NFC West: Shane Lechler

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
video
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.

First Down

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.


Second Down

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.


Third Down

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.


Fourth Down

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.

 
A rookie punter's arm could be the difference between 2-0-1 and 1-2-0 records for the St. Louis Rams in NFC West play.

Johnny Hekker's scoring pass for the Rams against Seattle provided St. Louis with its only touchdown during a 19-13 victory in Week 4. Hekker completed two more passes Sunday, including one for a fourth-and-8 conversion during a go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, to help the Rams force a 24-24 tie against San Francisco.

According to Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information, Hekker now has a chance to join Bob Parsons (1977) and Tom Skladany (1981) as the only players listed as punters to finish a season with at least three completed passes and a 100 percent completion rate. Parsons completed all four attempts for the Chicago Bears. Skladny completed all three for the Detroit Lions.

While Hekker was going 2-for-2 against San Francisco, the Seattle Seahawks were getting completed passes from receivers Golden Tate and Sidney Rice during a 28-7 victory against the New York Jets.

The left-handed Tate's pass to Rice produced a 23-yard touchdown even though the receiver's throwing motion made it look like he was throwing a javelin.

"After it left his hands, I give him a 10," Rice said. "It was a spiral, and I scored. Before that, I give him a two. His throwing motion was the worst. I thought we traded for [Tim] Tebow for a second."

Hekker looked more like a quarterback when he threw. That was the plan all along.

Three under-the-radar moves: Rams

June, 8, 2012
6/08/12
12:20
PM ET
A look at three potentially significant under-the-radar offseason moves for each NFC West team, kicking off with the St. Louis Rams:

1. Signing Steve Smith. The former Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants receiver is three seasons removed from a career year featuring 107 receptions for 1,220 yards and seven touchdowns. Microfracture knee surgery imperiled his career and made him available to the Rams on the cheap. Smith has been healthy to this point in the offseason. He could be an under-the-radar difference maker for the Rams.

2. Special-teams overhaul. This one could work out well or backfire. Either way, the Rams have remade their special teams in dramatic fashion. Their kickers, punters and snappers are the youngest in the NFL on average. Josh Brown and Donnie Jones are out after mostly successful runs with the team. Jones was not the best directional punter and that seemed to hurt the Rams at times last season (including on one of the punts Patrick Peterson returned for a touchdown). New special-teams coach John Fassel had his ups and downs with Oakland. He doesn't get to bring Shane Lechler, Sebastian Janikowski or Jacoby Ford with him. Sixth-round pick Greg Zuerlein is the new kicker. Tom Malone and Johnny Hekker are the punters.

3. Signing Jo-Lonn Dunbar. The Rams were desperate for linebackers. Dunbar, signed from New Orleans at modest cost, appears likely to start this season. His value goes beyond whatever Dunbar contributes on the field. His knowledge of the system should benefit the Rams' other linebackers, especially defensive leader James Laurinaitis. That seemed even more important after the NFL suspended coordinator Gregg Williams, who coached Dunbar in New Orleans.

Wilson, Willis lead NFC West All-Pros

January, 14, 2010
1/14/10
3:17
PM ET
The recently announced 2009 NFL All-Pro team has as many former Seahawks (two) as current NFC West players.

The Cardinals' Adrian Wilson and the 49ers' Patrick Willis made the team, as did former Seahawks Steve Hutchinson and Leonard Weaver.

Niners tight end Vernon Davis appears capable of making a serious run at the tight end spot next season.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says defensive end Calais Campbell expects to play Sunday despite undergoing surgery to repair an injured thumb. Urban: "When I asked if he planned to play, I got that look that said it may have been the dumbest question I could have asked (and maybe it was). Campbell, as coach Ken Whisenhunt said Monday, can play with it casted and that’s what he plans to do. He also didn’t seem worried it would affect his play. The best part, he said, was that even though he probably wouldn’t get to practice much if at all, the fact the Cards already got to prepare for the Packers last week puts him ahead of the game."

Also from Urban: Brian St. Pierre cherished the first regular-season touchdown pass of his career.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Larry Fitzgerald's contract does not include incentives for additional receptions, yardage or touchdowns. Fitzgerald was padding his stats against Green Bay in Week 17.

Also from Somers: Matt Leinart's spotty play in spot duty should concern the Cardinals. Somers: "Kurt Warner, 38, presumably will retire after the 2010 season, his last year under contract. That plan could change, of course, but that's the timeframe under which the Cardinals are operating. The club has to find out whether Leinart can play. And the fact that the question remains is troubling."

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' agitation extends to how coach Ken Whisenhunt feels about Packers counterpart Mike McCarthy. Bickley: "Whisenhunt has been agitated by McCarthy tactics in the past. He felt the Packers' coach game-planned for an exhibition contest against the Cardinals in August, a game in which the Packers went deep and led 38-10 at halftime. A needless embarrassment, in other words. After sleeping on Sunday's loss, Whisenhunt's attitude hadn't changed much. He reiterated his regret for playing Anquan Boldin too long. He made it clear that he was rewarding Fitzgerald, ceding to a player who is (thankfully) driven by great personal ambition (fame and money). And then he struck back at the Packers. He made it clear that McCarthy was doing nothing different on the other sideline, allowing Aaron Rodgers to throw the ball continually on the opening drive of the second half, even though the Packers led 26-0."

