NFC West: Troy Polamalu

Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes, Dashon Goldson and Quintin Mikell were starting NFC West safeties last season. They combined to earn more than $15 million for their contributions in 2012.

Wilson, Rhodes and Mikell were released, and Goldson departed in free agency, reportedly without getting an offer from the San Francisco 49ers. Another NFC West safety, Craig Dahl, left the St. Louis Rams for the 49ers.

One thing hasn't changed at the position: Seattle still has the best starters in the division.

Matt Williamson, who scouts the NFL for ESPN.com, had little trouble giving the Seahawks his No. 1 ranking at safety in his continuing look at where NFC West teams stand at each position. We pick up the conversation there.

Williamson: Seattle has the best safeties in the league. St. Louis has the worst. San Francisco's are good. Arizona's are average at best.

Sando: I'm a little surprised you'd give the 49ers high marks at the position after parting with Goldson. Donte Whitner is there and he's good, but what else is there at the position? The Rams didn't seem all that set on keeping Dahl.

Williamson: I think Dahl is serviceable. I guess they are not all that good, but they are better than Arizona at the position right now, and with all those draft picks -- 13 overall and five of the first 93 -- I fully expect them to add John Cyprien, Eric Reid or Matt Elam. The writing is on the wall when you sign Dahl as a placeholder while the rookie comes in and is a lot more talented.

Sando: We could have three NFC West teams targeting starting safeties in the draft.

Williamson: St. Louis might have the worst safeties in the league right now. That is a huge need for the Rams. They probably need to draft two safeties in their top four or five picks and one had better be in the first round. Everyone talks about needing receivers for Sam Bradford. Really, they need a guard and a safety. Then we can talk about that.

Sando: Seattle is really the only team in the division appearing set at safety for now. I could still see the Seahawks drafting one for insurance in case they have a hard time re-signing Kam Chancellor. In the meantime, Earl Thomas might be the best safety in the league. At least I'm assuming you'd agree in saying he's moved past Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, who were long considered the standards.

Williamson: He has passed those guys for sure. They have very much declined. I would probably say Eric Weddle is the best safety right now. Jairus Byrd is good, too. Thomas is right in the conversation with those guys and he has more ability than either one of them.


Highlights and interpretations from the recently concluded hour-long "SportsCenter" Special focusing on the NFC West:
  • ESPN's Tedy Bruschi played for Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll in New England years ago and seemed to have a strong feel -- and respect -- for Carroll's current team. He picked Seattle as an upset division winner in 2012. He pointed to Earl Thomas as the heir to Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. He picked Marshawn Lynch as the division's MVP for the upcoming season. Bruschi was high on Seattle all the way around. He also defended Carroll's handling of the quarterback situation, noting that it's only May -- too early to worry about having a starter in place. Bruschi also thought Matt Flynn would become the signing of the year in the division.
  • Fellow analyst Tim Hasselbeck picked the San Francisco 49ers to defend their division title. He and Bruschi both picked the Arizona Cardinals third and the St. Louis Rams fourth. Hasselbeck thought Seattle would challenge the 49ers and finish as close as one game behind them. But he also thought Carroll needed to settle on Flynn as the starter sooner rather than later. Quarterbacks like clarity at the position. Hasselbeck went with Flynn as his breakout player from the division and Patrick Willis as the MVP.
  • The quarterback-related analysis from Hasselbeck stood out. He pointed out Sam Bradford's struggles locating open receivers after turning his back to the defense for play-action fakes last season. He thought the Rams needed to treat Bradford as a young quarterback only two years removed from a spread system at Oklahoma, not as a third-year pro. He pointed to offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's voluminous playbook as something the Rams might want to streamline for now.
  • Hasselbeck, who played for Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona, suggested Kevin Kolb hasn't shown himself to be the leader Whisenhunt wants at the position. He thought Kolb needed to win over the team this offseason. Bruschi encouraged the team to go with John Skelton instead if Kolb doesn't step forward and distinguish himself as a team leader. Sound familiar? It should, at least to anyone familiar with Matt Leinart's time under Whisenhunt. Is Kolb the next Leinart, a highly paid player unable to win over the team? That was the comparison drawn during this special.
  • Fantasy analyst Eric Karabell singled out Arizona's Ryan Williams, St. Louis' Danny Amendola and Seattle's Flynn as breakout fantasy players from the division. He thought Flynn would rank among the 20 best fantasy quarterbacks.
  • Defensive end Chris Long noted the Rams' relative youth on the defensive line. This line is Long's to lead. Long has the capacity to take that role, I think. He might have deferred some to Fred Robbins and James Hall in the past. Both were valued veterans. They're gone now. Long had 13 sacks last season. His time is now.

