NFC West: Shaun HIll

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams took their time wading into the free-agent market this year and with most of the shopping seemingly done and focus turning toward the draft, we can take stock of what the team did and didn't get done in free agency.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Rams were tied with Green Bay and New Orleans as the least active teams in free agency. St. Louis signed just three free agents who played on a different team in 2013, adding quarterback Shaun Hill, defensive lineman Alex Carrington and wide receiver Kenny Britt.

All of those moves came well after the initial, most expensive wave of free agency and none of those deals are longer than a single season. The Rams' biggest move was the one they intended to make all along, signing offensive lineman Rodger Saffold to a lucrative five-year contract extension after his deal with Oakland fell apart for a failed physical.

It's been long-held NFL dogma that the best teams build through the NFL draft rather than spending big in free agency and the Rams made it clear early on that they intended to be patient if not silent in free agency. They followed through on that promise but what's most interesting is the company they kept among the other teams that were least active in the market.

Nine teams added just three or four outside free agents in the first month of free agency. Of those nine teams, only the Rams with their three additions and Dallas (four) did not make the playoffs in 2013. Joining Green Bay and New Orleans on the list, Seattle, San Francisco, New England, Kansas City and Indianapolis each signed only a quartet of players.

It stands to reason that teams who are mostly happy with their rosters and have won plenty of games wouldn't be looking to spend big money in free agency. While Dallas and the Rams' presence on that list could also be attributed to limited salary-cap space, in the Rams' case it's also indicative of a front office and coaching staff that believes in the ability of its young talent to ascend in 2014.

Rams general manager Les Snead has indicated multiple times that the thing his young team needs the most is experience and there's apparently a strong belief that the young talent in place can all take the necessary steps forward to help the Rams improve in 2014. Whether that happens remains to be seen but at least in terms of free agency, that faith in the team's young players clearly isn't just lip service.
The St. Louis Rams found their replacement for Kellen Clemens on Wednesday, agreeing to a one-year deal with Shaun Hill to become the team's backup quarterback behind Sam Bradford.

While Hill doesn't have the same knowledge of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense that Clemens did, he brings plenty of experience and a solid record of production as a backup.

[+] EnlargeShaun Hill
AP Photo/Scott BoehmQB Shaun Hill has played in 34 NFL games since 2005, throwing for 6,381 yards and 41 touchdowns.
ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Detroit Lions reporter Michael Rothstein discuss what Hill brings to the table in St. Louis.

Wagoner: The Rams actually began pursuing Hill in 2012 and were unable to get him signed when he opted to return to the Lions for a more lucrative, two-year deal. Although it might have flown beneath the radar, Hill had some success in Detroit. Did the Lions want him back and how much effort did they put into keeping him?

Rothstein: The Lions definitely had interest in retaining Hill, as the Lions consider him one of the top backups in the NFL. He also has a comfort with starter Matthew Stafford and has won games for the team in the past. But the one thing Detroit could not offer Hill is a chance to be any sort of starter, as the Lions hired head coach Jim Caldwell, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter simply to help develop Stafford into an elite starter. St. Louis is closer to Hill’s offseason home and gives him a chance to potentially start, so that might have been the reason for his move there.

Wagoner: Interesting that you point to the potential to start, though I suppose that could be as simple as waiting and wondering about Bradford's health. Given his track record, it's fair to wonder if health is going to be an issue for Bradford again in 2014 and Hill is a logical choice to play in his place, especially if it happens early in the season. For what it's worth, I believe the Rams still will look to add a quarterback in the draft, probably sometime in the middle rounds. That's been the plan all along and now Hill can help bring whoever that draft pick is along.

As for Hill, what are some of the things he does well and what are some of his weaknesses?

Rothstein: Let’s start with the negatives. Hill doesn’t have the strongest arm and he doesn’t have all that much mobility. But he is a smart quarterback and he won’t lose games for you off the bench, either. He is a good game manager and can make a lot of the short-to-intermediate throws. He hasn’t had to do much of that the past few years thanks to Stafford’s durability, so it would be interesting to see where his skills are now if he were placed in a regular-season game situation. Hill was also a good mentor to Stafford, and he could be the same for Bradford.

Wagoner: I'm glad you touched on that, Michael. A big part of what Hill will do in St. Louis is replace the leadership void left by Clemens. He might not have been a guy you'd want starting games, but Clemens' leadership for a young offense was really valuable. He was instrumental in helping Bradford and he was also really helpful for the team's young receivers and backs.

