NFC West: Vince Young

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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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.

 

Morning Ram-blings: What about Young?

October, 25, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams have already made their decision on which quarterback to bring in as backups to Kellen Clemens. They signed Austin Davis and Brady Quinn earlier this week to handle those duties.

In the time since starter Sam Bradford went down for the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, plenty of names have been thrown around, including Tim Tebow and the addition of Brett Favre yesterday. The only names we know the Rams had at least a modicum of interest in were Davis, Quinn, Favre and Tyler Thigpen. Another popular name that was thrown out by those wanting to speculate was Vince Young, who played for Rams coach Jeff Fisher in Tennessee.

The Rams never had interest in Young and that should be no surprise given that he and Fisher didn't exactly get along famously with the Titans. But Young joined ESPN's Prim Siripipat for an interview Thursday to discuss his current status. He told Siripipat that he hasn't been getting much action on the free-agent market but also expressed a desire for a reunion with Fisher.

"Knowing the history that me and coach Fisher have, I would love to have the opportunity to train or workout for him," Young said. "And have the opportunity to go out there and play for the Rams. It's all in the air. I have no grudge or no beef or nothing like that with coach Fisher and if we could reunite, if something like that would happen I think that would be pretty cool."

Of course, since Young is a free agent, he'd probably happy to get a call from any team whether the Rams or Fisher are involved or not.

I.C.Y.M.I.

All of Thursday's Rams' stories appearing here on ESPN. com on a busy day: ... The day started off with a bang with the news that the Rams called Brett Favre's agent and checked on his desire to return. It was another example of the Rams' getting caught scrambling to replace the injured Sam Bradford. ... From there, we took a look at NFL Nation columnist Kevin Seifert's take on the Favre situation and how the Rams reaching out to Favre is a larger commentary on the state of quarterbacks in the NFL. ... Next, we offered a look at Favre's comments to a Washington D.C. radio show. ... We continued the quarterback theme with a look at the two signal callers the Rams actually did sign. ... Finally, it was all about cornerback Cortland Finnegan's desire to return this week against Seattle and how he's looking to get back to being himself after a rough start.

Elsewhere:

The NFL Live crew makes its predictions for Monday night's game between the Rams and Seattle Seahawks.

Adam Schefter discusses the Favre situation and if it was a move born of desperation for the Rams.

Mike Sando offers the "Inside Edge" on Monday night's game.

At stltoday.com, Jim Thomas provides Rams guard Harvey Dahl's thoughts on the events that transpired last week in Carolina.

Randy Moss the greatest? Let's discuss

January, 29, 2013
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Randy MossDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe 49ers' Randy Moss doesn't lack self-confidence during Tuesday's Super Bowl media day.
NEW ORLEANS -- One day after San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh took on President Barack Obama, receiver Randy Moss challenged Jerry Rice's status as the NFL's greatest receiver.

Wait, weren't the AFC champion Baltimore Ravens supposed to be the big talkers during Super Bowl week? They're multiple-syllable underdogs at this point.

Moss stole the show at Super Bowl media day by declaring himself the greatest receiver of all time.

"I think I'm the greatest receiver to ever do it," Moss said. "Because I think back when Jerry was playing -- and no disrespect to Jerry Rice, because he's arguably the greatest -- but for me to be able to go out here and change and revolutionize the game from a single safety to a Cover 2 safety and dropping three guys deep and dropping four guys deep and still be able to make it happen? That is why I really hold my hat on that, that I really feel in my heart and in my mind that I am the greatest receiver to ever play this game."

If Rice had the greatest career of any receiver in NFL history, which seems indisputable based on longevity and raw numbers, Moss at his best was arguably the most feared.

Moss was faster. I think he was more athletic. If both receivers were to line up on opposite sides of the formation while in their prime, defenses would face a dilemma. I think they would fear Rice more on shorter and intermediate routes. I think they would fear Moss more on deeper routes.

