NFC West: Ricky Williams
Along similar lines, I'd like to know what the St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson has in mind when he suggests an extension could be in the works for him as well.
Protecting the interests of all parties can be a challenge when great players are nearing the latter stages of their careers. Jackson, like Wilson, would ideally finish his career with St. Louis. He has plenty to offer in the short term, but there's no reason for the Rams to make a meaningful commitment beyond Jackson's current deal.
Jackson is scheduled to earn $7 million in 2012 and again in 2013, the final two years of his contract. He'll be 31 years old when the deal expires. How much longer than that does Jackson plan to play? How much longer than that will the Rams want to pay him? How long can Jackson remain productive?
The market for 31-year-old halfbacks barely exists. Jackson might become an exception, but the Rams should not realistically bet that will be the case.
NFL teams entered Week 1 last season with seven halfbacks age 31 or older at that time: Ricky Williams, Thomas Jones, LaDainian Tomlinson, Chester Taylor, Larry Johnson, Maurice Morris and Derrick Ward. Those players combined for 16 regular-season starts. Retirement awaits some of them now.
Jackson has plenty to offer in the shorter term. Unlike many high-profile players, he has played well enough to justify the high salaries awaiting him late in his contract. His current deal seems appropriate for what Jackson has to offer and what the future probably holds -- a couple more good seasons for the Rams' all-time rushing leader.
The St. Louis Rams could break the streak this year.
The NFL scouting combine is giving them a chance to gauge trade interest, a process that is under way, ESPN's Adam Schefter notes. The Rams already have Sam Bradford at quarterback, and they could use additional picks for rebuilding, making them a prime candidate to move backward in the draft.
The Washington Redskins were the most recent team to acquire the second overall choice, securing the 2000 version from New Orleans as part of the blockbuster trade allowing the Saints to select Ricky Williams. Washington used the pick for LaVar Arrington.
The Saints did not know they were trading the No. 2 overall pick at the time, however; they gave up a slew of 1999 picks, plus first- and third-rounders in the next draft. That 2000 first-round choice wound up being second overall.
The Redskins hold the sixth pick this year and could be a candidate to trade up with St. Louis. Cleveland, which picks fourth, is also among quarterback-needy teams within striking distance of the second pick, which could provide teams a shot at Baylor's Robert Griffin III.
The Seattle Seahawks pick 11th or 12th, and could also use a quarterback. I doubt the Rams would trade the pick within the division, and I doubt the Seahawks would give up what it would take to move up nine or 10 spots.
However, teams face less financial strain trading up into the top few choices. Changes in the rookie wage scale have made those top picks far less expensive than in past years. That could give teams additional reasons to move up; it could also make teams feel better about holding on to those earlier choices.
The chart shows trades involving the second overall choice, plus the players teams wound up drafting with that pick.
The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
- The 49ers remain in position to claim the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoff race. They hold the tiebreaker over 10-3 New Orleans.
- San Francisco set a franchise record by holding its 14th consecutive opponent without a rushing touchdown. The 1985-86 Chicago Bears made it 15 consecutive games, the longest streak since at least the 1970 merger.
- The 49ers extended their streak to 35 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher. That is the longest streak in the league since Minnesota went 36 games in 2007-09. The 49ers held Beanie Wells to 27 yards on 15 carries.
- Frank Gore had a 37-yard touchdown run and passed 1,000 yards rushing for the season. He joined LaDainian Tomlinson, Steven Jackson, Thomas Jones and Ricky Williams as the only active running backs with five or more 1,000-yard seasons, according to the 49ers.
- Ted Ginn Jr.s' 52-yard punt return deep in Cardinals territory helped the 49ers jump to a 19-7 lead.
- The 49ers downed three punts inside the Arizona 20-yard line, including one at the 1. They prevented Patrick Peterson from hurting them with long returns, holding him to an 8.8-yard average and a long return of 19 yards.
