NFC West: Scott Wells
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
To that point, the 2013 season had been relatively tumultuous for Saffold. Given Saffold's injury issues in 2012, the team signed Jake Long to play left tackle and asked Saffold to move to the right side. It was a move he didn't love but never publicly complained about. Then, after early-season injury issues again popped up, Saffold found himself sharing the right tackle spot with Joe Barksdale upon his return from a Week 2 knee injury.
The previous three weeks before the game against Indianapolis, Saffold split reps with Barksdale. But the Rams wanted to get their five best offensive linemen on the field and with Barksdale and Saffold alternating at right tackle, they took one of those five off the field for chunks of the game. Long before that, there had been whispers that Saffold might be a better fit inside but it had never been tried because the Rams didn't have many options at tackle.
So it was that Saffold, in looking for a chance to be on the field consistently, and the Rams, looking to put their best line together, hatched the plan to put Saffold at right guard. Rams coach Jeff Fisher recalled the pivotal decision spurred by offensive line coach Paul Boudreau on Friday afternoon.
"Well, the conversation was initiated by Coach 'Bou'," Fisher said. " It’s hard to find a better one in the league than ‘Bou.' He just felt like with his understanding and his knowledge, the fact that he would line up next to Scott [Wells], and Scott could be of assistance to him and athletic ability -- it was an easy decision."
Saffold worked at guard all week leading up to the Colts game, an experience that was foreign to him. But nearly from the moment he jumped into the lineup at guard, it looked like a natural fit.
The pass protection part became easier as Saffold was no longer forced to cover so much ground against speedier rushers on the edge. He held up fine in that regard, but it was his ability as a run blocker that opened more than a few eyes to his potential inside.
Saffold's athleticism and size allowed him to become the prototype pulling guard as the Rams often got him on the move and allowed him to open holes for running back Zac Stacy. His second start, against Chicago, was the better highlight reel as he regularly was noticeable down the field creating space for the Rams to rush for 258 yards in a win.
Unfortunately for the Rams, Saffold's sample size at guard wasn't as large as they would have liked as injuries to others, especially Long, forced him to move outside. Make no mistake, that versatility also helped Saffold's value but it was the glimpse of potential that elevated Saffold from a "might keep" to a "must keep."
Saffold's production inside didn't just change the Rams' view of his future but also made a difference for Saffold himself. When he first made the move, Saffold discussed it with me and another reporter. He didn't have any trepidation about the move but it was clear he was a bit unsure of himself.
After tasting success at guard, Saffold said he regularly spent extra time critiquing his technique and working to refine the details of his new position.
"Once things started going good, I was happy but I was also very, very hungry and very, very strict on myself," Saffold said.
Saffold's work was enough to draw the attention of other teams as he headed to free agency and make him the Rams' top priority. Oakland and Tampa Bay put on the full-court press and both were at least open to the idea of Saffold playing guard though Saffold indicated Friday he would have played left tackle for the Raiders.
Looking back on his first opportunity to play guard, even Saffold himself is taken aback by the domino effect the move created.
"Now that everything else has happened, it was pretty much a surprise for me as well," Saffold said. "I know that Coach Boudreau definitely had a lot of confidence in me, as well as Coach Fisher about playing the guard position, and I didn’t realize it until I actually started doing it."
Now that he has, there's no turning back.
"He made the switch last year, a difficult switch," Fisher said. "He was very, very productive inside. Our plan is to play him at guard as we continue to fill the pieces around him."
It's a notion that a year ago seemed far-fetched. As of Friday afternoon, it's Saffold's new reality.
Of the five linemen who opened the season as starters in 2013, it's possible that none will be available for opening day in 2014.
To top it off, left tackle Jake Long suffered a torn ACL and MCL in Week 15 against Tampa Bay and at the very least would be cutting a return for the opener awfully close.
Put simply, the Rams have much to figure out in free agency and the draft.
"That's what the offseason is for," general manager Les Snead said. "We have got a plan so it's not a stressful situation. It's something that has got a lot of moving parts that we've got to address and keep them from moving."
