NFC West: Noah Keller

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
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.

 

2012 pre-camp analysis: Rams 'D'

July, 3, 2012
7/03/12
10:00
AM ET
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.
The word "concussion" came up zero times during the most recent NFC West chat. There was one "bounty" question, but I didn't get around to answering it during the chat.

"Do you think Kurt Warner would have come back for another year if he wouldn't have been smashed by the Saints after his interception in Bounty Gate?" Tony from Richmond, Calif., wanted to know.

Warner was headed toward retirement regardless, in my view. The Cardinals might have gotten him to reconsider had they offered a dramatic in crease in pay, but that is purely speculative. Warner was ready for retirement.

Full chat transcript here. Highlights below:
SeniorSwick from Montclair, N.J. asks whether any NFL teams take as many chances as the Seahawks when it comes to creativity, scheme and personnel. He points to the team's decision to convert new draft choice J.R. Sweezy from defense to offense.

Mike Sando: The 49ers converted Bruce Miller from college defensive end to fullback and got good play from him last season. Miller had not played offense since high school. Sweezy, like Miller, was a later-round pick. Teams have greater freedom to experiment with later-round choices. The key is to be creative without over-thinking things. More broadly, the concern in building around specialized or somewhat unique players -- think Red Bryant for Seattle -- is that specialized players can be tough to replace if injured. However, that is where staff flexibility can make up the difference. The Seahawks seem to have a good defensive staff and approach. Another potential concern relative to Sweezy is what the move represents: a clear push by an assistant coach to get a player he liked. Tom Cable also drove the selection of James Carpenter a year ago. Drafting players to fit the staff is important, but we should also watch to see if assistants have too much sway.

Ken from Anaheim, Calif., seeks a heads up on any Rams rookies who might become starters. All the early draft choices should be considered. I focused on undrafted players when putting together an answer.

Mike Sando: Watch the linebackers in general, Ken. That was a position of great need that the Rams didn't address sufficiently in the draft. As a result, the better free-agent linebackers were eager to consider the Rams; those players knew their chances would be better in St. Louis than elsewhere. Derrick Choice from Stephen F. Austin, Alex Hoffman-Ellis from Washington State and Noah Keller from Ohio State were the undrafted free-agent linebackers St. Louis signed recently. Seventh-round pick Aaron Brown is also new to the team.

Brandon Cards Fan from Arizona asks whether the offensive linemen the Cardinals drafted from the fourth through seventh rounds might see the starting rotation or play extensively as rookies.

Mike Sando: Yes, I think fourth-round choice Bobby Massie figures to get some starts at right tackle this season -- either out of necessity or because he wins the job. Jeremy Bridges would be the veteran fallback at right tackle. Moving right guard Adam Snyder into that spot would be another option, but that could weaken two positions. I could see Bridges opening the season as the starter at right tackle, with Massie taking over during the season.

The fun continues. I'm tentatively scheduled to join NFL Live some time after 3:30 p.m. ET for additional thoughts on Ben Roethlisberger's comments regarding the 49ers.
The NFL rule expanding roster limits to 90 players came at the right time for teams overhauling their personnel.

The St. Louis Rams are one of those teams.

They drafted 10 players and are close to adding 23 undrafted free agents.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams cut five veteran players Thursday -- Demarco Cosby, John Henderson, Nate Ness, Quinn Porter and Chris Smith -- to make room for the influx. Thomas: "The Rams attempted to address their shortage of linebackers by adding undrafted rookies Sammy Brown of Houston, Derrick Choice of Stephen F. Austin, Alex Hoffman-Ellis of Washington State, and Noah Keller of Ohio. Brown led the nation in tackles for loss (30), while also registering 13.5 sacks for Houston. He's 6-2, 242 and ran a 4.63 at his pro day. Hoffman-Ellis was named Washington State's defensive MVP for the 2011 season after recording 88 tackles and two sacks, and returning his only interception for a touchdown." Noted: Releasing veteran kicker Josh Brown also contributed to the youth movement.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the San Francisco 49ers "have not ruled out" moving right tackle Anthony Davis to right guard, allowing Alex Boone to take over at right tackle. But Boone might be the front-runner at right guard for now. Maiocco: "The 49ers were fine letting Adam Snyder get away to sign a five-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals because the team believes a promotion from within will result in an upgrade. If Boone wins the starting job at right guard, he could still serve as the team's swing tackle. It would be easier for the 49ers to move Boone to one of the tackle positions and bring someone off the sideline to take over at guard than to groom another player to back up at both tackle spots."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says rookie Josh Looney faces stiff competition in his push to start at right guard.

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News checks in with former 49ers linebacker and broadcaster Gary Plummer regarding the death of Plummer's friend and former teammate, Junior Seau. Plummer estimated he had suffered more than 1,000 concussions during his career, and that Seau probably suffered more than that. Plummer: "In the 1990s, I did a concussion seminar. They said a Grade 3 concussion meant you were knocked out, and a Grade 1 meant you were seeing stars after a hit, which made me burst out in laughter. As a middle linebacker in the NFL, if you don't have five of these (Grade 1 effects) each game, you were inactive the next game. Junior played for 20 years. That's five concussions a game, easily. How many in his career then? That's over 1,500 concussions. I know that's startling, but I know it's true. I had over 1,000 in my 15 years. I felt the effects of it. I felt depression going on throughout my divorce. Junior went through it with his divorce." Noted: I'd be interested in hearing what a doctor would say about Plummer's estimates.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com looks at all the starters who have been in the lineup with Leroy Hill.

Also from Farnsworth: a look at the unusual pieces the Seahawks have put together on defense. Coach Pete Carroll: "Our defense is a 4-3 scheme with 3-4 personnel. It’s just utilizing the special talents of our guys."

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle runs the Robert Turbin photo Carroll was marveling over during draft weekend. Does any player in the NFL have more muscular arms?

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' decision to draft a cornerback early added competition to a position that wasn't hurting in that area. Somers: "At least four cornerbacks, including Greg Toler and Jamell Fleming, have a legitimate shot at starting at left cornerback. Toler was contending for the job last summer when he suffered a torn ACL and missed the season. A.J. Jefferson, who lost the starting job after seven games, is returning. William Gay signed as a free agent."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the team has recommitted to quarterback fundamentals with John McNulty coaching the position. John Skelton: "In years past, it seemed like, if the ball’s on the money and where it needs to be, we could let everything else slide. Now, I am throwing some good balls but my feet are messed up and that’s when I get coached up. Not only with coach McNulty but coach (Ken Whisenhunt) back there and coach Mike (Miller) sometimes."

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