Anyone else catch this special? I'd be interested in your thoughts.
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis routinely cuts down running backs in the open field.

Willis has likewise taken out two top backs in the "Madden 13" cover competition, joining fellow NFC West icon Larry Fitzgerald in the final eight despite Willis' status as a No. 11 seed.

This is no time for complacency, NFC West voters.

Now that Willis has taken out Matt Forte and Maurice Jones-Drew, we cannot in good conscience allow New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz, possessor of seven regular-season starts and one notable season, to knock out the baddest linebacker in the land.

Fitzgerald, meanwhile, faces No. 1 seed Cam Newton. The Willis-Cruz and Fitzgerald-Newton winners will face off in the next round. Aaron Rodgers-Ray Rice and Calvin Johnson-Rob Gronkowski round out the other bracket.

Vote away.

Fitzgerald won his first-round matchup with Troy Polamalu by a 72-28 margin. He then beat LeSean McCoy by a 54-46 margin. Willis won comfortably over Forte (62-38) and Jones-Drew (58-42).
Any knowledgeable NFC West fan knows what happens when Matt Forte runs across Patrick Willis.

On the field, Willis helped hold Forte to 2.05 yards per carry as Willis' San Francisco 49ers defeated Forte's Chicago Bears 10-6. We'll conveniently overlook Forte's 120-yard receiving performance during that 2009 matchup at Candlestick Park.

Off the field, Willis defeated Forte to advance in the "Madden 13" cover competition.

Willis was a No. 11 seed to Forte's No. 6, but it's not Willis' fault someone underrated him. Perhaps the folks in charge of seeding were going by most contract complaints lodged instead of most first-team Associated Press All-Pro selections.

Willis faces Maurice Jones-Drew in the next round.

Seattle's Marshawn Lynch takes on Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers after defeating Chris Johnson in the previous round.

Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald goes against Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy after defeating Troy Polamalu.

My choices for this next round: Cam Newton, Fitzgerald, Willis, Darrelle Revis, Lynch, Drew Brees, Calvin Johnson and Jared Allen.

Vote here.

NFL Any Era: Tebow over Steven Jackson?

January, 27, 2012
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Seth from Newport News, Va., says the ESPN.com/ESPN The Magazine's NFL Any Era team "is a joke" if the St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson does not appear on the list.

Mike Sando: Jackson did not appear on the list. Tim Tebow did. That seems wrong. We do not even know for sure whether Tebow will be good in this era, do we?

The overall list is strong. Ray Lewis, Troy Polamalu, Charles Woodson, Brian Urlacher, Patrick Willis, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Ed Reed, Darrelle Revis, Jared Allen and Dwight Freeney are among those listed.

I thought the San Francisco 49ers' Justin Smith was an obvious omission among those watching him play regularly. But how many people, Hall of Famers or otherwise, have watched the 49ers' defensive line in recent seasons?

People should know plenty about Steven Jackson, because he carries the ball and, quite frequently, defenders trying to tackle him. Seth is surely right about the Rams' poor record hurting Jackson in these types of polls.

