NFC West: Daniel Kilgore
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.
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.
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.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
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.
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.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
Both ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have Martin pegged to the San Francisco 49ers in recent mocks. They both had Martin going to the 49ers in the second round, where the team has two picks. Let’s take a closer look at Martin:
Size: 6-foot-3, 320 pounds
Experience: He moved to center in 2013 and played there for the first time. He was a starter at guard for his first two college seasons.
Known for: Great size and athleticism. He’s a bright player. However, some scouts question his toughness. Still, many scouts think he can be an instant starter.
Do 49ers need him? Daniel Kilgore, who just signed a three-year extension with the 49ers, will get the first crack to replace Jonathan Goodwin in the starting lineup. The 49ers are excited about Kilgore. However, if Kiper and McShay are right, Martin would certainly look like both an immediate and long-term option. Martin could also interest the 49ers because of his experience at guard. Mike Iupati is entering the final year of his contract, and it isn't a sure thing the 49ers will re-sign him.
Miller is one of the best fullbacks in the NFL. He is very versatile. He is an outstanding blocker and a reason why the 49ers move the ball so well on the ground. He also has a role as a receiver and as a short-yardage back. He is only getting better. San Francisco missed Miller when he broke his scapula in Week 15 and was out for the rest of the season. Miller said Thursday he is completely healthy.
Popular move: The former seventh-round pick is a great player off the field. He is very popular in the locker room. Teammates love his work effort. He's the type of guy who mixes well with every part of the locker room. He is also a fan favorite for the same qualities. Again, this is the type of player who teams keep.
Switch worked: Miller was a defensive end at Central Florida. He had no idea he'd become a fullback -- until 49ers running backs coach Tom Rathman called him the day before the draft.
The next thing Miller knew he was being taken by the 49ers in the seventh round and moving to the other side of the ball. It kind of worked out nicely.
“It's been a long journey and a lot of hard work,” Miller said Thursday. “But it's been blast and I couldn't have planned it out any better than what has happened.”
Culliver likely next: Don't be stunned if the 49ers work out an early deal with cornerback Chris Culliver. They have designated him as a priority as they did with Miller. There will be high-dollar discussions with Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati to deal with next year as well, but Culliver, like Miller, may be easier to do. Also like Miller, it would be smart to secure a solid, young player like Culliver.
Returning free agents: receiver Anquan Boldin, kicker Phil Dawson, cornerback Eric Wright.
Departed free agents: Safety Donte Whitner (Browns).
Released: Cornerback Carlos Rogers.
Free=agent addition: Safety Antoine Bethea (Colts).
Acquired in trade: Quarterback Blaine Gabbert from Jaguars; tackle Jonathan Martin from Miami.
Remaining free-agent priority: Cornerback Tarell Brown.
Other remaining free agents: Center Jonathan Goodwin, receiver Mario Manningham, quarterback Colt McCoy, receiver Kassim Osgood, running back Anthony Dixon, cornerback Perrish Cox.
Starting lineup changes: Bethea for Whitner; likely Daniel Kilgore for Goodwin.
- If the 49ers were in the market for a veteran running back, I'd count Oakland free agent Darren McFadden as a real possibility. San Francisco running backs coach Tom Rathman was in Oakland when the Raiders drafted McFadden in 2008. While I'm sure the 49ers are studying McFadden, the need there just isn't strong. It would have to be the perfect, cheap situation for him to land with the 49ers, although, they could use him on screen passes.
- Denver is in the market for a hard-hitting safety and are said to be willing to spend. You have to wonder if the Broncos will make a play for 49ers safety Donte Whitner. But they may have others in mind first.
- The salary cap is projected to be set at $133 million. The 49ers should be at least $15 million under the cap. That should allow them to accomplish everything they want to get done. The word is the cap will reach up to $150 million in two years. That will benefit the 49ers as they have some big-ticket deals to get done.
- Center Daniel Kilgore received a $1.35 million signing bonus for the three-year extension he signed Thursday. He will get first crack at taking over for the free-agent Jonathan Goodwin. But if Kilgore fails, the 49ers could look elsewhere because of his inexpensive deal.