As is often the case with offseason plans, Snead declined to elaborate on what the Rams' strategy for the line is moving forward. Regardless, it's probably a safe bet the Rams will be making some changes and adding some new pieces one way or another.
While decisions on Wells and Dahl may be the first order of business, figuring out a way to retain Saffold is the one piece of the puzzle Snead made clear the Rams are looking to figure out.
Saffold moved to right tackle in the offseason and started the year there before a knee injury cost him four games. He returned and began rotating with his replacement, Joe Barksdale, for a few weeks before settling in at right guard when Dahl suffered a knee injury.
There, Saffold showed the ability to be a potentially elite guard. Coach Jeff Fisher even acknowledged that Saffold's unique skills when pulling made him a good fit for the spot long term.
Asked directly if Saffold's versatility makes retaining him an important cog in the offseason plans, Snead acknowledged that it did.
"I would say yes," Snead said. "You love versatility on your offensive line. Take it broader than that, a lot of times you're keeping seven and eight up on game day, so when you've got a lot of versatility you can keep seven up and now your special teams are stronger."
The question then becomes how Saffold is valued around the league and whether teams see him as a guard or tackle and pay him as such. Snead believes the delineation of value among the line spots has blurred in recent years, making that an issue that may not matter much when it comes to Saffold.
"I think today in the NFL, it's not like it (used to be)," Snead said. "Now you see right tackles getting paid if they're really good, you see guards getting paid if they're really good. A lot of teams probably, it's not utopia so your best two players might be your right tackle and right guard so those teams usually pay them. I think it's a little broader now."
One more way for the Rams to fill possible line vacancies is from within. Snead expressed confidence in the development of rookie lineman Barrett Jones and the Rams have other young linemen such as guard Brandon Washington and tackle Mike Person in whom they've invested plenty of time and effort.
Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has proved more than capable of bringing along young linemen and putting them in position to succeed. Barksdale's success in 2013 is a prime example.
The Rams will add to the line in the offseason, likely through the draft. Whether they use a high pick on a lineman remains to be seen, especially given Fisher and Snead's short two-year track record of not drafting linemen early.
Still, with the Rams having an extra first-round pick and likely obvious needs on the line, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them make it a priority in this draft.
By the time the draft rolls around in May, the Rams will have a good handle on what form the line is set to take. The contract situations will be decided and free agency will be complete.
For now, it's obvious Snead and the Rams aren't worried about the possible line alterations.
"One will be a rehab situation; one is an unrestricted free agent," Snead said. "Of any group I was most proud of, it was that group this year. I have a heart for offensive linemen because that's your basketball team. It's not just one great player. It's five guys working together."
The question for the Rams in 2014 is who those five will be.
Watching as linebacker Alec Ogletree, receiver Tavon Austin, running back Zac Stacy, and safety T.J. McDonald have stepped into starting or expanded roles. Watching as receiver Stedman Bailey has earned increased opportunities, eventually earning a start last week against Arizona. Watching as cornerback Brandon McGee stepped in to fill a void in an injury-depleted secondary. And Jones has waited.
The natural question is when, exactly, his time will come? Considering the Rams have been officially eliminated from the playoff chase, many are wondering if that time is now. A player like Bailey, for example, has earned more and more repetitions as the season has gone along and figures to see more of those chances in the final three weeks.
But of course this isn't a YMCA league where everybody gets to play and juice boxes are handed out after the game. If a player gets a chance in the NFL, it's because he's earned it, not because it's mandated.
That said, it seems as though Jones would be a logical candidate to get some opportunities in the final three weeks, especially with starting center Scott Wells now officially on injured reserve with a broken fibula. Tim Barnes started in Wells' stead last week, and while he was OK, it's Jones with the more likely future as a possible starting center.
Given Wells' $6.5 million salary-cap number for next season, it's no guarantee he'll return. The Rams have unrestricted free agents at left guard and right tackle in Chris Williams and Rodger Saffold, respectively, and right guard Harvey Dahl is to count $4 million against the cap, making him another possible cap casualty.
From a Rams perspective, it could make sense to get a look at what they have in Jones with hopes he shows enough to give them some cap flexibility combined with the knowledge they won't have to leave their locker room to renovate up to 80 percent of the offensive line.
