NFC West: Tyson Jackson

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
video
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.

First Down

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.


Second Down

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.


Third Down

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.


Fourth Down

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.

 

One way to think of Rams' LT upgrade

March, 18, 2013
3/18/13
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PHOENIX -- Had the 2009 NFL draft gone as planned for the St. Louis Rams, the team would be thinking about a contract extension for tackle Jason Smith.

The 2009 draft did not go as planned for the Rams -- or for a long list of teams.

Smith struggled before St. Louis traded him to the New York Jets last year for journeyman Wayne Hunter. The Rams recovered Sunday. They reached agreement on a four-year contract with tackle Jake Long, the first player chosen in the 2008 draft.

Think of it as the Rams upgrading from Smith to Long at left tackle.

Smith played right tackle during his Rams career, but that was because the team realized he wasn't the answer on the left side, contrary to expectations on draft day. Smith was supposed to be the Rams' franchise left tackle. Long fills that role now.

The Rams are betting on Long to regain good health following two injury-shortened seasons. Their general manager, Les Snead, has said the team had no concerns about Long's health following biceps and triceps injuries.

The Rams' future at left tackle appears brighter than at any time since the Orlando Pace era.

Cloudy future for Rams 2009 first-rounder

November, 25, 2011
11/25/11
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The St. Louis Rams placed right tackle Jason Smith on injured reserve Friday, citing concussion-related symptoms.

It's fair to wonder whether Smith has played his final game with the team after three seasons.

The contract Smith signed as the second overall choice in the 2009 NFL draft carries a $10 million salary for next season, money reflecting expectations Smith would become an elite left tackle. Instead, Smith as become an inconsistent right tackle with injury concerns relating to concussions. He will have missed 19 of 48 games to injury once this season concludes.

The 2009 draft produced more misses than hits early. Smith, Tyson Jackson, Aaron Curry, Andre Smith and Darrius Heyward-Bey were all chosen among the top seven picks. So was Mark Sanchez, who has enjoyed team success without becoming a consistent quarterback.

Jason Smith's deal runs through the 2014 season, which is a voidable year.

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Ethan from Chicago writes: Mike, I am a Rams fan living in Chicago and I am craving good football this year, but I just don't see it for the Lambs. This regime is clueless and will be out of a job after another disaster this year. Last year, Billy Devaney confessed in an interview that even his family members were questioning why there wasn't a viable backup to Steven Jackson. Well, he had all offseason to correct that problem and did NOTHING. Jason Smith may end up being a serviceable tackle, but the No. 2 pick in the draft? BUST! Finally, Ike Bruce coaching the Bears? One of the classiest Rams of all time (and a Hall of Famer) was cast aside by Devaney, Steve Spagnuolo, etc. And where are the playmakers and pass-rushers on this team? Thinking about this upcoming season already has me sick to my stomach.

Mike Sando: Whoa, Ethan, did you move to Chicago with Mike Martz? Are you guys roommates or something? Let's separate fair criticism from understandable (but possibly unfair) ranting. Devaney told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before training camp that the Rams still might add a veteran backup runner before the regular-season opener. They could add a player released from another team, or they could ramp up their pursuit of Brian Westbrook. Also, Steven Jackson is holding up very well so far in training camp, it appears, so the backup position might not be quite as urgent of a concern. Still, if the Rams fail to act and running back becomes a serious problem, your criticism will be fair.

On the Jason Smith front, let's not declare him a bust after one injury-affected season. Let's also evaluate his selection in the context of which other players the Rams could have drafted. Tyson Jackson and Aaron Curry were the next two players selected. Mark Sanchez was taken fifth, but the Rams already had millions in guaranteed money committed to Marc Bulger, so the timing was not ideal. And they wound up getting Sam Bradford the next year. Smith, Jackson, Curry ... they're all promising players still finding their way. None turned around the fortunes of his franchise in one year.

On the Isaac Bruce front, I think he's a better fit for Chicago because the Bears are running the offense he ran during his prime years (and even with the 49ers later). The Rams have reached out to Dick Vermeil. They've showed a willingness to hire prominent former players for the coaching staff when the fit was right (Nolan Cromwell, who has vast experience in West Coast offenses). They've even saluted past Rams teams by hanging banners throughout their facility. I'm not going to trash the Rams for not hiring Bruce as a coaching intern. They did re-sign him and let him retire as a Ram, after all.

