couple days of that game. It was a tough way to go out.

This was supposed to be a breakout season for free safety Dashon Goldson, with rookie strong safety Taylor Mays joining him in the lineup eventually and finishing the season strong. Goldson did not stand out as the 49ers had hoped he would. Mays took over for Michael Lewis, as expected, but he failed to hold the starting job. Reggie Smith took over and held the job. It's unclear whether Goldson will return. It's unclear what the new staff will think of Mays.

The secondary could turn over quickly. Nate Clements will not be back under his current contract. Goldson could become an unrestricted free agent. Mays has no guarantees.


Randy from Peoria, Ariz., writes: What are the NFL rules/limitations with respect to undrafted free agents? Limits to number? Limits to amount and type of contact? Does a prospect have to go through the scouting combine to be available to a team? Of those that do drop off the map, not having been signed by anyone after all draft rounds have been exhausted, what can teams do with them? And what of the wisdom of pursuing untaken talent? It would be good to hear your thoughts.

Mike Sando: About 330 players go to the combine each year. Teams draft 255 players, including some who were not at the combine. Teams then sign roughly 10 or 15 undrafted free agents right after the draft. Some went to the combine. Others did not. There are no requirements along those lines.

All players signed to contracts count against the 80-man offseason limit. This includes undrafted free agents. Once teams reduce to 53 players for the regular season, they still have an 80-man limit encompassing those 53 players and any players on various reserve lists -- reserve/injured, reserve/retired and the like.

Rules apply to undrafted free agents the same as they apply to other players.

Quick look at 49ers-Rams inactives

December, 26, 2010
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ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers offered no surprises Sunday when they named players inactive 90 minutes prior to kickoff at the Edward Jones Dome.

Defensive end Chris Long (thigh) and right tackle Jason Smith (ankle) are both active and expected to start for the Rams despite their injuries. Tight end Mike Hoomanawanui, given only an outside shot at returning this week, was among the Rams' inactive players.

Also inactive for the Rams: safety Michael Lewis, cornerback Justin King, linebacker David Nixon, linebacker Curtis Johnson, guard John Greco, receiver Mardy Gilyard and defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo.

The 49ers will play without third tight end Nate Byham (heel), who was named inactive along with cornerback Tramaine Brock, cornerback William James, safety Chris Maragos, defensive tackle Will Tukuafu, tackle Joe Staley and tackle Alex Boone. David Carr is the third quarterback.

Staley made the trip, as did former starting center Eric Heitmann, who is on injured reserve. They were walking laps around the field during early warm-ups. The 49ers could get Staley back from a broken fibula as early as Week 17. Barry Sims will start in his place again Sunday.

Rams' Karney, Cards' Watson inactive

December, 5, 2010
12/05/10
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals named some healthy contributors inactive Sunday.

The Rams sat down fullback Mike Karney for a second consecutive week even though Karney was available to them. Brit Miller is getting some snaps at fullback in the base offense. Miller also offers more on special teams. The Rams have sometimes moved a tight end into the backfield for blocking help, although their preferred choice in that role, Mike Hoomanwanui, is inactive with an ankle injury.

The Cardinals named defensive lineman Gabe Watson inactive after their defensive front struggled badly against the San Francisco 49ers last week. Defensive end Calais Campbell, inactive with an ankle injury last week, is active Sunday. Watson had been active for the previous three games.

Also inactive for Arizona: receiver Max Komar, cornerback A.J. Jefferson, safety Hamza Abdullah, cornerback Marshay Green, linebacker Reggie Walker and center Ben Claxton. John Skelton is the third quarterback.

Also inactive for the Rams: safety Michael Lewis, cornerback Jerome Murphy, linebacker Bryan Kehl, guard John Greco and defensive tackle Darell Scott. Scott has been injured. Defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo, inactive against Denver, is active for this game.
After placing defensive tackle Clifton Ryan on injured reserve, the St. Louis Rams announced Wednesday the signing of strong safety Michael Lewis, giving the team another solid veteran role player on defense.

My thoughts? Thanks for asking, Brian.