- Aldon Smith recorded another sack, giving him 10.5 for the season. He's the first 49ers player since Andre Carter in 2002 to reach 10 or more sacks in a season.
- Cornerback Tarell Brown and safety Dashon Goldson picked off passes.
- The 49ers won the field-position battle. Their drives started at their own 38-yard line on average. The Cardinals' drives began at the Arizona 25 on average.
They lead the NFL in yards per pass attempt on first down (11.0), just ahead of the New England Patriots (10.9) and the unbeaten Buffalo Bills (10.8).
They rank among the top 10 in the same category on third down (7.8).
Kolb has hurt teams with the deep ball, completing 4 of 7 attempts for 158 yards on passes thrown more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. His 22.6-yard average per attempt on these throws ranks among the NFL's top five, just ahead of Drew Brees' 21.9 average.
Running back Beanie Wells, though sidelined against Seattle in Week 3, ranks first with 3.3 yards per carry gained after contact, just ahead of Adrian Peterson (3.2), Ricky Williams (3.0), Peyton Hillis (2.9) and Michael Turner (2.8).
But after a tough 13-10 defeat at Seattle in which Kolb and the offense faltered too frequently, the Cardinals have little to show for some of their statistical accomplishments. They are 1-2 heading into their Week 4 game against the New York Giants.
What does it all mean? Where do the Cardinals stand? What should we make of Kolb as the team's new quarterback? Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. provided the following thoughts on Arizona when I reached out to him this week:
- On the Cardinals overall: "Being improved at the quarterback position is going to go a long way. They still have noticeable warts, however. Their defense is a real problem. They are one of these teams like [the] Rams' offense where the lockout did them no favors. They look lost in coverage. Their pass rush isn’t great to begin with. Those things could come around, but they need more bodies to compete in those areas, too. The offense is fine. The line is playing better than I expected them to, especially on the interior. Not that Beanie Wells is great, but they missed him. You can’t put everyone in the world on Larry Fitzgerald if he is there. In the end, they are a six-win type of team with a chance to be better against their schedule."
- On Kolb as the answer: "It’s too early to really say this is a good move or a bad move. He has played three games and hasn’t been with the team long. He has done some good things. He is an average physical specimen by NFL standards. He has no wonderful traits, but he is not bad in any area, either. When times are good and he has a clean pocket, the play goes to script, he delivers the football well. When things break down or he has a lot of bodies around him, he struggles. He’ll probably get better. He hasn’t played a ton of snaps."
- On the Kolb trade itself: "In the end, you get better at the quarterback position. Giving up Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie wasn’t that big a deal for me. Ray Horton is the new defensive coordinator. He wants to run a Steelers-type defense, and I can’t think of another corner in the league who is less Steeler-like than Rodgers-Cromartie. They want guys to play off coverage, come up and hit you, play the run. He doesn’t do that at all. It was not that big a loss to your team. People look at it on paper and say it was too much to give up. I thought his name value was a lot more than his real value to Arizona."
I've spoken with Williamson this week regarding each NFC West team and will continue to share his thoughts. He's on Twitter at @WilliamsonNFL if you'd like to reach him directly.
Mike Sando: Having a division winner with a losing record cannot overcome a one-game upset. The NFC South went 13-3 against the NFC West last season. I won't be surprised if the Dallas Cowboys exceed expectations this season in part because they're paired against this division. The NFC West needs to win non-division games more regularly to change perceptions.
This division should improve in 2011.
The St. Louis Rams were already improving. They should be better as Sam Bradford grows as a quarterback. Their defense appears solid again, and improved. Kevin Kolb improves the Arizona Cardinals even if he's only average. There's a good chance he'll be better than average with Larry Fitzgerald on his side.
The Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have made easy targets this offseason because neither did much, if anything, to upgrade at quarterback. I think both teams have improved their rosters overall, however. And neither team was particularly strong at quarterback last season. It's unlikely either team will be significantly worse off at the position despite perceptions.