Although Bradford should be far enough along in his development where he is a leader, what type of locker room presence is Hill and how can he help a potential drafted rookie?

Rothstein: Going back to what I mentioned earlier, he proved a good mentor for Stafford and is extremely easy to get along with. He has a dry sense of humor but understands how to prepare as a starter and how to be a backup quarterback, so he has worked in either role. He can absolutely be a leader if need be and should be able to fill that void. It was a smart signing by the Rams and the Lions definitely would have liked to have him back in Detroit if the money and situation were right. Hill is a consummate pro and should be able to help in the development of any rookie.
Two years after they first pursued him, the St. Louis Rams finally landed veteran quarterback Shaun Hill on Wednesday as he agreed to terms on a one-year deal as first reported by ESPN Insider Adam Caplan.

Hill visited with the Rams more than a week ago and departed St. Louis without coming to terms on a contract as he apparently spent time considering a return to Detroit. He went through a similar decision-making process in 2012 when the Rams attempted to sign him away from the Lions before he ultimately re-signed in the Motor City.

This time, the allure of St. Louis was apparently too much for Hill to ignore. Hill keeps a home at the Lake of the Ozarks and is also close with Rams quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti after they worked together in San Francisco.

In landing Hill, the Rams get the veteran backup for starter Sam Bradford they wanted. Hill replaces Kellen Clemens, who signed with San Diego early in free agency.

The 34-year old Hill originally entered the league as an undrafted free agent with Minnesota in 2002 but didn't get the chance to throw a pass in a regular season game until 2007 with the 49ers.

For his career, Hill has played in 34 games with 26 starts, throwing for 6,381 yards, 41 touchdowns and 23 interceptions while completing almost 62 percent of his passes for a passer rating of 85.9. Coincidentally, some of Hill's best games have come against the Rams. He's started four games against St. Louis, all victories, and posted a passer rating better than 100 in three of those contests.

While Hill doesn't come to St. Louis with the same knowledge of coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense that Clemens had, he does represent a clear upgrade in talent and demonstrated production throughout the course of his career. Considering his ties to Cignetti, Hill should be able to get up to speed quickly and offer a solid alternative behind Bradford after he completes his rehabilitation from offseason foot surgery.

And though Hill is likely to handle the No. 2 duties in 2014, this probably won't preclude the Rams from using one of their 12 picks in May's draft on a quarterback. The Rams have maintained throughout the offseason that they'd like to add a young quarterback capable of growing into a top backup role behind Bradford. Having Hill for a season would allow whoever that rookie is to come in and learn for a season before having to jump into action should something happen to Bradford.

Likewise, Hill provides early-season insurance in case something goes wrong with Bradford's recovery from ACL surgery.

Much like the team's Tuesday addition of defensive lineman Alex Carrington, Hill is a solid, logical addition who isn't going to break the bank. The Rams have remained patient in free agency and though the approach has kept them from filling some of their major holes, it's starting to pay off in the form of solid depth at positions of need.
The St. Louis Rams finally dipped their toes into the free-agent waters Tuesday when they agreed to a one-year deal with defensive lineman Alex Carrington.

Carrington was the first outside free agent the team signed with experience playing in the NFL. At Wednesday's owners meetings in Orlando, coach Jeff Fisher indicated the Rams may not be done in free agency.

While there could be others on the team's radar who haven't been brought up or come to St. Louis for visits, let's take a look at what remains on the market and what could still be in the offing for the Rams.
  • The Rams remain in the mix for Tennessee receiver Kenny Britt, who is expected to make a decision at any moment. Britt began a free-agent tour with a stop in St. Louis and has also stopped in Washington, New England and Buffalo. Carolina has also showed interest though the Patriots have indicated they are out of the mix. Fisher expressed optimism that Britt would be a Ram on Wednesday but it seems the receiver is still sifting through his options. It's hard to know what Britt is thinking but it's reasonable to assume the Rams are near the top of his list based on his relationship with Fisher.
  • It seems the speculation surrounding the Rams and quarterback Mark Sanchez has been a bit overblown. The Rams do have some interest but, as our Chris Mortensen first reported, it looks like Sanchez will land in Philadelphia. The Rams want a veteran quarterback as a backup option behind Sam Bradford and possible tutor for a drafted rookie. All signs still point to Shaun Hill being their preferred target. Hill came and went without signing in St. Louis and there's also been talk of him considering a return to Detroit. Hill is recovering from foot surgery, the second year in a row he's had such an operation, and that could be delaying his decision or the team's rush to get something done. If not Hill, there isn't much available on the market in terms of solid veteran backups.
  • In speaking to reporters at the owners meetings, Fisher said the Rams were quickly priced out of the safety market in free agency. He also indicated that a veteran safety could still be an option. For that to happen, a new name previously not publicly connected to the Rams would have to emerge. Chris Clemons, Thomas DeCoud and Patrick Chung are among the remaining options. Clemons is the most accomplished of the group and DeCoud is a known commodity for general manager Les Snead from their time together in Atlanta. Other than speculation, none of these or any other safeties have been tied to the Rams in terms of visits or actual interest at this point.