Before giving Jones a chance, the Rams have wanted to be sure he's ready. A serious foot injury and lack of strength kept him inactive in the first 12 games.
“Barrett has done a real good job in the weight room, and he’s gained a lot of strength," coach Jeff Fisher said. "So, he’ll be ready to go. Obviously, he’ll know what to do and how to do it, he just hasn’t had an opportunity.”
Upon arrival in St. Louis after the team used a fourth-round pick on him in April, Jones already had a good idea that the Lisfranc injury in his foot was going to take some time to heal. He said the Rams were honest with him right away about his chances for playing this season, and let him know they wanted him to fully heal and add muscle to his 308-pound frame.
"I knew these things kind of take about a year to feel 100 percent," Jones said. "I didn’t know exactly what the situation was going to be. But they have been really great and been up front with me the whole time, so I have no complaints and I’m excited about the future."
Jones is about a month away from the one year mark in terms of being removed from the injury. In the meantime, he's worked hard to reshape his body. Jones was able to become one of the most decorated players in college football history with outstanding technique and intelligence, but by his own admission didn't do a whole lot of lifting or working out when Alabama was in season.
"I just think I was playing so much I didn’t have as much of an opportunity to work out," Jones said. "You’re playing all the time. I worked out really hard in the offseason, but during the season it was more of a sustain kind of deal, so it’s been good to really get in there and hit it hard."
Jones has taken to spending early mornings in the Rams Park weight room, arriving before his teammates about 6:30 a.m. and putting in more than an hour on the weights before meetings begin. As for the mental side, that's never been a problem for the former four-time Academic All American, and it doesn't appear to be one now.
"I feel ready," Jones said. "I think I’ve improved a lot. I’m feeling pretty healthy, and so if I get an opportunity to play in these next few games, I’m excited to have a chance."
It's a chance that could come sooner than later.
Fisher said Wells was "a little tight" at the beginning of practice so the team opted to hold him out of most of the final workout before Monday night's game against Seattle. He was listed as a limited participant with a thigh injury. Although it didn't appear to be anything too serious, Fisher said Tim Barnes would be ready to go at center if Wells is unable to go.
Finnegan also was downgraded from limited work the past two days to not practicing Saturday. Fisher said Finnegan got some work done inside. The only other player on the injury report is Cunningham, who is dealing with an ankle injury.
The Mack-led line of 1973 was the last Rams unit to accomplish the feat. The 2013 Rams matched the feat Sunday, going back to the final two games of the previous season
“That’s three consecutive games now where we haven’t given up a sack and I don’t think that’s happened in this franchise since somewhere in the mid-70s,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “Not that there’s much carryover from last year but at least we got off to the right start. You credit the offensive line, the quarterback and everybody involved.”
Avoiding sacks is indeed the responsibility of the entire offense but as quarterback Sam Bradford was quick to point out after the win against the Cardinals, it all starts with the front five.
For the Rams, it’s been a long time since they could go a series without allowing a sack let alone full games. That they finished 2012 strong in that area was a step in the right direction. That they carried it into the opener, especially against a blitz-happy Arizona team, is an even better sign given the type of offense the Rams are becoming.
Bradford dropped back to pass 38 times against the Cardinals and Arizona brought blitzes from all over the field. According to STATSPass, Arizona called 17 blitzes. Fisher said Bradford was hit just six times in the game.
“I thought they looked good,” Fisher said. “I thought they hung in there. They did a lot of different things up front. They kept the pocket clean for the most part. That was pretty good.”
While the Rams run blocking left plenty to be desired, the pass protection was good for a group that had never played in a regular season game together. Bradford escaped pressure a couple of times but for the most part, he had time to stand in the pocket and deliver. He was 11-of-17 for 113 yards against the blitz on the day.
The offseason addition of left tackle Jake Long, the move of Rodger Saffold from the left to right side and plugging Chris Williams in at left guard left the Rams with a line that looks capable on paper but with questions about how it would all come together in week one.
Veteran offensive line coach Paul Boudreau had his group ready to go despite playing some musical linemen during the preseason.
