NFL Nation: Ben Patrick

Another rough day for the Giants

August, 6, 2011
8/06/11
10:33
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If there's a team that's had a worse couple of post-lockout weeks than the New York Giants have had, I can't find one. The latest round of lousy news hit Saturday night with the announcement that first-round draft pick Prince Amukamara had broken a bone in his left foot and would need surgery. The team says he's out indefinitely, but you have to think this is going to cost the rookie (who just signed his contract two days ago) at least two months, after which he'll have to play on a surgically repaired foot with a screw in it.

Amukamara, like all 2011 rookies who missed out on minicamps and OTAs because of the lockout, was already going to have a tough time getting up to speed, and this sets him back further.

[+] EnlargePrince Amukamara
Aaron M. Sprecher/Getty ImagesPrince Amukamara, who was the 19th pick in April's draft, has a broken bone in his left foot.
Now, sure, the Giants can absorb a hit at cornerback. They still have Terrell Thomas, Corey Webster and Aaron Ross at the position. But with reserve Bruce Johnson having already blown out his Achilles earlier in the week, they're much thinner there than they planned to be. Amukamara was the 19th overall pick in the draft, and surely a big part of the Giants' plans for this season.

The Giants also announced that Ben Patrick, the tight end they signed earlier this week, has decided he no longer wants to play football and would be placed on the reserve/retired list. You'll remember Patrick as the tight end the Giants signed shortly before their own starter, Kevin Boss, left to sign with the Raiders. Patrick apparently was looking forward to playing with Boss and didn't want to be on the team if he wasn't.

So that's two cornerbacks and two tight ends the Giants have lost in a span of about three days, and that'd be rough for any team. But the Giants were already having a pretty rough go of things, as salary-cap concerns have impaired their ability to add outside free agents of significance and hurt them in their efforts to sign their own. They managed to bring back running back Ahmad Bradshaw on their terms when he ran out of options, and they got Mathias Kiwanuka to return on a team-favorable deal in part because of the injury from which he's recovering. But they lost Boss and still haven't re-signed Steve Smith (who's also recovering from injury and likely won't be ready for the start of the season even if he does re-sign). Boss and Smith have been two of Eli Manning's most reliable targets in the passing game over the past two seasons, and to this point it's tough to imagine Domenik Hixon, Ramses Barden or Travis Beckum as capable replacements.

Oh, and there's still the Osi Umenyiora contract dispute. The disgruntled defensive end still isn't practicing as he continues to demand either a trade or a new contract and the team continues to insist he play for the contract he currently has.

If you want to be optimistic, you can say that maybe the Giants are getting all of their rotten luck out of the way early and maybe not much else will go wrong the rest of the way. But considering how few names of potential consequence remain on the free-agent market for a team that's missed the playoffs each of the past two seasons, it's hard to see how the Giants recover from all of the losses they've sustained since free agency started.

Giants lose Kevin Boss to Raiders

August, 5, 2011
8/05/11
12:19
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The Giants' passing game suffered a difficult blow Friday with the news, courtesy of Adam Schefter, that the Raiders signed tight end Kevin Boss to a four-year, $16 million contract. The Giants had been working to sign both Boss and wide receiver Steve Smith, two of quarterback Eli Manning's most trusted and reliable targets. But while Smith remains unsigned (and in the process of recovering from knee surgery), Boss is headed to Oakland, leaving the Giants looking for a replacement.

Boss
Boss
They have Travis Beckum and the recently signed Ben Patrick on the roster, but Beckum is unproven and Patrick is more of a blocker than a receiver. Bo Scaife of the Titans is also on the free-agent market, though if they couldn't get Boss under the salary cap it's hard to see them swinging a deal for Scaife, who has reportedly drawn interest from the Rams and Bengals, among other teams.

The Giants have two very good receivers in emerging star Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham, and running back Ahmad Bradshaw is a weapon in the passing game as well. But with questions swirling around Smith's health and contract status, and with Boss now gone, the offense has some question marks at some spots that had been among its most reliable. Add in the still-unsettled Osi Umenyiora contract dispute, and the first week of camp hasn't exactly gone beautifully for Big Blue.

