NFC West: Plaxico Burress

Gregg Williams, a man not known for mincing words when he was defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints, spoke in a very different tone Friday.

[+] EnlargeGregg Williams
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliFormer Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has remained quiet since being suspended indefinitely.
At a charity golf tournament in his hometown of Excelsior Springs, Mo., Williams told Elizabeth Merrill that he will coach again.

Williams has been suspended indefinitely for his role in the Saints’ bounty program. Williams declined comment on the bounty scandal and said the golf event was “all about the kids,’’ who benefit from his charity foundation.

Williams left the Saints for the St. Louis Rams immediately after last season. He previously issued a public apology for his role in the scandal. The fact Williams is staying quiet might seem out of character. But it’s probably the smartest thing Williams can do right now. If he is ever going to have a chance to work in the NFL again, staying quiet and humble is his best approach.

Although NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been stern when handing out punishments in the past, he also has shown a willingness to give people second chances (see Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress). Williams was the only player, coach or administrator that did not appeal his suspension.

There have been many that have said Williams never again should be allowed to coach in the NFL. That might end up being the case.

But Williams is at least making an effort not to anger Goodell, any further and that could score him valuable points in the long run.


Todd McShay set off alarms as he considered if NFL teams drafting sixth (St. Louis Rams) and 10th (Buffalo Bills) might consider selecting wide receivers with those choices.

The alarms grew louder as McShay, speaking in the video above, noted that Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon, widely rated as the top receiver in the 2012 NFL draft, did not possess prototypical size.

Blackmon, though obviously talented, doesn't fit the physical mold for receivers drafted among the top three overall choices over the past 25-plus years. We discussed the reasons back at the combine, when the Rams held the second overall choice and Blackmon was a consideration for them.

The Rams subsequently traded the second overall choice to Washington. They now hold the sixth overall choice. Blackmon would be a more logical value there than at No. 2, except for those alarms going off.

Consider recent draft history.

First, take a look at receivers drafted among the top five overall choices since 2000, listed in the first chart below.

Three of the seven are superstars: Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson. Another, A.J. Green, is coming off an impressive rookie season. Braylon Edwards has enjoyed sporadic success. The other two, Charles Rogers and Peter Warrick, fell far short of expectations.

Those seven players have combined for 12 Pro Bowl appearances (Fitzgerald 5, Johnson 5, Johnson 1, Edwards 1).

The next set of receivers, listed below, were drafted sixth to 15th overall. I selected that range because three NFC West teams -- the Rams, Seattle Seahawks (12th) and Arizona Cardinals (13th) -- hold picks in that area.

The 16 players listed in the second chart have combined for two Pro Bowls, one by Roy Williams and the other by Koren Robinson as a return specialist in Minnesota, long after Robinson had bombed as a receiver.

Receivers talented enough to command selection among the top few overall choices have fared better than the ones with enough question marks to push them down into the next tier.

That is something to consider when weighing how the Rams, Seahawks and Cardinals should use their first-round selections, even if the Rams did land Torry Holt with the sixth overall choice in 1999.
The list of available unrestricted free-agent receivers continues to dwindle.

The St. Louis Rams aren't going to find the playmaking help they covet on a list featuring Plaxico Burress, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Patrick Crayton, Rashied Davis, Deion Branch, Jerheme Urban, Bryant Johnson, Roy Williams, Greg Camarillo, Jerricho Cotchery, Mark Clayton, Roscoe Parrish, Michael Clayton, Courtney Roby, Michael Spurlock, David Anderson, Legedu Naanee, Devin Aromashodu, Donnie Avery, Maurice Stovall, Andre Caldwell, Ted Ginn Jr., Steve Smith (Philly version), Jerome Simpson and Devin Thomas.

Roger Hensley of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked colleagues how the Rams will address the issue. Jim Thomas: "There’s not much left at the position in free agency. The wide receiver shelves were cleaned out quickly, so barring a trade of some kind -- which seems unlikely -- the Rams are almost limited to getting help via the draft. And at No. 6 overall, there’s no guarantee that Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State will be available. So yes, the team is in a bit of a predicament at wide receiver."

Also from Thomas, regarding Mike Wallace: "He has a first-round tender. And you can only use your original first-round pick as compensation. The Rams no longer have their original first-round pick after trading down with Washington. So they can't acquire Wallace through the regular process of restricted free agency. Now, the Rams could always offer less in a sign-and-trade situation. But why would the Steelers want less than a first-rounder? They put the tender on him in an attempt to keep him." Noted: The Rams could, in theory, offer the sixth overall pick, but that would be a steep price to pay.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch thinks the Rams should steer clear of Tim Tebow.

Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis says the Rams' search for a backup quarterback continues in the absence of attractive options.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com quotes 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh regarding Harbaugh's relationship with Alex Smith: "It's been good -- strong relationship, as always. It's a very strong relationship."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee has this to say about the situation with Smith: "It's unclear if Smith agrees with Harbaugh that they are as tight as they've ever been. The team's offer did not exactly mesh with Harbaugh's statements of devotion during and after the season. While it's all but certain Smith will be the 49ers' quarterback this season, it also leaves an opening for backup Colin Kaepernick to take over before the three years are complete. Kaepernick has been a regular at the 49ers' training facility this offseason."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers have ruled out Tebow, according to CEO Jed York.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Early Doucet's re-signing means the Cardinals will return their top receivers from last season. Urban: "Doucet set career-highs in 2011 with 54 receptions, 689 yards and five touchdowns in his fourth NFL season, playing in 16 games for the first time. He came up with a pair of long touchdown catches against Carolina (70 yards) and San Francisco (60 yards) and scored on a game-winning screen pass in Philadelphia."