“I can't say enough about those guys up front,” Bradford said. “They played outstanding today, and I think it shows that we've taken leaps and bounds from where we were last year. I thought the communication between myself and the line -- I thought [center] Scott [Wells] did a great job of getting things solved.
“They threw some looks at us, especially on third down, that we hadn't seen in the preseason and those guys didn't flinch at all. They kept doing their jobs, kept me protected, and allowed us to make some plays towards the end of the game."
The offensive line is the most veteran-laden starting group on the team’s roster. That it came together and played well in the opener shouldn’t be a surprise. The question that lingers over the group is health. There were plenty of people holding their breath when the team’s medical personnel were tending to Saffold and Long on Sunday.
If they can continue to avoid those brief scares turning into lasting injuries, the streak could continue.
Again, keep in mind that some of this could change based on how things go in Thursday night's preseason finale. But for now, here's my best guess.
Kept in 2012: 2
This year: The only debate here is who will be the backup behind quarterback Sam Bradford. Last year, the Rams kept two in the original round of cuts, letting go of veteran Kellen Clemens. They brought him back after Week 1, making his contract non-guaranteed. Neither Austin Davis nor Clemens has done enough to clearly separate in the competition. It would be logical for the Rams to take the same approach this season should they choose to carry three for the bulk of the season again.
Prediction (2): Bradford, Davis
Kept in 2012: 4
This year: When Terrance Ganaway departed to pursue things other than football, this situation became pretty clear. Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead, Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham will make the roster. The Rams have a Week 1 exemption on Pead because of a suspension, which could potentially buy Chase Reynolds a one-week, special teams reprieve. Fullback Eric Stevens has had some reps with the first team in practice and is the only true fullback on the roster. It seems less likely the Rams will keep one this year, though, given the versatility of their tight ends, but Stevens remains something of a wild card in the mix.
Prediction (4): Richardson, Stacy, Cunningham, Reynolds
Suspension exemption: Pead
Kept in 2012: 4
This year: The Rams will almost certainly keep four again, and could even go as high as five depending on what they want to do at receiver. Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks are integral parts of the offense, and Kendricks will probably work in the fullback role on occasion. Cory Harkey is also well-positioned depending on the severity of an undisclosed injury he suffered in Denver. That would leave a battle between Mike McNeill and Zach Potter for the other spot. Potter is the better blocker and McNeill is more versatile. The decision will depend on which flavor the Rams prefer for that final tight end spot, or they might even keep both.
Prediction (5): Cook, Kendricks, Harkey, Potter, McNeill
Kept in 2012: 6
This year: Five wideouts -- Chris Givens, Austin Pettis, Tavon Austin, Brian Quick and Stedman Bailey -- are essentially locked in here. The question is whether the Rams keep a sixth, and if so, who will it be? Justin Veltung and Nick Johnson are the top contenders for that job. Veltung’s special teams skills would likely earn him the job, assuming the Rams keep six.
Prediction (6): Givens, Pettis, Austin, Quick, Bailey, Veltung
Kept in 2012: 8
This year: The Rams actually carried more linemen into the opener, but had eight on the roster coming out of the initial wave of cuts. This year, they’ll likely keep eight or nine, but it would seem that eight is probably the more likely number again after the cuts are made. From there, the Rams might again be searching for depth on the waiver wire. Jake Long, Rodger Saffold, Scott Wells and Harvey Dahl are in. Chris Williams and Shelley Smith are competing at left guard, and it seems things are leaning Williams’ way for the starting job. Williams stays regardless because of versatility. Joe Barksdale will be the swing tackle. Rookie Barrett Jones will stick as an interior swingman, leaving one spot left. Smith would be the most likely to land the job, but if he doesn’t win the starting spot, it becomes a bit more tenuous because he’s strictly a guard. Tim Barnes is another option, but is probably redundant with Jones.
Prediction (8): Long, Saffold, Wells, Dahl, Williams, Barksdale, Jones, Smith
Total on offense: 25
When Bradford stops and looks around the locker room or huddle he sees a group of youngsters, particularly in the wide receivers and running backs, only a year or two removed from being in college.