NFC East Tuesday: How was your day?

August, 2, 2011
8/02/11
11:31
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Time once again for our nightly check-in, where we look back over the 24 hours that have just transpired and ask the open-ended question: How was your day...

Dallas Cowboys?

"You know, fine." Got to be getting old watching the Eagles sign half the world, but the Cowboys did finally lock in one of the two starting safeties they need, bringing back Gerald Sensabaugh on what appears to be his third one-year contract. Wonder what that says about a guy. They keep wanting him back, but ... not that much. I'd be surprised if Abram Elam weren't the Cowboys' next move, and after that maybe a No. 3 receiver. But everybody who's been harping on the Cowboys to sign free agents seems to forget how many good players they already have. Rob Ryan's coaching could be enough to fix what went wrong on defense last year, even with similar personnel. And the offense is loaded with talent. They don't need star-caliber pieces. They just need to fill holes. They'll do it. By the way, they also signed another kicker -- Kai Forbath, who was really good at UCLA, but is hurt now and may or may not be a factor in the David Buehler/Dan Bailey kicking competition that has the Metroplex riveted.

New York Giants?

"Restful." The Giants' players had the day off, to their coach's chagrin, but the front office made itself busy with minor moves, like signing defensive tackle Gabe Watson, who'll be a solid backup or rotational guy in the middle of their line, and bringing back Michael Clayton to help their receiver depth. Nothing new on Osi Umenyiora, who still wants a new deal or out and isn't any more likely today than he was yesterday to get either. Nothing new on Steve Smith or Kevin Boss, though the signing of Zach Miller by the Seahawks could get the Raiders interested pretty quickly. The Giants signed Ben Patrick on Monday to give them insurance in case Boss left, but they're not similar players. Patrick doesn't block the way Boss does, and they surely want Boss back.

Philadelphia Eagles?

"Oh, you know. Typical, three-signing day." The Eagles were off too, but they were at it again, agreeing to new deals with Ronnie Brown as a backup running back, Ryan Harris as a right tackle and Jarrad Page to add to their safety mix along with all of the young guys they have back there. All three came on one-year deals because apparently the whole league wants to play for the Eagles now and will take anything to do it. Jeremy Maclin also arrived in camp after missing the first five practices due to an illness that the team won't discuss, so hopefully he's okay. And nothing new on DeSean Jackson, who has to be wondering how much money is left for him.

Washington Redskins?

"Humbling." Yes, they're paying attention in Ashburn to what's happening at Lehigh with the Eagles. The whole league is. And if you're the Redskins, it can't escape your attention that your current starters at quarterback and running back are John Beck and Ryan Torain while the Eagles' backups at those spots are Vince Young and Ronnie Brown. But hey. Rex Grossman showed up Tuesday, which means it might not have to be Beck. Phillip Buchanon showed up, too, though we also learned that he's suspended for the first four games of the season. Once he's back, I think the Redskins' defense has a chance to be good. The offense, with question marks at quarterback, running back, receiver and offensive line ... that's another story.

My day was good. Spent some more time at Redskins camp. Had some nice conversations with Barry Cofield, Trent Williams, DeAngelo Hall, Lorenzo Alexander and others, and in the coming days I will be filling you in on the insight I gleaned from those conversations. I like getting out and talking to the players and coaches. I learn more from those conversations than I do from watching practice, though I know you guys want to know what I saw in practice. But yeah, my day was real nice. Looking forward to one more morning in Ashburn before I head home and then out to see the Eagles.

How was your day?
The Arizona Cardinals have selected a tight end before the seventh round for the first time since Ken Whisenhunt became head coach in 2007.

Ben Patrick (2007) and Jim Dray (2010) were seventh-round choices.

Rob Housler, chosen in the third round Friday (69th overall), gives the Cardinals a 6-foot-5, 249-pound prospect to groom as a starter. The team hasn't selected a tight end this early since selecting Johnny McWilliams with the 64th choice in 1996.

Tight end was a position I thought Arizona might address earlier in previous drafts under Whisenhunt, a former NFL tight end.

