NFC West: J.R. Sweezy
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
The Seahawks lost at Miami on Nov. 25, 2012, dropping their record to 6-5. They didn’t lose again until the playoff game at Atlanta on Jan. 13, on a field goal with eight seconds remaining. This season, Seattle won four in a row to start this season before a 34-28 loss at Indianapolis last week, when the Colts came from behind in the fourth quarter after trailing 28-23.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and cornerback Richard Sherman both believe the team is much better now than it was 11 months ago after the loss at Miami.
“We’re more mature,’’ Sherman said Wednesday. “We pretty much have the same players, just a year older.”
That’s a little misleading. Fifteen Seahawks players were not with the team at that time last season, but 20 of the current 22 starters were.
“Now we have guys that have been to Pro Bowls and have seen a lot more ball than we did then,” Sherman said. “I think we’re just more capable. We’re more ready. We’re just better than we were them. So hopefully, the result will be the same.”
Wilson said the team has a better sense of its capabilities than it did 11 months ago.
“I think our team is much more competitive,” Wilson said. “I believe we know who our guys are, who our leaders are and what we need to do to be successful.”
Maybe the biggest difference is Wilson. He was a rookie with only 11 NFL starts when Seattle lost at Miami last season. Three other current starters -- offensive lineman J.R. Sweezy, outside linebacker Bruce Irvin and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner -- were in their first season, too.
But even as a rookie, Wilson doesn’t think he was ever flustered.
"I don’t remember the last time I was ever flustered," he said. "I think the biggest thing for me is just I stay composed. I know that I’m still really young. It’s my second year in the league. I’m just starting. I understand that there’s going to be a process to learn the whole thing.
"We understand that playing in the situations, you learn from them. You grow from them, whether it’s good or bad. It’s one of things that you use each situation to try to understand it the best way that you can."
Whether Seattle can put together another six-game winning streak after a regular-season loss remains to be seen. But Wilson and Sherman are convinced this team is better prepared to do it now than it was 11 months ago.
Seattle now has an unimaginable 34 penalties for 354 yards in the first three games, but the Seahawks won each of them. That includes a 17-10 victory Friday night at Green Bay when the Seahawks were flagged 14 times for 182 yards.
“There were a lot of distractions in the game with 180 yards of penalties,’’ Carroll said. “It’s hard to deal with, and we are focused on cleaning that up. You never want to give your opponent anything, and we gave them 180 yards. That’s makes it difficult to win.”
The Seahawks won anyway. Here are a few observations from the game:
1. The defense does it again: Seattle’s defense has allowed only 30 points in the first three preseason games, and only three touchdowns, one in each game.
Tony McDaniel looked good in his first start at defensive tackle, stuffing the middle and posting two tackles along with one pass defensed.
Sealver Siliga, the defensive tackle Seattle acquired last week when guard John Moffitt was traded to Denver, had a strong first game with the Seahawks. Siliga had two tackles, including a sack.
2. Wow Mayowa: The man on defense who continues to stand out is rookie free agent Benson Mayowa, a defensive end from Idaho. Mayowa’s quickness makes it seem like he’s everywhere on the field. He had four tackles Friday night, including one tackle behind the line. Mayowa had a quarterback hit and a fumble recovery.
Maybe his most impressive play Friday came when Green Bay had a 31-yard gain. Running back Alex Green got around the left end and was off to the races down the sideline, but Mayowa ran him down from behind.
Mayowa (6-3, 255) was a longshot to make the team when training camp started. Now he appears to be a lock. He has 10 tackles in three games and 2.5 sacks. He also has five quarterback pressures.
3. Big-play Williams: Lanky receiver Stephen Williams, another man fighting for a roster spot, now has three long touchdown receptions in the first three games, one in each game.
Williams (6-5, 210) had a 42-yard touchdown catch Friday, pulling the ball away from the defender at the goal line on a pass from Brady Quinn. Williams came close to another long touchdown Friday on a play that could have been called interference on Green Bay defender Brandon Smith.
With Percy Harvin out until at least late November, it seems unimaginable now that Seattle wouldn’t keep Williams as a deep threat with the height to out-leap defenders for the ball.