- There are reports Miami is putting speedy receiver Mike Wallace on the market. He'd fit what the 49ers do, But his deal is too pricey and the draft class is stacked. Thus, I don't see a deal happening with the 49ers unless he took a big pay cut.
The team has gained cap room by reducing deals for backup safety Craig Dahl and backup receiver Jon Baldwin. They want cornerback Carlos Rogers back at a much reduced salary from the $6 million he is due. If he doesn't accept a pay cut, he will likely be cut. General manager Trent Baalke has said he doesn't think the team needs to reduce the salary of running back Frank Gore, who is set to make $6.4 million.
The deadline giving a player the franchise tag is Monday. The 49ers are not expected to use the tag. They have been close to a deal with receiver Anquan Boldin. Boldin, 33, is likely looking at a two- or three-year deal. He could be paid up to $17 million if it is a three-year deal. The team's other priority free agents are safety Donte Whitner, kicker Phil Dawson and cornerback Tarell Brown.
The 49ers extended the deal of Daniel Kilgore on Thursday. He was set to be a free agent next year. That means he is in line to start next year and that the 49ers likely won't re-sign Jonathan Goodwin, who started at center the past three years.
The team is not expected to give the restricted free-agent tender to backup defensive lineman DeMarcus Dobbs and cornerback Perrish Cox. That would make them unrestricted free agents.
It appears Kilgore will get that chance. The team also has Joe Looney, and could sign a veteran or draft a rookie at the position. But it seems Kilgore, who has played some at guard, is set to anchor one of the NFL’s better offensive lines.
ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said the timing might be right for a switch to Kilgore.
“I know the 49ers like Kilgore and would get him involved in six-offensive lineman sets. He is young and I haven't been super impressed with Goodwin of late,” Williamson said. “Kilgore is a tough guy, though, that fits their mold in that regard, and is better run-blocking than in protection, which again, fits.”
Kilgore will have to cement his role in training camp. But Thursday’s move means the team believes he can handle it.
The San Francisco 49ers tight end hit a hot-button topic when he asked about why former players don’t receive health insurance for life from the NFL. Here is the exchange:
Goodell: "Vernon, first off, we had lots of discussions about that in the collective bargaining process. We went back and improved a lot of our health benefits, both for former players and for current players, to the point where I think the health benefits that are provided to current NFL players are the best in the world. And so I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do with the union in approving those benefits.
"We all still have a lot of work to do for former players. The cost of trying to provide health care for every player that’s ever played in the league was discussed with the union. It was determined that these changes were the best changes, and that’s what we negotiated. But we’re all proud of the efforts that we made. We will continue to make more efforts and do a better job, particularly with our former players, in providing them opportunities and to give them the proper health care. And our programs -- as an example, the '88 Plan' for anyone who has dementia or any other kind of neurological disorder -- that’s there for the players and their families for lifetime. So we have programs that are addressing those issues that we have created, or the owners have created, on their own. And we also have several of them that were created with the union."
In other 49ers notes:
• Backup offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore was arrested for public intoxication in his Tennessee hometown last weekend. Kilgore is a candidate to start at center in 2014.
• Quarterback Colin Kaepernick participated in a long interview on ESPN’s Bill Simmons' "B.S. Report."
It is the one position on the line where the team may have a new starter. Jonathan Goodwin, who has been the 49ers' starting center for the past three seasons, is 35 and he is a free agent.
The 49ers also could draft a center this year. A premium usually isn't put on the position in the draft, so the 49ers could potentially get a top center prospect in the second or third round. They have two picks in each round and could get a third third-rounder as a compensatory pick.
ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said he thought the 49ers' offensive line took a step back in 2013 and thinking toward the future may be smart.
“If he wants to take a one-year deal at a very team friendly rate, I say bring him back,” Williamson said. “But I would draft a guy either way reasonably high, which shouldn't be that big of a deal for a team that doesn't have a lot of huge needs.”
Because the 49ers are deep and have so many draft picks, this may be the perfect time to make some moves geared for the future on the offensive line.