Housler isn't the typical college prospect. He's been married since 2008 and is father. He's been clocked in the 4.5-second range over 40 yards, a very fast time for a tight end. Housler has the potential to become a regular receiving target, something Arizona hasn't had at the position.


Of all the 2007 NFC West draft picks, the Cardinals' Levi Brown and the 49ers' Patrick Willis have started the most games.US PresswireOf all the 2007 NFC West draft picks, the Cardinals' Levi Brown and the 49ers' Patrick Willis have started the most games.
JaMarcus Russell's demise as an NFL player is back in the news, shining light upon the perils of investing millions in unproven prospects.

The 2007 NFL draft was about more than Russell, of course.

That draft also produced Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Willis, Darrelle Revis and Lawrence Timmons among the top 15 choices.

For as much criticism as the Arizona Cardinals have taken for selecting tackle Levi Brown fifth overall, Brown has started 59 regular-season games, second only to Willis (63) among NFC West draft choices that year. He has also started six playoff games, including a Super Bowl, and coach Ken Whisenhunt expects good things from him.

I've put together a couple charts showing what NFC West teams have gotten from their draft choices that year. More on those in a bit.

First, I've taken a team-by-team look at the players selected, whether they remain with their original teams and how many games each has started for his drafted team.

The 49ers had the best draft among NFC West teams. They also had the most draft capital to work with, selecting twice in the first round. The Seattle Seahawks had no first-rounder that year thanks to the Deion Branch trade, so expectations were lower.

Arizona Cardinals

Total picks: five

Still with team (4): Brown (59), Steve Breaston (26), Ben Patrick (20), Alan Branch (3)

No longer with team (1): Buster Davis (0)

Comment: The Cardinals had fewer total selections than any team in the division. Hitting on Breaston in the fifth round was outstanding, but the Cardinals haven't gotten enough from their top three selections that year. Branch never panned out as a second-rounder. Davis, the third-rounder, didn't make it out of camp. Whisenhunt takes pride in making roster decisions with less regard for draft status. He wasn't going to give Davis or anyone a free pass. That's admirable, but in the bigger picture, Arizona still came up short in this draft.

San Francisco 49ers

Total picks: nine

Still with team (5): Willis (63), Joe Staley (50), Ray McDonald (9), Dashon Goldson (34), Tarell Brown (5)

No longer with team (4): Jason Hill (2), Jay Moore (0), Joe Cohen (0), Thomas Clayton (0)

Comment: Former general manager Scot McCloughan gets credit for selling former coach Mike Singletary on Willis as an elite prospect. That seems odd given Singletary's background as a Hall of Fame linebacker, but the 49ers got the right guy, so the "how" part matters less. That one selection makes this draft the best in the division for 2007. Staley is the starting left tackle. McDonald has been a solid rotation player. Goldson became a starter. All in all, this was a strong draft.

Seattle Seahawks

Total picks: eight

Still with team (2): Brandon Mebane (53), Will Herring (7)

No longer with team (6): Josh Wilson (24), Steve Vallos (8), Mansfield Wrotto (5), Courtney Taylor (4), Jordan Kent (1), Baraka Atkins (0)

Comment: Not having a first-round selection severely hurt this class' overall potential. Wilson seemed like a solid selection in the second round given the playmaking value he offered, but multiple changes in organizational leadership left him on the outside in terms of fit. Mebane was a solid choice in the third round. Vallos and Wrotto remain in the league elsewhere.

St. Louis Rams

Total picks: eight

Still with team (1): Clifton Ryan (27)

No longer with team (7): Adam Carriker (25), Brian Leonard (7), Jonathan Wade (6), Dustin Fry (0), Ken Shackleford (0), Keith Jackson (0), Derek Stanley (0)

Comment: This draft was a disaster for the Rams and made worse by massive organizational changes. On the bright side, the Rams might not have been in position to select Sam Bradford first overall in 2010 without selecting so many non-contributors in 2007.

Now, on to the charts. The first one takes a round-by-round look at the number of starts each team has gotten from its 2007 selections. I have used dashes instead of zeroes to show when teams did not have a selection in a specific round.