You're justified in feeling queasy about the upcoming Rams season. I think it's going to be a rough one. But if Bradford looks the part and some of the younger players around him show meaningful progress, you can at least feel better about the future.


Colton from Friendsville, Pa., writes: Hey Mike, I've been hearing buzz about undrafted rookie Stephen Williams. Before camp, I had never heard his name. Can you tell me something about him?

Mike Sando: Yes, I noticed Williams at Cardinals camp. He's quite tall (6-foot-5) and very rangy (208 pounds). The Cardinals do like what he offers. I think Williams would be an ideal candidate for the practice squad unless he plays well enough as a receiver during the exhibition season to command a roster spot, or unless he shows outstanding talent on special teams.


Levin from parts unknown writes: Sando, I appreciate the great coverage of the NFC West and 49ers in particular. If I may make one request, it would be for some coverage on how the 49ers are doing in the running game. Obviously, Frank Gore is a great back, but what did the blocking look like? Was it much improved and holes actually created, unlike much of last season? Also how are Glen Coffee and Anthony Dixon looking? All the write-ups I see from you and everyone else who gets access to practices tend to concentrate solely on the passing game. That is understandable, since that is the unknown part of the offense and the key to the 49ers' season, but the run game should get some coverage (especially the blocking of the OL). Thanks.

Mike Sando: Thanks, Levin. Mike Iupati jumps out right away. He will upgrade their run blocking. Center Eric Heitmann has been missing practice after suffering a stinger injury. Right guard Chilo Rachal missed some time after suffering from dehydration. Anthony Davis is finding his way at right tackle. The running game is very much a work in progress in terms of that line coming together. I appreciate the reminder to focus on it and will take a longer look at Coffee and Dixon over the next couple days (I'll be at 49ers practices Friday and Saturday).


Julian from Oak Harbor, Wash., writes: Hey Mike, love what you've done so far for the Cards' posts over the course of training camp. I know Matt Leinart has question marks, but one thing I didn't see in your articles was anything definitively positive or negative. So I ask, is there anything specific that you noticed that had improved in Matt? Arm strength, accuracy, footwork, timing, field vision, etc.? Anything at all that grabbed your attention? As always Mike, thanks for the hard work and dedication you put into you posts.

Mike Sando: Astute observation, Julian. I came away from my time in Arizona thinking the same thing. Isn't there something more definitive to say about this guy. There was no "wow" factor to the way he ran the offense. Neither was there a feeling he couldn't handle the job. That's what I mean when I say there comes a time when Leinart must play well enough for people to take notice and say, "That's a guy the Cardinals need to lead their offense." We have not seen it yet.


Scott from Germantown, Md., writes: Hi Mike, lifelong Seahawks fan out on the East Coast. Any chance the Seahawks will jump to sign Aaron Schobel now that he's released? It would seem to me that he could work in Pete Carroll's hybrid defensive front as either defensive end, outside linebacker or the Leo position. Any chance of this happening? We're going to need some kind of pass-rush if we're going to win any games.

Mike Sando: The fit does appear perfect. He had 10 sacks for a really bad team last season. He would probably give the Seahawks what they wish they could still be getting from Patrick Kerney. The feeling early, though, is that Schobel might be more likely to land with the Houston Texans. He has a farm near Houston and his family is there. It's still early in the process. Stay tuned.

Mapping out the draft's top five

April, 8, 2010
4/08/10
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Let's say the top of the NFL draft goes pretty much as expected.

The Rams take Sam Bradford first. The Lions and Bucs go with defensive tackles. The Redskins take an offensive tackle.

That leaves Kansas City as a pivotal wild card at No. 5, one pick before Seattle.

If the Chiefs take a tackle and Seattle also wants one, the Seahawks would have to weigh whether to use the sixth overall choice on what could be their third-rated tackle. Under this scenario, the Seahawks would have better options if Kansas City drafted for defense.

What might the Chiefs do?

