NFC West: Tony Hargrove
This can be a nerve-racking time for teams and fans hoping to keep favorite players.
Using the franchise tag almost always keeps a player from leaving in free agency. Teams must balance those concerns with a player's actual value. This year, deciding against using the tag could allow good-not-great NFC West players such as Dashon Goldson, Delanie Walker and Danny Amendola to reach the market and sign elsewhere.
It's tough losing key players, but for some perspective, let's revisit the list of 2012 NFC West unrestricted free agents to change teams during the UFA signing period last offseason:
- St. Louis Rams (6): receiver Brandon Lloyd, linebacker Chris Chamberlain, punter Donnie Jones, guard Jacob Bell, linebacker Bryan Kehl and defensive tackle Gary Gibson. Lloyd was a better fit in New England than he would have been with St. Louis. He caught 74 passes for 911 yards and four touchdowns with the Patriots, starting more than 11 games in a season for the first time since 2006. The Rams did not miss any of the other UFAs signing elsewhere.
- San Francisco 49ers (6): receiver Josh Morgan, guard Adam Snyder, linebacker Blake Costanzo, safety Reggie Smith, safety Madieu Williams and guard Chilo Rachal. The 49ers could have used Costanzo in particular on special teams. Overall, though, they could live with losing these players.
- Seattle Seahawks (5): tight end John Carlson, safety Atari Bigby, quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and linebacker David Hawthorne. Keeping Carlson would have helped the offense. However, the Vikings overpaid for him, and Carlson suffered an injury that prevented Minnesota from getting an immediate return on its investment.
- Arizona Cardinals (3): cornerback Richard Marshall, safety Sean Considine, guard Deuce Lutui. The Cardinals ideally would have held onto Marshall, but they signed William Gay for much less and seemed to get by fine with him. Their defense improved. Gay was subsequently released.
The long-armed pass-rusher seemed to represent good value with the 27th overall choice, acquired from New England in our mock.
The reality, of course, is that Seattle enters the NFL draft Thursday with the 12th overall choice, not the 27th pick. But in speaking with Steve Muench of Scouts Inc., Jones could be a logical consideration in that spot as well.
Sando: OK, Steve, you liked where San Francisco and Arizona stood in this draft. I'm sensing a trend here.
Muench: The Seahawks are in good shape, yes. The interesting thing about this draft is that Quinton Coples is going to drop. I think Coples or Chandler Jones would make sense for Seattle. The Seahawks are going to get an edge rusher and those guys are two of the bigger defensive ends/edge rushers in this class.
Sando: Right, but every time I speak with an NFL scout about Coples, the response is less than enthusiastic.
Muench: Some are concerned with his work ethic. From what I've seen on film, he's a hard worker. With everything that went on at North Carolina, if the kid had any inclination of being a troublemaker, it would have happened there. He was dominant at the Senior Bowl, by far the best defensive lineman there. I understand why people say, 'No, is he going to work.' They say where there is smoke, there is fire. I haven’t been able to find it.
Sando: It's interesting to me that you brought up Jones unsolicited. I had read a scouting report comparing him to Calais Campbell and pointing out Jones' extremely long arms. Right away, I thought Jones would appeal to Pete Carroll, who values players with what he describes as unique or unusual traits.
Muench: Jones is skyrocketing up boards. He didn't have a monster workout at the combine. I watched his 2010 and 2011 film, and you can clearly see him improving in terms of technique and off-the-field work ethic. He put on a lot of weight at Syracuse and it's good weight. Even though he is not as explosive as an Melvin Ingram or Fletcher Cox, he bends the edge, he’s flexible. Put him opposite Chris Clemons in pass-rushing situations and that would work for them.
Sando: The chart shows Seattle's sack leaders from last season. Clemons was the only one with more than four. The team signed Jason Jones to replace Anthony Hargrove. Raheem Brock is a free agent and not expected back. There's no question the team could use another defensive end with pass-rush ability.
The former St. Louis Rams and current Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman has fought through a series of obstacles, some of them self-constructed, to become a productive player and valued teammate.
But recent attention focusing on Hargrove's role in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal -- he was fined for a hit on Brett Favre and reportedly reveled in the quarterback's injury during the 2009 NFC Championship Game -- has cast Hargrove in a negative light.
Hargrove has taken notice and issued the following statement:
"First of all, the purpose of this statement is simply to address the comments that have been made about me in the media. I will not address anything to do with anyone else but myself.