“It makes me feel old, No. 1,” Bradford said. “But, I think it’s great. I think those young guys bring a certain energy to our locker room. They’ve got a lot of energy. They’ve got more than some of the vets and it’s great. I think it gives us a spark.”
Although Bradford does have some help in the leadership department from a veteran offensive line that includes tackle Jake Long, guard Harvey Dahl and center Scott Wells, a big part of his responsibility moving forward is embracing a leadership role to ensure the young players surrounding him reach their potential sooner than later.
Upon the departure of running back Steven Jackson, Bradford quickly realized a leadership void beyond just the opening at running back had been created. He’s embraced that role in this camp as he can regularly be found offering pointers to his receivers during practice or working extra with them afterward.
“It’s fun for me because I get to take more of a leadership role and try to help mold some of those young players and teach them the game and teach them through experiences that I’ve had,” Bradford said. “I think it’s great that we have a lot of young guys. I think it gives us an opportunity to take a lot of steps forward.”
The reality is that Bradford probably wasn’t as equipped to take the reins as the primary voice of the offense until this season. Not only was Jackson the more established veteran but Bradford continued to find himself in a position where he never had the chance to learn all the ins and outs of the offense.
Changing offensive coordinators three times in his first three years left Bradford trying to play catch up. It’s made it difficult for him to offer advice to his receivers and backs because he’s been working to learn it himself.
Now in his second year in coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s offense, Bradford seems more at ease with his role. The timing of that couldn’t be better given how young his wideouts and backs are.
Projecting a receiver and running back corps with an average age of 23 might be fun in terms of the locker room but it also means the Rams and Bradford have high expectations for young players at a position where youth doesn’t always quickly translate to success.
Rookie and young running backs have a long history of producing right away. Just last year, two of the league’s top five rushers (Washington’s Alfred Morris and Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin) were rookies. That could bode well for second-year back Daryl Richardson and his young cohorts.
The receiver spot is a bit more difficult to make an early impact save for a select few. Among the top 20 in receiving yards in 2012, only three were in their second year but none were rookies.
Austin Pettis is the elder statesman of the receiver group entering his third season in the league. Chris Givens and Brian Quick are heading into Year 2 and Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey are rookies.
Tight end Jared Cook should ease some of the pressure on those young receivers a bit, but it still might be asking a lot for such a young group to contribute in a major way so early in their careers at a position where that’s generally been difficult.
Bradford is aware of that, but he’s also made it clear he doesn’t plan to wait around for them to develop.
“I think there’s obviously a certain level of patience that you have to have,” Bradford said. “Obviously, we’re going to go through growing pains, but at the same time those guys have to understand what they’re expected to come in and do -- and that’s play at a high level. I think that we’ve tried to make that clear to a lot of the rookies, especially on the offensive side of the ball. They might be rookies, but they have to grow up fast because we are depending on them for our offense to be successful. So, we can’t afford them to have a season of learning. They’ve got to be able to come in and help us immediately.”
Rams coach Jeff Fisher confirmed Saffold’s injury Friday afternoon, saying Saffold's shoulder dislocated backward but was popped back into place. The injury is likely to cost Saffold a game or two in the preseason.
Because Saffold is expected to return with time to spare before the regular season begins, he should be able to get up to speed to step back into his position without any issues.
What complicates the matter for Saffold is the lost repetitions he could be getting during the next couple of weeks at his new position on the right side. Saffold struggled a bit making that move in the spring but had shown signs of settling in on the right side early in camp.
Fisher doesn’t think the lost time will hurt Saffold’s transition much.
“He’s really had a good camp,” Fisher said. “He’s doing well out there. A lot of it is footwork, a lot of it is understanding the stuff that takes place inside the meeting room, so it will be a setback, but I don’t think it’s going to hurt him. He’s a smart guy and he and Harvey [Dahl] work real well together. So we will get him back as soon as we can.”
In the meantime, the opportunity for some of the Rams’ younger linemen to get reps with the first-team offense could come in handy, especially considering how little experience there is behind the presumptive starters.
