NFC West: Pat Tillman
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'll be heading over early to get a feel for what awaits.
Cortez Kennedy and his daughter, Courtney, were seen downstairs at the main hotel here a bit ago. Kennedy seemed relaxed for a man nearing the hour when he'll be giving a speech center stage.
The Hall itself opened early Saturday. A few thoughts after touring the Hall for the first time:
- Cool Cardinals exhibit: One display case features a Pat Tillman jersey, the shiny black Nike shoes Patrick Peterson wore when returning a punt 99 yards for a touchdown to beat the St. Louis Rams in Week 9 last season and the gloves Larry Fitzgerald wore while collecting his 400th career reception against the New York Giants on Nov. 23, 2008. Fitzgerald became the youngest receiver to reach 400 catches.
- Busts are accessible: The Hall features busts for the 267 Hall of Famers already enshrined, plus spaces for the busts honoring 2012 inductees. The busts are arranged by year of enshrinement. They rest on open-air perches, allowing visitors to touch them. The busts were low enough for our kids to pose with them, sometimes almost cheek to cheek. Seeing our boys' heads flanking Dick "Night Train" Lane's bust was a highlight of the visit.
- Interactive video: Touch-screen menus allow visitors to cue up short highlight and documentary packages for various Hall of Famers. These were good, but a little short. We wanted more. Of course, with more than nine million visitors to this point and quite a few coming around the time of enshrinement each year, there isn't time for each person to watch a full-length movie.
- "Madden 12" center: Kids packed this area and ours were initially eager to join in the gaming, but we drew the line on this one. Something seemed wrong about using time at the Hall to play games many kids have at home.
- Homage to Lombardi: The Hall features a sideline player bench used at Lambeau Field for Vince Lomardi's final game as the Green Bay Packers' coach, in 1967. They've wisely got it stowed safely in a display, preventing people from sitting on it.
- Harbaughs making history: Jim Harbaugh's autograph dresses up a game ball from the San Francisco 49ers' game against Harbaugh's brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens last season. The game itself was forgettable from the 49ers' perspective.
All for now. Time to get ready for the festivities Saturday night.
"At the league meeting last month, Katz was approached by Baltimore coach John Harbaugh and told he had to meet his brother," Judy Battista writes in the New York Times.
They met, alright. Jim Harbaugh used the occasion to complain about the holiday trip to Baltimore for a game the 49ers lost, 16-6.
"I talked to him, then I talked to him the next day, and then I talked to him the third day," Katz told Battista. "He said, 'Now that I've met you, I don't hate you quite as much.' His brother said to me, 'That’s as good as you’re going to do.' "
Battista's story details the scheduling process from Katz's perspective. We recently discussed one aspect -- short weeks -- for NFC West teams.
The 49ers won't be spending Thanksgiving in Baltimore this season, at least.
Note: Thanks to Kent Somers for pointing out Battista's story, as well as this fantastic one from Paola Boivin on the new life Pat Tillman's widow, Marie, is leading.
Darius Salimi, NFC West blog participant since 2008, wore his Cardinals' Pat Tillman jersey proudly in the parking lot before kickoff. We connected on Facebook before the game and hung out in the Green Lot outside the stadium.
The Cardinals have taken a 7-0 lead against the Redskins thanks to two Rex Grossman interceptions and Jeff King's second touchdown reception in as many games for the Cardinals. Washington is driving deep in Cardinals territory as I prepare to post this item, but they'll settle for a field goal after Arizona's defense held. Update: Lonely Cards fan has less to cheer about now that the Redskins have taken a 10-7 lead.
I shot a couple videos before the game, one showing the scene as Darius, the lone Cardinals fan in his group, tailgated with friends Matt and Arista Maher, Tim Holley and Mary Pat Abraham.
The second video features Howard Churchill, one of the famed "Hogettes" for the last couple decades.
Hope you enjoy while watching the NFL action in Week 2.
Video One here.
Video Two here.
LANDOVER, Md. -- It's been a memorable last 90 minutes or so from the green lot at FedEx Field, where Facebook friend and Arizona Cardinals fan Darius Salimi does, indeed, serve the world's best tailgate hummus, as promised.
The white Pat Tillman jersey Darius is wearing made him stand out from the growing crowd of Washington Redskins fans gearing up for this Week 2 matchup between former NFC East rivals.