Rice benefited from beginning his career under Bill Walsh and spending most of it with either Joe Montana or Steve Young throwing passes to him. That doesn't diminish his achievements, in my view.

Rice dominated. He reached 1,000 yards receiving 14 times. Moss did it 10 times. Rice scored at least nine touchdowns in a season 12 times. Moss did it nine times. Each had nine seasons with at least 10 touchdowns. Rice had four seasons with at least 1,500 yards. Moss had one. Rice had six seasons with at least 1,400 yards. Moss had four.

Moss also played with a couple of Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks in Tom Brady and Brett Favre, but the years he spent with them were exceptions, not the norm. Brad Johnson, Randall Cunningham, Jeff George, Daunte Culpepper, Todd Bouman, Spergon Wynn, Gus Frerotte, Kerry Collins, Andrew Walter, Aaron Brooks, Matt Cassel, Vince Young, Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick have also thrown passes his way.

To this point, Rice's status as the greatest has been pretty much assumed. Those with a strong grasp of league history might acknowledge Don Hutson's achievements as unique. However, Rice is an overwhelming choice as the best receiver in NFL history.

An ESPN.com panel featuring Raymond Berry, Boyd Dowler, Mike Holmgren, Ken Houston, Warren Moon, Keyshawn Johnson and Ted Thompson voted Rice first and Moss second in anonymous voting five years ago.

"Jerry Rice, he's so obvious, it scares me," Dowler said at the time.


Two of the first 10 players selected in the 2006 NFL draft are scheduled to start in the Super Bowl on Feb. 3.

Both are starters for the San Francisco 49ers.

Both were arguably selected higher than their positions warranted in terms of value.

Both have earned Pro Bowl recognition in recent seasons. Both have made high-impact plays in postseason victories over the past two seasons.

Tight end Vernon Davis and strong safety Donte Whitner are key players for the 49ers heading into the team's Super Bowl matchup against Baltimore.

I've singled out Davis in this item because the seventh-year tight end provided yet another high-impact postseason performance Sunday, his third 100-yard receiving game in four playoff appearances over the past two seasons. Davis also had a 44-yard reception against Green Bay last week in his lone playoff performance totaling less than 100 yards.

As the chart below shows, Davis accounts for three of the five highest single-game postseason yardage totals for tight ends over the past two seasons. Davis and Dallas Clark are the only NFL tight ends with more than one 100-yard receiving game in the playoffs since 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Each has three.

The Ravens have allowed only one postseason touchdown pass to a tight end since 2001. They have allowed only two 110-yard receiving games to tight ends in regular-season or playoff games since 2001. Philadelphia's Brent Celek had 157 yards against the Ravens last season. San Diego's Antonio Gates had a 105-yard game against Baltimore in 2007.
The fourth and sixth cornerbacks drafted in 2012 are heading to the St. Louis Rams.

Johnson
Montana's Trumaine Johnson, chosen 65th overall and in the third round, joins second-round choice Janoris Jenkins (39th) in a rapidly evolving secondary.

Johnson has good size for a corner, standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 204 pounds. Scouts Inc. gave him high marks Insider in all categories except intangibles and durability.

"Would benefit highly from a structured environment and demanding coach who will challenge him and hold him accountable," Pro Football Weekly's Nolan Nawrocki wrote. "Has the tools to become a No. 1 corner if he can be managed properly and stay focused."

The Rams are clearly leaning on coach Jeff Fisher and staff to provide the structure and coaching needed for Jenkins and Johnson to realize their potential. Fisher has worked with mercurial players in the past, from Albert Haynesworth to Pacman Jones to Vince Young and others. He'll need to be right on Jenkins and Johnson for the Rams to maximize their first draft class with Fisher as head coach.

Around the NFC West: 49ers' good timing

January, 19, 2012
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The San Francisco 49ers went into the 2011 season hoping to close the deal on a new stadium in Santa Clara.

Let's just say it was a good time to go 13-3 and advance to the NFC Championship Game.

