NFC West: Paul Boudreau

2014 Predictions: Seattle Seahawks

September, 2, 2014
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ESPN.com Seattle Seahawks reporter Terry Blount makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.

Week 1: Green Bay Packers

All the pregame hype will center around the so-called Inaccurate Reception, the controversial Hail Mary catch by Golden Tate two years ago that won the game over the Packers at Seattle on a Monday night. Tate has moved on to Detroit, but the Seahawks now have too many weapons for the Packers to stop, no Hail Mary required. Prediction: Win


Week 2: at San Diego Chargers

The Chargers better hope they play a lot better than they did in the preseason game at Seattle, a 41-14 victory for the Seahawks on Aug. 15. San Diego will play better, but not good enough to beat a much better team. Prediction: Win


Week 3: Denver Broncos

The Broncos and their fans got a tiny bit of meaningless Super Bowl revenge in the preseason opener with a 21-16 victory over the Seahawks in Denver. Enjoy it while it lasts, boys. Repeating that outcome in Seattle is not an option. Prediction: Win


Week 5: at Washington Redskins

Traveling coast to coast to play on the road for a Monday night game is a tough task against any NFL opponent, and even tougher against quarterback Robert Griffin III. But the Seahawks catch a break in this one by coming off a bye week with plenty of time to prepare and be fresh for the journey. Prediction: Win


Week 6: Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave Seattle a little bulletin-board material last month when he said the Seahawks were to blame for the increase in penalty flags during the preseason. There won't be near enough flags against Seattle for the Cowboys to win this one. Prediction: Win


Week 7: at St. Louis Rams

Any division game in the NFC West is a rugged battle. The Rams have a defensive line that gave the Seahawks problems a year ago. But they aren't strong enough overall to beat Seattle, even at home in their out-of-date dome. Prediction: Win


Week 8: at Carolina Panthers

The Seahawks were fortunate to win the season opener at Charlotte a year ago. That Panthers team was better than this one, but back-to-back road games against very physical defensive teams will end the Seattle winning streak. Prediction: Loss


Week 9: Oakland Raiders

Coming off their first loss of the season and returning home against an outmanned opponent, is there any doubt? Prediction: Win


Week 10: New York Giants

The Seahawks easily defeated the Giants 23-0 last year in New Jersey, a dress rehearsal for their Super Bowl victory at the same location -- MetLife Stadium. The Seahawks won't need a rehearsal to roll past the Giants in this one. Prediction: Win


Week 11: at Kansas City Chiefs

This likely will be a low-scoring game between two strong defensive teams. Odds are against any team that has to try to win by matching its defense against the Seahawks' D. Prediction: Win


Week 12: Arizona Cardinals

The last time the Cardinals played at CenturyLink Field was last December when they handed the Seahawks a 17-10 loss. That won't happen again unless the Seahawks get caught looking ahead to the 49ers game. The Seahawks don't look ahead. Prediction: Win


Week 13: at San Francisco 49ers

It's a Thanksgiving night, national TV game in the 49ers' shiny new stadium against the hated Seahawks. If San Francisco can't win this one, its time as a championship contender is over. Prediction: Loss


Week 14: at Philadelphia Eagles

This is the toughest part of the season for the Seahawks with back-to-back road games against likely playoff contenders. But the 10 days between games will help and be enough of a cushion to keep Seattle from losing two in a row. Prediction: Win


Week 15: San Francisco 49ers

This is a game that could decide which team wins the NFC West. No way the Seahawks lose to the 49ers twice in three weeks, especially not in front of a rabid full house of 12s. Prediction: Win


Week 16: at Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals probably will be fighting for a playoff spot, and the Seahawks already will be in at 12-2. That difference will be just enough for Arizona to win at home in the same stadium where the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl a few weeks later. Prediction: Loss


Week 17: St. Louis Rams

For the second consecutive year, the Rams close the regular season in Seattle. And for the second consecutive year, the Seahawks will beat them without much trouble. Prediction: Win


Predicted Record: 13-3

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For all of the bizarre things that took place in the past week to get offensive lineman Rodger Saffold back as a member of the St. Louis Rams and addressing the local media in a news conference Friday afternoon, the one move that really started it all happened Nov. 10.

[+] EnlargeRodger Saffold
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonSpending time at right guard opened up Rodger Saffold's options.
That was the day Saffold made his debut as a right guard against the Indianapolis Colts. It's hard to know for certain given the vagaries of the NFL but if that day had never happened, there's a strong possibility that Saffold wouldn't be a Ram nor would they have made much effort to keep him.

To that point, the 2013 season had been relatively tumultuous for Saffold. Given Saffold's injury issues in 2012, the team signed Jake Long to play left tackle and asked Saffold to move to the right side. It was a move he didn't love but never publicly complained about. Then, after early-season injury issues again popped up, Saffold found himself sharing the right tackle spot with Joe Barksdale upon his return from a Week 2 knee injury.

The previous three weeks before the game against Indianapolis, Saffold split reps with Barksdale. But the Rams wanted to get their five best offensive linemen on the field and with Barksdale and Saffold alternating at right tackle, they took one of those five off the field for chunks of the game. Long before that, there had been whispers that Saffold might be a better fit inside but it had never been tried because the Rams didn't have many options at tackle.

So it was that Saffold, in looking for a chance to be on the field consistently, and the Rams, looking to put their best line together, hatched the plan to put Saffold at right guard. Rams coach Jeff Fisher recalled the pivotal decision spurred by offensive line coach Paul Boudreau on Friday afternoon.

"Well, the conversation was initiated by Coach 'Bou'," Fisher said. " It’s hard to find a better one in the league than ‘Bou.' He just felt like with his understanding and his knowledge, the fact that he would line up next to Scott [Wells], and Scott could be of assistance to him and athletic ability -- it was an easy decision."

Saffold worked at guard all week leading up to the Colts game, an experience that was foreign to him. But nearly from the moment he jumped into the lineup at guard, it looked like a natural fit.

The pass protection part became easier as Saffold was no longer forced to cover so much ground against speedier rushers on the edge. He held up fine in that regard, but it was his ability as a run blocker that opened more than a few eyes to his potential inside.

Saffold's athleticism and size allowed him to become the prototype pulling guard as the Rams often got him on the move and allowed him to open holes for running back Zac Stacy. His second start, against Chicago, was the better highlight reel as he regularly was noticeable down the field creating space for the Rams to rush for 258 yards in a win.

