NFC West: Michael Strahan

video Jim from Albany, Ore., had no beefs with the "Greatest Coaches" ballot I submitted for the ESPN project. He did question the project itself, however.

"It seems to me that a coach becomes 'great' only after he has a 'great' quarterback," Jim wrote in the NFC West mailbag. "The coaches at the very top of the list might be exceptions, but let's look at some of the others."

The way Jim sees things, Bill Belichick struggled in Cleveland before he had Tom Brady in New England. Mike Shanahan struggled without John Elway. Mike Holmgren was considered a great coach in Green Bay, but he had Brett Favre. Tom Landry struggled after Roger Staubach retired. Tom Coughlin was fired by Jacksonville, but once he had Eli Manning, he became a great coach. Tony Dungy became great when he had Peyton Manning. Bill Walsh was innovative, of course, but he also had Joe Montana and Steve Young.

"The voting is a fun exercise and I don't mean to dismiss the importance of a coach," Jim writes. "Some are certainly much better than others and some are great, but I think people are overlooking the role that a franchise quarterback plays in how 'great' a coach is considered to be."

There is no doubt quarterbacks make a tremendous difference. Head coaches sometimes play leading roles in acquiring and developing quarterbacks. Let's take a quick run through the coaches Jim mentioned in search of added perspective:
  • Belichick: We could say the Patriots lucked into Brady in the sixth round, but Belichick was ultimately responsible for drafting him and then sticking with him after Drew Bledsoe's return to health. Also, the Patriots had an 11-5 record when Matt Cassel was their primary quarterback in 2008.
  • Shanahan: Shanahan deserves credit for getting the most from an aging Elway. The Broncos had six winning seasons, one losing season and one 8-8 season in the eight years immediately following Elway's retirement. The post-Elway Broncos went 91-69 under Shanahan overall. That works out to a .569 winning percentage in Denver after Elway. Bill Parcells was at .570 for his entire career.
  • Holmgren: Even if we give Favre credit for the Packers' success in Green Bay, we still must account for Holmgren's winning with Matt Hasselbeck and a more run-oriented offense in Seattle. Hasselbeck was a sixth-round pick in Green Bay. Holmgren traded for him and eventually won with him. Hasselbeck went to three Pro Bowls. Holmgren didn't luck into Hasselbeck. He helped develop him.
  • Landry: The Cowboys enjoyed their greatest postseason success under Landry when Staubach was the quarterback through the 1970s. However, the Cowboys were 31-10 under Landry in the three seasons before Staubach arrived. They were 21-6-1 in Staubach's first two seasons even though Staubach started only three of those games, posting a 2-1 record in his starts. Dallas went 24-8 in its first two seasons after Staubach retired. The Cowboys posted five winning records in their first six seasons of the post-Staubach era, going 61-28 over that span.
  • Coughlin: Manning wasn't all that great for much of Coughlin's early run with the Giants. Players such as Michael Strahan have credited Coughlin for adapting his gruff personal style in a manner that allowed the Giants to become a championship team. That could be entirely true, or it could be convenient narrative. We can't really know. However, although the Giants might not have won titles without Manning, we can't ignore the role their defense played in defeating Brady's Patriots following the 2007 season in particular. They didn't win disproportionately because of their quarterback.
  • Dungy: I listed Dungy 20th on my ballot because he won with two completely different types of teams. However, I also think a case can be made that the Colts should have enjoyed greater playoff success during the Peyton Manning years. Ultimately, I point to the success Tampa Bay enjoyed beginning in 1997 with a team built to some degree in Dungy's defensive image. The Buccaneers went 48-32 in their final five seasons under Dungy. That franchise was floundering previously.

I left off Walsh because Jim wasn't challenging his credentials as a great coach. Hopefully, the information above provides some context. I do think it's tough knowing to what degree a coach has facilitated his team's success. We're left to look at success over time, plus whatever contributions a coach seemed to make in terms of strategy, team building, etc.

Joe Gibbs gets credit for winning three Super Bowls with three quarterbacks, none of them Hall of Famers. It's not as if Gibbs had horrible quarterbacks, however. Joe Theismann and Mark Rypien were both two-time Pro Bowl selections. Doug Williams obviously had talent. He was a first-round draft choice, after all.

Perhaps we'll find ways in the future to better measure a coach's contributions. Right now, there's a lot we do not know beyond the results on the field.
Five of 15 modern-era finalists for 2013 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement have ties to teams currently in the NFC West.

Their names are shaded in the chart below: Kevin Greene, Charles Haley, Aeneas Williams, Jerome Bettis and Eddie DeBartolo Jr.

The first two men listed qualify as seniors candidates. Their enshrinement does not affect the maximum five slots available to modern-era candidates.

San Francisco 49ers great Roger Craig was among the 12 semifinalists not making the reduction to 15 this year. The others were: Morten Andersen, Steve Atwater, Don Coryell, Terrell Davis, Joe Jacoby, Albert Lewis, John Lynch, Karl Mecklenburg, Paul Tagliabue, Steve Tasker and George Young.

The next round of voting begins and ends one day before the Super Bowl. I'm one of the voters and will have a tough time reducing to five on the final ballot, as usual. It's a select group that makes it in the end. Strong cases can be made for each of the four players eligible for the first time. Adding them to the list makes it tougher for some of the holdovers.

Inside Slant: Legitimate MVP credentials

December, 12, 2012
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Aldon Smith needs three sacks to tie Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22.5 in one season. Breaking the record would enhance Smith's credentials for various postseason honors. But as Kevin Seifert pointed out in our latest "Inside Slant" podcast , Jared Allen commanded exactly zero MVP votes after finishing last season with 22 sacks.

Quarterbacks have won the award for five years running. That probably will happen again even though Smith, J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Adrian Peterson and other non-quarterbacks are producing at the highest levels for players at their positions.

Kevin and I used the podcast this week to expand on the subject. Dean Oliver, ESPN's director of production analytics, explained how tough it is for a running back to affect games as much as quarterbacks do. He noted that a 100-yard game on 20 attempts would be very good for a running back, but horrible for a quarterback. Even the best running games aren't as efficient as passing games. For example, Peterson gives the Minnesota Vikings a tremendous rushing attack, but he cannot give them a tremendous offense the way a top quarterback could.

NFC West Stock Watch

December, 11, 2012
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FALLING

1. 48th U.S. state. That would be Arizona, home of the only team in NFL history to lose a game by a 58-0 final score. The Cardinals' performance against Seattle was so bad, the Seahawks scored a touchdown even after they punted. Twice. Seattle scored more points from those two punts than the Cardinals have scored in their last 10 quarters.

2. Brandon Jacobs, 49ers RB. Jacobs complained about his lack of playing time until the 49ers suspended him for the final three regular-season games. Jacobs figures to lose salary. His value in free agency could take a hit. Jacobs will be 31 before next season, so there are no guarantees another team will give him a spot on its 53-man roster.

3. Patrick Peterson, Cardinals return man. Peterson was already struggling to duplicate his record-setting performance in 2011, when he returned four punts for touchdowns. His turnovers during two returns handed 14 points to the Seahawks. Peterson is averaging 8.3 yards per return, down from 15.9 last season. He has six fumbles, twice as many as last season. He has four returns of 20-plus yards (eight last season) and zero returns of 40-plus yards (five in 2011).

4. Cardinals offensive staff. Coach Ken Whisenhunt's status took a hit in previous stock watches. Losing 58-0 amplifies questions about his job status. No matter what happens, Whisenhunt and his offensive staff will emerge from 2012 with lower profiles. Struggling is one thing. Going from awful to worse is another. Whisenhunt, line coach Russ Grimm, coordinator Mike Miller and quarterbacks coach John McNulty will want to omit this season from their résumés.

RISING

1. Brandon Gibson, Rams WR. Gibson caught six passes for 100 yards and the game-winning touchdown against Buffalo, helping St. Louis to its first three-game winning streak since 2006. Gibson has taken heat around here for past failures, including when his penalty wiped out an 80-yard overtime reception during an eventual tie at San Francisco. It's only fair, then, that Gibson get his due when it's earned. Gibson caught two passes for 37 yards on third down, including a 15-yarder on third-and-10 during the final drive.