4. One tough Aggie: Christine Michael, Seattle’s second-round draft choice from Texas A&M, had his best game of the preseason, rushing for 97 yards on 11 carries. Michael (5-10, 220) has shown a knack for breaking tackles and hitting the hole quickly at the line of scrimmage.
Seattle rushed for 166 yards on 27 carries (a 6.1-yard average) against the Packers.
6. The penalty culprits: The running game looked strong despite a bad night for the Seahawks' offensive line. It allowed four sacks and was penalized five times for holding. Starting right J.R. Sweezy was penalized three times in the first half -- two for holding and once for a personal foul.
The bottom line is the Seahawks managed to get the job done despite all the miscues and yellow flags. But that isn’t likely to continue in the regular season unless the team cleans up its act.
Moffitt was dealt to the Cleveland Browns on Monday afternoon for defensive lineman Brian Sanford, but Cleveland voided the deal Tuesday afternoon, reportedly due to health concerns over a previous Moffitt knee injury.
Moffitt has been on the field throughout training camp, played in both of Seattle's preseason games and said he was in better shape than any time in his career.
Less than 30 minutes after news broke of the trade being nixed, the Seahawks had traded Moffitt to Denver for Broncos defensive tackle Sealver Siliga.
Siliga, 6-foot-2 and 325 pounds, is in his second season out of Utah. He had two assisted tackles against the Seahawks.
Moffitt still will need to pass a physical with the Broncos, but assuming that gets done with no problems, Seattle’s decision to trade Moffitt clears up some things:
1. Starting battles for the offensive line are over. The only real contest up front was between J.R. Sweezy and Moffitt, but obviously Sweezy won out. The other OL starters are set: Russell Okung at left tackle, Paul McQuistan at left guard, Max Unger at center and Breno Giacomini at right tackle.
Moffitt has more experience than Sweezy and might be a better player from a technique standpoint, but Sweezy has a toughness to him and a hard edge that offensive line coach Tom Cable loves, which is why he wanted to see what he could do when the team moved Sweezy to offense last season.
Sweezy was a seventh-round draft choice last year as a defensive tackle from North Carolina State. He was moved to the offensive line, partially because of an arm injury to Moffitt in training camp last season. Sweezy struggled early on, but improved as the season progressed.
Moffitt hoped to win the starting job at training camp this year, but it didn’t happen.
The only thing that could change the starting lineup on the O-line (other than an injury) is having James Carpenter back on the field and healthy. Carpenter was a first-round pick out of Alabama in 2011, but injuries have plagued his time in the NFL.
A foot injury has sidelined him so far in the preseason. If Carpenter is healthy and gets some time on the field soon, he could eventually return to a starting spot at guard, but that’s a big if at this point.
2. As they’ve shown in the past, the Seahawks aren’t afraid to move an early-round draft choice if they feel other players, not as highly touted, are doing better jobs.
Moffitt was a third-round pick out of Wisconsin in 2010. He played well his rookie season and was viewed as a possible anchor at guard for the long term, but injuries slowed his progress.
He became expendable because the Seahawks are pleased with what they’ve seen from rookies Ryan Seymour (a seventh-round pick out of Vanderbilt), Michael Bowie (a seventh-round pick from Northeastern State in Oklahoma) and Alvin Bailey (a free agent from Arkansas).
Seymour now is listed as the backup to Sweezy. Bowie and Bailey are listed at tackle, but they also can play the guard spots.
Let's dive right in with a few thoughts.
Arizona Cardinals: The team lists two starting tight ends, reflecting coach Bruce Arians' belief that a second tight end affords greater flexibility than a fullback. ... Michael Floyd is the No. 2 receiver opposite Larry Fitzgerald, with Andre Roberts in the No. 3 role. ... Three of the players listed as starting offensive linemen -- left tackle Levi Brown, left guard Jonathan Cooper and right tackle Eric Winston -- did not start a game for the team last season. ... John Abraham is not listed as a starter, but he will obviously "start" in the nickel defense, at least. ... Jerraud Powers is listed as the starting corner opposite Patrick Peterson, with Antoine Cason behind Powers.
