NFC West: Scout's take

The San Francisco 49ers are 2-1 and leading the NFC West heading into Week 4. Does that suddenly make them division favorites with the St. Louis Rams sitting 0-3?

"I guess I'm leaning toward San Francisco, but I don't feel confident," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said this week. "The Rams could finish strong. I can't see Seattle doing it. And I think Arizona is a six-win team, but they are all kind of six-win teams."

The 49ers won six of their final 11 games last season. That makes them 8-6 over their last 14 regular-season games. The Rams and Seahawks are 5-9 during the regular season over the same span. The Cardinals are 3-11.

With that, a closer look at the 49ers from Williamson's perspective:

  • [+] EnlargeFrank Gore
    Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesRunning room has been harder to come by for Frank Gore this season.
    On the struggling ground game: "Frank Gore doesn’t look good. He is not attacking things. Gore looks like he is playing hurt. He has run so competitively in the past. He would not just go in the tank. I think Kendall Hunter is very interesting. He looks like he is playing at a different speed when he goes in there. I don't know if Gore has lost a step, but there is no running room for him. You can see where Gore is frustrated. Their line is abysmal. It is amazing."
  • On quarterback Alex Smith: "Smith has exceeded my expectations. He does not make a lot of mistakes. You can grind out some wins. I give Jim Harbaugh credit. He is manufacturing offense. It is a real test for Harbaugh because Smith is so limited. I just don’t think he throws the football very well. He is a good athlete, but he is not big and strong, doesn't make difficult throws, doesn't handle the rush real well, doesn't anticipate things real well. But he is smart and I do think he has some ability. I thought Harbaugh could turn him into a serviceable West Coast guy if he is all he is cracked up to be."
  • On the offense overall: "They finally got Vernon Davis involved. They use a lot of double tight end sets. Delanie Walker is a nice player, but too often those guys have had to help the offensive line, especially Davis. I would like to see what the offense can do with both Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree healthy for a game or two. Those guys have obvious inconsistencies, but they also have obvious talent. They might be able to open up room for one another, for Davis, for the run game, make life easier for Smith. Overall, if they turn the ball over, they are done."
  • On the defense: "Their front seven is fantastic. I don't know if everyone knows how good Justin Smith is, but he is one of the 10 best players in the league on defense. Patrick Willis is, to me, the best second-level defender in football. I'm not saying best linebacker because it's not fair to compare him to DeMarcus Ware, Clay Matthews, those guys. But Willis is the best second-level defender and it's not even close. They have two other guys, NaVorro Bowman and Ray McDonald, playing out of this world. Bowman is a big-time find. The 49ers are tough on all down-and-distances. Not only is the nose tackle (Isaac Sopoaga) playing well, but then he comes off the field and Smith and McDonald go inside, and then the outside guys are a handful, too. Aldon Smith has flashed, Parys Haralson, Ahmad Brooks. I don't love Donte Whitner, but he is an upgrade. They are a corner short even though Carlos Rogers has played very well."

That completes our four-team checkup with Williamson. You can reach him on Twitter as well.

Scout's take: Bradford and the Rams

September, 30, 2011
How a team loses can shake its confidence more than the losses themselves.

The St. Louis Rams, outscored 96-36 during their 0-3 start, come to mind this season.

One question now is whether the rocky beginning forces reevaluation of the Rams' fundamental makeup.

"I thought they would run away with the division," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said this week. "I knew the schedule was hard early and they were putting in a complex new offense, but I did not expect this. They are the worst team in the league all of a sudden."

The climb remains an uphill one. The Rams' next four opponents: Washington (home), Green Bay (road), Dallas (road) and New Orleans (home).

Life for the Rams could get worse before it gets better, in other words.

