NFC West: three things

Three things: Cardinals-Broncos

August, 29, 2013
Three things to watch for Thursday night in the Arizona Cardinals' final exhibition of the 2013 season, set for 9 p.m. ET against the Denver Broncos in Denver:

1. Williams' performance. Running back Ryan Williams appears to be fighting for a spot on the 53-man roster two years after suffering a torn patella tendon during a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. He has only two carries during this preseason. Will the Cardinals emerge from this final preseason game thinking Williams can become a relevant contributor? This game could provide some answers.

2. Speed at wide receiver. Coach Bruce Arians has sought a vertical threat for his offense. Rookie Ryan Swope was a candidate for the role on some levels until concussion concerns forced his retirement. Mike Thomas, who spent part of last season with the Detroit Lions, could provide something along those lines. To what extent can the final preseason game provide some answers at wide receiver?

3. Third QB. About half the teams in the NFL figure to keep fewer than three quarterbacks on their 53-man rosters. Is there any reason the Cardinals should keep a third this year? Ryan Lindley gets one last chance in this preseason to show he's worth a spot. Lindley has no touchdown passes in 17 attempts this preseason. He had no touchdown passes and seven interceptions on 171 regular-season attempts as a rookie in 2012. He had one touchdown on 92 attempts during the 2012 preseason. It all adds up to one touchdown pass in 280 preseason and regular-season attempts. He has played under less than ideal circumstances. Can Lindley emerge from this preseason on an upward trajectory?

Three things: 49ers-Chargers

August, 29, 2013
Three things to watch for Thursday night in the San Francisco 49ers' final exhibition of the 2013 season, set for 10 p.m. ET against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium:

1. Final QB impressions. The 49ers already named Colt McCoy as their No. 2 quarterback behind starter Colin Kaepernick. The team also released Scott Tolzien, further paring down any competition at the position. This game should provide rookie seventh-round choice B.J. Daniels another opportunity to show he belongs in the team's plans as a developmental player. The 49ers haven't drafted and developed a late-round quarterback successfully since ... when? Daniels, Nate Davis, Cody Pickett and Ken Dorsey were the only ones San Francisco selected in the final three rounds over the past decade. Meanwhile, veteran Seneca Wallace should get a chance to leave a positive impression. The team could keep him in mind as a veteran fallback should a need arise in the future.

2. Injury list. The 49ers will surely limit or eliminate reps for some key players as the preseason wraps up. Some key depth players will be logging considerable playing time. Can the 49ers get out of this game without losing one of them to a significant injury? By my count, the 49ers lead the NFL with seven players on the reserve/physically unable to perform (PUP) and reserve/non-football injury (NFI) lists: Marcus Lattimore, Mario Manningham, Michael Crabtree, Luke Marquardt, Quinton Dial, Tank Carradine and Eric Wright. No more injuries, please.

3. The spectacular. This is the catch-all category for players who appear to significantly help or hurt their chances through big plays or big gaffes. We'll be watching for them.

Three things: Vikings-49ers

August, 25, 2013
Three things to watch for Sunday in the San Francisco 49ers' third exhibition of the 2013 season, set for 8 p.m. ET at home against the Minnesota Vikings:

1. Seneca's debut. Recently signed veteran quarterback Seneca Wallace is scheduled to make his 49ers debut as a candidate for the No. 2 job. Will he provide an attractive alternative to Colt McCoy, Scott Tolzien and rookie B.J. Daniels? Wallace has little time to learn the 49ers' offense. However, the system does overlap with the one Wallace, 33, ran for years while playing for Mike Holmgren and the Seattle Seahawks. "Zebra" is 11 personnel, "Tiger" is 12 personnel, "Eagle" means four wide receivers and so on. Perhaps that will help Wallace make the transition.

2. Kaepernick's reps. Starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick has attempted six passes in the 49ers' first two exhibition games. The other NFC West starters have attempted between 35 and 44 passes through three games. Coach Jim Harbaugh has indicated Kaepernick doesn't really need the reps. He has also said he limits reps based on feel and has limited Kaepernick to guard against something "freakish" happening, an apparent allusion to injury. Those fears appear justified now that the 49ers do not have an appealing backup quarterback, a big change from last season. The 49ers' starter at this point last season, Alex Smith, attempted 19 passes in four 2012 exhibition games, also a low number. Kaepernick attempted 39 as the backup.