"In regards to the hit I made on Brett Favre that has been talked about: it was one of about five times I got to him and the only one that was late. I agree it was a late hit, but in the heat of the moment I was simply trying to make a play. I can assure you that when I got up, I was thinking two things, one, that I cost my team, and two, that I might have just cost myself some money if the NFL fined me.
"To put things in perspective, I received a game ball for my play that day and yet got fined while receiving nothing and expecting to receive nothing for the play some keep referencing. Kudos to Brett, he even asked me if that was all I had! Gotta love him.
"And in regards to my comments that have been talked about where I say that Favre is done, I readily agree that it sounds bad in retrospect. A lot of things look bad when we look back and realize how they sound. Trust me, I've said much, much worse. Heck, I probably say worse every day.
"But did I personally want Favre INJURED? Absolutely and categorically NO! Did I feel like we, the Saints, had a better chance of being in the Super Bowl with Favre on the sideline? Of course. Would the Patriots and their fans have probably been excited to see Eli [Manning] on the bench with his foot up whispering that he was done [in Super Bowl XLVI]? Would players on the sideline have made comments to that effect? Right or wrong, I'm guessing yes.
"Probably every Saints fan, player and coach got an adrenaline rush when thinking Minnesota might be in trouble. I said what many people were probably thinking, though maybe I said it in a way that sounded a bit too excited. Those who know me best know that I lean toward the animated side a bit. Okay, a lot! It's who God made me. I do regret saying it, though.
"I have made many mistakes in my life and have paid dearly for some of them, and the late hit and the comments were both mistakes, in my opinion. But players all over the league do the same thing every Sunday, make late hits and say stupid things. But I can say with absolute certainty that neither the late hit nor the comment have anything whatsoever to do with the issue being so hotly discussed in the media."
In my view, Hargrove deals honestly with the emotions players and fans feel when their team knocks a key player out of a game. The adrenaline rush comes from knowing victory might be that much closer, not from knowing a player from the other team is injured.
Hargrove says he received nothing and expected to receive nothing, bounty-wise, for the hit. But he sheds no light on other hits from that game or the bounty program in general.
Bobby McCray and Remi Ayodele, not Hargrove, were the players responsible for delivering the high-low hit that sent Favre limping to the sideline with an injured ankle. Neither of those players has confirmed or denied receiving a bounty payment, to my knowledge. Their thoughts would be welcome.
Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET
Key free agents: DE Calais Campbell (franchise tag), CB Richard Marshall, OLB Clark Haggans, WR Early Doucet, T Brandon Keith, G Deuce Lutui, K Jay Feely.
Where they stand: A strong finish to the 2011 season on defense gives the Cardinals a glass-half-full feel heading into free agency. Going from 1-6 to 8-8 was an impressive achievement. Arizona does have serious concerns on its offensive line. The situation at tackle is particularly questionable even if Levi Brown returns (and maybe especially if he returns, depending on your view). The line concerns might actually dissipate some if the team lands Peyton Manning, a quarterback with the ability to beat pressure with quick throws. But tackle is still an area that needs addressing for the long term. Injuries throughout the offensive backfield raise questions about that area as well. Kevin Kolb (concussion), Beanie Wells (knee), Ryan Williams (knee) and Anthony Sherman (ankle) missed extensive time or played at a diminished level for stretches.
What to expect: The Cardinals are one of the teams chasing Manning. That pursuit could consume them for the short term. Landing Manning would signal the end for Kolb in Arizona. The Cardinals have until March 17 to exercise a $7 million option on Kolb, the quarterback they acquired from Philadelphia for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a fat contract. I'm expecting a resolution to Manning's situation before the Kolb bonus comes due simply because interest in Manning should be high enough to accelerate the process. The Cardinals had about $3 million in salary-cap space entering the week, according to ESPN's John Clayton. That figure could increase substantially once the team releases Brown or reworks his contract. Arizona still has strong coaching ties to Pittsburgh on both sides of the ball, but it's an upset if the Cardinals seriously pursue any of the aging veterans recently released by the Steelers. Developing young talent is the priority now. Re-signing Marshall, who fared well at corner, should be a priority. Does free-agent linebacker Stewart Bradley still factor prominently into the team's plans, particularly at such a high price?
St. Louis Rams
Key free agents: WR Brandon Lloyd, G Jacob Bell, CB Justin King, OL Adam Goldberg, LB Chris Chamberlain, G Tony Wragge, TE Billy Bajema, WR Mark Clayton, DT Gary Gibson, P Donnie Jones.