Mike Rosenberg of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers' playoff push should help them sell season-ticket packages that stand as a big part of the funding equation. Finding a naming-rights sponsor for the new stadium should also become much easier. Rosenberg: "The final piece to the funding puzzle is securing $150 million to $200 million in league financing. With the NFL owners slated to vote on the funds Feb. 2, it didn't hurt to shine the national playoff spotlight on dilapidated Candlestick Park for consecutive weeks, particularly after two embarrassing blackouts during a Monday Night Football game this season. But success on the field is not a guaranteed cash cow, even in rich markets. When the New York Giants, Jets and Yankees sold seat packages for their new stadiums, it wasn't so easy. The Giants were fresh off a Super Bowl title, the Jets had just made it to the AFC Championship and the Yankees were a perennial power. Yet all three teams failed to sell out the priciest tickets when their home fields opened in 2009 and 2010."

Alex Espinoza of 49ers.com says Patrick Willis relishes playing on a winning team for the first time since his freshman year of college.

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the next challenge for Alex Smith is to come up big again -- and again after that. Cohn: "Smith is good, promising, and people believe in him. We see all that. One great performance doesn't make anybody great, and a failure on Sunday will plunge Smith once again into a netherworld of uncertainty. I am not saying he will plunge. I don't think he will. I am saying he must make more great throws against the Giants. I'm saying the game almost surely will come down to him. He has to do it again -- and then again."

Jerry McDonald of Bay Area News Group takes a closer look at the 49ers' secondary.

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle gets Troy Aikman's thoughts on Smith.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers aren't going to talk trash before their game against the Giants on Sunday.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch examines where Sam Bradford fits in a Jeff Fisher-prioritized Rams offense. Miklasz: "Some of what Fisher likes to do is, indeed, old-fashioned when compared to the recent high-scoring trend that's turning NFL games into sessions of 'Madden 12' on the Xbox. Fisher does like to run the football and control the game. He does believe in having competitive, somewhat unruly men doing the blocking up front. He would like to see his guys punish opponents. He does not object to seeing opponents limping away in pain. It's the kind of "outdated" football that has the Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants in the four-team field for Sunday's conference championship games." Noted: Quarterback troubles with the unpredictable Vince Young marked Fisher's final seasons in Tennessee. Bradford will be much easier to coach.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch passes along these comments from Fisher regarding who will have ultimate authority on personnel decisions: "There's too much that needs to be done in this building for one person to do it all. It's like anything else, you've got to surround yourself with good people and trust the people to get their jobs done. It's no different than when you're putting together a coaching staff. The head coach is not calling offense, defense, and making special teams decisions in the game. You let your coordinators do those things. It's all about surrounding yourself with the best people you can."

Also from Thomas: Hue Jackson interviewed for the offensive coordinator's job under Fisher.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic does not expect the Cardinals to re-hire Todd Haley to their offensive staff. Somers: "Talks between the two sides have been amicable, as far as I know, but coming to agreement on a position that meets the Cardinals' needs and matches Haley's career goals has been elusive. It's become clear that coach Ken Whisenhunt doesn't want to make a major shake-up on his offensive staff. He believes in coordiantor Mike Miller, who is not going to be demoted. The only open position, then, is the quarterbacks job, and Haley would fit perfectly into that role. But Haley is a former coordinator and head coach. It's understandable he would want more responsibility than that. Haley also likes Miller, and both sides are sensitive to the possibility of hiring someone who would be perceived as looking over Miller's shoulder."

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle summarizes a recent conversation between Brock Huard and Mike Salk asking whether the Seattle Seahawks' Tarvaris Jackson could follow the path Alex Smith has taken this season. Henderson: "Smith learned a new offense (Greg Roman is his seventh coordinator in as many seasons) in the same lockout-shortened offseason. Jackson, meanwhile, has run the same offense since he entered the league in 2006. As former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon said last week, 'If anyone should have known the offense it's Tarvaris Jackson.' If Smith can thrive in a new offense after a lockout-shortened offseason, why didn't Jackson do so in a familiar offense under the same circumstances?"