St. Louis Rams: Chris Givens and Austin Pettis are listed as the starting wide receivers. Tavon Austin is obviously going to play a lot. Brian Quick enjoyed a strong showing in practice Monday. ... Shelley Smith is listed as the starting left guard ahead of Chris Williams. That job remains up for grabs. ... Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead are the top two running backs, in that order, but we need to see them play. ... The Rams list Eric Stevens as the starting fullback, but this probably isn't going to be much of a two-back team. I'd expect Lance Kendricks to play extensively as the second tight end, and in lieu of a fullback. Kendricks has to get healthy first. ... Rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree is in the lineup and looking like a three-down player already. ... Darian Stewart and rookie third-round choice T.J. McDonald are the starting safeties. There hasn't been much drama at those spots, but let's see how McDonald fares in the preseason.
San Francisco 49ers: The offensive lineup comes with no surprises. Kyle Williams is listed as the receiver opposite Anquan Boldin. Let's see whether A.J. Jenkins can factor there. ... The defense is also pretty well set. Note that Ian Williams is listed as the starting nose tackle over Glenn Dorsey. I don't think that means much. Both are going to play extensively in an expanded rotation. ... C.J. Spillman is listed as the starting free safety, with rookie first-round pick Eric Reid second. That competition remains open. Craig Dahl is listed as the backup strong safety. ... The depth chart still has Chris Culliver as the backup to left corner Carlos Rogers, but Culliver is out with a torn ACL. Tramaine Brock is the early favorite to become the third corner. ... Colt McCoy is the second quarterback, no surprise.
Seattle Seahawks: Paul McQuistan (left) and J.R. Sweezy (right) are listed as the starting guards over early 2011 draft choices James Carpenter and John Moffitt. Carpenter left practice with an apparent injury Monday. ... Rookie Spencer Ware, considered a potential threat to Michael Robinson at fullback, is listed third on the depth chart behind Robinson and Derrick Coleman. ... The team lists two outside linebackers without reference to strong or weak sides. Cliff Avril is listed as the starting right defensive end while Chris Clemons is unavailable. Bruce Irvin, who plays the nickel snaps and has worked at linebacker as well, is listed behind Malcolm Smith at outside linebacker. ... Brandon Browner is listed ahead of Walter Thurmond at right corner. Thurmond got some first-team reps Monday. The Seahawks won't hesitate to start Thurmond if he outplays Browner this summer.
"A third-round QB looks good against other rookies and undrafted players? Who would have thunk it?" TheFault17 wrote May 14, 2012. "Not hating on Wilson at all, but there's way too much stock put in rookie minicamps. Is it September yet?"
The skepticism was warranted even though Wilson later validated the hype.
Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune joined Brock Huard, Danny O'Neil and me Monday in digesting the Seahawks' recently completed 2013 rookie camps. Williams in particular hit the brakes on post-camp excitement. I agree in general but also think he was on the low side in projecting how many 2013 draftees might earn spots on the 53-man roster this season.
710ESPN Seattle has posted the audio to rave reviews. Make that one rave review.
The chart ranks 2012 NFC West draft choices by most games started as rookies. The San Francisco 49ers had zero starts from their rookie draft choices. However, in looking at the 15 players listed in the chart, few would have likely started a game for San Francisco.
- Veteran presence: Veterans were not allowed on the field, but Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman showed up about 20 yards offshore -- on a personal watercraft. For a few minutes, photographers had their backs to practice while they snapped away, their cameras trained on the Seahawks' brashest player. Not that Sherman likes attracting attention. "Was that Sherm?" head coach Pete Carroll quipped, adding in jest that he thought he'd seen workaholic quarterback Russell Wilson peeking over the hill on the other side of the field, away from the water.
- Lots of faces: Seattle had 67 rookies in camp, including 38 players attending on a tryout basis. There were 12 draft choices and 17 players signed as undrafted free agents. Printed rosters have seldom been so helpful.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Ted S. WarrenBarred from attending, veteran corner Richard Sherman watched Seahawks rookies from the water.