A few thoughts from Williamson on where the Rams stand heading into Week 4:
  • On quarterback Sam Bradford: "I think Bradford has played well and I feel for him. They have had so many drops. No one can get open for him. He hits guys in the hands on third-and-8. He is getting no help. The line is not there, the safety-blanket running back is not there. Bradford is not the problem at all. The offense should get better when Danny Amendola and Steven Jackson are back. Bradford could really use an Amendola type."
  • On the offensive line: "Jason Smith has been really poor for them. Both tackles have been bad. Rodger Saffold has not been as good as he was last year. Smith is just a disappointment. If you are going to take a right tackle second overall, you need him to be a Pro Bowler. The line situation overall is weird. They have a lot invested there. If it doesn't work, what do you do? You don’t want to use another first-round pick on a tackle. You don't want to spend on another guard. Their center, Jason Brown, has not performed up to his contract, either. He is not one of the five or even 10 best centers in the league. Maybe you draft a nasty nail-eating guy in the third round, cut Brown and use the money for a wideout or corner."
  • On the defense: "The injuries at cornerback have been huge. They have no coverage ability. The defense will be middle-of-the-pack this year. They are better up front with better pass rushers. They could use a defensive tackle for the long haul. They could use another star in the defensive backfield, but all in all, I think the defense is pretty solid."
  • On the Rams' chances overall: "I’m not ready to cash them in. The second-half schedule is better. They’ll get healthier. There are talented players there. I think Steve Spagnuolo is a good coach, and Josh McDaniels can coach up an offense. Nothing is going well there right now. I still have all the faith in the world in Bradford. It’s not time to reassess. They are probably the best franchise in the division with the brightest future. They have the quarterback, and I very much believe Spagnuolo will keep the defense competitive. They have huge coverage issues, but a lot of that is due to injury."

I'm not sure that will make Rams fans feel any better about the immediate future. The questions on the offensive line are probably more troubling than at any other position. There should come a time, however, when Bradford does more for the line than he needs the line to do for him. But the team needs to get more for its money up front.

Scout's take: Where Seahawks stand

September, 30, 2011
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc., like just about every other football analyst, pulled no punches in assessing the Seattle Seahawks' chances with Tarvaris Jackson as their quarterback.

Back in August, he called Jackson the NFL's worst starting quarterback.

"I still think Tarvaris Jackson is terrible," Williamson said this week after Jackson and the Seahawks claimed their first victory of the 2011 regular season.

But focusing disproportionately on what Jackson offers the team right now should not obscure a fuller analysis. The contracts Seattle has committed to Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst tell us the organization isn't banking on either player for more than what a placeholder would provide -- short-term stability until the team finds a brighter prospect, most likely in the 2012 draft. There is much more going on in Seattle than what is happening at quarterback.

"I like just about everything else," Williamson said. "They have set themselves up big-picture to bring up Andrew Luck or Matt Barkley and make a pretty comfortable transition."

A few additional thoughts from Williamson on the Seahawks coming out of Week 3:

  • [+] EnlargeEarl Thomas and Kam Chancellor
    Charles LeClaire/US PresswireThe Seahawks appear set for the future at the safety position with Earl Thomas, left, and Kam Chancellor.
    On the defense: "Their front seven is dynamite. That defensive line with Chris Clemons, Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant and that crew is good. They have a lot of pieces in place on defense. Earl Thomas is the real deal -- explosive, fast. He is not Ed Reed, but that is the comparison, a true free safety who covers a ton of ground. Kam Chancellor is almost a linebacker. He's a playmaker, a hitter, an Adrian Wilson type. The two of them complement each other well. They have had a revolving door at linebacker with injuries and the Aaron Curry situation, but they will get that worked out. David Hawthorne is a very good player once he gets healthy. They are a No. 1 corner away on defense."
  • On offensive skill positions: "I like what they did getting the big pass-catchers. I'm a big Sidney Rice fan. My only concern is just team speed. There are no fast guys. That is not the end of the world. Larry Fitzgerald is not the fastest guy, but he is still a deep threat. Sidney Rice can be that type of guy to go over a defensive back and get a 60-yarder. Zach Miller runs well for a tight end. Justin Forsett and especially Leon Washington are really good pass-catchers who can be like a Reggie Bush on the perimeter. Marshawn Lynch is fine. I'm not a real believer. He has not done anything in three years except the one game everyone saw in playoffs. Eventually, you have to upgrade, but that is the easiest position to upgrade. That might be a third-round pick next year."
  • On the offensive line: "It stinks right now, but I tend to think it won’t. Offensive lines take a long time to gain continuity. It is so young. They had no minicamps this year. It is almost unfair to look at the line and expect it to be even average. They are well coached. Russell Okung can be a star, though he has not proved it this year, either. He has taken a ton of penalties, but he can be a franchise left tackle. Robert Gallery will come back. It’s just going to take time."
  • On the quarterbacks: "The position is a mess, but if the guys they have are their second and third guys in the future, that is not so bad. Get a rookie you have something for the long haul."