1. QB comparison. There wasn't much to compare because these teams took vastly different approaches to the game. The 49ers removed quarterback Colin Kaepernick after one series. The drive started with Frank Gore breaking a 52-yard run. It ended with a field goal after Kaepernick overshot receiver Chad Hall for what should have been a touchdown. That was it for Kaepernick. Four plays, three points, two pass attempts, one completion and zero basis for meaningful analysis. Former 49ers starter Alex Smith played the full first half for the Chiefs and struggled, even against the 49ers' backups. At least three dropped passes hurt his cause. Smith completed 7-of-16 attempts for 62 yards, or 3.9 yards per attempt. The 49ers sent blitzes after Smith and roughed him up a few times, including when Tony Jerod-Eddie leveled his former teammate with a helmet-to-helmet hit.
2. Jenkins and WRs. Second-year receiver A.J. Jenkins was slow to gain traction for a second week in a row. Super-sized Chiefs corner Sean Smith roughed up Jenkins to break up one early pass. Smith also picked off a pass intended for Jenkins. It appeared as though quarterback Colt McCoy might have been expecting Jenkins to break off his route against pressure. Whatever the case, McCoy threw to one spot while Jenkins was continuing up the field. Jenkins did a good job reacting to trip up Smith, preventing a potential touchdown return. Jenkins also provided a block to help McCoy pick up a first down. All in all, however, Smith and the Chiefs' starting secondary smothered Jenkins throughout the first half. Jenkins did make a 21-yard reception against the Chiefs' backups early in the third quarter, but a holding penalty against offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore negated the play.
3. Rookie outside linebacker. Third-round choice Corey Lemonier got to Alex Smith with a strong inside rush against Chiefs rookie tackle Eric Fisher. I went into the game focused on Lemonier, but second-year inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite was the defensive star for San Francisco in the first half. He stopped running back Cyrus Gray for a 1-yard gain. He broke up a pass to Dwayne Bowe in the red zone. Wilhoite also made a tackle for a 4-yard loss on a punt return. The 49ers appear to have found a promising young backup for their all-world inside linebackers.
Note: I'm filing this after the third quarter because we're deep enough into the game for the key analysis to stand. I'll update if necessary.
I spent two days in camp without seeing starters Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis or Jonathan Goodwin practice. Receiver Michael Crabtree was already out, of course. A.J. Jenkins, Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams and Kendall Hunter also were not practicing. Third cornerback Chris Culliver, meanwhile, suffered a torn ACL.
Fortunately for the 49ers, it's still early August. They know how to develop talent and coach to players' strengths. But for San Francisco to win a third consecutive NFC West crown, the team could use better luck with injuries from this point forward.
Beyond the injury concerns, all signs point toward a continued rise for quarterback Colin Kaepernick. This is becoming his team because of the way he works and because he's such a talent. Offensive and defensive players alike say so. Kaepernick often shows up for work before 6 in the morning. He dusts teammates up the hills they run in nearby San Jose.
Outsiders tempted to brand Kaepernick -- after 10 NFL starts -- as a one-read quarterback or a read-option quarterback aren't seeing what coordinator Greg Roman is seeing.
"He doesn't look at things in a rote fashion," Roman said. "He can see big picture. He understands the trickle-down. Say you give him a play, he is going to look at it in his mind versus all different coverages. All those little acetates are going to fall down at once in his mind, and then he understands the impact and 'hey, maybe we should put this guy in this spot, let him run this and let what's-his-name do this.' He is very interactive."
The 49ers still plan to use two backs frequently and lean hard on the running game, but it's not so much because a young quarterback is limiting their options. The collaborative aspect Roman referenced is telling in that regard.
"Last year, I started to bounce things off him because I started to really trust him," Roman said. "I liked what I was hearing and seeing. Now, he has a hand in the pot, too. That is what you want. He is the quarterback. You can evolve with him, and he'll be part of that evolution process. I just love getting him thinking, because he is great."
THREE HOT ISSUES
The situation at receiver is going to improve as Williams, Jenkins and Manningham in particular get healthy. Crabtree might even return late in the season.
For now, though, the 49ers have the following behind Boldin at the position: Austin Collie, Lavelle Hawkins, Charly Martin, Chad Hall, Ricardo Lockette, Marlon Moore, Kassim Osgood, Chuck Jacobs and Quinton Patton, who has one healthy hand and is running routes under orders not to catch any passes.
