NFC West: Scot McCloughan

Parys Haralson and Delanie Walker departed the San Francisco 49ers' roster this offseason after entering the NFL has 2006 draft choices with the team.

Another member of that 49ers draft class, fullback Michael Robinson, was a valued contributor to the division-rival Seattle Seahawks when the team released him Friday with age and salary-cap considerations in mind.

The 2006 class has been good to the 49ers. The team continues to get top-shelf contributions from tight end Vernon Davis, one of the team's two first-round picks from that 2006 class.

Mike Nolan was coach and Scott McCloughan was general manager for the 49ers back then. Some of the personnel moves they made continue to sustain the team. Frank Gore, Tarell Brown, Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Ray McDonald and Davis remain as players drafted under Nolan. All are valued contributors. Another Nolan-era pick, Adam Snyder, is back with the team as a reserve offensive lineman after spending 2012 with Arizona.

Davis is one of 10 first-round picks from 2006 playing with his original team. The list also includes A.J. Hawk, Haloti Ngata, Chad Greenway, Tamba Hali, Davin Joseph, DeAngelo Williams, Marcedes Lewis, Nick Mangold and Mathias Kiwanuka.
NFL coaching and scouting can be itinerant work.

The San Francisco 49ers' announcement Wednesday that they had made promotions within their scouting department brought into focus crossover within the division.

Matt Malaspina, promoted to college scouting director after eight seasons with the team, previously spent five years with the Seattle Seahawks. Mike Williams, promoted to director of pro personnel, spent the 2009 through 2011 seasons with the St. Louis Rams.

Last offseason, the Seahawks announced Todd Brunner's hiring as an area scout. He had been with the 49ers from 2001 through 2011. The Seahawks in 2010 hired former 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan as a top assistant to their own GM, John Schneider, who previously worked with the 49ers' current GM, Trent Baalke, with the Washington Redskins.

One of the Arizona Cardinals' scouts, Chris Culmer, worked previously for the Seahawks.

Teams usually wait til after the draft to make changes to their scouting department.

The changes San Francisco announced followed Tom Gamble's departure to the Philadelphia Eagles in February. Gamble had been the 49ers' director of player personnel, reporting directly to Baalke. The 49ers promoted Joel Patten to fill Gamble's role. Patten previously was director of college scouting.
Kevin Kolb/Matt Flynn/Sam BradfordGetty Images/AP PhotoQuarterback play will be something to keep an eye on in the NFC West this season.
San Francisco 49ers fans were skipping along toward training camp when Aaron Schatz threw the book at them.

The book, all 574 pages of it, knocked some of them off their stride.

How could anyone familiar with the defending NFC West champions project only seven victories for the coach Jim Harbaugh's second season? After all, the 49ers are bringing back all of their most important players -- Harbaugh's mighty men, as the coach likes to call them -- from a squad that went 13-3 and nearly reached the Super Bowl.

Here is the deal: Even Schatz himself, lead author of the 2012 Football Outsiders Almanac, believes the 49ers will outperform the modest expectations set forth by his book's widely cited win projection system.

"Subjectively, I'd expect the 49ers to win the division at 9-7," Schatz said Tuesday during an hour-long conversation on all things NFC West.

Anyone interested in more fully understanding the projection system can find an explanation, plus detailed reports for every NFL team, in the almanac Football Outsiders made available for sale recently.

I've singled out key points for consideration here and will run through one per NFC West team, supplemented as needed with material from my conversation with Schatz.

Arizona Cardinals

The point: Kevin Kolb should be an easy choice over John Skelton as the team's starting quarterback.

Yes, the Cardinals posted a 5-2 record when Skelton started and a 3-6 mark when Kolb was in the lineup. Skelton was even the primary quarterback during one of those victories credited to Kolb. (He performed rather impressively during an upset over the 49ers after a concussion sidelined Kolb early in the game.)

The disparity in win-loss records largely accounts for coach Ken Whisenhunt's decision to let Skelton compete with Kolb for the starting job in camp. But the way Schatz sees things, that thinking ignores the context for each player's performance.

"Skelton got away with close wins playing an easier schedule, and the idea that he had more wins and therefore is a better quarterback, no way," Schatz said. "Should there be a battle between Kolb and Skelton? No, it's silly."

For evidence, the almanac points to the schedule. The New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens were on the schedule right before an injury to Kolb opened the door for Skelton. The Cardinals then played St. Louis twice and the then-struggling Philadelphia Eagles with Skelton in the lineup. And they needed some miraculous plays, including punt returns for touchdowns from Patrick Peterson, to eke out victories over the Rams.

The assessment shoots down Skelton more than it endorses Kolb, but there are obvious reasons for the organization to take a longer look at Kolb this season.

Kolb had very little prep time following his acquisition last summer. Injuries kept him off the field for long stretches. The team also invested millions in Kolb. The point is basically that Skelton, despite his 5-2 starting record, hasn't shown enough for the team to disregard all those factors.

"Frankly," the almanac concludes, "even if Kolb or Skelton does a reasonable job, the Cardinals will still be in the market for a franchise quarterback in the 2013 draft."

Seattle Seahawks

The point: History suggests new quarterback Matt Flynn will be at least serviceable, and probably better than that, despite extremely limited evidence (two career starts, 132 career attempts).

Schatz, writing recently for Insider Insider, allowed that sample size generally means a great deal. But in looking at Flynn's 480-yard game for Green Bay against Detroit, a performance complete with six touchdown passes, Schatz made a basic conclusion.

"Bad quarterbacks simply don't have games that good, even as flukes," he wrote.

For evidence, Schatz noted that Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Carson Palmer, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger were the only other quarterbacks with similar performances over the past five years.