Back in a bit with Williamson's thoughts on the St. Louis Rams.

Scout's take: Where Kolb, Cardinals stand

September, 28, 2011
Kevin Kolb and the Arizona Cardinals must be doing something right.

They lead the NFL in yards per pass attempt on first down (11.0), just ahead of the New England Patriots (10.9) and the unbeaten Buffalo Bills (10.8).

They rank among the top 10 in the same category on third down (7.8).

Kolb has hurt teams with the deep ball, completing 4 of 7 attempts for 158 yards on passes thrown more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. His 22.6-yard average per attempt on these throws ranks among the NFL's top five, just ahead of Drew Brees' 21.9 average.

Running back Beanie Wells, though sidelined against Seattle in Week 3, ranks first with 3.3 yards per carry gained after contact, just ahead of Adrian Peterson (3.2), Ricky Williams (3.0), Peyton Hillis (2.9) and Michael Turner (2.8).

But after a tough 13-10 defeat at Seattle in which Kolb and the offense faltered too frequently, the Cardinals have little to show for some of their statistical accomplishments. They are 1-2 heading into their Week 4 game against the New York Giants.

What does it all mean? Where do the Cardinals stand? What should we make of Kolb as the team's new quarterback? Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. provided the following thoughts on Arizona when I reached out to him this week:
  • On the Cardinals overall: "Being improved at the quarterback position is going to go a long way. They still have noticeable warts, however. Their defense is a real problem. They are one of these teams like [the] Rams' offense where the lockout did them no favors. They look lost in coverage. Their pass rush isn’t great to begin with. Those things could come around, but they need more bodies to compete in those areas, too. The offense is fine. The line is playing better than I expected them to, especially on the interior. Not that Beanie Wells is great, but they missed him. You can’t put everyone in the world on Larry Fitzgerald if he is there. In the end, they are a six-win type of team with a chance to be better against their schedule."
  • On Kolb as the answer: "It’s too early to really say this is a good move or a bad move. He has played three games and hasn’t been with the team long. He has done some good things. He is an average physical specimen by NFL standards. He has no wonderful traits, but he is not bad in any area, either. When times are good and he has a clean pocket, the play goes to script, he delivers the football well. When things break down or he has a lot of bodies around him, he struggles. He’ll probably get better. He hasn’t played a ton of snaps."
  • On the Kolb trade itself: "In the end, you get better at the quarterback position. Giving up Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie wasn’t that big a deal for me. Ray Horton is the new defensive coordinator. He wants to run a Steelers-type defense, and I can’t think of another corner in the league who is less Steeler-like than Rodgers-Cromartie. They want guys to play off coverage, come up and hit you, play the run. He doesn’t do that at all. It was not that big a loss to your team. People look at it on paper and say it was too much to give up. I thought his name value was a lot more than his real value to Arizona."

I've spoken with Williamson this week regarding each NFC West team and will continue to share his thoughts. He's on Twitter at @WilliamsonNFL if you'd like to reach him directly.

Scout's take: Horton's thoughts on 49ers

September, 6, 2011
Scouts Inc. founder Gary Horton has passed along observations for NFC West teams.

I’ll share them on a team-by-team basis and offer a few thoughts to get the conversation going.

San Francisco 49ers

Horton's notes: Look for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to send Patrick Willis on a lot more inside blitzes this year than in the past, which should suit Willis well. Alex Smith is a "statue' behind a porous pass pro OL and Colin Kaepernick can use his feet to escape pressure. That could determine the starter eventually. This offense will be very physical with a run-first mentality and a lot of jumbo TE packages, but they will also show a lot of motion in basically a West Coast scheme. Look for the coaches to give Kaepernick a package of plays each week in their "pistol" formation, something that he did well in college. It could take some heat off Smith. This may be the worst offense in the NFL in vertical passing, but Braylon Edwards might really help in that area. They must stretch the field more often.

My thoughts: Tight end Vernon Davis has given the 49ers a pretty effective vertical threat, in my view. Edwards adds to that capability. How well will Smith time up the shorter passes, particularly to Michael Crabtree, who missed another camp? Like the Seahawks, the 49ers need to do a good job with their pass-protection schemes after struggling with one-on-one matchups during preseason. Smith has not started more than 10 games in a season since 2006. It's likely the team will need Kaepernick or a veteran backup for stretches. That seems problematic unless the team can add a strong veteran backup option. Willis set a career high with six sacks last season. If the added emphasis on blitzing gets him into double-digit range, Willis will have defied perceptions that he couldn't really get any better.
Scouts Inc. founder Gary Horton has passed along observations for NFC West teams.