Matt Hasselbeck accomplished many admirable things during his time with the Seahawks, but almost none recently. His performance against New Orleans in the wild-card round was a fitting way for him to perform during his final home game as a Seahawk, but it wasn't consistent with his body of work since 2008 or an indicator of what was to come. His passer rating over the past three seasons was the lowest in the NFL by more than 10 points among the 19 quarterbacks with at least 35 starts during that span.
In San Francisco, Alex Smith will never live up to draft-day hopes, but it's reasonable to expect improvement from him under Jim Harbaugh. A significant regression would come as a surprise.
So, if the Seahawks and 49ers have upgraded their rosters overall while staying roughly the same at quarterback, how much worse will they be?
Clemster from Fort Worth wants to know which wide receivers will start for the St. Louis Rams, and what Danario Alexander's role will be.
Mike Sando: Brandon Gibson and Mike Sims-Walker are the starters, with Danny Amendola expected to see significant playing time. The Rams want their receivers to be largely interchangeable, which means we could see quite a few combinations.
Alexander survived the cut to 53 players, but I don't get the sense he enjoys much roster security, particularly if his knee continues to limit him periodically.
A reporter asked coach Steve Spagnuolo about Alexander on Monday. Spagnuolo tends to choose his words with care anyway, but his answer to this question was particularly conservative.
"He is one of the six receivers that we have right now," Spagnuolo said. "We all know what he has to overcome and battle every week, and he toughs it out. So, he is one of the guys right now."
Nolan from Bakersfield, Calif., wasn't alone in hitting the NFC West mailbag with questions about Colin Kaepernick's status with the 49ers. They thought the 49ers' newest quarterback, third-string rookie Scott Tolzien, might threaten Kaepernick based on what they showed during preseason.
Mike Sando: There were reasons Kaepernick was a second-round pick and Tolzien was not drafted. Those reasons have not changed. Kaepernick is far superior physically in just about every way. If he and Tolzien both reach their potentials, Kaepernick will be the better player. The 49ers hired Harbaugh largely because they trusted his expertise with quarterbacks. Harbaugh played a leading role in selecting Kaepernick. Picking up Tolzien off waivers should have no bearing on the team's approach with Kaepernick.
Andrew from Seattle says he's hearing more Carson Palmer comeback rumors and he wants to know what are the chances Seattle might make a move for him. Andrew sees a talented group of receivers in Seattle, including tight end Zach Miller, and he thinks Palmer could help get the most from them.
Mike Sando: At no point have I heard anything to substantiate those rumors, but they are definitely there, and not just among fans. One NFL executive I spoke with during training camps said he expected the Seahawks to make a move for Palmer, one way or another, in time for the regular season.
My sense is that people outside the organization (and probably a few inside it, as well) cannot believe a team would go into a season with Tarvaris Jackson as its starter by design. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has repeatedly said this is what he plans to do. Carroll also values mobility in a quarterback. Palmer doesn't move well.
This is something we'll hear about until something happens or the trading deadlines passes. But if you're looking for real evidence that a move is likely, there is none to be found.
Casey from Phoenix asks whether Chester Taylor projects as a good compliment to Beanie Wells in Arizona.
Mike Sando: Taylor gives the Cardinals experience at the position and someone they could trust in small doses. I just see no reason to expect much from him at this stage of his career.
Age and recent production seem like reliable indicators for running backs. Taylor turns 32 this month. He averaged 2.4 yards per carry last season, the lowest single-season mark in the NFL since 1970 among players with at least 100 carries in a season.
Thirteen running backs since 2000 have rushed for at least 500 yards in a season after age 31: Emmitt Smith, Ricky Williams, Warrick Dunn, Fred Taylor, Lamar Smith, Curtis Martin, Antowain Smith, Garrison Hearst, Kevin Faulk, Corey Dillon, Jerome Bettis, Mike Anderson and Terry Allen. Williams, Anderson and Smith (Emmitt) are the only ones to reach 1,000 yards.