I've collected some video from Darius and his crew of Redskins fans: Mary Pat Abraham, Tim Holley and their friends, Matt and Arista Maher. The experience wouldn't have been complete without the Redskins' famous marching band nearly trampling me on my way back to the stadium. Once they passed, I ran across Howard Churchill, also know as "Howiette the Hogette" for the past 21 years. We talked about the game, about being a hog and about the charity the Hogettes support through liveunited.org.
FedExs lacks the history of RFK Stadium, but there's still a great feel of tradition in the parking lots outside the stadium.
First, though, some inside information on that hummus.
"The key to good tailgate hummus is to throw out all your recipes," Darius said. "You need a whole bunch of cumin and here is the secret ingredient: Zatarain's Creole Seasoning."
I'll vouch for that.
First stop Sunday morning: FedEx Field, site of the Arizona Cardinals' Week 2 game against the Washington Redskins.
I've received assurances in writing, or at least on my Facebook wall, that homemade grub awaits in one of the "green lots" outside the stadium. Darius, a Cardinals fan stuck in Redskins country, says he'll be wearing his Pat Tillman jersey to the game and offering up his special homemade hummus, among other eats.
This could be good.
- Current NFC West franchises can claim ties to seven of the 16 players enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame this weekend. The seven: Pat Tillman and Jerry Stovall from the Arizona Cardinals; Charles Haley, Randy Cross and Alfred Williams from the San Francisco 49ers; and Dexter Coakley and Mark Herrmann from the St. Louis Rams. Stovall was a three-time Pro Bowl choice for the Cardinals when the team was in St. Louis. Herrmann was a backup quarterback when the Rams were in Los Angeles.
- Frank Gore's injured hip is in "perfect" condition, according to agent Drew Rosenhaus. Gore is entering the final year of his contract with the 49ers after missing the final five games last season. His 4.2-yard average was strong, but also tied for the lowest of his career. Gore set a career high with a 9.8-yard average as a receiver. Will the 49ers siphon off carries for rookie Kendall Hunter, a fourth-round choice?
- Rams running back Steven Jackson has been posting updates to his Twitter account detailing his workout regimen. One of his fans won an opportunity to work out with Jackson after submitting an entertaining video as part of a contest. The video shows Jonathan Keenum sporting fake dreads while supposedly cranking out one million reps on a leg press (actually a man seated in a rocking chair).
- The expected elimination of two-a-day practices during training camp as part of a proposed labor agreement will benefit players' bodies. It will also diminish the camp experience for those traveling long distances to watch practices. In the past, it was possible to catch five or six practices over a few days. I see less reason for teams to spend weeks away from their facilities if training camps aren't going to differ much from regular work weeks. That is only an initial impression. Teams will adapt to whatever new rules take effect. They could find other ways to maximize the time.
- Cris Collinsworth posted thoughts on officiating after meeting with officials during their meetings in Dallas. Consider this nugget on how teams might adapt to the rule prohibiting running starts longer than five yards before kickoffs: "Expect a lot of crossing to build momentum just before the ball is kicked. The feeling is that there will be a lot of high directional kicks as teams try to pin the receiving team inside the 20."
- Former Seahawks and 49ers quarterback Trent Dilfer has put in some time coaching lately. Check out the video.
- Retired Seattle Seahawks tackle Walter Jones pointed to the late Derrick Thomas as the toughest opponent he faced. Seattle and Kansas City were in the AFC West together for Jones' first five seasons. Jones singled out Thomas when answering fans' questions over the weekend. Jones and Thomas were named to a combined 18 Pro Bowls (nine apiece).
Enjoy the rest of your weekend. The next week appears more promising than any in the NFL since the lockout began in March.
One more note: Rams receiver Donnie Avery says he's running 40-yard times in the 4.2s and 4.3s. He also says he's able to change directions well. Sounds like Avery will be full strength when training camp opens. He's coming off season-ending knee surgery.
Ken Whisenhunt spent the Fourth of July weekend visiting military installations in Kuwait and Iraq as part of the NFL-USO Coaches Tour.
Former Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth is making a push to get Pat Tillman inducted into the Hall of Fame.
San Francisco 49ers
Despite organizing workouts and coaching up players this offseason, the 49ers have not promised Alex Smith the starting job and may bring in a veteran to compete with him when the lockout ends.
Aldon Smith, the No. 7 overall pick in April's draft, will be switching positions from defensive end to linebacker.
Former Seahawks tackle Walter Jones has no regrets about calling it quits prior to the 2010 season
St. Louis Rams
Darren Sproles could be an appealing option to back up Steven Jackson.