Where they stand: The Rams have no interest in staying the course from a personnel standpoint after going 15-65 over the past five seasons. They will seek fresh talent almost across the board as Jeff Fisher's new coaching staff seeks players for its schemes. The Rams are seeking playmakers in particular, starting at wide receiver. The offensive line needs addressing, although the Rams might try to minimize the turnover at offensive tackle for the short term, figuring they cannot afford to create new needs. But former starting center Jason Brown, benched last season, appears unlikely to return. The team also needs two starting outside linebackers, starting defensive tackles and perhaps two starting cornerbacks on defense.
What to expect: Mass roster turnover. I could see the team retaining as few as one or two players from its list of 21 projected unrestricted free agents. The Rams have a disproportionate amount of their salary cap tied up in recent high draft choices Sam Bradford, Chris Long and Jason Smith. The rookie wage scale will provide them cap relief even if the team remains among the teams picking very high in the 2012 draft. Bradford and Long are cornerstones. Smith could stick around at a reduced rate. The team still has hope for him under new offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan and defensive lineman Jason Jones, both free agents from Tennessee, have ties to Fisher and could make sense for the Rams. Despite the need for playmakers on offense, the Rams did not use the franchise tag on Lloyd, their most talented receiver. Questions persist about how effective Lloyd might be outside Josh McDaniels' offense.
San Francisco 49ers
Key free agents: QB Alex Smith, CB Carlos Rogers, FS Dashon Goldson (franchise tag), G Adam Snyder, WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Josh Morgan, G Chilo Rachal, FB Moran Norris, LB Blake Costanzo.
Where they stand: Coach Jim Harbaugh has said it's a bit unsettling heading through the offseason with his starting quarterback unsigned. Smith and the 49ers are expected to reach agreement eventually. This relationship will almost certainly continue even if Smith does reach free agency without a deal in place. Smith would not fit nearly as well anywhere else. Harbaugh likes to use the word "equity" when describing players he wants to keep. The 49ers would rather bring back Smith than invite the disruption that Manning would bring, were they able to land him. The team needs help at wide receiver and possibly cornerback, depending upon what happens with Rogers. Getting Goldson at the relatively reasonable franchise rate ($6.2 million) was a plus for the 49ers' continuity in the secondary.
What to expect: Not a whole lot, most likely. The 49ers were a good team last season after taking a low-keyed approach to the free-agent market. They will presumably show interest in Vincent Jackson, Mike Wallace and any high-profile, productive receiver with the talent to upgrade their offense. It's a small upset if the 49ers land one of them, however, because their philosophy is built on a measured approach resistant to overpaying. They will have to address the receiver position in free agency one way or another, however. Re-signing Morgan would help. Pierre Garcon, Marques Colston, Mario Manningham, Plaxico Burress and Robert Meachem are among the other options in free agency. An upgrade at right guard would help the line, but the 49ers might be apt to develop 2011 draft choice Daniel Kilgore after investing first-round choices in their left tackle (Joe Staley), left guard (Mike Iupati) and right tackle (Anthony Davis).
Key free agents: DE Red Bryant, LB David Hawthorne, LB Leroy Hill, OL Paul McQuistan, DE Raheem Brock, DL Tony Hargrove, FB Michael Robinson, RB Justin Forsett, QB Charlie Whitehurst, LB Matt McCoy, TE John Carlson, LB Heath Farwell.
Where they stand: The Seahawks' long-term quarterback situation hangs over them as they head toward the 2012 draft with only the 12th overall choice. The team has built up the rest of its roster to a point where sticking with Tarvaris Jackson as the primary starter could hold back the team to a degree it did not through much of last season. Upgrading the pass rush is another priority for the Seahawks. With defensive end Raheem Brock publicly stumping for Seattle to land Manning, his former teammate, I couldn't help but wonder which one of them had a better shot at earning a roster spot with the team in 2012. It might be Manning, even if the Seahawks are relative long shots for his services. Brock failed to provide the pass-rush push Seattle needed opposite Chris Clemons. Linebacker is another position the Seahawks need to address, whether or not Hawthorne and Hill return.
What to expect: The Seahawks have roughly $30 million in cap space, according to Clayton, and will make every effort to land Manning. They feel they've got a shot as long as they can persuade him to get on a plane and check out what they have to offer in terms of the roster, coaching, facilities, ownership and more. If Manning goes elsewhere, I would expect the Seahawks to consider Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn. Securing him at a price lower than what Arizona paid for Kolb would be the goal. As badly as the Seahawks want to upgrade the position, they have said they will not panic. Overpaying for Flynn could represent panic in their eyes. On the pass-rush front, I'm increasingly skeptical the team will shell out for Mario Williams. The price could be too high for a player Houston has decided to let hit the market. Re-signing Bryant is a priority, but using the franchise tag for him was never an option given the $10.6 million price. A deal slightly north of the one teammate Brandon Mebane signed seems likelier if Bryant returns.