Unfortunately for the Rams, Saffold's sample size at guard wasn't as large as they would have liked as injuries to others, especially Long, forced him to move outside. Make no mistake, that versatility also helped Saffold's value but it was the glimpse of potential that elevated Saffold from a "might keep" to a "must keep."

Saffold's production inside didn't just change the Rams' view of his future but also made a difference for Saffold himself. When he first made the move, Saffold discussed it with me and another reporter. He didn't have any trepidation about the move but it was clear he was a bit unsure of himself.

After tasting success at guard, Saffold said he regularly spent extra time critiquing his technique and working to refine the details of his new position.

"Once things started going good, I was happy but I was also very, very hungry and very, very strict on myself," Saffold said.

Saffold's work was enough to draw the attention of other teams as he headed to free agency and make him the Rams' top priority. Oakland and Tampa Bay put on the full-court press and both were at least open to the idea of Saffold playing guard though Saffold indicated Friday he would have played left tackle for the Raiders.

Looking back on his first opportunity to play guard, even Saffold himself is taken aback by the domino effect the move created.

"Now that everything else has happened, it was pretty much a surprise for me as well," Saffold said. "I know that Coach Boudreau definitely had a lot of confidence in me, as well as Coach Fisher about playing the guard position, and I didn’t realize it until I actually started doing it."

Now that he has, there's no turning back.

"He made the switch last year, a difficult switch," Fisher said. "He was very, very productive inside. Our plan is to play him at guard as we continue to fill the pieces around him."

It's a notion that a year ago seemed far-fetched. As of Friday afternoon, it's Saffold's new reality.
» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: Who should be the primary target (including trades) for each team when free agency begins?

Arizona Cardinals: This was a tough assignment because I'm not of the mind that teams should rush out to sign free agents at inflated prices. In most cases, NFC West teams should let the market settle before striking. My first inclination for Arizona would have the Cardinals seeking to stabilize the quarterback position. Much depends upon whether Kevin Kolb remains in the picture. Kolb is due to receive a $2 million roster bonus March 17. Free agency begins five days earlier, potentially giving Arizona some time to decide upon its course. Indianapolis' Drew Stanton is a free agent and would come to Arizona already knowing the offense coach Bruce Arians is installing. Miami's Matt Moore was someone I thought might project as a solid backup with the potential to start if needed, but he re-signed with the Dolphins. Not that Stanton or Moore would excite anyone, but after watching John Skelton and Ryan Lindley struggle last season, the Cardinals need to get better at quarterback as soon as possible. They need options.

St. Louis Rams: The Rams would be well served finding a right tackle in free agency, knocking off a clear need before the draft. The big question, as usual, is whether the price would make sense. But after using 16 starters on the offensive line over the past two seasons, St. Louis could justify the investment. New England's Sebastian Vollmer or Minnesota's Phil Loadholt would give the Rams an imposing presence on that side of the line. Both are proven and young, an ideal combination. Last offseason, the Rams spent big for veteran center Scott Wells, with underwhelming results. Wells was 31 years old at the time. He struggled getting and staying healthy. He had played 111 regular-season games when St. Louis signed him. Vollmer (51) and Loadholt (63) have played 114 games between them. They've got fewer miles. In looking through the available tackles, I also noticed Sam Baker, who played left tackle for Atlanta when Rams line coach Paul Boudreau was with the Falcons. Baker has been hurt, however.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers could use depth along their defensive line and insurance for Justin Smith while the All-Pro end recovers from arm surgery. Oakland's Richard Seymour has the experience, versatility and talent to instantly upgrade the 49ers' rotation. Signing Seymour to a short-term deal would be the goal here. San Francisco could address the line further by re-signing its own free agents and targeting a future starter in the draft. Signing Seymour would be a shorter-term proposition as the 49ers attempt to maximize their championship window. The team would be buying time to acquire and develop longer-term solutions along the line. General manager Trent Baalke did recently say he thinks the team has adequate depth along its line. He suggested that coaching philosophy explained why the 49ers used such a limited rotation last season. Whatever the case, San Francisco could stand to add defensive linemen. I can't endorse signing Seymour to a lucrative deal, but if the 49ers could get good value, the move could make sense.

Seattle Seahawks: Again, there's no urgency to overspend early in the signing process. Seattle mostly needs to continue building through the draft. Targeting 49ers tight end Delanie Walker should appeal on a couple of levels, however. It would give the Seahawks a chance to weaken a division rival while helping their own offense and special teams. Walker matched or set career highs in receiving yards (344), receiving touchdowns (three) and yards per reception (16.4) last season. He's 28 years old and possesses versatility Seattle could use as the team continues to diversify its offense. Seattle has more pressing needs, of course. Defensive end is a position for the Seahawks to address while Chris Clemons recovers from knee surgery. I'm not sure the team should rush out to sign one of the older pass-rushing veterans such as John Abraham or Dwight Freeney. But if Seattle targeted a veteran pass-rusher early in the process, that would be defensible, too.
A few thoughts after checking out Todd McShay's latest first-round draft Insider projections for NFC West teams:

7. Arizona Cardinals: McShay sends West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith to the Cardinals even though he says Smith doesn't get a first-round grade. Mock drafts are mostly about filling perceived needs. Quarterback is more than a perceived need for the Cardinals. It's a real one. McShay was in a tough spot with this projection because no one knows how Arizona might address the position before the draft. Moves such as signing Kevin Kolb to a cheaper deal and/or adding a veteran such as Matt Cassel will determine how badly the Cardinals need a quarterback in the draft. Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger are the quarterbacks new Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has worked with most recently. Smith lacks the commanding physical presence those quarterbacks possess, but so do most prospects.

16. St. Louis Rams: McShay sends another West Virginia prospect to the NFC West by projecting receiver Tavon Austin as the Rams' choice at No. 16. This one makes sense on multiple levels. Austin has been a breakaway threat as a runner and receiver. The Rams could certainly use that element in their offense. Austin would provide some protection for losing receiver Danny Amendola either this offseason or in the future. He also has shown the shiftiness and acceleration to pump life into the Rams' weak return game. Austin is 5-foot-8 and 174 pounds, raising questions about durability. He has not missed a game to injury in college, however.

22. St. Louis Rams: Florida State offensive tackle Menelik Watson is the projection in this spot. The Rams do need help at tackle. Watson has played only one year at the major college level after growing up in England. This selection would take more projection than most. We've noted that Rams coach Jeff Fisher's teams have never used a first-round choice for an offensive lineman while Fisher was head coach. Line coach Paul Boudreau appears equipped to develop less established prospects. If the Rams feel great about a tackle in the first round, they should take one. But I also could see them leaning toward another position early, then adding line prospects later.

