NFC West: Ryan Lindley

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians was excited for the start of padded practices, which begin Monday afternoon.

"We were very fortunate yesterday," Arians said. "We were way too active to be in shorts. I was holding my breath a little bit yesterday, but it was an outstanding practice."

• Arians said nose tackle Dan Williams will have an MRI on his swollen left knee. Williams is expected to miss Monday afternoon's practice.

• With pads being donned Monday, Arians won't limit how much his players hit. "With the limited time you can hit now, you can't hit enough, in my opinion."

• Arians said he hopes to keep four tight ends, but the rotation will be "more tailored to what they do best."

• Arians won't "baby" tight end John Carlson because of his history of concussions.

• When it comes to using fullbacks, Arians would rather use a versatile tight end than a true fullback because defenses can't prepare for a tight end that can play both positions as well as they can for a fullback.

• Quarterback Logan Thomas will get more snaps than Ryan Lindley in practice because he's newer, Arians said.

• Arians isn't a fan of training camp fights. He'd rather buy his players boxing gloves -- like Bear Bryant used to -- than see them break their hands. But Arians said he won't fine players for fights, he'll just "cut them."
Bruce AriansAP Photo/Ross D. FranklinArizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians will get a look at his full team Tuesday when OTAs begin.
This time last year, the buzz around the Cardinals was about a new coach with a new culture and a new scheme. This year, it’s about how do the Cardinals make the playoffs?

As the Cardinals’ offseason team activities (OTAs) begin Tuesday, there’s a lot to ponder from the past year and much to speculate on going forward. The next month will begin determining the fate for a lot of players on the current 90-man roster. As Cardinals coach Bruce Arians loved saying last year, this is when they have to put it on tape.

Here are 10 observations as the Cards begin OTAs:

  1. The top three running backs are established with Andre Ellington, Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer sitting atop the depth chart, but after that is a major drop-off. As of now, there isn’t is a viable option for the fourth back, which was occupied by Alfonso Smith a season ago. He’s gone and so is Ryan Williams, leaving the fourth spot up for grabs. That running back, however, may not be on the field Tuesday.
  2. There’ll be a lot of eyes on the newcomers this offseason, such as quarterback Logan Thomas, cornerback Antonio Cromartie, safety Deone Bucannon and left tackle Jared Veldheer. But the most intriguing position battle of the offseason starts Tuesday with two returning offensive linemen at right tackle. Arizona hasn’t re-signed Eric Winston for a reason: It wants to see what Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie can do. The two were college teammates at Ole Miss but neither are the clear-cut choices to assume the starting job. There have been questions about Massie’s ability to pick up the playbook for the last few seasons and Sowell was able to hold his own at left tackle last season but there’s a reason Arians didn’t keep him there. It’s yet to be seen if he’ll fare better on the right side.
  3. Losing Karlos Dansby was a major blow to the Cardinals’ inside linebackers but it could get worse. Having Daryl Washington practice with the first team may be for naught if he’s suspended for a significant amount of time by the league for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. The Cardinals are already in tryout mode with second-year linebacker Kevin Minter but if Washington is lost for more than a game, what was a strong point of the Cards’ defense will be its liability. Veteran Larry Foote may need the reps this offseason to get ready for a larger role next year but this is also a chance for an unknown inside backer to get noticed.
  4. It’s one thing for Cromartie to say his hip is better but it’s another for him to go out and show it. He’ll have the eyes of the media – although it’s not quite like New York – on him this offseason. If Cromartie’s hip isn’t an issue, he’ll be half of one of the league’s top cornerback tandems. If his right hip flexor is still hampering him during OTAs, he’ll be wise to just sit and let a young cornerback earn some time. But next up on the depth chart is the man Cromartie replaced, Jerraud Powers, who is likely itching to win back his spot.
  5. The top three wide receivers are a shoe-in. Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Ted Ginn will have jobs in 2014. It’s the other eight receivers on the roster who’ll be fighting for their jobs starting Tuesday. Arians clearly likes small, speedy receives -- he drafted two -- but now he has an abundance of them on the roster and will start weeding through them this week. One or two will make the cut but the rest will left fighting for the final few spots on the roster as a gunner or a special-teams machine.
  6. What a difference a year makes. Last May, the Cardinals were as confused as ever when it came to learning Arians’ offense. This year they know the wrinkles and intricacies of his complex offense. The days of Fitzgerald and Floyd lining up in the wrong places are over. The next step can be taken, which could mean a quicker start for the Cardinals than a year ago. And the result of that could then a game or two in January.
  7. Throughout the smokescreens before and during the draft, there was one truth that rose above it all: Arizona wasn’t drafting a quarterback unless he could win a spot on the roster. After the Cardinals picked Logan Thomas, Arians made it clear the first two quarterback spots are taken. That means Ryan Lindley’s third-string job is up for grabs. He’s been lending a helping hand to Thomas but when practice gets going Tuesday, he’ll need to turn it up to show Arians that he made a mistake. That may be harder than anticipated because Logan was drafted to not get cut.
  8. One of the few players with the most to lose and the most to gain during OTAs is tight end Rob Housler. He fell short of expectations last season and never grew into the player Arians had envisioned him being. It doesn’t help Housler, cut from the receiving tight end mold, that he isn’t fond of blocking. The Cardinals went out during the offseason and added two tight ends who are tailor made to fit Arians’ two-tight end scheme. Add in Jake Ballard, who joined the team around midseason last year, and Arizona has a three-tight end rotation that could see Housler as the odd man out.
  9. Tuesday will be the first day that left guard Jonathan Cooper can take the field for since he broke his leg against San Diego in the Cardinals’ third preseason game. How much Cooper can do starting this week will be an indication of how far along in his rehab he is. If he’s practicing in full, training camp will be a sure thing. If not, then training camp may be the first time Cooper will work out at full capacity.
  10. Another offensive lineman the Cardinals are anxious to see on the field is guard Earl Watford. The second-year player feels he has a better grasp of the playbook and the offense in his second offseason. He’ll be given a chance to win the starting job over last year’s starting guard Paul Fanaika. If he does, the job may be Watford’s for the foreseeable future.
It didn't take long for the Arizona Cardinals to have a quarterback controversy this offseason.

