NFC West: Na'il Diggs

The St. Louis Rams have been hurting at outside linebacker for some time.

One obvious reason: The team hasn't used higher than a seventh-round choice for an outside linebacker since using a 2006 third-rounder for Jon Alston, who played three games for the team and was gone after one season.

The trend continued this year when the Rams used a seventh-round choice, 209th overall, for Hawaii outside linebacker Aaron Brown.

The Rams are set at middle linebacker after using a 2009 second-round choice for James Laurinaitis, who has started all 48 games over three seasons.

The chart shows the Rams' starting linebackers over the past three seasons, according to Pro Football Reference. Of those listed, only Laurinaitis remains with the team. No other linebacker on the roster has started a game for the Rams. Some players listed in the chart started additional games for the team before 2009.

The Rams could not realistically address all their needs with the available resources this offseason. Outside linebacker remains a position they'll have to address in the future, presumably with something more valuable than the seventh-round choices they used for Brown (2012), Jabara Williams (2011), inside linebacker Josh Hull (2010), Chris Chamberlain (2008) and David Vobora (2008).

St. Louis is the only team to use no picks in the third through sixth rounds for a linebacker since 2007. The team has used a league-high five seventh-rounders for the position over that span. Free-agent additions Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Rocky McIntosh and Mario Haggan are among the leading candidates to start at outside linebacker.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says Michael Crabtree's return to the practice field Monday might have violated NFL rules regarding players on the physically unable to perform list. Maiocco: "Crabtree, whom the 49ers have yet to remove from the physically-unable-to-perform list, caught more than 20 passes during warmups from quarterbacks Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Josh McCown and McLeod Bethel-Thompson. Crabtree even caught a pass from coach Jim Harbaugh before general manager Trent Baalke walked onto the practice field, apparently, to inform Harbaugh that Crabtree was not allowed to physically participate in any aspect of practice until he's removed from the PUP list. Crabtree was not in uniform. He wore a red sweatshirt, gray shorts and a backward baseball cap." Harbaugh has created an adversarial relationship with reporters by banning them from the bulk of practices and withholding even the most basic injury-related information. When I visited camp, Harbaugh bristled when asked about injuries and even threatened to curtail access further if the questioning continued. In short, the 49ers have invited harsher scrutiny. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello: "We are looking into it. We appreciate Trent Baalke contacting our office to report what happened. Our understanding is that it occurred during warm-ups and that Michael Crabtree did not participate in practice."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee indicates Crabtree did catch passes during the practice session. Barrows: "Wearing shorts, a red sweatshirt, black cleats and a baseball cap, Crabtree spent about 10 minutes during the warm-up period catching passes from Alex Smith. When practice began, he headed to a middle field with the four quarterbacks and Harbaugh. He lined up wide of the group and took a few quick steps like a receiver would before catching screen passes from each of the quarterbacks. He caught passes from both sides of the formation, but never ran more than five yards. After about five minutes, general manager Trent Baalke walked over to Harbaugh, presumably to tell the coach that Crabtree was not allowed to take part in practice. Crabtree then moved to the team's artificial-surface field where he began his usual rehabilitation work."

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers deserve none of the breaks a rebuilding team would get when fans evaluate the 2011 season.

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News says Frank Gore does not expect a quick resolution to his contract situation.

Also from Inman: The 49ers admitted to an "oversight" regarding Crabtree.

Also from Maiocco: The 49ers received a 2013 seventh-round choice in return for safety Taylor Mays after making it clear Mays was not in their plans.

More from Maiocco: Left tackle Joe Staley makes no excuses for the 49ers' struggles on the offensive line.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says fifth-round draft choice Mark LeGree faces stiff competition for a roster spot despite entering camp amid high expectations from the team. Farnsworth: "He was very productive in college and drafted with the thought that he could play free safety in the nickel and dime packages, allowing Earl Thomas to step up and cover a slot receiver. But Josh Pinkard and even free agent Jeron Johnson have been better in that role during training camp and the preseason. LeGree has the potential to develop into the player the coaches expect him to be. He’s just not there yet."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times has this to say about the Seahawks trading cornerback Kelly Jennings to Cincinnati: "The trade of Jennings reflects the fact Seattle is so pleased with the performance of Brandon Browner and the development of rookies Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell that the Seahawks didn't foresee a role for Jennings in the secondary this season."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic updates Greg Toler's injury situation with the Cardinals. Somers: "Coach Ken Whisenhunt wouldn't say who will move up the depth chart to take over for Toler, although many assume it will be first-round draft pick Patrick Peterson, who has been brought along slowly. Peterson said he and veteran Richard Marshall split time running with the first-team defense during Monday's practice, but he wasn't ready to declare the starting job is his."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says practicing in severe heat Monday took a toll on the Cardinals. The Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers do not have indoor practice facilities. The Cardinals in particular need one. Whisenhunt has affected significant change since arriving as head coach in 2007. Getting an indoor facility built should be a top priority. Larry Fitzgerald: "The first thing to go when you are dehydrated is memory, you forget your routes, things like that, so honestly, it does condition you to push through. You have to find a way to persevere."

