NFC West: NFC Roster Analysis 2012

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
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video
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.

First Down

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.


Second Down

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.


Third Down

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.


Fourth Down

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.

 

Seattle Seahawks cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
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Click here for the complete list of Seattle Seahawks' roster moves.

Most significant move. The Seattle Seahawks emerged from last season with high hopes for Josh Portis as a developmental quarterback. The arrival of Matt Flynn in free agency and new starter Russell Wilson through the draft left Portis on the outside. The Seahawks released him, leaving Wilson and Flynn as the only quarterbacks on the initial 53-man roster.

Some teams with rookie starters brace themselves for what they know will be a long season. The Seahawks think Wilson upgrades the position immediately. They appear unworried by rookie walls and all the other ominous metaphors that typically pop up with inexperienced players behind center. The team could always consider adding a third quarterback in the future, but the value wasn't there given what Seattle thinks about its top two quarterbacks.

Onward and upward: Portis, cornerback Phillip Adams, guard Rishaw Johnson, linebacker Korey Toomer and defensive tackle Pep Levingston (injury settlement) have all shown positive signs. Toomer in particular appears to have practice-squad potential, at least.

The cut list also included Pierre Allen, Cordarro Law, Allen Bradford, Paul Fanaika, Jermaine Kearse, Kyle Knox, Sean McGrath, DeShawn Shead, Lavasier Tuinei, Cooper Helfet (injured) and Vai Taua (injured).

Receivers Deon Butler and Kris Durham lost out as former mid-round draft choices. They remain young and could carry appeal, as could speed receiver Ricardo Lockette. But with veteran Braylon Edwards playing well enough to earn a roster spot comfortably, there were fewer spots for less-proven prospects at the position.

Note that the unspectacular but steady Ben Obomanu stuck on the roster, at least for now. Seattle hasn't fared as well upgrading depth at receiver as it has at other positions. Obomanu's continued annual presence as a 2006 seventh-round choice reflects that, in my view.

What's next: The Seahawks could use depth at linebacker, one reason I was a little surprised to see the team release Toomer, a rookie fifth-round choice with speed. Another linebacker, Matt McCoy, landed on injured reserve.

Seattle also could consider pursuing a slot receiver as insurance against lingering injury concerns for Doug Baldwin.

It's looking like running back Marshawn Lynch will avoid, for now, a suspension stemming from his DUI arrest earlier this offseason. That was a potential concern, mitigated some by rookie Robert Turbin's emergence.

While cornerback Walter Thurmond went on the reserve/physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list, offensive lineman James Carpenter did not. With Carpenter available early in the year, the Seahawks appear relatively set on their offensive line. Rookie J.R. Sweezy's emergence as the potential starting right guard was another factor there, even with guard Allen Barbre going on the reserve/suspended list.

San Francisco 49ers cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
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Most significant move. The San Francisco 49ers' decision to keep running back Anthony Dixon played into a broader special-teams theme. Veteran fullback Rock Cartwright, once seen as a key special-teams addition following Blake Costanzo's departure in free agency, received his release. The 49ers traded another core special-teams player, safety Colin Jones, to Carolina for what was thought to be a 2014 seventh-round choice.

The 49ers' decision at quarterback was also among those I found most significant. The team kept Scott Tolzien over Josh Johnson in the No. 3 role even though Johnson played for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego. Johnson also outplayed Tolzien in the final exhibition game. Keeping Tolzien appealed, however, because his ceiling appears less defined. Johnson has played in the NFL without setting a sharply upward career trajectory. Colin Kaepernick's emergence as a stronger No. 2 quarterback bought some insurance for carrying a less-experienced third-stringer, perhaps.

Onward and upward: Linebacker Michael Wilhoite, offensive lineman Mike Person and safety Michael Thomas appear to be young players with futures in the NFL. Defensive lineman Matthew Masifilo impressed in the final exhibition game. The 49ers' practice squad will be an option for some of the players let go, but I won't be surprised if waiver claims from other teams get in the way. The 49ers have done a good job building talented depth throughout their roster.

The team also released Eric Bakhtiari, Ikaika Alama-Francis, Derek Hall, Joe Holland, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Cam Johnson, Anthony Mosley, Kyle Nelson, Al Netter, Chris Owusu, Nathan Palmer, Konrad Reuland, Kenny Rowe, Brett Swain and Kenny Wiggins.

Reuland could get another chance. It was a mild surprise, perhaps, to see Garrett Celek stick ahead of Reuland as the third tight end.