"Going back to 1991," Schatz wrote, "the worst quarterback who had a single game this good was Scott Mitchell. As bad as Mitchell was at times, he also threw for more than 4,000 yards with 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 1995. Seattle would gladly take those stats from Flynn."

The almanac actually projects slightly more victories for Seattle than for San Francisco (the mean projection is 7.2 for each, but the Seahawks' total is slightly higher). But much will hinge upon something that is uncertain: how good Flynn might become. Talk of rookie Russell Wilson possibly winning the starting job in camp didn't resonate with Football Outsiders, even if the Lewin Career Forecast suggests "Wilson can win in the NFL if he has an offensive coordinator who knows how to take advantage of his skills."

San Francisco 49ers

The point: There's almost no way the team will approach its 13-3 record from last season.

In covering this ground previously, I noted that the 13 teams finishing with 13-3 records from 2004 through 2010 had won 8.3 games on average the following season. Three finished better than 9-7. Over the same period, the 19 teams finishing 13-3 or better all finished with lesser records the next year. The average drop was 4.1 victories per team.

Schatz's reasoning for projecting a drop takes into account historical data.

"Teams that improve dramatically from one season to the next do tend to settle to previous levels in the third year," he said. "That is exacerbated for the 49ers by having the quality of their team wrapped up in defense and special teams. Offense tends to be most consistent from year to year. Special teams is the least consistent of the units. Defense is second. The 49ers' defense and special teams are likely to come back to the pack."

Schatz also thinks the 49ers were unusually healthy on defense last season, and that they'll most likely be less healthy in 2012. The 49ers current and former leadership put together their roster, particularly the defense, with size in mind. Former general manager Scot McCloughan, borrowing from Ron Wolf, believed bigger players held up better over the course of a season. The thinking intrigued Schatz, whose company tracks injury information. By combining injury information with data for size, might we have an easier time predicting injuries for certain players and teams?

"It's an interesting theory," Schatz said. "There are teams that no doubt have a record of better health. The 49ers do not quite count as one of those teams. They have been healthy on defense three of the last four years. Dallas is a team that tends to suffer fewer injuries. Kansas City was a team. Cleveland tends to suffer more. New England has suffered more than average and gotten away with it."

St. Louis Rams

The point: Quarterback Sam Bradford wasn't all that much worse last season than he was as a rookie.

Bradford's individual passing stats were worse, but Rams fans worried about their team's franchise quarterback should find some consolation in Football Outsiders' analysis.

Basically, the Rams suffered injuries on a level nearly unprecedented over the past decade, all while facing a schedule that was tougher than anticipated.

Football Outsiders uses a metric called "Adjusted Games Lost" to measure injury impact. The 2011 Rams suffered a league-worst 110 AGL, which the almanac equates to "losing seven key players for the year in training camp." Only the 2009 Buffalo Bills (122.8 AGL) fared worse since 2002.

Meanwhile, the Rams became the first team since at least 1991 to go from playing the NFL's easiest schedule one season (2010, when the Rams were 7-9) to playing the hardest.

"On average," the almanac reads, "the 10 teams since 1991 with the biggest year-to-year rise in strength of schedule had 4.1 fewer wins."

The Rams declined by five victories from 7-9 to 2-14.

None of this means Bradford will lead the Rams to prominence. The evidence does suggest, though, that the Rams faced unusually difficult obstacles last season.

"Everything points to them being in process," Schatz said.

The upcoming season should be one of discovery, in other words. Absent some of those unusually difficult obstacles, the Rams will have an easier time evaluating their personnel. They'll find out more about Bradford, tackle Jason Smith, tight end Lance Kendricks and other potentially key players. They'll learn about their wide receivers and outside linebackers.

"In the end, though, the team's ultimate fate will lie in the hands of [coach Jeff] Fisher's first acquisition in St. Louis, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer," the almanac predicts.

That is a subject for another day.
Two Arizona Cardinals mainstays, Adrian Wilson and Larry Fitzgerald, kick off this Thursday in the NFC West.

The team's latest offering in a series of well-produced videos profiles Wilson on and off the field. We see footage of a young, skinny Wilson playing high school basketball in High Point, N.C. We see the much more fearsome-looking current version leveling opponents on the football field. We see Wilson at the clothing store he owns in Arizona.

Watching this video should get any football fan anxious for the season. Wilson ranks high on a short list of NFC West players I've enjoyed watching the most over the past decade. He played well last season and expects to play faster in 2012 now that he has a firmer grasp of the defense Ray Horton installed on short notice a year ago.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald was putting into perspective his standing as the seventh-rated player on NFL Network's Top 100 list, as voted on by current players.

Darren Urban of has the word from Fitzgerald: "Having been voted a Top 10 NFL player for the 2012 season is a cherished honor because the selection was made by my peers, and a player can have no greater accolade nor satisfaction than knowing that those he lines up against for 60 minutes every week value to the highest degree his talent, competitiveness, effort, productivity and achievement. I've completed 8 NFL seasons, & while I am somewhat satisfied with personal achievements, I have come close only once to achieving the ultimate team goal. Being a productive WR is no longer enough. I’ve grown into a position of leadership as a Cardinals team captain and have tried to expand my role as a mentor and example for our core of young players." The message continues with Fitzgerald's thoughts about returning to the championship stage.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic checks in with Cardinals players following their participation in the rookie symposium. Michael Vick and Pacman Jones were among the speakers. Rookie Michael Floyd: "To hear a couple guys like that talk about their life journey and to hear their stories was a big eye-opening experience."

Clare Farnsworth of has the details on Todd Brunner's hiring to replace Charlie Jackson as area scout for the Northeast. Noted: Brunner worked for the San Francisco 49ers from for the last decade. His former boss with the 49ers, Scot McCloughan, is entering his third season as a senior personnel executive with Seattle.