- No idea how that deep ball succeeded. The 49ers had to like their chances on the Seahawks' second offensive play. Their Pro Bowl defensive end, Justin Smith, beat left guard Robert Gallery to the inside and was bearing down on quarterback Tarvaris Jackson right away. The 49ers had two about-to-be-minted Pro Bowlers, cornerback Carlos Rogers and free safety Dashon Goldson, shadowing an undrafted rookie receiver making his regular-season NFL debut. There is simply no way Jackson-to-Lockette should beat three Pro Bowlers for a 44-yard gain. Jackson gets credit for hanging tough and delivering the ball just as Smith was about to blast him. Lockette gets credit for catching a ball Rogers contested well. This was exactly the type of play Seattle needed early against a tough defense.
- Leroy Hill's knee packs a punch. Hill was pursuing Frank Gore when his right knee inadvertently struck the left side of tight end Delanie Walker's helmet while Walker sat on the turf after missing a block on linebacker K.J. Wright. Fox microphones captured the grotesque sound of a collision that left Walker with a broken jaw. The impact launched Walker's helmet four yards downfield.
- Weak excuse for busted goal-line play. Jackson wound up scrambling for no gain on third-and-goal from the 1 with 1:41 left in the first half. Coach Pete Carroll said some Seattle players thought the play was dead because left tackle Paul McQuistan jumped early. There was no penalty, however, and the Seahawks appeared confused after the snap. Fullback Michael Robinson hardly moved. Jackson slowed and decided against handing off to Marshawn Lynch. McQuistan had barely moved a half-tick before the snap. This was not a blatant false start. The Seahawks should be coached to play through a whistle in that situation. Settling for a field goal in a game the team lost by two points wound up being the difference in the game. This wasn't the first time Seattle botched a critical red zone possession right before halftime.
- Anthony Hargrove was lucky to avoid injury. The 49ers' Kendall Hunter broke into the secondary on a third-and-1 run from a shotgun formation right before halftime. Hargrove, the Seahawks' defensive tackle, had a chance to make the tackle at the line of scrimmage, but 49ers right tackle Anthony Davis chopped him down at the legs from behind. The block forced Hargove's body into a contorted position. He appeared vulnerable to injury on the play. Hunter broke out for a 24-yard gain. This game was packed with physical confrontations that threatened to violate rules or obliterated them entirely, which leads to the next item.
- The penalty that was not called. Seahawks right tackle Breno Giacomini gets on opponents' nerves with his trash talk and aggressiveness, both at practice and in games. Against Washington in Week 12, Giacomini drew a roughness penalty when he threw himself into a pile after the play. Against the 49ers, officials flagged Giacomini for illegal use of the hands. Later in the game, however, Giacomini was on the receiving end of a blatant blow to the face that drew no penalty. He and 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks were tangling during and after the play. Both players and Brooks in particular appeared to have their hands on or near the opponent's facemask. Giacomini delivered one last shove as the play was ending. Brooks retaliated by swinging the palm of his right hand into Giacomini's face, driving back Giacomini's head violently. A penalty in that situation would have moved Seattle to the 49ers' 37-yard line with 1:25 remaining. The team would have run the ball to set up a field goal. Instead, Jackson scrambled and the 49ers forced him to fumble.
The "five observations" files are back following a one-week holiday. I was out of town following Week 15 and did not produce them for those games.
Cornerback Brandon Browner's clinching 94-yard interception return for a touchdown against the New York Giants stands atop the list of pivotal plays. The Seahawks' chances for winning went from less than 50 percent to near certainty, as measured by ESPN's win probability calculations reflecting results from thousands of game situations.
I've been breaking out the five most pivotal plays in the NFC West each week. This time, all five came from the Seahawks-Giants game, no shock given how the other games played out. Arizona fell behind Minnesota by a 28-0 score in the first quarter. San Francisco blew out Tampa Bay, 48-3. St. Louis was idle.
Browner's story is an improbable one. He was playing in the CFL before landing in Seattle during the offseason. The Seahawks expected his uncommon height (6-foot-4) would translate well to press coverage. They're not too concerned about Browner drawing occasional penalties, the price for playing receivers so aggressively.
When Seahawks general manager John Schneider mentioned Browner to coach Pete Carroll as a player to check out during the offseason, Carroll initially wasn't sure Browner, 27, was still playing.