But it doesn't involve the starter or even the back-up.

Fourth-round draft pick Logan Thomas began his quest to win the third-string job from Ryan Lindley on Monday, when rookies reported to the Cardinals' practice facility in Tempe.

“It's competition,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said Saturday after the final day of the NFL draft. “There is nothing being handed to this guy. He is not the quarterback of the future until he earns it. He has to be a pretty good guy to get that No. 3 spot. The No. 2 spot isn't changing. That's not a problem.

“It's just a matter of, can he beat out Ryan?”

[+] EnlargeLogan Thomas
AP Photo/Michael ConroyLogan Thomas will compete with Ryan Lindley to be the Cardinals' third-string quarterback.
In the weeks leading up to the draft, Arians said the Cardinals wouldn't take a quarterback if they didn't think he could beat out one of the two back-ups already on the roster. By simply drafting Thomas out of Virginia Tech, Arians showed his hand.

Then on Saturday, after general manager Steve Keim said a team should draft a quarterback later in the draft if it thinks he could eventually be a franchise player, Arians said Thomas fit that bill.

“He has the skill set to,” he said.

A decision won't be made on Lindley's future with the team until some point toward the end of training camp. Until then, it'll be a daily battle between Thomas and Lindley. Although he's likely to make the roster, Thomas' spot isn't guaranteed just yet. He was drafted as a developmental quarterback, Arians said, which means Thomas has to show progress for Arians and Keim to believe he can eventually be Palmer's successor.

Arians already knows what Thomas has physically. There are two intangibles, however, that Arians and Keim couldn't evaluate at the combine that will dictate what kind of quarterback Thomas turns into.

“The hardest things to judge are the heart and the brain because that's what they play with,” Arians said. “You have to have them in your huddle and in your (quarterbacks) room for a little while to really know what you've got. All the athletic stuff, he's got all that stuff.

“He's got the heart. If we can get him trained to play in this offense, his skill set fits what we love to do. He has a beautiful deep ball. He's got as pretty of a deep ball as (starter) Carson (Palmer), who I think has one of the best in the league. He can stand there and just drop it in the bucket.”

Arians said there's a drill that proves how well Thomas can throw a deep ball. The drill places a bucket 40 yards down field, four yards off the sideline. The goal is to throw the ball into said bucket.

“He'll put it in the bucket four out of 10,” Arians said, “which is unbelievable.”

Thomas only has from Monday until the end of the preseason to show the Cardinals how much he's improved. If he's not the starter, Thomas will be running the scout team, Arians said. And even then he'll only be getting half of the reps because back-up Drew Stanton will get the other half. Skill-wise, Arians thinks Thomas is ready to play now but how fast he progresses up the depth chart is all up to him.

What Thomas can offer the Cardinals that Palmer, Stanton or Lindley can't is the ability to make plays with his feet, Keim said. And that's exciting, but it may not be enough on its own to get Thomas snaps.

"Now, is he ready to play?" Arians asked. "No."

But Arians said Thomas will be playing quite a bit in the preseason because Palmer won't.