The first preseason game of 2011 -- the Hall of Fame Game between the Chicago Bears and the St. Louis Rams -- is still on track according to the Hall's president.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers are unlikely to making significant moves at quarterback after drafting Colin Kaepernick and reaching what appears to be an understanding with Smith. Barrows: "I certainly don't see them signing a high-profile free agent or trading for one. I think it's safe to assume that they see Kaepernick as the future and wouldn't spend big bucks on a young guy like Kevin Kolb. ... They likely will bring in an undrafted guy -- Santa Rosa's Adam Froman, perhaps? -- to compete in camp. And maybe they bring in a lower-profile passer like Bruce Gradkowski if they're not optimistic about David Carr."
Also from Barrows: He expects Kaepernick and Smith to get together once Kaepernick completes a move to the Bay Area. Barrows: "Moving to the South Bay also will put Kaepernick in close proximity with Smith and the group of a dozen or so 49ers who have been regularly working out down here. So far, those workouts have been limited to the weight room. However, there are plans to move it onto the practice field, which could be effective in the event of a lockout especially considering that Smith and his mates now have copies of Harbaugh's playbook. If the NFL gets its way and the lockout continues this week, you can bet that Kaepernick will be trying to glean as much information as he can on his own."
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says Smith's apparent willingness to remain with the 49ers runs counter to how elite competitive athletes would do. Kawakami: "I’ve covered a lot of sports and a lot of big-time athletes and winners, and I’m saying none of the elite players (in this same situation) would have stuck around here one moment more than they had to, and many of them would have campaigned to get the hell out long ago. Smith had a chance to leave a few years ago, and chose to stay. Smith had a chance to leave this offseason, and presumably is choosing to stay. I’m not saying this proves he can’t play QB. I’m definitely not saying Smith is tough -- he has gotten up time and again after tough hits and injuries and bad moments. I’m just saying that being willing to go through the 49ers QB oddity yet again is another indication that whatever it is Smith has failed to summon in the past … I think he’s failing to summon now." Smith must realize he won't find a better situation elsewhere. With the 49ers, Smith gets a one-year opportunity to improve his standing in the league.
Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider thinks the 49ers should incorporate some spread-passing principles to accommodate their quarterbacks. Jim Harbaugh prefers a power running game.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says the team sought to get bigger -- much bigger -- by selecting James Carpenter and John Moffitt with its first two selections in the 2011 NFL draft. Line coach Tom Cable: "James was a guy I thought from Day 1 gave us the most in terms of his ability to play all four spots. … I think we upgraded ourselves in terms of toughness and getting some mass on the offensive line, which I think we needed to do."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times passes along a tweet from Matt Hasselbeck saying the quarterback would like to receive a Seahawks playbook. The 49ers gave a playbook to unsigned quarterback Alex Smith after Smith signed a waiver allowing him to visit team headquarters during the brief window when the lockout was not in effect. The move signaled Smith's expected contract agreement with the 49ers. Seattle doesn't know whether Hasselbeck will re-sign.
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says the lockout makes it tougher to evaluate the Seahawks' draft strategy given the uncertainty at quarterback. Boling: "Matt Hasselbeck will be 36 in September and has had declining production the past several seasons. Hence team hesitance. But trading for an upcoming quarterback would be expensive in terms of players and picks they’d have to kick in. It seems that the most viable free agent to keep you going until you find your gem in the draft or a reasonable trade would be Hasselbeck. His value went up in Seattle over the weekend when the Seahawks saw no one in the draft they deemed worthy of betting the future of the franchise to obtain. The option is trusting that backup Charlie Whitehurst is ready to be your full-time starter. That option, again, seems to enhance Hasselbeck’s value."
Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle shares highlights from former scout Dave Razzano's recent appearance on the station. Razzano thought the Seahawks should have drafted Cal defensive lineman Cameron Jordan in the first round. He thought the 49ers erred in failing to select a quarterback at No. 7.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams, mindful of the lockout, have extended until June 1 the deadline for fans to renew season tickets. Team executive Kevin Demoff: "We heard from a number of fans who were worried about what would happen if they didn't pay by the deadline. We thought the most pragmatic thing was to push it back until June 1 -- give the situation another 30 days to see if it could provide some clarity." If there's no resolution by June 1, the team plans to take payment information from fans, then process payments when there is a resolution.