Lewis should be fresh after sitting out the last four games, including three since the San Francisco 49ers granted him his release. Lewis should be motivated. He didn't like the way the 49ers handled their decision to replace him with rookie Taylor Mays in the starting lineup. He skipped the team's subsequent trip to Atlanta, then received his release.

The Rams needed Lewis because injuries have hit them hard at safety and in the secondary overall. It's not clear whether the Rams will keep Lewis around once their injury situation improves. But with the 49ers on the schedule in Week 10, following the Rams' bye week, Lewis could help with preparations for that game.

Safeties sometimes have a broader view of the game than players at most other positions. They sometimes help teammates line up. They tend to help with communication. They often are more familiar with how a defense fits together as opposed to knowing only their assignments.

Lewis, 30, has vast experience. He'll know the ins and outs of the 49ers' defensive scheme. He'll have a very good feel for the 49ers' personnel. Those things aren't going to decide games, necessarily, but there's no downside for the Rams. Adding veterans Fred Robbins and Na'il Diggs has served them well to this point. Robbins played for Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo when both were with the New York Giants. Diggs was with Rams defensive coordinator Ken Flajole in Carolina. Lewis was with Spagnuolo in Philadelphia.

Lewis is best in run support. The Rams allowed 124 yards rushing against Tampa Bay in Week 7. Missed tackles were a factor.

Seven NFC West thoughts from the skies

October, 4, 2010
10/04/10
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THIRTY-SIX THOUSAND FEET -- A few thoughts on NFC West happenings from somewhere high above the central United States during the flight home from St. Louis:
  • The San Francisco 49ers announced Michael Lewis' release two days after the veteran safety did not accompany the team to Atlanta for its Week 4 game. The 49ers were replacing Lewis with rookie second-round choice Taylor Mays. Lewis wasn't happy about it. Mays played well enough to justify the move in the short term. The move was going to be inevitable. Whether or not coach Mike Singletary handled the situation correctly matters, but the situation by itself does not set off alarms. Lewis wasn't going to last more than this season after the team drafted Mays and reduced Lewis' salary.
  • The Seattle Seahawks planned to re-sign guard Chester Pitts, as coach Pete Carroll suggested. Can Pitts return from microfracture surgery well enough to help the Seahawks for an extended period? That will be tough, but it's not as if Seattle is likely to find another lineman with more potential in the short term. Giving Pitts every chance to get healthy makes sense. Seattle needs all the talent it can get on its line.
  • Carroll has made turnover avoidance a top priority. Watching Matt Hasselbeck play Sunday made me wonder if the quarterback was taking the message too literally. There were times when Hasselbeck appeared reluctant to make throws. Hasselbeck has said he anticipates a time when the offense is further along and better positioned to play more aggressively. I just wonder how long Carroll will stick with Hasselbeck if the quarterback doesn't make more positive plays to go with the negative ones being avoided. Every coach remains committed to his quarterback until he is not, but how much job security does Hasselbeck really enjoy? "It’s hard for everybody to look at it that way -- the quarterback is such a focal point -- but there were contributing factors and he battled," Carroll told reporters Monday. "We need him to do better. A couple more throws here and there to just get us moving and a couple more third-down conversions and stuff like that and he’s capable of that and he knows that."
  • Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt is projecting calm and good humor coming out of a 41-10 defeat at San Diego. Asked whether he would start Derek Anderson or Max Hall at quarterback, Whisenhunt put off making an announcement and said he wasn't trying to throw off the Cardinals' upcoming opponent. "To be quite honest with you, I really don’t think New Orleans is scared who we play there at quarterback," Whisenhunt said. "I’m trying to do it out of fairness to everybody that's involved and what I think is best for our team." The broader question is whether going into a season with Anderson and Hall as the top two quarterbacks was best for the Cardinals.
  • Seems like a followup question was in order when 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree had this to say about new coordinator Mike Johnson: "Mike Johnson did his thing. He did what he was supposed to do. He got everybody the ball. Only thing is, Mike Johnson can’t throw the ball. He can just call plays." Crabtree and quarterback Alex Smith haven't built on the rapport they seemed to share last season. This comment seems like a shot at Smith.
  • The Cardinals' Beanie Wells wasn't going to get many opportunities Sunday because Arizona fell so far behind, but he wants a more prominent role in the game plan. Wells to KTAR radio: "It's crazy. I have no clue what they're thinking upstairs -- I'd like to know." Perhaps he should ask.
  • St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford tossed two third-and-10 touchdown passes against Seattle, pumping up his third-down rating to 93.1 for the season and 146.3 on third-down plays when the team needed between 8-10 yards for a first down.