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch updates rookie Lance Kendricks' progress with the Rams. Coats: "After three preseason games, Kendricks is the Rams' leading receiver, with eight catches for 82 yards. He's scored two touchdowns, also a team high. ... Kendricks played basketball his freshman and sophomore years at King, and twice placed in the state track meet in the triple jump. He chose Wisconsin over Louisiana State and Arkansas despite the Badgers' run-first approach on offense. At the time, Kendricks was a wide receiver, and he'd observed the success that St. Louisan Brandon Williams and Jonathan Orr were having at wideout for Wisconsin."

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com passes along roster-related updates for the Rams. Wagoner: "On Monday, the Rams made a few more moves to get closer to the final 80. Heading the list is veteran LB Na’il Diggs. Diggs signed with the Rams before last season and was solid at strong side linebacker before a pectoral injury ended his season about a month early. But the team signed Brady Poppinga in the offseason and he appears to have won the job. DB John Dempsey and DL Kenneth Charles were also let go."
The St. Louis Rams added considerable seasoning to their roster this offseason.

They'll be subtracting some veteran flavor as well.

Veteran linebacker Na'il Diggs' release, confirmed by the team Monday, seemed likely from the day St. Louis added another veteran linebacker, Ben Leber, early in training camp. Diggs is 33 and coming off a season-ending pectoral injury. Leber is 32 and has not missed a game since 2006, when he missed one. He has played 16 games in a season seven times in nine years.

With Diggs gone, the Rams have 14 players aged 30 or older. Most project as likely to stick around on the eventual reduction to 53 players.

I would not expect the Rams to get significantly younger through their two-deep depth chart. They could use depth at cornerback and possibly up front on offense. The interior offensive line is easily overlooked after the team signed Harvey Dahl in free agency and worked out a new deal with Jacob Bell. I could see the Rams monitoring the waiver wire for veteran backup help. New coordinator Josh McDaniels values size and power on the interior.

The Rams are also releasing defensive end Kenneth Charles and safety John Dempsey. That brings their roster to 83 players heading toward the Tuesday deadline for compliance with the 80-man limit. The team could get to 80 without cutting anyone. Jermelle Cudjo (back), Jerome Murphy (ankle) and Dionte Dinkins (knee) are candidates for injured reserve.
A few thoughts on NFC West rosters after calculating age ranks for NFL teams based on the rosters I maintain:
  • The chart ranks teams from oldest to youngest, excluding special-teams players who can sometimes play into their 40s. The first column shows overall rank, counting offensive and defensive players. The third and fourth columns show where teams rank on each side of the ball. These are for starters and backups. In some cases, teams might plan to release older backups on the reduction to 53 players.

  • Arizona Cardinals: Earlier in the preseason, Kevin Kolb referred to the Cardinals as a young team. They do have young players, some of whom played extensively last season and should be better for it. But the Cardinals have the sixth-oldest roster in the league overall. Vonnie Holliday (35), Clark Haggans (34), Joey Porter (34), Paris Lenon (33), Floyd Womack (32), Adrian Wilson (31), Todd Heap (31) and Nick Eason (31) are some of them. The team has also favored veteran offensive linemen, including veteran backups.

  • St. Louis Rams: The Rams got older on purpose, adding seasoning to their defense through players added on one-year deals. Al Harris (36) is the oldest non-specialist on the team. James Hall (34) and Fred Robbins (34) remain valuable contributors. Both start. Rookie Robert Quinn will likely replace Hall at some point. Drafting a defensive tackle in the first round of the 2012 draft could make sense, too. Some of the Rams' additions could come at the expense of incumbent veterans such as Hank Fraley (34 next month) and Na'il Diggs (33).