“The hardest part is you don't get enough practice,” Arians said.

“Once the season starts, the development is more learning the offense, learning why the ball comes out of your hand and it will show up the next offseason when he starts, again, attempting to move up the depth chart. But that first year it's all about coming in, beating out a guy that's already here who's pretty good, who's really improved in the year and (a) half that we've had him and that's Ryan.”

The case for Zach Mettenberger

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Zach MettenbergerDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsZach Mettenberger threw for 3,082 yards and 22 touchdowns for LSU last season.
If you listened to Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians last week at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, all is right in the world of the team's quarterbacks.

The Cardinals have their starter in Carson Palmer. And if Palmer goes down, Arians believes Drew Stanton can step in to lead Arizona to a division title.

"If something, God forbid, happened to Carson, I've got all the confidence in Drew taking over and us winning the division or the championship," Arians said. "He's been [in the system] two years now, he's smart, tough. That's all you want. He's a guy who can step in the game and doesn't need any reps. He reminds me a lot of Kelly Holcomb."

None of those comments came as a surprise. Arians loved Stanton when he was signed last offseason as the starter ... until Palmer was acquired in a trade and named the starter. It has worked out well so far. Palmer threw for a career best in yards while leading the Cardinals to 10 wins and the brink of the playoffs -- all of which helped Arizona overlook Palmer's career-worst 22 interceptions.

Arians believes Palmer can play until he’s "36, 37 -- easily." But that means Palmer will have to be re-signed before next February because the last year of his current three-year deal voids five days after the next Super Bowl. Palmer will be 35, probably still slinging it like the cowboy he is while playing in the wild, wild West of all places.

But Palmer isn't the Cardinals' long-term answer. Neither is Stanton. Neither is third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley.

Sure, Palmer could play for another two seasons. But at what point do the Cardinals look toward the future? It needs to happen this year and former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger is the place to start.

The Cardinals don't need to draft a quarterback in the first or even the second round. It's not that high of a priority, but Arizona needs to select a quarterback who it can mold into what Arians wants. Someone who they can give time to learn the offense.

"You go into every draft looking for the young franchise quarterback," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim told SiriusXM NFL Radio from the combine. "Although, Carson gives you the luxury of not having to force [a pick]. Sometimes, when you don't have one, you get into a situation where you have to force a pick and that sets you back two to three years.

"Carson gives us some stability, but at the same time we'll always be aggressive in our approach and in our mindset that you're always looking for the next young quarterback."

There are few NFL-ready quarterbacks in this year's draft and even fewer who'll be sitting around on the second or third day. But Mettenberger has the physical traits Arians likes. He's 6-foot-5, 224 pounds with a big arm and already knows how to play in an NFL scheme. His offensive coordinator at LSU was former NFL coach Cam Cameron.

Mettenberger threw for 3,082 yards, 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2013 before tearing his ACL in the Tigers' regular-season finale. He wasn't able to do any of the drills at the combine, which could make his stock drop -- right into the Cardinals' lap.

"Without the injury, I still don't think he's going to be a first- or second-round pick," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "I think what he is  and what worries me a little bit on tape is I think he stares down some of his intended receivers, I think the ball comes out late sometimes. He's not a guy that I think can start Day 1 in the NFL anyway.

"So, if you ask me how much it would impact him, the injury, I don't think quite as much as you might think on the surface, because I do believe he's got a lot of learning to do. I like his size, I like his ability and I like his arm strength. It's more just a matter of his footwork, being more consistent with the ball, his feet being lined up, getting the ball out and some of the reads he makes. I think he just doesn't get the ball out quickly enough and I think that's something that a young quarterback has got to develop."

Mettenberger sounds like the perfect project for quarterback guru Tom Moore. Mettenberger likely won't be ready for training camp and may not even be 100 percent for Week 1. But then again, the Cards don't need him to be.

They can place him on the injured reserve/non-football injury list, which would allow Mettenberger to be activated at some point during the second half of the season. By November, Mettenberger's knee would likely be healed -- ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter said last week that Mettenberger's recovery is progressing faster than expected -- and he can start taking reps in practice.

Even though Keim said at the combine that he's always looking for a quarterback, he also has said, according to the team website, that the only way a quarterback can mature is by playing.

"The only way to grow as a player is to get those full-speed reps," Keim said. "You don’t get those in practice. You have to learn on the job. Obviously [Green Bay quarterback] Aaron Rodgers was a different circumstance, and it's not a bad circumstance to be in, but at the same time, if you want to win now and you want significant improvement early in their career, I think it's in their best interest to play early."

Arians shared a similar philosophy.