3. Baldwin's impact. Recently acquired wide receiver Jon Baldwin is scheduled to make his 49ers debut. The team will be watching to see how Baldwin and the other unestablished wide receivers perform. Baldwin, acquired from Kansas City in the A.J. Jenkins trade, had no receptions in the Chiefs' first two exhibition games. He dropped one pass against San Francisco on Aug. 16.

Three things: Broncos-Seahawks

August, 17, 2013
Three things to watch for Saturday night in the Seattle Seahawks' second exhibition game of the 2013 season, set for 10 p.m. ET at home against the Denver Broncos:

1. The starting QBs. The Seahawks' leadership begged Peyton Manning to consider signing with the team in March 2012. Coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider flew to Denver for a chance to meet with Manning, but the quarterback wouldn't engage them. Seattle came out fine by drafting Russell Wilson, who tied Manning's rookie record for touchdown passes. The Broncos and Seahawks are thrilled with how things turned out. Fans will get a chance to see both QBs in the same stadium Saturday night.

2. No-huddle defense. Carroll welcomed a chance to play the Broncos during preseason because his defense could use the work against Manning's no-huddle pacing. How will the defense fare? Carroll: "He’s as good as you can get. … We’ve emphasized it all week long knowing that it will be around for the rest of the season."

3. Winfield factor. The Seahawks signed slot corner Antoine Winfield to upgrade their nickel defense against receivers such as the Broncos' Wes Welker. Last season, Welker caught nine passes for 129 yards and a touchdown against Seattle while working from the slot. No player had more catches or yards from the slot against Seattle all season. Will this game give us a better feel for how the Seahawks will match up in that regard? Might Walter Thurmond get some chances to defend the slot as well?

Three things: Cowboys-Cardinals

August, 17, 2013
Three things to watch for Saturday in the Arizona Cardinals' second exhibition game of the 2013 season, set for 4:30 p.m. ET at home against the Dallas Cowboys

1. Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders. Neither is going to play in this game, of course, but with Cardinals general manager Steve Keim invoking them to describe third-year cornerback Patrick Peterson, we'll be watching to see whether Peterson gets snaps at wide receiver. Peterson has impressed the Cardinals in that role in training camp. The team sounds serious about using him in that capacity in the regular season. If Peterson is going to be part of the receiver rotation, why wouldn't he play wideout in the preseason?

2. Rookie free safety. Third-round choice Tyrann Mathieu gets the start at free safety while Rashad Johnson recovers from injury. Mathieu collected a sack and aggressively defended a pass in his preseason debut against Green Bay. The Cardinals have called him one of the more dynamic players in camp to this point. Now, Mathieu gets a chance to work with the starters. Will he play the roughly 20 snaps coach Bruce Arians said he plans to allot for the first group? Or might he stay in the game longer as a rookie in need of reps?

3. The home crowd. Fans around the NFL often sell or give away their preseason tickets, making it tougher to capture the desired home-field feel. Having a broadly popular team such as the Cowboys coming to town could further dilute the home contingent. Still, new coach Arians has stressed the importance of re-establishing dominance at home. This is the first home game of any kind on his watch. It's got to feel a little special for him. Will the Cardinals give the home crowd reason to come back for more?

Three things: 49ers-Chiefs

August, 16, 2013
Three things to watch for Friday night in the San Francisco 49ers' second exhibition game of the 2013 season, set for 8 p.m. ET at Arrowhead Stadium:

1. QB comparison. Former teammates Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick have competed before, but never on opposite teams. That changes in this game. We're past analyzing the 49ers' switch from Smith to Kaepernick last season. The quarterback comparison in this matchup is for fun, nothing more. Will the 49ers sack Smith or pick him off?

2. Jenkins and WRs. The 49ers would like one of their receivers to step forward as a worthy starter opposite Anquan Boldin in two-receiver personnel groupings. A.J. Jenkins' speed, overall potential and 2012 first-round draft status make him the player San Francisco wants to see emerge above the others. It hasn't happened yet. Jenkins was hurt early in camp. He lost a fumble in the exhibition opener. It's premature to write off Jenkins, but past due for him to make an impact this summer.