"I’d lost track of him," Carroll told reporters Monday. "He’s really a factor. He bothered those guys (Giants receivers). They were pushing and shoving and jawing at him and all that because he wouldn’t let them go, he wouldn’t get off them. That’s a factor you don’t see that often in corners."
Browner weighs about 220 pounds, making him big even by safety standards.
The big play he provided against the Giants set the franchise record for longest interception return. It also stands third on the list of most pivotal plays in the NFL this season, as measured by change in win probability. The top two: New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis' interception off Dallas' Tony Romo in Week 1, and Ryan Fitzpatrick's fourth-down touchdown pass to David Nelson for Buffalo against Oakland in Week 2.
The chart breaks out the five most pivotal plays from the NFC West in Week 5. "WP" stands for win probability as a percentage.
Those pointing to Whitehurst as the superior alternative are getting a chance to evaluate him in a high-pressure situation against the New York Giants in Week 5. Jackson's departure from the game with an injury to his right shoulder has left Whitehurst to manage a game the Seahawks are leading, 16-14, following a safety from Tony Hargrove.
The Seattle offense hasn't gotten much going lately in this game. Turnovers deep in Giants territory have prevented Seattle from building a bigger lead. It'll be tough for any defense to shut down Eli Manning and the Giants' offense for the remainder of the game. Most likely, Seattle will need its quarterback -- Whitehurst for now, with Jackson's return considered questionable -- to make plays.
Everyone but right tackle Sean Locklear participated in practice Wednesday. The team excused Locklear from practice to tend to an undisclosed family matter. The Seahawks lack depth on their line. Seattle placed guard Chester Pitts on injured reserve. That means former starting right guard Stacy Andrews could be active for the first time since Week 14. Andrews is better suited at tackle. He's been working at right tackle with Locklear unavailable. Left tackle Russell Okung continues to fight through ankle problems. He wore down against the Rams and could be vulnerable as the game progresses. Pitts' replacement, Tyler Polumbus, was also limping at times Sunday. Receiver Brandon Stokley could return from his latest concussion. He has reportedly suffered more than 10.
New Orleans: The Saints lost running backs Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory for the season this week, affecting their ground game. Ivory had 99 yards against Seattle in Week 11. Former Seahawk Julius Jones figures to play a more prominent role. Reggie Bush did not play against Seattle in the previous matchup. He'll play Saturday.
Linebacker Danny Clark (hamstring), tight end Jimmy Graham (ankle), defensive tackle Tony Hargrove (knee) and safety Malcolm Jenkins (knee) did not practice Wednesday. Tight ends Jeremy Shockey (groin) and David Thomas (knee) were limited. Defensive end Alex Brown (shoulder), receiver Marques Colston (knee) and linebacker Anthony Waters (ankle) participated fully. Colston missed Week 17. Having him back gives Drew Brees one of his favorite weapons. Colston caught eight passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns against Seattle during the regular season.
For more on the Saints' injury situation, check out Pat Yasinskas' report.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Seattle takes a seven-game winning streak over the Rams to St. Louis for a Week 15 game that will again demonstrate how far these teams have fallen.
The last time the Rams defeated the Seahawks was also the last time the Rams won a playoff game. The date was Jan. 8, 2005. Qwest Field was the setting. Bobby Engram's inability to catch a fourth-down pass from Matt Hasselbeck in the final minute stands as the enduring memory from the Rams' 27-20 victory.
Almost four years seems like forever given how quickly things change in the NFL. When the teams met in that January 2005 playoff game:
- The Seahawks had yet to hire Tim Ruskell as team president.
- Mike Martz was the Rams' head coach.
- The Rams' offensive starters included Tom Nutten, Andy McCollum, Adam Timmerman, Blaine Saipaia, Brandon Manumaleuna, Isaac Bruce, Kevin Curtis and Marshall Faulk.
- The Rams' defensive starters included Bryce Fisher, Ryan Pickett, Jimmy Kennedy, Tony Hargrove, Randy Thomas, Tommy Polley, Jerametrius Butler, Travis Fisher, Adam Archuleta and Antuan Edwards.
- Jerry Rice started at receiver for the Seahawks.
- The Seahawks' defensive starters included Chike Okeafor, Cedric Woodard, Brandon Mitchell, Isaiah Kacyvenski, Niko Koutouvides, Chad Brown, Ken Lucas, Michael Boulware and Ken Hamlin.
- The only current starters for either team who started that game were Torry Holt, Marc Bulger and Pisa Tinoisamoa for the Rams, and Hasselbeck, Engram, Walter Jones, Rocky Bernard and Marcus Trufant for the Seahawks.
- The teams combined for 809 total yards and 46 first downs