Also from Farnsworth: All Seahawks players are finished at the team's facility until training camp now that undrafted rookies have departed.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times takes a look at the Seahawks' depth on the offensive line. O'Neil: "2011 showed that you never know where you're going to find -- or for that matter need -- able-bodied hosses to hold down the line. How many people projected Breno Giacomini to play such a significant role in 2011? ... And then there was [Paul] McQuistan, who didn't finish 2009 on an NFL roster."

Matt Maiocco of says Patrick Willis jumped from 23rd last year to 10th this year on the NFL Network's Top 100 list. Justin Smith was 17th after (somehow) not appearing on the list a year earlier. Noted: Every list will have oversights. It's unfathomable to think Smith did not appear a year ago. Maiocco notes that Frank Gore (28th), Vernon Davis (43rd), Joe Staley (67th), Carlos Rogers (69th) and NaVorro Bowman (85th) joined Smith and Willis on the list this year.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says various 49ers players are working out with a former kickboxing champion.

Mike Rosenberg of the San Jose Mercury News explains why Santa Clara City Council members approved Joe Montana's plan for a hotel and restaurant near the 49ers' planned stadium. Rosenberg: "Councilwoman Lisa Gillmor, another stadium backer, said she was 'perplexed' and found it 'unbelievable' that anyone would oppose the idea. She said the land has been sitting vacant for years without interest, and now they have an opportunity to bring some 'star power' to the area."

Ryan Van Bibber of Turf Show Times sorts through the Rams' options at outside linebacker. Van Bibber: "The truth of the matter is that the linebacking picture will always be something of a rotating image, with the notable exception of [James] Laurinaitis in the middle. You can count on seeing the nickel package often, and with it an extra defensive back. Hopefully, improvements in the middle of the defensive line and in the secondary limit the exposure of the outside linebackers. Chris Long and Robert Quinn could stand to improve in run defense as well." Noted: Outside linebacker figures to remain a weakness for the Rams simply because they could not realistically funnel sufficient resources toward every position. More on this subject in a bit.
Russell Wilson served notice over the weekend that he'll factor into the Seattle Seahawks' quarterback competition right away.

That was easily the No. 1 development from NFC West rookie camps.

"He showed us enough," coach Pete Carroll told reporters Sunday. "He's in the competition. That is going to tax us, as we know, and it was already going to be taxing with two. But he’s showed us enough that we need to see where he fits in with these guys."

Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson are the other candidates to start. The contract Flynn signed makes him the early favorite. Wilson, as a third-round draft choice this year, was going to factor into the equation. While there was very little chance Carroll was going to rule out anyone as a candidate so early in the process, Wilson did show enough during the rookie camp to justify inclusion. Carroll wasn't blowing smoke, in other words.

Wilson demonstrated during this camp an ability to throw open receivers by anticipating with his passes. That was not a strength for Jackson, the starter last season. Jackson was more apt to see a receiver open and then use his strong arm to rifle the ball to the target. Wilson also appears to have a strong arm (Carroll used the word "terrific" to describe it).

Some coaches prefer a quick resolution to a quarterback competition. I would expect Carroll to keep alive this one well into the summer.

"It's going to take us a long time to do this," he said. "It's going to be frustrating for you guys. You’re going tokeep asking and wanting to know and I’m just going to be more patient than you can imagine as we go through this process and we’ll just figure it out when we do."

Clare Farnsworth of offers highlights from the Seahawks' three-day camp.

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks' 2011 injury problems on the offensive line could put them in position to have greater depth this season. Line coach Tom Cable: "We know we have a group, top to bottom, where your eighth or ninth guy can go in and win for you. So our depth got taken to a new level."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic offers notes on some of the players participating in Cardinals rookie camp on a tryout basis. Former Rams receiver Keenan Burton was one of them. Somers: "The Cardinals' positional needs, as well as a player's talent, will factor into the decisions to sign any of the tryout players. The Cardinals, for instance, might need an extra running back in organized-team activities because starter Beanie Wells is coming off a postseason arthroscopic knee surgery, and backup Ryan Williams isn't expected to participate much as he rehabilitates from a torn patellar tendon. So that helps the chances for tryout running backs such as Javarris James and Keola Antolin, a rookie from Arizona."

Also from Somers: Cornerback Jamell Fleming made an immediate positive impression on Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton. Horton: "I don't remember (Fleming) making a mental mistake, which was great. We're going to start throwing more things at him, but he has the demeanor of an NFL guy. He reminds me of Patrick (Peterson). He came in and said, 'OK, this is what I am. I'm a pro football player.'"

Darren Urban of looks at the Cardinals' approach to developmental quarterback Ryan Lindley. Coach Ken Whisenhunt: "After a couple of years ago, I hope we’ve learned you can never have enough at that position."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams rookie linebacker Sammy Brown, signed as a free agent, is hoping to prove critics wrong after going undrafted. Questions about the consistency of Brown's effort hurt his stock. Brown on watching the draft: "When it got to the sixth and seventh round, I just said, 'Man, I don't even want to watch it no more.' I was mad. I see other people going. I see them picking punters, kickers. Am I that sorry? What have I got to do?"

Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offers his take on the Rams' willingness to take chances on some players. Burwell: "If this plan works, the reward will be so much greater than the risk. Better yet, if it turns out these high-risk, high-reward guys can really play -- and if the plan of Jeff Fisher and Les Snead plan keeps most of them on the right path -- no one in St. Louis will care about anything else. The coach and the GM are smart enough and bold enough to know that."