  • Finally, the offensive line remains a point of consternation among Rams faithful though keeping Rodger Saffold has alleviated many fears. Saffold is slated to start at right guard but the Rams could use another veteran option on the interior. They've visited with or expressed interest in Davin Joseph, Daryn Colledge, Paul McQuistan and Mike McGlynn but so far opted not to sign any of them. They've also said they would have interest in bringing back recently released Harvey Dahl. It wouldn't be a surprise if the Rams decided to land one of the aforementioned vets but they could be waiting for the prices to drop out on the interior lineman market or they might simply be satisfied with looking to continue to upgrade the line through the draft.

    Pending the numbers of the Carrington deal and without the $3 million credit for Cortland Finnegan, the Rams are sitting just below $9 million in cap space. That's enough to make more moves but don't expect anything that comes to exceed the one year "prove it" type of deals being handed out around the league right now.
Good morning, NFC West.

I wanted to pass along a link to Jeff Chadiha's column on the Seattle Seahawks-San Francisco 49ers rivalry in case you hadn't seen it.

Rivalries have been pretty tame in the NFC West since divisional realignment in 2002. Rarely has the division featured more than one successful team at a time.

The Seahawks and St. Louis Rams went back and forth across the 2003 and 2004 seasons, when both teams were 8-8 or better (both were 8-8 or better in 2006 as well).

Back then, I recall Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren saying a rivalry isn't really a rivalry until a team wins on the home turf of the opponent.

The 49ers won in Seattle as recently as the 2011 season. The Seahawks haven't won in San Francisco since the 2008 season, when Seneca Wallace tossed two touchdown passes to beat a 49ers team led by J.T. O'Sullivan and Shaun Hill.

That seems like a long, long time ago.

Seattle's 42-13 home victory over the 49ers last season will have to suffice for now.

"This has always felt like an amped-up rivalry game for me," 49ers left tackle Joe Staley told Chadiha. "It's just that now there will be more attention paid to it by everybody else."
Free agency has slowed considerably now that the quarterback market has settled out, save for Alex Smith's unresolved status in San Francisco.

I've put together a chart showing what happened to free agents known to have visited NFC West teams since the signing period opened one week ago.

Demetrius Bell showed promise at left tackle for Buffalo last season and would seem to make sense for Arizona.

New Orleans Saints free-agent corner Tracy Porter is not listed, but he remains one of the few young starting-caliber players at the position, and he has ties to the St. Louis Rams' coaching staff.

I've ordered the chart by how many starts each player made in 2011, an attempt to add a qualitative element to the listings.

Note: The 49ers brought in a long list of players for tryouts recently. I've focused on unrestricted free agents making visits. I have added Jacob Tamme, Corey Graham and Visanthe Shiancoe to the list. All three visited the Seahawks recently.

A Rodgers-Smith note 49ers fans can enjoy

November, 9, 2011
One of our ESPN Stats & Information analysts, John McTigue, was recently researching Aaron Rodgers' record-setting season when another quarterback from the 2005 NFL draft class surfaced unexpectedly.

Turns out the San Francisco 49ers' Alex Smith, not Rodgers, is the NFL player with the lowest percentage of pass attempts resulting in interceptions or passes defended, the latter defined as when a defender is the primary reason for an incomplete pass that otherwise likely would have been completed.

Smith has 206 attempts with two interceptions and 10 other passes defended. That works out to 5.8 percent, best in the league -- Rodgers is second -- and a dramatic improvement from past seasons.

The percentages for Smith were 10.5 last season and 15.9 in 2009.