The 49ers need Jenkins to be a factor, but that's not going to happen until the 2012 first-round choice returns from a sore hamstring. Jenkins got safety Donte Whitner's vote when I asked Whitner which of the young wideouts would emerge. Whitner said he thought Jenkins' speed would allow him to "take the top off" opposing defenses. Again, that can't happen with Jenkins on the sideline.
San Francisco does have the ability to use two tight ends and/or two running backs, lessening the need for multiple wideouts.
2. Secondary concerns. Culliver's injury and free safety Dashon Goldson's departure in free agency could make the 49ers worse in the secondary for the short term. The team has leaned on its dominant front seven to protect the back end. That will be the preferred formula this season.
Pushing first-round pick Eric Reid into the lineup at free safety sounds good in theory. He's going to be the starter eventually. Why not let him play? Craig Dahl has much more experience. C.J. Spillman and Trenton Robinson are in the mix, too.
One consideration: San Francisco opens the season against Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck before making a trip to St. Louis, where the Rams beat the 49ers last season. The 49ers will want to let the safety race play out through preseason before making a decision.
At corner, Nnamdi Asomugha appeared likely to step into Culliver's spot as the third corner, but Tramaine Brock was the player defensive coordinator Vic Fangio called upon first. Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers are the starters, with Rogers shifting inside in sub packages.
As for Asomugha? He made plays on the ball when I visited practice, but the ever-direct Fangio offered a mixed assessment.
"He's had some good days out here and some days where you weren’t sure if he was going to still have it," Fangio said. "I think we're kind of in between with him right now. Hopefully, he'll be able to still have some gas left in his tank to go out there and play like he did prior to going to Philadelphia. So, I think the jury is still out there."
Fangio passed on an opportunity to blame Asomugha's struggles with the Eagles on the scheme Philadelphia was running.
"I think there's some of that, but Nnamdi is at this stage in his career where some guys start losing, their physical skills start to diminish. We just have to see if that’s entering into his picture, too, or not."
3. Potential defensive tweaks. Defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald rank among the NFL's top five defensive linemen in total snaps played over the past two seasons, counting playoffs. The heavy use might have contributed to the torn triceps Smith suffered late last season.
The defense wasn't the same with Smith on the sideline, and was limited upon his return. The plan this season calls for expanding the rotation along the line. Ian Williams and free-agent addition Glenn Dorsey will be key to making that happen. And once second-round choice Tank Carradine gets healthy, San Francisco will have another option to help keep its veterans fresh.
The 49ers have gone away from the more traditional 3-4 scheme they employed when Aubrayo Franklin was their two-gapping nose tackle a few years back. They still run a base 3-4, but the front is more aggressive in getting up the field. Dorsey, who appeared miscast in the 3-4 scheme Kansas City ran after drafting him fifth overall in 2008, should fit better with San Francisco.
"You have a lot more freedom," Dorsey said of the 49ers' scheme relative to the Chiefs' old scheme. "There's not just staying on blocks. It's taking on blocks and you get to penetrate a lot more, go off in gaps and stuff like that and then move around. A lot of stunts and stuff. It's fun."
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The 49ers have the front office, coaching staff, quarterback, offensive line, running backs and defensive front seven to contend for a championship. They also have one of the NFL's most dynamic tight ends, Vernon Davis. Just about every team in the league should envy the 49ers' roster even with the injury concerns. Kaepernick appears supremely driven. He should improve given the support system around him. Also, the 49ers have most of their tougher-looking games at home, where they should be expected to win a high percentage of the time. A relatively easy road schedule could help San Francisco gain in the standings against Seattle and St. Louis. Those teams face tougher road schedules.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
- British Olympic discus champion Lawrence Okoye will need time to develop. His musculature stands out even among his fellow defensive linemen, but his football inexperience shows on the practice field. He's still learning technique and how to make his 6-foot-6 frame work for him.
- Boone, listed at 6-8 and 300 pounds, is about as impressive looking as Okoye. He had the other linemen laughing and shaking their heads when he ended a post-practice soak in a ground-level ice tub by launching his body upright from a lying position in one violent motion, sending water and ice flying. He stuck the landing, too.
