NFC West: Michael McCrary
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
Very few could dominate across all situations. Cortez Kennedy could, and did, during an 11-year NFL career that landed him a spot among the final 10 candidates for the most recent Pro Football Hall of Fame class. Kennedy is among the final 15 modern-era finalists again this year, and I'll be presenting his case to the other selectors during our annual meeting Saturday.
Several themes have emerged during my research into Kennedy's career. I'll expand upon them here one by one, drawing upon coaches and players' first-hand knowledge.
Sheer physical dominance
Very good players sometimes enjoy great careers. Some lean heavily on savvy and preparation. Not all of them dominate physically. Kennedy generated superior power and sudden quickness from a massive lower body.
"Cortez was the most dominant interior lineman that we ever faced and certainly the very best against the run," said former Oakland Raiders guard Steve Wisniewski, an eight-time Pro Bowl choice between 1989 and 2001.
Seattle scrapped its 3-4 defense to rebuild around Kennedy at a time when Kennedy's college coach at Miami, Jimmy Johnson, was bringing his 4-3 scheme to the NFL.
"That time in football is when you really got the dominant defensive players inside," Johnson said. "The big, overpowering defensive linemen inside just disrupted everything. Cortez got teams looking for that dominant player."
There's that word again -- dominant.
"He was very dominant and could take over the game," said longtime NFL offensive line coach Howard Mudd, who coached for and against Seattle during Kennedy's career. "He just had great instincts about where the ball was and he was a pass-rusher so you would think, 'Gee, we could run screens on that guy.' But he smelled them out and he was always running into the screens."
Longtime NFL offensive line coach Alex Gibbs said offenses had to plan for Kennedy specifically or pay the consequences, or both. Gibbs coached the lines for three of Seattle's old AFC West rivals across 10 of Kennedy's 11 seasons. He was with Seattle briefly in 2010, and that is when he provided a testimonial.
"The Seahawks were a nightmare because I knew I was going to get them twice a year, and it was going to boil down to making a decision -- do I spend all my time with Cortez or do I deal with those other guys?" Gibbs said.
Kennedy joined John Randle, Bryant Young and Warren Sapp on the NFL's all-decade team for the 1990s. He was a different type of defensive tackle, opponents said. They lauded him for his versatility.
"I knew that when I was going to go play against Cortez Kennedy, it was going to be a full-meal deal, a battle," said retired Pro Bowl center Tim Grunhard, who started 164 games for Kansas City from 1990 to 2000. "I knew when I was going against Warren Sapp, when you got him, you could block him. ... At times, he lined up as wide as any tackle ever. Cortez Kennedy lined up head-on you and went man to man and dominated you."
Asked to rank Kennedy among contemporaries, Wisniewski wanted to know which tackles appeared on the all-decade team for the 1990s. I ran through the names and asked Wisniewski to put Kennedy's abilities in perspective.
"(Kennedy) had that ability to stop the run, to play with leverage and have the quickness to hit the edge of an offensive guard and split the seams to put pressure on the quarterback," Wisniewski said. "Hands down, he was a much better player against the run than a John Randle, much better than a Warren Sapp. I didn't have to play against Bryant Young as many times. He was a much lighter guy, kind of high effort, 50-50 (against run and pass alike)."
Randle is already in the Hall of Fame. Sapp and Young are not yet eligible for consideration. Each was outstanding in his own way, but Kennedy was different.
Made teammates better
Kennedy collected 14 sacks in 1992 and 58 for his career even though Seattle asked him to do so much more than rush the passer. Opponents funneled more resources toward Kennedy after that 14-sack season, creating opportunities for his teammates. Michael Sinclair, Sam Adams, Michael McCrary and others benefited.
"He was such a powerful guy who could play, in essence, two gaps," Gibbs said. "He forced you to get two people on him in order to get through the seams, which gave the linebackers who played here a tremendous advantage. You couldn’t get the combinations to block him. You always tried to get one of them off and his body frame was so wide and strong that we couldn’t get there, so the linebackers made all the plays. He had a unique ability to control one and force another to free up his teammates to make a lot of plays."
Former Seahawks linebacker Terry Wooden said the same thing recently when I happened to be sitting near him on an airplane. According to Wooden, Kennedy would never seek to make a play on his own if it meant weakening the defense overall or compromising a teammate.
Durability and accolades
Kennedy played 16 games nine times, 15 games once and eight games in his only injury-shortened season. He matched Reggie White and Bruce Smith as the only defensive linemen with eight Pro Bowls during the 1990s. He went to as many Pro Bowls during the 1990s as Jerry Rice, Deion Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Bruce Smith and Derrick Thomas.
Kennedy was also the Associated Press' defensive player of the year on that 2-14 team, which featured one of the worst offenses in NFL history (Seattle was the only NFL team to field a top-10 defense in 1990, 1991 and 1992). Only White and Lawrence Taylor won the award previously while playing for losing teams.
According to the Seahawks, Kennedy played more than 90 percent of the defensive snaps for at least his first six seasons, including 97.2 percent in 1994.
Since sacks became an official stat in 1982, Kennedy and Hall of Famer Randy White are the only defensive tackles with at least 150 starts, 50 sacks and eight Pro Bowls. Again, though, the sack totals were never what defined Kennedy's contributions.