Another Smith-related note: At 7-1 as a starter, Smith has tied his season-high total for victories in a season. He was 7-9 in 2006. A victory over the New York Giants on Sunday would ensure the 49ers' second non-losing season since 2002.

The 2009 team finished 8-8. Smith was 5-5 as a starter that year, with Shaun Hill going 3-3.
Alex Smith's winning 6-yard scoring pass to Delanie Walker at Detroit carried historical significance for the San Francisco 49ers.

According to Elias Sports Bureau, the play marked only the third time since the Steve Young era that a 49ers quarterback threw the game-winning touchdown pass in the final two minutes. It was the first for Smith during his seven-year career.

A quick look back at the other two:
  • 2008 Week 16, at St. Louis: Shaun Hill to Josh Morgan for 48 yards with 1:22 remaining. The play gave the 49ers a 17-16 victory over the St. Louis Rams. Receiver Jason Hill actually thought the pass was coming for him, but Morgan was running a route in the same vicinity. Coach Mike Singletary had come close to benching Hill earlier in the game. He told J.T. O'Sullivan to start warming up, then relented when Hill pleaded to remain in the game. Hill had thrown three interceptions.
  • 2002 Week 14, at Dallas: Jeff Garcia to Terrell Owens for 8 yards with 12 seconds remaining. The play gave the 49ers a 31-27 victory over the Cowboys and the NFC West title, thanks to a Rams defeat the same Day. Garcia threw three scoring passes and ran for another. Owens caught 12 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns.

The 49ers have now come from behind in the fourth quarter to win three road games this season.

49ers throw early? Shades of Minnesota

October, 16, 2011
DETROIT -- No idea what the San Francisco 49ers were thinking with a slow-developing pass on the first play from scrimmage.

Alex Smith dropped back to pass and took a fumble-forcing sack when Kyle Vanden Bosch beat left tackle Joe Staley around the corner. This was exactly how the 49ers opened their 2009 game at Minnesota a couple years ago, except then it was Jared Allen getting the fumble-forcing sack against Shaun Hill.

Why play into the Lions' strengths on the first play of the game? I'm sure the 49ers' coaches had their reasons. Perhaps Smith changed the play based on the front he saw from the Lions. No matter. The 49ers needed to minimize the chances for mistakes early, and that meant they needed to either get rid of the ball immediately on a quick pass or pound away on the ground.

48 NFC West starters since Manning debut

September, 8, 2011
Cool note from ESPN Stats & Information: First-year San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is the last quarterback other than Peyton Manning to start a regular-season game for the Indianapolis Colts.

That will change when Kerry Collins replaces an injured Manning in the Colts' lineup for Week 1.

The first preseason game I covered as an NFL beat reporter featured Manning making his first start against the Seattle Seahawks in the Kingdome. His very first pass found Marvin Harrison for a 49-yard touchdown. Preseason games are generally without much meaning, but could there have been a more fitting beginning for Manning?

For a fuller appreciation of Manning's durability and consistency in starting 227 consecutive games, I went through Pro Football Reference counting how many quarterbacks had started for current NFC West teams since Manning made his regular-season debut. There have been 48. That figure includes 14 for the St. Louis Rams, 13 for the 49ers, 11 for the Arizona Cardinals and 10 for the Seahawks.

A few notes on the 48 players to start for current NFC West teams since 1998:
  • There have been two Brocks (Berlin, Huard), two Charlies (Frye, Whitehurst), two named Chris (Chandler, Weinke), two Jeffs (Plummer, Martin), three Johns (Friesz, Navarre, Skelton), one Jon (Kitna), two Matts (Hasselbeck, Leinart), two Shauns (Hill, King), three Steves (Young, Bono, Stenstrom) and two Trents (Dilfer, Green).
  • Two, Young and Warren Moon, have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame since Manning's streak began.
  • Dilfer and Warner started for more than one current NFC West team since Manning's streak began. Warner started 57 games for Arizona and 50 for St. Louis. Dilfer started 12 for Seattle and six for San Francisco.
  • Hasselbeck has the most total starts for current NFC West teams with 131, followed by Marc Bulger (95 for St. Louis), Jake Plummer (73 for the Cardinals) and Jeff Garcia (71 for the 49ers).
  • Smith -- Alex, not Troy -- owns the most starts among current NFC West players with 50, all for San Francisco.
  • Eight of the 48 were one-and-done as starters: Berlin, Scott Covington, Ty Detmer, Glenn Foley, Friesz, Frye, Navarre and Weinke. Nineteen have made at least 10 starts.