Their general manager, Scott Pioli, has a close association with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, leading to speculation that the Chiefs could draft Hawkeyes tackle Bryan Bulaga. Perhaps not. A chat question from Taylor in Salt Lake City offered an opportunity to address Pioli's draft history -- more specifically, the draft histories of his teams. My answer:
I think KC goes defense. I was looking at the picks Scott Pioli's teams have made since he entered the NFL and noticed this: His teams have taken nine players in the top 13 overall picks and seven were defensive players, including five from the SEC. Four were defensive linemen and three of those were from the SEC. I think they go with Eric Berry if available. Then Seattle could probably get the second tackle. I'm thinking it would be Williams or Okung. It's a guessing game with the tackles that early, to an extent.

Pioli's teams have drafted seven players among the top 13 since 2000. All seven played defense: Tyson Jackson, Richard Seymour, Jerod Mayo, Shaun Ellis, John Abraham and Ty Warren. That gives us a pretty good feel for how things might play out (even if the Chiefs do not take Berry, a safety).

Thoughts on Rams, agent for Suh

January, 28, 2010
1/28/10
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Potential No. 1 overall draft choice Ndamukong Suh has chosen the same agents who represented receiver Michael Crabtree during negotiations with the 49ers.

Five reasons Rams fans shouldn't necessarily fear a Crabtree-type contract dispute if St. Louis selects Suh first overall:

  • The Crabtree dispute centered around perceived value. Crabtree's camp thought the receiver should have been drafted much earlier. There's no room for that type of disagreement over a player chosen first overall.
  • The same agents also represented the third overall pick in the 2008 draft. Tyson Jackson signed with Kansas City in time for the season. Again, Crabtree's situation was different from most.
  • The Rams placed a high priority on getting 2008 No. 2 overall choice Jason Smith signed on time. They probably could have fought for a few bucks here and there, but instead they got the deal done. Their philosophy seems to center around getting a good deal, not necessarily the best deal.
  • Teams choosing first overall can begin negotiations before the draft. That would gives the Rams a head start, whereas the 49ers never expected to draft Crabtree.
  • Crabtree was threatening to skip his entire rookie season. With a rookie wage scale possibly looming, that type of stance wouldn't carry as much weight.

The decision St. Louis makes at No. 1 could put other teams in a Crabtree-type bind. If the Rams selected someone else, for example, Suh could find himself trying to get paid based on perceptions that he was the consensus No. 1 choice.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Robb from Marin County, Calif., writes: Mike, question regarding Michael Crabtree and the Niners (based on your 7/28 note). What impact might this have on the front office? It's always hypothesized what the impact could be on the team and players' ability to perform over the season. But could a front office miss out on other acquisitions by focusing on signing their first-round pick? Any other negatives for management that could be caused by a prolonged negotiation with a first rounder?

Mike Sando: The 49ers would not be looking hard for players at this stage unless injuries forced them to consider other options. From that standpoint, there's no effect. Crabtree's absence actually leaves open a roster spot until he signs.

A front office in this situation tends to get a little frustrated. Teams generally feel as though they've made legitimate offers, and in a lot of cases they probably have. The 49ers have a good record signing players in time for camp, but it takes two sides to get a deal done and this one with Crabtree had the potential to be problematic.

Crabtree went into this draft as the apparent consensus top-rated prospect at receiver. The 49ers wound up getting a bargain, by most accounts, when Crabtree fell to them at No. 10, three spots after Oakland made Darrius Heyward-Bey the first receiver taken.

If Crabtree expects to be paid more than the typical No. 10 pick based on pre-draft expectations, does that mean players drafted earlier than expected should earn less?

Case in point: Crabtree's agent also represents Chiefs first-round draft choice Tyson Jackson. Jackson went earlier than expected when Kansas City made him the third overall choice. Is Jackson's agent asking the Chiefs for less money than the third overall choice typically would command, based on predraft expectations? No way.

Draft position defines a player's value unless that player is a quarterback. Precedent says so.

The 49ers hold the upper hand right now. They never expected to draft Crabtree. They were never counting on him. They signed Brandon Jones in free agency, kept Isaac Bruce and felt strongly that Josh Morgan would develop into a very good receiver. Jason Hill and Arnaz Battle have also demonstrated ability. The 49ers also installed an offense less receiver-reliant than the one Mike Martz ran last season.