In retrospect, I should have broken out an item about Jackson's omission without any prompting. He has demonstrated all the necessary qualities -- toughness, grit, consistency, leadership, versatility, production -- to make him a timeless player. Very few running backs have run with more ferocity than Jackson.

The way Jackson has played through injuries becomes more impressive when we consider the stakes for his team were relatively low. I'll never forget watching him slam himself into the 49ers' defense while trailing 35-0 a few years ago. He made a statement to his teammates and anyone watching. Circumstances would not diminish what he represented. I'll also never forget how he fought through a 2009 back injury that would require surgery. He started 15 games even though his team was 1-15 that season.

A lesser man -- even a normal one -- would have shut it down late in that season. What was the point? Jackson refused to do that. He kept coming back for more and finished with 324 carries, the second-highest total of his career.

Jackson was clearly qualified for the Any Era team. So were Larry Fitzgerald and others. But as with voting for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there are usually more worthy candidates than spots available for enshrinement. That means very good candidates do not always get their due, at least right away. That should not diminish them in any way.
This was indeed a special season for the San Francisco 49ers and, by extension, the NFC West overall.

The Associated Press All-Pro Team, announced Friday, includes five 49ers, a league high for any team. Arizona's Patrick Peterson made the team as the return specialist, joining the 49ers' David Akers and Andy Lee to give the NFC West all three specialists.

The 49ers' Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman made it as inside linebackers. Teammate Justin Smith made it as a defensive tackle. He also got votes at defensive end. Smith moves around the line, playing end in the base 3-4.

Aaron Rodgers won 47.5 out of 50 votes at quarterback, a strong indication Rodgers will emerge as the leader in MVP balloting. Those results have not yet been revealed, but they draw from the same group of voters.

The chart shows All-Pro counts by division.

Also making the team: fullback Vonta Leach, center Maurkice Pouncey, guard Carl Nicks, guard Jahri Evans, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, running back LeSean McCoy, tackle Joe Thomas, tackle Jason Peters, tight end Rob Gronkowski, receiver Wes Welker, receiver Calvin Johnson, cornerback Darrelle Revis, cornerback Charles Woodson, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive end Jared Allen, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, linebacker Derrick Johnson, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware safety Troy Polamalu and safety Eric Weddle.

Scout's take: 49ers vs. Steelers on MNF

December, 15, 2011
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Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. offered thoughts Thursday heading into the San Francisco 49ers' game Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Candlestick Park.

Mike Sando: This game against the Steelers provides the 49ers with an opportunity to defeat a quality opponent on a national stage, while keeping control of the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoff race. My sense is that the 49ers, though still a good team, have plateaued a little bit lately.

Matt Williamson: I think that is a good word. They might have hit their head on the ceiling. The talent has taken them as far as it will. That does not mean they cannot win playoff games. But this is a bad matchup for them against the Steelers. The 49ers lost to Arizona and the Cardinals are running the Steelers' defense. They've gotten better at it, but that defense has been clicking for the Steelers for years. They know what they are doing and they are going to give San Francisco's offense a hard time.

Mike Sando: The 49ers have taken 18 sacks over their past three games after allowing seven in their previous six. They aren't getting Frank Gore going as well on the ground, and Gore is banged up.

Matt Williamson: Their young offensive line does not pick up blitzes very well. They get beat one-on-one, especially on the right side. Ike Taylor can do a good job against Michael Crabtree. Troy Polamalu and the Steelers do well against tight ends. I just do not know where the 49ers' offense is going to come from. Alex Smith is not a guy who, when everything is going wrong, puts the team on his back.

Mike Sando: Several key players could miss this game for both teams -- Joe Staley and Patrick Willis for the 49ers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley for the Steelers. And then Ben Roethlisberger's ankle is an issue.

Matt Williamson: Roethlisberger will have had 10 days to rest. Everyone in the world knows he is going to play. Charlie Batch is not good.

