NFC West: Troy Smith

After judging a quarterback by the company he keeps, I've expanded the field to show additional names with recent ties to the NFC West.

The chart below ranks these QBs by most starts since 2010 with at least 15 action plays and a Total QBR score in the 90s.

For additional context and to avoid implying any similarities between emerging star Colin Kaepernick and journeyman backup Brady Quinn, I've included an additional column showing cumulative QBR figures for all starts since 2010, regardless of how many action plays (all QB plays except kneel-downs, spikes and handoffs).

The information reflects negatively on St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, who has just one 90-plus game out of 42 qualifying starts and a cumulative QBR score of 42.3, well below the 50-point mark indicating average play.

Some context is in order. QBR assumes an average supporting cast. Some quarterbacks on the list have played with exceptionally weak supporting casts. Bradford has arguably played with the weakest of the group, especially when factoring for the injury problems that wiped out Bradford and the Rams in 2011 in particular, when St. Louis led the NFL in adjusted games lost.

The Rams think Bradford's production will improve significantly in 2013 and especially beyond now that the team has acquired fresh, fast talent on offense. So, while we might reasonably have expected Bradford to have provided a few more exceptional performances to this point in his career, a case can be made that he has too often found himself in survival mode.

Final Word: NFC West

November, 9, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 10:

Teams facing the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers tend to focus on containing those teams' strong running games. This could be opening up first-down opportunities for quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Alex Smith. Seattle's Wilson is completing 69.9 percent of his passes on first down. Smith is completing a league-high 76.1 percent. Each quarterback has five first-down scoring passes. Only Peyton Manning (94.6) ranks higher than Wilson (84.92) and Smith (84.86) in Total QBR on first down this season. Wilson faces a Jets defense ranked 11th in first-down QBR allowed (56.2). Smith faces a Rams defense that ranks sixth in that category (50.5 allowed).

[+] EnlargeLeon Washington
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonLeon Washington, with a career-high 29.1 yards per kickoff return, will face his former team for the first time.
A horrific leg injury derailed Leon Washington's promising tenure with the Jets in 2009. Washington, now in his third season with the Seahawks, gets a shot at his former team for the first time Sunday. He is averaging 29.1 yards per kickoff return, which would be a career high for a single season. He owns seven career kickoff returns for touchdowns, but hasn't taken one all the way back since 2010, before the NFL moved kickoffs back to the 35-yard line to facilitate touchbacks in the name of player safety. The Jets allowed a 104-yard kickoff return for a score to New England's Devin McCourty this season, but they still rank a respectable 14th in yards allowed per kick return.

This is a big week for St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long. He's coming off subpar games against Green Bay and New England. The Rams will need him at his best against emerging 49ers right tackle Anthony Davis. Two years ago, when Davis was a rookie, Long schooled him memorably. Davis is the one getting acclaim lately, showing up on various midseason all-star lists. Long had 13 sacks last season. He has four through eight games in 2012. The Rams are counting on him to show up Sunday. They gave him a contract extension worth more than $12 million per season because they thought he could win matchups like the one he faces against Davis.

The Rams could welcome back left tackle Rodger Saffold and receiver Danny Amendola from injuries. Both players could start, but will they finish? Two years ago, the Rams lost an overtime game at Candlestick Park when Saffold couldn't finish the game, leaving backup Renardo Foster to deal with all-world 49ers defensive end Justin Smith. Smith beat Foster for a key third-down sack in OT. Foster is long gone. A healthy Saffold still represents an upgrade from backups Wayne Hunter and Joe Barksdale. Amendola, meanwhile, must watch out for hard-hitting defenders such as Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. He's coming off a shoulder injury.

The Rams-49ers game is one of two this week featuring quarterbacks drafted first overall. Peyton Manning and Cam Newton square off in the other. Manning has a 27-9 starting record against teams featuring No. 1 overall picks in the lineup, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Only Terry Bradshaw has a better record in such matchups among No. 1 overall quarterbacks with at least five matchups. The 49ers' Smith is 5-3 in these games, fourth-best behind Bradshaw, Manning and John Elway among qualifying top picks. The Rams' Sam Bradford hasn't faced the 49ers since 2010, when he went 1-1 against them. Troy Smith, not Alex Smith, started those 2010 games for the 49ers.

Final Word: NFC West

October, 7, 2011
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 5:

[+] EnlargeKevin Kolb
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesKevin Kolb is completing just 38.9 percent of his throws from outside the pocket.
Burden could fall on Kevin Kolb. Beanie Wells' ability to carry the Arizona Cardinals' offense against the New York Giants might not translate to the team's game against Minnesota in Week 5. The Vikings are allowing just 76.3 yards rushing per game and 3.3 yards per carry. Both figures rank among the top six in the league. Minnesota's strong run defense could put more pressure on Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb to carry the offense. Kolb hasn't made consistently good decisions on when to bail from the pocket and what to do once he does. He is completing only 38.9 percent of his throws from outside the pocket, one reason he ranks 27th among 32 quarterbacks in Total QBR from there (6.7).