25. Seattle Seahawks: McShay goes back to Florida State, this time projecting defensive end Bjoern Werner to the Seahawks at No. 25. Seattle has done a very good job drafting linebackers and for the secondary. The team hadn't invested much draft capital in its defensive line before using its 2012 first-rounder for Bruce Irvin. Coach Pete Carroll uses the word "unique" quite a bit when describing prospects that appeal to him. Werner produced in college, but he doesn't seem to possess remarkable physical qualities in any one area. Seattle could buy some pre-draft insurance at defensive end by signing a veteran to a short-term deal.

31. San Francisco 49ers: McShay sends SMU defensive end Margus Hunt to the 49ers at No. 31. Hunt has some of the "unique" qualities I referenced in the Seattle breakdown above. He stands taller than 6-8, weighs 277 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.6-second range. The 49ers' general manager, Trent Baalke, recently suggested the 49ers had good depth on their defensive line. He said the team's use of a smaller rotation was more philosophical. Still, with two rotation players headed for free agency and Justin Smith coming off triceps surgery, projecting a defensive lineman to the 49ers at No. 31 is reasonable.

NFC West Stock Watch

January, 2, 2013
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Falling

1. Cardinals leadership. Coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves lost their jobs following Arizona's second 5-11 season in the past three years. Their inability to upgrade the quarterback position was the No. 1 reason for their demise. Having a head coach with a background on offense should have translated to better play at the position.

2. David Akers, 49ers kicker. Akers missed wide left from 40 and 44 yards during the 49ers' 27-13 victory over Arizona in Week 17. His numbers are down from 40-plus yards. The situation has gotten bad enough for the 49ers to consider other kickers. They signed Billy Cundiff this week.

3. Beanie Wells, Cardinals RB. Wells went into Week 17 saying he would be auditioning for the 31 other teams. Whisenhunt responded by leaving Wells on the bench against San Francisco. Wells, a first-round pick in 2009, had been expected to stabilize the offense upon returning from injury Nov. 25. He finished the season without averaging more than 3.9 yards per carry in a single game.

4. Patrick Peterson, Cardinals CB. Peterson's stock should be rising after his selection to the Pro Bowl. However, he had a rough game against San Francisco's Michael Crabtree. Peterson had issues against the 49ers earlier in the season as well. He pointed to injuries after this one. "I went into the game with a nagging injury that kind of fell over into the game," he told reporters in Arizona. Peterson did not finish the game.

Rising

1. Highly drafted WRs. The 49ers' A.J. Jenkins is excused from this discussion after dropping a pass and finishing his rookie season with zero receptions. Crabtree joined Seattle's Golden Tate and Arizona's Michael Floyd in putting up big numbers in Week 17. Those three totaled 19 receptions for 443 yards and three touchdowns on 27 targets. Each averaged better than 20 yards per reception. All three were high draft choices over the past few seasons.

2. Rams' pass protection. Barry Richardson, Shelley Smith, Scott Wells, Robert Turner and Rodger Saffold get some credit for allowing zero sacks over the Rams' past two games. Line coach Paul Boudreau got more than anticipated from this patched-together unit. Seattle collected zero sacks against the Rams on 43 drop backs. Chris Clemons did have a fumble-forcing sack converted to an incomplete pass through replay.

3. Snubbled players. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman played at a Pro Bowl level all season, including when he picked off Sam Bradford's final pass Sunday to secure a 20-13 Seattle victory. He was nonetheless left off the Pro Bowl team this season, settling for first-alternate status. 49ers tackle Anthony Davis and Seahawks defensive tackle Brandon Mebane also failed to earn Pro Bowl honors despite playing at a high level during various parts of the season. Both appeared to play well in Week 17.

4. Franchise QBs. Colin Kaepernick, Bradford and Russell Wilson each passed for at least 250 yards while combining for a 70.8 Total QBR score for their teams in Week 17. They combined for five total touchdowns with just one interception. Wilson averaged 13.2 yards per pass attempt. Kaepernick averaged 9.9.

Around the NFC West: Improved QB play

September, 19, 2012
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You know times are changing in the NFC West when someone assigned to cover the NFL at large dedicates 824 mostly kind words to the division.

You really know times are changing when some of those words focus on improving play at the quarterback position.

Don Banks of Sports Illustrated points to the NFC West's 5-1 record outside the division as evidence. Banks: "The division's current success ratio isn't likely to hold up all year, but on the two most important fronts in the game -- quarterbacking and coaching -- the NFC West looks to be in much better shape than it has for quite some time. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has been a revelation so far in Seattle, and Rams quarterback Sam Bradford is showing signs of returning to his stellar rookie form of 2010 after the struggles of 2011. San Francisco's Alex Smith, once all but dismissed as a long-term starting option for the 49ers, has become the division's gold standard at the position, and even Arizona's Kevin Kolb has returned to relevancy in the past two weeks after losing his job to John Skelton coming out of the preseason." Noted: Kolb's production at New England wasn't all that good, but there were encouraging signs in how he ran the offense. Most striking, I thought, was the way Kolb hung in the pocket. Seems like he can build on that performance.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says outside linebacker Quentin Groves appears to be enjoying a rebirth with the Cardinals after disappointing stops in Jacksonville and Oakland. Groves: "I didn’t study as much as I should, not putting in the extra film work as much as I should, not taking care of my body and eating right as much as I should. By the grace of God, I’ve been an exceptional athlete. To be drafted in the second round and coming into the league, I got complacent. Now I’m back on my grind, doing the little things better. Instead of going home and picking up a video game, I pick up my playbook or pick up my iPad and watch film."

Also from Urban: The Cardinals' penchant for blocking field goal tries couldn't stop coach Ken Whisenhunt from worrying about New England lining up for the potential game-winning kick Sunday.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic offers observations on the Cardinals' victory at New England. He singles out Darnell Dockett as a key player.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers' Aldon Smith avoided serious injuries during a recent car crash in which Smith was a passenger. Smith: "It's life. You can sit here and make it want you want. But really it's life. I'm in a good spot right now. I was able to go out and get seven tackles and two sacks, and now I'm ready for Minnesota and ready for the rest of the season."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com offers thoughts on how each of the 49ers' offensive players performed against Detroit. On left guard Mike Iupati: "Had a much stronger game in run-blocking than pass protection."