- Wilson's legacy: Carroll opened a morning staff meeting by showing video of Wilson struggling with some of the basics, including center exchanges, during the rookie camp last year. Wilson finished the season with a playoff victory and an appearance in the Pro Bowl. Carroll wanted to put into perspective the first day of rookie minicamp so his coaches wouldn't get down on a young player for struggling early.
- Tight end stands out: The recently released tight end Darren Fells was among those trying out. He caught passes consistently, but fifth-round choice Luke Willson was the tight end standing out most demonstrably. He beat safeties in coverage to make catches on the run and separated from defenders. Carroll singled out Willson as impressing him. Carroll: "Luke stood out today. He has really good speed and it showed. Caught the ball really well. That was probably the brightest spot that you could really see a guy jump out on. That was a really good first impression."
- Inside job: Third-round choice Jordan Hill and fifth-rounder Jesse Williams worked together at defensive tackle, sometimes with seventh-rounder Ty Powell lining up in what appeared to be the "Leo" position. Hill and Williams are roommates. Hill played at Penn State, Williams at Alabama. Both played in tradition-rich programs led by old-school coaches, at least until Bill O'Brien succeeded Joe Paterno at Penn State. Carroll's new-school approach comes through loud and clear in the music playing over speakers during practice. Hill said that "wasn't going on in my first three years" at Penn State. "I just enjoy, you get to be yourself," he said.
- Scruggs update: Second-year defensive end Greg Scruggs underwent reconstructive knee surgery Thursday after suffering a non-contact injury while planting awkwardly during a training drill. It's too early to know whether Scruggs could factor at all during the 2013 season.
- Not much to go on: Players wore helmets, jerseys and shorts for practice. No tackling or hitting was allowed. Coaches encouraged defenders to make a quick attempt at stripping the ball from runners before letting them proceed upfield. This was not football, in other words. However, coaches were able to see players move. Second-round running back Christine Michael stood out for his quickness, balance and for the primal scream he let out after running to the end zone on one play. Michael also stood out for his biceps. He practiced in a No. 33 jersey with no sleeves.
- No vets around: Years ago, before the current labor agreement went into place, teams held mandatory camps for veterans and rookies at this time of year. Only rookies are allowed under the current agreement. That made it impossible to compare rookies to the players they'll challenge for roster spots and playing time.
- Smith at center: Seventh-round pick Jared Smith worked at center. He could project at guard, too. The Seahawks are converting him from defensive tackle, a transition J.R. Sweezy made last year. Carroll singled out Smith's quickness. He also praised seventh-round guard Ryan Seymour for having good feet.
- Harper's hands: Carroll liked what he saw from fourth-round receiver Chris Harper. Carroll: "He caught the ball beautifully. He really has great hands."
That's it from here. Every team in the NFC West is holding its rookie camp Friday through Sunday. I would expect each team's coaches to come away excited about new players. That's a good thing. Draft choices come as-is, without receipts. There are no refunds.
Up next: offensive lines.
NFC West teams drafted seven players at the position: guards Jonathan Cooper (seventh overall pick) and Earl Watford (116th) to the Arizona Cardinals; interior lineman Barrett Jones (113th) to the St. Louis Rams; guard Ryan Seymour (220th), defensive tackle-turned-guard Jared Smith (241st) and tackle Michael Bowie (242nd) to the Seattle Seahawks; and tackle Carter Bykowski (246th) to the San Francisco 49ers.
We pick up the conversation there.
Sando: The 49ers were a clear No. 1 in your rankings before the draft.
Williamson: They still are, and I'm not going to change the order from before the draft, but there is a lot to discuss at the position.
Sando: I promise we'll change the order for one of these post-draft rankings pieces.
Williamson: I think Arizona's offensive line is much improved from a year ago, much improved from before the draft, but I still have to keep them at No. 4. I think the Rams have improved too.
Sando: A day or so before the draft, Cooper suddenly became a popular projection to Arizona with the seventh pick, ahead of the other top guard, Chance Warmack. Either way, the Cardinals had their choice of guards in the draft.
