NFC West: Vontae Davis

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.

 
In an Insider piece, ESPN analyst, and former NFL general manager, Bill Polian gives San Francisco 49ers' cornerback Tarell Brown high praise.

Brown
Polian ranks Brown as the best cornerback in unrestricted free agency Insider. Polian gives Brown the nod over several top-notch free-agent cornerbacks such as Vontae Davis, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Aqib Talib.

If just one NFL team agrees with Polian, the 49ers may be hard pressed to keep Brown. Cornerbacks are often paid at a premium price, so if Brown is coveted, he may be looking at a big contract.

Brown is one of the 49ers' free-agency priorities. CBS Sports reported the team is pushing to get a deal done before free agency starts next Tuesday.

Brown was a starter last year, but lost his job late in the season when he was hurt. However, he did regain it in the playoffs.

Brown would likely be a starter again if he re-signs. If not, the 49ers will get Chris Culliver back from a torn ACL. At the very least, he will be the nickel cornerback. They could also try to replace Brown in free agency with someone like Seattle's Walter Thurmond. In either scenario, the team will likely use an early draft pick at the position.

Rapid Reaction: Indianapolis Colts

November, 24, 2013
11/24/13
7:09
PM ET

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A few thoughts on the Indianapolis Colts' 40-11 loss to the Arizona Cardinals:

What it means: The Colts were never in it. They were embarrassed for the second time in three games. They entered the game knowing they had to put pressure on Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer. That didn’t happen until the game was already determined. Palmer picked apart the Colts defense by going 26-of-37 for 314 yards and two touchdowns. The Colts sacked Palmer three times. Cardinals running back Rashard Mendenhall bounced around for 54 yards on 13 carries. The Colts didn’t get their lone touchdown until the fourth quarter, when they were already down by 23 points.

No rushing attack: The 137 yards rushing against the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 14 turned out to be just a one-game thing for the Colts. They ran the ball only 15 times for 80 yards. Don’t get excited by the 5.3 average. It’s rarely a good thing when your quarterback is one of the leading rushers. Andrew Luck ran for 31 yards, while Trent Richardson and Donald Brown combined for 16 yards on nine carries. Daniel Herron led the Colts with 33 yards.

Another slow start, shocking: The Colts went into the half trailing 27-3 to bring their halftime deficit to 93-12 in the past four games. The Cardinals reached Indianapolis territory on all five of their drives in the first half. They scored on four of them. The only time they failed was when Sergio Brown blocked Jay Feely's 28-yard field goal attempt on Arizona’s second offensive series of the game. The Cardinals got some help in the scoring department from their defense. Linebacker Karlos Dansby intercepted Luck’s pass and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter.

Injury loss: The Colts were already without starting cornerback Greg Toler (groin), and then they lost their other starting cornerback, Vontae Davis, with a groin injury in the fourth quarter. The defense hasn’t been the same -- giving up big plays against Houston, St. Louis and Arizona -- since Toler went out of the lineup prior to the Titans game on Nov. 3.

What’s next: The Colts return to Lucas Oil Stadium to take on the Titans on Dec. 1. The Colts beat the Titans 30-27 on Nov. 14.

Double Coverage: Colts vs 49ers

September, 20, 2013
9/20/13
12:00
PM ET

The Tree Bowl is upon us.

In one of the more intriguing matchups of Week 3, coach Jim Harbaugh and his San Francisco 49ers will host quarterback Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts -- and their new running back Trent Richardson.

This is a homecoming for Luck and a reunion for both men. Luck played for Harbaugh at nearby Stanford. They were the toast of college football, and Harbaugh played it into a job with the 49ers after the 2010 season. Luck stayed on The Farm another year and had a brilliant rookie season last year.

However, there is much more than the Harbaugh-Luck angle in this game, as both 2012 playoff teams are coming off a loss in Week 2. Colts' reporter Mike Wells and I discuss the matchup in Double Coverage:

Wells: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick looked like he was more than a read-option quarterback when he threw for 412 yards in Week 1, but he was back to normal against Seattle, only throwing for 127 yards. Which game is the real Kaepernick -- the Week 1 performance or Week 2 at Seattle?

Williamson: I think he has shown the real Kaepernick is much closer to the one we saw against the Packers. The Seattle game was Kaepernick's worst in his 12 NFL starts. Kaepernick is still inexperienced and still growing. I think he will learn from the Seattle game. Plus, the Colts' defense is beatable in the air and on the ground. Kaepernick will likely bounce back. I expect to see Kaepernick have some success on the ground, similar to the success Oakland's Terrelle Pryor had against the Colts in Week 1.