Also from Maiocco: a look at how the 49ers' defensive players performed. On free safety Dashon Goldson: "He started at free safety and played every snap. Made a diving interception of a wobbling Matthew Stafford pass late in the first quarter. He got to his feet and returned it 23 yards to set up a 49ers touchdown. Did a great job of flying up from deep in the secondary to drop Joique Bell for a 2-yard gain early in second quarter. He was very decisive in coming up to support the run and finished his tackles. He was credited with six tackles, an interception and a pass defensed."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with newly activated Rams receiver Austin Pettis. Thomas: "To make room for Pettis on the 53-man roster, rookie offensive guard Rokevious Watkins was placed on the injured reserve list. Watkins, a fifth-round pick from South Carolina, suffered what team officials said was a significant ankle injury at the end of the Rams' season-opening loss in Detroit. He was using crutches last week and did not play against Washington. His departure leaves the Rams with two backups on the interior offensive line in guard Shelley Smith and center-guard Tim Barnes."

Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com looks at the Rams' situation on the offensive line. He credits head coach Jeff Fisher and line coach Paul T. Boudreau for helping the Rams overcome injuries at the position. Gordon: "Boudreau has produced good offensive lines at every NFL stop, including his earlier stint at Rams Park. And Fisher’s make-no-excuses mandate has the team seeking solutions rather than dwelling on problems. Every coach preaches a “next man up” philosophy, but Fisher has the gravitas to make the players actually believe it."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says the team achieved all 12 of its goals on special teams against Dallas, a first in the career of special-teams coach Brian Schneider. Farnsworth: "Schneider has 12 goals for his units in each game -- from 100 percent effort, to penalty free, to eliminating big plays by the opponent. Achieve one, a Seahawks logo is placed next the category on the large board that hangs in the hallway between the locker room and the training room. Achieve all 12, as Schneider’s units did on Sunday at CenturyLink Field, and it’s Seahawks logos all around. Unprecedented? It’s a first not only for Schneider since he joined Pete Carroll’s staff in 2010, it’s the first time any of his special teams have pitched a 12 -– including his time with the Oakland Raiders (2007-08) and college stints at USC (2009), Iowa State (2006), UCLA (2003-05) and Colorado State (1994-2002)."

Also from Farnsworth: Seahawks notes, including one about the team holding the highest winning percentage in the history of "Monday Night Football" telecasts. Seattle is 17-8 (.680). Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Indianapolis and the New York Giants are next. Also: Frank Omiyale provided a "credible" performance against DeMarcus Ware while subbing for Russell Okung at left tackle.

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks' current defense might be the best one in franchise history. Boling: "An obvious omission right now, though, is the lack of sacks, as they’ve registered only two in two games. It was a point of emphasis coming into this season, and -- especially in the Dallas game -- defensive coordinator Gus Bradley put together some creative rush packages. Although sacks didn’t result, Pete Carroll said he considered the pressure on the quarterback much improved against Dallas. The other area below standard is stopping third-down conversions. The Hawks have allowed opponents to convert 10 of 23 third downs. The statistics fail to measure the physically intimidating play of this unit, which is its dominant characteristic. And in games at home, it inflames the fans, which, in turn, further energizes the players."

So much on the line for NFC West

August, 15, 2012
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The 2011 St. Louis Rams started three players at left tackle, two at left guard, two at center, three at right guard and three at right tackle.

So much for developing the continuity offensive lines need to play their best.



The Rams hope to avoid a repeat this season, and they still might. But it'll be a while before this line comes together.

Knee surgery has kept new center Scott Wells from practicing. Centers can be critical for handling protection calls. The Rams are hoping Wells can get on the field next week. The line won't have its leader until Wells returns.

Quinn Ojinnaka is working at left guard after rookie Rokevious Watkins, a player the team wanted to groom for the position, reported to camp out of shape.

At right tackle, Barry Richardson has supplanted incumbent starter Jason Smith in the lineup.

For more on the Rams' line, check out Tony Softli's recent interview with line coach Paul T. Boudreau (video here).

The chart shows how many starters NFC West teams used at each position on the line last season. Some players started at more than one position. For example, nine players contributed to the 13-starter total for the Rams. Adam Goldberg, Jason Brown and Harvey Dahl started at multiple spots.
Jason SmithJeff Curry/US PresswireJason Smith has had his hands full working against Chris Long (91) during training camp.
The St. Louis Rams hired Paul T. Boudreau as offensive line coach in part because they hoped he could help 2009 first-round draft choice Jason Smith realize his potential.

That remains the plan even though veteran Barry Richardson has started siphoning off first-team snaps from Smith heading into the Rams' exhibition opener Sunday at Indianapolis. Richardson, 26, started Kansas City's last 32 games.

The move to get more snaps for Richardson so early in the evaluation process affirms Boudreau's commitment to putting the five best linemen on the field no matter what. It's a bad initial sign for Smith, who has had his hands full in camp against defensive end Chris Long in particular. But it's a good sign for the Rams that their line coach isn't going to prop up a highly drafted player at the expense of the team.

"We're going to play the best five," Boudreau said during an interview at Rams camp last week. "Don’t matter if you're a draft choice, doesn't matter if you’re a free agent, doesn't matter if you've been cut by four teams."

Boudreau, who was with Atlanta through last season, drove home that message early in his tenure with the Rams. He pointed to Rams guard Harvey Dahl, one of his former Falcons players, as proof. Dahl and tackle Tyson Clabo became mainstay starters in Atlanta even though neither was drafted and both had been released repeatedly.

Smith's status as the second overall choice of the 2009 draft isn't going to get him anywhere. To win the starting job, Smith will have to improve in pass protection.

"His whole thing that he needs to work on the most is understanding angles in protection, understanding he has long arms but he doesn’t use them and try to get his length back in protection," Boudreau said. "Try to use his hands. He wants to hit a guy all the time and you don't have to hit a guy in pass protection. You just have to stay in front of him. When he does it right, you have to really emphasize it on the tape."

Smith, 26, started six games last season, missing the final 10 games after suffering a severe concussion while making a tackle following a turnover against Dallas in Week 7. He started 15 games the previous season and five as a rookie.

The Rams' previous leadership drafted Smith as a left tackle, but the right side is a better fit for players with limitations in pass protection.

Boudreau, who coached the Rams' line in 2006-2007 as well, put together an Orlando Pace highlight video for Smith to study. Pace, the first overall choice of the 1997 draft, was a seven-time Pro Bowl choice and five-time Associated Press All-Pro selection.

