NFC West: Tony Moeaki
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
- Career stats: Baldwin has 41 receptions for 579 yards (14.1-yard average) and two touchdowns in 26 games over two NFL seasons. He has run 477 pass routes. Quarterbacks have targeted him 100 times.
- Slot or not: Baldwin has made the vast majority of his receptions lined up wide to the left. He has 28 receptions from there and eight after lining up wide to the right. He has three receptions from the left slot and two from the right slot. The 49ers' Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin have significant receptions from each of those four areas. The chart breaks down Baldwin's production by where he lined up. "WL" is wide left, "SL" is slot left, and so on.
- Red zone: Baldwin is a big target at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, but he has only one career reception and eight targets inside the red zone. The lone reception was a 3-yarder for a touchdown. Dwayne Bowe (35), Tony Moeaki (16), Dexter McCluster (14) and Jamaal Charles (10) had more red zone targets for the Chiefs over that span. Crabtree (28), Vernon Davis (23), Frank Gore (17) and Delanie Walker (16) have led the 49ers in red zone targets over the past two seasons.
- Catches by down: Baldwin has a similar number of receptions across first (16), second (10) and third (15) downs. He has more targets on first down (43) than on second (28) or third (27). Not much to choose from there.
- Outlook: Trading A.J. Jenkins to Kansas City for Baldwin spared the 49ers from making a decision on Jenkins at the mandatory reduction to 53-man rosters. The move should buy a grace period for each player with his new team. Both players will need time to learn their new offenses. It's notable that Kansas City's new leadership gave up on Baldwin so quickly. The 49ers' front office and coaching staff remains largely unchanged since the team drafted Jenkins. San Francisco should have had a better feel for the player it was unloading.
Neither receiver has a contract for the 2013 season. Neither was named his team's franchise player. Both could become unrestricted free agents March 12.
McDaniels' presence in New England as the Patriots' offensive coordinator would seem to make Amendola a viable fallback option for the team if Welker were to leave in free agency. As Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com wrote Monday, there were increasingly reasons to think Welker and the Patriots would reach agreement before the signing period opens. But with ESPN's Adam Schefter reporting Wednesday that Welker planned to test the market, it's good to remember that there are no guarantees.
If Welker were to re-sign with the Patriots, where would Amendola fit beyond New England or St. Louis? Would any team value him more than the Rams would value him?
Those aren't easy questions to answer. Amendola, like Rams teammate and fellow free-agent candidate Brandon Gibson, was with Andy Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles before coming to the Rams. Before that, Amendola was with Jason Garrett and the Dallas Cowboys in 2008, when Garrett was offensive coordinator.
Sometimes those past connections come into play when a player reaches free agency. Reid is the new head coach in Kansas City. Garrett fills the same role in Dallas. Reid's receivers coach, David Culley, is the same one he had in Philadelphia when Amendola was there in 2009.
But even if Amendola's ties to those teams' coaches were relevant, neither Kansas City nor Dallas appears to have a pressing need for a slot receiver. The Chiefs' Dexter McCluster and Tony Moeaki combined for 62 receptions from the slot last season, according to game charting from ESPN Stats & Information. The Cowboys' Miles Austin and Jason Witten combined for 83 slot receptions.
There could be other suitors, of course. There are other connections, too.
Amendola's offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, Marty Mornhinweg, has the same role with the New York Jets. One of his former offensive coordinators in St. Louis, Pat Shurmur, has the same job with the Eagles.
Again, though, does either team have a pressing need? Jeremy Kerley caught 43 passes for 612 yards from the slot for the Jets last season. Jason Avant had 50 catches for 609 yards from the slot for Philadelphia.
With Amendola coming off two injury-shortened seasons, the Rams should have a better shot at keeping him without overpaying, particularly if Welker re-signs. That would be good for St. Louis given the value Amendola has provided on third down in particular.
"He has great quickness in a short area and when you talk about a smaller guy, he has that great ability to create some separation," McDaniels said of Amendola in 2011, when he was the Rams' offensive coordinator. "You gotta be really tough, you gotta be able to create some separation quick because you don't have all day to run a 5-yard route sometimes. You gotta get open. He does that and he has great hands and he’s really tough. He is everything you want in that regard."
"The 49ers have Vernon Davis," I replied. "He should be able to do those things."
Paul from San Francisco wasn't having it.
"Davis has never been that guy," Paul wrote to the NFC West mailbag. "Have you ever noticed that he's always jumping in the air when he catches a pass? Not the same as the high, contested end zone passes mentioned above.
"It's like he can't stay on his feet, catch a ball, and continue up the field without breaking stride. He needs his body to remain relatively stationary (in the air) while he concentrates on the ball because he can't do too many things at once while focusing on the ball.
"Watch the tape, you'll see!"
I've seen Davis catch touchdowns passes in stride. It's tough to quantify passes caught high in the air, away from the body and the like. With Davis, the big plays probably overshadow the routine ones in our minds. As the chart shows, Davis has averaged 18.9 yards per touchdown reception over the past five seasons, second only to Seattle's Zach Miller among qualifying tight ends.
Davis has 33 touchdown receptions over the past five seasons. Davis was already in the end zone when he caught 19 of them.
I did think there were times last season when Davis should have factored more prominently in the red zone.
Forty NFL tight ends ran at least 20 pass routes in the red zone last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 40 players, Davis ranked 35th in percentage of targets per route (14.8). The average was 24.2 percent for the others and more than 30 percent for Clay Harbor, Heath Miller, Rob Gronkowski, Owen Daniels, Aaron Hernandez, Joel Dreessen, Tony Moeaki, Anthony Fasano and Benjamin Watson.