If Harrison doesn't play and Ben doesn't play, I'll take the 49ers. But if Ben is out there at even 50 percent, I am taking Pittsburgh. The matchup is not good for the 49ers.

Mike Sando: The 49ers are strong on defense. What makes you think the Steelers' offense would be OK without Roethlisberger near full strength?

Matt Williamson: If you are the Steelers and Ben is not moving well, put him in the shotgun, go three wide receivers all day with a back in the backfield and get it out quick. Don't even have him dropping back. Get the ball out quick to Antonio Brown especially, and Hines Ward. Do the quick three-step passing game out of the shotgun.

Mike Sando: Back to the 49ers' offense. One thing they've struggled with some is yards after the catch. They led the NFL at 6.8 yards after the catch per reception last season. That has fallen to 5.2 this season. And the Steelers' defense leads the NFL in fewest yards allowed after the catch on average at 4.3, an astounding 1.7 yards better than the next-best team, Houston.

Matt Williamson: I don't see a real good after-the-catch wide receiver in the group for San Francisco. Ted Ginn would catch only bombs. Michael Crabtree is not nifty. He is a slower, power guy. Vernon Davis can be, but his role has been diminished heavily and I'm not sure how well he grasps the offense, and they need him to help the tackles. I'm not sure who would be the guy, unless they dropped more passes off to Gore and Kendall Hunter.

Mike Sando: The 49ers have dramatically cut Gore's role as a receiver. That's one reason their team yards after the reception has fallen. Then there is the red zone. San Francisco ranks last in touchdown percentage there.

Matt Williamson: Every weakness is exaggerated in the red zone for a quarterback. There are a lot more bodies in a smaller space, a lot more molecules bouncing off the walls. You have to be a little more accurate, a little better anticipation. Donovan McNabb was not that great in the red zone. He was not an anticipatory thrower or very accurate. Smith has some of those qualities, too, but less. He is not as talented. But I know he's done well in the red zone before. One thing that comes to mind is a lack of involvement from Vernon Davis.

Mike Sando: Davis finished last season with eight catches for 50 yards and four touchdowns in the red zone. He has four catches for 48 yards and three scores there this season. Delanie Walker had five catches for 22 yards and no scores in the red zone in 2010. He has one catch for a 6-yard touchdown against Detroit in the red zone this season. But Smith's completion percentage has fallen from above 70 to around 40 in the red zone since last season. Sacks are up. Gore's carries in the red zone are up. His receptions are down. I'm not sure what is wrong down there, but improved efficiency in that area would certainly help Monday night.

Williamson and I will be among those participating in an in-game chat Monday night. I'll be at the game. Williamson will monitor remotely. Jamison Hensley from the AFC North blog will join us on the chat from Candlestick Park.

Injury thoughts on Sidney Rice, NFC West

September, 16, 2011
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Three late-week thoughts on developing injury situations:
  • The Seattle Seahawks listed receiver Sidney Rice as "out" for their game against Pittsburgh. Rice had been a limited participant in practice this week. I can see why the team wouldn't want to throw its highest-priced free-agent addition onto the field against James Harrison and Troy Polamalu in what would have been Rice's first game since the third week of preseason. Rice's shoulder will presumably let him play when Seattle opens its NFC West schedule against Arizona in Week 3.
  • The Cardinals are listing running back LaRod Stephens-Howling (hand) and linebacker Daryl Washington (calf) as questionable. Neither practiced this week. Stephens-Howling is most valuable on special teams. Putting him on the field with a hand injury would compromise ball security on returns and on offense. Arizona would miss Washington, who is becoming a big-play threat on defense.
  • Seattle is moving Robert Gallery back into the lineup at left guard, with James Carpenter moving back to right tackle. I'm not sure another lineup change is worth the payoff under the circumstances. This will be the 13th starting combination the Seahawks have used on their line since the 2010 opener.
  • Michael Crabtree's availability to the San Francisco 49ers probably will not be known until 90 minutes before kickoff, when teams must declare inactive players. The 49ers ran only 12 snaps with three wide receivers in Week 1, the second-lowest figure in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They will presumably want to open up their offense against Dallas, at least to some degree, but their personnel gives them flexibility. Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker can both factor into the receiving game.
  • The St. Louis Rams have more serious injuries than any NFC West team, but they aren't playing until Monday night.