2. Chris Culliver, 49ers CB. Niners outside linebacker Aldon Smith has commanded much of the attention while threatening Michael Strahan's single-season NFL record for sacks since 1982. His stock was already high, of course. Culliver deserves acknowledgement for the aggressive, effective play he provides on a weekly basis. If he gave up a reception during the 49ers' 27-13 victory over the Miami Dolphins in Week 14, I did not see it.

3. Anthony McCoy, Seahawks TE. The final score in Seattle got most of the attention. There was plenty of credit to go around in Seattle. McCoy's first 100-yard receiving game could be a good sign for the Seahawks. McCoy made an important catch to help beat Chicago on the road last week. His 67-yard reception against the Cardinals set up Marshawn Lynch's touchdown run for a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter. Arizona hadn't scored more than 17 points in seven of its previous eight games.

4. Michael Brockers, Rams DT. The Rams face Minnesota's incomparable Adrian Peterson, which means their run defense is going to take a hit. Before that happens, let's acknowledge one of the best rookies in the NFC West so far this season. Defensive tackles generally don't get much attention unless they're piling up sacks. Brockers deserves some for the physical presence he has brought to the Rams' defensive line. A violent open-field tackle near the goal line against Buffalo stood out.

Aldon Smith's November for the ages

November, 29, 2012
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Aldon Smith's transition from situational pass-rusher to full-time outside linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers has given him additional responsibilities -- and opportunities.


Smith, who needs one sack to break Reggie White's sack-era record for most in a player's first two seasons, has done more than improve his raw sack total. He has also collected more sacks per dropback.

We can easily point to his 5.5-sack game against Chicago as skewing the numbers, but top pass-rushers have big games on occasion. Michael Strahan had a four-sack game against St. Louis while setting the single-season record with 22.5 sacks in 2001. Derrick Thomas had a seven-sack game against Seattle when he finished the 1990 season with 20 sacks.

Smith, with 16.5 sacks, is now on pace to break Strahan's record.

Last season, Smith had all 14 of his sacks while playing as part of the 49ers' sub packages. He has collected 15 of his 16.5 sacks this season from those same packages. Becoming an every-down player has helped Smith add 1.5 sacks to what he might have otherwise gotten without a role change, we might say.

By the way, Smith was named the NFC's defensive player of the month for November. He had nine sacks in three games for the month. That included 1.5 sacks over the past two games while playing in the 49ers' base defense, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

According to the NFL, Smith had 18 tackles and two forced fumbles in November, and he is the first 49ers player since Ken Norton Jr. in 1995 to win the monthly award for defense in the NFC.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Thirteen modern-era NFL players were finalists for enshrinement Saturday in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Only one was named offensive or defensive player of the year during his career.

That was the Seattle Seahawks' Cortez Kennedy. His eight Pro Bowls, all-1990s selection and overall dominance made my job as his presenter quite simple. State the facts and let Kennedy's career do the talking. Picking the final five out of 15 modern-era finalists is always tough, however, because it usually requires leaving off worthy candidates.

[+] EnlargeCortez Kennedy
US PresswireNo doubt, Seattle's Cortez Kennedy was one of the most dominant defensive players of his era.
The 43 other selectors and I met for more than seven hours before identifying Kennedy, Chris Doleman, Dermontti Dawson, Curtis Martin and Willie Roaf as the class of 2012. Jack Butler made it as a seniors candidate.

A few thoughts on the process and the results:

  • This class made it through at a good time. Larry Allen, Michael Strahan, Jonathan Ogden, Warren Sapp, Bryant Young, John Lynch and Steve McNair become eligible for the first time in 2013. Shaun Alexander, Derrick Brooks, Marvin Harrison, Rodney Harrison, Tony Dungy and Mike Holmgren join the list in 2014. Isaac Bruce, Edgerrin James, Walter Jones, Junior Seau, Chris Samuels, Kurt Warner, Ty Law and Orlando Pace are among those eligible beginning in 2015.
  • Former St. Louis Rams
    and Arizona Cardinals
    cornerback Aeneas Williams should feel great about cracking the final 10 in his first year as a finalist. Williams had 55 career interceptions and scored nine touchdowns. He was a big-time playmaker for bad and good teams alike.
  • The situation at receiver remains a mess and it's not going to get easier with Harrison becoming eligible in a couple years. Voters are having a tough time deciding between Cris Carter and Andre Reed. Both made the final 10 this year. Reed made the final 10 last year as well. Having both crack the final 10 this year made it harder for one of them to break through. Voters were more likely to choose one wideout when forced to pick only five players.
  • Former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. did not make the reduction from 15 to 10. I think it's tougher for voters to quantify how owners and even coaches -- think Bill Parcells, who missed the cut from 10 to five -- contributed to their teams' success. The discussions for Parcells (55-plus minutes) and DeBartolo (42-plus minutes) were more than twice as long as the discussions for other candidates. Hall bylaws prevented voters from considering the legal troubles and suspension that preceded DeBartolo's exit from the game.
  • DeBartolo was a finalist in part because he hired Bill Walsh, promoted a winning culture, cared tremendously for his players and helped win five Super Bowls. He spent this weekend with former 49ers player Freddie Solomon, who is in the final days of a battle with cancer. The 49ers' renewed success this past season also reflected well on DeBartolo, who has become a tremendous resource for current team president Jed York, his nephew.
  • Electing one pass-rusher (Doleman, who spent part of his career with the 49ers) to the Hall could give former 49ers and Dallas Cowboys pass-rusher Charles Haley an easier time in the future. But with Strahan joining the conversation in 2013, Haley faces stiff competition again. Former Rams pass-rusher Kevin Greene did not make the final 10 despite 160 career sacks.

It's been a whirlwind day. Hall bylaws prevent me from sharing specifics about what was said in the room during the proceedings. The Hall also asked voters not to reveal their votes outright. I voted for five of the six players enshrined on the final cut and supported others. As always, however, reducing to only five in the end required leaving off candidates I hope will make it in the future.
Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times says the intersection of faith and football has helped the Seahawks' Aaron Curry show improvement on the field. Brewer: "Because Curry's problems aren't physical, he still has a chance to be a rare, late-blooming linebacker if he can relax, study harder and develop a better feel for the game. Many don't see it and breathlessly declare him a bust. But Curry, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2009 draft, is only 25. There's still time. There's little question about his athletic ability. And there's no doubt his newfound faith is changing his mental approach."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says coach Pete Carroll is concerned about the team's issues in pass protection. Carroll: "It’s a race against time, and we’re not staying with the race right now."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times offers thoughts on the Seahawks' third preseason game. O'Neil: "Starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson can cut up a second-string defense just as efficiently as Charlie Whitehurst the first two exhibition games. The question is whether this offensive line can give anyone enough time in the pocket to have a reasonable chance of success this season. Seattle has allowed eight sacks in three games, and while that's tied for eighth-most of all NFL teams in August, it doesn't give a true indication of the pass pressure that has been constant and unrelenting."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune confirms a Pro Football Talk report noting that Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant has accepted a pay reduction from $5.9 million to $3 million for the 2011 season. I had thought the Seahawks would take this step earlier in the process; Lofa Tatupu's situation seemed to foreshadow something for Trufant as well. Both had signed Pro Bowl-caliber deals when they were Pro Bowl-caliber players.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals cornerback Greg Toler has suffered a sprained knee of unknown severity. Somers: "There was no immediate word on the seriousness of Toler's injury. The Cardinals could receive a boost soon if cornerback Mike Adams returns from knee surgery as expected. Adams underwent arthroscopic surgery early in training camp and was expected back in a few weeks. While Adams won't compete for a starting job, he has plenty of experience in nickel and dime schemes. And he's one of the club's better special-teams players."