Ryan Williams' season-ending knee injury forced the Cardinals to get older at a position where youth is served. It's clearer than ever the Cardinals need a strong season from Wells. An injury to Wells or poor play from him would leave Arizona in a difficult position.
There's already enough pressure on Kolb without adding more.
- Rams running backs: The St. Louis Rams are visiting with Atlanta Falcons free-agent running back Jerious Norwood. A deal could be in the works, Tony Softli notes. Cadillac Williams is another option. Finding a backup for Steven Jackson stands as a priority for the Rams this offseason. Norwood is 28 years old and played in only two games last season, but Rams general manager Billy Devaney knows him well. Devaney and Norwood were together on the Falcons. Devaney also knows what the Rams need behind Jackson. This could be a good fit. But not everyone is sold. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. has been bold in saying Jackson has a lost a step and is declining. Given his thinking, Williamson thinks the Rams need more of a workhorse back in the No. 2 role. Williamson: "Norwood is not good enough. I don't think he is physical enough or reliable enough or durable enough to be Jackson's backup. Other than that, the Rams have done great in free agency. Maybe they could still get a Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams. A big, physical back to lighten Jackson's load would be great, and you can get backs cheap now. I don't know why they would settle for Norwood. He's fast in a straight line and good in a dome, but he hasn't done anything in a long time."
- Seahawks defensive linemen. Free-agent defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson agreed to terms with Seattle, the team confirmed. Seattle fared well last offseason by signing Raheem Brock to one-year deal for a reasonable rate. Brock had 9.0 sacks, but at age 33, he wasn't going to get a long-term deal from a Seattle team looking to go young. Wilkerson, 30, will sign a one-year deal. Will Brock return? It's possible, but I'd be a little surprised. Also for Seattle: Former Rams fullback Mike Karney is visiting, Jim Thomas reports. Oakland tight end Zach Miller already visited. No word yet on his plans.
- Kevin Kolb signed his contract. The Cardinals made the announcement Wednesday. Kolb's deal runs through the 2016 season. The moves Arizona has made on its offensive line stand out as critical to giving Kolb a chance. Re-signing Lyle Sendlein and adding Daryn Colledge helped. Getting Deuce Lutui almost accidentally was a bonus. Lutui has more motivation to succeed after failing his physical in Cincinnati. The Cardinals would be nervous about Lutui's conditioning had they given him a big contract in free agency. Adding Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack as insurance rounded out the depth. Rex Hadnot is still there, too. Those things said, drafting a few linemen would help, too.
- The 49ers' plan in free agency. The 49ers are taking heat for doing little in free agency. Coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke are new to their roles. They've been guarded about revealing their plans. I get that part of it, but they should and probably will become more adept at explaining their approach. There's no shame in laying low during free agency. Green Bay and Pittsburgh can attest to that. But if the 49ers are going to take that approach, they could help their fans by explaining why.
OK, time's running short. I'll check in as soon as the travel schedule allows.
Note: This item initially referred to Wednesday instead of Tuesday because I'm horrible at remembering days of the week. They run together.
They held the 14th overall choice, but with four quarterbacks taken among the first 12 picks, St. Louis got more value from the selection. How much more value?
If we exclude quarterbacks from the drafting equation, as the Rams did in this draft, the team got No. 10 overall value from the 14th pick. The difference in value between the 10th and 14th picks -- 200 points on the widely circulated draft-value chart -- equates to the 78th overall choice.
The Rams happened to hold the 78th pick this year. They used it for Boise State receiver Austin Pettis.
This draft featured more quarterbacks selected among the 12 choices than any since 1999, when there were five. The Rams were already set at quarterback that year. They held the sixth overall choice and got heightened value when Cleveland, Philadelphia and Cincinnati selected quarterbacks with the first three picks. The Rams selected receiver Torry Holt -- the sixth overall choice, but only the third non-quarterback.