Williamson: I love the Cooper pick. Guard was a bigger need than tackle. I thought they would go with Warmack because Bruce Arians has a history with huge and powerful linemen, downhill guys. It shows us how the league is going that so many of these linemen that got picked so high are good athletes. The days of the fat-guy linemen, the slow-footed maulers, are going by the wayside.
Sando: Cooper was seen as the more mobile of the guards relative to Warmack. He makes the Cardinals more athletic up front. Better yet, his selection prevents us from saying any longer that the Cardinals did not select an offensive lineman in the first three rounds since the 2007 draft. Finally, we can put to bed that reminder and focus on things such as ... just how athletic Cooper appears to be.
Williamson: All these teams are implementing up-tempo offenses. You can't have the offensive linemen huffing and puffing as the fattest guys out on the field. Cooper is the better pick over Warmack. They are equal prospects, but very different. Carson Palmer isn't getting out of the way of any interior rush. Cooper should be better in protection. Cardinals fans might not want to hear it, but Cooper might have been the best pick in the whole draft for their team. He does more for them than Luke Joeckel or Eric Fisher.
Sando: We saw the Cardinals and Rams take offensive linemen in the fourth rounds. Of the two, the Rams' pick, Jones, would appear to have the clearest path to a starting job. He could factor at left guard. He could also project as a future center. At the very least, Jones should back up multiple spots.
Williamson: If you are an offensive lineman and you are tough and smart and that is all you can be, you'll probably play 10 years in the league. That is Jones. He's a typical Alabama guy who has gotten the crap beaten out of him for four years, but he is smart as hell, he will play three positions and maybe even get you through a game at left tackle.
Sando: What do you think of the Rams' line overall with Jake Long, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl and Rodger Saffold?
Williamson: They've got some nasty guys. Dahl is nasty, Jones is nasty, Wells has some of that, Long has some of that. Jeff Fisher is looking for a big, physical, nasty group that will take a shot or two after the whistle. They have gone finesse elsewhere on their roster, but not on the offensive line. Most teams are looking for speed and athletes on the line, but the Rams are going for nasty.
Sando: Seattle wants to play that way as well. The Seahawks drafted more offensive linemen than any team in the division, but each was a seventh-round selection. Bowie could be an interesting tackle prospect. Russell Okung helped recruit him to Oklahoma State, but Bowie violated team rules, left the program and wound up at Northeastern (Okla.) State. Smith projects as another J.R. Sweezy-type conversion project for Seattle line coach Tom Cable. The 49ers could use a swing tackle and took a candidate in the seventh round. But the Cardinals were the only NFC West team to address the line in a serious way.
As Mel notes, "Everybody knows you can't grade an NFL draft on performance the day it ends. You can't do it for years, which is part of the reason why I audit old drafts. What I do here is assess three main things: How much overall talent did a team add based on board position? How effectively did they address key personnel needs? How efficient were they in maneuvering on the draft board?"
With those things in mind, let's take a peek at Kiper Jr.'s grades and offer some initial thoughts. The comments I've included from Mel represent a small sampling of his overall thoughts for each team.
St. Louis Rams
Kiper Jr.'s overall grade: A-minus
Kiper Jr.'s give: "I really liked this draft, and found myself in agreement with my colleagues. Oh, and they still have an extra first-rounder next year. The NFC West arms race is not just a two-team affair."
Sando's take: The Rams set up themselves to succeed in this draft when they traded the 2012 second overall choice to the Washington Redskins. I loved the way they emerged from the first round Thursday night with the most highly rated skill-position player (Tavon Austin) and the same number of total picks they brought into the process. The Rams also addressed immediate needs with most of their picks, which always looks good on paper when a draft concludes. However, St. Louis emerged from this draft with only seven players overall. Eighteen teams drafted between eight and 11 players. The Rams had the two early picks, so they got quality. But a home run for me would have included getting quality and quantity. The Rams had only 52 players on their roster coming into the draft. All those open roster spots made it easier for St. Louis to land more attractive rookie free agents, at least.
Kiper Jr.'s overall grade: B
Kiper Jr.'s give: "Nothing remarkable about this class, but Carson Palmer's chance to succeed has improved with the presence of Jonathan Cooper, and there's plenty of sleeper potential."