Wells: Kaepernick will be a problem for the Colts. The only time the Colts had the answer for Pryor was when he decided to try to beat them with his arm instead of his feet. The Colts intercepted him twice, but I don't see them having that same kind of success against Kaepernick. He's a better runner and definitely a better passer than Pryor. You obviously cover Kaepernick on a daily basis, you know about Luck and you were in Seattle this week. Do you think the 49ers' quarterback deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Luck, Russell Wilson and RG III?

Williamson: Oh, I'm a big Luck fan. As far as I'm concerned, the question should be whether the other young quarterbacks deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Luck. Yes, he is a different quarterback than the other young stars. But this is what Luck has that will never go out of style -- he is a great pocket passer. He is a traditional star who would have been dominant in any era he played. I fancy myself as someone who stays grounded and doesn't speak bombastically about analysis. With that said, on the night Luck was drafted, I predicted his career will end with a ceremony in Canton, Ohio. I truly believe that and look forward to seeing him play in person for the first time Sunday.

Wells: Of course, this game became much more than Harbaugh and Luck when the Colts made the blockbuster deal for Richardson with Cleveland on Wednesday. Will the 49ers prepare as if they'll be facing Richardson on Sunday, or will they go in with the mindset that it'll be Ahmad Bradshaw and Donald Brown, since Richardson will only have two practices and a walk-through to learn Indianapolis' system?

Williamson: It definitely changed the 49ers' week. They are in a tough spot. They made their plan for the Colts and were actually executing it on the practice field for the first time when the trade went down. I don't think the 49ers totally changed their game plan because of the trade. But it altered it. Coaches suddenly had to watch film of Richardson and make adjustments. Because Richardson is a running back, I expect to see him a lot Sunday. He doesn't need a lot of time in the playbook. The Colts gave up a first-round pick for Richardson so they can win now. They will start using him when they can, and I'd think that will start Sunday. But the 49ers are good against the run. They were fourth in the NFL last season. They will attack this curveball with confidence.

Wells: Anything Richardson can give the Colts will be an upgrade over Brown, a former first-round pick who hasn't lived up to expectations. Bradshaw is still rounding into shape after not playing in the preseason, so having Richardson share some of the snaps with him will help the Colts' running game and hopefully open the passing game for Luck. The Colts are dealing with their fair share of injuries, losing starting tight end Dwayne Allen for the season. How big of a loss is nose tackle Ian Williams on defense for the 49ers?

Williamson: It hurts, but it's not devastating. Injuries happen to every team. Williams is a nice player and he was coming into his own. Free-agent pickup Glenn Dorsey was rotating with Williams. Now Dorsey is the starter. I think the 49ers will survive this injury as long as Dorsey stays healthy. There is not much depth behind him.

Wells: The Colts will test Dorsey, because Bradshaw and Richardson are both straight-ahead backs who run like they're angry at somebody. So much is being made about the Luck-Harbaugh reunion, but the real reunion is between brothers Vontae and Vernon Davis. Do you think Vernon will play with a purpose because his kid brother is on the field?

Williamson: It's really interesting, Mike. Vontae has been in the league since 2009, but this will be the brothers' first meeting. The Dolphins played the 49ers the year before they drafted Vontae, and they played the 49ers last season, shortly after dealing Vontae to the Colts. Vernon has been out of practice with a hamstring tweak. However, he has indicated he will play. I fully expect him out there. Vernon is a prime-time guy, and playing against his little brother will get his juices flowing. And of course, Harbaugh can tell Vernon all about the intensity of going against a sibling.

Reunion week for 49ers, Colts

September, 17, 2013
9/17/13
8:00
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The story of the week as the San Francisco 49ers prepare to host the Indianapolis Colts will be the reunion between Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck.

Harbaugh, the 49ers’ coach, coached Luck, one of the brightest young quarterbacks in the league, at Stanford. However, it isn’t the only reunion during the game.

San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis will face his younger brother Vontae Davis, who is a Colts’ cornerback. It will be the first time the two brothers will meet. Davis was drafted by Miami in 2009 and traded to the Colts last year.

The Colts also have Cam Johnson. The 49ers traded him to the Colts earlier this month for a seventh-round pick in 2015. He was a stout in the preseason but fell victim to a numbers’ game. He does not have a tackle in two games with the Colts.
The ugly battle between NFL owners and players apparently hasn't taken the edge off rivalries.

Davis
Davis
Dockett
Dockett
As one of my Facebook friends pointed out via private message, a recent ESPN video affirms San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis' long-standing feelings toward certain members of the Arizona Cardinals.

Dana Jacobson was interviewing the Pro Bowl tight end's younger brother, Miami Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis, when she brought Vernon into the conversation over the phone. Near the end of the video, Jacobson asked each brother which NFL player he'd like to face in a steel-cage match.