The second chart divides the number of starts by the values of the selections each team held, using the draft-value chart.

For example, the value chart said the Seahawks' picks that year were worth 669.2 points, far less than the picks for other NFC West teams were worth. Using this measure, Seattle got more bang for its buck if we valued all starts equally (and we should not value them all equally, but we can still use this as a general guide).

Some of the choices were compensatory and could not be traded, so the chart would not have valued them for trading purposes. I assigned values to them for this exercise, however, because we were not considering the picks for trading purposes.

Our ongoing discussion on tight ends raised questions about which ones possess the best -- and worst -- hands.

"Any way you can add in 'thrown to' and 'drops' in this stat?" Furfanam asked in one comments section.

Consider it done.

Jason Vida of ESPN Stats & Information produced the information. I've broken it out in four charts. A few notes on the findings:
The first chart ranks NFL tight ends by most receptions. It also shows number of targets, drops and drop percentage. Witten, Jacob Tamme and Gates were the only tight ends with at least 50 receptions and no more than two dropped passes.



The second chart shows lowest drop percentages among tight ends targeted at least 20 times last season. Miller's standing atop the list backs up James Walker's contention that the Pittsburgh Steelers tight end was underrated in our power rankings.



The third chart ranks NFL tight ends with at least 20 targets by the highest percentage of dropped passes.

ESPN Stats & Information's totals on Bajema matched my charting. I had Bajema dropping passes against Tennessee, Denver and Arizona.



The final chart focuses only on NFC West tight ends, ranking them by lowest percentage of dropped passes.
Our positional power rankings continue next week with tight ends.

The San Francisco 49ers' Vernon Davis will surely rank among our top 10, but how high should he rank on the list?

Davis
I'm inclined to rank him among the top five. These rankings aim to reflect not only past performance, but what we should expect from players in the coming season. Your thoughts?

Trent Baalke, the 49ers' general manager, had this to say during the NFL owners meeting about how Davis will fit in Jim Harbaugh's offense:
"The good part is, it was a tight end-driven offense that Stanford ran and a lot of the power game stuff that he ran, which is a lot of the things we did a year ago. We certainly feel good about the tight end position and the three guys that we have currently at that position. It'll be interesting how [Harbaugh] puts this all together with the combination of the tight ends, the fullbacks and the weapons we feel we have at the wide receiver position as well."

The chart, based on information from Pro Football Reference, ranks tight ends by touchdown receptions since 2008. I've listed the top five overall, plus the highest-ranked tight ends for NFC West teams during that time.

Among the top five, all but Davis have played with Pro Bowl quarterbacks. Davis has emerged as more of a receiving threat in recent seasons. He shined in pass protection at times when Mike Martz was coordinator, and he can be a good run-blocker as well. But it's his ability to strike with the big play that separates him from most tight ends in the passing game. I'll be interested in seeing how he evolves under Harbaugh.

