NFC West: Moran Norris
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
I'm en route to the San Francisco 49ers' mandatory camp for veterans Tuesday in search of a better feel for the team five months after its appearance in the NFC Championship Game. Trips to the Arizona Cardinals (Wednesday), Seattle Seahawks (Thursday) and St. Louis Rams (extended training camp visit) await.
Once teams assemble on their practice fields, the focus invariably falls on those players present. These camps are also notable for the familiar faces, suddenly absent, that will soon fade from memory. For some longtime NFL vets, these camps are the beginning of the end. George Koonce's message about the difficult transition into retirement should resonate for them.
Some older free agents will surely catch on elsewhere. Some might re-sign with their most recent teams. Here's a quick look at four older 2011 contributors who remain unsigned as their former NFC West teams assemble this week:
- 49ers: fullback Moran Norris (33). Norris suffered a broken fibula in Week 2 and did not return until a Week 14 game at Baltimore, when a concussion sidelined his replacement, Bruce Miller. Norris started two games and played in five, logging 10 percent of the 49ers' offensive snaps. Miller played three times as much and was also a key contributor on special teams. The 49ers are trying several non-fullbacks at the position this offseason. Norris became a free agent after the season.
- Rams: defensive end James Hall (35). Hall had six sacks in 15 games, all starts, while playing about two-thirds of the defensive snaps last season. The team plans for 2011 first-round choice Robert Quinn to take over as the starter in Hall's spot on the right side. The Rams have become the youngest team in the NFL this offseason. They released Hall and former starting defensive tackle Fred Robbins as well.
- Seahawks: defensive end Raheem Brock (34). Brock's playing time held steady at about 50 percent last season, but his sack production fell from nine to three. The Seahawks used their first-round choice, No. 15 overall, for defensive end Bruce Irvin. Irvin is expected to fill Brock's role this season. Brock became a free agent after the season.
- Cardinals: outside linebacker Joey Porter (35). Porter collected one sack in six starts before knee problems forced him to the sideline. Rookie Sam Acho took over as the starter and showed considerable promise, finishing the season with seven sacks. The Cardinals placed Porter on injured reserve late in December. Porter became a free agent after the season.
My flight is landing shortly. More from 49ers camp as the day progresses. The team will not be off the practice field until around 5:30 p.m. PT.
One key difference between those groups: age.
The St. Louis Rams in particular used the UFA signing period to get younger. The 12 UFAs they added (11) or re-signed (one) averaged 2.49 years younger than the 20 UFAs they lost (six) or have not re-signed (14). The gap was 1.39 years younger on average throughout the division. The Rams have the youngest roster in the NFL, based on averages I maintain for every team in the league.
Some older UFAs never sign another NFL contract. They disappear from rosters and realize, perhaps a year or two later, that they've been retired.
The chart shows age differences for the 38 UFA players added or re-signed versus the 47 lost to other teams or still unsigned. According to the NFL, 143 UFAs changed teams across the league this offseason. Another 112 re-signed with their 2011 teams.
Unsigned players remain free to sign with another team, but the NFL will not count them as UFA signings. The distinction matters in part because only UFA additions and losses count toward the formula for determining compensatory draft choices. That formula relies heavily on player salaries. UFAs available this late in the process generally wouldn't command enough money to affect compensatory picks, anyway.
A quick look at which UFA players from NFC West teams did not sign or re-sign as UFAs:
- St. Louis Rams (14): receiver Mark Clayton, tackle Mark LeVoir, tackle Adam Goldberg, tight end Billy Bajema, safety James Butler, cornerback Al Harris (retired), cornerback Rod Hood, cornerback Justin King, quarterback A.J. Feeley, running back Jerious Norwood, linebacker Brady Poppinga, tight end Stephen Spach, running back Cadillac Williams and center Tony Wragge.
- Seattle Seahawks (4): defensive end Raheem Brock, defensive tackle Jimmy Wilkerson, linebacker David Vobora and running back Justin Forsett. Forsett reached agreement with the Houston Texans following the UFA period. The Seahawks had already given his jersey number (20) to free-agent running back Kregg Lumpkin.
- Arizona Cardinals (7): defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday, tackle Floyd Womack, tackle Brandon Keith, outside linebacker Joey Porter, outside linebacker Clark Haggans, running back Chester Taylor and safety Hamza Abdullah.
- San Francisco 49ers (2): tight end Justin Peelle and fullback Moran Norris.
The 27 unsigned UFAs from the NFC West average 31.38 years old, about 3.3 years older than the 22 UFAs signed from other teams.
Nine of the 27 are at least 33 years old. Another 12 are between 29 and 32. Justin King, former cornerback for the Rams, is the youngest at 25 years old.
Red Bryant, Paul McQuistan and Heath Farwell previously re-signed.
Seattle and the other NFC West teams have added only two UFAs from other teams, however. I've put together UFA scorecards for each team in the division. Ages are in parenthesis. Here goes ...