"A steel cage match? That is tough," Vernon Davis said. "I would probably like to go against Darnell Dockett of the Cardinals."

There wasn't time for Jacobson to follow up, but NFC West fans didn't need much elaboration. Last year at this time, Davis was calling out Dockett over the success 49ers running back Frank Gore enjoyed against Arizona. Dockett then warned Davis about punishment forthcoming from teammate Adrian Wilson.

As much as NFC West fans wouldn't mind seeing Dockett and Davis square off in a steel cage, most of us would settle for getting them on a football field. Separate football fields would suffice at this point of the lockout.

My money would be on Dockett in a steel-cage match, though. He's about 40 pounds heavier than Davis and his experience battling offensive linemen in close quarters would surely help.

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

Powering my way through the mailbag. Some of these were submitted prior to the start of free agency. I've singled out the ones that held up over time.

Thomas from Antigonish writes: Hi Mike. The Rams are well documented in not drafting pretty much any good players, and so one draft pick of the old regime -- Ron Bartell -- has finally developed, and the team will probably lose him to FA ... this just seems so disappointing.

Mike Sando: The Rams might come out OK on this one, after all. Bartell left the Saints without a contract. The Rams would appear to be in better position to re-sign him as a result. They wanted him. They just couldn't justify paying established corner money to an emerging corner their coaches didn't know very well.

I understand both sides on this one. The corner market was hot enough for Bartell to take a look, but if he didn't find what he wanted, perhaps the Rams will find him more affordable.


Jason from Greeley, Colo., writes: Hey, Mike. With free agency upon us, can you give us some insight into its importance. Who would say have been the biggest free-agent pick ups in the NFC West in the past 3-4 seasons?

Kurt Warner comes immediately to mind, but who else do you feel has made a big impact in the division as a free agent? I am going to assume that there wouldn't be that many names as most of the time impact players are built through the draft and not found in free agency.

Would you agree that more often than not free agents do not meet expectations, i.e Edgerrin James in Arizona?

Mike Sando: Yes, I would agree that most free agents do not meet expectations. Teams pay so much more money for free agents than they do for draft choices.

Nate Clements is a good cornerback for the 49ers. Has he met expectations? No. Edgerrin James pretty much met expectations. Kurt Warner exceeded them. Patrick Kerney met them until injuries intervened. Julian Peterson has generally met expectations. Justin Smith played well for the 49ers last season, albeit at a high price.

The Steelers generally are not big players in free agency. They're confident enough in their drafting ability to let players leave instead of overpaying. The Steelers have also won two of the last four Super Bowls. Meanwhile, the Cowboys collect Pro Bowl players at great expense. They haven't won a playoff game since the 1990s.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says 49ers center Eric Heitmann faces a king-sized challenge in Jets nose tackle Kris Jenkins.

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat quotes 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz as saying Heitmann is the best center he's ever coached.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Barry Sims could get some work at right tackle even though Adam Snyder will continue to start.

Also from Barrows: Heitmann explains why he didn't wait until free agency before signing a new contract.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the Cardinals are viewing their defensive meltdown in Philadelphia as an aberration.

Also from Urban: a look at Kurt Warner's performance in games against the Rams.

More from Urban: Matt Leinart is taking mental reps during games to supplement the limited work he gets in practice. 

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic goes in search of the Cardinals' pass rush. Travis LaBoy's injury situation could be a factor.

Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says Marcus Trufant broke up multiple passes during Seahawks practice Thursday as he prepared to face Randy Moss.

Frank Hughes of Seahawks Insider takes a look at the Seahawks' blitzing tendencies against the Cowboys.

Also from Hughes: Mike Holmgren says the Seahawks weren't expecting huge numbers from receiver Deion Branch. They did expect Branch to become their top receiver, however.

Chris Sullivan of Seahawk Addicts provides answers to our question about which NFC West players would start for the Seahawks. Extra credit for using Excel shading in a chart.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks wanted Branch to become a leader after watching Darrell Jackson miss practices and skip offseason workouts.

John Morgan of Field Gulls thought Matt Hasselbeck made some impressive throws in the second half of the Dallas game.

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in breaking down Warner's MVP chances, says the Cardinals are 12-11 since Warner took over as starter last season, up from 25-55 in their previous five seasons.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch breaks down MVP candidates and says the award might be Warner's to lose.

3k of Turf Show Times offers a nine-pick mock draft covering the Seahawks, Rams and 49ers. Michael Crabtree, Vontae Davis and Michael Oher become NFC West-bound.

Steve Korte of Ramblings quotes the Rams' Jim Haslett and Steven Jackson as saying their relationship is a good one.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch also assesses the Haslett-Jackson dynamic, while noting that Jackson was on the field for 41 snaps against the Dolphins, including four in the fourth quarter.

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