Under the microscope: 15 little things

December, 9, 2010
12/09/10
5:27
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Fifteen little things I noticed while watching NFC West teams play in Week 13:
  • Rams defensive end James Hall pushing Cardinals tackle Levi Brown back far enough to affect Arizona quarterback Derek Anderson. Anderson's hurried pass bounced off Beanie Wells' shoulder, setting up third-and-11.
  • Sam Bradford having plenty of time to complete a 15-yard pass to Brandon Gibson. Left tackle Rodger Saffold handled Joey Porter. Right tackle Jason Smith scrapped with someone on the Cardinals after the play. That's what the Rams want from their tackles: solid pass protection on the left side and a nasty attitude on the right side. Later, Smith ran over to Steven Jackson when it appeared the running back might be in danger following a play.
  • Cardinals tight end Ben Patrick making a couple key blocks on successful running plays. He moved out Rams linebacker Na'il Diggs on Wells' 16-yard run. He did enough to turn Rams defensive end Chris Long inside during Tim Hightower's 23-yard run.
  • Porter celebrating Kerry Rhodes' sack on Bradford. Rams center Jason Brown had decked Porter with a left jab moments earlier. Porter flopped as if trying to draw a penalty. Are players trying to take advantage of heightened awareness over personal fouls? The Packers' Desmond Bishop raised my suspicions when he went cartwheeling after 49ers guard Chilo Rachal shoved him as a play was winding down.
  • Dockett practically taking the snap from Bradford after knifing into the backfield past Rams right guard Adam Goldberg on second-and-goal from the 2. A similar breakdown led to an intercepted shovel pass against Atlanta.
  • Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck and Marshawn Lynch colliding in the backfield. Tight end Cameron Morrah couldn't hold his block, creating a logjam in the backfield.
  • Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson giving another NFC West right tackle problems. Johnson was the one who knocked out 49ers quarterback Alex Smith this season. He threatened Hasselbeck a few times Sunday.
  • Hasselbeck getting hit before throwing an interception on a deep pass intended for Ben Obomanu. This play might have resulted in a touchdown if the Panthers hadn't hit Hasselbeck. Left guard Mike Gibson had problems on this play.
  • Hasselbeck completing a 36-yard pass to Morrah right after the team honored retired left tackle Walter Jones. Inspiration?
  • Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung blasting the Panthers' Captain Munnerlyn following an interception. Okung likes hitting people. A week earlier, against Kansas City, Okung had nothing to do as a play neared its end. He turned and decked Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel with a violent shove.
  • The 49ers failing to fool the Packers with a pass play on third-and-1. San Francisco and Alex Smith in particular have made big plays by throwing in these situations, often to a tight end. Troy Smith could not connect with Michael Crabtree. Will these plays work as well without Frank Gore in the backfield?
  • Troy Smith making a play Alex Smith would never make, in my view, when he threw to Vernon Davis for a 25-yard gain while two defenders were about to sack him. Davis made an acrobatic catch. There was nothing textbook about this play. It was a sandlot play.
  • Troy Smith holding the ball too long and taking sacks in the red zone on consecutive plays soon after the strike to Davis. Alex Smith has been better in the red zone. Might the 49ers have gotten a touchdown here instead of a field goal? Troy Smith missed a red-zone throw to Crabtree late rin the game.
  • 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis forcing and incomplete pass with pressure up the middle. Willis could be a concern for Seattle in this manner Sunday.
  • 49ers safety Reggie Smith missing a tackle on Packers receiver Donald Driver at the San Francisco 27, then coasting while Driver eluded another tackle and ran to the end zone. Ahmad Brooks and Nate Clements hustled their way into the play. Smith never factored after his initial whiff.

I also watched (and charted) the San Francisco 49ers' game against Green Bay, but my notes weren't as good (had some time constraints).

How I See It: NFC West Stock Watch

November, 24, 2010
11/24/10
1:56
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks RB. Two lost fumbles and two dropped passes (one of them on a pass that was tough to handle) prevented Seattle's offense from exploiting the New Orleans Saints' defense any further. The Seahawks passed the ball almost at will, particularly when Mike Williams was in the game, and Lynch averaged 5.1 yards per carry. The turnovers and dropped passes hurt. Lynch was fighting for extra yardage at the expense of ball security. The team replaced him after the second fumble.

2. Troy Smith, 49ers QB. Smith took too many sacks and struggled when Tampa Bay forced him to remain in the pocket. The game plan was arguably too conservative, but Smith did not maximize opportunities. He could have used better protection and more from the running game, too. Smith threw an interception for the first time since replacing Alex Smith as a starter.

3. Ben Patrick, Cardinals TE. The Cardinals have always wanted Patrick to emerge. Instead, Patrick has faded. Arizona replaced Patrick in the starting lineup Sunday even though they opened the game with two tight ends (former Cardinal Leonard Pope even started for Kansas City). When they took over possession near midfield late in the third quarter, a holding penalty against Patrick contributed to the drive stalling. Arizona trailed 21-6 at the time. A touchdown drive would have gotten the Cardinals back into the game. Patrick previously committed a holding penalty on the Cardinals' first drive at Minnesota.