Should Chris Williams win the starting left guard job, the Rams will have a projected starting five on the line of left tackle Jake Long, Williams, center Scott Wells, right guard Dahl and right tackle Saffold. They have a combined 327 regular-season starts.
Behind that group the Rams have a group of linemen that, even if the most experienced guys make the roster, collectively has a maximum of eight regular-season starts.
After Long and Saffold, Joe Barksdale is the most experienced tackle on the roster. He made a pair of starts in Saffold’s place when he was injured last season. Williams technically would qualify as the most experienced backup tackle, but for now he’s working exclusively at guard.
The Rams originally added Barksdale on Sept. 27, 2012, after the Raiders waived him. He appeared in 16 games as a rookie for Oakland but did not make any starts.
During the offseason, Barksdale spent time training with Rams Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater in an effort to work on his fundamentals.
Barksdale stepped in for Saffold on Thursday night and fared well at right tackle for about a dozen snaps before moving over to the left side for the bulk of his 40 snaps.
“Joe did fine,” Fisher said. “Joe played last year a couple games and he did well. Joe is lining up against some good defensive ends here in practice every day and he got on the field and did well, knew what to do. So we are totally comfortable with Joe doing that.”
Ty Nsekhe and Sean Hooey are the only other true tackles on the roster, and they, too, should benefit from extra reps while Saffold is out. Nsekhe played the most snaps of anyone on the roster Thursday with 54 against the Browns. Hooey played 26.
They posted that record with Wayne Hunter and Quinn Ojinnaka combining for nine starts (neither player is on a 90-man roster at present). They posted that record with Shelley Smith and Joe Barksdale combining for eight starts after St. Louis claimed both off waivers during the season.
I think that context is important when considering what our NFL scout, Matt Williamson, had to say about the Rams' current offensive line.
What is wrong w #Rams OL? Saffold position change, Long was BAD (Injuries) last yr, Wells/Dahl are old & durability questions...zero depth— Matt Williamson (@WilliamsonNFL) July 27, 2013
The Rams are young just about everywhere but along their line. Center Scott Wells, left tackle Jake Long, right tackle Rodger Saffold and right guard Harvey Dahl combined to miss 21 regular-season games last season. All but Saffold are coming off surgeries. Losing Turner in free agency hurt the depth, and Rok Watkins' release for being overweight was another blow.
From the Rams' perspective, however, the foursome of Wells, Long, Saffold and Dahl are all healthy entering camp. Wells started the final six games last season. Jones is a rookie the team can develop. And if the team could compete with the group it assembled last season, just about anything seems possible. I'd certainly rather go with Long-Saffold than Saffold-Richardson at the tackle spots.
The Rams have stocked their roster at the skill positions while building a capable defense with few missing pieces. But as we look into the future, it's clear the team needs to draft and otherwise acquire talent for its offensive line. Keeping Saffold, who is entering the final year of his deal, could be an option if he plays well this season. Developing Jones would certainly help. Even then, the team could use a couple interior linemen and another tackle.
And if injuries strike the line hard in 2013, Williamson is right. The depth is a concern, for sure.
Miller isn't the best or most valuable player on the team. He doesn't play a glamor position such as quarterback or running back. But through a combination of his own talent, the way he fits on his team, his demonstrated reliability and the depth existing behind him, Miller appears especially important heading into training camp. Every team in the NFC West has players fitting the mold. We single out four of them here:
- Miller, Seahawks: Miller has missed only three games in six NFL seasons and has never played fewer than 15 of 16. He caught eight passes for 142 yards in the Seahawks' divisional-round playoff defeat in Atlanta last season. The Seahawks once envisioned Miller and former starter John Carlson playing together. Rookie Luke Willson projects as the second tight end this season, but there's little chance he could provide the toughness and blocking Miller offers as a nearly every-down player. Another potential backup, Anthony McCoy, was lost to a torn Achilles tendon. The team signed former Falcons tight end Michael Palmer on Tuesday to fill out depth. Sean McGrath returns from last season and is also in the mix.