"I don’t believe in drafting quarterbacks thinking they can learn a damn thing holding a clipboard," Arians said, according to the team site.

But holding a clipboard is exactly what Stanton has done for the past three seasons, two of which have been spent learning Arians' scheme. He hasn't thrown a regular-season pass since 2010. Yet, Arians still believes he's capable of coming in, if needed, and leading the Cardinals to a division title?

While Rodgers is the ultimate example of what a quarterback can do after learning for few seasons behind the starter, Palmer isn't far behind. He was drafted No. 1 overall in 2003 and didn’t play a down his rookie season, learning behind starter Jon Kitna. And Palmer has turned out all right. What better player to mentor Mettenberger than a guy who went through the same thing?

Which is why the Cardinals would be better off long term if they drafted a quarterback like Mettenberger and let him learn from Moore, Arians and offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin and then let him take over in 2015.

The future will be here before Arizona knows it and it looks like Zach Mettenberger.

Arizona Cardinals cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2013
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Most significant move: Placing linebacker Daryl Washington on the reserve/suspended list for the first four games was easily the most significant move the Cardinals made, but that was a matter of course. Specific to the roster, Arizona kept only four wide receivers on this initial 53-man roster, an indication the team could remain in the market for a wideout, especially one with the deep speed coach Bruce Arians has sought for his office. Ryan Swope and Mike Thomas were candidates in that area, but concussions forced Swope into early retirement, and Thomas was one of the players Arizona released. The team does have plans to play cornerback Patrick Peterson at receiver, however. We should keep that in mind when looking at the overall numbers at the position.

QB numbers: There had been some thought that the Cardinals might choose between keeping a third quarterback (Ryan Lindley) or a fifth running back (Ryan Williams). Arians had already said Williams was going to stick around. We didn't know whether Lindley would remain on the roster after finishing his 2012 rookie season with zero touchdown passes and seven interceptions. Lindley played well against Denver in the final exhibition game, however, and he wasn't among the players Arizona released on this initial reduction to 53. It's still too early to say whether Lindley has any roster security.

What's next: The Cardinals could be in the market for another interior defensive linemen after the team released nose tackle David Carter. Carter played 272 snaps on defense last season. His status heading into camp appeared somewhat secure based on past playing time. Carter was excited about transitioning to a scheme that he thought would free up defensive linemen to use their talents as pass-rushers. Dan Williams appears to be the only true nose tackle on the roster.

Players cut: OT Jamaal Johnson-Webb, LB Kenny Rowe, DT Padric Scott, WR Kerry Taylor, LB Reggie Walker, S Jonathon Amaya, C Adam Bice, WR Dan Buckner, DT David Carter, TE Alex Gottlieb, WR Charles Hawkins, G Senio Kelemete, LB Zack Nash, LB Colin Parker, TE Richard Quinn, G Chilo Rachal, S Curtis Taylor, WR Mike Thomas
Looking back on three things discussed here before the Arizona Cardinals' final exhibition game of the 2013 preseason, a 32-24 road victory over the Denver Broncos on Thursday night:

1. Williams' performance. The stats for running back Ryan Williams -- nine carries for 25 yards and a touchdown -- will not make a compelling case for him earning a spot on the initial 53-man roster. The third-year running back looked good, though. His per-carry average took several hits, including on a 1-yard scoring run. Williams showed quickness in outrunning defenders around the corner for an 8-yard gain. He spun away from trouble and accelerated on another run. The blocking generally wasn't there for him, notably when he lost 6 yards on a carry. There are no guarantees Williams has done enough to stick around. Future injury risk could lead the Cardinals in another direction. Rashard Mendenhall is clearly established as the starter. Rookies Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor figure into the team's plans as well.

2. Speed at wide receiver. Jaron Brown, a rookie free agent with 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash, got deep to catch a 55-yard scoring pass from Ryan Lindley. Mike Thomas, signed recently after Detroit released him, is another receiver with the speed coach Bruce Arians is seeking to stretch defenses. Thomas had a 13-yard scoring reception in the fourth quarter. A couple completed passes in the fourth preseason game aren't going to provide definitive answers, but these were positive signs.

3. Third QB. Lindley had only one scoring pass to show for 280 career pass attempts in preseason and regular-season games over his two NFL seasons. He fared better in this one. Lindley completed 17 of 29 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns against the Broncos. Lindley also completed a two-point conversion throw to take a 25-24 lead with 5:28 remaining. He took one sack, threw no interceptions and finished the game with a 104.7 passer rating. Will the Cardinals keep him around as the third quarterback?