"I had a bunch of snaps of Orlando in one-on-one pass protection situations, showing him how patient Orlando was, and his angles, the things he did to just kind of ride a guy by the quarterback," Boudreau said. "He didn’t kill the guy. You don’t have to beat 'em up. It’s like playing basketball. Stay between your guy and the hoop. And so when I showed him Orlando and showed him how smooth he was, and it all was because of his patience, and I said we’ve got to slow this thing down for him. He's a work in progress."

CANTON, Ohio -- Thank you, St. Louis. The NFC West blog has made its way from Rams Park to Ohio for Pro Football Hall of Fame festivities featuring Cortez Kennedy one day (Saturday) and the Arizona Cardinals the next.

Training camps will continue, of course, and I'll make every effort to keep pace on that front as well. But with Hall of Fame events running almost non-stop beginning Friday, there will be some temporary blind spots, for sure.

A run through the headlines should get us current for now.

A familiar theme ran through three NFC West camps Thursday. Defenses were reportedly ahead of offenses in Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco. No surprise there. All three of those teams played tough defense for parts or most of last season. All three had their problems on offense. In St. Louis, meanwhile, the Rams put on the pads for the first time as a full squad.

Lots of ground to cover.

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune has some insights that should please Seahawks fans and floor Rams fans: Alex Barron is looking good. Boling: "With the team in full pads, Barron was given time with the second unit at right tackle, behind starter Breno Giacomini. And three straight plays, Barron was asked to block speedy rookie first-round pick Bruce Irvin. Barron's drop was quick enough, and punch so powerful, he dropped Irvin to his knees on the first snap. The next two, Irvin went with a spin move to the inside, and Barron stonewalled him. Those were extremely impressive efforts against a player who is young, yes, but is going to be a real nightmare for a lot of tackles in the league."

Tony Drovetto of seahawks.com says Matt Flynn's turn with the starting offense revealed little. Coach Pete Carroll: "I talked to the defense today and told them to dial it up and make it as hard as we can make it on these guys for getting comparisons and good information. So we’re going to continue to do that and continue to make it hard. We’re not going to cater at all and make it easy for the quarterbacks." Noted: Spoken like a defensive-minded coach. I can recall former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren coming off the field steaming mad after his offense struggled in practice.

Also from Drovetto: camp highlights, including a note on Byron Maxwell's progress.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times saw more good things from one of the Seahawks' young receivers. O'Neil: "Receiver Ricardo Lockette has been one of the most impressive players through the first week of training camp, and he very nearly came down with an impressive catch on a go-route down the sidelines only to drop it after he got behind the defense. He then took off his helmet, flinging it down to the ground violently. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell came over to remind Lockette to keep a more even-keel demeanor and that dropping a pass is bad enough. Costing a team 15 yards in penalties in addition to dropping it is substantially worse."

Also from O'Neil: From Facebook to the NFL?

Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic has the latest on Cardinals rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley, who seems to be making the most of limited reps. Boivin on Lindley's background: "Lindley never even played youth football because his mom didn't want him to be injured. He was a baseball player who played pick-up football games with older cousins. When he arrived at El Capitan High in Lakeside, Calif., he approached the football coach and told him he had never played organized football but, hey, he'd like to play quarterback. Coach Ron Burner saw his arm strength and agreed."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com writes about Arizona's defense having the edge against its offense in practice. Coach Ken Whisenhunt: "The defense has been together in the system and they are going through the install and they played well at the end of last year. With the quarterbacks it’s a little different because we went through the offseason working on a bunch of fundamentals and getting them up to speed on the offense and they haven’t operated like our defense did. And we have some new guys on the offensive line."

Also from Urban: In Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield, the Cardinals trust.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams enforcer Harvey Dahl took exception when linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar took a shot at running back Steven Jackson in practice. Coach Jeff Fisher: "They’re competing, and they understand. The issue is allowing those things to carry over to the game. You cannot let those kinds of things carry over to the game. But out here, you can understand and appreciate them protecting their teammates."

Also from Thomas: Craig Dahl and Darian Stewart are splitting time at one safety spot.

Roger Hensley of stltoday.com polls colleagues on differences they see in the Rams with Jeff Fisher as head coach. Thomas: "I think we’ll see a more physical, aggressive team -- on both sides of the ball -- because Fisher will demand it. That’s one reason he brought CB Cortland Finnegan in on defense and also why he hired Paul Boudreau as his offensive line coach. In their own ways, they will be tone-setters."

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com offers notes from practice, including one about the Rams' defensive line making it tough for the offensive line to find a rhythm. Noted: That could make it four NFC West camps with defenses ahead of offenses.

Also from Wagoner: a Greg Salas update.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com has a quarterback update from 49ers camp. Also: "One of the more entertaining parts of the practice came immediately during a blitz pick-up session. Running back Frank Gore absolutely leveled inside linebacker Tavares Gooden. Then, Gore kept trying to get back in the action only to be turned away, as the coaches wanted others to get work. Anthony Dixon, whose pass protection has been a weakness, had good showings against Patrick Willis, Kourtnei Brown and Aldon Smith before Willis got a measure of revenge with a swift move to get around him."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee passes along an explanation on the 49ers' red zone troubles from offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Roman: "Were we as good as we wanted to be? Heck no, heck no. We didn't have enough time on task last year to be where we wanted to be in the red zone. It was a matter of execution more than anything."

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News offers 49ers notes, including this one: "Of Alex Smith's five interceptions last season, his final two came in opponents' end zones in back-to-back games, Nov. 20 against Arizona and Nov. 24 at Baltimore. None of his final 227 passes was intercepted, including 68 attempts in the playoffs."

Camp Confidential: St. Louis Rams

August, 2, 2012
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Jeff Fisher experienced plenty during 16-plus seasons as an NFL head coach, but his initial team meeting in St. Louis represented a career first.

The Rams' new leader was addressing a room filled with players he didn't know.

"That was different, but you could tell within the first three minutes of him being up there, with his presence, that the team was his," assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said.

Fisher won over the Rams, and not with a fiery speech or with bold promises.

"It's something that you can't put your hand on and touch it, but it's palpable," McGinnis said.

It's called quiet confidence born of experience, and it's what the Rams needed from their next coach after posting a 15-65 record over their previous five seasons, all under less experienced leadership. There's an authenticity to Fisher that resonates. Quarterback Sam Bradford first saw it during a nearly two-hour meeting with Fisher, conducted before Fisher agreed to take the job.

"I think the biggest thing for me when we met was, there was no nonsense," Bradford said. "Everything that he has said has been valuable information. There is never that talk just to talk. That is what everyone really respects about him."