After quarterbacks went 1-2-3 in 1999, the teams drafting next "settled" for Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams, Holt and Champ Bailey. The next two players taken, David Boston and Chris Claiborne, never met expectations. Overall, however, teams searching for non-quarterbacks stood to benefit.
The Rams are hoping first-round choice Robert Quinn fits into that group with James, Williams, Holt and Bailey.
Teams interested in wheeling and dealing have few options during a lockout. They can still trade draft choices, which got me thinking about what NFC West teams could get in return for their first-round selections.
Specifically, what could the Arizona Cardinals expect to receive in return for the fifth overall choice? The trade-value chart can help, and I was happy to stumble across this handy calculator for analyzing trades during the draft.
History provides another guide. What has the fifth choice returned previously? Two resources became starting points for finding out.
AdamJT13, known around here for his wizardry in projecting compensatory choices, put together a list showing trades involving only draft picks (not players and picks). Another site, this one maintained by Frank Marousek, logs trades by year and identifies the players teams drafted with those choices. Both sites were helpful.
Let's count this as the first in a series of items revisiting NFL trades involving the first-round draft choices NFC West teams hold this year. I'll begin with the fifth overall choice because it's the highest one an NFC West team holds. The division's other first-round choices carried more instructive recent histories, I thought.
The pick: Fifth overall
Held by: Arizona Cardinals
Most recent trade involving only picks: 1999. This one won't help establish value for the fifth pick. Mike Ditka and the New Orleans Saints traded their entire 1999 draft, plus first- and third-round choices in 2000, to the Washington Redskins for the fifth choice. The Saints selected running back Ricky Williams. That type of trade isn't happening again, most likely. For reference, though, the Saints parted with the 12th, 71st, 107th, 144th, 179th and 218th picks in the 1999 draft, plus those early picks in 2000.
Previous trade: 1994. The Los Angeles Rams sent the fifth overall choice to Indianapolis for the seventh and 83rd choices. The trade-value chart says this was close to an even swap. It values the fifth choices at 1,700 points. The seventh and 83rd choices add up to 1,695 points. In this case, the Colts drafted Nebraska linebacker Trev Alberts with the fifth pick. The Rams sent the seventh choice to the San Francisco 49ers in a separate deal. The 49ers used the choice wisely, selecting Bryant Young.
Note: The New York Jets acquired the fifth overall choice from the Cleveland Browns in 2009, selecting quarterback Mark Sanchez. That deal included multiple veteran players. I've excluded deals involving players in part because the lockout prevents teams from trading players. Also, it's tougher to determine values for players than it is for draft choices.
The reality, however, is that Hightower has put the ball on the ground more times per carry than any NFL running back with at least 50 attempts this season. Hightower also averages more yards per attempt than any of those backs, one reason the Arizona Cardinals have been reluctant to take him off the field.
The chart ranks players with at least 50 rushing attempts by most fumbles per carry. The information reflects only fumbles during rushing attempts. The San Francisco 49ers' Frank Gore ranks tied for 11th on the list with three such fumbles. He also has one fumble following a reception.
Hightower and Ahmad Bradshaw, from the New York Giants, are the only NFL running backs to lose at least three fumbles this season.
The trade came to mind after suggestions that Cleveland could have interest in acquiring the first overall pick from the Rams. I'd be surprised if the Browns gave up what it would take to land the top pick. Their entire draft is worth 2,692 points on the draft value chart. The chart probably overvalues the top choice by assigning a 3,000-point value, but even if the top pick were discounted to 2,000 points, the Browns would be giving up the seventh and 38th overall picks.
The Saints gave up 1,575 points worth of 1999 picks, plus first- and third-round choices in 2000, to get the fifth overall choice in the 1999 draft from the Bears. The chart values the fifth choice at 1,700 points.
The deal drew initial criticism, but the players drafted with the Saints' old picks -- Clark, LaVar Arrington, D'Wayne Bates, Cade McNown, Khari Samuel, Lloyd Harrison, Billy Miller, Nate Stimson -- didn't meet expectations in most cases.