Also from Urban: The Cardinals have little salary-cap room, and there are tradeoffs associated with gaining flexibility.

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle quotes Seahawks coach Pete Carroll as saying Peyton Manning reached out to the Seahawks while figuring out which team to join. Carroll: "He had contacted me about wanting to talk about coming here. By the time we got down to where we had our chance he had already set his sights on going in the direction wound up going, with Denver."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times looks at the market for free-agent linebacker David Hawthorne. O'Neil: "Hawthorne has led Seattle in tackles each of the past three years, but right now, the market for free-agent linebackers looks to be a little softer than some expected." Noted: Looks like we're approaching that period where players reset their expectations before taking deals for less than they had hoped.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com puts together an overview of free agency from the Seahawks' perspective.
Wide receivers Vincent Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Reggie Wayne, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, Laurent Robinson, Josh Morgan, Eric Weems and Harry Douglas have found new homes after hitting the NFL's free-agent market.

Franchise tags essentially removed from consideration Dwayne Bowe, Wes Welker and DeSean Jackson.

Others, such as Marques Colston, re-signed before free agency.

Teams still searching for help at the position -- that would be pretty much everyone but Seattle in the NFC West -- are left with a picked-over group of free agents.

Jerome Simpson, Plaxico Burress, Brandon Lloyd, Legedu Naanee, Devin Aromashodu, Roy Williams, Mario Manningham and Early Doucet are the only ones remaining to have played at least half of their team's offensive snaps during the 2011 season.

As the chart shows, Burress was particularly effective in the red zone for the New York Jets. He converted first downs 38 times in 45 receptions for the third-highest percentage among wide receivers with at least 40 receptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Burress is also up there in age. He's among 12 available wideouts already in their 30s: Hines Ward (36), Burress (34), T.J. Houshmandzadeh (34), Kevin Curtis (33), Patrick Crayton (32), Deion Branch (32), Rashied Davis (32), Donte Stallworth (31), Jerheme Urban (31), Bryant Johnson (31), Lloyd (30) and Williams (30).

Of them, Lloyd has visited the San Francisco 49ers.

Nine more are 29 years old: Greg Camarillo, Keary Colbert, Mark Clayton, Jerricho Cotchery, Roscoe Parrish, Michael Clayton, Courtney Roby, Michael Spurlock and Braylon Edwards.

Still interested?

OK, let's check out 18 others, all younger than 29: David Anderson, Legedu Naanee, Devin Aroshamodu, Donnie Avery, Anthony Gonzalez, Maurice Stovall, Derek Hagan, Mike Sims-Walker, Ted Ginn Jr., Andre Caldwell, Steve Smith, Doucet, Brett Swain, Chaz Schilens, Simpson, Manningham, Devin Thomas and Kevin Ogletree.

Schilens visited Arizona and San Francisco. Manningham visited the 49ers and the St. Louis Rams.

I've also broken down the available wideouts by drafted round:
  • First: Williams, Burress, Ginn, Stallworth, both Claytons, Johnson, Gonzalez and Edwards
  • Second: Avery, Thomas, Simpson, Smith, Parrish, Branch, Colbert
  • Third: Roby, Doucet, Hagan, Stovall, Manningham, Caldwell, Curtis, Sims-Walker, Ward
  • Fourth: Cotchery, Lloyd
  • Fifth: Legedu Naanee
  • Sixth: none
  • Seventh: Houshmandzadeh, Crayton, Schilens, Aromashodu, Anderson, Swain
  • Undrafted: Davis, Urban, Camarillo, Spurlock, Ogletree

Only a handful of the available receivers project as starters. None would qualify as an outright game-breaker.

The Rams in particular need playmakers, but in looking at what is available, how many would qualify as dramatically better than what they already have? Austin Pettis, Brandon Gibson, Danario Alexander, Dominique Curry, Greg Salas and restricted free agent Danny Amendola are their current wideouts.

NFC West: Free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Arizona Cardinals

Key free agents: DE Calais Campbell (franchise tag), CB Richard Marshall, OLB Clark Haggans, WR Early Doucet, T Brandon Keith, G Deuce Lutui, K Jay Feely.

Where they stand: A strong finish to the 2011 season on defense gives the Cardinals a glass-half-full feel heading into free agency. Going from 1-6 to 8-8 was an impressive achievement. Arizona does have serious concerns on its offensive line. The situation at tackle is particularly questionable even if Levi Brown returns (and maybe especially if he returns, depending on your view). The line concerns might actually dissipate some if the team lands Peyton Manning, a quarterback with the ability to beat pressure with quick throws. But tackle is still an area that needs addressing for the long term. Injuries throughout the offensive backfield raise questions about that area as well. Kevin Kolb (concussion), Beanie Wells (knee), Ryan Williams (knee) and Anthony Sherman (ankle) missed extensive time or played at a diminished level for stretches.

What to expect: The Cardinals are one of the teams chasing Manning. That pursuit could consume them for the short term. Landing Manning would signal the end for Kolb in Arizona. The Cardinals have until March 17 to exercise a $7 million option on Kolb, the quarterback they acquired from Philadelphia for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a fat contract. I'm expecting a resolution to Manning's situation before the Kolb bonus comes due simply because interest in Manning should be high enough to accelerate the process. The Cardinals had about $3 million in salary-cap space entering the week, according to ESPN's John Clayton. That figure could increase substantially once the team releases Brown or reworks his contract. Arizona still has strong coaching ties to Pittsburgh on both sides of the ball, but it's an upset if the Cardinals seriously pursue any of the aging veterans recently released by the Steelers. Developing young talent is the priority now. Re-signing Marshall, who fared well at corner, should be a priority. Does free-agent linebacker Stewart Bradley still factor prominently into the team's plans, particularly at such a high price?