UFA unsigned (age): defensive end Raheem Brock (33), defensive lineman Jimmy Wilkerson (31), safety Atari Bigby (30), quarterback Charlie Whitehurst (29), linebacker Leroy Hill (29), linebacker Matt McCoy (29), defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (28), linebacker David Hawthorne (26), running back Justin Forsett (26), linebacker David Vobora (25)
UFA re-signed: Farwell (30), Robinson (29), McQuistan (28), Bryant (27)
UFA added: none
UFA lost: tight end John Carlson (27)
Franchise player: none
Comment: Forsett has provided value, but the Seahawks will want to add a power back as depth behind Marshawn Lynch, who re-signed before free agency. Mike Tolbert, a free agent from the San Diego Chargers, could be worth a look if the running back market remains soft. Tolbert weighs 243 pounds, has 21 total touchdowns over the past two seasons, and caught 54 passes in 2012. The price would have to be right after Seattle committed to Lynch.
San Francisco 49ers
UFA unsigned: fullback Moran Norris (33), tight end Justin Peelle (33), safety Madieu Williams (30), quarterback Alex Smith (27), receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (26), guard Chilo Rachal (26), safety Reggie Smith (25)
UFA re-signed: cornerback Carlos Rogers (30), linebacker Tavares Gooden (27)
UFA added: none
UFA lost: guard Adam Snyder (30), linebacker Blake Costanzo (27), receiver Josh Morgan (26)
Franchise player: safety Dashon Goldson (27)
Comment: Randy Moss and potential addition Rock Cartwright do not appear in the listings because they were not unrestricted free agents. Re-signing Alex Smith and finding additional receiver help appear to be the top priorities. The 49ers are showing little outward urgency on either front, however.
UFA unsigned: defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday (36), kicker Jay Feely (35), long-snapper Mike Leach (35), outside linebacker Clark Haggans (35), outside linebacker Joey Porter (34), offensive lineman Floyd Womack (33), punter Dave Zastudil (33), tackle D'Anthony Batiste (29), safety Sean Considine (29), guard Deuce Lutui (28), safety Hamza Abdullah (28), tackle Brandon Keith (27), receiver Early Doucet (26)
UFA re-signed: none.
UFA added: Snyder (30)
UFA lost: cornerback Richard Marshall (27)
Franchise player: defensive end Calais Campbell (25)
Comment: The Cardinals have been in a tough spot. They would have faced criticism had they declined to pursue Peyton Manning. They could now face criticism for sacrificing the first week of free agency while waiting for Manning. The reality is that Arizona probably wasn't going to be all that aggressive in the market this offseason, anyway. It did hurt losing Marshall to the Miami Dolphins after coordinator Ray Horton called him the Cardinals' defensive MVP.
St. Louis Rams
UFA unsigned: cornerback Al Harris (37), quarterback A.J. Feeley (34), offensive lineman Tony Wragge (32), linebacker Brady Poppinga (32), punter Donnie Jones (31), offensive lineman Adam Goldberg (31), guard Jacob Bell (31), receiver Brandon Lloyd (30), cornerback Rod Hood (30), running back Cadillac Williams (29), defensive tackle Gary Gibson (29), receiver Mark Clayton (29), tackle Mark LeVoir (29), tight end Stephen Spach (29), safety James Butler (29), tight end Billy Bajema (29), quarterback Kellen Clemens (28), running back Jerious Norwood (28), linebacker Bryan Kehl (27), linebacker Chris Chamberlain (26), cornerback Justin King (24)
UFA re-signed: none
UFA added: cornerback Cortland Finnegan (28)
UFA lost: none
Franchise player: none
Comment: The Rams are not looking to re-sign many of their own free agents. They want to turn over the roster, and that is happening in a big way. The team's failure to secure playmaking help for quarterback Sam Bradford stands out as the biggest theme to this point. Finnegan was a welcome addition, but he isn't going to score many touchdowns.
The chart below shows a general overview.
Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET
Key free agents: DE Calais Campbell (franchise tag), CB Richard Marshall, OLB Clark Haggans, WR Early Doucet, T Brandon Keith, G Deuce Lutui, K Jay Feely.
Where they stand: A strong finish to the 2011 season on defense gives the Cardinals a glass-half-full feel heading into free agency. Going from 1-6 to 8-8 was an impressive achievement. Arizona does have serious concerns on its offensive line. The situation at tackle is particularly questionable even if Levi Brown returns (and maybe especially if he returns, depending on your view). The line concerns might actually dissipate some if the team lands Peyton Manning, a quarterback with the ability to beat pressure with quick throws. But tackle is still an area that needs addressing for the long term. Injuries throughout the offensive backfield raise questions about that area as well. Kevin Kolb (concussion), Beanie Wells (knee), Ryan Williams (knee) and Anthony Sherman (ankle) missed extensive time or played at a diminished level for stretches.