Thanks to Fisher, the feeling at Rams camp has shifted from "if" the team can right itself to "when" it will happen.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Jeff Curry/US PresswireQB Sam Bradford has some new young talent to work with this season at the skill positions.
1. Can the Rams help Bradford? It's easy to forget that Bradford had two 300-yard passing games in his first five starts last season. The high-ankle sprain he suffered in Week 6 changed the trajectory of his season. Bradford wasn't the only one hurting. The Rams suffered more losses to injury in a season than all but one NFL team since 2002, according to Football Outsiders. They had no chance.

The plan this season will be to take pressure off Bradford with a run-first offense. That approach represents a philosophical about-face from the thinking former coordinator Josh McDaniels promoted last season. McDaniels' offense would have worked better under different circumstances. In retrospect, the Rams lacked the personnel to make it work, particularly after losing key players to injury.

The offensive personnel could be better this season. Young prospects at running back (Isaiah Pead) and on the perimeter (Brian Quick, Chris Givens) give the team fresh options. But no one is quite sure what the team has at wide receiver. It's also unclear whether young tackles Rodger Saffold and especially Jason Smith can give Bradford the protection he needs when the Rams do put the ball in the quarterback's hands.

The Rams have additional first-round draft choices over the next couple seasons. There's a good chance they'll use them mostly to bolster the offense. In the meantime, they'll protect Bradford through the design of their offense.

2. Another year, another offensive scheme. The Rams are learning their third offensive system in three seasons. Last season, the idea was for Bradford to help get the Rams into the perfect offensive play for whatever defense the opponent was running. This season, Fisher and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer want the Rams to run the ball for the sake of running it, even against loaded fronts.

This could be the Rams' most run-oriented offense from a philosophical standpoint since the team moved to St. Louis for the 1995 season. Longer term, it's fair to wonder whether this is the best offense for a franchise quarterback to realize his full potential as a passer. For now, though, the philosophy will play to the team's offensive strength (Steven Jackson) while minimizing a primary weakness (pass protection).

"This offense is ground, pound and we’re in your face," Jackson said. "Regardless of how much a team studies about us, they are probably going to be able to tell, out of this formation, this is what they like to run. So now the mentality has gone from trying to be tricky or crafty to more so, 'This is my hole, this is where I’m going, stop me.' Completely different attitude."

3. Are the Rams OK at outside linebacker? St. Louis is set at middle linebacker with James Laurinaitis, a player the organization wants to build around (expect a new contract for him soon). The question is whether the outside linebackers -- Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh -- represent much of an upgrade for a team seeking to improve its run defense.

Another question: How much does it really matter? The league isn't exactly brimming with elite outside linebackers in traditional 4-3 schemes. The position has been de-emphasized. The Rams will run their defense through Laurinaitis. Dunbar will remain on the field with him on passing downs.

The Rams could use ascending young talent on the outside. They had too many more important needs this offseason to justify throwing precious resources at a position of lesser value.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeChris Long
Jeff Curry/US PresswireLeft end Chris Long, coming off a 13-sack season, anchors a promising young defensive line.
Head coach and quarterback are the two most important figures in a football operation. The Rams have the right people in those positions. That gives them a chance.

The Rams also have the pass-rushing talent Fisher needs to run his aggressive defense. Left defensive end Chris Long is coming off a 13-sack season. On the right, 2011 first-round choice Robert Quinn is serving notice, at least in practice, that he's the best pure pass-rusher on the team. His ability to close on the quarterback even when off-balance or falling sets him apart from most.

I wondered coming into camp whether last season inflicted irreparable damage to Bradford. That was not the case. There hasn't been a more impressive player on the practice field to this point. It's stunning, in retrospect, that a team with such a talented quarterback could suffer through a 2-14 season. So many things had to go wrong.

Day after day, play after play, Bradford impresses even the most seasoned observers. Receivers coach Ray Sherman, most recently with the Dallas Cowboys, has been around accomplished quarterbacks throughout his coaching career. The list includes Warren Moon, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Boomer Esiason, Randall Cunningham, Brett Favre, Steve McNair and Tony Romo. He used the word "special" to describe Bradford.

"His temperament is just so calm," Sherman said of Bradford. "He has a demeanor about him and Brett was like that -- when he spoke, guys listened. They tune in. They know, 'We take care of this guy, he's going to take us a long way. He's going to do some special things.'"

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Look at the schedule. Road games against Detroit and Chicago in the first three weeks. Green Bay, New England and San Francisco during a three-game stretch at midseason. Four of the final six games on the road. Only seven true home games overall, the New England game having been moved to London.

No one said this job would be easy for Fisher and his veteran staff.

Danny Amendola looks like the best receiver on the team. He's a terrific slot receiver, but with an 8-yard career average per reception, he won't strike fear into opponents. Quick and Givens, though promising draft choices, are rookies nonetheless. It's an upset if either becomes a force right away and a bonus if veteran Steve Smith fights through recent knee troubles to become a factor.

Bradford has the talent to rack up yardage when healthy, but he might not have the weapons to finish drives with touchdowns. Think back to the game at Green Bay last season. Bradford threw for 328 yards with a 64.4 completion rate at Lambeau Field, but the Rams still lost, 24-3.

Also, the Rams are going to a run-first offense at a time when the passing game is king in the NFL.

"Sitting in our first offensive meeting, it was made clear that our identity as an offense, we’re going to be known as being a physical unit that can run the ball versus whatever," Bradford said. "It doesn’t matter if people put 8-9 in the box, we’re going to run the ball. That’s what we’re going to do, and we’re going to pound them and we’re going to wear them out, and then we’re going to take our shots."