Introducing the real 49ers. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers shut out San Francisco at Candlestick Park last season, the 49ers' first home shutout since 1977. So much has changed for the 49ers since that game, however. Alex Smith has replaced Troy Smith at quarterback. Jim Harbaugh has replaced Mike Singletary as coach. Joe Staley is back in the lineup at left tackle. The 49ers will have seven starters on defense different from those from last year, with most representing upgrades. One concern: The 49ers are without nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, a potential concern against a runner as powerful as the Bucs' LeGarrette Blount. And to think, Blount would have been a 49er had he not reneged on an agreement with the team as an undrafted free agent.

Marshawn Lynch's opportunity. The Seattle Seahawks' offensive line took pride in allowing no sacks in its most recent game. A repeat performance on the road against the New York Giants isn't realistic. However, this game does give the Seahawks an opportunity to improve their unproductive ground game. The Giants have allowed 100-yard rushers in their past two games. The Seahawks have failed to top 64 yards rushing in three of their four games. Marshawn Lynch has gained 61 percent of his rushing yards after contact this season, the fourth-highest percentage in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Seattle's line needs to keep defenders off him a little longer.

An unlikely interception drought. Few safeties cover as much ground as quickly as the Seahawks' Earl Thomas, but that has not translated into interceptions. Thomas, after picking off five passes in his first 10 NFL games, has intercepted none in his past 12, counting playoffs. A penalty wiped out an interception for Thomas against Arizona this season. Seattle has collected only two of the 125 interceptions thrown in the NFL this season, and the Giants' Eli Manning has cut down on turnovers dramatically. A turnover from Thomas certainly would help the Seahawks' chances in a game few expect them to win. He's playing too well to go much longer without picking off passes.

49ers staring down history. A victory over the Buccaneers would leave the 49ers with a 4-1 record for the first time since 2002. Long-snapper Brian Jennings is the 49ers' only remaining player from that season. That 49ers team improved to 4-1 with a 28-21 victory over Seattle. How long ago was that game? One of Jennings' current coaches, Bobby Engram, returned a punt 61 yards for a touchdown that day.

Week 5 rematches: NFC West vengeance?

October, 5, 2011
NFC West teams went 0-3 last season against the teams they face in Week 5.

They lost those games by a combined 99-31 score.

Much has changed since then. Let's take a look:

Cardinals at Vikings

Score last season: Vikings 27, Cardinals 24 (OT)

Key play: Brett Favre's 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe in the final minute of regulation tied the game, forcing overtime after the Cardinals had built a 24-10 fourth-quarter lead. Favre threw for a career-high 446 yards in the game.

Biggest change: Both teams have new quarterbacks, Kevin Kolb for Derek Anderson in Arizona, and Donovan McNabb for Favre in Minnesota. Also, the Vikings have a new head coach (Leslie Frazier) while the Cardinals have a new defensive coordinator (Ray Horton).

Storyline: McNabb keeps a home in Arizona and was available to the Cardinals when their quarterback situation was in flux, but the team showed no interest in him. He is now trying to hold off a change to rookie Christian Ponder.

Lineup changes for Arizona (12): Beanie Wells for Tim Hightower at running back, Kolb for Anderson at quarterback, Daryn Colledge for Alan Faneca at left guard, Rex Hadnot for Deuce Lutui at right guard, Todd Heap for Ben Patrick at tight end, Andre Roberts for Steve Breaston at receiver, Anthony Sherman for Reagan Maui'a at fullback (although the team opened its 2010 game at Minnesota without a fullback), Dan Williams for Bryan Robinson at nose tackle, Daryl Washington for Gerald Hayes at linebacker, Clark Haggans for Will Davis at linebacker, A.J. Jefferson for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback, Patrick Peterson for Greg Toler at cornerback.

49ers vs. Buccaneers

Score last season: Buccaneers 21, 49ers 0

Key play: Josh Freeman's 1-yard scoring pass to tackle Donald Penn midway through the fourth quarter put an exclamation point on the 49ers' first home shutout since 1977.

Biggest change: Jim Harbaugh has replaced Mike Singletary as the 49ers' head coach.

Storyline: Alex Smith gets a shot at Tampa Bay after watching Troy Smith struggle against the Bucs as the 49ers' starting quarterback last season. Troy Smith's approach centered around striking for big plays. The Bucs took away the big plays. Alex Smith gives the 49ers a chance to be more efficient.

Lineup changes for San Francisco (12): Alex Smith for Troy Smith at quarterback, Joe Staley for Barry Sims at left tackle, Adam Snyder for Chilo Rachal at right guard, Bruce Miller for Moran Norris at fullback, Isaac Sopoaga for Aubrayo Franklin at nose tackle, Ray McDonald for Sopoaga at defensive end, Ahmad Brooks for Manny Lawson at outside linebacker, NaVorro Bowman for Takeo Spikes at inside linebacker, Carlos Rogers for Nate Clements at cornerback, Tarell Brown for Shawntae Spencer at cornerback, Donte Whitner for Reggie Smith at strong safety.

Seahawks at Giants

Score last season: Giants 41, Seahawks 7

Key play: With Seattle already down 14-0 in the first quarter, the Giants returned Leon Washington's fumbled kickoff return to the Seattle 4, setting up Ahmad Bradshaw's touchdown run on the next play.

Biggest change: Tarvaris Jackson is the starting quarterback for Seattle. Charlie Whitehurst was a fill-in starter for Matt Hasselbeck when the teams played last season.