- Strong safeties and fullbacks tend to relish contact. I enjoyed watching Whitner and Bruce Miller cross paths at speed during drills featuring only minimal contact. They clipped one another hard enough to pop their pads without putting themselves at risk for injury or attracting heat from coaches.
- One of the traits separating Frank Gore from other running backs is his ability to maneuver amid heavy traffic on inside runs. Left tackle Joe Staley: "I've never seen a better runner in NFL history between the 'A' gaps. He finds that tiniest crease. One of the other things that sets him apart is that he can make cuts in the 'A' gaps, too. You see other runners go through the 'A' gaps and they just try to smash into someone and it's a 3-yard gain. Frank gets to that 'A' gap and he makes a quick cut and all of a sudden a 3-yard run turns into a 12-, 14-yard run."
- Back in March, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh had high praise for Lockette, a receiver the team signed from the Seattle Seahawks last season. I took note when Harbaugh appeared to be offering forcefully delivered corrections to Lockette during practice. The head coach probably wouldn't bother if he thought the player wasn't worth the trouble. Harbaugh obviously sees something in Lockette, but how will that translate?
- Left guard Joe Looney and center Daniel Kilgore worked together with the starting offensive line Friday while starters Mike Iupati and Jonathan Goodwin sat out (Goodwin is recovering from injury, while Iupati sat out a few plays after limping off). Seeing Looney and Kilgore work together with the starters brought into focus the line's longer-term future. Will the team work out a contract extension for Iupati? Players such as Kaepernick and Aldon Smith could become higher priorities to re-sign after this season. Just a thought.
- Change-of-pace running back LaMichael James is catching the ball well at this point.
- It's not yet clear how quickly second-round pick Vance McDonald will develop as a reliable blocker. Boldin's ability in that area provides flexibility.
- Players off-limits to contact typically wear black jerseys so teammates know to avoid hitting them. Patton, a rookie fourth-round pick, was in another category. He was running pass routes as usual, but the coaching staff told him to let the quartebacks' passes sail past him. The team wants Patton to get reps without risking further injury to a finger. Patton caught one pass anyway. I saw him catch another ball with one hand. Patton was the only player wearing a blue jersey, making him particularly easy to spot.
- Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely, 37, recently said one of the team's rookies confessed to mistaking Feely for an assistant coach all offseason. I'll admit to briefly mistaking the 49ers' 38-year-old kicker, Phil Dawson, for a team staffer when he arrived at the post-practice interview tent wearing running shoes with no socks and a pullover on his 5-foot-11 frame. Dawson, who is new to the 49ers, said he obsesses over weather conditions, to the point that he is constantly checking them using an app whose manufacturer he wouldn't reveal. Although Candlestick Park is known for rough conditions, the winds blow almost constantly at team headquarters -- something to keep in mind when the 49ers move into their new stadium across the street in 2014.
- Linebacker Nick Moody, a sixth-round pick, has stood out early, but he's transitioning from safety and will need time to develop. Fangio put it best: "I think he’s got a lot of good tools in his toolbox. He just isn’t a union carpenter yet."
- The talk of tight end Davis taking reps at wide receiver was pretty much just that: talk. Davis will remain a tight end. However, I did see him line up outside the yard-line numbers a couple times in one practice. He has the speed to do that on occasion. His route-running has improved over the years as well. A third season in the same offense is another important factor for expanding Davis' game. Still, he's going to be a tight end.
They've needed a swing tackle and could always use veteran depth.
Snyder has value as a backup to every position on the line, in my view, and that is how the 49ers would use him if Snyder were to earn a roster spot. Starting center Jonathan Goodwin is entering the final year of a deal paying him $3.7 million in base salary. Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney are young linemen with promise, but both remain unproven in game situations.
Snyder was miscast as a starter for the 49ers and Cardinals; it's not his fault Arizona gave him a $5 million signing bonus as part of a five-year, $17 million deal. Returning to the 49ers makes sense. The coaching staff knows Snyder well, and Snyder knows the staff. Snyder can proceed in the absence of unreasonable expectations. The 49ers can proceed knowing they have another option on the line, should they need one.