St. Louis Rams

Key free agents: WR Brandon Lloyd, G Jacob Bell, CB Justin King, OL Adam Goldberg, LB Chris Chamberlain, G Tony Wragge, TE Billy Bajema, WR Mark Clayton, DT Gary Gibson, P Donnie Jones.

Where they stand: The Rams have no interest in staying the course from a personnel standpoint after going 15-65 over the past five seasons. They will seek fresh talent almost across the board as Jeff Fisher's new coaching staff seeks players for its schemes. The Rams are seeking playmakers in particular, starting at wide receiver. The offensive line needs addressing, although the Rams might try to minimize the turnover at offensive tackle for the short term, figuring they cannot afford to create new needs. But former starting center Jason Brown, benched last season, appears unlikely to return. The team also needs two starting outside linebackers, starting defensive tackles and perhaps two starting cornerbacks on defense.

What to expect: Mass roster turnover. I could see the team retaining as few as one or two players from its list of 21 projected unrestricted free agents. The Rams have a disproportionate amount of their salary cap tied up in recent high draft choices Sam Bradford, Chris Long and Jason Smith. The rookie wage scale will provide them cap relief even if the team remains among the teams picking very high in the 2012 draft. Bradford and Long are cornerstones. Smith could stick around at a reduced rate. The team still has hope for him under new offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan and defensive lineman Jason Jones, both free agents from Tennessee, have ties to Fisher and could make sense for the Rams. Despite the need for playmakers on offense, the Rams did not use the franchise tag on Lloyd, their most talented receiver. Questions persist about how effective Lloyd might be outside Josh McDaniels' offense.

San Francisco 49ers

Key free agents: QB Alex Smith, CB Carlos Rogers, FS Dashon Goldson (franchise tag), G Adam Snyder, WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Josh Morgan, G Chilo Rachal, FB Moran Norris, LB Blake Costanzo.

Where they stand: Coach Jim Harbaugh has said it's a bit unsettling heading through the offseason with his starting quarterback unsigned. Smith and the 49ers are expected to reach agreement eventually. This relationship will almost certainly continue even if Smith does reach free agency without a deal in place. Smith would not fit nearly as well anywhere else. Harbaugh likes to use the word "equity" when describing players he wants to keep. The 49ers would rather bring back Smith than invite the disruption that Manning would bring, were they able to land him. The team needs help at wide receiver and possibly cornerback, depending upon what happens with Rogers. Getting Goldson at the relatively reasonable franchise rate ($6.2 million) was a plus for the 49ers' continuity in the secondary.

What to expect: Not a whole lot, most likely. The 49ers were a good team last season after taking a low-keyed approach to the free-agent market. They will presumably show interest in Vincent Jackson, Mike Wallace and any high-profile, productive receiver with the talent to upgrade their offense. It's a small upset if the 49ers land one of them, however, because their philosophy is built on a measured approach resistant to overpaying. They will have to address the receiver position in free agency one way or another, however. Re-signing Morgan would help. Pierre Garcon, Marques Colston, Mario Manningham, Plaxico Burress and Robert Meachem are among the other options in free agency. An upgrade at right guard would help the line, but the 49ers might be apt to develop 2011 draft choice Daniel Kilgore after investing first-round choices in their left tackle (Joe Staley), left guard (Mike Iupati) and right tackle (Anthony Davis).

Seattle Seahawks

Key free agents: DE Red Bryant, LB David Hawthorne, LB Leroy Hill, OL Paul McQuistan, DE Raheem Brock, DL Tony Hargrove, FB Michael Robinson, RB Justin Forsett, QB Charlie Whitehurst, LB Matt McCoy, TE John Carlson, LB Heath Farwell.

Where they stand: The Seahawks' long-term quarterback situation hangs over them as they head toward the 2012 draft with only the 12th overall choice. The team has built up the rest of its roster to a point where sticking with Tarvaris Jackson as the primary starter could hold back the team to a degree it did not through much of last season. Upgrading the pass rush is another priority for the Seahawks. With defensive end Raheem Brock publicly stumping for Seattle to land Manning, his former teammate, I couldn't help but wonder which one of them had a better shot at earning a roster spot with the team in 2012. It might be Manning, even if the Seahawks are relative long shots for his services. Brock failed to provide the pass-rush push Seattle needed opposite Chris Clemons. Linebacker is another position the Seahawks need to address, whether or not Hawthorne and Hill return.

What to expect: The Seahawks have roughly $30 million in cap space, according to Clayton, and will make every effort to land Manning. They feel they've got a shot as long as they can persuade him to get on a plane and check out what they have to offer in terms of the roster, coaching, facilities, ownership and more. If Manning goes elsewhere, I would expect the Seahawks to consider Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn. Securing him at a price lower than what Arizona paid for Kolb would be the goal. As badly as the Seahawks want to upgrade the position, they have said they will not panic. Overpaying for Flynn could represent panic in their eyes. On the pass-rush front, I'm increasingly skeptical the team will shell out for Mario Williams. The price could be too high for a player Houston has decided to let hit the market. Re-signing Bryant is a priority, but using the franchise tag for him was never an option given the $10.6 million price. A deal slightly north of the one teammate Brandon Mebane signed seems likelier if Bryant returns.

Leading Questions: NFC West

February, 21, 2012
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With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC West team upon beginning preparations for the 2012 season:

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Why so much hedging over the quarterbacks?

Team president Michael Bidwill and general manager Rod Graves are both on record as hedging their bets about Kevin Kolb returning for a second season with the team. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has recently made it clear the team would not make Kolb its outright starter for 2012, instead forcing him to compete with John Skelton.

The money Kolb would earn if he did return will guarantee him riches, but not a starting job.