Also from Somers: Kevin Kolb prefers sustained drives to big plays. Somers: "They strung more good plays together in the loss to the Chargers than they did in either of their previous two games. But mistakes, especially penalties, continue to hurt. Right tackle Brandon Keith was called for three penalties. Andre Roberts and Levi Brown each had a false start. There were big-play opportunities that were missed. Kolb overthrew Larry Fitzgerald early. And Beanie Wells was a stumble or two from breaking long runs."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Kolb clearly understands the importance of getting the ball to Fitzgerald.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams rookie Robert Quinn was pleased, but not overly so, to collect his first sack of the preseason. Quinn: "It definitely felt good. It's been a while since I had one of those. I feel like I'm getting my legs back up under me. And with the good group of core veterans on the D-line -- and really on the defense -- they just support me, trying to help me, I guess, mature faster as a young player. I really try to take their advice, learn from them, and help make a play."

Also from Thomas: The Rams feel like they are making progress on offense. Quarterback Sam Bradford: "I think everyone looked and felt more comfortable out there this week than they had in the past two weeks, including myself. I just felt much better with our operation. I felt we were quicker in and out of the huddle. I felt like our communication was better at the line of scrimmage. I just felt like everything [Friday] was almost normal in the sense that everyone's kinda starting to jell."

More from Thomas: Steven Jackson's preseason playing time has spiked this summer. Coach Steve Spagnuolo: "We talked extensively during the week about the two issues we thought we had in the Tennessee game, which was we didn't run the ball effectively and we didn't stop the run very well. So we wanted to have a mindset of being able to do that. Steven was all for it."

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says cornerback Dionte Dinkins' high-ankle sprain was the Rams' most serious injury of the third preseason game.

Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams appear on the rise. Burwell: "Don't start organizing a parade, but this is actually starting to look promising. In three preseason games, we have noticed enough of the right stuff happening; draft picks that honestly look like they can contribute to something more substantial than a CFL roster; veteran free agents who don't look like horrid flops; coaches whose X's and O's come alive on game days; a growing radio and preseason television network that suggests the organization's venture into turning the Rams into a regional marketing phenomenon just might work, too."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com looks at 49ers players whose stock is rising -- and falling. Maiocco on safety Madieu Williams: "The veteran has been a sure tackler on defense and a willing special-teams performer. ... He provided one of the 49ers' best defensive plays with a forced fumble that led to a takeaway."

Also from Maiocco: 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh says it is "possible" Michael Crabtree could return from a foot injury this week. I heard Harbaugh's comments and thought he sounded noncommittal. Crabtree is, by definition, closer than ever to returning. That will always be true until he returns.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee outlines problems the 49ers faced against Houston. Barrows: "The Texans mostly rushed the same four linemen on every play and those linemen simply beat the 49ers on one-on-one matchups. The 49ers made Antonio Smith, a guy who has never had more than 5.5 sacks in seven seasons, look like the second coming of Michael Strahan."

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers are heading in the wrong direction.

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says Frank Gore wants a new contract to help get his mind "right" for the season.

Leading Questions: NFC West

February, 14, 2011
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With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC West team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

ARIZONA CARDINALS

What happens to the offensive line?

We've been asking, answering and asking some more questions about the Cardinals' quarterback situation for months. Let's tap a few brain cells to discuss the guys up front.

Center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui are without contracts for 2011. Left guard Alan Faneca might retire. Right tackle Brandon Keith is coming off hamstring and knee injuries that shortened his first season as a starter. The Cardinals do not have fresh talent in reserve. They have drafted only one offensive lineman in the first four rounds since Ken Whisenhunt became head coach in 2007. Twenty-seven teams have drafted more. As much as the team trusts assistant head coach Russ Grimm to get the most from its offensive line, Arizona could use fresh young talent for him to groom.

The Cardinals went through the 2010 season with the NFL's oldest offensive linemen, counting backups. That wouldn't matter so much if left tackle Levi Brown were meeting the Pro Bowl expectations that came with his status as a top-five overall selection in the 2007 draft. Brown was underwhelming at right tackle to begin his career and a liability at left tackle last season. His salary balloons in 2012, so this could be his last season in Arizona.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Can the defense take the next step?

The Rams allowed 328 points last season, tied for the third-lowest total since the team moved from Los Angeles for the 1995 season. They allowed seven rushing touchdowns, their lowest total since 1999 and down from 50 combined over the previous two seasons. But with starting defensive linemen James Hall and Fred Robbins turning 34 this offseason, and with questions at linebacker, the Rams' defense will not automatically go from competitive toward dominant.

Hall will be looking to become the 14th player since 1982 (when the NFL began tracking sacks as an official stat) to collect 10 sacks in a season at age 34 or older. The others: Trace Armstrong, Chris Doleman, William Fuller, Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Tony McGee, Steve McMichael, John Randle, Warren Sapp, Bruce Smith, Michael Strahan and Reggie White.

Robbins is coming off one of his finest seasons. He joined Keith Traylor, Jeff Zgonina and Ray Agnew among defensive tackles to set career highs for sacks at age 32 or older in the free-agency era (since 1993).

Getting similar production and continued good health from two older players is no given. The Rams also need to find help at outside linebacker after losing 32-year-old Na'il Diggs to a torn pectoral muscle 12 games into the 2010 season. The Rams are set at middle linebacker with James Laurinaitis, but they could stand to upgrade around him.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

How well can Jim Harbaugh coach up a quarterback?

When the 49ers' new coach needed a quarterback at Stanford, he recruited one. Andrew Luck set records and led the Cardinal to national prominence. Recruiting isn't a significant part of the equation in the NFL, so Harbaugh will have to settle for the best quarterback he can draft or otherwise acquire. He might even have to give Alex Smith a shot.

The 49ers will need Harbaugh to do what his recent predecessors could not: get good production from limited or flawed talent at the most important position.

Rich Gannon was well-established as an NFL quarterback when Harbaugh arrived as his position coach in Oakland for the 2002 season. The pairing reflected well on all parties. Gannon set career highs for completed passes, attempts, completion percentage, passing yards and passer rating. Gannon was already a good quarterback and the Raiders were already a good team, so it's tough to measure Harbaugh's impact.

Gannon is long since retired. Harbaugh is back in the NFL for the first time since the two were together on the Raiders in 2003. The 49ers don't have a legitimate starting quarterback under contract. Harbaugh has been meeting with Smith and keeping open his options. The stakes are high in the short term because the 49ers have enough talent elsewhere on their roster to compete for a playoff spot.

Outside expectations for Smith are so low that Harbaugh could appear heroic if he could get even a 9-7 record out of the 49ers with Smith in the lineup.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

How much more roster turnover lies ahead?

The Seahawks were fearless in overhauling their roster during their first year under general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll.

The team added Marshawn Lynch, Leon Washington, Chris Clemons, Stacy Andrews, Tyler Polumbus, Kentwan Balmer, Kevin Vickerson, Robert Henderson and LenDale White, though Seattle parted with Vickerson, Henderson, White and 2009 regulars Deion Branch, Julius Jones, Owen Schmitt, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Josh Wilson, Lawrence Jackson, Rob Sims, Darryl Tapp, Deon Grant and Seneca Wallace. The Seahawks watched a couple other starters, Nate Burleson and Cory Redding, leave in free agency.

If those were the moves the Seahawks felt comfortable making right away, I figured there would be quite a few to come after the team's new leadership watched players for a full season. And there still could be, but similar wheeling and dealing could be impractical or even impossible if the current labor standoff continues deep into the offseason.

Teams cannot make trades without a new labor agreement. They cannot know for sure whether or not a salary cap will come into play as part of any new deal. It's just tough to act as decisively as Seattle acted last offseason without knowing the rules. That's a disadvantage for Seattle and other teams with much work to do this offseason.

Rams' vets Robbins, Hall getting it done

December, 27, 2010
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ST. LOUIS -- Fred Robbins' sixth sack of the season Sunday gave the St. Louis Rams' veteran defensive tackle a career high at age 32.

It also highlighted the significant contributions St. Louis is getting from two defensive linemen thought to be past their primes.

Defensive end James Hall, 33, collected 1.5 sacks Sunday, giving him 10.0 for the season.