Barry Bolton of says former Washington State head coach Paul Wulff has joined the San Francisco 49ers as an offensive assistant. Noted: Wulff competed against Jim Harbaugh and several 49ers assistants in the Pac-10 Conference. Wulff and 49ers assistant Michael Christianson both worked under Mike Kramer at Big Sky programs. Kramer worked on Wulff's staff in 2010.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee updates scouting changes involving the 49ers. Barrows: "The 49ers parted ways with Todd Brunner, their Northeast Area scout who had been with the team for 12 years, and he promptly was hired by his former boss, Scot McCloughan, with the Seahawks. Brunner handled most of the area scouting on the east coast and was the point man on recent picks like Anthony Davis and Cam Johnson."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle examines why Cameron Johnson fell to the seventh round, where the 49ers selected him, after analysts suggested the outside linebacker would be chosen much earlier.

Matt Maiocco of offers thoughts on the 49ers' receiver situation and rookie A.J. Jenkins in particular. Conditioning was a concern initially. Maiocco: "But in the afternoon, Jenkins rebounded nicely and put together a pretty solid showing."
RENTON, Wash. -- A buzz is rising in the Seattle Seahawks' draft media room as the main event approaches.

Radio shows are broadcasting live from this room, with others taking their spots at tables like the one I'm using here.

The whiteboard in front of the room features rows for each round of the draft and columns for all 32 teams. A member of the media relations staff places the appropriate magnetic cards with players' names onto the board as teams make their picks. There's space for an eighth round on the board -- presumably left over from years past.

Seahawks general manager John Schneider popped in a few minutes ago. I also ran across senior executive Scot McCloughan, the former San Francisco 49ers GM, a bit earlier. Their prep work is finished, and now they wait.

I'll be heading over to our "Countdown Live" conversation shortly. See you there.
The San Francisco 49ers need to identify a starting right guard.

Adam Snyder is out, having signed with Arizona. Chilo Rachal appears to be out, having reached free agency without the 49ers showing much interest in him. Daniel Kilgore remains, but he remains a developmental player entering his second NFL season.

What about swing tackle Alex Boone?

Matt Maiocco of says the 49ers are expected to give Boone a shot at the job. Former NFL center LeCharles Bentley, who helps train Boone during the offseason, had this to say about the idea: "Honestly, in their scheme, guards are a dime a dozen. A good young offensive tackle is such a premium. It would be a waste of ability. .. But if he's one of the five best, yeah, get him on the field." Noted: The 49ers paid more than a dime for left guard Mike Iupati, a first-round choice in 2010, the year before Jim Harbaugh arrived as the 49ers' head coach. Boone could, in theory, remain a backup option at tackle even while playing guard. At 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds, however, Boone looks like a tackle, not a guard. Bentley thinks the team should move right tackle Anthony Davis to guard, but there are no indications the 49ers plan to head in that direction.

Also from Maiocco: lists players scheduled to attend the 49ers' pro day for local prospects.

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers have shown interest in tight end Andre Hardy, a college basketball player.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers made little apparent effort to keep safety Madieu Williams, who reached agreement on a contract with the Washington Redskins. Noted: The 49ers signed Williams last offseason while Dashon Goldson remained a free agent. They then signed Goldson to a one-year deal. They had less need for Williams as an insurance policy with the franchise tag restricting Goldson this offseason.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch points during a recent chat to Jeff Fisher's history in suggesting the Rams probably will not select guard David DeCastro with the sixth overall choice. What if Matt Kalil were available? Thomas: "No. 6 is too high for DeCastro. Plus, I think it's been pretty well established that Fisher would rather not taken an offensive lineman in the first round. He didn't do it once in 16 full seasons with Houston/Tennessee. So it'll be very interesting if Kalil's there at No. 6, as was the case in the P-D's latest mock draft from last Sunday. Do the Rams take him or trade down?"

Also from Thomas: The Rams might need to draft a punter after watching Donnie Jones sign with the Houston Texans.

Clare Farnsworth of shares what various mock drafts are projecting for Seattle in the first round this year. Luke Kuechly showed up four times and Quinton Coples twice. Nick Perry and Fletcher Cox each showed up once. Pat Kirwan of "The Seahawks could go in a few directions at this spot, but Kuechly makes the most sense to me to QB Pete Carroll’s defense. As Carroll said to me last week, linebackers in free agency moved off the board slowly because there are some very interesting linebackers in the draft."

Also from Farnsworth: Ricardo Lockette's speed overshadows other parts of the receiver's game.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times has this to say about new Seahawks guard Deuce Lutui: "Lutui was signed to a one-year deal. That's not a long-term investment. Rather, it's an opportunity for Lutui to play his way back into position to earn a longer-term contract, going to a team coached by a man he's familiar with. For Seattle, the upside is that if Lutui is motivated and in shape, the Seahawks are getting a former second-round draft pick who started for five seasons at a bargain of a price."

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle passes along Adam Schefter's note about former 49ers and Saints nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin paying a free-agent visit to the Seahawks. Noted: Former 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan works for the Seahawks now, giving Seattle a feel for Franklin.

Darren Urban of has details on Adrian Wilson's cameo appearance on "Hawaii Five-O" Monday night. Wilson was a prison guard on the show. Urban: "The scene was shot while Wilson was in Hawaii recently, although his spot in the show was somewhat of a fluke. One of his publicists, Carrie Carnie, got to talking to one of the producers of the show on an airline flight. Turned out the producer was a fan of Wilson’s and the role was created. It's not exactly Wilson’s arena, though. While the actual scene was being shot, it was fun, he said. But mostly, 'there was a lot of time in between shots, just waiting around.' "

Also from Urban: Cardinals guard Chris Stewart put on hold his pursuit of a law degree to play in the NFL. Urban: "He got his bachelor’s degree in history and political science in just three years at Notre Dame, and after redshirting his freshman year on the football field, he ended up with two years of football eligibility left with every option open for classes. The first year he took grad school courses trying to find his life’s direction, including some law courses. The next year -- his senior year on the football field -- he decided to work out the logistics, take the LSAT, and enter Notre Dame’s law school."
Raise your hand if you had the San Francisco 49ers selecting Aldon Smith with the seventh overall choice in the 2011 NFL draft.