John Boyle of the Everett Herald says the Seahawks' approach to winning follows the ones San Francisco and Baltimore have taken to the championship round. Noted: Every team would be much better off with a quarterback capable of the things Tom Brady or Drew Brees could do. That doesn't mean a team absolutely has to have one in order to win playoff games. It's just that teams should not aspire to advance in the absence of a top quarterback. That should not be the blueprint.

2012 Kiper mock 1.0: Rams thoughts

January, 18, 2012
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Mel Kiper's first mock draft Insider for 2012 provides the foundation for discussing how NFC West teams might proceed this offseason.

I'll conclude with a look at Kiper's plans for the St. Louis Rams, who hold the second choice.

2. St. Louis Rams: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma St.


Kiper's give: There's a clear value question here, because I think St. Louis could leverage this position to trade down for more picks for 2012 and into the future, and then still target Blackmon perhaps a few spots later. But if the Rams can't find a dance partner for a trade, Blackmon still represents precisely what this offense needs. It should be noted there are a number of teams drafting behind St. Louis that need an elite wide receiver.

Sando's take: Jeff Fisher will put his stamp on this draft class. Trading down makes the most sense given the Rams' many needs. Fisher wants to emphasize running the ball, protecting the quarterback and forcing turnovers. All coaches value those things, of course, but Fisher focuses more on them. Some offensive-minded coaches might be more inclined to talk about quarterback play, for example. Fisher's Titans twice used first-round picks for receivers, taking Kevin Dyson 16th overall (1998) and Kenny Britt 30th (2009). Adding a receiver early in the draft carries obvious appeal for the Rams. They appear less likely to re-sign Brandon Lloyd now that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has left for New England. Fisher's Titans and Houston Oilers picked among the top 10 overall three times. They chose Vince Young third (2006), Adam Jones sixth (2005) and Steve McNair (1995) third. Fisher was not the ultimate voice in personnel, however.

When coaches heap praise upon their QBs

December, 22, 2011
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Hearing Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh gush about their starting quarterbacks can create confusion over their teams' intentions.

How serious are Carroll's Seattle Seahawks and Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers about moving into the future with Tarvaris Jackson and Alex Smith as their respective quarterbacks?

Both coaches have had their quarterbacks' backs, and then some. Even before Seattle rebounded from a 2-6 start to reach 7-7, Carroll said he could envision Jackson as the Seahawks' long-term starter. Harbaugh recently called Smith a Pro Bowl-caliber player and long-term answer at quarterback for the 49ers.

What coaches say does not always line up with what NFL owners pay.

Smith has earned a raise, but would the 49ers pay him what Pro Bowl quarterbacks typically earn?

Fourteen QBs earned Pro Bowl honors over the 2009-10 seasons: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Cassel, Brett Favre, David Garrard, Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, Michael Vick and Vince Young.

Most were playing under and/or subsequently earned massive contracts.

Jackson is entering the final year of a contract that scheduled to pay him $4 million in base salary. Smith is earning $4 million in base salary this season.

Those salaries represent good money for backup quarterbacks.

The 49ers should be able to keep Smith without paying him what those Pro Bowl passers earned. They've already paid millions to him as the No. 1 overall choice in the 2005 NFL draft. Smith has expressed in the past an interest in rewarding the 49ers for an investment that did not work out as intended before this season.

Smith has proven to be a good fit for the 49ers under Harbaugh. Jackson is fitting with Seattle under Carroll. I suspect both have come on strong with their public support to combat lingering negative perceptions about both quarterbacks.

If Jackson or Smith were obviously franchise quarterbacks and long-term solutions behind center, their coaches wouldn't have to convince anyone. It would be obvious. The praise from Carroll and Harbaugh has likely helped both quarterbacks exceed outside expectations no matter what their teams have in mind for them beyond this season.