Hall joins a short list of players to reach double-digit sacks at that age since sacks became an official stat for the 1982 season. The others: Trace Armstrong, Rob Burnett, Richard Dent, Chris Doleman, William Fuller, Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson, Leslie O'Neal, John Randle, Warren Sapp, Bruce Smith, Michael Strahan, Jason Taylor and Reggie White.

Robbins, signed in free agency from the New York Giants, joins Keith Traylor, Jeff Zgonina and former Ram Ray Agnew among defensive tackles to set career highs for sacks at age 32 or older in the free-agency era (since 1993). The Rams are not particularly deep at defensive tackle. Their defense would have a hard time holding up without Robbins, in my view.

The team needs to draft fresh talent at the position. In the meantime, Robbins is providing the steady play Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo sought when he reconnected with Robbins, a player he coached with the Giants.

Robbins has also set a career high with seven passes defensed.
John Elway, Jim Kelly, Dan MarinoUS PresswireJohn Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino are a part of a draft class that may be the best in NFL history.
The 1983 NFL draft might have been the best of the modern era even without Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway, Jim Kelly or Dan Marino.

It was that good.

"I think if you asked each guy to a man, in particular the Hall of Fame guys, there has always been a pride about our class," said cornerback Darrell Green, the 28th overall choice in 1983 and a Hall of Famer. "Without ever discussing it, we knew we were a pretty special class of athletes."

The class produced six Hall of Famers –- Elway, Kelly, Marino, Green, Eric Dickerson and Bruce Matthews -– in addition to recent Hall finalists Richard Dent and Roger Craig. Of the 335 players drafted, 41 combined for 142 Pro Bowl appearances.

No other draft class has produced more than 34 Pro Bowl players since the NFL and AFL combined for a common draft in 1967, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That year served as the starting point for this project ranking the five best draft classes. The 1996, 1981, 1969 and 1985 drafts also made the cut.

Not that making the cut was good enough for some.

"If you took the defensive players in our draft and put them on the field against any class, we would shut them out," said Ronnie Lott, one of the more decorated members of a 1981 class featuring Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, Rickey Jackson, Howie Long and Kenny Easley.

The project was biased against recent classes because their players haven’t had time to achieve in ways that set apart the older classes. The 2001 class has already produced 33 Pro Bowlers, same as the 1996 class and more than every other class but 1983, 1987 and 1988. But the best players from that class aren't finished achieving.

The biggest challenge, at least to me, was settling on the right criteria. ESPN Stats & Information provided an updated version of the spreadsheet used to identify elite draft classes for a previous project Insider. The spreadsheet awarded points to players based on:

  • Hall of Fame enshrinement (15 points)
  • MVP awards (8)
  • Player of the year awards (6)
  • All-Pro first-team awards (4)
  • All-Pro second-team awards (3)
  • Super Bowl victories (3)
  • Pro Bowls (2)
  • Rookie of the year awards (2)
  • Super Bowl defeats (1)

I used the spreadsheet as a starting point.

From there, I assigned 15 points to current or recently retired players likely destined for Canton. The players I singled out were: Troy Polamalu, Dwight Freeney, Ed Reed, LaDainian Tomlinson, Steve Hutchinson, Brian Urlacher, Tom Brady, Champ Bailey, Peyton Manning, Randy Moss, Alan Faneca, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Taylor, Jonathan Ogden, Marvin Harrison, Ray Lewis, Brian Dawkins, Terrell Owens, Derrick Brooks, Marshall Faulk, Larry Allen, Michael Strahan, Brett Favre, Junior Seau and Deion Sanders.

I added five points for Hall of Fame finalists not yet enshrined -- Cortez Kennedy, Shannon Sharpe, etc. These changes allowed the rich to get richer, of course, because all those players already had lots of Pro Bowls on their resumés. But if it was important to recognize current Hall of Famers -- and it was, I thought -- then it was important to acknowledge the strongest candidates not yet enshrined.

Another thing I noticed: These changes didn't significantly alter results, which were predicated mostly on Pro Bowl appearances, a statistical correlation revealed.

The next challenge was making sure the formula didn't acknowledge great players at the expense of good ones. ESPN's John Clayton and Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. felt the formula should take special care in this area. I wasn't as adamant.

"You love the Hall of Famers," Horton said, "but I like the class where the guy plays at a high level for a long time. I love those third-round picks that just play and play. We shouldn’t make a mistake at the first pick. That guy should be a great player."

Clayton used approximate-value ratings from Pro Football Reference to produce averages for each draft class. The 1993 class produced the highest average, followed by the 1996, 1983, 1975 and 1971 classes. Clayton also plugged in total games played. The 1983 class edged the 1993 class for the most, followed by the 1990, 1976 and 1988 classes.

A few key variables changed along the way.

Teams drafted at least 442 players annually from 1967 to 1976. They drafted more than 330 players each year from 1977 through 1992. The 1993 class featured only 224 players, fewer than any class under consideration. The first 224 players drafted in 1969 had much higher average approximate-value ratings than the 1993 class, for example. More recent draft classes also benefited from league expansion, which opened roster spots and opportunities for additional players.

NFL regular seasons also grew in length from 14 to 16 games beginning in 1978.

My focus was more on what the draft classes produced and less on extenuating circumstances.

The 1993 class is among those deserving honorable mention. Do the most decorated members of that class -- Strahan, Willie Roaf, Will Shields, John Lynch, Jerome Bettis and Drew Bledsoe among them -- hold up to the best from other years?

Take a look at my top five classes and decide for yourself.


[+] EnlargeDarrell Green
US PresswireDarrell Green was the last pick of the first round in the 1983 draft.
1983

Why it's the best: No other class came close using the point system from ESPN Stats & Information. The 1983 class finished in a virtual tie with the 1996 and 1981 classes even when I removed from consideration the three Hall of Fame quarterbacks -- Elway, Marino and Jim Kelly. No class had more combined Pro Bowls from its top-10 picks (42) or more combined Pro Bowls from players drafted later than the 200th overall choice (26). Five of the six Hall of Famers played their entire NFL careers with one team for 83 combined seasons, or 16.6 on average.

Hall of Famers: Elway (Broncos), Kelly (Bills), Marino (Dolphins), Green (Redskins), Dickerson (Rams), Matthews (Oilers)

Hall of Fame finalists: Richard Dent (Bears), Roger Craig (49ers)

Other big names: Karl Mecklenburg (Broncos), Joey Browner (Vikings), Chris Hinton (Broncos), Charles Mann (Redskins), Dave Duerson (Bears), Leonard Marshall (Giants), Albert Lewis (Chiefs), Curt Warner (Seahawks), Jimbo Covert (Bears), Henry Ellard (Rams), Mark Clayton (Dolphins), Tim Krumrie (Bengals), Greg Townsend (Raiders), Gill Byrd (Chargers), Don Mosebar (Raiders), Darryl Talley (Bills).

Late-round steals: Mecklenburg was the 310th overall choice. Dent went 203rd overall. Clayton went 223rd. They combined for 15 Pro Bowls.

Ah, the memories: Green grew up in Houston rooting for the Oilers, but his hometown team wasn't very accommodating on draft day. His family didn't have cable TV, so they couldn't watch the draft on ESPN. They had heard the Oilers would be showing it at their facility, or at least providing real-time updates, but Green was turned away.

"They sent my little behind on out of there," Green said. "That is the way that went. What is funny, I’m a Houstonian, I played 20 years in the NFL, started 18 years and I never played in Houston but one time, so I couldn’t stick it to them. ... But you always love your hometown. I was a Luv Ya Blue, Bum Phillips, Kenny Burrough, Earl Campbell, Dan Pastorini fan."

Green was used to the cold shoulder. Tim Lewis, drafted 11th overall by Green Bay, was supposed to be the superstar cornerback that year. Looking back, Green liked going one spot after Marino. Green also values being a bookend to a first round featuring Elway on the other side.

"[Redskins general manager] Bobby Beathard told me if I was there, he would take me," Green said. "I'd always been told by pro players, 'Hey, don’t believe anything they say.' As an adult, I know why. Things change. But the man told me. We got down to Dan Marino at 27 and I knew I wouldn't be 27. Then when we got to 28, the last pick of the first round, now I’ve got nothing else to do but believe it. I was extremely excited he maintained his word."