"It just feels like the Seahawks make a move, then the Niners make a move," former NFL quarterback Damon Huard said Wednesday during our conversation on 710 ESPN Seattle. "The Seahawks sign Percy Harvin, then the Niners go get Anquan Boldin. The Niners just signed Nnamdi Asomugha, they signed Colt McCoy, and now it's the Seahawks' turn to sign a quarterback. It really feels like this competition that was so fun to watch last fall has carried over into the offseason between the Niners and the Seahawks."
That's what it feels like from this angle, too. So, when ESPN's Bill Polian listed 49ers general manager Trent Baalke among his top six executives without a mention of Seattle counterpart John Schneider, I knew some Seahawks fans would take offense.
"Schneider should be on there," SamW9801 wrote in commenting on the Polian piece.
I'm going to ratchet up the discussion with an assist from Tony Villiotti of draftmetrics.com. Tony identified ranges of picks by how frequently teams have found five-year starters within those ranges.
Using those general ranges, displayed at right, I've put together a chart at the bottom of this item comparing the 49ers' and Seahawks' draft choices since 2010.
Baalke took over the 49ers' draft room roughly a month before the 2010 draft. Schneider became the Seahawks' GM that offseason. The 49ers then underwent a coaching change after the 2010 season, at which point Baalke assumed the GM title officially. We might cut Baalke some slack for selecting Taylor Mays, a player then-coach Mike Singletary valued. There were surely other times when both GMs followed their coaches' input, for better or worse.
Seattle has drafted 28 players during this period, three more than San Francisco has drafted. The Seahawks had more to work with from a qualitative point as well. Their median choice was No. 130 overall, compared to No. 165 for the 49ers.
It's pretty clear both teams know what they are doing in the draft.
Aldon Smith, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati and NaVorro Bowman have earned Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro honors for the 49ers. Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Russell Wilson, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman have done so for the Seahawks.
Both teams have found franchise quarterbacks after the first round. Colin Kaepernick was chosen 36th overall in 2011. Wilson went to Seattle at No. 75 last year.
Neither team has missed in that first category, which includes players taken among the top 13 overall picks. Smith and Okung are elite players at premium positions.
Both teams have unanswered questions in that 14-40 range. The 49ers are waiting on receiver A.J. Jenkins to produce. The Seahawks haven't gotten much from guard James Carpenter. But in Iupati and Thomas, the 49ers and Seahawks, respectively, found players among the very best at their positions. Kaepernick's selection puts this group over the top for San Francisco. Seattle got eight sacks from Bruce Irvin as a rookie in 2012, so the Seahawks aren't far behind. It's just impossible to overlook the value a franchise quarterback provides.
Seattle has the edge in the 41-66 range. Mays is long gone from the 49ers. That leaves LaMichael James for the 49ers against Bobby Wagner and Golden Tate for Seattle. Wagner was an instant starter at middle linebacker and a three-down player who commanded consideration for defensive rookie of the year. Tate blossomed with Wilson at quarterback.
The Seahawks also have an edge in that 67-86 range, having selected Wilson.
Seattle holds a 7-3 lead in number of picks used between the 87th and 149th choices, a range producing five-year starters 16 percent of the time, according to Villiotti.
Both teams used picks in that range for players whose injury situations dragged down their draft status: Joe Looney in San Francisco, Walter Thurmond in Seattle. Both teams found starting linebackers in this range: Bowman to the 49ers, K.J. Wright to the Seahawks. Both teams found developmental running backs in that range: Kendall Hunter to the 49ers, Robert Turbin to the Seahawks. Both teams found Pro Bowl players: Bowman in San Francisco, Chancellor in Seattle.
Sherman, arguably the NFL's best cornerback, gives Seattle an edge in the 150 through 189 range of picks. Both teams found backup tight ends there. Anthony Dixon (49ers) and Jeremy Lane (Seahawks) have the potential to expand their roles.
The 49ers found starting fullback Bruce Miller in the final pick range, which runs from 190 to the end of the draft. Seattle found a projected starting guard there in J.R. Sweezy. Malcolm Smith is a candidate to start at linebacker for Seattle. Miller and Sweezy both played defense in college. Miller already has successfully transitioned to offense. Seattle believes Sweezy will do the same.