The NFC West will have two starters new to the division in Week 1: Tarvaris Jackson and Kevin Kolb.

The chart shows start totals by team for the 48. The NFC West changed membership with realignment in 2002. I'm going back to 1998 for the four teams currently in the division.

The late Don Smith never claimed his passer-rating formula was perfect.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Al Bello/Getty ImagesAccording to an outline for the rating system, Tom Brady would fall in the "top tier" category.
"Some people call it a quarterback rating system, but that really is not what it is," Smith told me during a 2002 interview. "It’s simply a passing statistic."

I've actually defended Smith's rating system because the quarterbacks with the highest ratings -- Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers led the way last season -- usually are the best quarterbacks. But there's so much more to quarterbacking than passing stats for touchdowns, interceptions, attempts, completions and yardage.

Game situations should count for something, and now they do.

With input from football people, including ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, our statistical analysts have developed a 100-point ratings scale for quarterbacks taking into account advanced stats, game situations and relevant non-passing stats, including fumbles and sacks, to evaluate quarterbacks far more thoroughly. The methodology is complex -- one of the formula's key algorithms spans some 10,000 lines -- but the resulting "Total Quarterback Rating" (QBR for short) beats the old passer rating in every conceivable fashion. The ratings scale will debut this season.

I've been bugging the Stats & Information team for a sneak peak ever since learning former NBA statistical analyst Dean Oliver had joined our production analytics unit and was playing a prominent role in QBR development. Oliver, a Caltech grad with a Ph.D. in statistical applications, revolutionized how NBA teams use advanced statistics. Menlo College professor Ben Alamar, who has consulted with the San Francisco 49ers, is also part of the team.

Our stats team has been using game video to track stats relating to pressure, personnel, formation, game situation and more since 2008. The QBR stat represents a significant leap in harnessing those statistics for something more.

The old formula Smith created treated stats the same regardless of circumstance. A touchdown pass thrown against a prevent defense during a blowout defeat equals one thrown against pressure to win the game. A 5-yard completion on third-and-4 counts the same as a 5-yarder on third-and-15. A critical quarterback scramble, sack or fumble doesn't even factor.

"There is no way to statistically say how effective a guy is under fire," Smith lamented during our 2002 conversation. "None of that can be put into something like this."

Now it can, along with a whole lot more.

The QBR formula takes into account down, distance, field position, time remaining, rushing, passing sacks, fumbles, interceptions, how far each pass travels in the air, from where on the field the ball was thrown, yards after the catch, dropped balls, defensed balls, whether the quarterback was hit, whether he threw away the ball to avoid a sack, whether the pass was thrown accurately, etc. Each play carries "clutch weight" based on its importance to game outcome, as determined by analyzing those 60,000 plays since 2008. The stats adjust for quarterbacks facing an unusually high number of these situations.

"If it is a running clock late in the game, maybe you only get a few yards here or there, that is the right football play to make," Jeff Bennett, senior director of ESPN's production analytics team, said Sunday. "We spent a month learning about ratings to make sure quarterbacks couldn’t game the system, so they're not afraid to throw that deep pass at the end of the first half and risk an interception."

I've seen an outline for the rating system breaking down 2010 quarterbacks into six general categories, from top tier to poor. Precise rating numbers were not yet available. The quarterbacks under consideration broke down as follows:
ESPN plans to enlist several quarterbacks when introducing the stat during an hour-long "SportsCenter" special Friday at 8 p.m. ET. We'll be referencing the stat on the blogs and elsewhere. Bennett said he's allocating enough manpower to produce ratings on game days, a huge help for those of us analyzing player performances shortly after games.

"We want to reward a good football play," Bennett said.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Seahawks rookie Mark LeGree worked manual labor during the lockout to help make ends meet. O'Neil: "LeGree did what he had done between his junior and senior seasons in college: He got a job working for a general contractor in Boone, N.C. He put up awnings and spread gravel and mulch. He knocked down a rock wall and built another one."