Sando's take: The Cardinals came away with nine players after entering the draft with seven picks. The team had never drafted more than eight players in any year since 2001. The more picks a team has, in general, the more chances to acquire a long-term contributor. Coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim came into the draft saying their offensive line was going to be OK, particularly at tackle. The team still used the seventh and 116th overall choices for guards, an indication Arians and Keim agreed with public concerns there. I thought Arizona would have been more aggressive in targeting a safety, but the team expects Tyrann Mathieu to provide some flexibility at that position. Adding a couple running backs later in the draft made sense. Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams have breakout potential, but neither has been reliable lately.
San Francisco 49ers
Kiper Jr.'s overall grade: B
Kiper Jr.'s give: "I'd like this draft a little more if they got a safety I had rated higher, but they did well, just as you figured they would."
Sando's take: Analysts are going to disagree about the value of specific players. Kiper Jr. didn't like safety Eric Reid so much. Another analyst, Nolan Nawrocki of Pro Football Weekly, ranked Reid as the 14th-best player in the draft on his overall list published in March. I often prefer revisiting player grades issued well before the draft. I'm skeptical when grades change in the absence of actual football being played. Reid comes to the 49ers as a lower-cost alternative to Dashon Goldson. The 49ers came out of this draft with a likely immediate starter in Reid while addressing needs that might not become acute for another year or so. General manager Trent Baalke likes to say he's in it for the long haul. This draft addressed longer-term needs on the defensive line (Tank Carradine) and at running back (Marcus Lattimore) in particular. Getting a 2014 third-round choice from Tennessee was another long-term move.
Kiper Jr.'s overall grade: B
Kiper Jr.'s give: "I don't know that Seattle added a starter among their picks, but they certainly added one in Percy Harvin."
Sando's take: The Seahawks have earned the benefit of the doubt in the draft after hitting home runs with Russell Wilson and other players selected over the past three years. I think analysts would be harsher in their day-after-draft analyses if they hadn't been forced to eat their words regarding Wilson in particular. The Seahawks have proven they know what they're doing. Including Harvin in the analysis changes the overall feel for this draft. Otherwise, we could reasonably say the team came away with a backup running back, depth at defensive tackle and a complimentary wide receiver. I can see why the Seahawks wanted to have so many seventh-round picks (four). One, the team has come away with potential starters in that round previously, including J.R. Sweezy. Two, Seattle has relatively few openings on its roster, making it tougher for the team to recruit undrafted free agents. Those seventh-round picks gave Seattle a jump on priority free agents.
RENTON, Wash. -- The more the Seattle Seahawks watched game tape on Tavon Austin, the more they realized the West Virginia receiver would not last long in the 2013 NFL draft.
Back in mid-March, the Seahawks could not know Austin would land with the NFC West-rival St. Louis Rams. They had recently traded the 25th overall choice to the Minnesota Vikings to acquire another multidimensional wideout, Percy Harvin.
John Schneider, the Seahawks' general manager, felt relief Thursday when the Rams traded up eight spots in the first round to make Austin the first skill-position player selected.
It's not that Schneider was happy to see such an elite talent land in St. Louis. Quite the opposite. Even the Seahawks' suffocating secondary could have its troubles against a receiver as gifted as Austin. It's just that the way the first round played out affirmed the Seahawks' decision to acquire Harvin. They could not have secured another wideout with as much playmaking potential had they held onto the 25th overall pick.
Austin wasn't going to be there for them.
Once the Rams moved up from 16th to eighth for Austin, no NFL teams selected a wideout until the Houston Texans drafted Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins at No. 27. Cordarrelle Patterson went to the Vikings two picks later.
"Quite honestly, it made me feel at peace just because of where we were with the Percy deal when it started," Schneider said following the third round Friday night.
Both Hopkins and Patterson are obviously talented, but if they had struck evaluators as fitting into the Austin/Harvin mold, teams would have been tripping over one another in a rush to draft them earlier.
Schneider's thinking came into clearer focus in the weeks since Seattle made the move for Harvin before free agency opened March 12.