Three things: Cardinals-Broncos

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Three things to watch for Thursday night in the Arizona Cardinals' final exhibition of the 2013 season, set for 9 p.m. ET against the Denver Broncos in Denver:

1. Williams' performance. Running back Ryan Williams appears to be fighting for a spot on the 53-man roster two years after suffering a torn patella tendon during a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. He has only two carries during this preseason. Will the Cardinals emerge from this final preseason game thinking Williams can become a relevant contributor? This game could provide some answers.

2. Speed at wide receiver. Coach Bruce Arians has sought a vertical threat for his offense. Rookie Ryan Swope was a candidate for the role on some levels until concussion concerns forced his retirement. Mike Thomas, who spent part of last season with the Detroit Lions, could provide something along those lines. To what extent can the final preseason game provide some answers at wide receiver?

3. Third QB. About half the teams in the NFL figure to keep fewer than three quarterbacks on their 53-man rosters. Is there any reason the Cardinals should keep a third this year? Ryan Lindley gets one last chance in this preseason to show he's worth a spot. Lindley has no touchdown passes in 17 attempts this preseason. He had no touchdown passes and seven interceptions on 171 regular-season attempts as a rookie in 2012. He had one touchdown on 92 attempts during the 2012 preseason. It all adds up to one touchdown pass in 280 preseason and regular-season attempts. He has played under less than ideal circumstances. Can Lindley emerge from this preseason on an upward trajectory?
Marshawn Lynch might have a powerful politician on his side, but Larry Fitzgerald remains the NFC West's most polished diplomat. Not even the Arizona Cardinals' great quarterback collapse of 2012 can draw out from Fitzgerald the finger of blame.

Fitzgerald, featured in the video above with new Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, doesn't have to blame the Cardinals' previous quarterbacks for a drop in his personal stats. The chart below will do the work for him. It shows Fitzgerald's regular-season and playoff stats by quarterback over the past five seasons. While it's possible Fitzgerald's own play has slipped some since the Kurt Warner era, the numbers are consistent with general perceptions of the quarterbacks involved.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Greetings from the construction site known as San Francisco 49ers headquarters. The new stadium dwarfs the facility across the blocked-off street. I'll be watching practices and conducting interviews over the next couple days.

Depth issues at receiver have pushed second-year 49ers receiver A.J. Jenkins into the training camp spotlight. The 49ers aren't the only team seeking 2013 contributions from skill-position players drafted in 2012. With each team in mind, here’s a look at where these offensive skill-position players (including quarterbacks) from the 2012 draft factor with their NFC West teams one week into camps.

Arizona Cardinals

The players: WR Michael Floyd (first round) and QB Ryan Lindley (sixth round)

Rookie impact: Floyd finished the season with 45 receptions, including eight for 166 yards and a score against San Francisco in Week 17. Lindley struggled as an emergency starter under brutal circumstances.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsSeattle quarterback Russell Wilson might be able to rely more on his running game in 2013.
2013 outlook: Floyd is the relevant player here. He's projected to start opposite Larry Fitzgerald. Lindley is competing for the third-string job and could probably use a season in the shadows to recover from a rookie season where too much was asked of him.

QB Carson Palmer on Floyd: "He gets it. He understands it. He has had a natural feel for getting open in zones, which is something you're not taught. You just sit there and watch film with a guy forever and you either have it or it's something that takes years to develop. Phenomenal player."

Seattle Seahawks

The players: QB Russell Wilson (third round) and RB Robert Turbin (fourth round)

Rookie impact: Wilson tied Peyton Manning's rookie record for touchdown passes. He led the NFL in passer rating and Total QBR over the final eight games of the season. Wilson had a 22-4 ratio of total touchdowns to turnovers during that span. Turbin proved valuable as the primary backup to Marshawn Lynch, carrying 80 times for 354 yards (4.4 per carry).

2013 outlook: Seattle expects more of the same from both of these players. Wilson should benefit from a full offseason as the starter. He carried the offense for stretches late last season, but the Seahawks don't necessarily need him to do so consistently. They've got a strong ground game and defense, putting Wilson in position to succeed even though opponents will be better prepared for him this time around.

WR Golden Tate on Wilson: "You know that at any moment, Russell can throw a deep ball for six or he could take off running for 30 yards."

San Francisco 49ers

The players: WR A.J. Jenkins (first round) and RB LaMichael James (second round)

Rookie impact: The 49ers did not need either player for most of the season. Jenkins failed to gain traction at any point and finished with zero receptions. James added a welcome dynamic to the offense when the team lost Kendall Hunter to injury.