All for now. Back soon, though.

On embracing Troy Polamalu comparisons

September, 14, 2011
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San Francisco 49ers receiver Ted Ginn Jr. pulled away from all but one man during his 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown Sunday.

Earl Thomas, second-year safety for the Seattle Seahawks, was that man. He had to maneuver around kicker Steven Hauschka along the sideline before hitting stride, and when he did, Thomas kept pace the rest of the way. He wasn't going to catch Ginn, who ranks among the very fastest players in the NFL. But neither was Ginn running away from him.

[+] EnlargeTed Ginn
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesEarl Thomas stayed stride-for-stride with Ted Ginn Jr. on Sunday.
That type of speed separates Thomas from most safeties. It's one of the qualities that led Seahawks coach Pete Carroll to say Thomas could be on his way to very special things in the NFL. In fact, instead of rejecting as premature comparisons between Thomas and Pittsburgh Steelers great Troy Polamalu, Carroll embraced them. That is telling.

"Boy, there are some tremendous similarities," said Carroll, who coached Polamalu at USC. "One guy's just proven it over a long period of time and he’s a great player. Earl, he’s emerging."

Polamalu, 30, is a six-time Pro Bowl choice. He'll be chasing down Thomas' teammates when Seattle visits Pittsburgh in Week 2.

"What Troy is so famous for is just these knifing, rocketing drives to make a tackle or to make a play on the football and the willingness to take a chance and go for it," Carroll said. "Both these guys are like that. If Earl could be so lucky somewhere down the road, six or eight years from now …"

Carroll pointed to their size, speed, toughness, and instincts as similar. Both are 5-foot-10. Polamalu is listed at 215, Thomas at 202. The first time I saw Thomas in person, I thought he looked like a cornerback. He also happened to be in the company of massive left tackle Russell Okung at the time, which probably added to the perception.

Thomas had five interceptions as a rookie last season. After watching him collect eight tackles, two for losses, and contesting multiple other plays in the Seahawks' opener at San Francisco, I probably was remiss in not featuring him more prominently among players Seattle could least afford to lose.

"We really want to do similar things (with Thomas) like we did with Troy back in college because of their nature and the style of play that they offer you," Carroll said. "It’s a good model for him to follow."
Adam from Glendale, Ariz., says he thought the Cardinals should have gone after Taylor Mays even before their own safety, Adrian Wilson, suffered an injury Saturday. He thinks Mays projects as a young Wilson and could learn from the Cardinals' veteran safety before taking over as the starter eventually.

Mays

Mays


Mike Sando: There were some similarities between the two coming out of college. Both were raw athletes. Both carried concerns about pass coverage. Both projected as strong special-teams players initially. Mays had much better track speed coming out of college. But questions about his instincts -- how that speed translated on the field -- pushed him down in the draft. Mays was the 49th player chosen in his draft class. Wilson was the 64th chosen in his.

My initial reaction is that Wilson is a special player, and Arizona should seek in a replacement someone with better coverage skills. Wilson is not as bad in coverage as he appeared last season, but neither is he exceptional at it. He's at his best when the Cardinals find ways to send him after the quarterback. I reached out to Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. for a second opinion. He passed along the following thoughts:
I tend to agree with you, but what other options are out there? I do think Ray Horton would kill for a Troy Polamalu clone -- well, a lesser version of Polamalu. Wilson fit that bill. Maybe Mays could to a lesser degree. Kerry Rhodes does a nice job as the last layer of defense, so I do think they need more strong safety than free safety, but I actually am just not sure exactly what Mays is yet at this level. He is big, but doesn’t insert like Wilson. He is tall and stiff for man-to-man. But I do tend to think there is room for improvement with him. Would San Francisco trade him within the division? If so, and if Pete Carroll weren't interested, that should tell us all we need to know.
Kam Chancellor is having a strong camp for Seattle at strong safety. I don't think Seattle perceives itself as having a huge need at safety. Rookie Mark LeGree is also getting lots of work in various packages.