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins might already be one of the three or four most talented players on the team. He's starting opposite free-agent newcomer Cortland Finnegan. "He is game-ready," Finnegan said. "I think he’s one of those special guys."
  • Brandon Gibson has been one of the better receivers in camp. That was the case a year ago, and it might have said something about the quality of the position overall. I'm looking at Gibson as a barometer for the position this season. It's good for the Rams if other receivers pass him on the depth chart.
  • The Rams won't know for sure until they put on the pads, but they're hopeful rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers can be more than just a run stuffer. They need him to factor as an inside pass-rusher as well. Having three relatively recent first-round picks on the defensive line -- Long, Brockers and Quinn -- gives Fisher and the defensive staff talent to work with.
  • Speaking of the defensive staff, I never heard Gregg Williams' name come up once during the first four days of camp. The NFL suspended Williams before he could get much work done as defensive coordinator. Fisher has never been one to panic. He's as cool as they come. The Rams moved on long ago. McGinnis: "I've been with Jeff when we were 10-0, and I’ve been with him when we were 0-6 and came back and won eight of our last 10. He doesn’t change. That type of self-confidence is transferable to a group. It’s transferable to individuals. That excites me."
  • Jackson, down to 235 pounds with 5.1 percent body fat, appears fresh in camp at age 29. Thomas Jones was that age when he rushed for 1,119 yards in Schottenheimer's offense with the Jets. Jones followed up that season with 1,312 yards at age 30, and 1,402 yards at age 31.
  • Rookie running back Pead stands out as an obvious talent. He's shifty. The question is whether he can pick up the offense quickly enough for the team to trust him in pass protection. The academic calendar at the University of Cincinnati prevented Pead from participating in organized team activities. He's behind from that standpoint, but he's got talent, and Schottenheimer likes using two backs. Those Jets teams referenced above had enough carries left over for secondary backs to gain 400-500 yards per season.
  • Long and Quinn had their way with the Rams' offensive tackles in pass-rushing situations. That could change some once players put on pads. Offensive linemen can become more aggressive at that point. I would expect the trend to continue, however. I'm expecting Long and Quinn to reach double-digit sacks.
  • Defensive end Eugene Sims played 25 percent of the Rams' defensive snaps last season. Look for that number to rise in 2012. The Rams' new staff likes his athleticism.
  • Jason Smith needs to become more patient as a pass protector at right tackle. He too frequently wants to bury the opponent. That's not necessary in pass protection. It's dangerous, in fact. Line coach Paul Boudreau went into the archives to produce a highlight reel showing former Rams great Orlando Pace letting opposing rushers come to him. Smith lacks Pace's talent, but if he can emulate Pace's patience, the Rams will have a better chance keeping Bradford upright.
  • "Gee-zee" would be rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein. Some are calling him "Greg the Leg" as well, and for good reason. Zuerlein has been powering through field goal tries from the 60-yard range. He made 23 of 24 attempts at Missouri Western State last season, including all nine tries from 50-plus yards. We'll see how it translates to the NFL. For now, though, the Rams aren't missing veteran Josh Brown.
  • The Rams have the youngest roster in the NFL, including the youngest specialists. They could be counting on a rookie, Johnny Hekker, to punt away from Patrick Peterson. That sounds risky, and it is, but the results can only get better. Peterson returned two for touchdowns against the Rams last season.

2012 pre-camp analysis: Rams 'O'

July, 2, 2012
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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.

NFC West training camp battles

July, 2, 2012
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AFC camp battles: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Quarterback: Kevin Kolb versus John Skelton.

The Cardinals have grown accustomed to quarterback competitions. This one has no clear leader heading toward training camp.

The pressure is squarely on Kolb to justify the Cardinals' investment in him. He's had time to get healthy and learn the offense. Kolb should be more confident and relaxed as a result. But he has yet to take charge of the team and command the respect that only comes through performance. He'll have an extended opportunity this summer thanks to an exhibition schedule featuring five games, one more than usual.

Kolb now has 16 career starts. Skelton has 11. Neither has been consistent, but the team won more frequently with Skelton last season.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Left guard: Rokevious Watkins versus Bryan Mattison.

The Rams are counting on offensive line coach Paul Boudreau to coach up the position at right tackle and left guard in particular.

Watkins is a rookie fifth-round choice with college experience at both guard and both tackle spots. He's listed at 338 pounds and has weighed considerably more, but the scouting reports question his strength. Mattison started four games for the Rams last season after two seasons in Baltimore as a backup. I've wondered whether Quinn Ojinnaka might project as the starter here, but he's more apt to play tackle. Barry Richardson could be a consideration, as well.

Whatever the case, the Rams will likely be counting on an inexperienced left guard to help protect Sam Bradford and clear running lanes for Steven Jackson. It's important someone rises to the occasion.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Nickel corner: Chris Culliver versus Perrish Cox.

The 49ers easily could have handed the job to Culliver after the 2011 third-round choice played better than 40 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Adding Cox creates competition and improves depth at a position that has become increasingly important as offenses more use additional wide receivers.

Cox started nine games for Denver in 2010 as a rookie fifth-round pick from Oklahoma State. He missed last season amid sexual-assault accusations, then signed with the 49ers following his acquittal this offseason. Cox played for 49ers secondary coach Ed Donatell in Denver, so the 49ers should have a good idea what he can offer.

Culliver seemed to fade some late in the season, no surprise for a rookie making a significant jump without the benefit of a regular offseason. He figures into the 49ers' plans no matter what, but will Cox siphon off some of his playing time?

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Quarterback: Tarvaris Jackson versus Matt Flynn versus Russell Wilson.

The Seahawks face a dilemma. Flynn, Wilson and Josh Portis are the quarterbacks they would ideally keep for the long term, but Jackson is the only one with meaningful experience. Jackson is the only one they know for sure they could trust to keep the team competitive right now.

Flynn and Wilson will earn roster spots. Jackson could win one, too. He could even start, but so could Flynn or Wilson. Wilson made a spectacular first impression during organized team activities and minicamp practices. His natural leadership ability and drive showed up repeatedly in how he commanded the huddle and the way he kept pressing coaches for additional information on the offense.

While it's natural to assume Flynn will emerge as the starter based on his salary and Wilson's inexperience, the Seahawks' excitement for Wilson has been palpable at every turn. This should be a fascinating battle once training camp begins.

Rams: Dream/nightmare scenario

May, 25, 2012
5/25/12
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AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Rams in 2012:

Dream scenario (8-8): Sam Bradford takes every snap on offense for the second time in three seasons as the Rams protect their franchise quarterback with sensible play-calling. It's the sixth time a Jeff Fisher-coached team finishes 8-8, but no one is complaining after the Rams' 15-65 run over the previous five seasons. Trusting offensive line coach Paul Boudreau to salvage right tackle Jason Smith becomes one of the surprise success stories of the 2012 season, and a critical one for the Rams' efforts to re-establish Bradford.

Turns out the Rams were not fibbing when they suggested Brian Quick, the receiver they took in the second round, ranked up there with first-rounder Justin Blackmon on their board. The constant threat of Steven Jackson and Isaiah Pead out of the backfield creates favorable matchups for Quick and the Rams' underrated receivers. Bradford publicly downplays a Week 2 victory over Robert Griffin III and Washington, but it feels good to win at home against the player St. Louis could have selected second overall this year.