If Crabtree were a quarterback, I think the 49ers would have more to worry about, given that they have not named a starter. Right now, from their perspective, they just need to stay disciplined and hope their other receivers impress during training camp.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Josh from North Dakota writes: Sando, I don't see how Kurt Warner is not on your [Ultimate Building Blocks] list! This is one of the top QBs in the NFL last year returning from an excellent postseason, with the same receiving corps. Let's not forget he's a two-time league MVP. He threw for 4,583 yards and 30 TD's last regular season. And to top that off he threw for 1,147 yards and 11 TDs in the post season. He posted a postseason passer rating of 112.2. He was third in the NFL in passer rating last year, secnd in yards and third in touchdowns. I find it asinine that he doesn't make your top 10!

Mike Sando: I questioned myself on that one after filing the Ultimate Building Blocks piece. My original thinking remains defensible. Warner might not play for the entire three-year window in question. His contract runs two seasons and he has already considered retirement. It's tough to build around a player unlikely to stick around.

On the other hand, if I were building a team, I would want a quarterback, and that would mean drafting Warner. I probably could have justified drafting Warner and Matt Hasselbeck as insurance against one another, figuring at least one of them will likely produce all season.


Jake from Lebanon, Pa., writes: You're an idiot for not including Anquan Boldin. Repeat, idiot.

Mike Sando: Boldin isn't even under contract for all of the three-year window in question and I'd be surprised if he remained with Arizona for the full term. That makes it tough to build around him. Also, Larry Fitzgerald is a better player at this point. Once I "drafted" him, there wasn't as much need for another wideout.


George from San Francisco writes: Hey Sando, in regard to your Ultimate Building Block piece, shouldn't it matter if the team were to run a 4-3 versus a 3-4 scheme on defense? I assumed you were in a 4-3 due to the two defensive linemen and only one linebacker [Patrick Willis], but I think you would need to choose a coach to lead the team because it would solidify which system the team would run.

Mike Sando: I didn't really settle on a scheme in part because this division lacks pass-rushers to build around, both at outside linebacker and defensive end.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Jets' move to draft Mark Sanchez with the fifth overall choice, acquired from the Browns, should come as a relief to the 49ers. They can now seek more immediate help without taking criticism for passing on the second-rated quarterback in the draft.

Sanchez falling to the 49ers at No. 10 was a long shot. I see the 49ers perched at No. 10 waiting to see which player falls to them unexpectedly. LSU's Tyson Jackson would have made sense for the 49ers at No. 10, but the Chiefs' decision to draft him third removed that option.

Two of the four highest-rated tackles remain available after the first six picks. Andre Smith went to the Bengals, as widely projected, but Michael Oher remains -- for now.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The chart compares mock drafts from four veteran NFC West beat reporters. The four -- Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic and Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times -- combined to project 39 players for first-round status.

Unanimous first-round choices (24): Matthew Stafford, Jason Smith, Eugene Monroe, Tyson Jackson, Aaron Curry, B.J. Raji, Brian Orakpo, Mark Sanchez, Michael Crabtree, Andre Smith, Jeremy Maclin, Michael Oher, Chris Wells, Robert Ayers, Knowshon Moreno, Malcolm Jenkins, Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews, Brandon Pettigrew, Rey Maualuga, Josh Freeman, Peria Jerry, Ziggy Hood, Eben Britton.

Three first-round selections (8): Larry English, Aaron Maybin, Darius Butler, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Kenny Britt, Vontae Davis, Hakeem Nicks, Donald Brown.

Two first-round selections: (1): Phil Loadholt.

One first-round selection (6): LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin, Alphonso Smith, Everette Brown, Eric Wood, Fili Moala.

Unanimous top-five picks (3): Stafford, Smith and Curry.

Unanimous top-10 picks (6): Stafford, Smtih, Curry, Monroe, Raji and Crabtree.

Unanimous top-15 picks (12): Stafford, Smith, Curry, Monroe, Raji, Crabtree, Jackson, Sanchez, Smith, Maclin, Oher, Orakpo.

Largest disparity, earliest vote to lowest vote: Ayers, 18 spots; Jenkins and Matthews, 16 spots, Butler (14), English (10), Pettigrew (10), Hood (10) and Britton (10).