What to expect: The Cardinals are one of the teams chasing Manning. That pursuit could consume them for the short term. Landing Manning would signal the end for Kolb in Arizona. The Cardinals have until March 17 to exercise a $7 million option on Kolb, the quarterback they acquired from Philadelphia for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a fat contract. I'm expecting a resolution to Manning's situation before the Kolb bonus comes due simply because interest in Manning should be high enough to accelerate the process. The Cardinals had about $3 million in salary-cap space entering the week, according to ESPN's John Clayton. That figure could increase substantially once the team releases Brown or reworks his contract. Arizona still has strong coaching ties to Pittsburgh on both sides of the ball, but it's an upset if the Cardinals seriously pursue any of the aging veterans recently released by the Steelers. Developing young talent is the priority now. Re-signing Marshall, who fared well at corner, should be a priority. Does free-agent linebacker Stewart Bradley still factor prominently into the team's plans, particularly at such a high price?
St. Louis Rams
Key free agents: WR Brandon Lloyd, G Jacob Bell, CB Justin King, OL Adam Goldberg, LB Chris Chamberlain, G Tony Wragge, TE Billy Bajema, WR Mark Clayton, DT Gary Gibson, P Donnie Jones.
Where they stand: The Rams have no interest in staying the course from a personnel standpoint after going 15-65 over the past five seasons. They will seek fresh talent almost across the board as Jeff Fisher's new coaching staff seeks players for its schemes. The Rams are seeking playmakers in particular, starting at wide receiver. The offensive line needs addressing, although the Rams might try to minimize the turnover at offensive tackle for the short term, figuring they cannot afford to create new needs. But former starting center Jason Brown, benched last season, appears unlikely to return. The team also needs two starting outside linebackers, starting defensive tackles and perhaps two starting cornerbacks on defense.
What to expect: Mass roster turnover. I could see the team retaining as few as one or two players from its list of 21 projected unrestricted free agents. The Rams have a disproportionate amount of their salary cap tied up in recent high draft choices Sam Bradford, Chris Long and Jason Smith. The rookie wage scale will provide them cap relief even if the team remains among the teams picking very high in the 2012 draft. Bradford and Long are cornerstones. Smith could stick around at a reduced rate. The team still has hope for him under new offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan and defensive lineman Jason Jones, both free agents from Tennessee, have ties to Fisher and could make sense for the Rams. Despite the need for playmakers on offense, the Rams did not use the franchise tag on Lloyd, their most talented receiver. Questions persist about how effective Lloyd might be outside Josh McDaniels' offense.
San Francisco 49ers
Key free agents: QB Alex Smith, CB Carlos Rogers, FS Dashon Goldson (franchise tag), G Adam Snyder, WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Josh Morgan, G Chilo Rachal, FB Moran Norris, LB Blake Costanzo.
Where they stand: Coach Jim Harbaugh has said it's a bit unsettling heading through the offseason with his starting quarterback unsigned. Smith and the 49ers are expected to reach agreement eventually. This relationship will almost certainly continue even if Smith does reach free agency without a deal in place. Smith would not fit nearly as well anywhere else. Harbaugh likes to use the word "equity" when describing players he wants to keep. The 49ers would rather bring back Smith than invite the disruption that Manning would bring, were they able to land him. The team needs help at wide receiver and possibly cornerback, depending upon what happens with Rogers. Getting Goldson at the relatively reasonable franchise rate ($6.2 million) was a plus for the 49ers' continuity in the secondary.
What to expect: Not a whole lot, most likely. The 49ers were a good team last season after taking a low-keyed approach to the free-agent market. They will presumably show interest in Vincent Jackson, Mike Wallace and any high-profile, productive receiver with the talent to upgrade their offense. It's a small upset if the 49ers land one of them, however, because their philosophy is built on a measured approach resistant to overpaying. They will have to address the receiver position in free agency one way or another, however. Re-signing Morgan would help. Pierre Garcon, Marques Colston, Mario Manningham, Plaxico Burress and Robert Meachem are among the other options in free agency. An upgrade at right guard would help the line, but the 49ers might be apt to develop 2011 draft choice Daniel Kilgore after investing first-round choices in their left tackle (Joe Staley), left guard (Mike Iupati) and right tackle (Anthony Davis).
Key free agents: DE Red Bryant, LB David Hawthorne, LB Leroy Hill, OL Paul McQuistan, DE Raheem Brock, DL Tony Hargrove, FB Michael Robinson, RB Justin Forsett, QB Charlie Whitehurst, LB Matt McCoy, TE John Carlson, LB Heath Farwell.
Where they stand: The Seahawks' long-term quarterback situation hangs over them as they head toward the 2012 draft with only the 12th overall choice. The team has built up the rest of its roster to a point where sticking with Tarvaris Jackson as the primary starter could hold back the team to a degree it did not through much of last season. Upgrading the pass rush is another priority for the Seahawks. With defensive end Raheem Brock publicly stumping for Seattle to land Manning, his former teammate, I couldn't help but wonder which one of them had a better shot at earning a roster spot with the team in 2012. It might be Manning, even if the Seahawks are relative long shots for his services. Brock failed to provide the pass-rush push Seattle needed opposite Chris Clemons. Linebacker is another position the Seahawks need to address, whether or not Hawthorne and Hill return.