2013 outlook: Jenkins has a sore hamstring and by most accounts hasn't made much of an impact this summer despite gaining strength through the offseason. Injuries at the position have cleared the way for him. Preseason games could be telling. James had 38 carries for 190 yards (5.0 per carry) over seven games, counting playoffs. He's a keeper, for sure, but Hunter's return could relegate James to another season in the No. 3 role. His time is coming, but perhaps not until 2014.

Note: This space was reserved for a comment relating to Jenkins or James, but I could find none from training camp. Having just arrived at 49ers headquarters, I'll ask someone about Jenkins, for sure.

St. Louis Rams

The players: WR Brian Quick (second round), RB Isaiah Pead (second round), WR Chris Givens (fourth round) and RB Daryl Richardson (seventh round)

Rookie impact: Givens set a rookie record with at least one reception of 50-plus yards in five consecutive games. Quick flashed ability with a 36-yard touchdown reception against San Francisco, the second-longest allowed by the 49ers all season. But he had only 11 receptions overall. Pead wasn’t a factor. Richardson was a pleasant surprise with 98 carries for 475 yards (4.8 per carry).

2013 outlook: Pead must serve a one-game suspension to open the season, but he will likely factor prominently in a committee approach at running back. Givens was becoming more than just a deep threat late last season, a trend that should continue. Quick will get opportunities, but will he capitalize on them? Richardson has a shot at starting.

Coach Jeff Fisher on Quick: “I think we all got really excited [Tuesday] with his physicality. There was a run play yesterday and he came in and cracked the WILL linebacker and put him on the ground. A couple plays later he was run blocking a corner and he threw him on the ground. There was another catch, I think it might have been a couple days ago, where he used his body and went over a guy and it’s just really nice to see that from Quick because he has all the physical ability in the world. To see him finally using his strength and his size is a really good sign.”
The Arizona Cardinals held a 10-0 lead in Atlanta last season when their defense picked off Matt Ryan, setting up first-and-10 from the Falcons' 18.

The team sent Larry Fitzgerald onto the field as the lone receiver in a run-oriented personnel grouping featuring two backs and two tight ends. Enabled by a play fake and outstanding pass protection, Fitzgerald beat the coverage and was running wide open through the end zone when quarterback John Skelton went to throw.



The pass missed Fitzgerald by several yards. This single play came to symbolize how much even a great receiver such as Fitzgerald requires a baseline level of quarterback play to produce at a high level. But in looking to explain all the reasons Fitzgerald's production plummeted last season, we should at least acknowledge another possibility -- that Fitzgerald wasn't at his best, either.

Facing fourth-and-2 in that same game against the Falcons, Arizona needed a conversion while fighting to overcome a 23-19 deficit with 3:08 remaining in the fourth quarter. This time, Skelton's replacement, Ryan Lindley, threw to Fitzgerald along the left sideline inside the 5-yard line. Fitzgerald was covered, but he leaped to get both hands on the ball, one at each point. Fitzgerald controlled the ball as his feet touched down, but he couldn't maintain possession as his body fell to the ground.

This wasn't a dropped pass by ESPN's game charting standards, but it was the sort of play Fitzgerald makes at his best. So, when the 10th-year receiver says he's coming off his worst season as a pro, we can presume he's taking his share of ownership for what happened in 2012.

The Cardinals would lose that Week 11 game to the Falcons and 11 of their final 12 overall. Fitzgerald would end a five-year streak as the NFC West leader in receptions and receiving yards. The San Francisco 49ers' Michael Crabtree claimed top honors in the division with 85 receptions for 1,105 yards. Those numbers served notice that Crabtree would challenge Fitzgerald's largely unopposed run as the most productive receiver in the NFC West. But with Crabtree suffering a torn Achilles' tendon during practices this offseason, Fitzgerald appears primed to retake the top spot, particularly with a new quarterback (Carson Palmer) and an upgraded offensive line.

Or does he?

We consider today five leading challengers from the NFC West in 2013, ranked by ESPN's fantasy projections for total receptions:

1. Percy Harvin, Seattle Seahawks. ESPN projects Harvin to finish this season with 101 receptions for 1,137 yards and six touchdowns, figures Fitzgerald has not exceeded over the past four seasons, including in 2009, when Kurt Warner was his quarterback. Seattle has other viable options in Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Zach Miller. There are no guarantees Harvin will dominate the stat sheet. ESPN projects only 34 receptions for Tate, a player Seattle expects to flourish with Harvin attracting coverage.



2. Anquan Boldin, 49ers. Fitzgerald's former teammate in Arizona becomes the statistical beneficiary from Crabtree's injury. His production with Baltimore spiked in the playoffs last season after Boldin had 65 catches for 921 yards and four touchdowns in 15 regular-season games. Improved play from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was one factor. The 49ers' Colin Kaepernick has an 81.2 Total QBR score in his first 10 starts, counting playoffs. No player in the five-year history of the metric has posted a higher QBR score through his first 10 starts. That could help Boldin remain productive.