Storyline: The Seahawks' so-far-unproductive ground game faces a Giants run defense that has struggled. Seattle's young line improved in pass protection last week. Can it take a step forward in run blocking this week?

Lineup changes for Seattle (16): Sidney Rice for Deon Butler at receiver, Jackson for Whitehurst at quarterback, Russell Okung for Chester Pitts at left tackle, Paul McQuistan for Mike Gibson at left guard, Max Unger for Chris Spencer at center, John Moffitt for Stacy Andrews at right guard, James Carpenter for Sean Locklear at right tackle, Zach Miller for John Carlson at tight end, Brandon Mebane for Junior Siavii at defensive tackle, Alan Branch for Craig Terrill at defensive tackle, Red Bryant for Kentwan Balmer at defensive end, K.J. Wright for Aaron Curry at linebacker, David Hawthorne for Lofa Tatupu at linebacker, Leroy Hill for Hawthorne at linebacker, Brandon Browner for Kelly Jennings at right cornerback, Kam Chancellor or Atari Bigby for Lawyer Milloy, depending on Chancellor's availability.

48 NFC West starters since Manning debut

September, 8, 2011
Cool note from ESPN Stats & Information: First-year San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is the last quarterback other than Peyton Manning to start a regular-season game for the Indianapolis Colts.

That will change when Kerry Collins replaces an injured Manning in the Colts' lineup for Week 1.

The first preseason game I covered as an NFL beat reporter featured Manning making his first start against the Seattle Seahawks in the Kingdome. His very first pass found Marvin Harrison for a 49-yard touchdown. Preseason games are generally without much meaning, but could there have been a more fitting beginning for Manning?

For a fuller appreciation of Manning's durability and consistency in starting 227 consecutive games, I went through Pro Football Reference counting how many quarterbacks had started for current NFC West teams since Manning made his regular-season debut. There have been 48. That figure includes 14 for the St. Louis Rams, 13 for the 49ers, 11 for the Arizona Cardinals and 10 for the Seahawks.

A few notes on the 48 players to start for current NFC West teams since 1998:
  • There have been two Brocks (Berlin, Huard), two Charlies (Frye, Whitehurst), two named Chris (Chandler, Weinke), two Jeffs (Plummer, Martin), three Johns (Friesz, Navarre, Skelton), one Jon (Kitna), two Matts (Hasselbeck, Leinart), two Shauns (Hill, King), three Steves (Young, Bono, Stenstrom) and two Trents (Dilfer, Green).
  • Two, Young and Warren Moon, have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame since Manning's streak began.
  • Dilfer and Warner started for more than one current NFC West team since Manning's streak began. Warner started 57 games for Arizona and 50 for St. Louis. Dilfer started 12 for Seattle and six for San Francisco.
  • Hasselbeck has the most total starts for current NFC West teams with 131, followed by Marc Bulger (95 for St. Louis), Jake Plummer (73 for the Cardinals) and Jeff Garcia (71 for the 49ers).
  • Smith -- Alex, not Troy -- owns the most starts among current NFC West players with 50, all for San Francisco.
  • Eight of the 48 were one-and-done as starters: Berlin, Scott Covington, Ty Detmer, Glenn Foley, Friesz, Frye, Navarre and Weinke. Nineteen have made at least 10 starts.

The NFC West will have two starters new to the division in Week 1: Tarvaris Jackson and Kevin Kolb.

The chart shows start totals by team for the 48. The NFC West changed membership with realignment in 2002. I'm going back to 1998 for the four teams currently in the division.

2011 UFA market: NFC West scorecard

August, 23, 2011
With training camps winding down, I've found time to update rosters and put together team-by-team reference material for unrestricted free agency.

The names below match official NFL counts.

These are for players with at least four accrued NFL seasons whose contracts expired following the 2010 season. I've added comments for each team.

Arizona Cardinals

Re-signed (8): Ben Graham, Matt Ware, Hamza Abdullah, Ben Claxton, Lyle Sendlein, D'Anthony Batiste, Deuce Lutui, Stephen Spach.

New to team (7): Chansi Stuckey, Richard Marshall, Daryn Colledge, Nick Eason, Stewart Bradley, Floyd Womack, Jeff King.

Still unsigned (3): Alan Faneca, Jason Wright, Bryan Robinson.

Signed elsewhere (5): Steve Breaston (Kansas City), Gabe Watson (New York Giants), Ben Patrick (Giants), Trumaine McBride (New Orleans), Alan Branch (Seattle).

Comment: Sendlein, Colledge and Bradley were the big signings. Marshall provides needed depth at cornerback. Faneca and Wright announced their retirements. The Cardinals weren't aggressive in trying to re-sign the players they lost to other teams. The biggest move Arizona made, acquiring Kevin Kolb from Philadelphia, did not involve a UFA.

San Francisco 49ers

Re-signed (4): Ray McDonald, Tony Wragge, Dashon Goldson, Alex Smith.

New to team (5): Braylon Edwards, Jonathan Goodwin, Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, David Akers.

Still unsigned (5): Brian Westbrook, Troy Smith, Demetric Evans, William James, Barry Sims.

Signed elsewhere (6): David Baas (Giants), Travis LaBoy (San Diego), Jeff Reed (Seattle), Aubrayo Franklin (New Orleans), Takeo Spikes (San Diego), Manny Lawson (Cincinnati).