Also from O'Neil: He has a hard time believing the Seahawks have moved on from Matt Hasselbeck. O'Neil: "It's hard for me to believe that Seattle will not offer Hasselbeck the chance to re-sign. Now, it's possible the Seahawks won't increase their offer for Hasselbeck to re-sign, but that's something very different from stating Seattle won't even make a final offer to Hasselbeck. That would truly be a remarkable turn of events considering this offseason began with coach Pete Carroll's statement he considered Hasselbeck the team's starting quarterback and that re-signing him was the top priority. That was January. A lot of time has passed since then, and the two sides failed to reach an agreement in March. Seattle must prepare for the possibility Hasselbeck won't be back. After all, he's not under contract and he's going to be the top free-agent quarterback available. He very well may not be back. It's just hard for me to believe the door has been closed."

Bucky Brooks of touches on several free agents from NFC West teams, suggesting where they would and would not fit in 2011. He likes Sidney Rice's prospects in St. Louis, but has this to say about Hasselbeck possibly returning to Seattle: "Hasselbeck has repeatedly stated his desire to return to Seattle, but the team is poised to transition at the position. The Seahawks paid a hefty sum to acquire Charlie Whitehurst a season ago, and they need to see if he has the goods to become a franchise quarterback. Also, the team's reluctance to get a deal done prior to the lockout suggests the front office isn't completely sold on Hasselbeck as their starter in 2011. Without a strong commitment from the team to remain on board, Hasselbeck would be better served to look for greener pastures."

Clare Farnsworth of revisits Jack Patera's final season coaching the team (1982). The strike made this a strange season. Patera was fishing during the strike when he received word of his firing. Patera later said he expected to coach the team for years to come. He never coached again. Patera: "Who in the hell would get a hold of me with a truck parked in the woods on the river? They had to come about 16 miles and up the road another four or five, and at the time I thought, you know, there’s something wrong with my family, or my child, or whatever."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic looks at the role Larry Fitzgerald will play in the Cardinals' coming quarterback acquisition. He points to Kevin Kolb as the leading candidate. Somers: "The Cardinals must be concerned about what impact signing a veteran such as Hasselbeck or the Ravens' Marc Bulger would have on their effort to re-sign Fitzgerald this fall. Will Fitzgerald be as anxious to sign another multi-year contract if the guy throwing him the ball has only a couple of years left, at most? The Cardinals have asked themselves that question. Their answer is one reason they will pursue Kolb." Adding Kolb would make the Cardinals more intriguing heading into the season. How well would he fit their offense? Would he succeed right away? Would he make the Cardinals more competitive right away? Would he justify whatever price Kolb would command for the Eagles?

Also from Somers: He has a hard time seeing how Arizona could open training camp at Northern Arizona University before Aug. 1 or Aug. 2.

Matt Maiocco of offers thoughts on what 46-man rosters could mean for the 49ers on game days. The expansion by one roster spot wipes out previous rules making it tougher for teams to use third-string quarterbacks. Maiocco: "Alex Smith is the clear favorite to win the starting job. I thought all along that Colin Kaepernick would be active as the No. 2 quarterback. That way, he could be used in specialty packages throughout a game to utilize his unique running and throwing skills. Veteran David Carr is the only other quarterback on the 49ers' roster, but his roster spot is not a sure thing. The 49ers could still add a veteran quarterback through free agency or a trade. They might also sign an undrafted rookie. If the 49ers go with another veteran quarterback on the roster, which seems likely, the 49ers might believe a player with experience would be in a better position than Kaepernick to play for long stretches." That thinking could come into play more strongly if Smith became unavailable early in the season. The team would have to think hard about turning over the job to Kaepernick for most of the season. Coach Jim Harbaugh has said the position will be competitive. I wouldn't rule out Kaepernick exceeding expectations in practice or exhibition games, based on his athletic ability.

Ray Ratto of raises questions about the 49ers and Raiders possibly sharing a new stadium. Ratto: "For one, where does the stadium go? The 49ers would want it in Santa Clara, where they keep saying they are prepared to start construction. The Raiders would want it closer to Oakland, if not Oakland proper. Reason: The team that has to leave its fan base becomes a de facto tenant of the other, no matter how you draw up the partnership. In fact, the side that gave in would surely want monetary compensation for moving away from its fan base, and negotiation increases the possibility of impasse, rather than the other way around. For two, the NFL would have to solidly commit to the Bay Area as the next place for a league stadium loan, and there is no sense that the league is prepared to do that."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Boston College's Mark Herzlich could be a consideration for the 49ers as an undrafted free agent.

Also from Barrows: Justin Smith isn't worried about going through the offseason without the 49ers' defensive playbook. Players without much NFL experience are more vulnerable. Smith is right about team changing up game plans from week to week during the season, but younger players will need help with technique and broader concepts. They'll need to learn their coaches' language.