You are now free to move about the cabin.

Silver linings: 49ers at Falcons

October, 4, 2010
10/04/10
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The facts: The 49ers fell to 0-4 with a 16-14 road defeat to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4.

The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
  • Receiver Dominique Zeigler, coming off a game in which he made a 19-yard reception on third-and-15 at Kansas City, blocked a punt to help the 49ers jump to a 14-0 lead against the Falcons.
  • Rookie safety Taylor Mays fielded the blocked punt in the end zone, got both feet down inbounds and maintained possession of the ball throughout. His impact on special teams was greater even though the 49ers reduced his reps in that area overall.
  • Mays seemed to play well at strong safety after replacing Michael Lewis in the starting lineup. Reggie Smith had beaten out Mays for the No. 2 spot during training camp, but Mays got more work late in the week as the 49ers tried to get him up to speed. This performance was a positive one for Mays.
  • The 49ers were ready to play from the beginning. They scored a touchdown on their opening drive for the first time since the 2008 season. They made early plays on defense and special teams. Coach Mike Singletary couldn't afford another performance along the lines of the game in Kansas City. This effort showed the team could still respond.
  • Tight end Vernon Davis caught a touchdown pass.
  • Michael Crabtree became more involved, catching five passes for 58 yards.
  • The 49ers' defense controlled the Falcons' running game while holding quarterback Matt Ryan to his lowest passer rating since Week 10 last season.
  • Punter Andy Lee helped pin the Falcons inside their 20-yard line three times.
  • Parys Haralson had 2.0 sacks and Travis LaBoy had 1.0.
  • The 49ers are only two games out of the NFC West lead with five division games left to play and only one game in an opposing team's stadium between Monday and Nov. 29.
Looking ahead: The 49ers face the Philadelphia Eagles at Candlestick Park in Week 5.
Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers are getting beat mentally, not physically. The Chiefs might have beaten them on both fronts, but the mental aspect has certainly come into play during close defeats to New Orleans and Atlanta. The 49ers need to play smarter. They also could -- and will get -- some help from their schedule. The team plays only one game in another team's stadium between Monday and Nov. 29 at Arizona.

Dan Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says Roddy White felt confident he could force another fumble because, in his words, the 49ers did not know better. The 49ers have not played smart this season and it has cost them victories.

Also from Brown: The 49ers didn't really threaten downfield on offense.

More from Brown: a D-plus grade for Alex Smith.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says rookie Taylor Mays played every snap against the Falcons even though Reggie Smith appeared to be ahead of Mays on the depth chart following Michael Lewis' abrupt departure from the team. Playing Mays over Smith and even Lewis made sense from a long-term standpoint because Mays projected as the starter eventually. The fact that Mays seemed to play well right away comes as a bonus and further marginalizes Lewis. Mays: "You can take all the reps you want in practice, but until you really play in the game, it's a different feel. Toward the end of the game, I calmed down. I feel really confident right now, going into next week and going into the rest of the season."

Also from Maiocco: The 49ers scored a touchdown on their opening drive for the first time since Mike Martz was coordinator. I had not realized that. Meanwhile, Nate Clements left the locker room without fulfilling his league-mandated media responsibilities (NFL policy requires "all" players to be available after games, and violators can be fined). Clements' interception and lost fumble late in the game were pivotal plays. Maiocco: "Embattled 49ers coach Mike Singletary did not blame Clements. Instead, he concluded it was a matter of (Roddy) White making a 'great play.'" More importantly for the 49ers, key players said they were prepared for this game despite the distractions of the past week.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says White has experience forcing the 49ers' cornerbacks to fumble following interceptions. He did it to Dre Bly last season at Candlestick Park. Barrows: "Every defender, especially a 10-year veteran, should have been thinking 'slide down' given the field position and the clock and especially given what happened to Bly -- vilified for his bone-headed showboating last year -- last season. Even if Clements had cruised into the end zone, the Falcons would have had 1:20 and all three time outs with which to try for a game-tying touchdown. Turning the ball over to the offense would have at the very least forced the Falcons to burn all three time outs and given the 49ers a four-point advantage."