I see no harm in Arizona taking a chance on Mays for the right price.
The conventional book on Arizona Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson might need some revision.

Wilson
Wilson

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. explains why in an Insider piece resetting expectations for one of 11 players since 1982 with at least 20 sacks and 20 interceptions.

Williamson sees Wilson as better than advertised in coverage and not as strong against the run as one might expect given Wilson's strong physical presence. He expects Wilson's role to change under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, hired from the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason.

Wilson will not suddenly become another Troy Polamalu, but in looking through that 20-20 list and sizing up Polamalu's career stats, Wilson's strength as a pass-rusher stood out. He has 22.5 sacks in 150 career regular-season games. Polamalu, though more dynamic as a sideline-to-sideline force, has eight sacks in 107 games. Wilson is one of seven defensive backs since 1982 with at least 20 sacks. The other six have played between 181 and 234 games. Five have between 20.5 and 26 sacks, with Rodney Harrison collecting 30.5 sacks during his 186-game career.

Wilson's presence as a blitzer and someone quarterbacks must fear around the line of scrimmage sets him apart from other defensive backs. Wilson does more than simply get to the quarterback, though. He arrives with bad intentions and he embraces the role. His profile picture on Twitter shows Wilson standing over Trent Edwards following the type of hit Jack Tatum or Dick "Night Train" Lane would have relished.

Horton has promised to open the 2011 regular season with a blitz call to symbolize the aggressive tactics he wants the Cardinals to employ. Finding more ways to showcase Wilson in blitz packages sounds like a logical priority. Wilson had 13 sacks over the 2005 and 2006 seasons. He has only 6.5 sacks over the past four.

The addition f cornerback Patrick Peterson will also affect the options for Horton. As Nolan Nawrocki's scouting report for Pro Football Weekly put it, Peterson "can man and zone cover, roam, blitz and play near the line of scrimmage."
Looks like my colleague Paul Kuharsky woke up on the wrong side of the debate again.

Our esteemed (steamed?) AFC South blogger took a few shots at ESPN.com’s Power Rankings for top overall NFL players. He specifically took offense with those of us who refused to rank more than a few non-quarterbacks on our 10-man ballots.

Quarterbacks held eight of the top 11 spots in the composite rankings. There was a tie for the 10th spot between Michael Vick and Andre Johnson.

"If we rate these quarterbacks so highly," Kuharsky said in Dan Graziano's main piece, "how can we not rate the guy we said was tops at disrupting quarterbacks highly too? Makes no sense."

Kuharsky was referring to DeMarcus Ware, who finished 12th overall, receiving votes only from AFC North blogger James Walker (No. 5) and from Kuharsky (No. 10).

Quarterbacks filled out the top seven spots on my ballot. I would have considered listing QBs 10 deep had I known so much heat would radiate from my AFC South brother.

Here’s a question for Paul: If he values pass-rushers so much, why not find room on his ballot for Dwight Freeney, the player he ranked as the NFL’s best pass-rusher back in March?

"I think Freeney is the best pass-rusher, but DeMarcus Ware is the better overall player and a tremendous pass-rusher, too," Kuharsky said when I called him Tuesday.

That thinking makes sense. Kuharsky ranked Ware as his No. 1 linebacker and No. 2 pass-rusher in those power rankings. After ranking quarterbacks first through fourth in the overall rankings, he went with Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Andre Johnson, Troy Polamalu, Clay Matthews and Ware. He considered finding a spot for Freeney, but figured the vote would have been wasted.