  • San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers have gotten younger this offseason, particularly on defense. They subtracted Takeo Spikes (34), Aubrayo Franklin (31 this week), Travis LaBoy (30), Brian Westbrook, Nate Clements (31), Brian Westbrook (32 next month), William James (32), Barry Sims (36) and Demetric Evans (32 next month).. Fulback Moran Norris (33) is their oldest non-specialist. The team has only six non-specialists in their 30s, half as many as the Cardinals have.

  • Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks have been getting younger by design over the past two seasons. Like the 49ers, they have only six non-specialists in their 30s, with none older than 33 (Raheem Brock). They have subtracted Sean Locklear (30), Matt Hasselbeck (36 next month), Stacy Andrews (30), J.P. Losman (30), Brandon Stokley (35), Lawyer Milloy (37), Chester Pitts (32) and Craig Terrill (31). Most general managers want to make their teams younger when starting out. In Seattle, the head coach is also amendable to that approach. But a few players such as Brock (33), Junior Siavii (32), Colin Cole (31), Marcus Trufant (30) and Atari Bigby (30 next month) have kept the Seahawks defensive ranking from sinking further. Seattle is 16th oldest on that side of the ball.

I've sprouted a couple new gray hairs just typing in some of these names. Might be time to squeeze in an afternoon workout.

Three things revisited: Rams-Colts

August, 13, 2011
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Looking back on three things discussed here heading into the St. Louis Rams' 33-10 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in their preseason opener Saturday:

1. A Rams victory: This was the easiest part to predict. The Colts were 4-22 in the preseason since 2005. They were without Peyton Manning. The Rams couldn't have scripted this one much better. Their new strong safety, Quintin Mikell, picked off a Colts pass early. Their new tight end, second-round choice Lance Kendricks, caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from Sam Bradford for the game's first points. Rookie first-round pick Robert Quinn was active, hitting quarterback Dan Orlovsky to help force a punt. Even kicker Josh Brown got in on the fun, connecting on a 60-yard field-goal try.

2. Signs of separation at receiver: Nothing doing here. Kendricks produced, but he's a tight end, not a wide receiver. Danario Alexander nearly had a 3-yard touchdown reception and an acrobatic grab for a big gain. He couldn't finish either play. Bradford played into the second quarter, but never found a rhythm with his wideouts. He threw to the end zone on one play when his wide receiver, Brandon Gibson, cut off his route. The Rams are learning a new offense. It might have shown there.

3. New blood at linebacker: Zac Diles and Brady Poppinga made their debuts for the Rams. I don't have a great feel for how they played. The newly signed Ben Leber did not play. Veteran Na'il Diggs appeared to get away with pass interference. Chris Chamberlain wasn't as fortunate. Poppinga and Josh Hull were trailing a 33-yard completion to Colts tight end Tyson DeVree. Not sure what happened there.

Three things: Rams-Colts

August, 13, 2011
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Three things to watch for in the St. Louis Rams' preseason opener against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET:

1. A Rams victory: The Colts are 4-22 in the preseason since 2005, and now they're playing without Peyton Manning. The Colts have been a star-reliant team without as much depth through their roster. That makes it tougher for them to hold up over four quarters in games featuring backup players so prominently. The Rams' depth has been improving steadily. So, while preseason outcomes generally do not matter much, this game could be an exception. The Rams should control it most of the way. They have gone 6-2 in preseason games under coach Steve Spagnuolo.

2. Signs of separation at receiver. The Rams come into this game with 12 wide receivers on their roster and only a general idea how the top five or six will shake out. Donnie Avery and fourth-round choice Greg Salas aren't expected to play. Both are resting injuries. Mardy Gilyard also could miss the game. We know where Danny Amendola stands as the slot receiver. The Rams will be looking for Brandon Gibson to build upon a promising start to camp. They need free-agent addition Mike Sims-Walker to earn a prominent role in the offense. Sims-Walker had 14 touchdown receptions for Jacksonville over the past two seasons. No wide receiver has more than five scoring receptions for the Rams over the same span. New coordinator Josh McDaniels likes taller receivers. Nine of the 12 receivers on the roster are at least 6-foot-1. Will any come up big before the regular season?