The approach is vintage Whisenhunt. Now entering his sixth season with the team, Whisenhunt has remained consistently averse to anointing starters. The approach reflects his own NFL playing career. Whisenhunt stuck with Atlanta as a 12th-round draft choice in 1985, starting 43 of the 74 games he played over seven seasons. Nothing was handed to him and nothing will be handed to his players now.

The Cardinals' relatively noncommittal approach with Kolb has left the impression Arizona could go after Peyton Manning. That could be a difficult decision to make strategically, however, because Manning might need time to get healthy. Letting Kolb hit the market without knowing whether Manning could hold up would leave the Cardinals with Skelton as their fallback option.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

How can the Rams help themselves in free agency?

This is a tough one. Very few of the Rams' own free agents qualify as players the team must re-sign.

Receiver Brandon Lloyd is arguably the only clear starting-caliber player on the list. He is 30 years old and, by all accounts, hoping to catch on with Josh McDaniels in New England.

Teams with new coaching staffs often sign players with connections to various assistants. The Rams could follow that path.

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was in New Orleans, where cornerback Tracy Porter might be the most impressive defensive player scheduled to hit free agency.

Coach Jeff Fisher was with Tennessee when another potential free-agent corner, Cortland Finnegan, was building his reputation as one of the NFL's most hard-nosed defensive backs.

Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was with the New York Jets, but their list of offensive free agents features older players such as Mark Brunell, LaDainian Tomlinson and Plaxico Burress.

New general manager Les Snead has ties to the Atlanta Falcons' free agents, including 35-year-old center Todd McClure and 35-year-old outside linebacker Mike Peterson. Linebacker Curtis Lofton is only 25 and a productive player, but he has played the one linebacker position where the Rams are set, in the middle. Cornerback Brent Grimes is 28 and has a Pro Bowl on his résumé, giving the Rams a connection to another established corner.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

How much better can Alex Smith become?

The 49ers plan to re-sign Smith after the veteran quarterback finished the 2011 season with 17 touchdown passes, five interceptions, a career-best 90.7 NFL passer rating and a signature playoff victory over New Orleans.

It's easy to forget that rules governing free agents prevented Smith from participating in formal 49ers practices until Aug. 4, only five weeks before the regular-season opener. Smith nonetheless appeared in tune with new coach Jim Harbaugh and new coordinator Greg Roman. He did take too many sacks and, until the team's divisional playoff victory over New Orleans, became best known for avoiding turnovers.

Smith did seem to progress as the season went along. It'll be tough for him to match or improve upon his TD-to-INT ratio. Opponents will be better equipped to counter scheme advantages the 49ers enjoyed with a new staff fresh from the college ranks. Durability will be another concern if Smith takes another 44 sacks.

But logic also suggests Smith can continue to grow within the 49ers' offense. He proved skeptics wrong last season and appears positioned to do so again.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

What is the holdup with Marshawn Lynch's new contract?

Yes, the Seahawks want to bring back Lynch. His physical running style gives them an edge Seattle cannot realistically get from another back in 2012.

There have been no hard reasons to get a deal done quickly, however. Seattle can name Lynch its franchise player, an appealing alternative for teams wary of how long running backs will hold up physically. Lynch has until March 13 before becoming a free agent for the first time in his career. His next long-term deal could be his final one. He'll want to get more than what Seattle would pay him in guaranteed money as a franchise player over the next couple seasons.

Lynch is 25 years old and has 1,280 career touches. Steven Jackson (2,507), Frank Gore (1,940) and Maurice Jones-Drew (1,762) are among the prominent backs with considerably more touches. Seattle should be able to get three more productive seasons from Lynch, enough to justify doing a multiyear deal with him.

But the franchise tag provides a tantalizing fallback.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Count Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk among those skeptical of the St. Louis Rams' switch to Brian Schottenheimer as offensive coordinator.

What will the switch mean for the Rams and quarterback Sam Bradford in particular? About four seconds passed between the question and Faulk's answer from Super Bowl media day Tuesday. Schottenheimer, hired after a six-year run with the New York Jets, will implement coach Jeff Fisher's broader vision for an offense that runs the ball well and protects the quarterback.

"I don't think there was a huge difference between how the Jets' offense looked and how the Rams' offense looked," Faulk said.

In terms of production? Scheme?

"Period," Faulk said. "You can take that how you want to."

The Jets ranked 25th in yards per game last season. The Rams were 31st. The Jets were 13th in points scored. The Rams were 32nd.

"If Schottenheimer is going to reinvent himself," Faulk said, letting the thought die. "You don't get it any better than Shonn Greene, L.T. [LaDainian Tomlinson], Plaxico [Burress] and Santonio [Holmes] and [Dustin] Keller. And now he is going to a team that doesn't have a No. 1 receiver. Steven Jackson probably has 4-5 more years in that body. Lance Kendricks, a good tight end who dropped the ball a lot last year, and that surprised me after watching him in preseason. And a young quarterback in Bradford who I hope didn't get beat up too much to take away from who he really is."

Faulk serves as a TV analyst for the Rams' preseason games. Skepticism is usually warranted. The Rams had reason for excitement entering last season, but none of it translated to the field. Some of the dynamics with the Jets were unusual and beyond a coordinator's control, however. Those dynamics surely affected the product on the field.
News that Plaxico Burress has opted to sign with the New York Jets and not the San Francisco 49ers comes as little surprise based on factors outlined here Saturday.

Landing Burress was a long shot for the 49ers. I cannot fault them for trying. They need help at wide receiver while Michael Crabtree recovers from a foot injury. Burress would have given them a big, experienced target. If pursuing Burress gave the team a 5 percent shot at signing him, that was better than the chances if they did not pursue him at all.