Davis' average was around 20 percent over the previous four seasons. The 49ers' offense is changing. Michael Crabtree is playing a more prominent role in the receiving game. That has affected Davis. It isn't necessarily bad for the team, either.
Let's count this as an initial look into a subject that could use additional exploration.
The ballots aren't perfect. I'm sure we could justify subbing in a few players into the eight spots set aside for each position. But in looking at the bigger picture, these ballots offer insight into which teams arguably have the most appealing young core players.
A few quick observations:
- Five defensive linemen from the NFC West earned spots on various ballots: Calais Campbell, Aldon Smith, Chris Long, Robert Quinn and Dan Williams. Brandon Mebane will be 29 in 2014, so it's possible he'll be playing at a high level at that time.
- Arizona had the most players listed in the NFC West: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Patrick Peterson, Campbell, Dan Williams, Ryan Williams, Larry Fitzgerald and LaRod Stephens-Howling. Peterson appeared as a cornerback and return specialist. Stephens-Howling appeared as a kick returner, but that is tough duty over an extended period. Fitzgerald, who turns 28 next month, will be only 31 in 2014. That's a scary thought.
- The St. Louis Rams' Sam Bradford was the only NFC West quarterback on the ballot. The NFC South had three quarterbacks listed. Two of them, Josh Freeman and Matt Ryan, have shown enough to qualify as more than hopeful projections.
- Long, Quinn, linebacker James Laurinaitis, tackle Jason Smith, tackle Rodger Saffold and Bradford gave the Rams six candidates.
- Safety Earl Thomas and tackle Russell Okung were the only Seattle players listed. Mebane also has star potential in the right scheme, Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. has suggested. But Thomas and Okung possess more frontline talent. Seattle selected them among the first 14 choices of the 2010 draft. Aaron Curry, chosen fourth overall in 2009, was not listed.
- Some of the candidates at safety seemed weak. The San Francisco 49ers' Taylor Mays appeared on the defensive ballot despite an underwhelming rookie season. The 49ers' Vernon Davis and Patrick Willis joined the Cardinals' Fitzgerald and Rodgers-Cromartie as the only NFC West candidates with Pro Bowls already on their resumes.
- The 49ers' seven candidates were: Mays, Aldon Smith, guard Mike Iupati, Willis, tackle Anthony Davis, Vernon Davis and receiver Michael Crabtree. Free safety Dashon Goldson needed a stronger 2010 season to appear on the defensive ballot. He'll turn 30 early in the 2014 season.
- Davis was the only NFC West tight end to earn a place on the offensive ballot. The division invested heavily in the position during the 2011 draft, however. We could see Arizona's Rob Housler and/or St. Louis' Lance Kendricks emerge as strong candidates.
- Eleven of the 180 total candidates remain in college. Green Bay and Buffalo each placed nine players on ballots, most in the league. Kansas City, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Arizona were represented eight times (twice by Peterson in Arizona's case). San Francisco and the New York Giants were next with seven apiece. St. Louis was part of a group with six.
- Some of the Bills' candidates -- Leodis McKelvin, Donte Whitner and Andy Levitre -- are either coming off down years or do not seem to posses star potential.
- Chicago and Indianapolis had only one candidate apiece, fewest in the league. Seattle and Minnesota had two apiece. Jacksonville had three. Five teams had four. Eight had five. The Packers appear far better positioned than the Bears to remain among the NFC North's best, according to these ballots.
- The AFC East was the only division without a tight end on the ballot. That was an upset given New England's strength at the position. The eight tight ends on our ballot: Jermaine Gresham, Marcedes Lewis, Zach Miller, Tony Moeaki, Jason Witten, Jermichael Finley, Jimmy Graham and the 49ers' Davis. Witten will be 32 by 2014, however.
The first chart breaks down NFC West candidates by team and position.
The second chart breaks down candidates by division and position.
Dan Graziano, Pat Yasinskas, James Walker and I offered additional thoughts in the video below.
The division has drafted seven in the first three rounds since 2006, when the San Francisco 49ers made Vernon Davis the sixth overall choice. The other seven divisions have drafted 24 in the first three rounds over the same period.
Davis has subsequently become a Pro Bowl selection, but he needed time, seasoning and some tough love from former coach Mike Singletary to get his career on the right track.
The subject came to mind Tuesday upon listening to the latest podcast from Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. Williamson, a former coach at Pitt and scout for the Cleveland Browns, explained why tight ends are increasingly difficult to evaluate coming out of college.
While NFL teams expect tight ends to know blocking schemes and pass routes, limitations on college staffing prevent even top programs from dedicating significant resources to coaching the position.
"When I was at Pitt, our tight ends coach was also our special-teams coach," Williamson said. "Rarely are you sitting there with a true tight ends coach and getting coached like other positions do."
As a result, rookie tight ends face steep learning curves while also adjusting to far more physical defensive linemen than the ones they've blocked in college.
Back to the NFC West. The St. Louis Rams recently used a second-round choice for tight end Lance Kendricks. The Arizona Cardinals used a third-rounder for Rob Housler, another tight end. Both enter the NFL amid high expectations, but recent history provides needed perspective.
Jeremy Shockey, John Carlson and Jermaine Gresham are the only tight ends since 2000 to reach 50 receptions in their first NFL seasons. Wide receivers also face difficult NFL adjustments; 18 of them have reached 50 receptions as first-year players since 2000. By my count, teams have drafted 391 receivers and 188 tight ends during that time.
The chart breaks out first-year stats for tight ends since 2000, based on info from Pro Football Reference.