"I really wasn't quite sure, didn't feel really strongly about the difference makers at the receiver position at that level of the first round [in the 25th-pick range]," Schneider reflected. "And then the closer we got to the draft, the tape on Austin, it just kind of became obvious that he was going to be an extremely high pick."
That commentary should please Rams fans and Seahawks fans alike. Each team's leadership thought Austin was special. The Seahawks knew they had to deal for Harvin if they hoped to land a similar player. Not that Austin and Harvin are interchangeable. While both threaten the end zone as receivers, runners and returners, Harvin has a much sturdier build. He's part running back and part receiver in a much fuller sense. But touchdowns are touchdowns, and both teams expect their new wideouts to supply them multiple ways.
"We really do think Percy is our No. 1 pick," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He is part of this class."
Acquiring Harvin and addressing other areas of the roster during free agency left Seattle without significant needs entering this draft. That allowed the Seahawks, already loaded in the backfield with Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin, to indulge in Texas A&M running back Christine Michael.
This was a luxury pick and arguably a nonsensical one. It's also the sort of move smart organizations make. Seattle didn't have a need at quarterback when the team used a third-round draft choice for Russell Wilson last season. That move worked out pretty well.
The Seahawks could realistically be in the market for a new back two years down the line if Lynch's bruising style shortens his career. Having Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter on the roster didn't stop the San Francisco 49ers from using a second-round choice for LaMichael James last year. The 49ers took some heat when their 2012 draft class failed to produce much, but such is life for contending teams.
"We'll let these guys go at it, make sure everybody is aware of the competitive opportunity and hopefully that continues to make them elevate," Carroll said. "Sometimes there is a subtle way they help us by making other guys play well."
Not that Seattle was without needs entirely.
"Defensive tackle was definitely a need for us -- adding depth to the position," Schneider said. "That was the one spot that quite honestly, when you're putting it together, you are nervous you are maybe pushing players because of the need."
Seattle used its third-round choice (87th overall) for Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill. He'll probably contribute more as a pass-rusher than a run stuffer, differentiating him clearly from Alan Branch, who left in free agency. The Seahawks felt the talent at defensive tackle was about to drop off quickly as the third round gave way to the fourth. That gave them additional incentive to grab Hill.
The Seahawks hold 10 picks in the fourth through seventh rounds. Schneider and Carroll previously found K.J. Wright, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor in that range. Others such as Turbin, Walter Thurmond, Jeremy Lane, Anthony McCoy, J.R. Sweezy and Malcolm Smith came to Seattle in those rounds.
There might not be a Tavon Austin or Percy Harvin out there, but as the Seahawks and Rams discovered, that was the case eight picks into the draft.
"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.
Two linebackers the team did not want on its roster could help the team as well.
The 2011 trade sending linebacker Aaron Curry to Oakland already returned a 2012 seventh-round choice used for potential starting guard J.R. Sweezy. The deal has also armed the Seahawks with a fifth-round choice in the 2013 draft.
Seattle has used fifth-round picks for Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Korey Toomer and Mark LeGree since coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider took over in 2010. Chancellor has been voted to the Pro Bowl. Sherman has been voted to the Associated Press All-Pro team.
Another former Seahawks linebacker, Barrett Ruud, has returned a 2013 seventh-round choice to Seattle after never playing in a game for the Seahawks. Seattle traded Ruud to New Orleans last offseason after using a second-round choice for Wagner. Ruud wasn't likely to earn a roster spot in Seattle, but the Seahawks were able to trade him when New Orleans found itself in desperate need for help at linebacker.
Seattle has seven of its own choices in the 2013 draft, plus three acquired by trade.
In addition to the picks received for Curry and Ruud, Seattle has a 2013 seventh-rounder from Buffalo stemming from the Tarvaris Jackson trade. That pick could have upgraded to a higher round if Jackson would have played for the Bills.
Jackson became expendable to the Seahawks after the team signed Matt Flynn and drafted its eventual starter, Russell Wilson.
With Kiper's 2012 draft re-grade in mind, I've put together a list showing the NFC West rookie draft choices providing the most value relative to draft status, at least in my view.