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers' rookies face challenges.

The San Francisco Chronicle has this to say about 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes: "Spikes has the full confidence of 49ers players as their union representative, and he keeps in touch with them through a steady stream of e-mails. He's also a free agent, and once this lockout is over, he might not be their teammate anymore. Spikes played well last year and said Friday he'd like to return, but with young players such as NaVorro Bowman and Scott McKillop behind him, he probably will not be a high priority for the 49ers when players can be signed."

Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat offers five 49ers storylines for training camp, including this one about the quarterbacks: "Can Alex Smith beat out rookie Colin Kaepernick for the starting quarterback job? Smith has never won a quarterback competition in his professional career -- he lost out to Shaun Hill in 2009 and J.T. O’Sullivan in 2008. Will Alex Smith actually win for once this August? Will he look better than mediocre in the process?"

Also from Cohn: A look at sure bets for the 49ers and an opinion suggesting Spikes is likely to re-sign.

Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis offers thoughts on free agency and says the 49ers' Aubrayo Franklin could appeal to teams running 4-3 schemes, not just 3-4 schemes. Softli: "This big man takes up a ton of space on the interior. His size, athletic ability and production to consistently command a double team and create plays inside make him a force to be dealt with and a valuable commodity. While several 3-4 teams will be fighting over his services, don't be surprised if a 4-3 defensive team doesn't snap him up; he is athletic enough to play in a 3-technique and beat up offensive guards on the pass rush, and moves well laterally vs. the run to flatten down the line of scrimmage with production."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with agents for the Rams and other players regarding what awaits in free agency following the lockout. Thomas: "This year, teams won't necessarily be able to 'ice' lesser free agents for a couple of months, waiting for the price to go down. If they do, the player won't be ready to play at the start of the regular season. On the other hand, agents won't be able to shop players as much as usual. With such a highly condensed time frame this year, if an agent says "give me a day to decide on your offer, he may not find the offer there in a day or two. The team may have gone on to the next guy on their list."

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams need to target a receiver in free agency to help out quarterback Sam Bradford. Miklasz: "If you need more convincing, all you have to do is go back to the final game of the 2010 regular season, when the Rams could have won the NFC West with a victory in Seattle. The Seahawks won by 10. The Rams scored six points and were held to 184 yards. The receivers couldn't get open. Jackson was often smothered. Bradford had nowhere to go with the football. It was an abysmal, futile performance. Do not forget that game. Get Sam some help."
Jesse Reynolds, an Arizona Cardinals fan deadlocked in a debate over quarterbacks, turned this way for a resolution.

"I have searched everywhere but haven't been able to find the data that supports (or contradicts) my argument that the Cardinals were one of the most-blitzed teams last year because no one feared our quarterbacks," Jesse wrote to me via Facebook. "Could you help find the numbers? I'm sure other NFC West teams' fans would love to know their numbers, too."

Blitz numbers usually tell us which defenses were more aggressive. But if we flipped our perspective, as Jesse suggested, we could find out which quarterbacks commanded the most respect, at least by this measure. Where to turn? Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats & Information put me in touch with colleague Jason Starrett, who came through with numbers for all 32 teams and for 40 individual quarterbacks.

Thanks to Jason, Jesse is going to win his argument by a knockout.

Opponents blitzed the Cardnials 37.2 percent of the time overall, the sixth-highest percentage in the league. Oakland (39.8), St. Louis (39.4), Chicago (38.4), Carolina (37.5) and Baltimore (37.5) faced blitzes more frequently.

We defined blitzes as plays when defenses rushed five or more defenders.

As the first chart shows, Max Hall, John Skelton, Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford -- all rookies playing for losing teams season -- faced blitzes most frequently.

As the second chart shows, five highly experienced quarterbacks -- Peyton Manning, Jake Delhomme, Drew Brees, Matt Hasselbeck and Tom Brady -- faced blitzes least frequently.

Hall and Skelton combined to start seven games for Arizona. Teammate Derek Anderson ranked 17th among the 40 players listed in terms of being blitzed most frequently.

In looking at the charts, a few names showed up in surprising places.

The San Francisco 49ers' Smith ranked higher than expected on the list of quarterbacks facing blitzes less frequently. Was he really "commanding respect" the way Brady commanded respect? Of course not. Does he really qualify as a wily veteran such as Delhomme or Hasselbeck? The answer is "no" on that front as well.