Comment: Re-signing McDonald signaled Franklin's departure. Getting Goldson back on the relative cheap was a victory. The 49ers wanted to keep Baas, but not at the price he commanded. The team thinks NaVorro Bowman has a bright future in Spikes' old spot at inside linebacker. Lawson wasn't strong enough as a pass-rusher to stick around. Safety depth is improved.

Seattle Seahawks

Re-signed (7): Raheem Brock, Junior Siavii, Brandon Mebane, Leroy Hill, Matt McCoy, Michael Robinson, Kelly Jennings.

New to team (8): Branch, Zach Miller, Robert Gallery, Jimmy Wilkerson, Atari Bigby, Sidney Rice, Tarvaris Jackson, Reed.

Still unsigned (7): Jay Richardson, Craig Terrill, Chester Pitts, Brandon Stokley, Ruvell Martin, J.P. Losman, Lawyer Milloy.

Signed elsewhere (8): Will Herring (New Orleans), Olindo Mare (Carolina), Matt Hasselbeck (Tennessee), Chris Spencer (Chicago), Jordan Babineaux (Tennessee), Sean Locklear (Washington), Amon Gordon (Kansas City), Ray Willis (Washington).

Comment: Adding Jackson as the starting quarterback was the most significant move for the 2011 season. Mebane was the most important re-signing for the longer term. Hill was a bargain relative to how he's playing right now. Miller and Rice were the types of young, talented players who rarely change teams in free agency. The Seahawks were outbid for Herring and Mare. Can street free agent David Vobora fill some of the void Herring left?

St. Louis Rams

Re-signed (2): Adam Goldberg, Gary Gibson.

New to team (9): Daniel Muir, Quinn Ojinnaka, Harvey Dahl, Ben Leber, Zac Diles, Jerious Norwood, Cadillac Williams, Quintin Mikell, Mike Sims-Walker.

Still unsigned (5): Chris Hovan, Michael Lewis, Darcy Johnson, Clifton Ryan, Mark Clayton.

Signed elsewhere (4): Daniel Fells (Denver), Laurent Robinson (San Diego), Derek Schouman (Washington), Kevin Dockery (Pittsburgh).

Comment: Dahl and Mikell were the big additions. Clayton could return if and when his surgically repaired knee allows. Sims-Walker is a wild card. The team didn't flinch when any of its own UFAs signed elsewhere. Most of the moves made on defense were designed to improve St. Louis against the run. Remember that newcomer Justin Bannan was not a UFA. Denver released him.

NFC West: What's left in free agency

August, 23, 2011
The time has come for some accounting now that the top unrestricted free agents have found homes. Others continue to wait.

I've put together charts showing how many and which UFAs for NFC West teams remain unsigned. The deadline passed Saturday for teams to make qualifying offers to these players.

The charts rank unsigned UFAs from oldest to youngest. I've ordered the players this way because so many older players find out through free agency where they stand.

A couple players, Alan Faneca and Jason Wright, have announced intentions to retire. They have chosen to go out on their own terms. Retirement becomes a process for others. Free agency comes and goes, the phone seldom rings, teams get on with their lives and before long, a player realizes he is finished.

Some players listed below could help teams if they found the right situations. Lawyer Milloy started 16 games for the Seattle Seahawks last season. The St. Louis Rams have kept in touch with Mark Clayton to monitor the receiver's recovery from knee surgery.

Note: UFAs are defined strictly as players whose contracts expired following at least four accrued NFL seasons. Released players are not UFAs in the same sense even though they can sign with any team.

QBR: Kolb, Bradford and the NFC West

August, 18, 2011
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Watching Sam Bradford fire passes across the St. Louis Rams' practice field has affirmed his status in my mind as the most promising quarterback in the NFC West.

There's much to like about the Arizona Cardinals' Kevin Kolb based on first impressions.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Icon SMISam Bradford had two of the five best-performances by a quarterback last season in the NFC West, according to QBR.
The focus on potential should not entirely overshadow actual in-game performances, of course. With that in mind, and in response to several of your questions, I've acquired from ESPN Stats & Information single-game QBR data for current NFC West passers. Data goes back to 2008, but I singled out 2010 games as most relevant, narrowing the list further by considering only performances in which a quarterback participated in at least 20 action plays.

The chart ranks the 10 best QBR performances last season for games featuring Kolb, Bradford, Alex Smith, Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst. I also included Matt Hasselbeck's games given that Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona considered signing him this offseason.

Whitehurst made only two starts, and neither cracked the top 10.

Jackson, ahead of Whitehurst on the Seattle Seahawks' depth chart, started only one game, for Minnesota. Two of his performances qualified for consideration, and one of them, in relief against Buffalo in Week 13, cracked the top 10.

Jackson tossed two touchdowns with three interceptions in that game. He took only one sack, completed a 31-yard touchdown pass, found Sidney Rice for a 46-yard gain on third-and-11 and scrambled for a 13-yard gain to help set up another score. The Vikings won, 38-14.

I'm still getting a feel for QBR after years of reliance on more basic passing-only stats. As game situations become less critical -- say, early in the game or when the score is lopsided -- QBR gives less weight to specific plays. A quarterback playing well enough to build a big lead won't see his QBR suffer as much if he simply manages the game from that point forward.