3. Rookie outside linebacker. Third-round choice Corey Lemonier looks like he could add something to the 49ers' rotation at the position. This game will provide another opportunity to check out Lemonier, who is making the conversion from defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker. Aldon Smith made a similar transition as a rookie in 2011. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio: "The difference between him and Aldon, at the same time, Aldon was in the lockout year and he didn't have all the spring work that Corey's gotten. So, from a know-how and technique standpoint as an outside 'backer, he might be a little bit ahead of Aldon at the same stage."
Three things to watch for Friday night in the Arizona Cardinals' 2013 exhibition opener against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field (8 p.m. ET):

1. Palmer's debut. Carson Palmer's addition via trade stands as the most significant offseason move in the NFC West. It's not that Palmer was the best player acquired this offseason. Rather, he stands to make the greatest impact through the nature of his position and because the Cardinals have been so bad at quarterback recently. Arizona posted by far the lowest Total QBR score (26.8) and NFL passer rating (65.7) over the past three seasons. So, while we're not going to obsess over how Palmer looks in his Cardinals debut, some level of competency would be reassuring for Arizona. How he connects with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Rob Housler is of particular interest.

2. Mathieu and the DBs. The Cardinals are building their secondary around Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson and 2013 third-round choice Tyrann Mathieu, who figures to play a safety/corner role this season. Peterson has already demonstrated extreme playmaking ability. The Cardinals think Mathieu can also make impact plays with flair. Mathieu's debut carries considerable interest as he starts fresh following a tumultuous run at LSU. Will he stand out right away? Peterson, meanwhile, has been getting reps at wide receiver. It's unclear whether the team will try him in that capacity against Green Bay.

3. Running back picture. Coach Bruce Arians is betting on Rashard Mendenhall reemerging as an every-down back. Mendenhall is scheduled to start against the Packers, and he's a heavy favorite to be the starter this season. Backups Ryan Williams and Andre Ellington are injured and not expected to play. That could lead to additional playing time for Alfonso Smith and rookie Stepfan Taylor. Can one or both of them allay depth concerns at the position? The Cardinals need to be healthier across the board this season, but particularly at halfback, where the team used four starters last season (Beanie Wells 7, LaRod Stephens-Howling 5, Williams 3 and William Powell 1).

Three things: Seahawks-Chargers

August, 8, 2013
Three things to watch for Thursday night in the Seattle Seahawks' 2013 exhibition opener against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium (10 p.m. ET):

1. Return specialists. The Seahawks released dynamic return man Leon Washington before they knew the recently acquired Percy Harvin would undergo season-altering hip surgery. The team is listing Will Blackmon, Jeremy Lane and Bryan Walters as its top three kickoff returners. Golden Tate is listed as the punt returner. Blackmon returned three punts for touchdowns while with Green Bay, but that was way back in 2007 and 2008. How will the Seahawks' return game fare without Washington and Harvin?

2. Backup QBs and a guy taking their handoffs. Tarvaris Jackson and Brady Quinn are competing to serve as the No. 2 quarterback behind Russell Wilson. Jackson has greater experience in the Seahawks' offensive system, having run it with Seattle and Minnesota. Jackson has greater equity in the locker room after playing through a torn pectoral muscle as Seattle's primary starter in 2011. Does that mean Quinn has to win this battle decisively to beat out Jackson? Can Quinn make this decision a difficult one? Don't stop watching after the handoff, either. Rookie running back Christine Michael is a player of interest after Seattle made him a surprise second-round choice.

3. Rookie TE Willson. Luke Willson makes his Seahawks debut as a rookie fifth-round choice and potential complement to starting tight end Zach Miller. A foot injury has prevented Miller from practicing and will keep him out of this game. Another familiar veteran at the position, Anthony McCoy, is not back after suffering a torn Achilles' tendon during offseason workouts. Willson, Sean McGrath and Cooper Helfet are among the lesser-known tight ends with an opportunity to distinguish themselves.

Three things: Broncos-Cardinals

August, 30, 2012
Three things to watch for Thursday night in the Arizona Cardinals' fifth and final exhibition game, this one at home against Denver (11 p.m. ET):

1. Lindley's opportunity. Rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley, a sixth-round choice from San Diego State, makes his first professional start. The Cardinals aren't considering him as a Week 1 starter, but this game could help them decide how early Lindley might be ready. The Cardinals think he has long-term starting potential. But with concerns at offensive tackle, will Lindley have time to operate?

2. Pass protection. Left tackle D'Anthony Batiste and right tackle Bobby Massie will start this game. They provided Arizona with its best combination against Tennessee last week. The Broncos should test them for as long as Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller are in the game, and probably for longer. Can the Cardinals emerge from this game feeling better about their ability to protect the quarterback?

3. Floyd watch. First-round draft choice Michael Floyd should get ample playing time to improve upon his modest preseason totals (three catches covering 18 yards). Kevin Kolb and John Skelton are expected to sit out, however, so Floyd won't get a chance to work on in-game chemistry with the Cardinals' as-yet-unnamed starter for the regular season.