What's next: The 49ers will watch closely to see which players clear waivers. Wilhoite is one they would like to re-sign, according to his agent, but teams looking for young depth at linebacker could submit claims. The team could use another outside linebacker, at least on paper, but the 49ers got through last season with only three of them.

The 49ers are carrying only eight offensive linemen. Their swing tackle, Alex Boone, is starting at right guard. If there's an offensive tackle out there worth claiming, the 49ers could consider adding one. But two of their division rivals, Arizona and St. Louis, have greater needs and higher waiver priorities.

St. Louis Rams cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
8/31/12
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Click here for the complete list of St. Louis Rams roster moves.

Most significant move: The Rams released No. 2 quarterback Kellen Clemens even though Clemens knew the offense better than any player on the roster. Clemens, who spent time with the New York Jets when Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer held the same job there, lost out to impressive undrafted free-agent quarterback Austin Davis.

Davis, drafted by the Boston Red Sox this year, stood out during preseason for his poise. Some players appear as though they belong. Davis did, at least initially. The preliminary assumption here is that Davis fared well enough to win the No. 2 role, although rosters remain fluid and the Rams will consider veterans at every position as they become available. The Rams also released Tom Brandstater, who was initially thought to be competing with Davis for the third-string role.

Onward and upward: Clemens could catch on with another team. Overall, however, the Rams had more holes than front-line talent to fill those holes. The players they released will not be coveted elsewhere. That was partly because the suspension Austin Pettis faces for the first two games bought the Rams time at wide receiver, where the team has quite a few mid-level prospects. With Pettis on the reserve/suspended list and not counting against the 53-man limit, the Rams kept the six receivers considered most likely to stick, including veteran Steve Smith and second-year pro Greg Salas.

Veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli received his release and could appeal to the dwindling number of teams valuing a traditional blocking fullback. The Rams kept only four running backs on this initial 53-man roster. They parted with Chase Reynolds after coach Jeff Fisher lauded the 24-year-old back as someone with the ability to close out a game.

The Rams also cut Aaron Brown, Cornell Banks, Cory Harkey, Jamaar Jarrett, Jose Valdez, Scott Smith, Mason Brodine, Nick Johnson, Ben Guidugli, Kendric Burney, Deangelo Peterson, Sammy Brown, T. Bob Hebert, Tim Barnes, Bryan Mattison, Vernon Gholston and Joe Long. Gholston could be running out of chances.

What's next: The Rams need help throughout their roster. They have the No. 2 priority in waiver claims. Expect them to put that privilege to use. The Rams should be active in pursuing help at defensive tackle after losing first-round pick Michael Brockers for a month (estimated) with a high-ankle sprain. Trevor Laws is already on injured reserve.

The Rams have only eight offensive linemen, one fewer than teams generally prefer to keep. They could use another one. They kept six linebackers, on the low side. The team is carrying 11 defensive backs at present. I wouldn't be surprised if they shopped former starting corner Bradley Fletcher, who was playing deep into games in preseason.

Arizona Cardinals cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
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Most significant move: Clark Haggans failed to make the cut after five-plus seasons with the Cardinals. He could always re-sign at some point if the Cardinals need depth at outside linebacker. He'll be cheaper at that time, given that veteran contracts become guaranteed once a player is on the roster for Week 1.

For now, though, the Cardinals are moving forward with Quentin Groves as a primary backup behind starters Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield at outside linebacker. Brandon Williams was thought to be part of that mix as well, but the Cardinals waived him with an injury designation, citing a shoulder problem. Williams will revert to injured reserve unless the Cardinals reach an injury settlement with him. A settlement would allow Williams to sign with Arizona or another team once he's healthy.

It's a good sign, ultimately, that Arizona feels good enough about its outside linebackers to proceed without the 35-year-old Haggans. After a certain point, every team should develop enough young depth to threaten older, declining players. In this case, however, I'm not sure Arizona has a viable replacement for him. Groves showed promise, but he has zero sacks over the past three seasons.

Onward and upward: None of the players released by Arizona jumps out to me as someone sure to catch on elsewhere. That is because the Cardinals found a way to keep 11 defensive backs, including all their best corners. Had A.J. Jefferson or Michael Adams hit the market, both would have attracted interest. The same would have been true for Greg Toler, most likely.

Crezdon Butler, Antonio Coleman, Blake Gideon, Russ Hochstein, Ricky Lumpkin, Colin Parker, Larry Parker, DeMarco Sampson, Alfonso Smith, Quan Sturdivant, Ronald Talley, Everrette Thompson, Martell Webb, Scott Wedige, Isaiah Williams and D.J. Young were released. No big surprises there. Haggans could catch on somewhere.