Pick Team Jim Thomas, Rams Beat Matt Maiocco, 49ers Beat Kent Somers, Cards Beat Danny O'Neil, Hawks Beat
1
DET Matthew Stafford
Matthew Stafford Matthew Stafford Matthew Stafford
2
STL Jason Smith
Eugene Monroe Eugene Monroe Jason Smith
3
KC Eugene Monroe
Jason Smith Jason Smith Tyson Jackson
4
SEA Aaron Curry Aaron Curry Aaron Curry Aaron Curry
5
CLE Mark Sanchez
B.J. Raji
Michael Crabtree
Brian Orakpo
6
CIN Andre Smith
Andre Smith Andre Smith B.J. Raji
7
OAK Jeremy Maclin
Michael Crabtree Jeremy Maclin Jeremy Maclin
8
JAC B.J. Raji Mark Sanchez B.J. Raji Mark Sanchez
9
GB Michael Crabtree Michael Oher
Tyson Jackson Eugene Monroe
10
SF Michael Oher Tyson Jackson Michael Oher Michael Crabtree
11
BUF Brian Orakpo Brian Orakpo Brian Orakpo Andre Smith
12
DEN Tyson Jackson Chris Wells
Robert Ayers
Michael Oher
13
WAS Larry English
Jeremy Maclin
Mark Sanchez Chris Wells
14
NO Malcolm Jenkins
Malcolm Jenkins
Chris Wells
Knowshon Moreno
15
HOU Brian Cushing
Brian Cushing
Clay Matthews
Aaron Maybin
16
SD Chris Wells
Rey Maualuga
Rey Maualuga Brandon Pettigrew
17
NYJ Josh Freeman
Josh Freeman Josh Freeman Brian Cushing
18
DEN Clay Matthews
Aaron Maybin
Darius Butler
Malcolm Jenkins
19
TB Peria Jerry
Peria Jerry Peria Jerry Josh Freeman
20
DET Ziggy Hood
Brandon Pettigrew
Ziggy Hood
Rey Maualuga
21
PHI Knowshon Moreno Knowshon Moreno Knowshon Moreno
LeSean McCoy
22
MIN Eben Britton
Percy Harvin
Darrius Heyward-Bey
Eben Britton
23
NE Robert Ayers
Larry English
Larry English
Robert Ayers
24
ATL Aaron Maybin
Vontae Davis
Brian Cushing
Vontae Davis
25
MIA Rey Maualuga
Darius Butler
Vontae Davis Clay Matthews
26
BAL Brandon Pettigrew
Darrius Heyward-Bey
Brandon Pettigrew
Alphonso Smith
27
IND Darrius Heyward-Bey
Ziggy Hood
Kenny Britt
Peria Jerry
28
BUF Phil Loadholt
Phil Loadholt Eben Britton
Everette Brown
29
NYG Hakeem Nicks
Hakeem Nicks
Hakeem Nicks
Kenny Britt
30
TEN Kenny Britt
Robert Ayers
Malcolm Jenkins
Ziggy Hood
31
ARI Donald Brown Clay Matthews
Donald Brown Donald Brown
32
PIT Fili Moala
Eben Britton Eric Wood
Darius Butler

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers would draft Michael Crabtree with the 10th overall choice, if available. He says the 49ers would draft Knowshon Moreno over Chris Wells in the unlikely event they decided to draft a running back early. The team would be happy to draft Andre Smith at No. 10, but taking Michael Oher in that spot might not be a slam dunk. LSU's Tyson Jackson could be the preferred defensive lineman, over B.J. Raji. The team probably wouldn't take Malcolm Jenkins at No. 10. Brian Orakpo? Probably not. And it's unlikely the team would take Aaron Maybin or Everette Brown that early, either. Rey Maualuga or Brian Cushing could be higher priorities than Maybin or Brown.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee forecasts which players he thinks the 49ers will select with each of their picks. The list: Oher, running back Shonn Greene, outside linebacker Paul Kruger, quarterback Stephen McGee, inside linebacker Scott McKillop, receiver Brandon Gibson, outside linebacker Pierre Walters, receiver/quarterback Julian Edelman and tight end Bear Pascoe.

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says there's value in the later rounds. He points to Pat White, Brian Hoyer, Chase Patton, Austin Collie, Ramses Barden, Kory Sheets and Ian Johnson as later-round prospects to watch.

Gary Plummer of 49ers.com says NFL teams can't measure a player's heart. Plummer: "I was never even invited to the Combine and I was never drafted, but I went on to play 12 seasons in the NFL. With those experiences, I've always rooted for guys who don't get drafted."