Watching Janoris Jenkins score on a fourth-quarter punt return in Patrick Peterson's house improbably stakes the Rams to a 6-5 record, stirring visions of the postseason. It's certainly sweet to finally win within the division again. The Rams lose to San Francisco the following week and ultimately finish the regular season with a respectable defeat at Seattle, but the season is a success by any measure.

Nightmare scenario (3-13): Road games against Detroit and Chicago in the first three weeks expose Bradford to significant punishment as Smith and the line struggle to find their bearings. Bradford doesn't want to talk about the ankle injury he aggravated at some point in the season's first month, but it's clearly a factor. Facing Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh, Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, Julius Peppers, Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Cameron Wake and Clay Matthews in the first seven games leaves Bradford limping toward the bye week, his confidence shaken.

Jackson continues to plug away, but we've seen this movie before, and it doesn't end well for the Rams. The depth at receiver is indeed improved, but Bradford doesn't have any truly dynamic weapons. Quick understandably needs seasoning, but with Blackmon and Arizona's Michael Floyd challenging rookie receiving records, the Rams look bad for trading down. It's tough finding open receivers with Smith struggling at tackle, anyway.

First-round pick Michael Brockers and free-agent addition Kendall Langford upgrade the run defense, but life as an every-down defensive end is tough for Robert Quinn. The veteran outside linebackers signed as stopgaps represent only a minor upgrade from last season. Off-field issues dog Jenkins, and the defense fails to meet expectations. Critics conveniently blame Gregg Williams' suspension, but the problems are more complex than that.

The Rams head into the offseason with another high draft choice, one they'll almost certainly have to invest in a playmaker of some sort.

Pressure point: Rams

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
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NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the St. Louis Rams and why.

Jason Smith should be hitting his prime years as an offensive tackle for the Rams. There's a chance that will be the case, unlikely as it seems after three underwhelming seasons marked by injuries. The Rams reworked Smith's contract and will find out whether new line coach Paul Boudreau can help Smith, still only 26, fulfill more of his potential. Smith, limited to six games last season after suffering a concussion during a freak collision, will need better luck with injuries for that to happen.

It's instructive to recall the Rams' thinking when they made Smith the second player chosen in the 2009 draft. The feeling then was that Smith remained in the early stages of a transition from tight end to tackle, and that Eugene Monroe, selected eighth overall that year by Jacksonville, was more polished coming out of college.

"The way we look at it, he has played at a high level with only three years at the position," Billy Devaney, then the Rams' general manager, said of Smith at the time. "So you try to project a year or two down the road with that kind of development that we see, he’ll be that much better. If you take Monroe, he comes in and lines up on Sunday, if we're playing, at left tackle and plays. He's been there longer. Jason has been a right tackle and that’s what gives us flexibility. ... His production is good now and his potential is outstanding."

The Rams are envisioning more of a run-oriented offense this year. That could help Smith, their projected starter at right tackle, find his bearings. The schedule presents challenges, however. Smith opens the season on the road against Detroit and the Lions' franchise player, Cliff Avril. The Washington Redskins' Ryan Kerrigan is on the schedule in Week 2, followed by matchups against rookie first-round picks Shea McClellin (Chicago) and Bruce Irvin (Seattle). Green Bay's Clay Matthews is also on the schedule in the first seven games.
The 1990 NFL draft class featured Pro Football Hall of Famers Cortez Kennedy and Emmitt Smith.

Sadly, that class also included Jeff Alm, who committed suicide following a traffic accident that killed his best friend, and Anthony Smith, who would be charged with murder in 2011.

No one could have anticipated fifth overall choice Junior Seau, 43, joining that second tragic list before taking his rightful place among Kennedy and Smith as Hall of Famers from that draft class.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com grew up in San Diego and covered the AFC West during Seau's prime years with the San Diego Chargers. Farnsworth: "I knew of Seau before I ever saw him play. In the fall of 1973, I was working for a newspaper in Oceanside, Calif., and covering the high school football team. Seau played at Oceanside High before becoming an All-American at USC. Just the mention of his name would create a silence of reverence in the locker room, especially from the players of Samoan decent. Whenever coach Herb Meyer needed an example while discussing a current player, he would evoke memories of Seau. Unfortunately, that’s all any of us are left with -- our memories of Tiaina Baul Seau, Jr."

Also from Farnsworth: Michael Robinson's plan to build on a Pro Bowl season.

Brock Huard of 710ESPN Seattle thinks Visanthe Shiancoe would be an appealing option for the Seahawks at tight end.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic offers thoughts on the Cardinals' front-office changes involving Steve Keim and Jason Licht. Somers: "It's interesting, and I would think encouraging for the Cardinals, that both Keim and Licht were considered for general managers' jobs in the off-season. Keim interviewed in St. Louis, and Licht in Chicago. T.J. McCreight, one of the unsung workhorses in the organization, moved from pro personnel director to a job in the Colts' front office."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch notes that former Rams kicker Josh Brown has signed with the New York Jets. Thomas: "Brown, 33, was deemed expendable in St. Louis after the Rams drafted Missouri Western State kicker Greg Zuerlein in the sixth round of the NFL draft Saturday. Fisher informed Brown he was being released later Saturday. With the Jets, Brown is expected to compete with Nick Folk for the kicking job."

Also from Thomas: a chat transcript with thoughts on the offensive line, and more. Thomas: "They did add Scott Wells at center, a former Pro Bowler, in free agency from Green Bay. They added G/T Quinn Ojinnaka and C/G Robert Turner in free agency. And they drafted Rokevious "Rock" (or he might spell it "Rok" _ I'll have to find out ) Watkins in the fifth round. Line coach Paul Boudreau is known for being able to develop talent. The belief is he'll get Saffold back up to par at left tackle and can straighten out Jason Smith's technique. For now, Ojinnaka, Turner, Watkins, and returning squad member Bryan Mattison will all be thrown in the mix competing for the left guard line."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com offers thoughts on the 49ers' crowded offensive backfield. Maiocco: "As Frank Gore begins his eighth NFL season and has 1,653 regular-season rush attempts, the 49ers finally have some quality depth behind him. It seems likely that Gore's play time will decrease this season with more players capable of filling in. ... Anthony Dixon played just 52 snaps of offense last season. Dixon must convince the 49ers' coaching staff that he's as serious about his football career as the other running backs on the roster. As the offseason begins, Dixon clearly has the most ground to make up in the battle to win a roster spot."

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News offers thoughts from current and former 49ers on Seau's passing.

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