D'Marco Farr of 101ESPN St. Louis liked the Rams' draft, starting with Robert Quinn's addition. Farr: "Thank goodness that a run on quarterbacks early allowed Quinn to fall to the Rams at No. 14. Drafting a pass rusher who hasn't scratched the surface of his potential could turn out to be the smartest move for the Rams in 2011. When you consider what the three other NFC West teams did in the draft, the ability to get to the quarterback may give the Rams the edge in the division. Of course, the rest of the Rams' draft was impressive, too, taking two highly-touted wide receivers in Boise State's Austin Pettis and Hawaii's Greg Salas for quarterback Sam Bradford to throw to. Now let's hope the team stays committed to re-signing Mark Clayton once free agency is allowed to begin."
Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis says the Rams' offensive draft picks will upgrade their production in the red zone more than a running back would have.
Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat shares Trent Dilfer's thoughts on Kaepernick, as expressed to KNBR radio. Dilfer: "When I was done with my study there were a few things I wrote down. One, he’s a project. It’s going to take a couple years to get him right. To get him completely comfortable playing in a traditional offense. Number two … (he has) maybe the highest ceiling of the draft. I think his ceiling for success may be higher than Cam Newton’s. He might be a better athlete than Cam Newton when you look at it. He’s got quicker feet. He’s got better pocket instincts and when he hits full stride, when he gets unleashed and he’s running full stride, it’s pretty amazing to see."
David Whitley of AOL FanHouse says Osama bin Laden's death reminds us that former Cardinals safety Pat Tillman would be 34 years old now if not for what bin Laden masterminded in 2001. Whitley: "He’d probably have a couple of kids, and he might still be playing safety for the Cardinals. Or the money-driven lockout might have irritated him into retirement. Tillman never was one to put up with a lot of bull, and he sure didn’t care about money. If he had, he wouldn’t have walked away from a $3.6 million offer to eat bugs in Ranger training. Tillman was the perfect Can-Do poster boy. Here was an undersized kid who got the last scholarship Arizona State gave out that year. By his senior season he was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. The Cardinals didn’t draft him until the seventh round in 1998. Tillman got a $21,000 signing bonus and rode his bike to training camp. Within two years he was All-Pro."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee uses the 49ers' predraft visits as the basis for determining what positions the team might be targeting in the draft. Barrows: "First, it's clear the 49ers are targeting three position groups. Among the known players visiting, three are quarterbacks, three are cornerbacks and three are smallish defensive ends/outside linebackers. That's no surprise. The 49ers have acknowledged that they'd like to improve those positions this offseason. Three players also are tight ends, a position Jim Harbaugh utilized quite a bit at Stanford. The team also is clearly looking at fullbacks." Teams use predraft visits for various purposes. Teams are often seeking additional information on players coaches and scouts had questions about.
Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Razzano thinks the 49ers will take a quarterback 45th overall. He points to Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton as possibilities.
Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider sizes up the 49ers' linebackers and asks whether new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has enough with which to work.
Aaron Wilson of National Football Post says quarterback prospect Ryan Mallett is scheduled to visit with the Seahawks on Monday. Wilson: "It's a busy week for Mallett, who's set to visit the Minnesota Vikings on Wednesday and Thursday and the Carolina Panthers on Friday and Saturday. He visits the San Francisco 49ers on April 11, the Miami Dolphins on April 14 and the Tennessee Titans on April 17. Mallett's first visit was with the Cincinnati Bengals. He has conducted private workouts for the Miami Dolphins and the Panthers."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says CenturyLink is in the early stages of "transitional branding" at Qwest Field after the company purchased Qwest Communications recently. O'Neil: "The name of the stadium isn't changing right now, but the logos you see on relating to Qwest's sponsorship of the Sounders will -- and it could be anything from trash cans to napkins to logos on the scoreboard -- are likely to have a new logo. And that new logo could include the logos for both Qwest and CenturyLink, which are now the same company."
Liz Mullen of Sporting News checks in with Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck for thoughts on the NFL labor situation.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic passes along a dissenting view on pass-rusher Von Miller from former Cardnials scout Dave Razzano. Razzano: "I’m not a Von Miller guy at all. I know he had an ankle injury, but I think it’s a cop-out. I’ve look at enough tape. The stuff he does that I don’t like has nothing to do with an ankle sprain at all. ... Von Miller does not have a real competitive demeanor. That's the kind of guy who has 'bust' quality."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com offers personal recollections on former Cardinals safety Pat Tillman. Urban: "I came in to the Cards’ facility on Sept. 11, 2001. It was a Tuesday -- the players’ off day -- but Tillman was there too. And at one point, with the World Trade Center burning but not yet collapsed, Tillman sat next to me in one of the overstuffed, ugly orange-yellow chairs there at the time and lamented the situation. ... Did I know that day he’d eventually give up football for what he thought was a greater purpose? Of course not. Maybe Tillman did, and maybe he didn’t. He never talked about it, having then-coach Dave McGinnis break the joining-the-Army news to a trio of reporters."