Not seeing many hands out there. Not seeing any hands, actually.

OK, let's try this again.

Raise your hand if you had the Seattle Seahawks selecting James Carpenter at No. 25.

Hmmm. Not seeing many hands out there. Not seeing any, actually.

Do not feel bad. Even if you knew which 32 players would become first-round picks in a given NFL draft, there would be more than 263 decillion possible combinations.

The number looks like this: 263,130,836,933,693,530,167,218,012,160,000,000.

With that in mind, our 2012 NFL Blog Network mock draft comes guaranteed not for accuracy but for its ability to promote conversation, a process that has already begun here on the NFC West blog.

"Kendall Wright pick makes no sense" CHI-TOWN-BULLS protested upon seeing the Baylor receiver projected for the49ers at No. 30.

More on that in a minute.

We penciled in Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III at the top with a reasonable degree of confidence. Matt Kalil, Trent Richardson, Morris Claiborne and Justin Blackmon fell third through sixth. Most choices seemed logical, but somewhere among the top five or 10 selections, an NFL team breaks from projected form, tapping into those 263 decillion combinations.

Two years ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars obliterated mock drafts by selecting Tyson Alualu with the 10th pick. Last year, four quarterbacks went among the top 12 choices, with Christian Ponder a surprise choice for Minnesota at No. 12.

My thinking for the NFC West was rather straightforward:
  • Rams at No. 6: Blackmon was an easy choice. The team has an obvious need for a wide receiver. Blackmon is widely regarded as the highest-rated one in this draft class, to the point that some question whether he will be available to the Rams. Going in another direction for this mock would have represented over-thinking a simple situation. Sure, St. Louis could trade back or select a player at another position. Richardson or Claiborne would carry appeal if available. But when Blackmon was available, I turned in the imaginary card right away.
  • Seahawks at No. 12. I wondered going into the mock whether Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly might be available for Seattle in this slot. Would the team take an inside linebacker that early? San Francisco fared well taking Patrick Willis with the 11th pick in 2007. Scot McCloughan, now a top Seahawks personnel executive, was the driving force behind the Willis decision. Would the Seahawks see Kuechly in a similar light? They do need help at linebacker, after all. The thought became a fleeting one when Kuechly went to Carolina at No. 9. That made it easier to focus on the highest-rated pass-rushers. Quinton Coples was the choice because he seemed to be the most talented one available, based on scouting reports.
  • Cardinals at No. 13. This choice was tougher than the previous two. I went with Alabama's Courtney Upshaw, figuring he might fit the profile for a pass-rushing outside linebacker in the Cardinals' 3-4 scheme. He's on the shorter side at not quite 6-foot-2, and there is no clear consensus on whether Upshaw projects as an outside linebacker. The height factor seemed less important given that Arizona patterns its defensive scheme after the one Pittsburgh has used under Dick LeBeau. The Steelers' LaMarr Woodley (6-2) and James Harrison (6-0) get the job done. Could Upshaw enjoy situational success the way Smith did as a rookie for San Francisco last season? Receiver Michael Floyd was a consideration for Arizona. I thought the Cardinals needed improved quarterback play more than they needed improved receiver talent.
  • 49ers at No. 30. Wright was the choice simply because he appeared to be the highest-rated receiver available, but the 49ers could easily go in another direction. Quite a few mock drafts have linked Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill to the 49ers, but he was not available to them in this mock, having gone 22nd to Cleveland. I was drafting more for position than for the specific player. The 49ers could use another cornerback. Perhaps Janoris Jenkins would have been a better value choice. He went 31st to New England in our mock. The 49ers could use a starting right guard, but they might already have one in Daniel Kilgore, a 2011 draft choice. Besides, how many first-round picks can one team use for offensive linemen? Current starters Joe Staley, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis were first-rounders. Ultimately, the 49ers are picking this late for a reason. They don't have as many clearly defined needs as less successful teams. They're in good position to keep an open mind.

I used ESPN's 2012 NFL Draft Machine to make selections and keep general track of which players remained available as the mock unfolded. Toggling between the overall list and specific position lists made it easier to balance value with need.

This conversation is to be continued.
Alex Smith visiting the Miami Dolphins had to get the San Francisco 49ers' attention.

An upcoming trip to the Seattle Seahawks? Now we're really talking.

That's the plan for Smith, as the free-agent quarterback, while the 49ers show interest in Peyton Manning, Matt Barrows reports. And it's only logical.

The Seahawks had interest in Smith before Smith jumped into Jim Harbaugh's waiting arms last offseason. They have an opening at quarterback after making no effort to re-sign Charlie Whitehurst. Scot McCloughan, one of the men primarily responsible for drafting Smith in San Francisco, now works as a senior personnel executive in Seattle.

Losing Smith to Miami or Seattle wouldn't seem to matter much from a 49ers perspective if the team landed Manning. But if the 49ers missed out on both Manning and Smith, they might suffer a net loss at the position.

Barrows cites sources saying Smith is ticked off with the 49ers for what he perceived as a gap between their public comments and the contract offer they made him. We might have previously assumed hard feelings had developed between the 49ers and Smith, but this is the first I've seen it reported. The presence of hard feelings recasts this situation. We should no longer see this as simply a case of both sides doing their professional duty by exploring options available to them.

None of this means the relationship between the 49ers and Smith cannot be salvaged. It just means the relationship has changed. And it means Smith, who already took a trip to Miami, could be less likely to return.