Lynch devoured Eagles' eight-man fronts

December, 2, 2011
12/02/11
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Seattle Seahawks fans might want to check out the ESPN Stats & Information piece showing Marshawn Lynch's dominance against the Philadelphia Eagles' eight-man fronts.

Turns out Lynch gained 123 of his 148 yards rushing Thursday night against defenses with eight or more defenders in the box. The Eagles used these fronts on 17 of Lynch's 22 carries.

Another interesting note: The Seahawks picked off Vince Young three times on passes traveling at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. Young now has no touchdowns and eight interceptions on these longer throws.

Rapid Reaction: Seahawks 31, Eagles 14

December, 1, 2011
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SEATTLE -- Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' 31-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday night at CenturyLink Field:

What it means: The Seahawks improved to 5-7 for the season, including 2-2 against teams from the NFC East. They continued to build on recent successes in the ground game, a top priority heading toward next season. Marshawn Lynch strengthened his case for a long-term contract with his fourth 100-yard rushing performance in his past five games. This game was progress for Seattle.

What I liked: Seattle established its ground game -- again. The team fed off Lynch's power running. Pass protection was generally good enough, breaking down mostly when Tarvaris Jackson held onto the ball. Jackson had third-down completions for 21, 26 and 25 yards in the first half. Two of those plays sustained separate touchdown drives. Kam Chancellor picked off Vince Young to end the Eagles' opening possession, the first of four interceptions by the Seattle defense. Brandon Browner, plagued by penalties in coverage this season, broke up a deep pass at the last moment after initially getting beat. Browner also picked off two passes, giving him three intercerceptions over the past two games. Second-year receiver Golden Tate caught a touchdown pass for the second week in a row. The athleticism that appealed to Seattle when Tate was at Notre Dame showed up on two plays, including his leaping TD grab in the back of the end zone.

What I didn't like: The Seahawks allowed a rushing touchdown for the second week in a row after allowing none previously since Week 4. They failed to get pressure quickly enough, enabling a 47-yard completion to set up LeSean McCoy's scoring run. Seattle's defense had trouble getting off the field during a 17-play, 80-yard Eagles drive spanning more that 10 minutes of the second half. Penalties, a big problem for Seattle this season, dogged the team early in the game. The Seahawks committed their first less than 10 seconds into the game. They improved in that area as the game progressed, however.

Lynch's big night: Lynch carried 22 times for 148 yards and two touchdowns. This was his most rushing yardage in a game since Seattle acquired him. Lynch previously ran for 135 yards against Dallas earlier this season. He set his career high (153 yards) while with Buffalo in 2007.

Hawthorne active, and then some: The Seahawks weren't sure whether David Hawthorne's knee would let the middle linebacker play against the Eagles. Hawthorne, listed as questionable on the injury report, sealed the outcome for Seattle with a 77-yard interception return for a touchdown. Having the weekend off should help Hawthorne get ready for Week 14.

Miller OK: Tight end Zach Miller was slow to get up after absorbing a blindside hit while trying to get open for a scrambling Jackson in the third quarter. Miller walked off the field. The big hits he takes are of added concern after Miller suffered a concussion on a brutal hit from the New York Giants. But Miller returned and caught a pass late in the game.

Okung leaves game late: Left tackle Russell Okung came out of the game late after suffering what appeared to be an injury to his right arm or shoulder.

Timing off early: The Seahawks' pregame flag-raising ceremony has become a tradition at home games. Fans' excitement grows as a celebrity with local ties -- former SuperSonics coach Bill Russell was the choice Thursday night -- raises the "12th Man" flag right before kickoff. The timing was fouled up this time. The game began before stadium video operators could cue their Russell tribute. Cameras showed a confused look on coach Pete Carroll's face as the game kicked off while the ceremony was only beginning. Awkward.

What's next: The Seahawks are home for a Monday night game against the St. Louis Rams in Week 14.