In looking at all NFC West performances from last season, I noticed Troy Smith's Week 12 showing during a 27-6 Monday night victory over Arizona rated higher than his rollicking Week 10 showing during an overtime victory against St. Louis.

Smith's pure passing stats against the Cardinals weren't nearly as good as they were against the Rams. His passer rating was 55 points lower against Arizona (61.7) than it was against St. Louis (116.7). But QBR resoundingly favored Smith's Arizona performance, 73.5 to 49.2.

Against Arizona, Smith scrambled for seven yards on third-and-4. He threw a 38-yard touchdown strike to Michael Crabtree in which the ball traveled the full 38 yards in the air, more impressive than if Crabtree had racked up yards after the catch. A 16-yard completion on second-and-10 sustained another scoring drive as the 49ers built a 14-3 lead. Smith's rating peaked during this drive at 97, falling only gradually the rest of the game as the 49ers built a 21-3 lead and coasted to victory.

And now, on with the list. Hasselbeck accounted for four of the 10 highest qualifying QBR performances (there were 50 total). Bradford made the top 10 list three times. Kolb had five qualifying performances and one of them, against Atlanta in Week 6, topped the list.

Hasselbeck also accounted for six of the 18 lowest-qualifying QBR performances. Bradford accounted for five of them.

The five worst overall: Bradford (2.1 QBR) at New Orleans in Week 14; Hasselbeck (2.7) against Atlanta in Week 15; Whitehurst (4.5) against the New York Giants in Week 9; Whitehurst (6.3) against Tampa Bay in Week 16; and Hasselbeck (8.5) against Oakland in Week 8.
Matt Maiocco of updates Michael Crabtree's injury situation. Maiocco: "There were encouraging signs Monday, as Crabtree was seen walking briskly from the locker room to the parking lot and back without an orthopedic boot on his left foot. It's the first time Crabtree has been spotted wearing two athletic shoes -- and no orthopedic boot this summer. Crabtree, who had surgery to repair a stress fracture on his left foot after the 2009 college season, experienced problems with his left foot on June 6 in a 49ers players-organized workout at San Jose State during the lockout. He did not take part in any of the other on-field practice sessions that quarterback Alex Smith organized during the lockout."

Also from Maiocco: Smith is getting the vast majority of first-team reps as the 49ers' starting quarterback.

Ray Ratto of calls Daunte Culpepper "the free couch on the front lawn" as a quarterback out of the NFL since 2009. The 49ers' interest in Culpepper for their No. 3 job had not yet resulted in a signing.

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says Crabtree has remained engaged during team meetings, according to 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Roman: "He's working very diligently to get back out there, and I think he's really on top of things mentally, which is a credit to him. ...Our meetings are very interactive, and he's very much a part of those meetings."

Also from Branch: Options for veteran quarterback help aren't very appealing. Branch: "The list includes Brodie Croyle (Chiefs), Charlie Frye (Raiders), J.P. Losman (Seahawks), J.T. O'Sullivan (Bengals) and Troy Smith, who started six games for the Niners last year. The Niners could also wait to pluck a quarterback from the waiver wire."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee passes along thoughts from Roman regarding Culpepper. Roman: "I believe that I guy like Daunte that's been around and seen everything he's seen can certainly offer the other quarterbacks a unique perspective on everything whether it be coverage, how to read a certain pass play protection and whatnot. He's got a lot of skins on his belt, so he'd be an interesting guy."

Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Colin Kaepernick was exceptionally sharp during practice Monday, with Smith finishing strong following a slow start.

Mike Rosenberg of the San Jose Mercury News updates the 49ers' push for a new stadium. Rosenberg: "After months of trying to keep the state's hands off the millions of tax dollars needed to fund a new 49ers stadium, Santa Clara has finally found the answer -- albeit one with a hefty price tag. The new plan, expected to be approved Tuesday, would allow the city to keep its redevelopment agency after paying the state $11.2 million this year and $2.7 million each year after that. That should solidify what had been a squishy part of the plan to fund the stadium, but because the state will be taking its cut of the redevelopment agency's proceeds, the city may need more time to pay the 49ers its share of the project."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune checks in with Marshawn Lynch for thoughts on the Seahawks' running game. Williams: "All runners are instinctual, but Lynch is probably more than most. And sometimes the rigid nature of the zone blocking scheme can take away a running back’s ability to use his vision and feel for what is happening in front of him. But Lynch said he doesn’t feel like that will happen in Tom Cable’s system."

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says Seahawks kicker Brandon Coutu pleads ignorance regarding the team's unusual decision to keep two kickers on its 53-man roster a few years ago.

Clare Farnsworth of offers practice notes, capped by a photo showing Russell Okung participating in a walk-through four days after suffering a sprained ankle.

Also from Farnsworth: Lynch and the art of the stiff-arm.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times thinks there's no way the Seahawks would part with second-string quarterback Charlie Whitehurst going into the season. O'Neil: "The only real question about the exact shape of the roster is if Seattle has three quarterbacks on it to begin the season, which is not unprecedented recently." I would expect fewer teams to keep more than two quarterbacks on their 53-man rosters this season given rules changes involving third quarterbacks on game days.

Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times checks in with Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, who is looking to tighten up his game. Brewer: "Thomas has been a standout in camp. He still makes highlight-reel plays, using his video-game speed. But just as impressive is the fact that the coaches aren't on him that much about being in the wrong place. Thomas is learning when to be aggressive and when to simply be there for his teammates. If he combines his natural instincts with better football savvy, then perhaps he will live up to those comparisons to all-everything Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic explains why the Cardinals don't feel pressure to add another receiver. Coach Ken Whisenhunt: "Everybody is asking that question, but I don't ever recall saying we had an issue with our receivers. You look at the preseason game [against Oakland]. You tell me how many receivers had productive nights, made plays for us in the game. That doesn't mean if there's an availability to help make our team better, that we're not going to look at it." More on this subject in a bit.

Also from Somers: The Cardinals have $13.2 million in salary-cap space, ample room to re-sign Larry Fitzgerald. Somers: "It's possible that re-signing Fitzgerald could give the team additional cap space. Fitzgerald's cap figure for 2011 is $11.25 million. A new contract could lower that. The Cardinals also could choose to front load the contract to lighten the impact in the later years of the deal."

More from Somers: The Cardinals had one of their better practices in years.

More yet from Somers: salary-cap figures for Cardinals players. Cap figures include base salaries, roster bonuses and prorated portions of signing bonuses.

Darren Urban of says Deuce Lutui is spending extra time on conditioning after reporting to camp out of shape.

Also from Urban: Darnell Dockett says these Cardinals aren't complainers.

More from Urban: Kevin Kolb's mobility is an asset, but not necessarily a defining one.

More yet from Urban: a look at the competition for roster spots among backup quarterbacks, with a funny quote from Richard Bartel.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch looks at what linebacker Brady Poppinga brings to the Rams. Poppinga: "They called me 'The Hammer' up in Green Bay and they did that for a reason. I'm a physical guy. I'm not one to tiptoe in any kind of situations where the run is coming at me. I'm extremely physical at the point of attack, and so I bring an element to this defense they haven't had for a couple years. Yeah, I'm a very sound run stopper. That is my strength." Just about every move the Rams made on defense in free agency was designed to upgrade the run defense.

Nick Wagoner of offers a Rams injury update. Also, Ben Leber worked in both outside linebacker spots.

Also from Wagoner: a look at the competition for starting spots at outside linebacker. Wagoner: "In Saturday night’s preseason opener against the Colts, the Rams started incumbent Na’il Diggs on the strong side with Bryan Kehl (who started a game last season) on the weak side. With Laurinaitis out, Josh Hull stepped in for the start in the middle. Diggs is a proven commodity and played just six snaps in an effort to help preserve him some for the season. Kehl played about 15 snaps. But the Rams made a concerted effort to get a look at two of their newest additions while the other watched from the sidelines."

More from Wagoner: injuries are affecting the Rams' depth at cornerback.
Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats & Information passes along this: Ten of the 11 quarterbacks drafted in 2007 have changed teams now that Kevin Kolb is heading to Arizona.

This doesn't reflect poorly on Kolb, who has sat behind quarterbacks with multiple Pro Bowls on their resumes, so much as it does on that quarterback class in general.

JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn were the only first-round quarterbacks that year. Kolb, chosen 36th overall and with the fourth pick of the second round, was the third quarterback drafted. John Beck and Drew Stanton joined Kolb as second-rounders that year. Stanton is the only one still with his original team, provided he re-signs, as expected.

A few other notes from Hawkins:
  • None of the 11 quarterbacks from the 2007 class has a winning record as a starter.
  • Trent Edwards is the only one with to hit double figures in victories as a starter (14-19 record).
  • Stanton (2-2) and Troy Smith (4-4) are the only ones without losing records as a starter. Kolb is 3-4.
  • Eight of the 11 have started at least one game. Isaiah Stanback, Jeff Rowe and Jordan Palmer have not.
  • Among those with starts, Beck is the only one without a victory as a starter (0-4).
  • Russell (7-18) and Quinn (3-9) have a combined 10-27 record as starters.

Check out the full list if you've got a strong stomach.

As the Cardinals pointed out in their news release Thursday, Kolb is the only quarterback in Eagles history to pass for at least 300 yards in each of his first two starts. He has been named offensive player of the week in the NFC and has an 81.2 career rating.
Jesse Reynolds, an Arizona Cardinals fan deadlocked in a debate over quarterbacks, turned this way for a resolution.

"I have searched everywhere but haven't been able to find the data that supports (or contradicts) my argument that the Cardinals were one of the most-blitzed teams last year because no one feared our quarterbacks," Jesse wrote to me via Facebook. "Could you help find the numbers? I'm sure other NFC West teams' fans would love to know their numbers, too."

Blitz numbers usually tell us which defenses were more aggressive. But if we flipped our perspective, as Jesse suggested, we could find out which quarterbacks commanded the most respect, at least by this measure. Where to turn? Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats & Information put me in touch with colleague Jason Starrett, who came through with numbers for all 32 teams and for 40 individual quarterbacks.

Thanks to Jason, Jesse is going to win his argument by a knockout.

Opponents blitzed the Cardnials 37.2 percent of the time overall, the sixth-highest percentage in the league. Oakland (39.8), St. Louis (39.4), Chicago (38.4), Carolina (37.5) and Baltimore (37.5) faced blitzes more frequently.