Three things: Chargers-49ers

August, 30, 2012
Three things to watch for Thursday night in the San Francisco 49ers' final exhibition game, this one at home against San Diego (10 p.m. ET):

1. Tolzien's time. A year ago, quarterback Scott Tolzien played for San Diego against San Francisco in the teams' exhibition finale. He completed 16 of 23 passes for 226 yards with one touchdown, one interception and five sacks. The Chargers cut him. Now with the 49ers, Tolzien appears to have a good chance at emerging as the 49ers' third quarterback over Josh Johnson. How he plays against his former team could matter, however.

2. Aldon Smith's return. The 49ers' leading pass-rusher is expected back after a hip injury suffered against Minnesota sidelined him beginning Aug. 10. Smith had six unassisted tackles, 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hits against the Chargers in the 2011 exhibition finale. He has less to prove after a 14-sack rookie season. This game should give him a chance to work on timing and prove the hip isn't a factor.

3. Dixon's opportunity. Running back/fullback Anthony Dixon has responded favorably to added competition. This game gives him an opportunity to put an exclamation point on his case to win a roster spot. NFL teams must reduce to 53 players Friday.

Three things: Ravens-Rams

August, 30, 2012
Three things to watch for Thursday night in the St. Louis Rams' final exhibition game, this one at home against Baltimore (7 p.m. ET):

1. The score. Wait, preseason scores are irrelevant, right? Yes, they are. But it's possible this game will serve as a partial exception. Rams coach Jeff Fisher might play his starters into the second half. I'll be watching to see how competitive the Rams appear overall, while still mindful that Fisher and staff will not be devising game plans the way they would during the regular season.

2. Bradford's comfort level. Quarterback Sam Bradford did not appear comfortable against Dallas last week. That could have been because the Cowboys were hitting him regularly. They even hit him with one of Bradford's own linemen. Let's see how comfortable Bradford appears in the face of pressure. "He is starting to remind me of David Carr," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said Thursday. "I’ve been a huge supporter. He is learning a new system, the offensive line is terrible. I get that. But he doesn't look confident. I don't like the way he is throwing the ball. Football Outsiders said I overrated Bradford. And if you look at his career, how many good games has he had? Really good games? He's had like none. I love the prospect, but at some point you can’t be a prospect any more." Bradford can't overcome those perceptions in one preseason game. Will he reinforce them?

3. Pead vs. Richardson. The lead-in reads like a court case. Fisher did provide a defense for second-round running back Isaiah Pead, noting that the blocking hasn't been there for him. Even so, seventh-round choice Daryl Richardson has looked better to this point in the preseason. Which one should emerge as the primary backup to Steven Jackson? Perhaps this game will return a verdict.

Three things: 49ers-Broncos

August, 26, 2012
Three things to watch for Sunday night in the San Francisco 49ers' third exhibition game, this one at Denver (4 p.m. ET):

1. Starting QBs. The 49ers have Alex Smith. The Broncos have Peyton Manning. The 49ers have gone out of their way to frame their offseason interest in Manning as nothing more than routine investigative work on an available free agent. The excitement over Manning's arrival in Denver has been intense enough to obscure significant questions about his physical prospects following four neck surgeries. I'm interested in seeing how well Manning throw the ball downfield, and how well Smith plays by comparison. Can Manning still sling the deeper passes with authority? And can the 49ers' pass-rush, a bit muted at times this preseason, get to him?

2. Two-way threat. Demarcus Dobbs has impressed the 49ers on both sides of the ball. He figures to get playing time as a pass-rusher on defense, particularly with Aldon Smith limited by injury (and possibly not available for this game). The 6-foot-6, 275-pound Dobbs also has a chance to emerge from this preseason as the third tight end behind Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Any work he gets at the position will be worth monitoring as well. Coach Jim Harbaugh has sounded enthusiastic regarding Dobbs' prospects as a two-way threat. Dobbs, 24, did play both defensive end and tight end in high school, but he was a defensive player at the University of Georgia.

3. Perrish's push. The lead-in should sound familiar. It's a repeat from last week. The note should be a lot more relevant this time. Cornerback Perrish Cox, who missed the 49ers' most recent game, is expected to play in this one. He's been a welcome addition to the 49ers' secondary this offseason, pushing Chris Culliver for a spot in the 49ers' nickel defense. Cox last played in a regular-season game as a rookie with Denver in 2010. If getting a chance to face his former team weren't enough, Cox also gets a shot at Manning. That's enough to get any defensive back's attention.