Also from Barrows: Singletary says he never thought about switching quarterbacks.

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Smith graded himself more harshly than Singletary graded the quarterback.

Also from Branch: a report card featuring a "C" grade for Smith.

More from Branch: Mays was part of a secondary that helped limit Matt Ryan to a 67.3 passer rating. Ryan, like most good quarterbacks, was still able to make plays late in the game.
The latest details on the Michael Lewis front do nothing to suppress visions of the San Francisco 49ers spiraling out of control following their 0-3 start.

On one level, Lewis is an aging veteran made expendable by Taylor Mays' addition, Reggie Smith's development and the concussion problems Lewis experienced last season.

On another level, that Lewis would ask for his release and stay home rather than accompany the 49ers to Atlanta -- with the team in crisis more broadly -- raises more questions about coach Mike Singletary's leadership. Plenty of veteran players have grudgingly accepted reduced roles for the sake of the team. Lewis would presumably go that route if he respected the head coach enough.

If Lewis can be this unhappy and show it in this way, what are other players thinking and how might that affect the team in the future? It was one thing when unproven Kentwan Balmer forced a trade and backup running back Glen Coffee opted for retirement during camp. It's another thing when a proven veteran player and presumed leader checks out in Week 4.

There's always a danger in reading too much into how one individual's complaints affect the rest of team. It's tough not to view Lewis' situation in the context of the 49ers' recent issues. How the 49ers play Sunday and beyond will help make better sense of this one.
Veteran strong safety Michael Lewis, reportedly in danger of losing his starting job, might not accompany the San Francisco 49ers to Atlanta in Week 4.

Coach Mike Singletary cited "personal reasons" for Lewis' absence from practice Friday, and he would not elaborate when pressed by reporters.

So, is Lewis tending to a family matter, or is there something more at work here?

The latter seems plausible given all the tumult surrounding the 49ers following their 0-3 start. If Lewis' absence really were unrelated to football, the 49ers could make that clear without breaching any confidences. The fact that they're being so vague seems telling. The team already slashed Lewis' pay, used a second-round choice for safety Taylor Mays and lauded another safety, Reggie Smith, for strong play during camp.

"As far as if he will make the trip or not, I’m not sure at this point," Singletary said. "It depends on if things get worked out or not. Once again, it’s personal reasons and that’s on Mike. I don’t talk about that. You have to talk to Mike about that."

Lewis' mysterious absence is the latest surprising development on Singletary's watch. Kentwan Balmer forced a trade. Glen Coffee retired. Singletary fired offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye after three games -- one day after saying Raye would stay all season.

If Lewis is absent for reasons unrelated to the team, it's no big deal for the 49ers. If his absence reflects a rift with Singletary or other coaches, consider it another consequence of the 49ers' 0-3 start and another test for Singletary's leadership.

Update: Lewis has asked for his release, according to Matt Barrows. That tells us what we need to know, pretty much. I'd consider this a sign of discontent on Singletary's watch, pending elaboration from involved parties.

What to make of Seahawks' opener

September, 15, 2010
9/15/10
2:02
PM ET
Raise your Seattle Seahawks pom-pom if you thought the team was going to put a 31-6 beatdown on the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1.

The point: Only an optimistic Seattle fan could have seen it coming. Before the opener, I was hearing from fans who thought the team was doomed after making moves that appeared to be for the long term (but actually paid off right away in some cases).

I've gone through the game a second time and put together some thoughts.

Offense

[+] EnlargeHasselbeck
Joe Nicholson/US PresswireMatt Hasselbeck completed 78.3 percent of his passes in Sunday's win.
The biggest surprise, in my view, was the Seahawks' ability to hold up in pass protection. I thought Russell Okung's absence at left tackle and Alex Gibbs' abrupt resignation as line coach a week before the opener signaled bad, bad, things for Seattle. I thought line issues would prevent quarterback Matt Hasselbeck from functioning against a 49ers defense that doesn't give much ground in the running game.