I’ll share them on a team-by-team basis and offer a few thoughts to get the conversation going.

Seattle Seahawks

Horton's notes: This passing game could be underrated with wide receivers Mike Williams and Sidney Rice and tight end Zach Miller if they can find a quarterback to get the ball to them! The coaches are not happy with the pass protection by the OL and it is something they are really addressing. Offensive line coach Tom Cable will work to make this a more physical run game with zone blocking schemes with a lot of short and precise passes in a classic West Coast offense.

This 43 defense looks more like a 34 at times with three big linemen and the fourth at the "Leo" position as an edge pass rusher. This is the worst team in the NFL when they try to rush to the outside and they just don’t block well on the edges. They also struggle in their vertical passing game. Are they looking for H-back type guys to help in their run-game blocking? The coaches like their secondary depth now and they have concentrated on getting bigger and more physical at corner, but time will tell if they have really improved.

My thoughts: The personnel on the offensive line will be different, but Horton makes a fair point about concerns in the running game. Injuries to left guard Robert Gallery and left tackle Russell Okung reinforce those concerns, particularly with two tough run defenses on the schedule to open the season (49ers, Steelers). Outside expectations for Tarvaris Jackson are unimaginably low. It was interesting to me when teammates voted him a team captain. They're at least pulling for Jackson. Any quarterback would face challenges stepping behind a young offensive line with injury concerns, however. Jackson, below average as a starter by the usual measures, figures to have a harder time than some.

It's easy to look at the 2011 schedule and envision 1-4 or 2-3 heading into the bye. Seattle plays the 49ers, Steelers and Giants on the road during the first five weeks, with Arizona and Atlanta at home. Then again, the Seahawks blew out of the water my expectations for them a year ago when they went 4-2 to open the season. Better-than-expected play from the quarterback position is key.

Scout's take: Horton's thoughts on Rams

September, 6, 2011
Scouts Inc. founder Gary Horton has passed along observations for NFC West teams.

I’ll share them on a team-by-team basis and offer a few thoughts to get the conversation going.

St. Louis Rams

Horton's notes: They have a lot of complimentary receivers, but where is a clear cut No. 1 go-to guy even though they have really worked to improve the position? Sam Bradford is running a more wide-open offense under Josh McDaniels, with multi-receiver formations, empty backfields, etc., and he even has the freedom to make pass-protection calls and audiblize at the line of scrimmage, all things he did at Oklahoma. It won’t be the "small ball" approach that it was a year ago, but does he have enough competent targets besides Danny Amendola in the slot? Steven Jackson handles 72 percent of the team's carries, more than any other back in the NFL, and they would like to lighten his workload as a lot of his carries are physical runs between the tackles. Almost 50 percent of Bradford’s passes were five yards or less, but when he did throw deep, he was more mistake prone. But they will air it out more this year.

We know that this is a blitz heavy-defense (a la New York Giants), but they were surprisingly good a year ago vs. the run and they are more sound than you might initially think. They only gave up seven rushing TDs a year ago. This is a fun defense that the players love and they are getting better. Depth at cornerback is not great.

My thoughts: The Rams have quietly put together a strong defense even while Bradford commands the most attention for obvious reasons. They already had the best pass-rush in the division even before using the 14th overall selection for defensive end Robert Quinn. And with James Hall coming off a 10.5-sack season, there's no pressure on Quinn to make an immediate impact. That is a good situation for the Rams.

McDaniels and Bradford have consistently said the talent at receiver is more than sufficient. It's certainly better than it was at the end of last season. No team in the division would trade its wide receivers for the Rams' group, however. Jackson expects to find more of his running lanes outside. He also expects to catch more passes out of the backfield. That could help him avoid some of the punishment runners absorb up the middle.

Scout's take: Horton's thoughts on Cards

September, 6, 2011
Scouts Inc. founder Gary Horton has passed along observations for NFC West teams.

I'll share them on a team-by-team basis and offer a few thoughts to get the conversation going.