Summing it up: Both teams can feel good about their draft performance in the past three seasons. I doubt either team would trade its picks for the other team's. That makes sense. Teams draft the players they like best. The 49ers have six projected 2013 starters to show for their choices. The number is eight for the Seahawks, not counting Irvin or Tate. Seattle has had more choices and higher choices, and more openings in the lineup to accommodate those players. I think that shows in the results.
First-rounder A.J. Jenkins, second-rounder LaMichael James and the rest of the class was inactive Monday night, as usual.
Their time will come.
In the meantime, let's take a look at that 2011 class, shall we?
First-rounder Aldon Smith set a "Monday Night Football" record with 5.5 sacks during the 49ers' 32-7 victory over the Chicago Bears. He now has 29 sacks, the highest total for a player through 26 games since sacks became an official stat in 1982, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Second-rounder Colin Kaepernick completed 16 of 23 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns while making his first NFL start. He posted a 133.1 NFL passer rating. His 97.5 QBR score was the highest for a player's first start in the five-year history of the metric.
Third-rounder Chris Culliver played 59 percent of the defensive snaps at cornerback. He was in coverage for the Bears' lone touchdown, but by then, the 49ers were cruising.
Culliver has two interceptions this season and has played well overall.
Fourth-rounder Kendall Hunter had a 14-yard touchdown run against the Bears to give San Francisco a 17-0 lead.
Fifth-rounder Daniel Kilgore played nine offensive snaps, coming onto the field in jumbo packages. Those packages didn't gain much traction on this night. They remain an important part of what the 49ers what to accomplish through heavier personnel groups.
Seventh-rounder Bruce Miller started at fullback. He played 45 percent of the offensive snaps. He also made a team-high two special-teams tackles.
General manager Trent Baalke, the 49ers' coaches and personnel staff had to like what they saw.
St. Louis Rams: Left tackle Rodger Saffold (knee) and receiver Danny Amendola (shoulder) remain on course to return against San Francisco in Week 10. Both were limited in practice, as were backup left tackle Wayne Hunter (back) and linebacker Mario Haggan (thigh). Center Scott Wells (foot) is practicing on a limited basis, opening a three-week window for activation. The Rams signed Wells to a lucrative contract in free agency with the expectation Wells would take pressure off quarterback Sam Bradford by handling more of the protection calls. The center-quarterback relationship was supposed to help Bradford. Instead, the Rams head to San Francisco with backups at center and left guard. Saffold figures to be rusty if he plays. The 49ers' Aldon Smith and Justin Smith won't let him ease back into things. Safety Darian Stewart (knee), defensive end Eugene Sims (knee) and linebacker Justin Cole (illness) did not practice.
San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers were healthy going into the bye. They are healthier coming out of it. The team had not yet released injury-related information following practice Wednesday as this item posted. Quarterback Alex Smith's finger was obviously healed going into the bye. He completed 18 of 19 passes against Arizona after struggling some over the previous two games. The week off had to help running back Frank Gore as well. He suffered a rib injury against Seattle in Week 7. Update: The 49ers listed linebacker Tavares Gooden (elbow), Gore (hand), guard Daniel Kilgore (concussion), punter Andy Lee (hand), receiver Mario Manningham (shoulder), Smith (finger) and defensive lineman Will Tukuafu (wrist) as participating fully in practice.
Seattle Seahawks: Guard James Carpenter (concussion), receiver Braylon Edwards (knee), running back Marshawn Lynch (back/wrist), defensive end Red Bryant (foot), linebacker K.J. Wright (concussion), defensive lineman Clinton McDonald (groin) and safety Kam Chancellor (quadriceps) did not practice Wednesday. Defensive tackle Jason Jones (ankle) was limited. Receiver Doug Baldwin (ankle), guard John Moffitt (knee) and center Max Unger (finger) were full participants. Seattle is a little more beat-up than it has been to this point in the season. Having a bye in Week 11 should help the team recharge for a stretch run. Jones hasn't played since Week 7. Seattle's nickel pass rush has missed him. The fact that he is practicing, even on a limited basis, should be encouraging for the Seahawks. Having Baldwin back allowed Seattle to release receiver Charly Martin and re-sign him to its practice squad. The Seahawks have activated cornerback Walter Thurmond from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. He helps with depth and gives the team another option in the nickel role, possibly affecting Marcus Trufant.