RISING

[+] EnlargeMatt Hasselbeck
AP Photo/Bill NicholsMatt Hasselbeck's stock is soaring following back-to-back games of over 300 yards passing.
1. Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks QB. The quarterback's second consecutive prolific passing performance suggests he could be positioned to finish strong this season. Hasselbeck has 699 yards passing with two touchdowns and no interceptions over his last two games, helping to establish Seattle as the division favorite. No player's stock has risen so sharply in recent weeks.

2. Brandon Gibson, Rams WR. The second-year pro has 19 receptions and one touchdown over the Rams' last three games. The team needed someone to emerge after losing Mark Clayton to a season-ending knee injury. Gibson has helped fill some of the void. His leaping 13-yard touchdown grab against the Atlanta Falcons gave the Rams a 17-16 lead in the third quarter.

3. Ben Obomanu, Seahawks WR. Something has clicked between Obomanu and Hasselbeck. It's easy to forget that the two have been on the same team since 2006. Obomanu has nine catches for 147 yards and a touchdown over the last two games. He ranks tied for the team lead with three touchdowns this season. He averages 15.4 yards per reception and made a nice adjustment to grab a 42-yarder against the Saints.
Larry Fitzgerald, Frank Gore and Patrick Willis US PresswireLarry Fitzgerald, Frank Gore and Patrick Willis are the three front-runners to become the NFC West's Player of the Year for 2010.
Thirty-eight players and two offensive lines had drawn mention by Wednesday morning after I asked for candidates -- sleeper and otherwise -- for 2010 NFC West player of the year.

Some of the sleeper suggestions bordered on ridiculous (Olindo Mare). Another (John Skelton) crossed the border and established residency.

There were also some solid cases made for players deserving mention alongside the five sleepers I outlined (Beanie Wells, Alex Smith, Matt Hasselbeck, Michael Crabtree and Matt Leinart).

norcal114 made a good point about the Seattle Seahawks' LenDale White being in a contract year. Seattle fans remember how well Shaun Alexander performed when a payday was on the line. Alexander was also running behind a formidable offensive line, but for as bad as Seattle appeared up front last season, Justin Forsett still averaged 5.4 yards a carry.

"LenDale White definitely merits inclusion, if not the top spot," TitoKohout wrote. "He's going back to Pete Carroll, [for whom] he played his best, he's in shape, he's the No. 1 back, he's in a contract year and the Seahawks have a pretty easy schedule. Barring injuries, I wouldn't be surprised to see him hit 1,000 yards."

Rushing for 1,000 yards won't qualify anyone as player of the year, of course, but White still probably deserves at least some acknowledgment.

"No mention of Sam Bradford?" Facebook friend Brian wrote. "I'd say he would be player of the year if he could manage 20 TDs with the personnel and coaching he has to work with."

Few rookie quarterbacks have tossed 20 touchdown passes and Bradford would deserve acclaim if he could hit that mark, but in focusing on the most legitimate candidates, I settled on the Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald as the favorite, with the San Francisco 49ers' Frank Gore next on my list (more on them in a bit).

Steven Jackson is a worthy candidate even after recent back surgery, but I question whether the Rams can win enough games to give Jackson a more realistic shot.

What about defense, you say? Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. can help.

"Gore is a great choice for sure and even though he has QB concerns, Larry Fitzgerald is real hard to bet against," Williamson said, "but I will go with Patrick Willis. I expect San Francisco's defense to take a big step up this year (maybe a top 5 defense?) and Willis to be leading the way. As much as I like Gore -- especially this season -- I still don't trust him to dress for 16 games."

The 49ers' defense does have that type of potential, but I'm not seeing many defensive upgrades in San Francisco this offseason. Rookie linebacker Navorro Bowman could surprise in a situational role. Rookie safety Taylor Mays could add flair to the secondary.

"I'm not real excited about those two pickups, per se," Williamson said, "but I do expect the offense to control the football much better and I also expect the defense to be a year older/better across the board, especially with the pass-rushers at outside linebacker."