Todd Hefferman of The Southern says Southern Illinois University is trying to land the St. Louis Rams for training camp. Hefferman: "Saluki Stadium seats 15,000 and has FieldTurf Duraspine PRO playing surface. SIU also has a grass practice facility south of the stadium that has two 100-yard fields. The Boydston Center, an $11.3 million facility a couple of hundred feet from the stadium that also opened last year, houses new locker rooms, new offices and new meeting rooms."
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com says Rams special-teams coach Tom McMahon thinks new rules will "eliminate" the kickoff return specialist. McMahon: "We have started looking, trying to get ahead a little bit. Look at where balls are landing and giving them 5 extra yards. It’s scary how many balls are landing in the end zone. It’s almost scary shocking."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the team's quest to find a quarterback will impact Larry Fitzgerald's decision on whether to remain with the team past 2011. Urban: "Money will not be an issue. The Cardinals are expected to meet Fitzgerald’s desires in that area. As last season progressed, however, Fitzgerald talked more and more about wanting to make sure he played for a winner. He was always careful not to talk about having a better quarterback -- Fitzgerald is too smart for that -- but it was not difficult to read between the lines."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams went without a compensatory draft choice for only the second time in 10 years. Thomas: "Over the years, the Rams have had good success with compensatory picks, including two members of the current roster -- linebacker Josh Hull from the 2010 draft and linebacker David Vobora from the '08 draft. Vobora was Mr. Irrelevant in '08 as the last player taken in the draft. Three other former Rams compensatory picks are still playing in the NFL: quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (Buffalo) and fullback Madison Hedgecock (Giants) were Rams comp picks in 2005; and linebacker Scott Shanle (New Orleans) was a comp pick in 2003."
Also from Thomas: The Rams expected improvement from quarterback Sam Bradford to help raise the level of play at receiver as well. Better luck with injuries would certainly help. Coach Steve Spagnuolo: "Donnie Avery looks great. You know, when Donnie and I talked a year ago at the end of the (2009) season I said, 'You've got to be a durable guy, and that takes the offseason.' Because he would catch a pass and it seemed like every time he got up -- I told him this -- something was sore. So he worked on it last year, and of course he had the (knee) injury, and with this time with rehab that still rings in his ear. He has really taken a step to get his body ready to play an NFL season."
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com says the team is still formulating its draft opinions. General manager Billy Devaney: "We are not close to being there. I have a general idea. Being realistic, there are certain guys you know are going to be gone from pick one to five, six, seven. Then after that there is a cluster of names and they are darn good names. It’s exciting. It’s really exciting the possibilities that will be there at 14. We have a vague idea but we haven’t narrowed it down yet."
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com explains why the 49ers received a second compensatory draft choice. Maiocco: "There were 21 compensatory picks awarded Friday based on the compensatory pick formula. By rule, 11 additional choices were awarded at the end of the seventh round to bring the total number of compensatory selections to 32, equaling the number of NFL clubs. The 49ers were among the teams given an extra draft choice based on the 2011 draft selection order."
Also from Maiocco: He makes the case against San Francisco using an early draft choice for a wide receiver. Maiocco: "Teams with good passing attacks can plug in receiver after receiver, and there is rarely a statistical drop-off. The 49ers have 10 picks in the draft, and they will almost assuredly use one of those selections on a wideout. But the team should be just fine with Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan as the starters -- as long as Jim Harbaugh can come up with somebody to throw the ball to them. The 49ers will look to upgrade the production from their No. 3 wideout. Veteran Ted Ginn had only 10 catches for 122 yards, and his spot on the roster is certainly not guaranteed. Kyle Williams did not get on the field much as a rookie, but he's a Trent Baalke draft pick. Baalke raved about Williams' combination of quickness and speed, attributes that serve him well as a slot receiver and in the return game."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee updates pre-draft workouts and visits for the 49ers. Barrows on Andy Dalton: "Dalton said on NFL Network that he has private visits set up with the 49ers among other teams. Jim Harbaugh attended Dalton's pro day workout earlier this month, and he is among a group of second-round prospects the 49ers are sorting out. Dalton's best attribute may be his accuracy, although like many passers in this year's class, he operated out of a spread system in college."
Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider says the 49ers, who already hold a league-high 12 draft choices, should trade back to acquire more in the hopes that quantity gives them a better shot at quality. Lynch: "In the last decade, the 49ers proved adept at drafting a Pro Bowl punter, long-snapper, middle linebacker and running back. But now they have to take chances on pass rusher, cornerback and quarterback. It would be best to go after those spots with two or three possibilities instead one potentially expensive miss."
Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers have a shot at continuing their recent successes in the latter rounds of drafts. The team holds five choices in the final two rounds. Josh Morgan, Ricky Jean-Francois and Anthony Dixon were recent finds in those rounds.
Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle says Seahawks kicker Olindo Mare would take a "hometown discount" to remain with the team. Mare: "Oh, absolutely. For sure. I would be stupid not to. The Seahawks gave me an opportunity. I always take that into consideration also. But we'll see. I have to get a offer first. What would be great would be is if there was a bunch and it would show that people appreciate what you do, and that's always flattering. Just to get all your options available. If you signed (for) three, four, five years, that would be your last contract. You want to make sure that everything was done right. But yeah, Seattle will definitely get a home discount. Besides, I like to go to the Sounders games, and I've got a lot going on there." Looks like the Seahawks don't have to worry about losing Mare in free agency.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com continues his series on the 35th anniversary team with a look at retired safety Eugene Robinson. Farnsworth: "For a guy who showed up in 1985 as an undrafted rookie out of Colgate, as a cornerback no less, Robinson left an indelible mark on the franchise. He is the Seahawks’ all-time leading tackler (984) and ranks second in career interceptions (42) to Dave Brown (50) and fumble recoveries (14) to Jacob Green (17) -- one of the ends on the reader-selected 35th Anniversary team."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says a small group of Seahawks fans protested the NFL lockout at Qwest Field. Said one fan: "It frustrates me because we paid for our tickets. We spend a lot of money during the season to watch these guys, and our say doesn't even get taken into any consideration."
Their spouses sometimes become caretakers and primary earners.
An assist with education can improve their earning power, something the Pat Tillman Foundation recognizes and one reason I wanted to call attention to a significant story. Getting the NFL onboard in more substantial ways is significant for the foundation named after Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals safety killed six years ago while serving in Afghanistan.
The NFL has gone from being a supporter to more of a partner with its commitment to help fund new scholarships and to honor one winner as a standard bearer each year (seven Washington Redskins players joined 37 Tillman Military Scholars in visiting Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Wednesday). Tillman's legacy should grow as a result.
"The G.I. Bill is great and we love it, but there are a lot of gaps it doesn't cover," Kadi Tierney of the Pat Tillman Foundation said when I reached her Wednesday. "Unless you have served 10 years, you cannot transfer G.I. Bill credits to your spouse. If you served seven years and six tours in Afghanistan, you cannot transfer those credits to your spouse."
Tillman scholarships help fill the gaps for some of the 112 current recipients, about half of whom are spouses.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic lists nose tackle and inside linebacker as the Cardinals' top needs heading into the draft. Somers, looking ahead: "Depending upon the outcome of labor negotiations, the Cardinals could have a number of starters become unrestricted free agents after the season, including guards Reggie Wells and Deuce Lutui, center Lyle Sendlein, receiver Steve Breaston and cornerback Bryant McFadden."
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the Cardinals generally do not value offensive linemen in the early rounds, making Levi Brown an exception. General manager Rod Graves: "Personally, I’d rather stay away from drafting offensive linemen in the first round … [unless] you have an exceptional guy you do, like left tackles, who are rare. Beyond that, you can look across the league and find starters who are middle- to-late round types. If you have an excellent offensive line coach, which we have, a good system, which we have, and if you’ve got kids who are tough and smart and decent athletic ability, you have a chance to mold those guys."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times profiles Tacoma high school teacher Rob Rang, better known to NFL fans in general and Seahawks fans in particular for the work he does as a draft analyst. O'Neil: "Of the first 32 players picked last year, Rang accurately predicted 28 of them would be chosen in the first round. That doesn't mean he forecast exactly where they would be picked, but it shows how accurate he is in gauging talent."