"Maybe I gave in a little bit there to the crowd in terms of how well he was liked by everyone else, knowing Freeney wasn’t getting in there no matter how I voted," he said. "I presumed Ware would definitely make our top 10. I knew Freeney would not because I was his lone advocate."

Kuharsky and I weren’t all that far apart in our thinking, after all. I ranked Freeney second among pass-rushers on my ballot. The other voters ranked him between third and eighth.

We both ranked Peyton Manning over Tom Brady for the top overall spot. I would take the much younger Aaron Rodgers over both if building a franchise to contend for the longer term. I could see Rodgers assuming the top spot a year from now.

Manning got the edge over Brady on my ballot because he's more important to his team's success, and Brady's longstanding edge in playoff games hasn't held up recently.

I rounded out my overall top 10 with Johnson, Polamalu and Patrick Willis. Finding room for Ware and Matthews would have been ideal, but there wasn’t room for everyone. Matthews' value as an outside pass-rusher makes him more valuable, arguably, than the San Francisco 49ers' Willis. But Willis can do it all, and he did have six sacks last season while anchoring a defense that allowed less than 3.5 yards per carry.
Usually I'm one to dive into the comments sections on blog entries to engage in conversations or at least monitor them.

I recommend you do the same for James Walker's piece ranking the 10 best safeties in the NFL. I've been putting it off to this point because I didn't feel good about the ballot I submitted.

The first few choices were easy. Troy Polamalu was a unanimous pick for the No. 1 spot. Ed Reed was a unanimous choice at No. 2. Most of the other players listed should carry asterisks, disclaimers, qualifiers, etc. Filling out the final five or six spots proved nearly impossible for me. I kept ruling out players for various reasons, only to come back to them when better candidates failed to materialize.

Ranking defensive backs is tricky, anyway. The complex coverages NFL teams use make it tough to know which players were responsible for what. It's one reason I'm careful about blaming cornerbacks for specific lapses without following up.

Brandon Meriweather made the list. He is a two-time Pro Bowl selection, but questions about consistency have lingered for some time. Should he be in the top 10? Is he even the best safety on the New England Patriots?

In the end, the rankings I put together elicited responses such as this one from an Arizona Cardinals fan named Rick:
Mike, I only write to you because you have a history of being fair and using logic and empirical evidence to back up your (usually sound) arguments. So. Um. Antrel Rolle at No. 7 and no mention of Kerry Rhodes? What gives? Ask anyone who follows the Cardinals and they will tell you that the team UPGRADED by letting Rolle go and trading for Rhodes.

My response: "There is no logic to the safety rankings after 4-5 guys. I didn't feel good about any of them."

That is a slight overstatement. Eric Berry and Earl Thomas project as emerging talents with very bright futures. Adrian Wilson belongs on the list if we accept the premise that his 2010 struggles had more to do with an injury that require surgery than his sharp decline. If we include Wilson, do we include one of his teammates from a defense that was very bad in 2010?

This was a tough one. All criticism is welcome and justified. Time to move on. Seeking closure.
Thoughts on NFC West candidates to grace the "Madden 12" cover based on voting through ESPN.com:
  • The St. Louis Rams' Sam Bradford has only one NFL season to his credit, but he's seeded higher than his more accomplished first-round opponent, Larry Fitzgerald. Bradford has the fresher face. Fitzgerald has graced the "Madden" cover previously, sharing it with the Pittsburgh Steelers' Troy Polamalu. Fitzgerald gets my vote. We know he'll live up to expectations if healthy. We think Bradford will. Anyone think Steven Jackson should have gotten the call for St. Louis?
  • The San Francisco 49ers' Patrick Willis is a No. 7 seed against the 10th-seeded Seattle Seahawks' 12th Man. Willis is the obvious choice for San Francisco. The Seahawks don't have an obvious choice on their roster. They have no sure starting quarterback and no players coming off a Pro Bowl season. They're not even sure which players will be on their roster. They do have really loud fans. Willis has silenced them on occasion, like when he returned an interception 86 yards for a touchdown at Qwest Field in 2008. But they drowned out the 49ers in Week 1 last season.