What to expect: The Seahawks have roughly $30 million in cap space, according to Clayton, and will make every effort to land Manning. They feel they've got a shot as long as they can persuade him to get on a plane and check out what they have to offer in terms of the roster, coaching, facilities, ownership and more. If Manning goes elsewhere, I would expect the Seahawks to consider Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn. Securing him at a price lower than what Arizona paid for Kolb would be the goal. As badly as the Seahawks want to upgrade the position, they have said they will not panic. Overpaying for Flynn could represent panic in their eyes. On the pass-rush front, I'm increasingly skeptical the team will shell out for Mario Williams. The price could be too high for a player Houston has decided to let hit the market. Re-signing Bryant is a priority, but using the franchise tag for him was never an option given the $10.6 million price. A deal slightly north of the one teammate Brandon Mebane signed seems likelier if Bryant returns.
Re-signing quarterback Alex Smith appears likely. Smith accepted the Associated Press' coach of the year award on Jim Harbaugh's behalf Saturday, the latest indication Smith remains firmly in the fold.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers has said he wants to return. His value spiked after earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. The franchise tag remains available, but the price would be lower if San Francisco used it for free safety Dashon Goldson instead. Either way, the 49ers have decisions to make in their secondary.
The charts below expand upon Brian McIntyre's lists. I've added offensive and defensive snap counts from ESPN Stats & Information. The final column shows what players earned per year on their most recent contracts.
Some players, notably Blake Costanzo and C.J. Spillman, played extensively on special teams. The charts show offensive and defensive snap counts only.
The second chart shows restricted free agents. Teams can retain rights to RFAs by making one-year qualifying offers.
The timing of Braylon Edwards' release from the San Francisco 49ers makes more sense when factoring for his injuries, playing time and the team's potential need for a roster spot.
There still could be more to the story, as ESPN's John Clayton suggests in the accompanying video. There were indications Edwards wasn't fitting well with the 49ers, and there was certainly a gap between his name recognition and his actual value on the field this season.
The chart at right, provided by Jason Starrett of ESPN Stats & Information, shows what percentage of offensive snaps Edwards had played in games for which he was active.
Those percentages peaked at midseason, but they were generally in retreat more recently. That was the case even against Seattle in Week 16, when the 49ers were without one receiver (Ted Ginn Jr.), lost another receiver (Kyle Williams) and lost tight end Delanie Walker to a broken jaw.
The 49ers are holding out hope Walker can return while the playoffs are ongoing. As a result, they have not placed him on injured reserve. Releasing Edwards buys flexibility to sign another player, possibly a tight end. Vernon Davis and Justin Peelle are the remaining healthy tight ends on the roster. Konrad Reuland is on the practice squad.
San Francisco generally prefers using a second tight end over a third wide receiver, particularly on early downs. That tack gives coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman flexibility in the running game -- flexibility the team has put to good use.
"They're not a typical running football team in that they have a lot more scheme involved than other teams," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Their commitment to it and the variety of runs that they throw at you are different than other guys and they have more. They're looking for the right plays that fit that day as they go through their call sheet and all. They are just more challenging than some other teams scheme-wise."
That is high praise from an opponent and consistent with what we discussed on the blog in January. The 49ers will presumably continue favoring heavier personnel even without Walker. Releasing Edwards suggests they're not planning to become more receiver-oriented in the immediate future. The team is presently on pace have as many rushing attempts as pass plays (attempts plus sacks) for the first time since 1997.
In truth, the 49ers cannot play offense the same way if the jaw injury Walker suffered during a 19-17 victory at Seattle sidelines him.
Walker's unusual speed for the position and improved blocking gave the 49ers great versatility when using him with Vernon Davis in their two-tight end packages. Before Saturday, the 49ers had gained 2,407 of their 4,304 yards -- 56 percent -- with two tight ends on the field. That included 1,031 of their 1,616 yards rushing (63.8 percent). Walker had played 58.7 percent of the offensive snaps, including 40.4 percent on third down, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Teams facing the 49ers could not treat San Francisco's double-tight personnel groupings the way they would treat most others thoughout the league. They had to account for both players as receiving threats. Walker has 19 receptions for 198 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning touchdown catch against Detroit in Week 6.
The 49ers already lost their best blocking tight end, Nate Byham, to a season-ending knee injury in training camp. They have 10-year veteran Justin Peelle to take some of the snaps that Walker would have taken. But they do not have a true replacement for Walker.
The 49ers might also consider using three wide receivers more frequently, but they have injury concerns at that position as well. Josh Morgan is out for the season, Ted Ginn Jr. is dealing with an ankle injury and veteran Braylon Edwards has battled through knee and shoulder problems. Ginn's replacement, Kyle Williams, suffered a concussion Sunday.