Quarterback Rich Bartel landed on injured reserve, as did running back Javarris James. Stephen Williams was waived/injured with an Achilles' injury.

What's next: The Cardinals could use help at offensive tackle and outside linebacker. They decided against designating Levi Brown as a player eligible to return from injured reserve later in the season. That means Brown will not return from his torn triceps until next season. D'Anthony Batiste heads toward the season as the projected starter at left tackle. Another candidate, Young, struggled during preseason and received his release Friday.

The Cardinals are paying for missing on 2009 second-round choice Cody Brown, an outside linebacker. They're counting on Acho and Schofield to carry the full load, but there's little depth behind them. Schofield must prove he's durable in a full-time role after recovering from a career-threatening knee injury.
Our two-day look at NFC West rosters concludes with projections for the Arizona Cardinals' defense and special teams.

Defensive linemen (9)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.2

Safest bets: Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Dan Williams, David Carter, Nick Eason, Vonnie Holliday

Leading contenders: Ronald Talley

Longer odds: Ricky Lumpkin, Landon Cohen

Comment: The position should be a strength for the Cardinals. Campbell and Dockett have earned most of the attention. Carter stood out immediately as a rookie in training camp last year. He came out swinging and quickly moved up the depth chart at nose tackle. Carter impressed enough as a rookie for Pro Football Focus to feature him in its "Secret Superstar" series. Williams has gotten his weight down. This is a big year for him coming off a season-ending arm injury.

Linebackers (15)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.2

Safest bets: Daryl Washington, Sam Acho, O'Brien Schofield, Paris Lenon, Clark Haggans, Stewart Bradley

Leading contenders: Reggie Walker, Quentin Groves

Longer odds: Quan Sturdivant, Marcus McGraw, Paul Vassallo, Colin Parker, Brandon Williams, Antonio Coleman, Zack Nash

Comment: Washington is an emerging star and should command more widespread respect if the Cardinals' defense continues to improve. Lenon remains an integral part of the defense. He's the link between coordinator Ray Horton and the rest of the defense. Bradley hasn't come close to unseating him. A full offseason should give Bradley a better chance to earn playing time, at least. The Cardinals are counting on Acho and Schofield to provide their outside rush. The coaching staff also wants to get pressure with its inside linebackers. Washington has shown he can make that happen.

Defensive backs (17)

Average number kept since 2003: 9.2

Safest bets: Patrick Peterson, Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes, Jamell Fleming, Greg Toler, William Gay, Rashad Johnson

Leading contenders: A.J. Jefferson, Michael Adams, James Sanders

Longer odds: Justin Bethel, Marshay Green, Blake Gideon, Eddie Elder, Crezdon Butler, Larry Parker, James Nixon

Comment: Fleming, the Cardinals' third-round choice, stood out among rookies at organized team activities and minicamps. Coach Ken Whisenhunt commended his quickness and ability to change direction fluidly. The team plans to try him in the nickel role during training camp. The other nine defensive backs listed among "safest bets" and "leading contenders" have started regular-season games in the NFL. Barring injuries, one or two players released from this group figures to play elsewhere this season.

Special teams (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 2.9

Safest bets: Jay Feely, Mike Leach, Dave Zastudil

Leading contenders: none

Longer odds: Ricky Schmitt

Comment: Feely's field-goal percentage last season (79.2) was his lowest since 2004. Four of his five misses were outdoors. Arizona plays six games outdoors in 2012 (Arizona counts as indoors even though the roof can open).
Our two-day look at NFC West rosters continues with projections for the San Francisco 49ers’ defense and special teams.

Defensive linemen (10)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.0

Safest bets: Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga, Ricky Jean Francois

Leading contenders: Will Tukuafu, Demarcus Dobbs, Ian Williams

Longer odds: Patrick Butrym, Matthew Masifilo, Tony Jerod-Eddie

Comment: The top three are firmly entrenched. All are playing at a high level. The 49ers might want to address this position in the 2013 draft. For now, though, they're set. San Francisco kept seven defensive linemen on its Week 1 roster last season. Tukuafu, Dobbs and Williams combined to play about five percent of the defensive snaps.