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams will evaluate their own players before determining which college prospect to draft first overall. Also, linebacker James Laurinaitis received no votes as the defensive rookie of the year. Brian Cushing won the award with 39 of 50 votes.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Ndamukong Suh appears to be the clear-cut choice with the first overall pick.

Also from Thomas: a chat transcript featuring thoughts on the draft. Thomas: "I think Suh would help the run defense and the pass defense. Just with his inside push, he should force the QB out of the pocket more often, leading to more sacks by Chris Long and whoever the other DEs are. The Rams definitely need a starting weakside LB. And it would be nice to see another pass rusher added to the mix. I'd feel better about CB if I knew for sure that Bradley Fletcher would be ready for opening day. (The early assessments at Rams Park are optimistic on Fletcher.)"

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offers thoughts on the Rams' offense: "Over the past three seasons the Rams have averaged only 14 points per game, which ranks them dead last in the NFL among the 32 teams. I’m not saying Spagnuolo or offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur can be counted on to rebuild this offense and make it terrific again; we don’t know enough, either way. But you’d have to be fairly fruit loops to believe that the coaches should have gotten a lot more points out of the talent they had to work with at WR and QB in 2009."

Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com wonders whether the Giants' collapse on defense could help the Rams by making available players familiar with Steve Spagnuolo's defense.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says all was quiet in the locker room after players dispersed for the offseason.

Also from Farnsworth: awards for the Seahawks' most impressive players this season. Bruce DeHaven emerges as assistant coach of the year. Farnsworth: "The Seahawks’ special teams really were this season, so the nod goes to the coach in charge of those units. Getting record-setting seasons from Ryan and Olindo Mare was enough, but the Seahawks also ranked among the best in the league in opponents’ average starting spot after kickoffs (24.2 yard line) and punt return average allowed (7.5)."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks could be competing with Mike Holmgren's Cleveland Browns if they hope to hire the Eagles' Tom Heckert as general manager. The perception that Holmgren beat the Seahawks to a favored candidate would not make the Seahawks look good.

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers' struggles in the return game factored into Al Everest's dismissal as special-teams coordinator.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Everest was in the final year of his contract. A team spokesman confirmed Everest's firing.

Also from Barrows: a look at college prospects from Georgia Tech and Iowa, with insights from draft analyst Rob Rang.

John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers were mostly solid on special teams except for that punt return game. Crumpacker: "Otherwise, the 49ers were solid on special teams, especially up the middle with flawless long snapper Brian Jennings, holder/punter Andy Lee and kicker Joe Nedney. Lee finished second in the league to the Raiders' Shane Lechler in gross punting average. Nedney converted 17 of 21 field-goal attempts."

David Fucillo of Niners Nation offers thoughts on Alex Smith as the 49ers' quarterback. Fucillo: "The number some folks like to point to is his career high QB rating and the fact that is surpasses that of QBs like Matt Ryan and Jay Cutler. I think that, combined with the fact that he had two of his best rating performances the last two games of the season, would hopefully rope in the last few folks who think it's some kind of phenomenal statistic. I remain stuck on two things (some might say excuses/reasons for optimism) when it comes to Alex Smith. The first is the issue of his offensive line and the second is the idea of having an OC for two straight seasons."

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Josh from North Dakota writes: Sando, I don't see how Kurt Warner is not on your [Ultimate Building Blocks] list! This is one of the top QBs in the NFL last year returning from an excellent postseason, with the same receiving corps. Let's not forget he's a two-time league MVP. He threw for 4,583 yards and 30 TD's last regular season. And to top that off he threw for 1,147 yards and 11 TDs in the post season. He posted a postseason passer rating of 112.2. He was third in the NFL in passer rating last year, secnd in yards and third in touchdowns. I find it asinine that he doesn't make your top 10!

Mike Sando: I questioned myself on that one after filing the Ultimate Building Blocks piece. My original thinking remains defensible. Warner might not play for the entire three-year window in question. His contract runs two seasons and he has already considered retirement. It's tough to build around a player unlikely to stick around.

On the other hand, if I were building a team, I would want a quarterback, and that would mean drafting Warner. I probably could have justified drafting Warner and Matt Hasselbeck as insurance against one another, figuring at least one of them will likely produce all season.


Jake from Lebanon, Pa., writes: You're an idiot for not including Anquan Boldin. Repeat, idiot.

Mike Sando: Boldin isn't even under contract for all of the three-year window in question and I'd be surprised if he remained with Arizona for the full term. That makes it tough to build around him. Also, Larry Fitzgerald is a better player at this point. Once I "drafted" him, there wasn't as much need for another wideout.


George from San Francisco writes: Hey Sando, in regard to your Ultimate Building Block piece, shouldn't it matter if the team were to run a 4-3 versus a 3-4 scheme on defense? I assumed you were in a 4-3 due to the two defensive linemen and only one linebacker [Patrick Willis], but I think you would need to choose a coach to lead the team because it would solidify which system the team would run.

Mike Sando: I didn't really settle on a scheme in part because this division lacks pass-rushers to build around, both at outside linebacker and defensive end.

(Read full post)

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider

NFC WEST SCOREBOARD