Ray Lewis
Frank Victores/US PresswireRay Lewis could be one of the best linebackers to ever play in the NFL.
1996

Why it's No. 2: Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis arguably rank among the three best players at their positions in NFL history. Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens arguably rank among the 10 greatest receivers. Between four and seven members from this class have strong credentials for Canton. Only the 1983 class produced more total Pro Bowl appearances. Unlike some other classes -- 1988 comes to mind -- this one provided star power deep into the draft.

Hall of Famers: none yet.

Hall of Fame finalists: none yet.

Strongest Hall credentials: Jonathan Ogden (Ravens), Marvin Harrison (Colts), Ray Lewis (Ravens), Brian Dawkins (Eagles), Terrell Owens (49ers), Zach Thomas (Dolphins), La'Roi Glover (Raiders).

Other big names: Mike Alstott (Bucs), Willie Anderson (Bengals), Simeon Rice (Bucs), Lawyer Milloy (Patriots), Tedy Bruschi (Patriots), Eddie George (Titans), Jeff Hartings (Lions), Keyshawn Johnson (Jets), Donnie Edwards (Chiefs), Jon Runyan (Oilers), Amani Toomer (Giants), Muhsin Muhammad (Panthers), Stephen Davis (Redskins), Joe Horn (Chiefs), Marco Rivera (Packers).

Late-round steals: Fifth-rounders Thomas, Glover and Horn combined for 17 Pro Bowls. Another fifth-rounder, Jermaine Lewis, added two more. No other fifth round produced more total Pro Bowls during the period in question. Although expansion added additional picks to more recent fifth rounds, those picks were also later in the draft. Thomas and Glover should get strong Hall of Fame consideration.

Ah, the memories: Glover was the 16th defensive tackle drafted in 1996. He wasn't even invited to the combine initially, and when he did get the call, there wasn't enough time to prepare for the specialized events. Glover, who weighed about 265 pounds at San Diego State, was in trouble and he knew it.

"It's funny to me now, but it wasn't funny then," Glover said. "I got a call maybe a week before the combine, so I wasn’t prepared. I was out there doing my long-distance conditioning training and I wasn’t doing speed-type training. I may have ran like a 5.1 or 5.2, a very bad time."

Glover performed much better at his personal workout, dropping those times into the low 4.9s. Oakland made him the 166th player chosen that year.

"I just remember feeling goosebumps and I started sweating -- the dream is coming true," Glover said. "And then I was put on the phone with Mr. Al Davis. He asked me a very specific question: 'How would you like to be an Oakland Raider?' And I damn near lost it. I didn’t cry or anything. I kept my composure over the phone. As soon as I hung up and saw my name come on the ticker -- I lived in a tiny 2-3 bedroom home -- the place just erupted. All the women were crying and all the men were asking for tickets."


[+] EnlargeLT
US PresswireLawrence Taylor helped the New York Giants win two Super Bowls.
1981

Why it's No. 3: This was arguably the greatest defensive draft under consideration, particularly near the top. The NFL's best athletes typically played offense, but 1981 draftees Taylor, Lott and Easley helped change the dynamics. This draft wasn't as strong as some throughout, but its star power on defense set it apart. Key players from this draft helped the 49ers, Redskins, Giants, Bears and Raiders dominate at times during the decade. Only the 1986 draft produced more Super Bowl winners.

Hall of Famers: Taylor (Giants), Lott (49ers), Mike Singletary (Bears), Howie Long (Raiders), Rickey Jackson (Saints), Russ Grimm (Redskins).

Hall of Fame finalists: none.

Other big names: Easley, Eric Wright (49ers), Dennis Smith (Broncos), Cris Collinsworth (Bengals), Hanford Dixon (Browns), Freeman McNeil (Jets), James Brooks (Chargers), Brian Holloway (Patriots), Hugh Green (Bucs), Carlton Williamson (49ers), Neil Lomax (Cardinals), Dexter Manley (Redskins), Mark May (Redskins), E.J. Junior (Cardinals).

Late-round steals: Charlie Brown, chosen 201st overall by the Redskins, caught 16 touchdown passes in his first two seasons, earning Pro Bowl honors both years. Wade Wilson, chosen 210th, played 19 seasons and earned one Pro Bowl berth, in 1988.

Ah, the memories: Once the 49ers drafted Lott eighth overall, the USC safety headed to the airport to use a ticket the team had held for him. Easley, chosen sixth by the Seahawks, was the other great safety in that draft class and the two were so closely linked that the person behind the airline counter mixed up Lott's destination.

"You are going to Seattle?"

"No, San Francisco," Lott replied.

Lott often looks back on how things might have been different if the Saints had drafted Taylor instead of George Rogers first overall. That wasn't going to happen because the Saints wanted a running back to help them control the clock, and they were especially particular about character in that draft -- their first with Bum Phillips as head coach.

"Lawrence Taylor, I didn't realize he was going to be that type of player, but Rickey Jackson did turn out to be the player we needed [in the second round]," Phillips said. "We needed a great player and a great individual. We needed some leadership and we needed the right kind of character to be leaders."

The 49ers needed a new secondary. They used that 1981 draft to select Lott, Wright and Williamson.

"I talked to Bill Walsh and his statement was, 'If I see it on film once, then my coaches should be able to get it out of a guy,'" said Horton, the Scouts Inc. founder and veteran NFL talent evaluator. "That always stuck with me. He was amazing at seeing things on tape. That '81 draft was a smart draft. You could look at that draft and you could see what teams were thinking."


Joe Greene
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireJoe Greene is one of five Hall of Fame inductees from the 1969 draft class.
1969

Why it's No. 4: Roger Wehrli's 2007 Hall of Fame enshrinement gave this class five inductees. Only three other classes managed more combined Pro Bowl appearances. Some of the names in this class won't resonate with recent generations, and that is understandable. But this was still a strong class and one worthy of our consideration.

Hall of Famers: Joe Greene (Steelers), Ted Hendricks (Raiders), O.J. Simpson (Bills), Wehrli (Cardinals), Charlie Joiner (Oilers).

Hall of Fame finalists: L.C. Greenwood (Steelers), Bob Kuechenberg (Eagles).

Other big names: George Kunz (Falcons), Bill Bergey (Bengals), Bill Stanfill (Dolphins), Calvin Hill (Cowboys), Ed White (Vikings), Gene Washington (49ers), Jack Rudnay (Chiefs), Bill Bradley (Eagles), Ted Kwalick (49ers), Jim Marsalis (Chiefs), Ron Johnson (Browns), Fred Dryer (Giants).

Late-round steals: Greenwood was a six-time Pro Bowl choice and was the 238th overall pick. The Falcons found five-time Pro Bowler Jeff Van Note with the 262nd choice. Larry Brown, chosen 191st overall, was a four-time Pro Bowl selection.

Ah, the memories: There was no scouting combine back then. Wehrli couldn't remember seeing a pro scout, even at Missouri practices. He had never even run a 40-yard dash until a Cardinals scout asked him to run one at the Hula Bowl all-star game in Hawaii.

Wehrli agreed to run on the spot even though he was wearing pads, the playing surface was natural grass and the stakes were higher than he realized.

"At the time, I didn’t know it was a Cardinals scout," Wehrli said. "I ran the 40, came back and he said, 'Man, we didn’t realize you were that fast.' Later, he told me that timing moved me up to a first-round draft choice [from the third round]."

Wehrli had clocked in the 4.5-second range. He would run 4.4s on Astroturf later in the pros.

"You never really trained for it back then," he said.


[+] EnlargeJerry Rice
US PresswireJerry Rice, the best receiver in NFL history, helped San Francisco win three Super Bowls.
1985

Why it's No. 5: Just as the 1983 class featured more than quarterbacks, the 1985 version offered much more than the most prolific receiver in NFL history. Yes, Jerry Rice was the 16th overall choice, helping set apart this class from some others. But the supporting cast featured elite talent, from Bruce Smith to Chris Doleman and beyond.