Linebackers (13)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.6

Safest bets: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson, Larry Grant, Tavares Gooden

Leading contenders: Cam Johnson, Kourtnei Brown, Eric Bakhtiari

Longer odds: Michael Wilhoite, Joe Holland, Darius Fleming (injured)

Comment: The 49ers have kept eight linebackers on their Week 1 roster for each of the past six seasons. Brown, an undrafted rookie from Clemson, stands 6-foot-6, weighs 255 pounds and moves well. He's also raw and has had injury problems. Johnson, a seventh-round choice, might need to fight off Brown and the more experienced Bakhtiari for a roster spot. Special teams will be a determining factor.

Defensive backs (17)

Average number kept since 2003: 10.0

Safest bets: Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Dashon Goldson, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver, C.J. Spillman

Leading contenders: Perrish Cox, Trenton Robinson, Curtis Holcomb, Tramaine Brock, Colin Jones

Longer odds: Ben Hannula, Mark LeGree, Michael Thomas, Deante' Purvis, Cory Nelms, Anthony Mosley

Comment: The 49ers lack experienced depth at safety. They could go young this season or consider adding a veteran later. Robinson, a sixth-round rookie, took some first-team reps while Goldson stayed away as an unsigned franchise player. Spillman also worked with the starters. The undrafted Thomas could have the inside track for a practice-squad spot after playing for coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio at Stanford. Holcomb, a seventh-rounder in 2011, is coming off Achilles surgery.

Special teams (5)

Average number kept since 2003: 2.9

Safest bets: Andy Lee, David Akers, Brian Jennings

Leading contenders: none

Longer odds: Giorgio Tavecchio, Kyle Nelson

Comment: All three specialists earned Pro Bowl honors last season.
Our two-day look at NFC West rosters continues with projections for the Seattle Seahawks’ defense and special teams.

Defensive linemen (13)

Average number kept since 2003: 8.8

Safest bets: Red Bryant, Jason Jones, Brandon Mebane, Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, Alan Branch

Leading contenders: Clinton McDonald, Jaye Howard, Greg Scruggs, Pep Levingston

Longer odds: Pierre Allen, Cordarro Law, Dexter Davis

Comment: The Seahawks finished the 2009 season with Bryant, Mebane, Craig Terrill, Colin Cole, Nick Reed, Lawrence Jackson, Patrick Kerney, Cory Redding and Darryl Tapp on their 53-man roster. Pete Carroll has transformed the line since becoming head coach before the 2010 season. The changes have been as much about fit as personnel. The group keeps getting stronger.

Linebackers (12)

Average number kept since 2003: 6.6

Safest bets: K.J. Wright, Leroy Hill, Bobby Wagner, Korey Toomer

Leading contenders: Heath Farwell, Matt McCoy, Malcolm Smith, Barrett Ruud

Longer odds: Michael Morgan, Allen Bradford, Kyle Knox, Jameson Konz

Comment: Toomer's arrival in the fifth round cranks up the pressure on Smith, a 2011 seventh-round choice. Farwell and McCoy could be competing for a spot. Farwell is better on special teams. McCoy offers more at linebacker. Bradford is converting from running back and has a chance to stick in some capacity. Ruud looks like insurance for Wagner, but his health is a concern.

Defensive backs (17)

Average number kept since 2003: 8.2

Safest bets: Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman

Leading contenders: Jeron Johnson, Byron Maxwell, Roy Lewis, Marcus Trufant, Walter Thurmond, Winston Guy

Longer odds: DeShawn Shead, Ron Parker, Coye Francies, Donny Lisowski, Jeremy Lane, Phillip Adams, Chris Maragos

Comment: Three of the four starters went to the Pro Bowl last season; Sherman arguably should have gone. Trufant's conversion to a nickel role has the potential to upgrade Seattle's coverage. Injuries sidelined Trufant and Thurmond last season. Both can contribute at a reasonably high level if healthy. It's tough to bank on either one, however. Don't forget about Maxwell. He impressed in camp as a rookie, only to fade from the picture after suffering an ankle injury. Seattle likes its depth at corner. Johnson should be ready to take a step forward at safety. The Seahawks like what they've seen from Guy as well.

Special teams (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.1

Safest bets: Jon Ryan, Steven Hauschka, Clint Gresham

Leading contenders: none

Longer odds: Carson Wiggs

Comment: Ryan led the NFL with 34 punts downed inside the 20 (against eight touchbacks). Opponents returned two punts for touchdowns, however.

2012 pre-camp analysis: Rams 'D'

July, 3, 2012
7/03/12
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Our two-day look at NFC West rosters continues with projections for the St. Louis Rams' defense and special teams.