There simply weren't compelling reasons for Burress to choose the 49ers over the Jets or Pittsburgh Steelers, who also courted him. The Jets have become perennial playoff contenders. Burress has roots on the East Coast, having played for the New York Giants most recently. Burress had no known ties to the 49ers' coaching staff.

It's easy to say the 49ers have struck out in free agency, failing to land Nnamdi Asomugha and now Burress. But how close was the team to securing those players? How much should we fault the 49ers for making an effort against long odds? How many teams secure championship seasons through free agency? Has it worked for the Washington Redskins?

Some of the best teams in the league, including Green Bay and Pittsburgh, use free agency sparingly. Of course, those teams landed franchise quarterbacks in the draft. Those teams have proven they can identify and develop talent.

Niners general manager Trent Baalke, speaking to reporters recently, said he understands fans' frustration.

"It's tough for the fans to look at it and hear us say we're going to take a patient approach when we've had as many seasons as we've had and not made the playoffs," Baalke said. "That's totally understandable. But we are going to be patient. We have been patient. We do have a plan and we're executing the plan. And I guess the only thing is the test of time. And how successful this plan is will be measured by how successful we'll become on the field."
What's on my mind amid news that veteran receiver Plaxico Burress plans to visit the San Francisco 49ers:
  • The prison sentence Burress served on a weapons violation had to be sobering. Had Burress sought to injure someone, the 49ers would be better off steering clear. The parole restrictions in place for Burress provide a strong and compelling deterrent against future shenanigans, particularly given how much Burress stands to earn in the NFL.
  • Michael Crabtree's foot injury puts the 49ers in a tough spot at receiver. Adding Burress would give the 49ers another big target, and one with ample experience. Burress would be coming into the offense cold, but so are most of the 49ers.
  • The 49ers' quarterback situation makes the team less appealing to free-agent receivers. The Pittsburgh Steelers have courted Burress pretty strongly. Burress has been hanging out with his former teammates there. If I were the 49ers, I'd be suspicious of Burress using their interest to leverage a better deal elsewhere.
  • Burress does not appear to have any strong connections to members of the 49ers' coaching staff. Such connections can be important.
  • Burress is 33 years old and hasn't played since the 2008 season. The 49ers are entering their first season under coach Jim Harbaugh. They're mostly young on offense. Burress doesn't fit the profile for what the 49ers want in the long term, but Crabtree's injury could force them to consider options they otherwise would not.

Burress' meeting with the 49ers could face travel-related delays, according to Josina Anderson of Fox 31 Sports in Denver.
Whatever plan the San Francisco 49ers have for free agency remains a mystery.

Coach Jim Harbaugh wants it that way for what he cited as competitive reasons.

I'm not sure what competitive edge would be lost if Harbaugh admitted the obvious, such as the team's need for help at receiver with Michael Crabtree injured, or the need for cornerback help following Nate Clements' release.

It's tough to know how seriously the 49ers were about trade talks for veteran receiver Chad Ochocinco, who wound up in New England. It's tough to say whether the 49ers were serious about Nnamdi Asomugha before the cornerback signed with Philadelphia. And it's tough to know how strong the 49ers' reported interest in Plaxico Burress might be.

It's easier to see why those players would land elsewhere. Given a choice, established veterans often first seek opportunities with teams better positioned for championship success.

The 49ers' long-term plan is apparent: groom Colin Kaepernick at quarterback and continue to build through the draft. It's tougher to know whether the 49ers have a valid short-term plan without the team acknowledging one. While it's premature to harshly criticize a team for inactivity barely 24 hours into the free-agent signing period, it's natural to wonder in the absence of evidence whether the 49ers feel the same urgency their fans feel when watching other teams attempt to upgrade their rosters.

NFC West free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
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» NFC: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC West team:

Arizona Cardinals

1. Sign or acquire a quarterback: You've heard all the potential names by now. Kevin Kolb, Kyle Orton, Carson Palmer, Marc Bulger and Matt Hasselbeck all could be available. The same goes for Donovan McNabb, but the Cardinals aren't interested in him. How much interest they have in the others remains less clear. They liked Bulger as an option last offseason, but the timing wasn't right. Kolb reportedly stands atop their wish list now, although price is a consideration. One way or another, the Cardinals will go into the 2011 season with fresh veteran blood at the position.

2. Firm up the offensive line: Left guard Alan Faneca retired. Center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui have expiring contracts. Brandon Keith showed promise at right tackle, but he's coming off knee surgery. A better quarterback would help take pressure off the line, but Arizona isn't going to find another Kurt Warner. The team has loaded up at running back, adding second-round choice Ryan Williams to an already crowded backfield. The Cardinals need to re-sign Sendlein. Letting Lutui depart would put them in the market for veteran help. I've looked through the free-agent lists for guards already familiar to the Cardinals. Pittsburgh's Trai Essex, a starter in 21 games over the past two seasons, played for Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm with the Steelers.

3. Work toward a deal with Larry Fitzgerald: Ideally, the Cardinals would have landed their next quarterback in March, then spent the offseason working toward extending Fitzgerald's contract beyond the 2011 season. Fitzgerald is an NFL rarity. He's in line to sign three massive contracts during the course of his career. He signed the first one as the third player chosen in the 2004 draft. That deal ultimately became untenable for the Cardinals, giving Fitzgerald the leverage to get $40 million over four seasons, plus assurances Arizona would not name him its franchise player once the deal ended. Fitzgerald, still only 27, will cash in at least one more time.

Top five free agents: Sendlein, Lutui, receiver Steve Breaston, defensive lineman Alan Branch, defensive lineman Gabe Watson.