Hall of Famers: Rice (49ers), Smith (Bills).

Hall of Fame finalists: Andre Reed (Bills).

Other big names: Lomas Brown (Lions), Steve Tasker (Oilers), Ray Childress (Oilers), Kevin Greene (Rams), Jay Novacek (Cardinals), Bill Fralic (Falcons), Jerry Gray (Rams), Randall Cunningham (Eagles), Ron Wolfley (Cardinals), Al Toon (Jets), Jim Lachey (Chargers), Kevin Glover (Lions), Mark Bavaro (Giants), Herschel Walker (Cowboys), Duane Bickett (Colts), Doug Flutie (Rams), Jack Del Rio (Saints).

Late-round steals: Tasker became a seven-time Pro Bowl choice on special teams as the 226th overall choice (albeit with Buffalo, after the Oilers waived him). Greene was a fifth-rounder, Novacek was a sixth-rounder and Bavaro, one of the toughest tight ends, provided excellent value in the fourth round.

Ah, the memories: Bill Polian was a little-known pro personnel director with USFL roots when Bills general manager Terry Bledsoe suffered a heart attack two months before the draft. The Bills had already landed their franchise quarterback in Kelly two years earlier, but his two-year detour through the USFL had set back the organization. Buffalo held the No. 1 overall pick, and the stakes were high.

Polian took over GM duties. Norm Pollom, a holdover from the Chuck Knox years, headed up the college scouting side.

The Bills were in great hands. Although some fans hoped the team would draft Flutie, Polian and Pollom found building blocks.

Aggressive wheeling and dealing allowed Buffalo to land cornerback Derrick Burroughs with the 14th choice, acquired from Green Bay, even after drafting Smith first overall. Reed was a steal in the fourth round. The decision to draft Smith over Ray Childress was the right one even though Childress became a five-time Pro Bowl choice for the Oilers.
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  ESPN.com Illustration
  Best of the best: Michael Strahan, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Randy Moss.

 Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Ranking the 25 best NFL players of the decade seemed easy.

AFC West blogger Bill Williamson sent an initial list to me for review. The list appeared strong. I suggested a couple minor tweaks.

All-Decade Honors
Monday: Defense
Tuesday: Offense
Wednesday: Moments
Thursday: Team, coach, MVP | Rankings
Friday: Top players | Special teams

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The hard part came when we considered those who fell just short of the list.

Guard Alan Faneca has gone to eight Pro Bowls this decade. John Lynch and Will Shields went to seven. Brian Dawkins, La'Roi Glover, Kevin Mawae, Olin Kreutz, Matt Birk, Larry Allen, Chris Samuels and Zach Thomas went to six. Ronde Barber, Keith Brooking, Al Wilson, Julian Peterson, Donovan McNabb, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten and Chad Ochocinco were among those with five.

None of them made the top 25 list. Had all of them made it, only six spots would have remained for the 25 players you see in the chart.

We settled on five quarterbacks, four receivers, four offensive linemen, three linebackers, three defensive ends, two running backs, two safeties, one cornerback, one tight end and zero defensive tackles (few dominated consistently for extended periods).

Seven of 10 league MVPs this decade made the top 25. Marshall Faulk, Rich Gannon and 2003 co-MVP Steve McNair were the exceptions.

Ben Roethlisberger made the list despite only one career Pro Bowl appearance. It's not his fault Manning and Brady play in the same conference.

2
ESPN.com's Top 25 Players of the Decade
Rk Player Pos. Team Pro Bowls This Decade Analysis
1
Tom Brady
QB NE 4 The NFL's Horatio Alger hero in cleats was drafted in the sixth round and became one of the greatest quarterbacks of a generation. The four-time Pro Bowler played in four Super Bowls this decade, winning three and being named MVP of two. (TG)

Peyton Manning
QB IND 8 The three-time MVP made eight Pro Bowls, was first-team All-Pro four times and won a Super Bowl this decade. Widely regarded as the league's most irreplaceable player. (PK)
3
LaDainian Tomlinson
RB SD 5 Without a doubt, Tomlinson is the best non-quarterback to play in this decade. He has gained at least 1,000 yards in each of his eight NFL seasons. One of the most consistent running backs ever to play. (BW)
4
Walter Jones
T SEA 8 Mike Holmgren called Jones the best offensive player he ever coached. That's saying something. (MS)
5
Jason Taylor
DE MIA 6 Few defenders can match Taylor's résumé. The NFL's active career sacks leader was chosen for six Pro Bowls this decade. Taylor was named the league's defensive player of the year in 2006 and the Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2007 for his community service. (TG)
6
Champ Bailey
CB DEN 8 The gold standard of cornerbacks this decade. Bailey is a complete player who shut down the left side of the field nearly all decade. (BW)
7
Marvin Harrison
WR IND 7 Seven straight Pro Bowls, two first-team All-Pro selections and a Super Bowl win this decade. His 143 receptions in 2002 stand as the single-season record and he's got a 20-catch cushion on the next closest player. (PK)
8
Michael Strahan
DE NYG 4 One of the most prolific pass-rushers in history of the league. He was relentless and he helped lead the way to a world title in 2007. (MM)
9
Ray Lewis
LB BAL 7 Lewis is the top-rated linebacker of this decade with a Super Bowl victory and seven Pro Bowls since 2000. But No. 9 still seems a little low for the future Hall of Famer and one of the most dominant defenders ever to play the game. (JW)
10
Tony Gonzalez
TE ATL 9 The best receiving tight end ever to play in the NFL. If you don't think so, look at the top of every important receiving record for NFL tight ends. You'll see Gonzalez's name on every list. (BW)
11
Jonathan Ogden
T BAL 8 As the most consistent player on Baltimore's usually inconsistent offense, Ogden will probably never get as much credit as he deserved. But his football journey will land him in Canton soon. (JW)
12
Ed Reed
S BAL 5 In a decade when mostly hard-hitting safeties ruled the NFL, Reed brought "ball-hawking" back to the position. His hands, anticipation and knack for the spectacular play are as good as any safety in NFL history. (JW)
13
Torry Holt
WR JAC 7 Seven Pro Bowls, one first-team All-Pro selection, two Super Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl win this decade with the St. Louis Rams. A major component of an out-of-nowhere team that became "The Greatest Show on Turf." (PK)
14
Randy Moss
WR NE 4 He was edged out by Torry Holt for the all-decade team, but Moss is one of the league's all-time greats. He has gone to four Pro Bowls this decade, averaging 77 catches for 1,164 yards and 12 touchdowns. (TG)
15
Derrick Brooks
LB TB 8 Best player in Tampa Bay's history. Most important building block in Bucs going from laughingstock to Super Bowl champions. Brooks was a leader on the field and in the community. (PY)
16
Orlando Pace
T CHI 6 At the height of his career, Pace was the most dominant left tackle in the game. No one could get around him as the St. Louis Rams set a series of offensive records. Injuries have slowed him down recently, but he hopes to finish his career strongly in Chicago. (KS)
17
Kurt Warner
QB ARI 3 Took two franchises to the Super Bowl this decade and had three total appearances (one following the 1999 season). Still going strong. (MS)
18
Shaun Alexander
RB SEA 3 The only player in NFL history to score 15 touchdowns in five consecutive seasons. Averaged 1,501 yards rushing and 17.4 rushing touchdowns per season over a five-year period. (MS)
19
Troy Polamalu
S PIT 5 Polamalu is just approaching his prime, but already has two Super Bowl wins and five Pro Bowls in six seasons. He has the potential to make the next decade's list as well. (JW)
20
Richard Seymour
DE NE 5 The Patriots defensive end has been All-Pro three times and a Pro Bowler five times. He's strong against the run and can create havoc in the pocket, collecting 39 sacks in eight seasons. (TG)
21
Ben Roethlisberger
QB PIT 1 "Big Ben" joins Tom Brady as the only quarterbacks to win multiple Super Bowls in this decade. Despite joining the NFL in 2004, that was enough for Roethlisberger to make the cut. (JW)
22
Steve Hutchinson
G MIN 6 Considered the best guard in the game since shortly after Seattle drafted him in 2001. Has helped Minnesota rank in the NFL's top five in rushing twice in three seasons with the Vikings. (KS)
23
Brett Favre
QB -- 5 Finished last season atop the NFL's list for all-time passing yardage and touchdowns. (Interceptions, too.) Named to his 10th Pro Bowl at age 39. (KS)
24
Terrell Owens
WR BUF 6 He has put up Hall of Fame-worthy numbers and he continues to be a dangerous receiver into his mid-30s. (MM)
25
Brian Urlacher
LB CHI 6 The NFL's best defensive rookie in 2000, the best defensive player in 2005 and the captain of a team that went to the Super Bowl in 2006. A quasi-defensive back in college, Urlacher is a perfect fit for the Tampa 2 scheme that requires the middle linebacker to cover the deep third of the field. (KS)