Arizona Cardinals

Horton's notes: Ken Whisenhunt has a strong 34 background, but when he tried to run it in 2010, it was clear that he did not have the right personnel to be successful. There were rumors that communication between coaches and players was a problem and as a result there is a new coordinator, Ray Horton. Horton will probably be forced to continue with some 43 wrinkles because of the lethargic edge pass rush out of the 34. A year ago they couldn’t stop the run and they gave up too many points and that is a disaster when they don’t have an offense that has any explosiveness to compensate for it. Those 34 looks will be the base defense and we will see those 43 wrinkles in mostly nickel situations.

There are huge questions at WR after Larry Fitzgerald, which may really hinder their sub-packages, but they are better at TE than they have been in recent memory. Because they played from behind so often a year ago, this run game never really got going. This QB group was the worst in the NFL a year ago vs. the blitz, but Kevin Kolb’s numbers are much better vs. pressure. Also, no receiver in the league was overthrown or underthrown more than Fitzgerald. Kolb will also improve that.

My thoughts: The Cardinals have strong personalities on defense. It's important for any defensive coordinator to win over those personalities and make them work for him. That will go a long way toward fixing whatever communication issues might have been at work. Horton would seem to have the right pedigree to do that given his background as a player and as a longtime understudy to Dick LeBeau. But Horton's initial point about the Cardinals not having the right personnel remains valid until proven otherwise. On offense, the Cardinals aren't as concerned about their receiving situation after Fitzgerald. Whisenhunt has a point when he says it's impossible to develop young talent without letting that talent play. This is a big year for Andre Roberts and Early Doucet in particular.

Scout's take on Marshawn Lynch's addition

October, 15, 2010
A strong performance from Marshawn Lynch after less than two weeks in Seattle could do more than help the Seahawks upset the Chicago Bears.

"There's a reason why you have the offseason and the training camps and the minicamps and all the practices, and if it goes really, really well with him, I think maybe there’s an argument to not need all that stuff," quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said to laughter Thursday. "We’ll see. The pressure is on him. This could be big for everybody, for all of us."

Unfortunately for Hasselbeck and other veteran players in particular, Lynch's performance Sunday will not carry enough weight to change NFL teams' year-round approach to training.

But if the St. Louis Rams could get receiver Mark Clayton up to speed in less than a week, why can't a running back jump right in? The duties assigned to running backs in pass protection stand out as the most challenging aspect of learning any new scheme. Justin Forsett or Leon Washington will be better prepared in third-down situations, for sure.

That's why the Seahawks' acquisition of Lynch must be evaluated over the long term. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. offered a few thoughts along those lines when we spoke Wednesday:
On how Lynch will be used: "I tend to think (coach) Pete Carroll is always going to want the competition and keep a lot of running backs involved. He did it at USC even when he had Reggie Bush. I tend to think he is going to use all those guys and I think Justin Forsett deserves reps. He is a good running back"

On acquiring Lynch: "Lynch, if you were to ask me about him before the season, I would have told you I was not a fan. He has run rather poorly for two years in a row, more gingerly than he had when he was at his best. And he also has had some off-field problems. But considering what the Seahawks gave up and the type of runners they had on the roster, I think it was a really good move. He can sustain offense with them. He can drag a defender or two. ... This is a long-term project in Seattle and they eliminated one offseason need. There is now no reason to get a back this offseason."

On Lynch being rejuvenated: "There is a lot to be said for getting out of a dismal situation. Buffalo is a dismal place. I was in Cleveland during bad times for that organization. If any player could have gone to a different facility that year, they would have played better football. That helps Lynch. Buffalo is a wasteland and the Seattle offensive line has to be better than in Buffalo even though it is not great. I think it is good for the player and the team and for Buffalo, too. They get a pick."

On what Lynch has to offer: "Your body gets beat up quick at that position. Lynch is not as talented as when he came out of Cal. Running backs deteriorate quickly. He is a do-it-all type of guy. He is certainly powerful. No one batted an eye when he was picked 12th overall, and he looked like a stud for two years in Buffalo. I don’t know if he’ll ever be a Pro Bowler, though."

The Seahawks do not need Lynch to become a Pro Bowl-caliber producer on the ground. They need him to provide power and ferocity on early downs. Lynch's combination of size, attitude and age -- he is still only 24 -- should let him add something in those areas.