St. Louis Rams

1. Upgrade the run defense: The Rams could use another defensive tackle to take their promising defensive front to another level. Adding Fred Robbins in free agency last offseason was a good start. Barry Cofield (New York Giants) and Brandon Mebane (Seattle Seahawks) are scheduled to become free agents this offseason. Cofield played for Steve Spagnuolo and would transition to the Rams' system easily. The Rams could use an in-the-box safety, something they addressed later in the draft. They need to find one and possibly two starting outside linebackers. Chase Blackburn projects more as a backup, but he was also with Spagnuolo on the Giants. Blackburn has played all three linebacker positions. Minnesota's Ben Leber would make sense as well. Paul Ferraro, the Rams' linebackers coach, was with the Vikings previously.

2. Help out Steven Jackson: Adding a third-down back such as Darren Sproles would lighten the load for Jackson, who has played through several injuries in recent seasons. Jackson has 654 rushing attempts over the past two seasons despite missing one game and playing for a team that has often trailed its opponents. Only Chris Johnson (674) has more carries during that span. Sproles isn't the only viable potential option. Jason Snelling, DeAngelo Williams and Reggie Bush also could become available. Upgrading at right guard would also help out Jackson.

3. Figure out the situation at receiver. It's questionable whether the Rams will find any clear upgrades at receiver in free agency. That could lead them to stand pat at the position. They have quantity, but not enough high-end quality. Adding more quantity wouldn't solve much. Plaxico Burress gets mentioned as an option for his ties to Spagnuolo, but he's been out of the game and might not offer much. The Rams thought about claiming Randy Moss off waivers last season. Moss could make more sense for the Rams now that Josh McDaniels is offensive coordinator. He worked well with Moss in New England. Sidney Rice could also have appeal.

Top five free agents: receiver Mark Clayton, guard Adam Goldberg, defensive tackle Clifton Ryan and tight end Daniel Fells.

Seattle Seahawks

1. Sign or acquire a quarterback: Bringing back Hasselbeck remains an option. The team expressed interest in Kolb last offseason. The team could also add a lower-profile veteran to the mix -- perhaps a Matt Leinart type -- for an open competition with Charlie Whitehurst. That would not excite Seattle fans, of course. Getting a young quarterback to build around would be ideal, but the Seahawks are adamant they will not force the situation in the absence of viable options. They weren't going to do it in the draft, when they passed over Andy Dalton for tackle James Carpenter. They probably aren't going to do it in free agency, either.

2. Solidify the offensive line: Tom Cable's addition as assistant head coach/offensive line puts the Seahawks in position to court Oakland Raiders guard Robert Gallery in free agency. Gallery has said he's not returning to the Raiders. Seattle has drafted its starting tackles, starting center and starting right guard in the past few seasons. Max Unger and Russell Okung need better luck with injuries. Okung would also benefit from an experienced presence next to him at left guard. Gallery qualifies as such and he would fit the zone system Cable wants to run. Green Bay's Daryn Colledge could be available, too. He has ties to Seahawks general manager John Schneider. Former Seattle starters Chris Spencer, Sean Locklear, Chester Pitts and Ray Willis might not return.

3. Plug holes on defense. Mebane appears headed for free agency. The Seahawks want him back, but how badly? Mebane could fit better in a purer 4-3 defense. He also might command more money elsewhere. Injuries along the defensive front could also affect the Seahawks' needs. Red Bryant is coming off season-ending knee surgery. Injuries affected Colin Cole and Chris Clemons last season as well. Cornerback is another area to monitor once free agency opens. Does Marcus Trufant still fit at his relatively high price? The Cincinnati Bengals' Johnathan Joseph and other free-agent corners could appeal.

Top five free agents: Hasselbeck, Mebane, Locklear, linebacker Will Herring, defensive end Raheem Brock.

San Francisco 49ers

1. Re-sign Alex Smith: Smith and the 49ers renewed their vows informally this offseason. The official ceremony should come when free agency opens and Smith signs with the team. Smith's name continues to show up on free-agent lists in the interim, but there's no chance he'll sign elsewhere. He's given his word to the 49ers. The team, in turn, has entrusted him with its playbook. Smith even took the lead in teaching what he knew of the offense to teammates. Re-signing Smith takes pressure off rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick. With a new coaching staff, a young prospect in Kaepernick and no access to players during a lockout, this wasn't the year for San Francisco to make a bold play for a veteran passer from another team.

2. Make a decision on Aubrayo Franklin. The 49ers' plans on defense remain a bit mysterious. Coordinator Vic Fangio did not distribute playbooks to players. The team's needs could change based on whether Franklin, a solid nose tackle, leaves in free agency. Franklin's status as a franchise player last season raised the stakes for a new contract. What does Fangio think of him? What specifically does Fangio want from his defensive linemen? How much will Fangio change to suit the 49ers' personnel? How much new personnel might he want? General manager Trent Baalke said the 49ers will not be aggressive in free agency. The team has shown restraint on that front in recent seasons. Losing Franklin would hurt.

3. Figure out the secondary: The pass defense was problematic last season. Personnel changes in the secondary are on the way. Veteran cornerback Nate Clements stands to earn more than $7 million in base salary in 2011. That price appears prohibitive. The team could release Clements or find a way to keep him at a lower rate. Free safety Dashon Goldson does not have a contract for 2011. How much is he worth? Baltimore's Chris Carr is one free-agent cornerback with ties to the 49ers' staff. He and Fangio were together in Baltimore.