Defensive linemen (13)

Average number kept since 2003: 8.8

Safest bets: Chris Long, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, Robert Quinn

Leading contenders: William Hayes, Eugene Sims, Darell Scott, Matt Conrath, Jermelle Cudjo

Longer odds: Trevor Laws, Jamaar Jarrett, Cornell Banks, Scott Smith

Comment: The Rams have three relatively recent first-round draft choices starting on the line, plus Langford, a free-agent addition from Miami. The position should be a strength for years to come. Brockers and Langford give the team needed bulk in the middle. It's tough to know what the new coaching staff thinks about some of the other talent. Hayes received a $100,000 roster bonus, an indication the team has hopes for him. Sims and Scott each played more than 20 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Cudjo was on the roster but did not play.

Linebackers (10)

Average number kept since 2003: 6.3

Safest bets: James Laurinaitis, Jo-Lonn Dunbar

Leading contenders: Rocky McIntosh, Mario Haggan, Josh Hull, Aaron Brown, Sammy Brown, Alex Hoffman-Ellis

Longer odds: Justin Cole, Noah Keller

Comment: Laurinaitis is the only mainstay player at the position. Dunbar projects as a starter after the Rams paid a $1 million signing bonus to him in free agency. McIntosh and Haggan are veteran newcomers with starting experience. They're stopgaps until the Rams can address the position next offseason. It's looking like at least one undrafted rookie linebacker will stick on the roster.

Defensive backs (14)

Average number kept since 2003: 8.2

Safest bets: Cortland Finnegan, Darian Stewart, Quintin Mikell, Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, Craig Dahl, Bradley Fletcher

Leading contenders: Matt Daniels, Josh Gordy, Jerome Murphy

Longer odds: Kendric Burney, Quinton Pointer, Jeremy Caldwell, Rodney McLeod

Comment: Secondary depth is vastly improved, and not just through improved health. Fletcher was arguably the most promising cornerback on the roster last season. Now, it's tough to know whether he fits into the team's long-term plans. Depth at safety might be better than it appears. The Rams had a high enough grade on Daniels to give him a $10,000 signing bonus as an undrafted free agent from Duke.

Special teams (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.1

Safest bets: Greg Zuerlein, John Hekker, Jake McQuaide

Leading contenders: Tom Malone, Garrett Lindholm

Longer odds: Travis Tripucka

Comment: McQuaide, the snapper, is back from last season, but this group lacks experience overall. Zuerlein was a sixth-round pick. Hekker was an undrafted free agent. The Rams wanted better directional punting than Donnie Jones provided, particularly after watching Patrick Peterson score twice on returns last season.
Our two-day look at NFC West rosters continues with projections for the San Francisco 49ers' offense.

Quarterbacks (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.1

Safest bets: Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Josh Johnson

Leading contenders: none

Longer odds: Scott Tolzien

Comment: Johnson has more experience than Kaepernick and could project as the No. 2 quarterback if an injury forced Smith from the lineup on short notice. Johnson's history with coach Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego probably helps his chances in that regard. Kaepernick gets a chance this summer to prove he's ready to take the next step following a more regular offseason. Tolzien could project for the practice squad.

Running backs (9)

Average number kept since 2003: 4.9

Safest bets: Frank Gore, LaMichael James, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, Bruce Miller

Leading contenders: Rock Cartwright, Anthony Dixon

Longer odds: Jewel Hampton, Cameron Bell

Comment: Moran Norris is out after spending five of the past six seasons as a 49ers fullback. That was one of many changes in the backfield this offseason. Jacobs' arrival suggests Dixon must step up his game significantly to stick on the roster -- and will probably have to demonstrate special-teams value as well. He won't be able to compete with Miller or Cartwright in that regard. If the 49ers find a way to keep six running backs, Cartwright would likely be in the picture almost exclusively for his special-teams value. Hampton could be a candidate for the practice squad.

Wide receivers (11)

Average number kept since 2003: 5.7

Safest bets: Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, A.J. Jenkins

Leading contenders: Kyle Williams, Ted Ginn Jr.

Longer odds: Brett Swain, Joe Hastings, Nathan Palmer, Chris Owusu, Brian Tyms

Comment: The first four appear set as long as Moss continues on his current trajectory. The 49ers kept five at the position in Week 1 last season. Despite talk of opening up the offense, the team could have a hard time justifying six roster spots for wideouts for a coaching staff that seems to relish using multiple tight ends. Williams and Ginn carry obvious special-teams value in the return game, a huge consideration. I have a hard time envisioning the 49ers, stung by Williams' miscues in the NFC Championship Game, taking undue chances in the return game at Green Bay in the opener. Ginn is the most proven return specialist on the team and a game-breaker when healthy. Owusu could be a candidate for the practice squad.