Greg Johns of seattlepi.com says the Seahawks will take an offensive tackle and a safety in the first two rounds. Johns: "That's why I see Seattle snapping up Tennessee standout Eric Berry if he's still available at the No. 6 position Thursday, given he's not only regarded as one of the best players available, he fills a huge need. But as every Seahawks fan knows all too well, offensive tackle is also a gaping trouble-spot. Ray Willis, who started at right tackle last year, was working at left tackle in minicamp as the new regime flip-flopped Sean Locklear to the right side. But Willis clearly is more of a placeholder than a long-term solution there."
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune checks in with Rang for defensive backs who could fit with Seattle. Georgia Tech's Morgan Burnett gets mention as a candidate in the second round.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams sent offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and quarterbacks coach Dick Curl to watch Sam Bradford's latest workout. Bradford: "It was a little bit different. They come in and obviously they want to go through some of their reads, and some of the footwork’s a little bit different. Some of this stuff is similar but some of the things I’ve never done before. But I felt like it went good. I felt like I adjusted fairly quickly and picked up some of the things they were wanting me to do."
Also from Thomas: The Rams are not concerned about having the first overall choice signed before the draft. Executive vice president Kevin Demoff: "I don't think it's important to have the first pick signed before the draft. That doesn't mean it's not worth trying. And it doesn't mean we haven't talked to people -- all four candidates -- about the numbers they would want as the first pick. But it's not a priority for us to have the deal done before the draft. There's still three months essentially before the start of training camp to get a person under contract. We want to make sure we spend our time, and make the right deal for the Rams and a fair deal for the player."
Howard Balzer of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat says the Rams' experiences in the 2006 draft show why teams should value character in prospects. That was the year St. Louis drafted Claude Wroten with the 68th overall choice despite known issues with marijuana.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee gives nose tackle Dan Williams and guard Mike Iupati to the 49ers in his latest mock draft. Barrows on Williams: "He may only be a backup this year, but the 49ers find someone who can protect their prized possession, Patrick Willis, over the long haul." The 49ers liked Aubrayo Franklin enough to name him their franchise player, but would they sign him for the long term? Not if his performance tailed off this season, and probably not if they drafted Williams to fill the role.
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers are hoping to land at least four eventual starters in the draft. Maiocco: "Because this is considered a deep draft, Baalke said there might be an opportunity for the 49ers to select a player in the fourth round that the club has valued as a second- or third-round pick."
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News expects the 49ers to draft Jimmy Clausen if the Notre Dame quarterback remains available at No. 13.
Also from Thomas: Rumors linking the Rams to Donovan McNabb are "utterly ridiculous" in general manager Billy Devaney's eyes.
More from Thomas: The Rams have had preliminary discussions with Bradford and other players the team could select first overall, according to executive vice president Kevin Demoff. Thomas: "Demoff doesn't think the current uncapped year and labor impasse between players and club owners will affect negotiations. But complicating a quick deal could be the proposed sale of the Rams to Urbana, Ill., businessman Shahid Khan. Khan's purchase of the Rams could be completed in May, in which case payment of any roster bonus due the player selected No. 1 overall could simply be postponed until then."
Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com sees no reason for the Rams to pursue McNabb.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says during a chat that Scot McCloughan's departure could affect some players the former GM seemed to value. Barrows: "There was a lot of talk that Alex Smith could be vulnerable with McCloughan on the outs. I never bought that. But I wonder about a few other guys like Cody Wallace, Brandon Jones, Nate Clements and Tarell Brown. I'm not saying these guys will be cut. What I'm saying is that the front office had seemed to value them more than the coaching staff."
Also from Barrows: "The team is in capable hands between now and the draft. The vast majority of the evaluation already has been done. And with director of pro personnel Tom Gamble, who has 22 years of experience, helping run the show on draft day, there's every reason to believe that it will go smoothly as well. The much larger question is what happens after the draft."
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Alex Smith posted better numbers in 2009 than any current NFC West quarterback.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks appear uninterested in trading quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. O'Neil: "If Seattle was going to move Hasselbeck, it probably would have already happened because there is this team in Cleveland now run by this guy who used to coach Hasselbeck who was searching for a quarterback."
Ron Borges of the Boston Herald checks in with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who can only blame himself if things don't work out in Seattle. Borges: "Today, Carroll realizes what it takes to win is a not always-benevolent dictatorship. It requires a head coach, not a camp counselor. It requires one rope with everyone pulling on the same end, not an atmosphere in which some are free to creep up the back stairs to management in order to undercut his authority. Just as importantly, it will not demand any cartoons in the newspaper like one that still haunts him."