Likewise, quarterbacks such as Hill and Henne wouldn't provide a strong deterrent to blitzing, would they? Why would Green Bay's Rodgers face blitzes more frequently than them?

Other variables come into play. Some teams blitz more frequently than others regardless of opponent. A quarterback facing these teams more frequently would see his numbers shift accordingly.

How well an offensive line picks up blitzes could influence how a defense attacks. How well receivers adjust to blitzes could matter, as could the confidence a defensive coordinator has in his secondary during a given week. A quarterback's running ability and ability to read defenses accurately could factor.

Overall, I'd say it's telling to see the Cardinals' Hall and Skelton blitzed so frequently, particularly relative to the numbers for the more experienced Anderson. It's also telling to see some highly experienced quarterbacks blitzed so infrequently by comparison.
The St. Louis Rams made tremendous statistical gains on defense last season. Kerry Byrne breaks down some of the differences from 2009 to 2010 in his recent piece for

Are coach Steve Spagnuolo and the Rams headed for even better things on defense in 2011 after using their first-round pick for defensive end Robert Quinn?

"The Quinn pick told the football world that Spagnuolo intends to win in St. Louis much the way he won in New York -- with a dominating group of Defensive Hogs," Byrne writes. "The unit he'll put on the field in 2011 has the potential to be the very best in the league."

Michael from St. Louis pointed out Byrne's piece to me via Facebook and questioned whether the Rams' defense would actually join the NFL's elite this season. I think Byrne is on the right track. Spagnuolo does have the Rams' defense headed in the right direction.

I do see question marks, however. James Hall and Fred Robbins enjoyed unusually strong seasons for their ages. Can the Rams bank on more of the same? The defense also lost safety Oshiomogho Atogwe to the Washington Redskins in free agency.

Opposing personnel matters, too. Some of the statistical gains St. Louis made from 2009 to 2010 reflected which quarterbacks the team faced.

The chart ranks the Rams' opposing quarterbacks by their passer ratings against St. Louis in the 2009 and 2010 seasons. The team's 2010 performances against Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Josh Freeman and Matt Cassel stand out as notable, although the Rams were 1-3 against those quarterbacks.

The Rams benefited in 2010 by removing Kurt Warner (twice), Peyton Manning, Matt Schaub, Brett Favre (2009 version) and even Vince Young (2009 version) from their schedule. They face Rodgers, Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Joe Flacco this coming season.
A few notes on the choices NFL teams hold in the 2011 draft:
  • The Seattle Seahawks have acquired a league-high four selections from other teams. They have a fourth-rounder acquired from New England for Deion Branch; a fifth-rounder from Baltimore for Josh Wilson; a sixth-rounder from Detroit for Lawrence Jackson; and a seventh-rounder from Cleveland for Seneca Wallace.
  • The high number of acquired picks reflects the team's decision to get value for players it did not envision keeping for the long term.
  • Only three teams -- New England, San Diego and Denver -- own picks in the first three rounds acquired from other teams. The Chargers have two, including the third-rounder they acquired from Seattle in the Charlie Whitehurst deal.
  • The Seahawks have also given up a league-high four 2011 picks, including selections in the third, fourth, sixth and seventh rounds. Those picks helped to acquire Whitehurst, Marshawn Lynch, Kentwan Balmer and Stacy Andrews.
  • The Arizona Cardinals are without the seventh-round pick they sent to the New York Jets in the Kerry Rhodes deal. They also parted with a 2010 fourth-rounder.
  • The St. Louis Rams are without the sixth-round pick they sent to Baltimore in the Mark Clayton trade. They have the Ravens' seventh-rounder as part of that deal.
  • The San Francisco 49ers hold the Chargers' fourth-round pick as part of a deal made with San Diego during the 2010 draft. San Diego sent the 91st and 173rd choices of the 2010 draft, plus the 2011 fourth-rounder, to San Francisco for the 79th pick last year. The Chargers drafted linebacker Donald Butler. The 49ers drafted NaVorro Bowman and Anthony Dixon with the picks from San Diego.
  • The 49ers also hold Seattle's sixth-rounder from the Balmer deal and a seventh-rounder acquired from the Detroit Lions in the Shaun Hill trade.

So many of the picks mentioned above were acquired in deals involving veteran players. Those types of deals will not happen during a lockout.