Tight ends (5)

Average number kept since 2003: 2.9

Safest bets: Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker

Leading contenders: Nate Byham, Konrad Reuland

Longer odds: Garrett Celek

Comment: Byham was emerging as a top-flight blocking tight end before a knee injury ended his 2011 season during training camp. Reuland, then an undrafted rookie, had a chance to gain ground while spending last season on the practice squad. Reuland played for Harbaugh and staff at Stanford.

Offensive linemen (15)

Average number kept since 2003: 9.0

Safest bets: Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone, Anthony Davis, Daniel Kilgore, Joe Looney

Leading contenders: Mike Person, Jason Slowey

Longer odds: Derek Hall, David Gonzales, Garrett Chisolm, Chase Beeler, Kenny Wiggins, Al Netter

Comment: Boone has become the prohibitive favorite to start at right guard even though he remains in the early stages of a conversion from tackle. Boone could move back to tackle if the 49ers were to lose Staley or Davis to injury. Boone remains the third-best tackle on the team. Kilgore once stood as a candidate at right guard, but he now projects as Goodwin's eventual successor at center. Looney, a rookie fourth-round choice, could be the long-term right guard, but he's recovering from foot surgery.

2012 pre-camp analysis: Rams 'O'

July, 2, 2012
7/02/12
4:00
PM ET
Our two-day look at NFC West rosters continues with projections for the St. Louis Rams' offense.

Quarterbacks (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 2.8

Safest bets: Sam Bradford, Kellen Clemens

Leading contenders: none

Longer odds: Tom Brandstater, Austin Davis

Comment: The Rams could seemingly justify keeping just two quarterbacks in the absence of any pressing need to develop a third-stringer. Bradford is the franchise quarterback. Clemens knows the offense from his New York Jets days with new Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. Clemens' familiarity should provide some comfort even though the Rams remained in the market for other quarterbacks through much of free agency. Depth will be a concern if Bradford suffers through another injury-shortened season. But with an offense recommitted to the run, the Rams think they can improve the odds for their quarterback.

Running backs (9)

Average number kept since 2003: 5.0

Safest bets: Steven Jackson, Isaiah Pead

Leading contenders: Brit Miller, Daryl Richardson

Longer odds: Todd Anderson, Chase Reynolds, Calvin Middleton, Nick Schwieger, Ben Guidugli

Comment: The Rams got younger and more diverse behind Jackson, breathing life into the position. The team has kept only four running backs on its Week 1 roster over the previous four seasons, but the team had different leadership then. New coach Jeff Fisher could load up on tight ends. He already moved Guidugli from tight end to fullback. There will be overlap between the positions, affecting numbers. Pead projects as a change-of-pace back, as does Richardson, who impressed the team this offseason.

Wide receivers (10)

Average number kept since 2003: 5.6

Safest bets: Brian Quick, Danny Amendola, Chris Givens, Steve Smith, Greg Salas

Leading contenders: Brandon Gibson, Danario Alexander, Austin Pettis

Longer odds: Nick Johnson, Michael Campbell

Comment: The Rams have lots of second-tier options at the position. They need one or more receiver to emerge as a more dynamic option. Quick, chosen in the second round, reminded Rams coaches of Terrell Owens (physically, that is). Smith caught 107 passes for 1,220 yards and seven touchdowns with the New York Giants in 2009. He's been fighting his way back from microfracture knee surgery. The Rams saw signs this offseason that Smith could be close to recapturing past form. Can Smith make it all the way back? Gibson has been a starter, but it's unclear where he fits after the team used draft choices for Quick and the speedy Givens.

Tight ends (8)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.2

Safest bets: Lance Kendricks

Leading contenders: Mike Hoomanawanui

Longer odds: Matthew Mulligan, Brody Eldridge, Mike McNeill, Jamie Childers, Cory Harkey, Deangelo Peterson

Comment: The position appears wide open after Kendricks. Fisher's teams have generally leaned heavily on tight ends. Kendricks is a willing blocker, but he projects more as a receiving type. Hoomanawanui hasn't been able to stay healthy. That will need to change this season or the Rams will have reason to consider moving on. I've got no idea where Mulligan, Eldridge, McNeill, Childers, Harkey or Peterson fits into the Rams' plans. This position will have to shake out at training camp. Again, the fullbacks and tight ends will be interchangeable in some cases. Fisher said so when discussing the positions recently.