3. Vernon Davis, 49ers. Davis had 210 yards receiving over the 49ers' final two playoff games. He seemed underutilized as a receiver at times last season, but I expect his stats to spike this season. Crabtree was the preferred target for Kaepernick. We know that isn't going to be the case for much of this season.

4. Chris Givens, St. Louis Rams.
No Rams player has led the NFC West in receptions since Torry Holt in 2006. Givens impressed as a rookie. Right now, however, it's tough to know how all the pieces are going to fit in St. Louis. Rookie first-round pick Tavon Austin is going to factor right away, most likely. The team also invested heavily in free-agent tight end Jared Cook. ESPN seems to be hedging its bets by projecting Givens, Austin and Cook with between 51 and 57 receptions apiece.

5. Andre Roberts, Cardinals. ESPN's fantasy projections have Roberts with 57 receptions and teammate Michael Floyd with 53. Floyd seems like a volatile variable within this equation. He had 14 receptions over the Cardinals' final two games last season. He finished his rookie season with 45 receptions for 562 yards and two touchdowns. I'm taking the "over" on ESPN's fantasy projection (53 receptions for 686 yards and two scores).

The second chart shows ESPN's fantasy projections for every NFC West wide receiver and tight end with at least 40 projected receptions. The projections for Fitzgerald -- 79 receptions for 1,256 yards and seven touchdowns -- approximate his average totals for the past three seasons, with a spike in receiving yards. He's right there in the No. 2 spot, unfamiliar ground for the only consistently productive wideout in the NFC West.
After judging a quarterback by the company he keeps, I've expanded the field to show additional names with recent ties to the NFC West.

The chart below ranks these QBs by most starts since 2010 with at least 15 action plays and a Total QBR score in the 90s.

For additional context and to avoid implying any similarities between emerging star Colin Kaepernick and journeyman backup Brady Quinn, I've included an additional column showing cumulative QBR figures for all starts since 2010, regardless of how many action plays (all QB plays except kneel-downs, spikes and handoffs).

The information reflects negatively on St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, who has just one 90-plus game out of 42 qualifying starts and a cumulative QBR score of 42.3, well below the 50-point mark indicating average play.

Some context is in order. QBR assumes an average supporting cast. Some quarterbacks on the list have played with exceptionally weak supporting casts. Bradford has arguably played with the weakest of the group, especially when factoring for the injury problems that wiped out Bradford and the Rams in 2011 in particular, when St. Louis led the NFL in adjusted games lost.

The Rams think Bradford's production will improve significantly in 2013 and especially beyond now that the team has acquired fresh, fast talent on offense. So, while we might reasonably have expected Bradford to have provided a few more exceptional performances to this point in his career, a case can be made that he has too often found himself in survival mode.

A newly re-signed Tarvaris Jackson will compete against Brady Quinn for the No. 2 job behind Seattle Seahawks starting quarterback Russell Wilson.

The way those players performed in their most recent starts suggests the team would be better off with Jackson as the starter if Wilson became unavailable.

We could make that case by noting that Jackson posted a 7-7 record with Seattle in 2011, his most recent season as a starter, while Quinn went 1-7 with Kansas City last season. But if we wanted a breakdown more specific to the quarterbacks, we could revisit a method we used when estimating NFC West quarterback values about five weeks ago.

That method suggests Wilson's performance for the full 2012 season provided about 3.8 additional victories relative to the 2011 version of Jackson and an additional 6.5 victories relative to the 2012 version of Quinn, based upon Total QBR scores for those players.

Teams posting Total QBR scores around 50 can expect to win about half the time. That baseline allows for calculating how many added victories a quarterback provides or takes away over the course of a 16-game season and relative to another player.

In the Seattle example, we start by averaging the single-game QBR scores for Wilson last season. The result was 63.9. We then average the single-game scores for the 14 games Jackson started in 2011 (40.1) and subtract the total from 63.9. The result rounds to 23.77. We then take 23.77 percent of 16 games to determine how many victories Wilson would provide over Jackson, based upon how each played in his last season as a starter.

By this measure, Wilson added 3.8 victories over what Jackson would have provided over a 16-game schedule if he had been the Seahawks' starter instead of Wilson, and had he performed the way he did in 2011. The calculation for Quinn goes like this: Wilson's average QBR score (63.9) minus Quinn's average QBR score last season (23.0875) equals 40.8125, which taken as a percentage of 16 games equals 6.53 additional victories with Wilson.