Top five free agents: Smith, Franklin, outside linebacker Manny Lawson, center David Baas, linebacker Takeo Spikes.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com passes along comments from 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh regarding receiver Michael Crabtree, via KNBR radio. Harbaugh was apparently alluding to recent interactions between Crabtree and Alex Smith. Harbaugh: "I've been around him a little bit. And Crab to me is a good guy and a good football player. Just some of the things lately kind of goes back to the analogy I gave a little bit ago, when you're kids and working it out and sometimes you get into some tussles and shirts get ripped and noses get bloodied, but that's part of figuring it out. I know he's a good guy. I know the other guys on our team are good guys. That's another interesting part of watching these guys figure it out. ... From my experience begin around him, I think he's a guy who's about us and about the team being successful."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says 49ers receivers coach John Morton has high expectations for Crabtree and Josh Morgan. Morton said he expects Crabtree to become "a phenomenal football player in this offense." The 49ers should have high expectations for Crabtree in particular. Encouragement and optimism from the coaching staff can be constructive, particularly at a time when lockout rules prevent the team from reaching Crabtree directly.

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Harbaugh spoke more about the 49ers in general than Alex Smith in particular.

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com says the Rams are asking fans to help determine which game the team selects to wear its throwback uniforms. Said team exec Kevin Demoff: "We wanted to find a way to engage our fans and give them a voice on which game the club wears our throwback uniforms. The reason to wear the throwbacks is to celebrate the Club’s history and our fans are an important part of that history. What better way to recognize our fans’ passion for our team past and present than to give them the opportunity to select the game we wear our throwback jersey?"

Also from Wagoner: a look at Rams rookie draft choice Jermale Hines. Wagoner: "Hines’ versatility to come up in the box and stop the run or drop into coverage could allow him to work at either safety position or perhaps even fill in as the second linebacker in the team’s nickel packages. Will compete for playing time on defense right away but figures to help on special teams immediately."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic checks in with Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, who will visit Kuwait on a USO trip later this summer. Somers: "Whisenhunt's father, brother and father-in-law served in the Air Force. His brother, Harry, who is two years older, flew F-16s for eight years in the Air Force and is now a pilot for United. Whisenhunt and his family, coincidentally, are vacationing with the families of his brother and two sisters, an annual occurrence."

Also from Somers: He expects the Cardinals to show no interest in Plaxico Burress or Terrelle Pryor.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com has this to say about the USO trip featuring Whisenhunt and former Seahawks coach Jim Mora, among others: "In the end, it doesn’t really matter how you stand on why soldiers are where they are in the world. It matters that they are willing to do a job many, frankly, aren’t. For what they do for us, it makes sense to send over celebrities -- in this case, NFL coaches -- to remind them their work isn’t forgotten." More from Urban here.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says David Sims' 15 touchdowns stood as one of the bigger surprises from the team's 1978 season.

Also from Farnsworth: Sims recalls the 43-yard scoring pass he threw to Steve Largent.

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle quotes Mora on quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Mora: "I just think he's got a lot left. I watched what Kurt Warner did when he went from the Rams to the Cardinals and kinda revived his career again, and I see that happening for Matt. I know Matt's work ethic. I know Matt's commitment. I know his drive to succeed and I just think that he's going to have a few more good years left in him." For Hasselbeck to follow Warner's lead, he would need to change teams. Warner was not an immediate success with Arizona, however.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Michael Crabtree's arrival at the San Francisco 49ers' player-organized practices was notable for what the receiver said about quarterback Alex Smith. In short, Crabtree would not play along with the idea that Smith appears likely to serve as the starting quarterback in the short term, while rookie Colin Kaepernick develops. The leadership role Smith has assumed in organizing workouts seems valid based on public endorsements from coach Jim Harbaugh. Crabtree could diffuse the situation by going along with the premise. Instead, he's playing into perceptions that something isn't right between quarterback and receiver. Smith previously played into those perceptions by questioning why Crabtree hadn't shown up for workouts to this point. Barrows: "When I asked Crabtree if he thought throwing with the quarterback was beneficial toward improving chemistry, he asked, 'Who's the quarterback?' When I responded, Alex Smith, Crabtree said, 'He's the quarterback? I'm just asking.' Later Crabtree said, 'Whoever the quarterback is, I'm gonna do my job. I'm going to do the best I can to get whatever he needs. You know what I'm saying?"

Also from Barrows: the newspaper version of his story on the 49ers' workouts.

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says tight end Vernon Davis continues to express support for Smith. Davis and Smith have an obvious rapport on the field. Crabtree and Smith have not yet developed such a rapport.

Also from Branch: This is not the first time teammates have lauded Smith for his leadership during the offseason.

More from Branch: Crabtree, Smith and that elusive rapport.

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News offers thoughts on the 49ers' workouts, which feature Smith breaking down plays on video.

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says Crabtree defended his decision to stay away from team workouts to this point. Crabtree described himself as a hard worker.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com recalls Warren Moon's 1997 season with Seattle, punctuated by a 409-yard passing performance against Oakland in the Kingdome.

Also from Farnsworth: That 1997 season was significant for Walter Jones' arrival through the draft and Paul Allen's arrival as team owner. Farnsworth: "It was Allen’s leadership from the top and Jones’ domination from the pivotal left tackle spot that eventually would help carry the Seahawks to the most successful five-season stretch in club history: 2003-07, when they played in the franchise’s only Super Bowl; went to the playoffs each season; won four consecutive NFC West championships; and posted a 51-29 regular-season record."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic uses research from Pro Football Focus as a starting point for revisiting the Cardinals' performance in pass protection last season. While offensive lines are most instrumental in protection, the other six players on the field can also play roles. Somers: "I thought the Cardinals were poor in this department in 2010, especially in contrast to the two prior seasons. Running back Tim Hightower entered the season with a well-earned reputation as being excellent at picking up the blitz. He was not nearly as good in that area in 2010. It's not Beanie Wells' strength, either. The team's tight ends also struggled in pass blocking, but sometimes that's because they were matched up one-on-one with defensive ends. That's a tough job for a tight end."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com unveils Todd McFarlane's figurine showing Larry Fitzgerald reaching the ball across the goal line.