Offensive linemen (16)

Average number kept since 2003: 9.0

Safest bets: Rodger Saffold, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl, Jason Smith, Rokevious Watkins

Leading contenders: Bryan Mattison, Barry Richardson, Quinn Ojinnaka, Kevin Hughes

Longer odds: Robert Turner, Michael Hay, Jose Valdez, T-Bob Hebert, Tim Barnes, Joe Long, Ryan McKee

Comment: It's unclear how the team will proceed at left guard. Watkins and Mattison could be considerations. Ojinnaka and Richardson have been tackles primarily, but they could conceivably project at guard in a pinch. Smith is back at right tackle after reworking his contract. The team hopes Smith can benefit from better luck with injuries and fresh coaching from assistant Paul Boudreau. Well's addition in free agency gives the line needed leadership. But with both tackles (Smith, Saffold) coming off rough seasons marked by serious injuries, questions persist. Dahl was the best and most consistent offensive lineman on the team last season.
Our two-day look at NFC West rosters continues with projections for the Arizona Cardinals' offense.

Quarterbacks (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.0

Safest bets: Kevin Kolb, John Skelton

Leading contenders: Ryan Lindley, Rich Bartel

Longer odds: none

Comment: Coach Ken Whisenhunt was ready with a quip when asked to pinpoint when the team would like to have its quarterback competition settled. Two years ago, he said. Instead, Kolb and Skelton figure to battle deep into the exhibition season. The Cardinals have five preseason games to use for evaluation. Bartel's grip on the No. 3 job could be ending after Arizona used a sixth-round pick for Lindley.

Running backs (8)

Average number kept since 2003: 5.2

Safest bets: Beanie Wells, Ryan Williams, Anthony Sherman, LaRod Stephens-Howling

Leading contenders: Alfonso Smith

Longer odds: William Powell, Javarris James, Jared Crank

Comment: The Cardinals have been banking on Wells and Williams returning from knee injuries. Neither participated fully in offseason workouts or practices. Wells' agent said the team was playing it safe with his client to maximize Wells' availability in 2012. The team did not make lineup contingency plans in case Wells or Williams isn't ready or suffers additional injuries. It's Wells and Williams or bust at this point. Sherman is developing into a first-rate fullback. Stephens-Howling has been one of the better special-teams players around. Smith also has value on special teams if the Cardinals decide to keep a fifth back in Week 1, as they have done for the past four seasons.

Wide receivers (12)

Average number kept since 2003: 6.1

Safest bets: Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Andre Roberts, Early Doucet

Leading contenders: Isaiah Williams, Stephen Williams, DeMarco Sampson, Jaymar Johnson

Longer odds: LaRon Byrd, Stanley Arukwe, Tre Gray, Gino Crump

Comment: The Cardinals have never kept fewer than six wideouts on their Week 1 roster since Whisenhunt became coach. They kept seven in 2009. Arizona appears to have excellent quality through its top four options at the position. Fitzgerald is an all-time great and in his prime. His presence should help free Floyd to produce as a rookie first-round draft choice, provided the team's quarterbacks do a better job finding open receivers. Floyd's arrival signals Roberts' move to the slot, where the Cardinals think he's ideally suited. Doucet was productive from the slot on third down last season.

Tight ends (6)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.2

Safest bets: Todd Heap, Jeff King, Rob Housler

Leading contenders: Jim Dray, Steve Skelton

Longer odds: Martell Webb

Comment: This position should become a strength with Housler's expected emergence as a fast, athletic receiving threat. Again, the Cardinals are counting on Kolb and/or Skelton to find the open receivers they missed too frequently last season. Age and injury concerns follow the 32-year-old Heap into his 12th season and second with the Cardinals. His $2 million salary would not appear to put him at significant risk, provided Heap bounces back this season. King exceeded expectations as a receiver last season. The Cardinals had never kept more than three tight ends on their Week 1 roster until last season, when they kept four.