3. New blood at linebacker. Mainstay James Laurinaitis will not play. He's resting a strained pectoral muscle. Free-agent addition Ben Leber will also sit out. He signed with the team late in the week. Zac Diles and Brady Poppinga are two linebackers to watch. Both are veterans and Poppinga is an older one (he turns 32 next month). Another veteran, Na'il Diggs, hung around on the roster even after Leber's addition. He turned 33 last month. While the Rams have new blood at linebacker, it's not young blood. Getting through this game without new injuries at the position will be important. Poppinga and Diggs missed a combined 14 games to injury last season.
NFL teams routinely target players they know well during free agency.

The St. Louis Rams had an "in" with veteran linebacker Ben Leber, who reached agreement with the team Tuesday. Their linebackers coach, Paul Ferraro, was with the Vikings from 2006-08. Their defensive line coach, Brendan Daly, was also with Minnesota during those years.

Leber's addition calls into question veteran Na'il Diggs' status with the team. Diggs finished last season on injured reserve with a torn pectoral.

The Seattle Seahawks also had interest in Leber. They had ties to Leber as well; Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell was with the Vikings previously. Leber's ties to Ferraro and Daly were obviously stronger. Both worked on the defensive side.
NFC West teams are moving quickly to land linebackers as the signing period approaches.

A few quick updates:
  • The St. Louis Rams agreed to terms on a deal with former Houston Texans linebacker Zac Diles, Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. The Rams have big needs at outside linebacker. Diles has started 30 games for Houston over the last three seasons. He has played both the strong and weak sides of the formation. Diles shifted from strong to weak side a couple of years ago when a broken leg ended his season and the Texans drafted Brian Cushing. Diles, 26, gives the Rams young legs and starting experience next to James Laurinaitis. As for which side he'll play, I'm not yet sure.
  • The Arizona Cardinals reached agreement with Philadelphia Eagles inside linebacker Stewart Bradley. ESPN's Adam Schefter alluded to the pending agreement earlier Friday. The Cardinals released veteran inside linebacker Gerald Hayes, who has had back problems. Bradley, 27, has 28 starts over the last two seasons. He fills a clear need for Arizona, giving the Cardinals another inside linebacker to pair with second-year pro Daryl Washington.
  • Our third linebacker in the spotlight isn't new to the division. The Seahawks brought back Leroy Hill as insurance after losing Will Herring to New Orleans in free agency.

Just passing along. These additions fill needs in every case, particularly for the Rams and Cardinals. All three linebackers remain in their 20s. The Rams and Cardinals had been patching at linebacker with older players such as Paris Lenon, who played for both teams, and Na'il Diggs.
Aaron Schatz's piece on defensive stop rates caught my attention for what it did not include, namely any mention of NFC West players among the highest- or lowest-ranked linebackers.

The San Francisco 49ers' Patrick Willis sets the standard at the position. The St. Louis Rams' James Laurinaitis has emerged as one of the better 4-3 middle linebackers. The Seattle Seahawks' Lofa Tatupu, slowed by injuries recently, also escaped mention.

Taking a closer look at the criteria allowed for a fuller understanding of the statistic. Stop rates reflect what percentage of a player's statistics produce successful outcomes against running plays. The stat defines successful outcomes as those when the opposing runner fails to gain certain percentages of the yards required for first downs. The percentage is 45 on first-down runs, 60 on second-down runs and 100 on third- or fourth-down runs.

So, if Willis tackled the opposing runner after a 4-yard gain on first-and-10, the tackle would qualify as a successful stop because the runner gained only 40 percent of the yards needed for a new set of downs. But if Willis tackled the opposing runner following a 4-yard gain on the ensuing second-and-5 play, his effort would count as a failure because the runner would have gained 80 percent of the yards needed for a first down.

The stat does not necessarily measure how well a specific defender plays the run, but it does paint a clearer picture of where defenders make their tackles in relation to the first-down marker. A player talented enough to make plays all over the field could have a lower stop rate than a player with less range. This likely explains Willis' relatively low stop rate (57 percent).

Schatz provided NFC West-specific information for the charts below. Each player had at least 25 tackles on running plays.

The stats for linebackers seem to penalize Willis in particular for his ability to make clean-up tackles anywhere.

The 49ers allowed 3.46 yards per rushing attempt, second only to the Pittsburgh Steelers (3.02) among NFL teams.

For defensive backs, note that strong safeties ranked higher than free safeties because they generally focus more on run support. Free safeties would be more apt to make tackles well downfield, whether or not they were primarily responsible for allowing the gains.

The Arizona Cardinals' running game should perk up this season if Beanie Wells revisits the hard-charging form he flashed during his rookie season two years ago.