I've ruled out players drafted in the first two rounds, figuring those players should produce relatively early in their careers. I've ruled out special-teams players, figuring teams can find those throughout the draft. And I've ruled out mid-round picks contributing as backups, figuring those players should contribute as backups.
We're left with eight players, four of them drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, three by the St. Louis Rams and two by the Arizona Cardinals. The San Francisco 49ers did not need their rookies as much this season.
St. Louis' Trumaine Johnson arguably should be on the list. He made three starts and picked off two passes as a third-round choice. In the end, that seemed reasonable for a player drafted 65th overall. Johnson's teammate, kicker Greg Zuerlein, would lead any list of special-teams draft choices in the division.
I left off the Cardinals' Ryan Lindley even though he became Arizona's starting quarterback as a sixth-round choice. Lindley exceeded expectations in becoming a starter. However, he had zero touchdown passes and seven interceptions while ranking last in Total QBR (9.8) among the 43 quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts during the regular season.
- Peter Morelli is the referee. The Redskins have to hope officials watch closely for the aggressive tactics Seattle's cornerbacks use in coverage. Morelli's crew called only two of 62 penalties for illegal contact in the NFL this season. His crew was right at the NFL average with 17 calls for defensive pass interference. His crew was ranked tied for second with 12 penalties for defensive holding. Here's the deal, though: Morelli's crew is not working this game. It's an all-star crew. Referees are directly responsible for calling roughing the passer. Morelli called four such penalties this season, right at the NFL average.
- The word on Morelli. Football Zebras is increasingly becoming a resource for officiating analysis. Its thoughts on Morelli: "Pete Morelli always gives a yeoman-like performance; he’s not going to win you over with style points, but he runs a tight ship." Note that the NFL removed head linesman Dana McKenzie from this game to avoid potential conflict with Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall stemming from a previous incident.
- White on white. The Seahawks are wearing their white pants and white jerseys for this game.
- Watch for tight ends. The Redskins have allowed 10 touchdowns to opposing tight ends this season. Only Houston (11) and Denver (11) have allowed more. The Seahawks' Zach Miller and Anthony McCoy could be players to watch. Each had three touchdown receptions during the regular season. Seattle's tight ends had zero touchdowns during the 2011 season.
- Putting on the clamps. Seattle has allowed 10 touchdown passes to opposing wide receivers. That ranks fifth in the league and is in line with some of the Seahawks' division rivals. The top five in fewest scoring passes allowed to wideouts: Atlanta Falcons 7, San Francisco 49ers 9, Cincinnati Bengals 10, Seahawks 10, St. Louis Rams 10. Arizona ranked 15th with 14 allowed.
- Guard in cross hairs.. The Seahawks think rookie right guard J.R. Sweezy has Pro Bowl potential. They're also taking a risk playing such an inexperienced player against a team known for unleashing confusing blitzes. Sweezy struggled against Arizona in the opener and again, at times, against St. Louis in Week 17. He did not play much in between. I'll be watching to see how well he handles protections.
The teams will be announcing inactive players soon. I'm not expecting big surprises. Of course, If I were expecting big surprises, they wouldn't be surprises.
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is the only non-specialist I see on the field at this time. He's working on his backpedal and breaking on passes thrown by a Seahawks staffer. Sherman has every reason to revel in the opportunity Sunday after dodging a four-game suspension on Thursday.
Sherman will start for Seattle. The team will be without injured linebacker Leroy Hill. The speedy but inexperienced Malcolm Smith will start in Hill's place.
Also inactive for Seattle: safety Winston Guy, cornerback Walter Thurmond, cornerback DeShawn Shead, guard Rishaw Johnson, guard John Moffitt and tackle Mike Person. Moffitt, a former starter, is inactive for a second consecutive week. The team has decided it's better off with rookie seventh-round choice J.R. Sweezy in the lineup at right guard. Sweezy started in Week 1 and again against San Francisco last week.
The Rams' inactive list includes quarterback Austin Davis, receiver Steve Smith, running back Terrance Ganaway, tight end Cory Harkey, linebacker Sammy Brown, tackle Joe Barksdale and defensive tackle Matt Conrath. No surprises there.