NFC West: Supriya Harris

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.

 

Around the NFC West: Seahawks' offense

February, 10, 2010
2/10/10
9:38
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Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says new Seahawks offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates wants balance. O'Neil also provides a chart showing gains in rushing yards for Alex Gibbs' teams.

Also from O'Neil: Bates talks about drafting running backs after the first round. Bates: "I think Denver has proven that they've gotten a lot of great running backs late in the rounds. A lot of people say you've got to go to the first round and pick up that running back. I think if the offensive line, the tight end and the running backs all work together, all believe in the system, all know who they're reading and believe in 4 yards, 4 yards, 4 yards, they can be successful."

More from O'Neil: Matt Hasselbeck says he has no idea whether Walter Jones is serious about retiring.

Greg Johns of seattlepi.com checks in with draft analyst Rob Rang, who says the Seahawks might be less apt to select an offensive lineman early now that Gibbs is coaching their line. I agree, although Gibbs' Texans and Broncos did use first-round picks for offensive linemen in the last seven years, taking George Foster (Denver) and Duane Brown (Houston).

Also from Johns: Bates says he thinks Hasselbeck can be "special" in the Seahawks' new offense. Bates: "We're very fortunate walking into an organization with Matt Hasselbeck being the leader. He's been to the Super Bowl, he's been in every situation. There's going to be some learning, but he's been part of the West Coast offense terminology-wise and formations, so it's all going to come back to him. It's going to be fun to see how good he can be in this offense because I think he's going to be special."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks will more fully commit to zone blocking schemes. Bates: "From Day 1, were going to be practicing outside/inside zone. And when you believe in something like that and you’re committed to it, you’re going to make it work eventually. Players have to understand this is what we are, and this is who we’re going to be."

Also from Williams: Bates patterns himself after Jon Gruden when it comes to putting in long hours. Bates: "He let me get into the door, and once I got my foot in the door, he just taught me how to grind. I was up really early in the morning and working late at night learning every play known to man in football. It was special. The one thing I take from Jon is passion. You’ve got to have the passion. It’s just too hard of a job if you’re not in love with it. And he loved it. It was a fun three years."

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic looks at players the Cardinals might consider in the draft. McManaman on TCU pass-rusher Jerry Hughes: "They need a pass-rusher and Hughes was one of the best in the nation. He destroys backfields and would be a natural fit at outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. He has good cover skills, too. What I like about him is his natural strength and ability to dominate would-be blockers. Like many of these prospects, I can see Hughes going higher in the draft, so he might not be around when the Cardinals make their first selection. But if he's there, he's a big-time steal at 26."

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic sizes up the football scene in Arizona, passing along this tidbit from former Cardinals offensive lineman Conrad Dobler: "Bill Bidwill knows more about the game than anybody else I know. In fact, I remember when I retired. I sent each owner a letter saying, 'Thank you for the opportunity to play in the NFL for 10 years, yada, yada, yada.' He sent it back with a big red stamp that said (bull).' "

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com doesn't think Julius Peppers would be a good fit for the Cardinals' scheme. Urban: "The biggest obstacle I see for Peppers is the idea he could suddenly become an effective linebacker after playing his whole career -- college and pro -- with his hand down. There are few defensive linemen as athletic as the 6-foot-7, 285-pounder, and he made it clear last year he thought he could make such a transition. But Peppers is also 30, and while he isn’t exactly an old dog, it is a new trick."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Steven Jackson's accuser, Supriya Harris, is "very disappointed" authorities will not be filing charges against the Rams' running back. Thomas: "Harris, 29, whose allegations became public Jan. 28, had accused Jackson of pushing her repeatedly and throwing her against a door when she was nine months pregnant with the couple's son, Kingston. Harris said the incident occurred on March 8, 2009 at Jackson's Las Vegas home. Jackson denied the allegations earlier and said in a statement on his website that he would address the issue 'thoroughly through the appropriate avenues, but not through the media.'"

Also from Thomas: a chat transcript featuring his thoughts on efforts by Chip Rosenbloom and Lucia Rodriguez to sell the Rams. Thomas: "Obviously, I'm not an expert on estate law. But I believe Chip and Lucia currently are only paying interest on the estate taxes. I think it's about $1 million per yer. But in about 3 years, they have to start paying principal on the estate taxes, which is about $17 million a year. When it reaches that amount, it basically eliminates the per year profit made by the team (now that they're in the bottom fourth of the league in profitability). Although Chip and Lucia live comfortable lives, they are not independently wealthy -- to the point where they can absorb breaking even on the Rams. Thus the pressure to sell the team. I know the family did take some measures to limit the impact of the estate taxes, so it could've been worse."

Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the damage to Jackson has been done. Burwell: "Modern fame takes no prisoners. Contemporary celebrity is a lovely and intoxicating game just as long as you are inside the velvet ropes lapping in all the goodies. But there is a backlash to this game, and it ain't pretty. Associate with the wrong crowd, spend too much time with people who have less to lose than you do, make just one fateful step in the wrong direction, and the repercussions won't be pretty and they can last a lifetime."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee expects Tony Pashos and Arnaz Battle to draw interest if they hit the market as free agents. Barrows: "Battle was a starter from 2005-2007, but his reception totals have dropped in recent seasons and was seen more as a special teams player than a receiver in 2009. The 49ers plan to go into the 2010 with a receiving corps of Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan, Brandon Jones and Jason Hill. They could add a receiver in the draft who has return skills. Battle turns 30 on the 22nd, but there should be some teams that like his toughness and blocking ability. If I had to bet, I'd say he winds up in Baltimore."

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat sizes up the 49ers at tight end. Maiocco: "A lot of people viewed 2009 as Davis' breakout season. He was named as a starter on the NFC Pro Bowl team after catching 78 passes for 965 yards and 13 TDs. You want to know the major difference? The 49ers actually threw the ball to him -- a lot. Remember, this is a guy who caught 52 passes and four touchdowns in his second season. The next year, he remained into block about 50 percent of the time as Mike Martz needed the extra man in protection to allow so many seven-step drops."

Around the NFC West: Jackson's accuser

January, 29, 2010
1/29/10
10:01
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Elizabethe Holland of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch updates the Steven Jackson situation, passing along thoughts from the running back's accuser, Supriya Harris. Harris: "Steven is my son's father and I want him to be a part of his life, but I want him to just get the help that he needs to address those issues of violence so that he doesn't pass those same ideologies on to my son. I just want to make sure that whatever he's dealing with ... can be addressed so that he doesn't affect my son -- his mind-set on women and violence -- in a negative way."

Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch isn't expecting a happy conclusion to the Jackson saga.

Jim Rodenbush of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat says the voluntary statement from Harris wasn't part of the public record, a possible indication Harris might have provided it to TMZ.com.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com looks at four potential special-teams plays of the decade for Seattle, including Nate Burleson's 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown during the fourth quarter of a 24-22 victory over the Rams in 2006.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times caps his Senior Bowl coverage by posing a few Seahawks-related questions, including one about whether Justin Forsett will get a chance to win the starting job at running back. I thought the Seahawks would address that position in the first three rounds last year.

Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times says former Seahawks cornerback Kris Richard is leaving USC to become assistant secondary coach for Seattle under Jerry Gray. He was a graduate assistant for the Trojans.

Art Thiel of seattlepi.com says Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke has become a big believer in front-office "alignment" after watching the team struggle recently.

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says Matt Leinart is about to receive one last chance to become the Cardinals' starting quarterback. Bickley: "Yet here's why it might work going forward, allowing the Cardinals to pursue more banners in the near future: Leinart really likes being 'the guy.' Depending on the quality of backup the team acquires, Leinart will be liberated from the pressure of in-house competition. It might make a profound difference. Remember his pedigree. He once succeeded Carson Palmer at the University of Southern California, and won 37 of 39 games. He's had big games and big NFL moments before, proving the game isn't too big for his shoulders. There's been just enough stardust to make this transition interesting."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic updates Brian St. Pierre's recovery from a back injury while looking at veteran quarterbacks eligible to become free agents. Somers: "Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt likes St. Pierre, but the quarterback obviously has to resolve his back problem to attract offers in free agency. With Kurt Warner retiring, it would be logical for St. Pierre to re-sign with the Cardinals, where he could begin the season as Matt Leinart's backup."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says 49ers quarterback Alex Smith will provide Super Bowl analysis for the BBC in advance of San Francisco's 2010 game against the Broncos in London.

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says it's too early to tell whether Mike Singletary will succeed as the 49ers' head coach. Like most teams, the 49ers will ultimately go as far as their quarterback can take them. Maiocco: "Where I see a problem is that Singletary was never a coordinator. He is a self-described 'big picture' coach. He can tell his assistant coaches and players what he wants, but he does not give them the specifics on how to get there. All head coaches are reliant on their assistant coaches, to be sure. But because Singletary can't just take over on one side of the ball -- such as Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt when offensive coordinator Todd Haley left to become Chiefs head coach -- his success is almost always dependent on his coordinators."

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