The passion Wells showed Monday in defending his former college coach wouldn't hurt, either.

Wells, one of 11 NFC West players from Ohio State, took Jim Tressel's scandal-induced resignation hard. The third-year Cardinals runner called Tressel a "great man" who imparted life lessons upon his players. The way Wells sees things, if Tressel lied about his players' roles in the scandal, he did so only out of honor.

Wells punctuated his tweets with exclamation points, making good on his promise to "go off" while criticism against Tressel piled up.

"It's not his fault at all that he had a few go stray out of hundreds!!!" Wells wrote. "U check the success rate of the people that have been around him!!!!"

According to Wells, Tressel stepped up to help players from disadvantaged backgrounds, becoming more than just a coach to them.

Wells is among 10 current NFC West players from Ohio State, but the only one playing for the Cardinals.

All but St. Louis Rams linebacker Na'il Diggs and San Francisco 49ers cornerback Nate Clements played for Tressel. The NFC West players from Ohio State: Clements, Troy Smith, Ted Ginn Jr., Alex Boone and Thaddeus Gibson from the 49ers; Jay Richardson from the Seattle Seahawks; Diggs, Jermale Hines, Larry Grant and James Laurinaitis from the Rams.

Laurinaitis reportedly used the term "sad day" to describe the events Monday. Smith was once suspended for accepting money from a booster when Tressel was coach.

Age before beauty in the NFC West

March, 8, 2011
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The NFL draft provides teams an opportunity to get younger.

Invariably, older players wind up playing extensively when injuries strike and/or some of those youngsters prove not quite ready for the big leagues.

In Arizona last season, 36-year-old Bryan Robinson made 16 starts at nose tackle even though the Cardinals used a first-round choice for the position.

In San Francisco, 36-year-old tackle Barry Sims started at least seven games for a third consecutive season, proving valuable when a broken leg sidelined Joe Staley.

In St. Louis, James Hall, now 34, and Fred Robbins, who turns 34 this month, started every game and provided stellar play on the defensive front.

In Seattle, strong safety Lawyer Milloy, the oldest non-specialist in the division, collected four sacks while starting 16 games.

Teams will once again add fresh young talent this offseason. Some of the older players will fade away. Others will rise up and produce again.

A few thoughts on the chart, which lists the 20 oldest non-specialists in the NFC West:
  • Cardinals guard Alan Faneca is considering retirement. The team has veteran guards in relief, but leadership could be a concern.
  • Brandon Stokley immediately showed his value to Seattle as a slot receiver. He also suffered another in a long line of concussions. It's hard not to wince every time he takes a hit.
  • Raheem Brock had nine sacks for Seattle. His contract is expiring. The team could use his production and Brock has earned a raise, but to what extent did his performance reflect a contract-year spike? Rewarding an older player following one strong season can be tough for a rebuilding team.
  • Arizona's Clark Haggans has a $2.5 million salary and $500,000 roster bonus this season. I'd be tempted to bring him back.
  • Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt defended Joey Porter's play, suggesting the veteran pass-rusher played more snaps than anticipated, diminishing Porter's ability to contribute as consistently. That is fair, but Porter surely will not return under his current deal, which carries a $5.75 million salary.
  • Takeo Spikes has continued playing well at inside linebacker for the 49ers. Will the 49ers' new staff move on in an attempt to get younger? Seems like Spikes should have value to a new staff in a transition year.
  • Another veteran linebacker, Na'il Diggs of the Rams, was playing well last season until suffering a torn pectoral. Looks like the Rams need to make outside linebacker a priority in the draft.

And now, on with the chart ...

Leading Questions: NFC West

February, 14, 2011
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With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC West team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

ARIZONA CARDINALS

What happens to the offensive line?

We've been asking, answering and asking some more questions about the Cardinals' quarterback situation for months. Let's tap a few brain cells to discuss the guys up front.

Center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui are without contracts for 2011. Left guard Alan Faneca might retire. Right tackle Brandon Keith is coming off hamstring and knee injuries that shortened his first season as a starter. The Cardinals do not have fresh talent in reserve. They have drafted only one offensive lineman in the first four rounds since Ken Whisenhunt became head coach in 2007. Twenty-seven teams have drafted more. As much as the team trusts assistant head coach Russ Grimm to get the most from its offensive line, Arizona could use fresh young talent for him to groom.