Niners scout Todd Brunner says the team has spent recent days making sure it has discussed every draft-eligible player.

John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers' public-relations department shielded coach Mike Singletary from reporters in the days leading to the draft. Crumpacker: "It's just as well. General manager Scot McCloughan put the 49ers' draft board together and will be making the call for the club."

Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle made me chuckle with this description of the NFL draft: "Today is the worst day of the entire NFL draft process, because it is the day that all the speculation ends and your favorite team is stuck with the choice it made rather than awash in the dozens it could have."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic previews the Cardinals' draft in general terms. Forget about getting specifics from Rod Graves or Ken Whisenhunt.

Also from Somers: It appears receiver Anquan Boldin will remain with the Cardinals through the draft. Trades are often contingent on a player passing a physical. The acquiring team also needs time, in many cases, to work out a new contract with the player. Somers: "The Cardinals are surprised there hasn't been more interest from teams, who apparently think the cost is too high, considering they would also have to come to terms with Boldin on a contract that would pay him an average of $8 million to $10 million a year."

More from Somers: The Cardinals would have no interest in Titans running backs LenDale White or Chris Henry if Tennessee offered either player as part of a trade for Boldin.

Greg Johns of seattlepi.com previews the Seahawks' draft options. Johns: "As much as teams talk of drafting the best player available regardless of position, there is an impetus to pick athletes who will be in line to earn starting roles before long in order to justify their draft position and salary slot."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks' first-round picks haven't panned out all that well under general manager Tim Ruskell, who has one year remaining on a five-year contract. Yes, this draft is important for him and the organization.

Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com takes a peek inside the Seahawks' draft room at their new facility. It's 1,600 square feet, twice the size of the old one. The rapport between Ruskell and vice president Ruston Webster transcends location. Webster: "You know what's sad? When we say something at the same time. That scares me. But it really is good. I know how he thinks. And I think for him, it's important to have somebody who understands that. And he knows how I think. For the most part, we were kind of brought up in this business the same way, so our philosophy is the same."

Tyler Dunne of Scout.com says the Seahawks would draft Wake Forest safety Chip Vaughn in the third round if available.

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com says the Rams are putting an emphasis on character in this draft. Wagoner: "Fortunately for the Rams, most of the players they are considering in this year's draft are about as well rounded and mature as any crop of recent potential draft picks. Offensive tackles Jason Smith and Eugene Monroe, linebacker Aaron Curry and USC quarterback Mark Sanchez have received rave reviews for their personality and attitude at every stop they've made along the way. Taking Curry as an example, he has invited 12-year-old Bryson Merriweather, a leukemia survivor from Madison, Ala., to be his special guest at the draft in New York City."

VanRam of Turf Show Times warns against dismissing talk that the Rams could draft Sanchez with the second overall choice.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says he would draft Curry from Wake Forest with the second overall choice if he were making the decision for the Rams. However, all signs point to the team selecting an offensive tackle.

Also from Thomas: The Rams' need at tackle appears too great to ignore early in the draft. Thomas: "Michael Crabtree, the wide receiver from Texas Tech, basically eliminated himself from consideration with what Rams Park sources said was a diva attitude during his pre-draft trip here. Apparently, his rock star mentality was a big turnoff to coaches and front office personnel. Couple that with his foot injury, and the feeling in Earth City was that he wasn't worth the trouble. As for Sanchez, what first looked like pure smokescreen seemed to turn into downright infatuation. To some at Rams Park, Sanchez possesses the leadership qualities -- the 'it' factor -- that may be lacking in Marc Bulger. But at the end of the day, the Rams appear committed to Bulger for at least one more season."

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree has come off as a prima donna during pre-draft interviews with teams. Thomas: "There are questions about Crabtree's foot and attitude. His diva attitude during pre-draft visits turned off the Rams and the Browns (who pick fifth overall) to the point where neither team is considering Crabtree for their first-round pick." Televised interviews with Crabtree have raised questions in my mind about how the Seahawks might view him as well. Would veteran receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Deion Branch and Nate Burleson be able to mentor him effectively? Might the prima donna tendencies grow worse with money in Crabtree's pockets and people around him telling him how great he is?

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch looks at ways the Rams and other NFL teams process draft-related information. Former Rams coach Dick Vermeil says it's harder for teams to mislead one another.

Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch expects action from Rams general manager Billy Devaney during the draft. Burwell: "Devaney has said that he'll be aggressive. He is not afraid to take chances, to make moves, to wheel and deal his way around the draft board. I'm still not sure he can pull off a trade to move down in the first round. The better bet is that Devaney will work hard once the draft begins to move up out of that second-round pick (No. 35 overall) into the lower half of the first round."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic outlines what the Cardinals want in a running back to pair with Tim Hightower. Somers: "Hightower would seem to fit the role of the inside pounder, the gainer of tough yards. He proved adept last season at picking up first downs and scoring touchdowns. He struggled some when he was the featured back and ended up with more runs for negative yards than coaches found acceptable. Luckily for the Cardinals, the upcoming draft is deep in running backs. And it's possible that one of the top three -- Georgia's Knowshon Moreno, Ohio State's Chris Wells and Connecticut's Donald Brown -- will be there when the Cardinals pick at No. 31."

Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean says nothing appears imminent between Tennessee and Arizona even though the Titans have inquired about Anquan Boldin. My take, lifted from our Thursday chat: "Knowing [Titans GM] Mike Reinfeldt, I'm questioning whether he would want to give up picks for a player, then meet that player's very high demands on a long-term agreement."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com also does not expect the Titans to move seriously for Boldin.

Also from Urban: Larry Fitzgerald is indeed sharing the cover on the 2010 version of John Madden's football video game.

More from Urban: Hightower has dropped 15 pounds and improved his conditioning. Scheduling issues had hurt his conditioning last offseason.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune describes Aaron Curry as the "safe pick [Seahawks general manager Tim] Ruskell covets" in the draft.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says no 2009 NFL draft prospect has made him waffle more than Crabtree. O'Neil: "Dude is a playmaker, flat-out. ... I've worried that the spread offense inflated his numbers, too much. That he might be a product of a system, but then you watch how the man runs after the catch and you imagine what he would do in the Seahawks' offense with the new emphasis on the play-action pass."

Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com says the Seahawks hope to put substance before hype in determining which players to draft. Farnsworth: "There has been talk, from Ruskell, among others, that this draft lacks the franchise-quality players who justify being selected -- and paid -- as Top 5 picks. It's a situation that has prompted the Seahawks to look at top of this draft class differently."

John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle offers a first-round mock draft featuring the following NFC West selections: Jason Smith (Rams), Mark Sanchez (Seahawks), Knowshon Moreno (49ers) and Donald Brown (Cardinals). The Moreno pick would not shock me -- the 49ers would arguably be selecting the top back in the draft -- but it would probably shock Frank Gore.

Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider takes a round-by-round look at draft prospects who might help the 49ers on offense.

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat lists the 49ers' top five needs in this order: pass-rusher, offensive tackle, receiver, running back and quarterback.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee lists seven players as possibilities for the 49ers with the 10th overall choice in the draft: Crabtree, Aaron Curry, Tyson Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Michael Oher, Brian Orakpo and B.J. Raji. Barrows: "No one knows for sure, but it's a safe bet the following players are gone before the 49ers are on the clock: quarterbacks Matt Stafford and Mark Sanchez, offensive tackles Jason Smith, Eugene Monroe and Andre Smith. (And, yes, A. Smith will be gone)."

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says the 2009 draft could make or break Scot McCloughan's tenure as the 49ers' general manager.

Briandean of Niners Nation suggests which players the 49ers should draft in each round: Oher (1), Larry English (2), Ramses Barden (3), Coye Francies (4), James Davis (5), Devin Moore (5), Mike Reilly (6), Bear Pascoe (7) and Mich
ael Mitchell (7). 

 
  Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
  Jay Cutler is out of Denver, but the trade that sent the quarterback to Chicago will  help shape the Broncos' roster.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando and Bill Williamson

Jay Cutler's divorce from Denver is final. Now the Broncos, armed with the picks they acquired from Chicago for the Pro Bowl quarterback, must determine how to proceed in the draft.

AFC West blogger Bill Williamson and his NFC West counterpart, Mike Sando, debate the options while exploring how the Seahawks and 49ers could affect the Broncos' future at quarterback.