Three things: Rams-Cowboys

August, 25, 2012
Three things to watch for Saturday night in the St. Louis Rams' third exhibition game, this one at Dallas (8 p.m. ET):

1. Center of attention. Veteran center Scott Wells makes his Rams debut after recovering from knee surgery. Wells was one of the Rams' key free-agent signings. The team expects Wells to take pressure off quarterback Sam Bradford by handling more of the pre-snap responsibilities. This game gives Wells and Bradford a chance to work together in a game situation. Getting through the game healthy will be important for Wells, who is 31 years old and has started 100 regular-season NFL games. Wells did not miss a start in his final two seasons with Green Bay.

2. Offensive draft choices. The Rams already know first-round defensive tackle Michael Brockers and second-round cornerback Janoris Jenkins are going to start. They feel very good about those players' ability to contribute right away. There's less certainty surrounding the team's offensive rookies. Running back Isaiah Pead, receiver Brian Quick and receiver Chris Givens are the three primary ones to watch. Running back Daryl Richardson, a seventh-round pick, and guard Rokevious Watkins (fifth round) could also factor. Coach Jeff Fisher has indicated younger offensive players could get into this game earlier than usual. How will they fare?

3. Roster battles. Teams must reduce from 90 to 75 players by Monday. Tight end and safety are a couple positions with question marks around the fringes of the roster. Tight end Mike McNeill caught my attention -- and just about every pass thrown his way -- early in training camp. Safeties Darian Stewart and Craig Dahl aren't expected to play against the Cowboys. The Rams were excited about signing Matt Daniels as an undrafted free agent. Another undrafted free agent, Rodney McLeod, could get an opportunity as well. The tough decisions come on the reduction to 53 players, scheduled for Friday.

Three things: Seahawks-Chiefs

August, 24, 2012
Three things to watch for Friday night in the Seattle Seahawks' third exhibition game, this one at Kansas City (8 p.m. ET):

1. Russell Wilson's efficiency. Wilson has sometimes dazzled against opposing team's backups to this point in preseason. He has cleared every hurdle the Seahawks have placed before him, often with room to spare. Now that Wilson has earned the right to start this game, I'll be watching to see how efficiently he runs the first-team offense against better competition. How comfortable does he look? Does he continue to look like a veteran? Does the starting offense look better with Wilson than it did with Matt Flynn? This is our chance to find out.

2. WRs revisited. Terrell Owens hurt his cause with a ragged preseason debut against Denver last week. Braylon Edwards had been better than Owens to this point. The feeling here is that one, not both, has a shot at earning a spot on the initial 53-man roster, and that Edwards would be the choice if the competition were close. Seems like Owens needs to separate himself in a good way, beginning in Kansas City. Let's also watch his body language if things don't go right.

Also at receiver, Sidney Rice is making his 2012 preseason debut following two shoulder surgeries. The Seahawks will be watching to see how he holds up physically. It'll be a welcome bonus for Seattle if Wilson can connect with Rice for a big play.

3. Pass-rushers. Seattle invested quite a bit in upgrading its pass-rush this offseason. We haven't seen the results all that consistently during preseason. Some of that is to be understood. Jason Jones has been resting a sore knee. The team isn't scheming the way it will when the games start counting. We did see rookie Bruce Irvin unleash a wicked power rush against the Broncos last week. I'll be looking for additional signs of life on that front.

Three things: Cardinals-Titans

August, 23, 2012
Three things to watch for Thursday night in the Arizona Cardinals' fourth exhibition game, this one at Tennessee (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET):

1. Skelton's rhythm. The Cardinals have outlined a few points of emphasis for quarterback John Skelton. Rhythm is a primary one. They want to see Skelton run the offense at a quick tempo, delivering the ball on time and from the right spots to promote accuracy. Skelton is starting this game, but Kevin Kolb could get a chance with the starters as well. Can one of these quarterbacks make a compelling case for the starting job? For Kolb, staying in the pocket and getting rid of the football remain top priorities.

2. Beanie Wells' debut. The Cardinals' starting running back is scheduled to play in a game for the first time since last season. He's coming off knee surgery. Arizona needs him to stay healthy. Last week, fellow running back Ryan Williams made a successful return from a more serious knee operation. I'm interested in seeing whether each man's presence pushes the other to step up his game.

3. The offensive tackles. This will be the Cardinals' first game since losing left tackle Levi Brown to a potentially season-ending torn triceps tendon. Arizona plans to filter several players through both tackle spots while searching for the best combinations. D'Anthony Batiste, D.J. Young and Bobby Massie are three players to watch.