Five things to watch: Seahawks-Eagles

December, 1, 2011
12/01/11
9:30
AM ET
Five things I'll be watching for when the Seattle Seahawks face the Philadelphia Eagles at CenturyLink Field on Thursday night:

Marshawn Lynch's ongoing revival. Lynch has 443 yards rushing since Week 9, most in the league. He has topped 100 yards in three of the Seahawks' past four games. Lynch appears to be running with more confidence now that his offensive line is opening holes more consistently. The Eagles' past five opponents have averaged only 85.3 yards per game, down from 140.2 previously this season. Seattle needs a running threat to minimize the Eagles' pass rush. The hard-running Lynch showcased nationally against New Orleans in the playoffs has marked his game recently as well. Lynch has 212 yards rushing after contact since Week 9, most in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's up from 127 yards after contact through Week 8.

[+] EnlargeChris Clemons
AP Photo/Julio CortezChris Clemons brings a Seattle-leading eight sacks into the meeting with the team that traded him.
Clemons against his former team. The Eagles generally haven't regretted the higher-profile trades they've made in recent years. Sending quarterback Donovan McNabb to a division rival comes to mind. Seattle came out ahead when acquiring Chris Clemons from Philadelphia for Darryl Tapp and a fourth-round draft choice. This will be Clemons' first game against the Eagles since the trade. He leads the Seahawks in sacks with eight, but Philadelphia has allowed only three in its last four road games. Clemons faces a tough matchup against Eagles left tackle Jason Peters.

Size against speed on the outside. The Seahawks' big cornerbacks, Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, each picked off a pass last week. They have the size to throw off bigger receivers. Raw speed can be tougher to handle, as Browner found out against the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Wallace. The Eagles are without starting wideout Jeremy Maclin, but they still have DeSean Jackson. Jackson hasn't topped 100 yards receiving since an Oct. 2 game against San Francisco. He's averaging 17.0 yards per catch, though. Browner leads the NFL in penalties with 16, including 10 for defensive holding, defensive pass interference or illegal contact. A calf injury limited Sherman in practice this week. The Seahawks listed him as questionable. Eagles quarterback Vince Young has three touchdowns with no interceptions on his 40 shorter passes (those traveling 10 or fewer yards past the line of scrimmage). He has no TDs and five picks on his 45 longer throws, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Breno Giacomini at right tackle. He faces a difficult matchup against Jason Babin, who leads the Eagles in sacks with 10. Giacomini seemed to fare well against Ryan Kerrigan and the Washington Redskins last week. He's fiery, competitive and likes to hit people. The Seahawks can help him by running the ball at Babin. They might need to help Giacomini in obvious pass-rushing situations, however. Babin spent part of the 2008 season with Seattle. He has 22.5 sacks in his past 27 games after collecting 4.5 over the previous three.

Concerns at linebacker. Knee problems are again bothering Seahawks middle linebacker David Hawthorne. His movement appeared restricted against the Redskins. Hawthorne was limited in practice this week. Seattle's run defense should improve with Alan Branch returning from an ankle injury, but Hawthorne's status will be important if the Eagles lean on LeSean McCoy. Philadelphia had only 17 rushing plays against New England last week, its lowest total in a game since Week 17 of the 2009 season.

The Seattle Seahawks weren't willing to give Matt Hasselbeck contract security beyond the 2011 season.

Were the Tennessee Titans?

Contract details were not immediately available, but ESPN's Adam Schefter has the news: Hasselbeck has agreed to terms with the Titans, reuniting him with former Seahawks executive Mike Reinfeldt, among other ex-Seattle employees now working in prominent roles in Tennessee.

Hasselbeck wanted to re-sign with Seattle. He had an opportunity to do so before the lockout, but he was looking for a level of security the Seahawks weren't willing to offer. I'll be surprised if Reinfeldt and the Titans offered such security after using a 2011 first-round draft choice for quarterback Jake Locker.