Going to a three-wideout offense would also depart from coach Jim Harbaugh's preference for heavier personnel groupings. Before Saturday, the 49ers had used three or more wideouts a league-low 81 times on first and second down. That included only three such plays in first quarters, 44 fewer than the average for the other 31 teams. Singling out first quarters can sometimes help determine a team's true intentions. Score differentials come into play later in games, leading teams to change how they use their personnel.
A best-case scenario for the 49ers would go like this: Atlanta upsets New Orleans on Monday night, clinching the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye for San Francisco. The 49ers could then play starters sparingly against St. Louis in Week 17. They would have roughly three weeks of practice, counting this week, to make whatever tweaks might be necessary should Walker remain out. The extra time would represent a second training camp, in effect. The best-case scenario would also include Walker healing for the playoffs.
Harbaugh and the 49ers have done an outstanding job overcoming difficult obstacles. They've gone 12-3 after changing over the coaching staff and getting very little time to install their schemes, thanks to the lockout. They have overcome fourth-quarter deficits to win five times this season, including four on the road. It's not like Walker is the most valuable player on the team. He's just a lot more valuable than his stats would indicate.
The chart shows playing time for the 49ers' offensive skill players by down heading into the team's game against Seattle, according to ESPN Stats & Information..
Bradford, slowed by an ankle injury, was among the players St. Louis declared inactive 90 minutes before the 4:15 p.m. ET kickoff. Feeley, 1-1 as a starter for the Rams this season, will start against San Francisco. The Rams also declared safety Darian Stewart, running back Cadillac Williams, linebacker Josh Hull, guard Kevin Hughes, tackle Mark LeVoir and defensive end C.J. Ah You inactive.
The 49ers' list featured quarterback Scott Tolzien, receiver Braylon Edwards, cornerback Shawntae Spencer, fullback Moran Norris, guard Daniel Kilgore, guard Mike Person and nose tackle Ian Williams.
Bradford missed practice during the week after aggravating the high-ankle sprain he suffered this season. There was no sense risking his physical well-being behind an offensive line playing without both starting tackles, in my view.
St. Louis: The Rams are severely limited at offensive tackle and cornerback. Those are tough areas to be so shorthanded against Arizona. Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell is an imminent threat to the Rams' offensive line after St. Louis lost both starting tackles and its backup left tackle. Larry Fitzgerald obviously faces favorable matchups against the Rams' secondary now that St. Louis has placed 10 cornerbacks on injured reserve. The Rams practiced without their defensive leader Wednesday — middle linebacker James Laurinaitis has a foot injury. Losing him would prove devastating. The situation at tight end is also limiting the Rams. Mike Hoomanawanui is out for the season. Promising rookie tight end Lance Kendricks suffered a concussion against Seattle and was limited Wednesday.
San Francisco: Receiver Michael Crabtree (foot), cornerback Chris Culliver (shoulder), tackle Anthony Davis (ankle), receiver Braylon Edwards (knee) and running back Frank Gore (knee) were limited in practice Wednesday and listed as probable for Thursday. The team does not expect to have fullback Bruce Miller (concussion) for its game at Baltimore. The 49ers' relative strength and versatility at tight end affords them flexibility in dealing with injuries at fullback and wide receiver. The team doesn't need to lean heavily on three-receiver groupings because tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are good receivers. Veteran fullback Moran Norris could return this week. The 49ers also use nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga as a fullback in certain situations.
Seattle: The biggest concern, in my view, centers around whether quarterback Tarvaris Jackson can remain in the lineup for the remainder of the season as he plays through a pectoral injury. Jackson was limited Wednesday. He's facing a Redskins defense featuring strong outside rushers in Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. Defensive tackle Alan Branch (ankle), cornerback Byron Maxwell (ankle), receiver Ben Obomanu (knee/ankle) and receiver Sidney Rice (knee) did not practice. The Seahawks have sufficient depth at all those players' positions and most of those players are expected to be available Sunday.
What it means: The 49ers can clinch the NFC West title with a victory at Baltimore and a Seattle loss to Washington. They improved to 9-1 while securing their first winning season since 2002. They have won eight in a row, the fourth-longest streak since 1970 for a team with a rookie head coach. This was an ugly victory, particularly for the 49ers' offense. That's not a bad thing entirely, however. Coach Jim Harbaugh will suffer no shortage of coaching points heading into a much-anticipated game at Baltimore. The Cardinals were worse on offense, making it easier politically for them to transition back to Kevin Kolb at quarterback, provided Kolb's foot and toe injuries heal enough for him to practice this week.
What I liked: The 49ers continued to win with field position and turnovers. Receiver Michael Crabtree played a strong game, breaking tackles and picking up yards after the catch. The 49ers' yards after the catch have plummeted overall this season. Crabtree's average YAC had fallen from 5.4 last season to 3.9 through Week 10 this season. He pumped up those numbers Sunday and won his matchups against the Cardinals' Patrick Peterson.