Mike Sando: Quarterbacks are a high-risk proposition at the top of the draft, but that's also where teams tend to find the great ones. Nine quarterbacks drafted since 1965 have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Seven of them were first-round picks, including a guy named Elway. If the experts are right in saying Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez are the franchise quarterbacks in this draft, shouldn't the Broncos consider trading up to get one? They certainly have the firepower.

Bill Williamson: There's no way the Broncos should trade up that high if it means giving up both the 12th and 18th overall picks. Sure, Denver could get a top-five pick in return, but I don't think it's worth the risk -- even for a quarterback.

The picks acquired for Cutler are too valuable to risk on Stafford, Sanchez or a player along the lines of Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji.

The idea is to get a lot of quality players here. If Denver is going to survive the Cutler trade, it will need to maximize those picks. Trading up and drafting Raji or Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry would be great for a needy defense, but the Broncos need to address multiple areas, not just one. The Cutler trade does allow the Broncos to address several areas in the draft instead of rolling the dice on just one.

Mike Sando: More than a few 49ers fans watched with interest while the Broncos figured out where Cutler would wind up. His destination wasn't San Francisco, but the 49ers and their NFC West rivals could still shape the Broncos' quarterback situation beyond the Cutler era.

The Rams probably have too many needs and too much money invested in Marc Bulger to consider a quarterback at No. 2, but the Seahawks and 49ers could draft one. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. told me he thought the 49ers would be crazy to pass on Sanchez at No. 10 if the USC quarterback remained available at that point. The NFC West could foul up Denver's plans if the Broncos are hoping to find a quarterback in the first round.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says there's no reason for the 49ers to stand on the sideline while the Broncos try to trade Jay Cutler. Maiocco: "The 49ers failed in their bid to acquire free agent Kurt Warner during the opening week of free agency. The 49ers have plenty of cap room to acquire Cutler and sign him to a long-term extension. The big question is whether they can come up with the compensation to appease the Broncos."

Also from Maiocco: He'll be "mildly surprised" if the 49ers draft a quarterback with the 10th overall choice. General manager Scot McCloughan will watch Mark Sanchez at USC's pro day Wednesday.

John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle summarizes 49ers president Jed York's comments to the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce. The subject: A new stadium. A stadium term sheet is in the works. York and the 49ers hope to get a stadium measure on a ballot in 2010. Santa Clara is the preferred site.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' contract talks with Karlos Dansby are proceeding at a slow pace. Also, nose tackle Gabe Watson and tight end Leonard Pope have signed their one-year offers as restricted free agents.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Watson might need follow-up surgery on his injured knee, but the procedure would set him back only three or four weeks. If Watson goes that route, he would stick around the facility with rookies to make up for lost time.

Also from Urban: He'll be attending USC's pro day after traveling to Los Angeles by air with Cardinals president and licensed pilot Michael Bidwell at the controls. That's apparently how they roll at azcardinals.com. Wait, Cardinals' scouts are coming along, too?

Revenge of the Birds' Andrew602 gives the Cardinals' secondary an A-plus grade. He hands out lower grades for the other NFC West teams' secondaries. I like the Cardinals' secondary, but Arizona's opponents did finish last season with 36 touchdown passes and a 97.0 passer rating. No defense in the division allowed more touchdown passes or a higher rating in 2008. The Cardinals' high-powered offense didn't even achieve those figures.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks have already visited with free-agent cornerback Ken Lucas. This one slipped beneath the radar. League sources said they never saw Lucas' name on the internal NFL waiver wire, but Seattle obviously has interest.

John Morgan of Field Gulls puts together a Seahawks mock draft based on choices acquired through a mock trade. How about Knowshon Moreno at No. 21?

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams owner Chip Rosenbloom has written songs for country artist Dayna Lane. Rosenbloom: "I've been writing songs since I was a kid. And this girl in Nashville -- Dayna Lane -- recorded a bunch of my songs. Two of them I wrote with Lauren Christy, and eight other songs made the album, which is called Anything You Want. The single, I'll Keep Believing, is on over a hundred radio stations."

Also from Thomas: A chat in which he lists Larry English, Ziggy Hood, Tyson Jackson, Peria Jerry and Lawrence Sidbury as defensive linemen the Rams could pursue in the draft.

VanRam of Turf Show Times gives Aaron Curry to the Rams in a mock draft.

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