We defined blitzes as plays when defenses rushed five or more defenders.

As the first chart shows, Max Hall, John Skelton, Jimmy Clausen, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford -- all rookies playing for losing teams season -- faced blitzes most frequently.

As the second chart shows, five highly experienced quarterbacks -- Peyton Manning, Jake Delhomme, Drew Brees, Matt Hasselbeck and Tom Brady -- faced blitzes least frequently.

Hall and Skelton combined to start seven games for Arizona. Teammate Derek Anderson ranked 17th among the 40 players listed in terms of being blitzed most frequently.

In looking at the charts, a few names showed up in surprising places.

The San Francisco 49ers' Smith ranked higher than expected on the list of quarterbacks facing blitzes less frequently. Was he really "commanding respect" the way Brady commanded respect? Of course not. Does he really qualify as a wily veteran such as Delhomme or Hasselbeck? The answer is "no" on that front as well.

Likewise, quarterbacks such as Hill and Henne wouldn't provide a strong deterrent to blitzing, would they? Why would Green Bay's Rodgers face blitzes more frequently than them?

Other variables come into play. Some teams blitz more frequently than others regardless of opponent. A quarterback facing these teams more frequently would see his numbers shift accordingly.

How well an offensive line picks up blitzes could influence how a defense attacks. How well receivers adjust to blitzes could matter, as could the confidence a defensive coordinator has in his secondary during a given week. A quarterback's running ability and ability to read defenses accurately could factor.

Overall, I'd say it's telling to see the Cardinals' Hall and Skelton blitzed so frequently, particularly relative to the numbers for the more experienced Anderson. It's also telling to see some highly experienced quarterbacks blitzed so infrequently by comparison.
Bob Padecky of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat explains why there's a good chance Michael Crabtree will flourish with the 49ers. Two words: Vernon Davis. Padecky: "Remember two seasons ago when a talented 49er was criticized for being inconsistent and not a team player? Remember how we all moaned that Vernon Davis had such untapped talent that if applied properly, he would become an All-Pro? Last year Davis had the highest average-per-catch of any tight end in the NFL, 16.3 yards. He was the first tight end in 49er history to lead the team in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns." Padecky also holds up Crabtree's 27-game stats against those for other former 49ers receivers. More here.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee sizes up offensive free agents for the 49ers with an eye toward which ones will return. He lists Tony Wragge, Jeff Reed, Troy Smith and Brian Westbrook as players not expected back. What about Barry Sims? Barrows: "The 49ers might decide that this is the year promising Alex Boone, a one-time undrafted free agent who could end up being the steal of the 2009 class, takes over the swing tackle role from Sims. But when choosing between the proven commodity and the intriguing young player, coaches typically side with caution. That's what the 49ers did a year ago when they tapped Sims, a 13-year veteran, to take over at left tackle for injured Joe Staley."

Matt Maiocco of says there are more questions than answers on defense for the 49ers. Maiocco: "The defensive coaching staff is going to be working against the clock to figure all this out -- and determine the best way to improve the 49ers' No. 24 ranking against the pass from a year ago. Do not expect new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to try to make the 49ers' defense something it is not. Would he like to employ a pressure defense like what his longtime associate Dom Capers has done in Green Bay?" If he had the right personnel, sure.

Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis offers highlights from the Rams' most recent relief trip to Joplin, Mo. Softli: "Pro scout Ray Agnew and defensive line coach Brendan Daly, along with a few others, went into the heavily impacted area called 'ground zero.' This group was responsible for removing debris from the foundation of homes and dragging the materiel curbside for removal. Other groups contributed in the call or data communication center and others went to help with the sorting of donations, including at a local Catholic church. I was assigned to the group that would head to Misti's Mission, which included Rams owners and 10-15 employees."

Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis offers thoughts on Matt Williamson's recently published Top 15 list for NFC West players. Williamson did not include Steven Jackson. He offered this explanation to Balzer via email: "Jackson was actually 16th on my list. I just see him as a declining player who has taken too much of a beating over the years. It happens to every RB and I just think that time has come for Jackson. Adding a quality backup could certainly help his cause though going forward and lessening the stress on his body. But I no longer see big plays from Jackson -- which is often the first thing to go when RBs decline. I also don't see the same burst, elusiveness and acceleration."

Darren Urban of summarizes Jay Feely's interview with ESPN regarding the lockout. Feely, the Cardinals' veteran kicker, suggests a labor agreement isn't as close as advertised. Feely: "I do not think it is as close as some people make it out to be. There are still some issues we have to resolve. I do not think we are going to miss games. I am hopeful that we will not miss games. But there are definitely some steps that need to be taken. Rational thought needs to be the dominant force driving these negotiations." The owners have shown restraint, in my view, by not publicly leveraging the recent appeals-court ruling in their favor. That seems to be a sign that negotiations are serious and there's a good chance for an agreement.

Also from Urban: a look at the Cardinals' running backs.

Clare Farnsworth of checks in with Hall of Famer Steve Largent for a look back at the team's 1988 season. A wild road victory over the Raiders in the final week of the regular season delivered an AFC West title to Seattle. Largent: "Dave Krieg just couldn’t miss that day. And we needed everything he had, because the Raiders were scoring just as fast as we were."