Another 49ers receiver, Kyle Williams, also enjoyed a strong game. Williams showed sure hands making catches away from his body. He also caught a scoring pass. The 49ers played suffocating defense, allowing their offense and special teams a fat margin for error. Patrick Willis, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson picked off passes. The offense kept plugging away and finally got going. Frank Gore's knee was healthy enough for him to start and play effectively.
For the Cardinals, linebacker Stewart Bradley made a couple jarring tackles on special teams, including a memorable one against 49ers punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. Calais Campbell blocked a field goal for the fifth time in his career. The Cardinals' defense played well enough early to keep Arizona close.
What I didn't like: Skelton played his worst game of the season, serving up turnovers with inexplicable throws. He completed 6 of 19 passes for 99 yards, no touchdowns and a 10.5 NFL passer rating. This might have been the worst performance by an NFC West quarterback this season, worse even than Charlie Whitehurst's game for Seattle at Cleveland. On defense, Peterson had issues in coverage, starting poorly when he slipped on the wet grass, allowing a big gain for Crabtree. For the 49ers, quarterback Alex Smith was off-target and off-speed early in the game. Braylon Edwards dropped a couple of passes early. Then, when Edwards was open in the end zone, Smith threw too high and too hard for him. Smith also missed a wide-open Crabtree in the end zone, again throwing too hard. The 49ers' usually strong special teams faltered repeatedly. David Akers missed two field goal tries and had two more blocked, one by Campbell and one by Peterson. The 49ers incurred multiple penalties during returns.
Costly skirmish: Referee Peter Morelli ejected Goldson in the fourth quarter after Goldson threw punches at Cardinals receiver Early Doucet. Doucet had come over to Goldson while Goldson was down, hitting him in the head. The 49ers will now wait to see whether the NFL suspends Goldson for their Thursday night game at Baltimore. If that happens, the 49ers will presumably keep Madieu Williams active. Williams was named inactive Sunday. The 49ers kept Shawntae Spencer active instead.
Block party: The Cardinals blocked two field goal tries in the same game for the first time since a Sept. 17, 1972, game against the Baltimore Colts. They became the first team since Seattle on Oct. 23 to block more than one in an NFL game.
Empty at fullback: The 49ers lost fullback Bruce Miller to a head injury. Their other fullback, Moran Norris, has been sidelined with a leg injury. It's unclear whether San Francisco will have either player on a short week.
Upon further review: Harbaugh keeps challenging plays whether or not they are reviewable under the rules. After officials denied one request for review, Harbaugh successfully challenged whether Beanie Wells had fumbled. The 49ers took over possession and kicked a field goal for a 6-0 lead in the first quarter. That was Harbaugh's third successful challenge in eight coach-initiated reviews this season. Later, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt lost a challenge when he thought Smith's pass traveled backward. Whisenhunt has challenged seven plays this season, succeeding on four of them.
What's next: The 49ers visit Baltimore for a Thursday night game against the Ravens. The Cardinals visit St. Louis.
Receivers Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks are both active despite injuries. How well they hold up will be the next big question. The 49ers' secondary has been a hard-hitting group this season. Their secondary has also been vulnerable, at times, against the best quarterbacks it has faced, notably Tony Romo and Michael Vick.
The Giants will be without running back Ahmad Bradshaw, as expected. Their full list of inactive players Sunday: receiver Jerrell Jernigan, cornerback Prince Amukamara, Bradshaw, fullback Henry Hynoski, guard Mitch Petrus, defensive tackle Dwayne Hendricks and tackle James Brewer.
The 49ers' list carried little suspense. Defensive end Ray McDonald is active, though it's unclear whether he'll start after missing Week 9 with a hamstring injury. Quarterback Scott Tolzien, cornerback Shawntae Spencer, offensive lineman Mike Person, offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore, fullback Moran Norris, receiver Brett Swain and nose tackle Ian Williams are inactive.
St. Louis: Sam Bradford continues to miss practice with a high-ankle sprain, preventing the Rams from making fuller use of new receiver Brandon Lloyd, in my view. I see no reason for the Rams to rush Bradford back onto the field against a New Orleans team known for taking shots at opposing quarterbacks, including their ankles. The assumption here is that Bradford must practice by week's end to have a shot at playing. The Rams have yet to activate receiver Mark Clayton and cornerback Marquis Johnson from the physically unable to perform list. The need is greater at corner than receiver. The Rams, already without their top three corners for the remainder of the season, lost corner Justin King to a groin injury last week. His status remains unclear. Right tackle Jason Smith could be out indefinitely after suffering neck and head injuries at Dallas. Left tackle Rodger Saffold missed practice with an illness Wednesday.
San Francisco: The 49ers are expected to welcome back receiver Braylon Edwards from knee surgery. The timing is perfect for Edwards because the 49ers are facing the Cleveland Browns, who drafted him third overall. Coach Jim Harbaugh suggested his injury-related optimism earlier in the week might have been premature. You can bet Edwards has been pointing toward this game for his return, however. Fullback Moran Norris isn't expected to return. His replacement, Bruce Miller, has shown improvement. The 49ers have used only one back half the time on first and second down to this point in the season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They're obviously comfortable using two tight ends with two wide receivers, diminishing the need for a fullback. They're fine without Norris, in other words. Parys Haralson's expected return from a hamstring injury comes as rookie Aldon Smith is stepping up his game, anyway. How many snaps those players get will be a storyline for the remainder of the season. Smith, it seems, needs to play. Right guard Adam Snyder is expected back from a stinger. The 49ers' ground game has been better since Snyder took over as the starter.