The Cardinals went through the 2010 season with the NFL's oldest offensive linemen, counting backups. That wouldn't matter so much if left tackle Levi Brown were meeting the Pro Bowl expectations that came with his status as a top-five overall selection in the 2007 draft. Brown was underwhelming at right tackle to begin his career and a liability at left tackle last season. His salary balloons in 2012, so this could be his last season in Arizona.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Can the defense take the next step?

The Rams allowed 328 points last season, tied for the third-lowest total since the team moved from Los Angeles for the 1995 season. They allowed seven rushing touchdowns, their lowest total since 1999 and down from 50 combined over the previous two seasons. But with starting defensive linemen James Hall and Fred Robbins turning 34 this offseason, and with questions at linebacker, the Rams' defense will not automatically go from competitive toward dominant.

Hall will be looking to become the 14th player since 1982 (when the NFL began tracking sacks as an official stat) to collect 10 sacks in a season at age 34 or older. The others: Trace Armstrong, Chris Doleman, William Fuller, Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Tony McGee, Steve McMichael, John Randle, Warren Sapp, Bruce Smith, Michael Strahan and Reggie White.

Robbins is coming off one of his finest seasons. He joined Keith Traylor, Jeff Zgonina and Ray Agnew among defensive tackles to set career highs for sacks at age 32 or older in the free-agency era (since 1993).

Getting similar production and continued good health from two older players is no given. The Rams also need to find help at outside linebacker after losing 32-year-old Na'il Diggs to a torn pectoral muscle 12 games into the 2010 season. The Rams are set at middle linebacker with James Laurinaitis, but they could stand to upgrade around him.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

How well can Jim Harbaugh coach up a quarterback?

When the 49ers' new coach needed a quarterback at Stanford, he recruited one. Andrew Luck set records and led the Cardinal to national prominence. Recruiting isn't a significant part of the equation in the NFL, so Harbaugh will have to settle for the best quarterback he can draft or otherwise acquire. He might even have to give Alex Smith a shot.

The 49ers will need Harbaugh to do what his recent predecessors could not: get good production from limited or flawed talent at the most important position.

Rich Gannon was well-established as an NFL quarterback when Harbaugh arrived as his position coach in Oakland for the 2002 season. The pairing reflected well on all parties. Gannon set career highs for completed passes, attempts, completion percentage, passing yards and passer rating. Gannon was already a good quarterback and the Raiders were already a good team, so it's tough to measure Harbaugh's impact.

Gannon is long since retired. Harbaugh is back in the NFL for the first time since the two were together on the Raiders in 2003. The 49ers don't have a legitimate starting quarterback under contract. Harbaugh has been meeting with Smith and keeping open his options. The stakes are high in the short term because the 49ers have enough talent elsewhere on their roster to compete for a playoff spot.

Outside expectations for Smith are so low that Harbaugh could appear heroic if he could get even a 9-7 record out of the 49ers with Smith in the lineup.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

How much more roster turnover lies ahead?

The Seahawks were fearless in overhauling their roster during their first year under general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll.

The team added Marshawn Lynch, Leon Washington, Chris Clemons, Stacy Andrews, Tyler Polumbus, Kentwan Balmer, Kevin Vickerson, Robert Henderson and LenDale White, though Seattle parted with Vickerson, Henderson, White and 2009 regulars Deion Branch, Julius Jones, Owen Schmitt, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Josh Wilson, Lawrence Jackson, Rob Sims, Darryl Tapp, Deon Grant and Seneca Wallace. The Seahawks watched a couple other starters, Nate Burleson and Cory Redding, leave in free agency.

If those were the moves the Seahawks felt comfortable making right away, I figured there would be quite a few to come after the team's new leadership watched players for a full season. And there still could be, but similar wheeling and dealing could be impractical or even impossible if the current labor standoff continues deep into the offseason.

Teams cannot make trades without a new labor agreement. They cannot know for sure whether or not a salary cap will come into play as part of any new deal. It's just tough to act as decisively as Seattle acted last offseason without knowing the rules. That's a disadvantage for Seattle and other teams with much work to do this offseason.