Grunhard put it this way: "When they are 330 pounds, at times their job is to tie you up. Their job is to clog up the middle. It is not fair when people say they are taking plays off. They are doing their jobs. There is a difference. Sometimes plays aren't designed for them to make the plays. Their job is to free up other people and he did a great job doing that. But when Cortez wanted to go and had the opportunity to go make a play, he was unstoppable. He was unblockable. That puts him in an elite level."
The change turned Aaron Curry's sack on the San Francisco 49ers' Alex Smith into a half-sack for Curry and Clemons. I watched replays and also thought Clemons deserved at least some credit for the sack.
Clemons now has 10 sacks in 13 games with Seattle. He becomes the first Seahawks player since Patrick Kerney in 2007 to have at least 10 in a season. Kerney had 14.5.
Clemons becomes the eighth player from a current NFC West team to record at least 10 sacks in a season since 2000. The list:
- 2010: Clemons
- 2009: none
- 2008: none
- 2007: Kerney (14.5)
- 2006: Leonard Little, Rams (13.0) and Julian Peterson, Seahawks (10.0)
- 2005: none
- 2004: Bertrand Berry, Cardinals (14.5)
- 2003: Little (12.5)
- 2002: Andre Carter, 49ers (12.5) and Little (12.0)
- 2001: Little (14.5)
- 2000: Grant Wistrom, Rams (11.0) and Kevin Carter, Rams (10.5)
The Rams' James Hall ranks second to Clemons in sacks among NFC West players this season. He has 8.5. Teammate Chris Long is next with 6.5, followed by the 49ers' Justin Smith (5.5) and four players with five sacks (Travis LaBoy, Patrick Willis, Raheem Brock and Joey Porter).
Clemons joins a Seattle double-digit sacks list featuring Jacob Green (five times), Michael Sinclair (three), Rufus Porter (two), Jeff Bryant (two), Cortez Kennedy (one), Michael McCrary (one), John Randle (one), Randy Edwards (one), Kerney (one) and Peterson (one).
» Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)
Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Busts and late-round gems.
Gems: With the 129th choice of the 1963 NFL draft, the Cardinals selected ... Jackie Smith, tight end, Northwestern State. Smith spent 15 seasons with the organization during a Hall of Fame career, earning him high standing on any list of Cardinals draft gems. Hall of Famer Larry Wilson, chosen 74th overall in 1960, also belongs in the conversation. More recently, the team found Anquan Boldin, Aeneas Williams, Adrian Wilson and Darnell Dockett outside the top 50 overall choices. Busts: Quarterbacks George Izo and Kelly Stouffer combined to play two games for the Cardinals, both by Izo, despite joining the team as top-five overall selections. Izo, the second player chosen in the 1960 draft, tossed 12 career touchdown passes with 32 interceptions, most for the Redskins. Stouffer, picked sixth in 1987, never signed with the Cardinals, missing his rookie season before landing in Seattle via trade. The Cardinals have whiffed on quite a few other players, but these two stand out.
San Francisco 49ers
Gems: Jesse Sapolu, Tommy Hart, Dwight Clark and Jerry Mertens earned Pro Bowl berths as position players despite being selected between the 239th and 289th overall choices in their draft classes. Charles Haley, Terrell Owens and Joe Montana were chosen between the 82nd and 96th choices. Busts: Quarterback Alex Smith (2005) and receiver Harry Babcock (1953) are the only players drafted first overall by the 49ers. Smith still has a chance to change his legacy, but so far it's not looking good. The 49ers whiffed on Steve Spurrier with the third overall choice in 1967. Jim Druckenmiller stands out as a memorable first-round disappointment in more recent years.
Gems: Michael Sinclair and Michael McCrary became Pro Bowl defensive ends after Seattle made them seventh-round choices in the early 1990s. Running back Chris Warren was a fourth-round find in 1990. Overall, though, the Seahawks haven't unearthed a long list of draft gems. Trading up in the second round to select three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lofa Tatupu was an impressive move. Busts: Rick Mirer (1993) and Steve Niehaus (1976) never lived up to expectations as the second overall choices in their draft classes. Ownership's decision to select quarterback Dan McGwire with the 16th pick in 1991 looks even worse when one considers that coach Chuck Knox wanted Brett Favre instead.
St. Louis Rams
Gems: Finding defensive end Andy Robustelli with the 228th choice of the 1951 draft stands out as significant even though Robustelli spent much of his Hall of Fame career with the Giants. Larry Brooks, Harold Jackson and Drew Hill all went to Pro Bowls after the Rams drafted them 323rd overall or later. Pass-rusher Kevin Greene was a fifth-round find in 1985. The Rams found Hall of Famer Jackie Slater in the third round (1976). Busts: Terry Baker won the Heisman Trophy and played in the Final Four while at Oregon State, but that didn't do the Rams much good after they drafted the quarterback first overall in 1963. Baker played three NFL seasons without completing a touchdown pass. The selection of Lawrence Phillips with the sixth choice of the 1996 draft stands out as one of the team's worst draft decisions in more recent memory. As of 2009, Phillips was serving a 31-year prison sentence.