Offensive linemen (15)

Average number kept since 2003: 8.7

Safest bets: Levi Brown, Daryn Colledge, Lyle Sendlein, Adam Snyder, Jeremy Bridges, Bobby Massie

Leading contenders: Senio Kelemete, D'Anthony Batiste, Nate Potter

Longer odds: D.J. Young, Braeden Clayson, Ryan Bartholomew, Scott Wedige, Chris Stewart, Blake DeChristopher

Comment: Sendlein and Colledge give the Cardinals two solid contributors on the perimeter. The team is counting on Brown to build upon the improvement he showed at left tackle late last season. Brown does appear determined to shake his negative reputation. Questions abound on the right side of the line. Snyder appeared headed for a backup job somewhere when the Cardinals gave him $3.5 million per season, including $5 million up front, to start at right guard. Pairing Snyder with Bridges or Massie on the right side would seem to invite trouble. Perhaps the Cardinals know something others do not. Can line coach Russ Grimm develop the young talent Arizona added through the draft?
NFL teams are pretty much finished tweaking their rosters until training camps begin later this month.

Organized team activities have passed, as have minicamps.

It's a good time to reassess where teams stand and where they might be headed at various positions based on the admittedly limited information available at this time. So, beginning with this item and continuing through Tuesday, I'll offer up for consideration roster breakdowns for each NFC West team, beginning with the offenses.

Quarterbacks (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 2.8

Safest bets: Matt Flynn, Russell Wilson, Tarvaris Jackson

Leading contenders: Josh Portis

Longer odds: none

Comment: The plan calls for Jackson, Flynn and Wilson to take turns with the first-team offense when training camp opens. The roster spots for Flynn and Wilson appear most secure. Jackson's situation appears most volatile. He could start, he could serve as a veteran backup at a reduced salary or he could be released. Seattle has to hope Flynn or Wilson takes advantage of the opportunity, on the theory that Jackson has most likely peaked. The Seahawks still like Portis as well, but keeping four quarterbacks isn't a realistic option.

Running backs (7)

Average number kept since 2003: 5.1

Safest bets: Marshawn Lynch, Leon Washington, Robert Turbin, Michael Robinson

Leading contenders: Kregg Lumpkin, Tyrell Sutton

Longer odds: Vai Taua

Comment: Turbin becomes the big back Seattle wanted as insurance for Lynch. Washington emerges as the undisputed change-of-pace back after the Seahawks decided against re-signing Justin Forsett, who landed in Houston. Robinson's value on special teams and at fullback would seem to buy security for him at a position of decreasing value around the league.

Wide receivers (13)

Average number kept since 2003: 5.3

Safest bets: Sidney Rice, Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate

Leading contenders: Kris Durham, Ricardo Lockette, Ben Obomanu, Mike Williams, Deon Butler

Longer odds: Phil Bates, Charly Martin, Lavasier Tuinei, Cameron Kenney

Comment: Baldwin appears to be the receiver Seattle can count on the most. That is good and bad. The team needs Rice to hold up physically after undergoing surgeries on both shoulders this offseason. Concussions were another problem for Rice last season. Tate was ascending when last season ended. The broken hand he suffered this offseason prevented Tate from participating fully in minicamps. He needs to avoid additional setbacks to build on last season. Durham could make Williams expendable. Lockette's speed separates him from the other receivers on the roster. He's raw, but two long receptions late last season showed big-play potential.

Tight ends (5)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.2

Safest bets: Zach Miller, Kellen Winslow

Leading contenders: Anthony McCoy, Cameron Morrah

Longer odds: Sean McGrath

Comment: Winslow's addition altered Seattle's outlook at the position. The team hopes to use him in tandem with Miller to force unfavorable matchups upon opponents. The plan will be to pound away with Lynch if defenses play sub packages against Miller and Winslow, or to pass if teams show base looks. That was part of the plan a year ago as well, but John Carlson's injury limited Seattle's options. Carlson's departure in free agency stung. Winslow was a viable fallback even though knee problems limit his speed and prevent him from practicing regularly.

Offensive linemen (15)

Average number kept since 2003: 9.1

Safest bets: Russell Okung, Paul McQuistan, Max Unger, John Moffitt, Breno Giacomini, James Carpenter, Deuce Lutui

Leading contenders: Alex Barron, J.R. Sweezy, Frank Omiyale, Allen Barbre, Rishaw Johnson, Lemuel Jeanpierre

Longer odds: Edawn Coughman, Paul Fanaika

Comment: Seattle has kept 10 offensive linemen in Week 1 during each of its first two seasons under coach Pete Carroll. Short-term injury concerns generally play into any decision to keep more than nine. Seattle figures to save a spot early in the season by leaving Carpenter on the physically unable to perform list. That would leave room, in theory, for three players from the "leading contenders" list above. Jeanpierre has value as a guard with the ability to back up at center. Moffitt also got work at center this offseason. Johnson made a positive impression as an undrafted rookie this offseason. Barbre will serve a suspension to open the season. Barron could project as a swing tackle.

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