Browns president Mike Holmgren on moving up to draft quarterback Sam Bradford: "'Look it, he's a coveted young man. To be able to go up and change somebody's mind ahead of us, you'd have to mortgage the ranch. You remember when coach Ditka did that with his picks and then he went and played golf.' Absolutely, we love the player, as do a lot of people. But in the real world, we're probably going to go in a different direction there.''
Now, about that hit on Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner. Yes, it was clean. Yes, Warner appears to be OK. Yes, those are the only things that really matter.
But how about giving Warner a gentler shove the next time I'm starting him in the NFC West Gridiron Challenge?
The chart shows the standings through Week 11. My wife has been downplaying the results week after week, pointing out how little effort she's putting into managing her team. But she was right there Monday to point out how her team outperformed mine in each of the last two weeks. Funny how that works.
Oh, well. Something to talk about this week while we're having Steak for Dinner -- again.
In closing, here's a hat tip to jsaint102313 for enjoying the highest-scoring Week 11 of the more than 2,000 entrants (165 points). He started Matthew Stafford (36 points) and Ricky Williams (30). Way to go.
The Rams' Steven Jackson is on pace for 1,451 yards rushing and zero touchdowns.
The chart shows running backs since 1970 with the most rushing yards to open a regular season without scoring a touchdown.
Jackson needs 81 yards and no touchdowns to break the record Tiki Barber set in 2006.
Note: I should have specified that this was limited to only the first seven games of a season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Alexander says he's ready to resume his career and that any team signing him would be getting a bargain. I question whether the league has a place for a 31-year-old running back unsuited for playing on third down or special teams.
And in looking at NFL rosters, I see five halfbacks age 31 or older: Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris of the Patriots, Kenny Watson of the Bengals and Ricky Williams of the Dolphins. That's an extremely short list given that NFL teams are carrying 85 players on average (including unsigned draft choices).
Alexander seems better suited as an emergency injury replacement. Do you think he'll get another chance in the NFL? The Seahawks are not interested. The Redskins do not appear to be interested. That could make it tough.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Former Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander hopes the Redskins bring him back, according to Redskins.com via Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
This recalls our earlier item about halfbacks in their 30s. Alexander turns 32 in August. NFL teams are employing two running backs older than 31 at present. Both players -- Fred Taylor (33) and Kevin Faulk (32) -- play for the Patriots.
A quick look at the number of NFL halfbacks by current age:
- Older than 33: none
- Age 33: Taylor
- Age 32: Faulk
- Age 31: Ricky Williams, Kenny Watson, Sammy Morris
- Age 30: Edgerrin James, Thomas Jones, Correll Buckhalter, LaMont Jordan, Michael Bennett
Thirteen backs are 29 years old. Four are 28. Ten are 27. Eighteen are 26. Nineteen are 25. Twenty-three are 24. Twenty-three are 23. Eleven are 22. Four are 21.
These numbers count only halfbacks on active 53-man rosters. At least seven fullbacks are in their 30s (some tight ends double as fullbacks, making the number an estimate).
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Cardinals' Edgerrin James is the only NFC West halfback in his 30s. He almost certainly will not return for another season in Arizona.
The second-oldest halfback in the division, 28-year-old T.J. Duckett, is not an every-down runner. He's built more like a fullback and he spent last season as a short-yardage specialist.
The two best backs in the division -- the Rams' Steven Jackson and the 49ers' Frank Gore -- are 25 years old. And we all know what happened to Shaun Alexander as he approached 30.
By my count, NFL teams feature only 10 halfbacks in their 30s: James, Ricky Williams (Dolphins), Thomas Jones (Jets), Sammy Morris (Patriots), Fred Taylor (Patriots), Kevin Faulk (Patriots), Kenny Watson (Bengals), Correll Buckhalter (Broncos), LaMont Jordan (Broncos) and Michael Bennett (Chargers).
Three of the 10 play for the Patriots and five of the 10 are in the AFC East.