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com profiles first-round draft choice Robert Quinn. Wagoner: "Steve Spagnuolo’s defense is based on the idea of creating and generating relentless, consistent pressure on the quarterback. That’s Quinn’s specialty so while he might not start right away as he learns to become a complete player from the likes of Chris Long and James Hall, Quinn will likely jump in right away in passing situations with the specific instructions to get after the quarterback."

Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis looks at what Plaxico Burress would offer the Rams and other NFL teams looking for help at receiver. Softli: "Adding a red-zone threat brings immediate value. The question is whether the Rams should groom the picks for the future or add Burress and take a roster spot and reps away from young players. Coach Steve Spagnuolo was the defensive coordinator with the Giants and saw Burress up close in living color. He understands and has the best insight into Burress' mindset, personality and his relationship with others in the locker room and his professional acumen." The more I consider the situation, the less likely I see the Rams setting aside a roster spot for an older receiver coming off a prison stint.

Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis says the Rams should probably stay away from Burress.
A few thoughts on Plaxico Burress' availability as NFC West teams consider potential options at wide receiver:

  • By my count, six current NFL receivers are older than Burress, who turns 34 in August: Terrell Owens (37), Derrick Mason (37), Donald Driver (36), Brian Finneran (35), Hines Ward (35) and Brandon Stokley (35 in June);
  • Thirty players have caught at least 50 passes in a season at age 34 or older, according to Pro Football Reference; Jerry Rice, Isaac Bruce and Bobby Engram accomplished the feat for current NFC West teams;
  • [+] EnlargePlaxico Burress
    Al Bello/Getty ImagesPlaxico Burress seems unlikely to end up in the NFC West.
  • Burress caught 35 passes for 454 yards and four touchdowns over 10 games for the New York Giants in 2008, his last season before serving a jail term on a weapons charge; St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo was the Giants' defensive coordinator that year, giving the NFC West one solid connection to Burress;
  • Ken Whisenhunt, Russ Grimm and Ray Horton are among the Arizona Cardinals coaches who were with the Pittsburgh Steelers before Burress signed with the Giants in 2005, giving the NFC West another connection;
  • These types of connections can sometimes explain why teams do not pursue players; they know the bad as well as the good;
  • My initial feel is that Burress probably will not land in this division; Burress has played his entire career, from high school to the NFL, for teams in the East; I doubt he'll seek out a team in the West after spending two years away from his family;
  • Burress wore a Philadephia Phillies hat upon his release Monday, and the Eagles were the team considered most likely to sign him in a survey of ESPN.com bloggers;
  • The Rams' situation at receiver remains unsettled; bringing in Burress for a visit could make sense; the Cardinals' situation at receiver is more defined, and at least one Arizona-based reporter is saying there's no chance the Cardinals will sign him; I tend to agree and do not see the need, either;
  • Burress is five years older than any receiver on the Rams' roster and nine years older than the team's receivers on average, a potential consideration as the team decides how Burress would fit into the equation;
  • The Rams have previously resisted adding older receivers, passing on Owens and Moss over the last couple of seasons; Mark Clayton, who turns 29 in July, is the oldest receiver on the roster;
  • Seattle has been aggressive in considering unlikely options, making low-risk bets on Mike Williams, Reggie Williams, LenDale White and others; the team would ideally like to go with younger players at this stage;
  • Please let me know if you've seen anything, anywhere, suggesting the San Francisco 49ers would have interest; I do not see a great fit as the team establishes a new program under a first-year coach.

Would you want Burress on your favorite team?
OK, so the St. Louis Rams do not have a true No. 1 wide receiver.

What about Randy Moss? Glad I asked.

Moss played for the Rams' new offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, when both were with the New England Patriots. The Rams thought about claiming Moss off waivers last season, a move I thought would have carried more upside than risk.

Moss' value has only diminished since then. But with McDaniels in St. Louis, there's a connection that did not exist previously. It's tough working up much momentum making the case for or against Moss at this stage. He caught 28 passes for three teams last season and turned 34 in February. His contract ran through 2010. Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt said Tennessee plans to move forward with younger players at the position.

My sense is that the Rams are likewise headed in a different direction with younger players, and Moss' upside wouldn't be large enough to entice them at this point. But until the team's receiving situation gains clearer definition at the top, the Rams have to keep an open mind. Moss has ties to McDaniels. Plaxico Burress has ties to coach Steve Spagnuolo. It's conceivable Sidney Rice could become a free agent.

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. discussed Moss during his Football Today podcast Monday. He passed along these thoughts to me separately:
"Moss is a very tough evaluation for me. He really is/was just a one-trick pony: deep threat. Outside the numbers. Bombs away. But it is/was a tremendous trick! And he might be the best who ever lived at that trick. But if he can't get deep any more, he isn't real useful. I don't think we know the answer to that, though, based off his terrible stints in Minnesota and then Tennessee. I tend to guess he no longer can do that, or the Patriots and then the Vikings would not have given up on him so easily.

"As for adding him to that Rams' locker room, you are closer to that situation than I am, but it seems to me that it wouldn't be such a hot idea. Does Moss make the Rams a Super Bowl contender this season? I don't think so."

To my knowledge, Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo hasn't fielded a question about Moss since answering one during the scouting combine back in February, shortly after McDaniels' hiring.

"We haven't really gotten into it that deeply on receivers," Spagnuolo told reporters then. "It's really more about the scheme and focusing on our offensive staff and what we are going to do. I don't know that we are that deep into that. We have to kind of see where it goes. Certainly, him (McDaniels) having first-hand knowledge of a player, any player, is going to be helpful. And anybody that has been in his system becomes a little more attractive."

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