Glossary
TG -- Tim Graham (AFC East); JW -- James Walker (AFC North); PK -- Paul Kuharsky (AFC South); BW -- Bill Williamson (AFC West); MM -- Matt Mosley (NFC East); KS -- Kevin Seifert (NFC North); PY -- Pat Yasinskas (NFC South); MS -- Mike Sando (NFC West)

 
  ESPN.com Illustration
  The ESPN.com all-decade defense is stacked with Pro Bowlers.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

All-Decade Defense
DE: Michael Strahan, N.Y. Giants,
DT: Warren Sapp, Tampa Bay/Oakland
DT: Kris Jenkins, Carolina/N.Y. Jets
DE: Jason Taylor, Miami/Washington
LB: Derrick Brooks, Tampa Bay
LB: Ray Lewis, Baltimore
LB: Brian Urlacher, Chicago
CB: Champ Bailey, Washington/Denver
CB: Troy Vincent: Phil./Mia./Buff./Wash.
S: Ed Reed, Baltimore
S: Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh

All-Decade Honors

Monday: Defense
Tuesday: Offense
Wednesday: Moments
Thursday: Team, coach, MVP | Rankings
Friday: Top players | Special teams

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The choice between Michael Strahan and Jason Taylor was simple when ESPN.com selected its all-decade defense.

We took both.

Warren Sapp and Kris Jenkins prevailed at defensive tackle. Ray Lewis, Derrick Brooks and Brian Urlacher made the cut at linebacker, edging Zach Thomas.

Champ Bailey was an easy choice opposite Troy Vincent at cornerback. Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu beat out a strong field of safeties.

"It's a great group to be associated with," Taylor told ESPN.com's Tim Graham. "Derrick Brooks, Mr. Consistency and Class. Ray Lewis, everybody fears. And Urlacher came in and took the game to another level at that position.

"The two big guys inside -- Jenkins doesn't get a whole lot of credit, but we all know what kind of player he is. Sapp is Sapp. We know he's good. He knows he's good. He's going to tell you he's good.

"And to be associated with 'Stray,' he's the best of our generation."

Taylor, back with Miami after a season with the Redskins, and Strahan combined for 189.5 sacks over the first eight years of the decade. Strahan, who retired in 2008 after a 15-year career with the Giants, had 22.5 in 2001. Taylor had 18.5 in 2002.

"No. 1, [Strahan] really loved playing the game," Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "No. 2, he's well known for rushing the passer, but he's one of the best run-playing defensive ends of all time."

Taylor and Strahan combined for 10 Pro Bowl appearances this decade. Overall, our 11-man squad combined for 60 Pro Bowl appearances in the first nine years of the decade. They wouldn't need much coaching.

"I'd probably tell them, 'Take care of yourself, give me a call during the week at some point so I know you're alive and I'll see you Sunday,'" Taylor said. "Then just turn them loose."

With training camps beginning next month for the final year of the decade, we thought we had sufficient evidence to determine our all-decade teams. ESPN.com began the evaluation process by ranking players according to most Pro Bowl appearances since the 2000 season (tight end Tony Gonzalez was the only player with nine).

General managers, scouts, coaches and players shaped the selections from that list. I consulted with several of them on background while selecting the defensive line and linebackers. NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert did the same in selecting cornerbacks. NFC East blogger Matt Mosley handled the safeties.

Brooks, Lewis and Bailey were consensus choices. Lewis' ferocity gives this defense a menacing edge.

"Ray deserves this honor, without a doubt," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "There is no question that he plays at a Hall of Fame level year in and year out. He's as smart and as instinctive a defensive player as I've ever seen. He plays hard eve
ry play -- every single play."

Newsome was new to the Ravens in 1996 when he asked the team's then-coach, Ted Marchibroda, what he wanted from a player.

"Ted said, 'Give me a player with a 'football temperament,' meaning a player who loves every part of the game -- the preparation, the practices, the long offseason workouts, the physicality, the games," Newsome said. "Ray embodies that definition. There is no player who enjoys preparing, competing and playing as much as Ray. There is only one Ray Lewis, and the Ravens have the good fortune of having him for his entire career."

Taylor felt strongly that his longtime teammate, Thomas, deserved inclusion.

And one veteran offensive lineman I consulted said he would "line up against Sapp every day before I'd go against La'Roi Glover" simply because Glover could beat an opponent in more ways.

"Sapp had one move and he was good at it," the lineman said. "He lined up so wide and it was so much different than all the other three-technique guys. Glover would butt you in the chin and run over your ass, but he was so quick, he could take a side-angle on you. He had a move and a counter and a counter off that one."

Thomas, Glover (who announced his retirement Monday) and other victims of this high-stakes numbers game could fill out a dominant defense of their own. The list of near-misses also includes Richard Seymour, Dwight Freeney, Julius Peppers, Bryant Young, Kevin Williams, Casey Hampton, Keith Brooking, Ty Law, Ronde Barber, Brian Dawkins and John Lynch. Seymour seemed particularly worthy, but not at the expense of Taylor or Strahan.

Only Bailey and Brooks have more Pro Bowl appearances this decade -- eight apiece -- than Lynch (seven) among defensive players. Six defensive players have six Pro Bowl appearances in the decade. Three of them -- Dawkins, Thomas and Glover -- fell just short.

A position-by-position look at the all-decade defense:

 Strahan
 Taylor

Defensive ends Michael Strahan and Jason Taylor: "Stray's a left end and I'm a right end, so it works perfect," Taylor said. "You let the two big boys do what they want inside. Let's hit it and get it."

Bucs defensive coordinator Jim Bates was with the Dolphins during Taylor's most dominant years.

"The biggest thing that has made Jason special over the years is to not only have God-given ability, but intelligence," Bates said. "He did a great job studying the opponent. He was very effective with several different moves he used on his pass rush. He's not only fast, but he's explosive. When he put together the power move with his speed, he had it all."

 Jenkins
 Sapp

Defensive tackles Kris Jenkins and Warren Sapp: No players dominated at the position for the full period in question.

Jenkins, at his best, disrupted opposing offensive lines to a degree that might have exceeded the problems his peers created. I had a hard time leaving off Glover based on what offensive linemen told me, but Sapp enjoyed broad support and was also worthy.

Linebackers Derrick Brooks, Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher: Brooks has started 16 games in each of the last 13 seasons. He has 17

 Brooks
 Lewis
 Urlacher
interceptions this decade. Brooks, released by Tampa Bay in the offseason, brought exceptional quickness to the position even late in his career.

Lewis and Chicago's Urlacher are sluggers by comparison.

At his best, the 260-pound Urlacher was athletic enough to play the deep middle in coverage, yet strong enough to punish receivers and running backs on underneath plays.

 Bailey
 Vincent

Cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Troy Vincent: Shutdown cover corners with height are a rarity, but Vincent and the Broncos' Bailey qualify.

Smarts, range and playmaking ability set them apart from Barber and other candidates, although the Raiders' Nnamdi Asomugha is making a strong run late in the decade.

"You want to talk about an all-around corner, that's Troy Vincent," said former Eagles secondary coach Leslie Frazier, now the Vikings' defensive coordinator, told Seifert. "He could cover as well as any guy out there in the league, but he wasn't one-dimensional by any means. He could hit. He could support the run. He was a sure tackler. Total package, as far as I'm concerned."