Hasselbeck projects as a solid mentor for Locker. He'll put in the work and handle himself in a way that serves the Titans well following a tumultuous run with Vince Young. At some point this season or next, Locker will presumably get his chance to start.

Hindsight being 20-20, it's clear now that Hasselbeck would have been best served taking the Seahawks' offer in March. He could have kept his family in Seattle and had a better shot at starting for the next two seasons since the Seahawks have not moved aggressively to secure a franchise quarterback.

Earlier: What Seattle is thinking
Someone somewhere (and I apologize for misplacing the note) asked whether the NFL-approved labor agreement would hamstring the Seattle Seahawks in free agency under "Final Eight" rules in effect under the old agreement.

Mike Sando: The previous labor agreement imposed rules limiting free-agency options for playoff winners only in an uncapped year.

So, even if the new deal included "Final Eight" clauses, those clauses would presumably apply only in the absence of a salary cap. The new deal will have, by all accounts, a salary cap for the 2011 season and beyond. Therefore, the Seahawks wouldn't have to operate with "Final Eight" limitations once free agency opened.

That would be my read on the situation. We won't know anything for sure until the players sign off and rules go into effect. Seattle fans should feel optimistic about having plenty of resources in free agency, however.


Sam from St. Louis strongly disagrees with my push for later kickoff times when West Coast teams visit teams in later time zones. He despises 3 p.m. CT kickoffs for Rams games in St. Louis and thinks visiting teams should have to deal with disadvantages associated with playing on the road.

Mike Sando: I'd be interested in hearing why you don't like the later starts for Rams games in St. Louis. The Rams have embraced those games in general because they think more fans are likely to attend. For one, the noon starts make it tougher for the church-going population to attend on Sundays. Early starts on the East Coast begin at 1 p.m. locally, giving parishioners an additional hour. Just a thought.


Ray from Corona, Calif., was heartened to see me finally support Nnamdi Asomugha as a free-agent target for the San Francisco 49ers. He also likes Johnathan Joseph as an option in free agency.

Mike Sando: My resistance to Asomugha as an option was more from the perspective of what I thought was likely. And I did not think the evidence suggested the 49ers would go in that direction. The evidence remains strong against such a move, but I do think going after Asomugha would make sense for San Francisco. Seattle also could be in the market for a top-flight cornerback. John Clayton has mentioned Joseph as a possibility.


Shane from Los Angeles does not think Asomugha would make sense for the 49ers. He thinks the team would be committing too much cap space to an older player at a position other than quarterback. As a Cardinals fan, he thinks Larry Fitzgerald will want more money than an unproven quarterback such as Kevin Kolb, and he'd like my thoughts on committing that much to a non-quarterback.

Mike Sando: I've got no trouble with teams paying the market rate for great players. The Cardinals should keep Fitzgerald because there's a good chance Fitzgerald will remain an elite player throughout his next contract. He's a hugely important part of that team.

I believe the Seahawks named Steve Hutchinson their transition player instead of their franchise player in part because he was "only a guard" and not a player at a position of greater perceived value. There's no sense in rehashing what happened in that situation, but franchising Hutchinson certainly would have helped Seattle.

Players at positions other than quarterback should be elite/special for a team to commit an unusually large amount of its resources toward keeping them. Fitzgerald qualifies as that type of player.


Brandon from Tacoma thinks Seattle Seahawks receiver Golden Tate was right in questioning the athletic ability of race drivers. Brandon read the latest item citing G-forces and breathing difficulties when saying, "Is it possible for anyone to learn how to breath in those situations? I don't believe anyone can learn to hit a fastball or throw a football 60 yards."

Mike Sando: Some athletes are more talented than others. I feel safe in saying lots of NBA or NFL players could not dominate, succeed or even become mediocre at racing if they dedicated their lives to it.

Different sports require different abilities. Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player ever, did not become even average among professional baseball players. Was he more athletic than the typical Double-A outfielder? Most of us would say so, but his athletic ability did not translate as well to another sport.