Rams regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 17
Preseason Power Ranking: 32

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Icon SMISam Bradford proved to be more durable than analysts predicted.
Biggest surprise: Rookie quarterback Sam Bradford took every offensive snap even though draft analysts questioned his durability coming out of college. Bradford earned the starting job and teammates' respect right away. Bradford was not perfect. He needs to continue improving as a pocket passer. An improved command of the offense and situations will allow him to make better presnap adjustments at the line of scrimmage. But all signs point to Bradford's developing more quickly than expected. He also proved to be more athletic than expected, scrambling effectively and throwing accurately on the move. The team never seriously considered letting veteran A.J. Feeley open the season as the starter. Bradford was NFL-ready.

Biggest disappointment: Injuries tore apart the receiving corps, preventing Bradford from taking the offense past its formative stages. Losing Donnie Avery to a season-ending knee injury during the exhibition season robbed the Rams of their deep threat. Mark Clayton more than filled the production void after the Rams acquired him from Baltimore, but his season-ending knee injury forced Bradford to play the final 11 games without him. Deficiencies at receiver stood out as the Rams' primary problem during their Week 17 elimination game at Seattle. The Rams didn't get much from rookie receiver Mardy Gilyard this season, adding to the disappointment.

Biggest need: Receiver isn't the only obvious need. The Rams need help at outside linebacker as they continue to build their defense under coach Steve Spagnuolo. Special-teamers David Vobora and Chris Chamberlain were starting on the outside by season's end. Both are good enough to factor into the defense as reserves. Neither should be starting for the long term. The Rams were better at the position until Na'il Diggs suffered a season-ending injury. The team was desperate enough early in the season to give Bobby Carpenter a try. The Rams need better.

Team MVP: Bradford. The Rams went 6-42 in the three seasons before they drafted Bradford. They went 7-9 in his first season. There were other reasons for the turnaround, including a favorable schedule early in the season, but Bradford was the key variable. He made those around him better, rare for a rookie.

Taking ownership: Stan Kroenke took over for Chip Rosenbloom as the Rams' majority owner. Kroenke has deeper pockets, potentially giving the Rams resources that were not previously available. How will the Rams proceed during their first offseason with Kroenke in the majority role? The unsettled labor situation complicates matters, but now is the time for the Rams to redouble their efforts. They have the right quarterback. Time to build up his supporting cast.

In-depth look at NFC West defenses

December, 23, 2010
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I've asked Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information to sift through defensive charting information for performance clues regarding NFC West teams.

Among his findings, with my thoughts as well ...

San Francisco 49ers

What they do well: The 49ers appear very stout against the run while in their base 3-4 with seven defenders in the box. The Steelers (2.8 yards per carry) and Jets (2.8) are the clear 1-2 in this area, but the 49ers come in at 3.5, third-best in the league. The NFL average is 4.4 yards.

What they do not do as well: The 49ers stay in their base 3-4 defense a league-high 21.3 percent of the time against three or more wide receivers. San Francisco has not fared well when doing so. The 49ers realize only slight gains against the run in these situations, but they allow an additional yard per pass attempt -- up to 8.1 from 7.1 -- when staying in their base 3-4 against three-plus wideouts. The 49ers also struggle in general against passes traveling at least 15 yards. Opponents have a league-high 108.7 passer rating on these throws.

My thoughts: The 49ers' pass defense hasn't been as good as expected even though the team has gotten younger and more athletic at safety. San Francisco has also faced some top quarterbacks, including Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers. Matt Cassel is also enjoying a strong season. Kyle Orton was playing well when the 49ers faced Denver. Sam Bradford was also more efficient back when the 49ers faced him.

Arizona Cardinals

What they do well: Arizona has been much better against run and pass when loading the box with more defenders than offenses have available to block them. Against the run, the Cardinals allow 3.3 yards per carry with a loaded box, down from 4.5 when not loaded. The Cardinals allow a lower completion percentage (52.4 vs. 63.1), passer rating (70.8 vs. 85.3), yards per attempt (6.7 vs. 7.3) and yards after the catch average (2.8 vs. 3.3) with a loaded box.

What they do not do as well: The Cardinals' inability to slow down opposing running games out of their base defense with seven defenders in the box hurts them. Arizona is, in some ways, average overall against the run, allowing 4.4 yards per carry. That number balloons to 5.2 per carry against the Cardnials' base 3-4 with seven defenders in the box, third-highest in the league (4.4 is average).

My thoughts: The Cardinals should be much better against the run after using a first-round draft choice for nose tackle Dan Williams. Williams has improved, but 36-year-old Bryan Robinson has continued to start. Any team with Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and two big safeties, notably Adrian Wilson, should hold up better against the run. The Cardinals have been weak at linebacker, compromising the defense up front and in the secondary. Campbell hasn't played as well as expected, either, and a shoulder injury has made life tougher for Dockett.