A spin around NFC West front offices

February, 11, 2012
A quick look at front-office happenings around the NFC West:
  • Seattle: Longtime Seahawks personnel evaluator Will Lewis is no longer with the team, Adam Schefter reports. Lewis had been vice president of football operations following a long stint as pro personnel director. He stayed with the team when John Schneider arrived as general manager, and the fit seemed good because the two had worked together in Green Bay. The team's flow chart became a bit top-heavy, in retrospect, when former San Francisco 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan joined the team as senior personnel executive in June 2010.
  • San Francisco: Trent Baalke's three-year contract extension through 2016 seemed like a matter of when, not if, following the teams' 13-3 record. Just about every move the 49ers made contributed to their deep playoff run. Baalke's top lieutenant, Tom Gamble, has interviewed for the GM job in St. Louis. The 49ers do not want to lose him, but with Baalke signed for the long term, the front-office dynamic should remain similar either way.
  • Arizona: Steve Keim, the Cardinals' director of player personnel, has also interviewed for the Rams' GM job. He has been with Arizona since 1999, an unusually long run with one organization. Rod Graves is the general manager, but Keim carries a significant part of the personnel load. The team lists director of pro personnel T.J. McCreight, director of football administration Reggie Terry and assistant pro personnel director Quentin Harris next on its football operations list. They joined the Cardinals in 2009 (McCreight), 2007 (Terry) and 2008 (Harris).
  • St. Louis: The latest report from St. Louis suggests the 49ers and Cardinals need not worry about losing top execs to a division rival this offseason. Minnesota's George Paton and Atlanta's Les Snead have emerged as finalists for the GM job, with Paton as the most likely choice, Jim Thomas reports. Check out Paton's profile here.

Enjoy your Saturday.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton isn't the only Arizona Cardinals employee expected to interview with the St. Louis Rams this offseason. Steve Keim, director of player personnel, has surfaced as a candidate on the general manager front, according to Mike Jurecki of XTRA Sports 910 in Phoenix.

This is good strategy by the Rams even if they're still focusing primarily on hiring Jeff Fisher as head coach and a Fisher-vetted candidate for GM. The team gets a chance to learn more about its rivals in the division -- rivals that went 6-0 against St. Louis this season and 20-4 against the Rams since 2007.

Keim's name has surfaced previously in media speculation surrounding jobs in the division. That was the case back before the Seattle Seahawks hired John Schneider as general manager. Keim never interviewed with Seattle. His standing took a hit when the Cardinals went 5-11 last season and 1-6 to open 2011. But with the Cardinals rallying to 8-8, the overall success Arizona has enjoyed since 2007 comes back into focus.

The Rams would be wise to check out other candidates in the division as well. San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley are two assistants I would investigate. Both have overseen units that have gone young over the last few seasons. The 49ers' overall success under Jim Harbaugh should make Roman appealing. Seattle's defensive improvement has been striking.

The fact that current Seahawks coach Pete Carroll retained Bradley from Jim Mora's staff and kept him in place as coordinator also speaks well of Bradley. How many defensive-minded head coaches retain the defensive coordinators they inherit from previous regimes? That is highly unusual.

Seattle's assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable also stands out as a candidate to consider. Cable's history with Oakland included some controversial moments, but the Rams would have to like the way Seattle's ground game kept getting strong production despite suffering injuries similar to the ones that undermined the Rams' offense.

The Seahawks' ability to identify and acquire young talent through the draft and off the street should make members of their personnel department appealing to the Rams. Vice president of football operations Will Lewis and senior personnel executive Scot McCloughan are the most experienced high-ranking members of Schneider's staff. Both were with the Green Bay Packers with Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson in the 1990s; McCloughan helped to acquire much of the 49ers' current talent while serving in senior positions with the team.

The 49ers' more recent success in the draft and free agency reflects well on Tom Gamble, the team's director of player personnel.

Around the NFC West: 49ers cannot coast

December, 27, 2011
The San Francisco 49ers had to figure the New Orleans Saints would make them play for the NFC's second playoff seed in Week 17.

That will be the case after the Saints defeated Atlanta on Monday night to keep pace with the 49ers in the conference standings. Both teams are 12-3, but San Francisco would win a tiebreaker based on superior conference record. The Saints lost to Green Bay, Tampa Bay and St. Louis. The 49ers lost to Dallas, Baltimore and Arizona.

If the 49ers can do what the Saints could not -- beat the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome -- they'll get a free pass into the divisional round of the playoffs. And if the Saints lose to Carolina in their regular-season finale, the 49ers will get a bye no matter what happens in St. Louis. But the team can no longer coast into Week 17.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee notes that the 49ers-Rams and Panthers-Saints games both begin at 1 p.m. ET. Barrows: "The No. 3 seed will host a wild-card round game against either the Lions or Falcons depending on the Week 17 results. The Lions visit Green Bay in the finale; the Falcons host the Buccaneers. The Packers, 49ers, Saints, Lions and Falcons have wrapped up spots in the NFC playoffs. The remaining spot will go to the winner of Sunday's game between the Giants and Cowboys."

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers' Trent Baalke should be named the NFL's top executive this season. Cohn: "Before Baalke took over, the Niners already had Justin Smith and Patrick Willis. Very good defense. Baalke added NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, the new Charles Haley. And now the 49ers have a great defense. That upgrade to greatness is on Baalke. He brought in Ted Ginn Jr. and Blake Costanzo and he's made the special teams superb and dangerous. He remade the secondary with Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner and Chris Culliver. He signed center Jonathan Goodwin to anchor the offensive line. He drafted Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati and sometimes they are terrific offensive linemen. And they are improving. He drafted Kendall Hunter -- amazing running back. He drafted Bruce Miller. He drafted Kyle Williams, a big surprise at wide receiver, a real find, and Williams has filled in when others faltered."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says Jim Harbaugh made little of Scot McCloughan's comments last week.