- Anquan Boldin, San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers thought they needed Boldin even before they lost leading receiver Michael Crabtree to a torn Achilles tendon. They really need him now. Boldin, like Miller, is a tough player and willing run blocker. He projects as the only proven, reliable and healthy wide receiver on the roster. The team plans to develop A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette without relying too heavily on any of them before they've proven themselves capable. Boldin has missed only four games over the past four seasons, impressive for an older player (32) with hard miles.
- Karlos Dansby, Arizona Cardinals: Dansby last played for the Cardinals during the playoffs following the 2009 season. He was a reliable, productive linebacker for the Miami Dolphins over the past three seasons before rejoining Arizona this offseason. Top inside linebacker Daryl Washington will serve a four-game suspension to open the season, so the Cardinals need Dansby to help them get through that patch. They could also use Dansby to set an example for some of the younger players, including rookie linebacker Kevin Minter, a second-round choice.
- Scott Wells, St. Louis Rams: Wells is a sleeper pick. The Rams would have to scramble if they lost other players, including James Laurinaitis and Cortland Finnegan. Wells, who missed nine games last season, hasn't been as reliable lately as the other players featured here. He deserves mention, however, because the team doesn't have another center ready to go. Robert Turner left in free agency. Rookie Barrett Jones isn't yet healthy and may need time to develop. Wells is the veteran center St. Louis acquired to lighten the pre-snap load for quarterback Sam Bradford. He's easy to overlook with so much focus on new left tackle Jake Long and all the speedy skill players St. Louis added. I'm just not sure what the Rams would do without him.
Who gets your votes? I tried to avoid going with obvious, superstar type players such as Larry Fitzgerald (or even Justin Smith of the 49ers, who was clearly indispensable last season).
The team likes its receiver situation heading into the 2013 season, but veteran depth at linebacker was lacking. Enter Witherspoon, who is now a candidate to re-sign with the team, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar and James Laurinaitis are firmly established as starting linebackers for the Rams this season. Rookie first-round pick Alec Ogletree is also expected to start. Josh Hull, a seventh-round pick in 2010, was the only other linebacker on the roster to enter the NFL as something other than an undrafted free agent over the past two seasons. He owns one start and has played 40 snaps.
Witherspoon, set to turn 33 in August, would become the oldest player on the Rams' 90-man roster. Scott Wells and Harvey Dahl are also 32.
"Oh, no, not at all," Winfield replied in good humor. "Are you as fast as you used to be?"
Veteran players learn to compensate.
"Playing in this league for what will be my 15th season, a lot of bumps, lot of bruises," Winfield explained. "You kinda slow down. But I'm still quick, I can still play."
Winfield is the oldest non-specialist in the NFC West, but like many of the other players up there in years, he's also someone his team is counting on heading into the 2013 season.
The chart ranks the 10 oldest players in the division, with information on their projected roles and associated salary-cap charges for 2013.
Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who is fighting for a roster spot with the San Francisco 49ers, just missed the list.
Youth will be served during rookie minicamps beginning Friday, for sure.
With that in mind, I've gone through NFC West rosters singling out for special recognition players age 30 and older (or turning 30 before regular-season openers). There are 29 such players in the division by my count, including longtime NFC West stars Frank Gore (turns 30 next week) and Larry Fitzgerald (turns 30 in August). Twenty of them play for the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers.
A team-by-team look at NFC West elders, with ages rounded to the tenth of a year:
- Arizona Cardinals: Jay Feely (36.9), Mike Leach (36.5), Yeremiah Bell (35.1), Dave Zastudil (34.5), Carson Palmer (33.3), Darnell Dockett (31.9), Daryn Colledge (31.2), Jeff King (30.2), Lorenzo Alexander (29.9), Larry Fitzgerald (29.6).
- San Francisco 49ers: Phil Dawson (38.2), Brian Jennings (36.5), Jonathan Goodwin (34.4), Justin Smith (33.6), Anquan Boldin (32.5), Carlos Rogers (31.8), Nnamdi Asomugha (31.8), Adam Snyder (31.2), Andy Lee (30.7), Frank Gore (29.9).
- Seattle Seahawks: Antoine Winfield (35.8), Chris Clemons (31.5), Jon Ryan (31.4), Heath Farwell (31.3), Michael Robinson (30.2), Paul McQuistan (30).