Seattle: The Seahawks should get center Max Unger, running back Marshawn Lynch and/or tight end Zach Miller back from injuries this week. All were limited Wednesday, and coach Pete Carroll said decisions would not be made until later in the week. Seattle needs Lynch because the team doesn't have another big back for its offense. Backups Leon Washington and Justin Forsett are too similar to provide the differentiation Carroll values. Miller's absence played a leading role in the team's defeat at Cleveland, I thought. Backup Anthony McCoy suffered through a rough game. The Seahawks need him back. Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson is the other big question mark for Seattle this week. His pectoral injury hasn't prevented him from throwing, but he remains limited. It's too early to say whether he's likely to play this week. I would expect a better effort from backup Charlie Whitehurst this week, should he play.
They lost to another AFC South team (Jacksonville) Monday night. They'll be looking to get right against another NFC West team (Arizona).
This was going to be a tough enough matchup on the road for the Cardinals without giving the Ravens reason to redouble their efforts following a brutal defeat. Baltimore will be looking to avoid consecutive defeats against teams that had lost their last five games.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals will head to Baltimore amid questions over Beanie Wells' availability. Somers: "If Wells can't play on Sunday in Baltimore, Alfonso Smith is likely to start, but LaRod Stephens-Howling and Chester Taylor likely would play there, too."
Also from Somers: The Cardinals haven't been making opponents pay for their mistakes. Somers: "Of all the corrections that need to be made, the most important is fixing what's wrong with Kevin Kolb. His passing statistics Sunday weren't awful - 18 of 34 for 272 yards, a touchdown and an interception - but they don't tell the entire story. Kolb badly missed two open receivers, Housler and Larry Fitzgerald, and because of the protection scheme called, it was his job to realize pressure was coming on the play that resulted in a safety. He looks uncomfortable in the pocket and has been inaccurate when he's on the move. On Monday, Whisenhunt reiterated that personnel changes are being contemplated throughout the lineup, but the coach appears more focused on fixing Kolb than replacing him." Noted: The Cardinals cannot realistically bench a quarterback they signed to a five-year, $63 million contract. They need to develop Kolb.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says offensive coordinator Mike Miller relocated to the sideline for the Pittsburgh game in an effort to improve communication with Kolb in particular.
Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com says the Rams should hire a strong leader to run their organization, perhaps the way the Cleveland Browns have done with Mike Holmgren. Gordon: "The current leaders, Kevin Demoff, Billy Devaney and Spagnuolo, are all bright guys with varying degrees of previous success in lesser roles. They are stand-up men. They don’t make excuses or hide from their critics. They are trying to do the right things. Maybe they could all succeed if they worked for a strong leader capable of creating a new organizational culture. Or maybe each fills a role they can’t quite handle. A strong new leader could make that assessment, just as John Davidson made critical assessments as the hockey CEO with the Blues. Step by step, he turned the NHL’s worst team into a playoff contender with a bright future and solid resale value." Noted: I'd be surprised if owner Stan Kroenke didn't make some sort of structural change if the season continues on its current course.
Also from Gordon: A Rams report card with failing grades.
Kathleen Nelson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' Jason Smith will consult a spine specialist following his injury Sunday.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the 49ers expect to have Braylon Edwards back on the practice field Tuesday. Maiocco: "Jim Harbaugh said he also hopes to see fullback Moran Norris (fibula), outside linebacker Parys Haralson (hamstring), right guard Adam Snyder (shoulder) and cornerback Tramaine Brock (hand) healthy enough to practice Tuesday." Noted: While every other NFC West team suffered a potentially significant injury to a starter in Week 7, the idle 49ers got healthier in key spots, notably wide receiver. Arizona lost Wells. Seattle lost starting corner Walter Thurmond. The Rams lost right tackle Jason Smith and possibly cornerback Justin King.
Also from Maiocco: Joe Staley and Mike Iupati are working together more efficiently.
More from Maiocco: Tarell Brown has exceeded expectations for the 49ers at cornerback.
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News checks in with 49ers president Jed York, who tempers his excitement over the team's 5-1 start by noting it's still early in the season.
Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News explains why 49ers general manager Trent Baalke did not watch NFC West games over the weekend.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times offers thoughts on the Seahawks' 6-3 defeat to Cleveland, contending that it's now clear Charlie Whitehurst is nothing more than a backup. O'Neil: "Remember last year when there was a camp of fans adamant Whitehurst would be an improvement on Matt Hasselbeck. Then Whitehurst started a Week 9 game against the New York Giants, a game the Seahawks lost 41-7. Remember three weeks ago when there was a camp of fans adamant Whitehurst would be an improvement over Tarvaris Jackson? Well, Whitehurst started Sunday in Cleveland, completed 12 passes, just four of them to wide receivers and only one for more than 11 yards. The Seahawks have scored a total of 26 points in his three regular-season starts." Noted: I see no evidence to dispute the contention. At the same time, are three starts enough to make such a determination? The Seahawks also scored 26 points in Matt Hasselbeck's first three starts. Hasselbeck had no touchdown passes and three interceptions in those games. Fans chanted for his backup during the second of those three starts (the first at home). I'll break out something on this separately.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com updates injuries and other developments for the Seahawks.
They lost those games by a combined 99-31 score.
Much has changed since then. Let's take a look:
Cardinals at Vikings
Score last season: Vikings 27, Cardinals 24 (OT)
Key play: Brett Favre's 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe in the final minute of regulation tied the game, forcing overtime after the Cardinals had built a 24-10 fourth-quarter lead. Favre threw for a career-high 446 yards in the game.
Biggest change: Both teams have new quarterbacks, Kevin Kolb for Derek Anderson in Arizona, and Donovan McNabb for Favre in Minnesota. Also, the Vikings have a new head coach (Leslie Frazier) while the Cardinals have a new defensive coordinator (Ray Horton).
Storyline: McNabb keeps a home in Arizona and was available to the Cardinals when their quarterback situation was in flux, but the team showed no interest in him. He is now trying to hold off a change to rookie Christian Ponder.
Lineup changes for Arizona (12): Beanie Wells for Tim Hightower at running back, Kolb for Anderson at quarterback, Daryn Colledge for Alan Faneca at left guard, Rex Hadnot for Deuce Lutui at right guard, Todd Heap for Ben Patrick at tight end, Andre Roberts for Steve Breaston at receiver, Anthony Sherman for Reagan Maui'a at fullback (although the team opened its 2010 game at Minnesota without a fullback), Dan Williams for Bryan Robinson at nose tackle, Daryl Washington for Gerald Hayes at linebacker, Clark Haggans for Will Davis at linebacker, A.J. Jefferson for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback, Patrick Peterson for Greg Toler at cornerback.
49ers vs. Buccaneers
Score last season: Buccaneers 21, 49ers 0
Key play: Josh Freeman's 1-yard scoring pass to tackle Donald Penn midway through the fourth quarter put an exclamation point on the 49ers' first home shutout since 1977.
Biggest change: Jim Harbaugh has replaced Mike Singletary as the 49ers' head coach.
Storyline: Alex Smith gets a shot at Tampa Bay after watching Troy Smith struggle against the Bucs as the 49ers' starting quarterback last season. Troy Smith's approach centered around striking for big plays. The Bucs took away the big plays. Alex Smith gives the 49ers a chance to be more efficient.
Lineup changes for San Francisco (12): Alex Smith for Troy Smith at quarterback, Joe Staley for Barry Sims at left tackle, Adam Snyder for Chilo Rachal at right guard, Bruce Miller for Moran Norris at fullback, Isaac Sopoaga for Aubrayo Franklin at nose tackle, Ray McDonald for Sopoaga at defensive end, Ahmad Brooks for Manny Lawson at outside linebacker, NaVorro Bowman for Takeo Spikes at inside linebacker, Carlos Rogers for Nate Clements at cornerback, Tarell Brown for Shawntae Spencer at cornerback, Donte Whitner for Reggie Smith at strong safety.
Seahawks at Giants
Score last season: Giants 41, Seahawks 7
Key play: With Seattle already down 14-0 in the first quarter, the Giants returned Leon Washington's fumbled kickoff return to the Seattle 4, setting up Ahmad Bradshaw's touchdown run on the next play.
Biggest change: Tarvaris Jackson is the starting quarterback for Seattle. Charlie Whitehurst was a fill-in starter for Matt Hasselbeck when the teams played last season.
Storyline: The Seahawks' so-far-unproductive ground game faces a Giants run defense that has struggled. Seattle's young line improved in pass protection last week. Can it take a step forward in run blocking this week?
Lineup changes for Seattle (16): Sidney Rice for Deon Butler at receiver, Jackson for Whitehurst at quarterback, Russell Okung for Chester Pitts at left tackle, Paul McQuistan for Mike Gibson at left guard, Max Unger for Chris Spencer at center, John Moffitt for Stacy Andrews at right guard, James Carpenter for Sean Locklear at right tackle, Zach Miller for John Carlson at tight end, Brandon Mebane for Junior Siavii at defensive tackle, Alan Branch for Craig Terrill at defensive tackle, Red Bryant for Kentwan Balmer at defensive end, K.J. Wright for Aaron Curry at linebacker, David Hawthorne for Lofa Tatupu at linebacker, Leroy Hill for Hawthorne at linebacker, Brandon Browner for Kelly Jennings at right cornerback, Kam Chancellor or Atari Bigby for Lawyer Milloy, depending on Chancellor's availability.