Keith Goldner of Advanced NFL Stats explains why average starting field position correlates so strongly with winning, specifically for the 49ers. While special teams play a role in the averages, turnovers are the key variable.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Steve Spagnuolo could be heading into his final game as the Rams' head coach. Thomas: "This season began with the Rams considered a favorite by many to win the NFC West. But injuries, historically bad offense and run defense, plus one of the league's toughest schedules have resulted in a 2-13 disaster. Spagnuolo, considered one of the hottest coordinators in the game when hired in January 2009, has one year left on his contract. In late November, league sources told the Post-Dispatch that (owner Stan) Kroenke almost certainly hadn't made up his mind about what to do with both Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney, who also has one year left on his contract."

Nick Wagoner of runs through Rams injuries and says cornerback Justin King is headed for surgery.

Darren Urban of says coach Ken Whisenhunt sees significance in getting to 8-8 following a 1-6 start to the season. Urban: "With both the Seahawks and Cards losing over the weekend, the only thing at stake Sunday will be that .500 mark – Seattle is also 7-8 – and second place in the NFC West. Considering all the momentum gained by the winning streak and the playoff possibilities, losing to the Bengals could deflate the locker room. Whisenhunt, however, doesn’t see that, not after the players were able to rally from a six-game losing streak."

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb continues to fight through concussion symptoms. McManaman: "Whisenhunt said Kolb handled the plane ride in from Phoenix all right, but that once the quarterback got to the stadium, the sun and the noise from the crowd began to get to him."

Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic expects improvement from the Cardinals in 2012.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks have done a good job finding starting-caliber talent from unexpected places. Williams: "The Seahawks appear to have their corners of the future in Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. Sherman, a fifth-round selection in this year’s draft out of Stanford, took over at left corner when Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond went down with season-ending injuries. Sherman has three interceptions in nine games, and he plays with a swagger that fits in perfectly with the rest of the defense. And with three of the team’s projected starting five on the offensive line -- rookies James Carpenter and John Moffitt, and second-year pro Russell Okung -- out with injuries, the Seahawks continue to churn out the yards on the ground."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times runs through what he learned from the Seahawks' game against San Francisco. He also points to the team's continued strength in blocking kicks. O'Neil: "For that, special-teams coach Brian Schneider deserves some recognition. Seattle's Red Bryant has blocked three field-goal attempts, one point-after try and on Saturday the Seahawks blocked a punt for the second time this year. That is a tribute to Schneider's attention to detail, pin-pointing and targeting weaknesses in opponents' formations. Last year, his units were the single biggest strength of the team, and while Seattle's kick coverage was a problem the first half of this season, the other units have shown his imprint."

McCloughan's comment does him no favors

December, 23, 2011
Members of the San Francisco 49ers' tight-lipped front office surely must be nodding and laughing after reading bulletin-board material from former general manager Scot McCloughan, now a personnel man for the rival Seattle Seahawks.

"They come to our place Christmas Eve and we're going to beat the hell out of 'em," McCloughan said, according to Mike Silver.

Silver wrote mostly about how McCloughan, the 49ers' former general manager, played a role in putting together the team's current NFC West-winning roster. That should be obvious to anyone following the 49ers closely. But that one quote about beating the hell out of the 49ers will only reinforce perceptions inside the 49ers that McCloughan, though a good football man overall, could be a little too loose in his dealings with reporters, and that he might have been better suited in scouting than out front as GM.

It's tough to say whether comments from a former GM can provide inspiration that manifests itself on the field, but no matter what happens when the Seahawks and 49ers play Saturday, the comments from McCloughan will become part of the narrative. What McCloughan said will command more attention than all he did while helping put together the 49ers' current roster.

Around the NFC West: Who gets the credit

October, 20, 2011
NFL coaches and personnel people tend to be very much attuned to the credit/blame handed out for putting together their teams.

They should be. Their jobs often hang in the balance.

Terry Donahue, Steve Mariucci, Scot McCloughan, Mike Nolan, Mike Singletary, Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh were responsible to varying degrees for putting together the suddenly world-beating San Francisco 49ers. Some helped more than others. Some arguably did more damage than good.

Matt Maiocco of points out which current 49ers players joined the roster under which coaches and personnel people. Noted: Teams often don't get enough credit for the moves they decide against making. The 49ers have shown restraint in free agency over the last few years, taking care to maintain balance in the locker room by rewarding their own deserving players, such as Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis. They could have gone after Nnamdi Asomugha this past offseason and many of us would have supported such a move, but they've done quite well with the much cheaper Carlos Rogers, and they didn't set a new pecking order in their locker room with his signing. The 49ers could have thrown money at Aubrayo Franklin and Dashon Goldson. They could have re-signed Takeo Spikes. Every one of those moves would have drawn public approval. Instead, the team paid Ray McDonald, promoted NaVorro Bowman and let the market settle on Goldson before re-signing him at a reduced rate. It's impossible to know how the season might have played played out had the team acted differently, but a 5-1 record makes every move appear a little wiser.

Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat details what goes on during quarterback meetings.

Bay Area News Group has a story about 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree tweeting that a Raiders fan police officer pulled him over and caused him to miss his flight.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with Rams receiver Mark Clayton, who is returning from the physically unable to perform list. Clayton: "It's been a complete year since I've done anything team-oriented and practice-wise. I'll feel like a college freshman kind of coming back in and getting started with everything again."