First-round voting runs through March 27, with results announced late next month.

The Bradford-Fitzgerald winner faces the Aaron Rodgers-Ndamukong Suh winner in the second round. The Willis-12th Man winner faces the Hines Ward-Carlos Dunlap winner.
The latest NFC West chat got off to a late start -- my fault there -- but lasted the full hour. Thanks to those who contributed. Transcript here. Highlights below:
Shaun Harper (Salt Lake City, UT ): I'm a big-time 49ers fan. Do they go QB first round? Wouldn't the best option be to try and sign McNabb or Kolb and then maybe still have a shot at getting Ryan Mallet as a back-up for a couple of years?? (Considering there is a 2011 NFL season)

Mike Sando: The market for Donovan McNabb is going to be very, very interesting now that two supposed offensive gurus -- Andy Reid and Mike Shanahan -- decided he was not the quarterback for them. If I'm the 49ers, I'm looking at those situations in Philadelphia and Washington pretty closely. And Jim Harbaugh should have a good feel given his background as a quarterback. Now, would McNabb be better than what the 49ers have had in the recent past? Yes, and that alone makes him a decent fallback option if the team doesn't find in the draft a quarterback to play right away. If you get Kevin Kolb, you're probably giving up draft-choice compensation, which makes it tougher to think of him as a bridge to the future. He sort of needs to be the future, then.

Jacob (Saint Louis): Thank you for all the work you do, Mike. If the two big wide receivers are off the board, do you see the Rams trading down? The Rams have a lot of holes to fill, and this seems to be a deep draft. A little over a week ago, Tim Kavanagh said that he could see the Steelers trading up. Would a trade with them even be possible?

Mike Sando: The Steelers trade draft choices less frequently than most teams trade them. When they do look to make a deal, watch out. They tend to have a good reason. The last time they traded up into that No. 14 range, they snagged Troy Polamalu at No. 16. The Rams need quality, too, so I wouldn't move back too far. And it's really unlikely, I think, that Pittsburgh would move up from No. 31 all the way to No. 14. That is a big jump and would be costly.

Shane (Los Angeles, CA): Who would you pick at #5 for the Cards? Assume that your pick is in play at No. 5. If PP7 [Patrick Peterson] is there and they don't want him, there would be NO shortage of teams looking to trade up (Eagles, Cowboys, maybe Pats for starters). What do you think about the Cards trading down?

Mike Sando: OK, I would go with Blaine Gabbert at No. 5 based on what I've heard about him (I do not pretend to have first-hand knowledge based on scouting!). If he were not there and Patrick Peterson were there, I would definitely consider moving back. The Cardinals already have Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. They do not need a stable of top cornerbacks to make that defense work. They need outside linebackers to amp up the pass rush. They also need additional picks. If they could get the pass-rusher and additional picks to help them address, say, their offensive line (a position that can be addressed successfully later in the draft), go for it.

Ben (Portland): John Schneider was one of only 2 GMs at Mallett's pro day and has scheduled a private workout with Locker. Can we expect a 1st-round QB on draft day or is Schneider just exploring all the options?

Mike Sando: The Seahawks have to seriously consider a quarterback in this draft based on their current situation at the position. I think their interest in re-signing Matt Hasselbeck has obvious limits, and those limits explain why Hasselbeck has not yet re-signed with the team. As far as whether Schneider attends specific workouts, I can tell you this: He is GM, but like his mentor, Ted Thompson, he is still a scout at heart. He likes to do the work. And so it makes sense for him to check out players with his own eyes.

One more thing: You're welcome, Jacob. Thanks for tuning in.

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