St. Louis Rams

What they do well: The Rams have been above average with their third-down passing defense when they bring in an extra defensive back, especially when the opponent's pass attempt does not go beyond the first-down marker. Using that as our criterion, the Rams are allowing a 42.5 percent completion percentage, good for third in the NFC. The league average is 47.2 percent. The Rams are allowing a 54.0 passer rating in these situations (league average is 69.9). St. Louis' extra-DB packages have also been the best in the NFC West at making sure teams do not gain first downs after catching the ball short of the first-down marker. The Rams allow 34.2 percent of completed passes short of the marker go for first downs. The NFL average is 37.3 percent.

What they do not do as well: Like the Cardinals, the Rams struggle out of their base defense with seven defenders in the box. They allow 5.18 yards per carry in these situations, right ahead of the Cardinals' 5.2 average.

My thoughts: The Rams haven't faced as many elite quarterbacks this season after going against Rodgers, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Brees and Matt Schaub when all five were enjoying monster years in 2009. That has helped. The Rams were also stronger than anticipated at linebacker until losing Na'il Diggs to a season-ending injury. Defensive tackle Fred Robbins has been stout, but the Rams need another big interior defender to pair with him. They need help at linebacker, particularly on the weak side. This defense appears well-coached.

Seattle Seahawks

What they do well: Their strongest unit appears to be their five-plus DB pass defense, with a caveat. The overall numbers aren't great, including an 84.7 passer rating, which is above the league average (81.1). But Seattle has gotten 22 of its 32 sacks when going with these "small" packages. Opponents are completing only 54.9 percent of their passes against these packages, which ranks fourth in the NFL (60.1 is average). When the Seahawks do allow completions against these packages, however, they tend to be big ones. Seattle has allowed 30 pass plays of at least 20 yards against its small sets.

What they do not do as well: Seattle has struggled against short-to-intermediate passes (those thrown 14 or fewer yards past the line of scrimmage). The Seahawks are allowing a 102.4 passer rating on throws in that range, well above the NFL average of 89.2. Seattle allows 4.7 yards after the catch on these throws, a yard more than the league average and the second-highest figure in the league. If the Seahawks were just average at allowing yards after the catch, they would have allowed about 125 fewer yards on these throws.

My thoughts: The coaching staff has sometimes effectively unleashed creative blitzes with extra defensive backs. Strong safety Lawyer Milloy has led the way. But Seattle has essentially fielded three defenses this season. The first one featured Red Bryant, Colin Cole and Brandon Mebane along the line, providing cover for a healthier Lofa Tatupu at middle linebacker. The second one struggled without two and sometimes three of those linemen. Tatupu's health also deteriorated. The third defense has Cole and Mebane, but no Bryant, who is on injured reserve. The Seahawks have tried to adjust. They tackled much better against the Falcons.

NFC West roided-out rosters: Updated

December, 22, 2010
12/22/10
10:06
AM ET
The chart shows oldest-to-youngest age ranks for NFC West teams relative to the rest of the NFL, based on the 26-column rosters I make available for download periodically.

Seattle, despite having a league-low 21 players from Week 17 last season on its current 53-man roster, still stands as the seventh-oldest team in the NFL. Expect that ranking to fall this offseason as the Seahawks continue to turn over their roster. The team already subtracted 33-year-old guard Ben Hamilton from the 2011 equation, it appears, by waiving him from injured reserve.

Arizona has the oldest offensive linemen and specialists in the league on average and the fourth-oldest linebackers. The average at linebacker in particular figures to fall next season. If not, it's tough to envision the Cardinals gaining needed athleticism at the position.

In San Francisco, veterans such as Brian Westbrook and Justin Smith are driving up the average ages at their positions. The 49ers have the 10th-youngest starting offense based on recently updated lineups. They were the youngest in Week 1, but injuries have forced Westbrook and tackle Barry Sims, 36, into the lineup since then.

St. Louis, the youngest team in the NFC West on average, has the NFL's youngest linebackers. That is not necessarily a good thing. The team would be better off at the position if it had not been forced to place 32-year-old Na'il Diggs on injured reserve. The Rams have the fifth-youngest offensive starters thanks in part to rookie quarterback Sam Bradford.

Note: No actual steroids were used in building these rosters.

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