NFC West: Todd Wash
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.
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.
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.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
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.
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.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
- Arizona: The Cardinals are reportedly planning a second interview with Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy as the team searches for a new head coach. Some speculation points to McCoy preferring San Diego for the presence of quarterback Philip Rivers. That seems logical. However, most of the information regarding the candidates appears anonymously. A small number of people are in position to know the details. Most of those people have something to gain from what information is released and how that information is presented. It's tough to know what McCoy really thinks, but the quarterback situation in Arizona isn't going to excite any candidate.
- St. Louis: Coach Jeff Fisher is searching for a defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. Rob Ryan, most recently defensive coordinator for Dallas, is reportedly the favorite to fill the same role for the Rams. Very little information has filtered out of Rams headquarters on this subject, however.
- Seattle: Coordinators Darrell Bevell (offense) and Gus Bradley (defense) are getting second interviews with Chicago and Philadelphia, respectively. Bevell and CFL coach Marc Trestman are finalists with the Bears. Another prominent Seahawks assistant, Tom Cable, has not surfaced as a candidate elsewhere. If Bradley left, I suspect he would want to take along defensive line coach Todd Wash. The two coached together with Tampa Bay previously. They played together and coached together at North Dakota State. However, the Seahawks would have to let Wash out of his contract. Dan Quinn, the Seahawks' former defensive line coach, would be a logical candidate to replace Bradley in Seattle if Bradley did get the Philadelphia job. Quinn is the defensive coordinator at Florida.
- San Francisco: Not much new here. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has been linked informally to Jacksonville based on his past association with Jaguars general manager David Caldwell. Niners director of player personnel Tom Gamble interviewed with the New York Jets.
The situations at right tackle in St. Louis and quarterback in Arizona come to mind. The results tend to be more positive, in some cases, when a player's entire career, not just a starting job, is on the line.
Two notable cases in the NFC West come to mind.
Braylon Edwards stepped up his game when the Seattle Seahawks signed Terrell Owens a few weeks back. Edwards now appears likely to earn a roster spot in Seattle. Meanwhile, in Santa Clara, Calif., the San Francisco 49ers have watched running back Anthony Dixon rededicate himself following the arrival of Brandon Jacobs, Rock Cartwright and, to a lesser extent, rookie LaMichael James.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers are talking as though Dixon, once considered a sure roster casualty, will stick around at the mandatory reduction to 53 players Friday. Barrows: "Dixon, who seemed hopelessly buried on the 49ers' depth chart at running back when training camp began, has taken advantage of recent injuries at the position and has strung together two solid games. On the radio Tuesday, both general manager Trent Baalke and offensive coordinator Greg Roman sounded optimistic about Dixon's chances of making the final roster." Noted: Might Dixon, who has gotten work at fullback, stick at the expense of Cartwright?
The 49ers' website has this to say about receiver Michael Crabtree: "Teammates and coaches have raved about Crabtree’s leaner build this offseason and how his improved health has enabled him to develop a greater rapport with starting quarterback Alex Smith. This time last year, Crabtree was battling a foot injury that remained with him through the start of the regular season. But now, Crabtree’s summer of work has translated into consistent preseason playing time. His role in the 49ers offense to date, five catches for 28 yards, is one of many reasons Harbaugh believes the team is much improved heading into the 2012 season."
Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News checks in with third-string quarterback Scott Tolzien, who slept in the 49ers' player lounge during a two-week period.
Also from Inman: a look at the 49ers' player ratings on "Madden NFL 13."
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says Jacobs gave fans a window into the hatred directed at players anonymously.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Matt Flynn was back at practice in a reserve role.
Also from Farnsworth: Robert Turbin steps in for Marshawn Lynch.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says ESPN's Jon Gruden expected Russell Wilson to win the Seahawks' starting job if given a legitimate chance. Noted: That was the word from Wisconsin's coach and others who knew the quarterback well.
Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle says Wilson runs the ball on instinct, not by design. Wilson: "I'm always wanting to throw the ball and if something closes, if I go through my progression and it closes, it's like, 'Bam.' It happens so fast and you're out. You're just trying to get something positive."
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune updates Bruce Irvin's progress. Seattle's first-round draft choice has no sacks or tackles through three exhibition games. Line coach Todd Wash: "Out here (on the practice field), he plays very carefree. He just plays, (but) he gets into the game and he’s worrying about keeping contain and whatever else he might need to do. He knows how to play; we just need him to cut loose."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic looks at how injuries are forcing the Cardinals to adjust their thinking on the offensive line. Somers: "The unit that opens Thursday night's game against the Broncos likely will feature three different starters from the one that opened the preseason. D'Anthony Batiste is scheduled to move from right tackle to left, with rookie Bobby Massie starting on the right side. The two played those positions beginning in the second quarter last week against the Titans, and the entire unit played better after the move. Rich Ohrnberger is expected to start at right guard in place of Adam Snyder, who missed Tuesday's practice in order to have an elbow examined."