- St. Louis Rams: Scott Wells (32.3), Harvey Dahl (31.8), Kellen Clemens (29.9).
The chart provides a team and positional look at these players. I'm expecting the Rams to have the youngest roster in the NFL this season.
Update: Add Karlos Dansby to the list for the Cardinals. The 31-year-old linebacker has agreed to terms with Arizona, the team announced.
Up next: offensive lines.
NFC West teams drafted seven players at the position: guards Jonathan Cooper (seventh overall pick) and Earl Watford (116th) to the Arizona Cardinals; interior lineman Barrett Jones (113th) to the St. Louis Rams; guard Ryan Seymour (220th), defensive tackle-turned-guard Jared Smith (241st) and tackle Michael Bowie (242nd) to the Seattle Seahawks; and tackle Carter Bykowski (246th) to the San Francisco 49ers.
We pick up the conversation there.
Sando: The 49ers were a clear No. 1 in your rankings before the draft.
Williamson: They still are, and I'm not going to change the order from before the draft, but there is a lot to discuss at the position.
Sando: I promise we'll change the order for one of these post-draft rankings pieces.
Williamson: I think Arizona's offensive line is much improved from a year ago, much improved from before the draft, but I still have to keep them at No. 4. I think the Rams have improved too.
Sando: A day or so before the draft, Cooper suddenly became a popular projection to Arizona with the seventh pick, ahead of the other top guard, Chance Warmack. Either way, the Cardinals had their choice of guards in the draft.
Williamson: I love the Cooper pick. Guard was a bigger need than tackle. I thought they would go with Warmack because Bruce Arians has a history with huge and powerful linemen, downhill guys. It shows us how the league is going that so many of these linemen that got picked so high are good athletes. The days of the fat-guy linemen, the slow-footed maulers, are going by the wayside.
Sando: Cooper was seen as the more mobile of the guards relative to Warmack. He makes the Cardinals more athletic up front. Better yet, his selection prevents us from saying any longer that the Cardinals did not select an offensive lineman in the first three rounds since the 2007 draft. Finally, we can put to bed that reminder and focus on things such as ... just how athletic Cooper appears to be.
Williamson: All these teams are implementing up-tempo offenses. You can't have the offensive linemen huffing and puffing as the fattest guys out on the field. Cooper is the better pick over Warmack. They are equal prospects, but very different. Carson Palmer isn't getting out of the way of any interior rush. Cooper should be better in protection. Cardinals fans might not want to hear it, but Cooper might have been the best pick in the whole draft for their team. He does more for them than Luke Joeckel or Eric Fisher.
Sando: We saw the Cardinals and Rams take offensive linemen in the fourth rounds. Of the two, the Rams' pick, Jones, would appear to have the clearest path to a starting job. He could factor at left guard. He could also project as a future center. At the very least, Jones should back up multiple spots.
Williamson: If you are an offensive lineman and you are tough and smart and that is all you can be, you'll probably play 10 years in the league. That is Jones. He's a typical Alabama guy who has gotten the crap beaten out of him for four years, but he is smart as hell, he will play three positions and maybe even get you through a game at left tackle.
Sando: What do you think of the Rams' line overall with Jake Long, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl and Rodger Saffold?
Williamson: They've got some nasty guys. Dahl is nasty, Jones is nasty, Wells has some of that, Long has some of that. Jeff Fisher is looking for a big, physical, nasty group that will take a shot or two after the whistle. They have gone finesse elsewhere on their roster, but not on the offensive line. Most teams are looking for speed and athletes on the line, but the Rams are going for nasty.
Sando: Seattle wants to play that way as well. The Seahawks drafted more offensive linemen than any team in the division, but each was a seventh-round selection. Bowie could be an interesting tackle prospect. Russell Okung helped recruit him to Oklahoma State, but Bowie violated team rules, left the program and wound up at Northeastern (Okla.) State. Smith projects as another J.R. Sweezy-type conversion project for Seattle line coach Tom Cable. The 49ers could use a swing tackle and took a candidate in the seventh round. But the Cardinals were the only NFC West team to address the line in a serious way.