Tyler Polumbus was better than expected at left tackle, generally holding up against the 49ers' pass-rushers even when Seattle did not help him. I underestimated him. I also underestimated the impact offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates would have on this game. The 49ers probably did, too. They were outcoached. Bates showed an ability and willingness to adjust that I cannot recall seeing from a Seahawks staff. Mike Holmgren could be a brilliant playcaller, but his implementation of a rigid system was his strength -- and also a weakness, I thought, when personnel issues begged for greater flexibility.

Give Holmgren three or four seasons to implement his system with the same core players and he'll field a diverse, dynamic offense. Give Bates one offseason to work with a reconfigured roster and he'll field the best possible offense for that week. That is my general impression after one week. Can Bates keep it going against defenses that will be increasingly familiar with Seattle's personnel and tendencies? That will be tougher -- the 49ers did not play smart or particularly well -- but there was much for Seattle to like about the first game. I'm thinking Bates will have a good plan against Denver, his former team.

The combination of Bates and Hasselbeck made the 49ers look silly at times on defense. They baited defensive players into jumping short routes, only to strike further downfield with double moves. These were not halftime adjustments, either. Seattle implemented them on the fly after 49ers cornerback Nate Clements picked off Hasselbeck's first pass with a bold gamble. A double move freed Mike Williams for a 35-yard gain against Clements in the second quarter. Tight end John Carlson used a similar move to outfox safety Michael Lewis for a 19-yard gain (Lewis even held on the play, but Seattle declined the penalty).

Speaking of Williams, did you notice his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame powering through illegal contact (declined) from Shawntae Spencer? Williams caught a pass for 17 yards on the play. A smaller receiver -- even a veteran such as T.J. Houshmandzadeh -- might not have made that play appear effortless. Releasing Houshmandzadeh looked like a get-young move at the expense of the short term. So far, not so much. Deon Butler and Deion Branch caught touchdown passes. Williams' size gave Seattle something it couldn't get from Houshmandzadeh on the outside.

Bates' preference for using two tight ends was well known. I had joked last week that we might see the team using four tight ends at once -- all aligned to protect Hasselbeck from the 49ers' onslaught. Get this: Hasselbeck completed all four pass attempts for 32 yards and a touchdown from a personnel grouping the team ran very sparingly over the previous decade: one back, three tight ends, one receiver. That's right, three tight ends. And those extra tight ends weren't lining up primarily as pass protectors, either.

Hasselbeck attempted passes from each of the seven primary NFL personnel groupings, unusual for an NFL team during a single game. The running game didn't gain much traction, but most offenses aren't going to run effectively against the 49ers.


Defense

The Seahawks are bigger on their defensive line and the results were mostly predictable.

Nose tackle Colin Cole was more active than I might have anticipated, tracking runners after they had broken through the line.

Defensive end Chris Clemons validated coach Pete Carroll's theory -- hope, really -- that Seattle would have success generating a pass rush when backed by crowd noise at Qwest Field. Clemons was a problem for the 49ers. He beat left tackle Joe Staley a few times, and quarterback Alex Smith wasn't able to beat pressure.

The secondary was supposed to be better, and it was, with cornerback Marcus Trufant healthy and rookie free safety Earl Thomas providing needed range at safety. I was surprised to see cornerback Kelly Jennings tackling fearlessly and effectively. Thomas was also a very willing tackler.

Having Lofa Tatupu healthy and back in the lineup at middle linebacker made a significant difference. His feel for the game and ability to communicate information to teammates brings together the defense. Few linebackers have a better feel for the game.

Second-year linebacker Aaron Curry showed good strength and tenacity. I don't get the feeling Seattle wants to see him in coverage much. The 49ers' Delanie Walker was a tough cover for him. But Curry appeared to make positive contributions near the line of scrimmage.

Special teams

The 49ers had a couple decent returns, but Seattle's coverage teams hit hard. Dexter Davis made Ted Ginn Jr. pay for a 16-yard punt return.

Leon Washington had a 41-yard return for Seattle. The snapper, Clint Gresham, did one-hop a punt snap.

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