Also from Thomas: Sam Bradford remains hopeful about playing Sunday despite a sprained ankle. Thomas: "It occurred on the Rams' last offensive play of the game against Green Bay. Basically, the entire pocket collapsed on him and he got hit from a few angles. There was such a heap of humanity that game tape doesn't really show exactly how Bradford's left ankle was hurt."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic looks at what options the Cardinals had in signing a No. 2 receiver opposite Larry Fitzgerald. Somers: "I think it's unfair to place a ton of blame on the two receivers for the failures in the passing game. Quarterback Kevin Kolb has struggled the past three weeks, both with accuracy and decisions. The protection has been leaky. And there have been too many drops by everyone -- receivers, tight ends and running backs. It's important to note, too, that this offense is built differently than those in coach Ken Whisenhunt's previous four seasons. The Cardinals have threats at tight end, and everyone assumed the acquisition of Todd Heap would mean fewer opportunities for the second and third receivers. But the Cardinals have had trouble getting the ball to Heap and rookie Rob Housler, who have the skills to make catches deep down the middle. Those kinds of completions would relieve pressure on Fitzgerald, too."

Also from Somers: The Cardinals have made a couple of unnamed offensive tweaks, typical for a bye week.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says former Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren has no plans to coach again, according to what Holmgren told Sports Radio 950 KJR in Seattle. Holmgren on how long he plans to be with the Browns: "It’s hard to tell for sure, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be 10 years. We still have our home in Seattle. And like I said, the kids are there, the grandkids are there. And I don’t think they are going to be moving anywhere too soon. So our vision is to kind of get back to that area at some point. Exactly when that is (I don’t know). I would like to see improvement here and lay the foundation here so they can feel good about their team again before I make any changes at all." Noted: Holmgren's use of the word "they" to describe the Browns could simply reflect him adopting a Northwest mentality when speaking with people he knows from Seattle. It also could reflect his previously stated desire to have stayed with the Seahawks.

Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times is past the point of rehashing what precipitated Holmgren's departure from the Seahawks, and what it means now. Me, too.

Clare Farnsworth of provides an update from practice, noting that Tarvaris Jackson was a limited participant.

Around the NFC West: Stifling QB dilemma

October, 11, 2011
Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has simple choices at quarterback heading into the team's bye week. There's no use overthinking them.

Carroll can stick with the status quo if doctors clear Tarvaris Jackson to play despite a strained pectoral muscle. If Jackson needs extra time to heal, Carroll can plug Charlie Whitehurst into the lineup without benching Jackson. And if Whitehurst were to play exceptionally well, Carroll could then say he's decided to stick with the hot hand.

There's no reason for Seattle to make a decision at the position without knowing more about Jackson's potential availability for the team's Week 7 game against the Cleveland Browns.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the team has no plans to add another quarterback to its roster. That is because the team feels comfortable with Whitehurst and third quarterback Josh Portis, and because the bye week gives Jackson additional time to heal. Carroll on Portis: "I've seen enough of him. I know what he can do. I think that the mode that we're in will really be exciting for him to be out there, and he'll be able to handle it. He's been doing no-huddle and 2-minute drills throughout camp and all, against the defense. He's going to cause problems for people if he plays. We've already seen it." Noted: Not having an elite quarterback allows the Seahawks to change starters without losing a great deal.

Clare Farnsworth of says there's no quarterback controversy in Seattle. Jackson is the starter if healthy enough to play.

Liz Mathews of 710ESPN Seattle runs through all the Seahawks' injuries, with comments from Carroll. Marcus Trufant's lower back is a concern.

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle says Leon Washington's heads-up play was critical to officials allowing Whitehurst's winning touchdown pass to Doug Baldwin.

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News lists former 49ers and current Seahawks personnel man Scot McCloughan as a potential candidate to help the Raiders through the post-Al Davis era.

Matt Maiocco of passes along Jim Harbaugh's explanation for calling a pass play on fourth-and-3 while leading by 38 points with 4:46 remaining in the game Sunday. Noted: There was no need to push the ball down the field with a three-receiver personnel grouping, but also no guarantees against injury had the team run the ball up the middle, either.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says tight end Delanie Walker gives the 49ers flexibility as they move on without Morgan.

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News looks ahead to an unlikely matchup for NFC prominence between the 49ers and Lions.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams are getting Rod Hood ready to play a significant role on defense as the team deals with injuries at cornerback. Thomas: "Like college students cramming for a final, these new Rams cornerbacks have been doing all they can to learn the defensive schemes. Their first 'exam' comes Sunday when they'll be trying to keep up with the NFL's deepest receiver corps. Hood's bye weekend consisted of meetings with Rams cornerbacks coach Clayton Lopez, followed by film study of the Packers, followed by more meetings with Lopez, etc."

Also from Thomas: Danny Amendola's absence as a punt returner is affecting the Rams' field position.

More from Thomas: Josh McDaniels' struggles to fix the Rams' offense.

Roger Hensley of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asks colleagues what the Rams can do to slow the Packers' offense. Bernie Miklasz: "The Rams have no choice but to play a lot of zone defense to try and limit Green Bay’s yards per attempt and yards per completion. A good pass rush is mandatory but the rush has been inconsistent so far this season. The Rams offense can help by establishing an edge in time of possession. The Rams need to put together some long, time-consuming drives. But that will be difficult against a tough, underrated Packers defense. Perhaps the Packers will flatten out after yet another big win, this time Sunday night in Atlanta. Maybe the Packers will overlook the Rams. I doubt it."

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt will not suddenly abandon his coaching principles following four consecutive defeats. Whisenhunt: "I know what I believe in, what we believe in, works. And I know you stick to it. I remember probably four years ago, a lot of people banging on us, saying we weren't a very good team, and we went to the Super Bowl. I believe in sticking with what we know works. ... We're going to continue to work the way that we know can be successful for us and at some point, it will start working."

Darren Urban of says the team will be without starting free safety Kerry Rhodes for at least several weeks after Rhodes suffered a broken foot against the Vikings. Urban: "Rhodes, who could have surgery, is expected to return this season, Whisenhunt added, but for now Rashad Johnson will take his place in the lineup."