Those rush linebackers would include Ahmad Brooks, one of the 38 players mentioned as potential POY candidates. The others: the 49ers' Smith, Gore, Josh Morgan, Kentwan Balmer, Manny Lawson, Crabtree, Willis, Ted Ginn Jr. and Vernon Davis; the Cardinals' Wells, Ben Patrick, Darnell Dockett, Joey Porter, Skelton, Kerry Rhodes, Fitzgerald and Leinart; the Rams' Bobby Carpenter, Chris Long, Donnie Avery, James Laurinaitis, Bradford and Steven Jackson; and the Seahawks' Aaron Curry, David Hawthorne, Golden Tate, J.P. Losman, John Carlson, Josh Wilson, Forsett, White, Leon Washington, Lofa Tatupu, Hasselbeck, Mike Williams, Mare and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The offensive lines for the 49ers and Seahawks were also mentioned.

(Read full post)

Draft Watch: NFC West

March, 10, 2010
3/10/10
12:00
PM ET
NFC Recent History: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: Recent history.

Arizona Cardinals

Seven of the nine players Arizona has drafted among the top 50 picks since 2005 project as starters for the upcoming season. That's not bad, although one of the seven -- Antrel Rolle, selected eighth overall in 2005 -- will do so for the Giants.

The Cardinals have generally done a good job in recent years finding and developing players throughout the draft.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (first round), Beanie Wells (first), Deuce Lutui (second), Calais Campbell (second), Early Doucet (third), Greg Toler (fourth), Steve Breaston (fifth), Tim Hightower (fifth), Ben Patrick (seventh) and LaRod Stephens-Howling (seventh) have become building blocks or at least promising prospects. All were drafted in the past four years. All but Lutui were chosen since Ken Whisenhunt arrived in 2007.

Two potential mistakes -- drafting Levi Brown fifth in 2007 and Matt Leinart 10th in 2006 -- could significantly affect the team this season now that Kurt Warner's quick release and accurate throws aren't around. The Cardinals aren't set at either position. Another mistake -- selecting nose tackle Alan Branch 33rd in 2007 -- could lead the team to address that position early in 2010.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers have drafted four players among the top 11 picks since 2006, and three of them -- Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Patrick Willis -- are either stars or heading in that direction. It's the fourth guy -- Alex Smith, selected first overall in 2005 -- whose fate could determine whether the 49ers realize the fruits of recent draft classes.

San Francisco headed into the 2009 draft needing an offensive tackle and a pass-rushing outside linebacker. The team drafted neither, pouncing on Crabtree when he was available unexpectedly at No. 10. Tackle in particular remains a need heading into the 2010 draft. It's an upset if the 49ers, with two first-round choices, let another draft pass without addressing that position in a meaningful way.

The 49ers have gotten old in the secondary, particularly at corner; they haven't used a first- or second-round choice on a defensive back in any of the past five drafts. Of course, it's tough to draft players in that range when sitting out the second round. The 49ers have selected only twice in second round since the 2005 hiring of Scot McCloughan, who was promoted to general manager before the 2008 season. San Francisco used both second-rounders for guards.

Seattle Seahawks

Success through the middle of the decade left the Seahawks picking later than their NFC West rivals. The team has selected only one player -- Aaron Curry, the fourth overall choice in 2009 -- among the top 25 overall picks since 2005.

Unlike the Colts, who have consistently drafted well late in the first round, the Seahawks have come away with Chris Spencer, Lawrence Jackson and Kelly Jennings with selections made in that range. Trading away a 2007 first-rounder for Deion Branch stands as another misuse of prime draft capital. No wonder the organization is starting over.

For all of the failures on the offensive and defensive lines, no Seattle draft choice since Shaun Alexander in 2000 has become a dynamic threat to score touchdowns. Coach Pete Carroll has lamented the lack of offensive firepower. The Seahawks must reverse that trend starting in the 2010 draft. They need playmakers.

Whether the Seahawks land Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall as a restricted free agent will largely determine how much flexibility the team has on draft day.

St. Louis Rams

The Rams haven't selected a quarterback in the first five rounds since using a 1996 second-rounder for Tony Banks.

Lucking into Warner more than a decade ago stands as one of the great stories in NFL history. It's not very repeatable.