Brian McIntyre of scout.com passes along quotes from Carroll praising Seahawks receiver Deion Branch. Carroll: "He’s a big-time player. I’ve seen him now on the field, throwing the ball around with a few players the couple days I was out (in Seattle). He’s gifted. He’s a natural player. He’s got terrific quickness. He’s got all the instincts. Terrific hands. With a good personality. The way he finished last year, the last four games of the year, he really looked good. He looked like a really good football player. It took him a little bit to get comfortable last year coming back from the stuff he dealt with. Once he got going, he looked like a very good player. Hopefully, we can utilize his talents and make sure he’s going to be a big factor for us."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic sees no evidence suggesting the Cardinals have interest in McNabb. Naming Matt Leinart the starter and signing Derek Anderson in free agency pretty much solved the position for Arizona in 2010.
Also from Somers: catching up with former Cardinals kicker Bill Gramatica, remembered for suffering a torn ACL upon landing following a celebratory jump. Gramatica kicked in the game after the injury. Gramatica: "I had a field goal and couple extra points. The coolest thing about that injury is Pat Tillman kicked off for us after I got hurt. I have some great memories with Pat Tillman. My rookie year we were coming back in a van from the kickoff luncheon. I remember Pat telling me, 'Just remember, football is what you love to do, but at the end of the day, you have to live simple. Just keep it simple.'"
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com checks in with running back Beanie Wells, who is ramping up for his second NFL season. Urban: "Wells is trying to use the offseason to get an even better start to his sophomore season. His rookie offseason was slowed when he couldn’t participate in most offseason work thanks to Ohio State’s late end to the school year. This year, without a draft for which to prepare, he feels like he’s already had a ton of free time. It makes Wells that much more anxious to get started on his football work."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals could suffer their first local television blackout since University of Phoenix Stadium opened for the 2006 season. Somers: "About 1,500 seats for Sunday's game were unsold as of Tuesday morning. The deadline to avoid a blackout is at 1:15 p.m. Thursday, unless the NFL grants a 24-hour extension, as it did for the Cardinals' season opener against the 49ers. Selling tickets for the Texans game has been problematic since the schedule was released in the spring. The Texans haven't had a winning season since entering the league in 2002, so they don't generate much interest."
Also from Somers: Ken Whisenhunt isn't the only person taking some criticism over play calling. Former Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley has heard some boos as well.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the team's slow start has bothered a few established veterans in particular, notably Adrian Wilson and Anquan Boldin.
Greg Johns of seattlepi.com links to items from Peter King and Charles McGrath detailing how the Seahawks once tried to lure Pat Tillman out of the military and into a Seattle uniform. Former Seahawks general manager Bob Ferguson confirmed the attempts. Johns: "Ultimately, Tillman told Ferguson and his agent that he'd stay in the Army through his full term in 2005 and pursue a return to the league after that. He'd turned down a three-year, $3.6 million offer from the Cardinals when he originally enlisted. Tillman wound up being killed on April 22, 2004 while on patrol with the Army Rangers near the border of Pakistan."
Also from Johns: The Seahawks are feeling a sense of urgency after three consecutive defeats.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks will not mix up the personnel at quarterback this season unless injuries intervene.
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams would be worse for having Rush Limbaugh among their ownership group. Burwell: "I wonder how Roger Goodell, the no-nonsense NFL commissioner whose primary personal directive is to 'protect the (NFL) shield,' will cope with an owner as potentially combustible as Limbaugh. If Goodell has issues with the embarrassing antics of some of his players, what will he do when Limbaugh inevitably crosses the line of good conduct?"
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says there could be as many as six potential ownership groups for the Rams. "Interest now seems strong enough that earlier estimates that the team would sell based on an overall franchise value of $700 million to $750 million probably are low. League sources say Rosenbloom simply won't sell if he doesn't like the deal or is uncomfortable with the ownership group." The more potential owners, the better the situation becomes for the Rams. But until we have names, it's tough to know whether any of the other potential groups is serious. The Rams certainly want potential owners to think there's competition.
Also from Thomas: It's tough to forecast a Rams victory before the bye, or even after.
More from Thomas: He says during a chat that the Rams should attempt to throw deep more often. A big play to Donnie Avery would indeed help. And the way Steven Jackson is running the ball, the Rams should be able to get a favorable matchup.
More still from Thomas: The Rams added Lamar Myles and Adrian Grady to their practice squad.