The difference between Jackson in relation to Wilson (minus 3.8 victories) and Quinn in relation to Wilson (minus-6.5 victories) works out to 2.7 victories -- say, the difference between 8-8 and 5-11 if the team played Jackson instead of Quinn over a full season.

The differences could become even more pronounced if we considered other factors. For example, Wilson had a 78.2 average QBR score over his final nine games. He might be more apt to play near that level in the future than how he played in the first seven games of his career. Also, Jackson played much of the 2011 season with a torn pectoral muscle. Taking those things into account would change the calculations.

Note that averaging the single-game QBR scores for Wilson produced a number (63.9) that is lower than his cumulative QBR score for the season (69.6, as displayed in the first chart). We would see similar disparities if we compared a basketball player's average game-by-game shooting percentages to his cumulative percentages. Making both foul shots in one game and missing all four attempts in another would produce a 50 percent average and a 33 percent rate.

The chart below shows stats for current NFC West backup quarterbacks since 2008.

One year ago, a visitor to the NFC West blog warned against reading too much into Russell Wilson's strong showing at the Seattle Seahawks' rookie camp.

"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.

Les from Philadelphia read our recent piece on quarterback victories over average and wondered if we could apply the same approach to other teams.

"Can you do the same analysis for other QB-challenged teams such as Philadelphia, Minnesota, etc.?" Les asked.



We can take a shot at it, Les. First, a quick primer on the methodology.

Total QBR measures quarterbacks' contributions to winning on a 100-point scale, with 50 as average. The scores correlate with a team's likelihood of winning a game. In other words, a team scoring 50 in Total QBR would, on balance, win about half its games. The chances for winning would be 75 percent for teams with QBR scores around 75, and so on.

With this established, we can calculate the wins over average a quarterback provides over the course of a 16-game season. We simply average his single-game QBR scores, subtract 50 from that number, convert the result into a percentage and multiply by 16.

A quarterback with a Total QBR score of 75.0 would provide four victories over average, for example (75 minus 50 equals 25, and 25 percent of 16 is four).

The first chart ranks 2012 quarterbacks with at least four regular-season starts by wins above average, based solely on their single-game QBR scores last season. The San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick and the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson ranked among the NFL's best.



The second chart shows the quarterbacks with the worst figures for wins above average. These quarterbacks' performances reduced their teams' chances for winning by 1.5 to 5.3 games per 16-game season.

The Arizona Cardinals' Ryan Lindley (minus-5.3) and John Skelton (minus-5.0) top that list. Kevin Kolb was better, but he was still eighth-worst in the league at minus-1.9. Note that the figures for these quarterbacks project their impact as if each played a full season. Skelton and Lindley combined to start 10 games.

Les asked about Minnesota and Philadelphia.

The Vikings' Christian Ponder was 19th at plus-0.2 wins above average. His single-game QBR scores averaged out to 51.5 in 16 starts. The Eagles' Michael Vick (minus-1.5) and Nick Foles (minus-0.8) ranked lower.

We'll revisit this information as the offseason continues.

The chart below takes a longer-term approach. It shows wins above average over a 16-game season based on single-game QBR scores since 2008. I added a column for expected wins if these quarterbacks played for teams that were average in other ways. By this method, expected wins are simply wins above average plus eight. We might think of Peyton Manning as a 12- or 13-win quarterback based on how he played last season. Note that some quarterbacks making surprise appearances on the list played fewer games.

Peyton Manning appears twice, once for his work with Denver last season and also for his contributions with Indianapolis previously. The Denver-era Jay Cutler also appears. The Chicago-era Cutler has been far less impressive, checking in at plus-0.3 wins over average. That version of Cutler doesn't appear in the chart.

Adam Snyder's release from the Arizona Cardinals made him the sixth player to leave the team's roster this offseason after starting at least 10 games for the team in 2012.

Paris Lenon, Kerry Rhodes, William Gay, Snyder and Adrian Wilson each started at least 14 games last season before departing the roster. D'Anthony Batiste, an unrestricted free agent, started 10 games.

Quentin Groves, Beanie Wells, John Skelton, Kevin Kolb and LaRod Stephens-Howling were part of a group of former Cardinals to start between five and seven games for Arizona last season.

Rich Ohrnberger, Ryan Lindley, Pat McQuistan, Early Doucet, Greg Toler, Reagan Maui'a, Nick Eason, Vonnie Holliday and Todd Heap started between one and four games for the team before leaving the roster.

You get the point. The Cardinals have a new head coach and new general manager. They weren't very good on offense last season. Some of their players' contracts reflect what the team's previous leadership once thought of those players. They've become outdated. And so the Cardinals are turning over a pretty fair percentage of their roster by design.

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