Also from Somers: thoughts on John Skelton's struggles in practice.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the team's final exhibition game could determine whether the team pursues Alex Barron, Chad Clifton or another veteran tackle.
Also from Urban: William Powell's fight for a roster spot.
Dan O'Neill of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sees the Rams' moves to trade Jason Smith and release Danario Alexander as part of the delineation between previous and current team leadership groups. O'Neill: "Fisher just got here. He can't account for Smith, be held accountable for where he was drafted or how he has performed. What he can do is turn the page, for the organization and for Smith."
Also from O'Neill: Janoris Jenkins hit a bump in the road against Dallas.
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says trading Smith was easy for the team. Burwell: "This was not a colossal bruise to the football smarts of the existing Rams brain trust, merely a little necessary clean up on Aisle One from a big mess left behind by previous failed regimes. General manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher were able to ditch Smith with a clean conscience, mainly because this mistake doesn't count against their records. Trading him away was not only the smart thing to do, it was also the most compassionate thing to do, because after all those concussions, Smith was no longer the big, mean and bruising young prospect that was drafted three years ago, and because of that he may never live up to the high expectations of the organization and the fan base."
- The Rams are not listing suspended defensive coordinator Gregg Williams on their staff. They did not mention him in the news release. They did not list a defensive coordinator. Coach Jeff Fisher and assistant head coach Dave McGinnis will presumably take the lead. Secondary coach Chuck Cecil has also been a coordinator.
- Williams' son, Blake, coaches the Rams' linebackers.
- The Cardinals have 3-4 fewer assistants than the other teams in the division. I've noticed that to be the case in recent seasons. Staff sizes can vary. Arizona has one more than the NFL listed for New England heading into the most recent Super Bowl.
- Every team in the division has an assistant head coach. Two serve as offensive line coaches. Another coaches special teams. Assistant head coaches might earn more money than they otherwise would, but the title does not distinguish them from other assistants in relation to hiring protocol. The title affords no additional protections against losing an assistant to another team, in other words.
- Paul Boudreau is the Rams' offensive line coach. His son, also named Paul, is assistant special teams coach. They are not Paul Sr. and Paul Jr., however. It's not yet clear how the Rams intend to differentiate between the two. Middle initials?
- Niners offensive assistant Michael Christianson is also coordinator of football technology.
The chart lists full-time assistants, not interns or administrative assistants. Strength-and-conditioning coaches aren't involved in football strategy, but I have listed them.
Wash, announced Tuesday as the Seahawks' defensive line coach, broke into the NFL with Tampa Bay when Kiffin was the Bucs' defensive coordinator in 2007. Bradley coached the Bucs' linebackers when Wash was coaching their defensive line.
Kiffin and Carroll were together with the Minnesota Vikings in the 1980s. Carroll referenced their shared coaching lineage when explaining why he retained Bradley as defensive coordinator from the Seahawks' previous staff.
Wash replaces Dan Quinn, who left to become defensive coordinator at Florida. Wash was the Bucs' defensive line coach for the past three seasons. He was a quality control coach in 2007.
The Bucs' defensive line struggled in 2010.
In November, NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas offered the following thoughts when asked whether the team should fire Wash:
The Bucs are 5-3 and you’re talking about firing assistant coaches? Give it some time and try to be realistic. The Bucs drafted defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their first two draft picks and second-year pro Roy Miller has been one of the starting defensive tackles. Price got hurt. McCoy hasn’t been dominant, but it’s not realistic to expect him to be dominant right off the bat. Besides that, he’s got nothing around him.
The Bucs probably have the league’s worst set of defensive ends. They knew coming in that defensive end was not a position of strength and I’m sure that position will be addressed in the offseason. I can’t put the blame on a coach when he’s got nothing to work with. His job the rest of this season is to keep working on McCoy. Next season, the Bucs can bring in help at defensive end and McCoy should take a big step forward.
I don't know much about Wash. The Seahawks thought highly of Quinn, enough so that Carroll held him over from the previous staff.
Seattle also announced that assistant secondary coach Kris Richard would coach cornerbacks, and defensive quality control coach Rocky Seto would coach safeties. They replace secondary coach Jerry Gray, who left for a job at the University of Texas.
Richard played for the Seahawks. He and Seto came to Seattle with Carroll from USC last offseason.