Dan from Los Angeles point to Frank Gore's long runs against Seattle in Week 2 of the 2009 season as the likely reason behind Gore's inflated rushing stats against defenses with eight or more defenders in the box. Dan even provides a link to an earlier post on the subject.

Mike Sando: Thanks so much for that, Dan! You remembered that previous item better than I did, but you're right. The item lays out how Gore's per-carry averages against eight-man fronts was weak without those 80- and 79-yard touchdown runs in the Seattle game. Now, those runs count, of course, so we shouldn't exclude them entirely. But at least we know Gore wasn't enjoying consistent success against those fronts. He popped a couple long ones against one team.


Don from Scotland thinks the Seahawks should consider re-signing center Chris Spencer. He points to Marshawn Lynch's run as evidence, noting that Spencer threw key blocks.

Mike Sando: That was a sensational run in many regards, but not representative of the Seahawks' performance in the running game last season. It didn't validate anything. I'll agree to the extent that I think Spencer has been pretty solid a lot of the time. I also think the Seahawks need a new identity up front with new personalities and new leadership.


Patrick asks via Twitter whether new NFL rules allowing for 46-man rosters on game days and no third quarterback might give 49ers rookie Colin Kaepernick a better shot at getting on the field.

Mike Sando: Kaepernick will likely be the No. 2 or even No. 1 quarterback for the 49ers this season, so the third-QB designation would not apply to him.


Jason from Tennessee thinks the Titans, Eagles and Cardinals should consider a three-way trade sending Vince Young and Cortland Finnegan to Philadelphia, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to Tennessee and Kevin Kolb to Arizona.

Mike Sando: I like your creativity. Young to the Eagles would be an interesting one given Vick's presence, Andy Reid's presence and the overall stability there in Philadelphia. Young's hefty contract would need adjusting. The teams would need Young's cooperation. Young would presumably want to become a free agent.

Arizona would be parting with Rodgers-Cromartie and getting Kolb, a trade some fans have found problematic based on the known (Rodgers-Cromartie's talent) vs. the unknown (Kolb). What the Eagles wind up getting for Kolb stands as one of the more fascinating uncertainties heading toward free agency.


Dominic from Santa Clara, Calif., asks whether any NFC West teams would go after the San Diego Chargers' Vincent Jackson.

Mike Sando: Dominic submitted this question when it appeared as though Jackson might receive unrestricted free agency this offseason. It now appears as though Jackson will return to San Diego as the Chargers' franchise player.

I'll stand by what I wrote on the matter back in February: "San Diego's decision to name receiver Vincent Jackson its franchise player would not prevent an NFC West team -- think St. Louis -- from at least considering a trade. I just find it implausible to think the Rams or another team would part with significant draft capital for the right to pay huge sums to a receiver with off-field concerns. Jackson is probably staying in San Diego for another year."
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.

Around the NFC West: Robbins among best

July, 7, 2011
7/07/11
10:40
AM ET
Arizona Cardinals

As speculation surrounding Kevin Kolb eventually landing in Arizona intensifies, Adam Caplan asks if Kolb is really as good as advertised.

Former Cardinals defensive lineman Bertrand Berry says the Cardinals should try to acquire Vince Young instead. Berry: "The next team that lands him is going to get a very motivated guy that has a lot to prove. If he gets somebody who believes and trusts him, he can be a great quarterback."

San Francisco 49ers

Colin Kaepernick speaks highly of Alex Smith, who is helping the rookie transition from college to the NFL.

Key milestones were met Wednesday night in the pursuit of a new 49ers stadium.

Seattle Seahawks

Could Carson Palmer be the answer to Seattle's quarterback issues?

Clare Farnsworth looks back on the Seahawks' 2001 season that finished at 9-7.

St. Louis Rams

Fred Robbins comes in at No. 10 on Pro Football Focus' list of the top 4-3 defensive tackles.

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