Dan Arkush of Pro Football Weekly says the Seahawks are confident Max Unger can take over effectively at center.
The St. Louis Rams made tremendous statistical gains on defense last season. Kerry Byrne breaks down some of the differences from 2009 to 2010 in his recent piece for

Are coach Steve Spagnuolo and the Rams headed for even better things on defense in 2011 after using their first-round pick for defensive end Robert Quinn?

"The Quinn pick told the football world that Spagnuolo intends to win in St. Louis much the way he won in New York -- with a dominating group of Defensive Hogs," Byrne writes. "The unit he'll put on the field in 2011 has the potential to be the very best in the league."

Michael from St. Louis pointed out Byrne's piece to me via Facebook and questioned whether the Rams' defense would actually join the NFL's elite this season. I think Byrne is on the right track. Spagnuolo does have the Rams' defense headed in the right direction.

I do see question marks, however. James Hall and Fred Robbins enjoyed unusually strong seasons for their ages. Can the Rams bank on more of the same? The defense also lost safety Oshiomogho Atogwe to the Washington Redskins in free agency.

Opposing personnel matters, too. Some of the statistical gains St. Louis made from 2009 to 2010 reflected which quarterbacks the team faced.

The chart ranks the Rams' opposing quarterbacks by their passer ratings against St. Louis in the 2009 and 2010 seasons. The team's 2010 performances against Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Josh Freeman and Matt Cassel stand out as notable, although the Rams were 1-3 against those quarterbacks.

The Rams benefited in 2010 by removing Kurt Warner (twice), Peyton Manning, Matt Schaub, Brett Favre (2009 version) and even Vince Young (2009 version) from their schedule. They face Rodgers, Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Joe Flacco this coming season.
A Lebron James discussion broke out on my Facebook wall and I started it.

Nineteen comments into the discussion came this question: "Is this what the lockout has brought us to? Discussing the NBA?"

Well, almost. I've taken a related concept -- James' performances during critical moments of fourth quarters of the NBA Finals -- and applied it to NFC West quarterbacks. The chart shows how each of those quarterbacks performed during fourth quarters when the score differential was no greater than seven points.

A few observations:
  • Seattle did not play many close games. That explains why the Seahawks' quarterbacks combined for only 13 attempts in these situations.
  • The San Francisco 49ers' Troy Smith played with a looseness that might have served him well here. His 28-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree broke a 10-10 tie against Denver in the fourth quarter of their game in London. Smith beat the Rams at home in a close game one game later.
  • The Arizona Cardinals' Derek Anderson posted decent stats in these situations. Another completion or two in the late going against Minnesota would have been the difference in the outcome of that defeat, however. Anderson rallied the Cardinals into a fourth-quarter lead against Tampa Bay, only to throw a killer interception later in the game.
  • Bradford
  • This is one area for Sam Bradford to show progress in 2011. His St. Louis Rams were 2-4 in games decided by four or fewer points. Bradford had three touchdowns and 10 interceptions in fourth quarters overall. Bradford did complete an 18-yard pass to Billy Bajema on third-and-9 to sustain the clinching fourth-quarter drive during a 20-17 victory against San Diego. His clutch touchdown pass to Mark Clayton against Oakland did not factor in these stats because the Rams trailed by nine at the time.
  • Alex Smith was at his best in helping the San Francisco 49ers force overtime against New Orleans in Week 2. He also threw a third-down scoring pass to Frank Gore to get the 49ers within a field goal of Philadelphia with 2:06 remaining. Smith ended that game with a pick. A third-down grounding call against him at Altanta proved costly during a 16-14 defeat.

Now, on to the stats. Again, these were from fourth quarters when the score differential was no greater than seven points, according to player stat pages such as this one for Bradford. And, uh, no, I'm not comparing any of these quarterbacks to James in ability or expectations.
The Arizona Cardinals' running game should perk up this season if Beanie Wells revisits the hard-charging form he flashed during his rookie season two years ago.

The passion Wells showed Monday in defending his former college coach wouldn't hurt, either.

Wells, one of 11 NFC West players from Ohio State, took Jim Tressel's scandal-induced resignation hard. The third-year Cardinals runner called Tressel a "great man" who imparted life lessons upon his players. The way Wells sees things, if Tressel lied about his players' roles in the scandal, he did so only out of honor.

Wells punctuated his tweets with exclamation points, making good on his promise to "go off" while criticism against Tressel piled up.

"It's not his fault at all that he had a few go stray out of hundreds!!!" Wells wrote. "U check the success rate of the people that have been around him!!!!"

According to Wells, Tressel stepped up to help players from disadvantaged backgrounds, becoming more than just a coach to them.

Wells is among 10 current NFC West players from Ohio State, but the only one playing for the Cardinals.

All but St. Louis Rams linebacker Na'il Diggs and San Francisco 49ers cornerback Nate Clements played for Tressel. The NFC West players from Ohio State: Clements, Troy Smith, Ted Ginn Jr., Alex Boone and Thaddeus Gibson from the 49ers; Jay Richardson from the Seattle Seahawks; Diggs, Jermale Hines, Larry Grant and James Laurinaitis from the Rams.

Laurinaitis reportedly used the term "sad day" to describe the events Monday. Smith was once suspended for accepting money from a booster when Tressel was coach.