Vincent played for the Eagles, Bills and Redskins during this decade.

 Polamalu
 Reed

Safeties Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed: Lynch (seven) and Dawkins (six) have more Pro Bowls this decade, but the Steelers' Polamalu and Ravens' Reed stood apart in overall athletic ability and their flair for the spectacular play.

"I love watching [Polamalu] play," Cowboys Ring of Honor member Cliff Harris told Mosley. "They give him a lot of freedom and he's able to make a lot of plays. I think I'd love playing in that defense -- even though it's the Steelers. I'm biased, but I still think it's one of the most important positions on the field. And no one can match Reed and Polamalu right now."

Reed's production -- 43 interceptions in seven NFL seasons, compared to 34 picks in 13 seasons for Dawkins -- separates him from all challengers.

Lynch spent four seasons with Denver and four with Tampa this decade. And while he kept racking up Pro Bowl appearances, his best years were probably with the Bucs.

The Colts' Bob Sanders might have challenged if injuries hadn't limited him to two seasons with more than six games played.

Tim Hasselbeck and Michael Smith break down the all-decade defense.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic expects Tim Hightower to enter next season as the Cardinals' starting running back. That surprises me a little bit. I would think the Cardinals might find their next starter in the draft. They certainly picked a good year to pick near the end of the first round. Cardinals director of player personnel Steve Keim: "To be quite honest with you, I don't see a whole lot of difference between the fifth pick and the 31st pick. That obviously bodes well for us." And not so well for Seattle.

Also from Somers: He isn't expecting a quick trade involving Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin.

The Associated Press quotes former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan advising Boldin to keep his frustrations to himself.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com offers a few thoughts on Boldin's situation and a possible trade. Urban: "On a new team, Boldin doesn't have the Fitz/Warner system and he'll be paid a lot more. That could drive down his value outside of Arizona."

Revenge of the Birds' Hawkwind602 explores in greater detail the pros and cons associated with trading Boldin. One thought in relation to Boldin's physical style possibly shortening his career: "The bottom line points seems to be that even though the Cardinals are not a better team without Boldin, they might have a brighter future for a longer period of time given the picks that they'll receive for him."

Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com -- more on that pairing in a sec -- says the team could have picked a better year to be drafting fourth overall, given the lack of obvious franchise players in this draft. Note: Clare has covered the Seahawks for newspapers since the 1970s. That changed when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ditched its print edition. It's tough to envision Seahawks coverage without Clare, so it was great seeing him over at Seahawks headquarters for general manager Tim Ruskell's recent session with reporters.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times isn't expecting the Seahawks to draft an offensive tackle with the fourth overall choice. I tend to agree, but it's tough finding likely scenarios for Seattle -- particularly if Matthew Stafford, Michael Crabtree and Aaron Curry are off the board when Seattle is on the clock.

Doug Farrar of Field Gulls says it's tough to get a great feel for Mark Sanchez's prospects in the NFL when respected analysts offer disparate opinions.

ViperLjs of Turf Show Times summarizes St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Jim Thomas' comments about the Rams' draft plans based on what Thomas said during a radio interview. ViperLjs: "Thomas came on Bernie Miklasz's radio show today to discuss the draft, and revealed that there are indications coming from the organization that [Eugene] Monroe will be the pick. This corresponds with glowing comments made by [GM Billy] Devaney in his assessment of [Eugene] Monroe. I am one of the few who prefers Monroe to [Wake Forest linebacker Aaron] Curry; I'm consistently seeing doubts about his lateral mobility and ability to be a game changer at the MLB position."

John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle looks at the history of the 10th overall choice in the NFL draft. The 49ers once found J.J. Stokes in that spot. Crumpacker lists offensive tackle, outside linebacker and defensive end as the 49ers' top needs, but coach Mike Singletary is adamant about taking the best player without as much regard for need.

Also from Crumpacker: He lists players the 49ers might consider in the draft, including running back Rashad Jennings.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee thinks the 49ers will address outside linebacker and running back in the second and third rounds.

David Fucillo of Niners Nation sizes up Brian Orakpo as a prospect for the 49ers. He asks: "How do you get playing time for the draft choice alongside [Manny] Lawson and [Parys] Haralson?"

Around the NFC West: 49ers move on

January, 20, 2009
1/20/09
7:06
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers are speaking with former Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski as a candidate to become offensive coordinator.

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat suggests Jagodzinski pushed for the interview. Jagodzinski and 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan worked together in Green Bay.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Jagodzinski will meet with Mike Singletary in Mobile, Ala., site of Senior Bowl practices this week.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic links to a Jason Whitlock column suggesting the Chiefs should consider Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley as a head coaching candidate. Haley has worked with Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com provides perspective for Haley's emotional side. Quarterback Kurt Warner: "Sometimes you have to be the guy that stands up and says, 'It's not all about you guys liking me, it's about me getting the best out of every one of you.' That's what I see from Todd."

John Morgan of Field Gulls explains why he thinks Seahawks fans shouldn't necessarily fear the Rams' hiring of Steve Spagnuolo. Morgan: "Spagnuolo inherited a still dominant Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora in his prime, an entering his prime Mathias Kiwanuka and an emerging [Justin] Tuck. His genius was finding a package that fit them all. With apologies and admiration for the simplicity and effectiveness of Spagnuolo's package, that's not genius at all."

Also from Morgan: a look at the Seahawks' positions of greatest need, with players potentially available in free agency. The Seahawks have plenty of numbers at receiver, but they could use more quality.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams have spoken with Eagles assistant Pat Shurmur and former Seahawks assistant Ken Flajole about joining Spagnuolo's staff. Flajole is a consideration as defensive coordinator, but Spagnuolo would presumably run the defense.

VanRam of Turf Show Times looks at potential free agents for Spagnuolo and the Rams to consider this offseason. Lito Sheppard and David Carr are on the list.

Quick thoughts on the Cardinals

December, 15, 2008
12/15/08
2:58
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Unable to handle success, the Cardinals expect their sorry showing Sunday to spark improved play against New England in Week 16.

That was one of the messages Ken Whisenhunt touched upon during his day-after-game briefing. I'll hit on a few other highlights, with additional notes culled from the locker room:

  • Anquan Boldin's recent run of dropped passes and fumbles has been uncharacteristic. In searching for possible answers, Whisenhunt wondered if the team had burdened Boldin with too many extra responsibilities within the game plan. The team has incorporated Boldin in multiple packages, including a Wildcat-style group featuring Boldin as a rusher. Perhaps Boldin has been thinking too much.
  • Clark Haggans is wearing a cast on his left foot and lower leg after suffering an injury to the Lisfranc joint. Haggans compared the injury to the ones Justin Tuck and Michael Strahan overcame without surgery. Healing could take 4 to 6 weeks, doctors have told Haggans, but the linebacker hopes to return for the playoffs. That might be optimistic.
  • The Cardinals didn't use their four-receiver package until running 20 plays in the game against Minnesota. Arizona felt the three-receiver package with a tight end might make the Cardinals more credible as a run threat. But when the Cardinals opened the second half with four receivers, they scored quickly, with fourth receiver Jerheme Urban hauling in a 50-yard touchdown reception.
  • Whisenhunt thought the Cardinals adjusted effectively enough to the Vikings' safeties, who shifted position in an effort to throw off Kurt Warner. Whisenhunt pointed to specific plays when the Cardinals simply missed a throw or missed a catch against those varied looks.
  • Travis LaBoy suffered an ankle injury of undetermined severity. With Haggans out for now and Bertrand Berry best suited to a situational role, the Cardinals are already testing their depth on defense. That could become more of a problem if Arizona fails to sustain drives on offense.
  • Cornerback Rod Hood gave high marks to Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson for making accurate throws. The Vikings attacked Hood's aggressiveness for a touchdown on a double move. Vikings coach Brad Childress had a good read on Hood from their days together in Philadelphia, and it showed.

The mood in the locker room seemed serious but not tense. I don't know how that might translate to the New England game.

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