The Rams know this. They also know the value of drafting a quarterback in the first round, even though risks can be high.

St. Louis has gone the safe route in recent drafts, using four of their last five first-round choices to build their lines. Too many of those early picks -- Alex Barron, Tye Hill, Adam Carriker -- haven't worked out as planned. Chris Long and Jason Smith, linemen selected second overall in the last two drafts, do not appear to be dynamic talents even though both should start for years to come.

The Rams absolutely, positively need to find a difference-maker with the first overall choice.

No position affects a team the way quarterback does, one reason Oklahoma's Sam Bradford could be tempting. It's not like the Rams can count on finding a quarterback later in the draft, particularly this year. The question, really, is whether Bradford is promising enough to warrant such a high pick.

NFC West: Free-agency primer

March, 3, 2010
3/03/10
6:17
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Arizona Cardinals

Unrestricted free agents: TE Anthony Becht, LB Monty Beisel, LB Bertrand Berry (retired), LT Jeremy Bridges, CB Ralph Brown, LB Karlos Dansby, LT Mike Gandy, FB Dan Kreider, WR Sean Morey, LB Chike Okeafor, K Neil Rackers, NT Bryan Robinson, QB Brian St. Pierre, S Matt Ware.

Restricted free agents: SS Hamza Abdullah, WR Steve Breaston, G Ben Claxton, FB Justin Green, LG Deuce Lutui, TE Ben Patrick, TE Lyle Sendlein, TE Stephen Spach, WR Jerheme Urban, NT Gabe Watson.

Franchise player: none

What to expect: The Cardinals generally do not pursue marquee free agents from other teams. That trend figures to continue. The Cardinals have too many of their own free agents to re-sign for them to worry about chasing other teams' castoffs. We might see Arizona plug the roster with a few lower-tier free agents. They had success doing that last offseason, particularly with Becht at tight end. Dansby leads the list of 2009 starters expected to depart.

St. Louis Rams

Unrestricted free agents: QB Kyle Boller, DE James Hall, SS Clinton Hart, LB Paris Lenon, DE Leonard Little, LS Chris Massey, TE Randy McMichael.

Restricted free agents: S Eric Bassey, S Craig Dahl, TE Daniel Fells, LS Ryan Neill, DT Clifton Ryan, CB Jonathan Wade, DE Victory Adeyanju, FS Oshiomogho Atogwe, T Alex Barron, RB Sam Gado, DT Gary Gibson, WR Ruvell Martin, G Mark Setterstrom.

Franchise player: none

What to expect: The Rams could be in the market for a veteran quarterback such as Chad Pennington. Beyond quarterback, coach Steve Spagnuolo said the Rams could use a little more seasoning in the form of veteran role players. The Rams will remain a young team, but they could add some experience. The team parted with players fitting that profile last offseason, but most had inflated salaries. The ones St. Louis adds this year figure to carry lower price tags in most cases. The Rams have said they want Little and Hall back. McMichael figures to be gone.

Seattle Seahawks

Unrestricted free agents: WR Nate Burleson, FB Justin Griffith, LS Kevin Houser, LB D.D. Lewis, CB Ken Lucas, T Damion McIntosh, S Lawyer Milloy, DE Cory Redding, LS Jeff Robinson.

Restricted free agents: T Brandon Frye, WR Ben Obomanu, LB Lance Laury, G Rob Sims, G Chris Spencer, DE Darryl Tapp.

Franchise player: K Olindo Mare

What to expect: The Seahawks are a little difficult to figure. Their owner has the money to bankroll aggressive spending if Seattle chooses to go that route. Coach Pete Carroll surely realizes the team could use talent upgrades. The new general manager, John Schneider, comes from the Ted Thompson school of personnel. Thompson's aversion for free agency is well established, although Schneider has characterized himself as slightly more aggressive. The problem, of course, is finding good players on the market. Burleson will hit the market. He could return if the price is right. Carroll has said nice things about Redding, who should be affordable.

San Francisco 49ers

Unrestricted free agents: WR Arnaz Battle, CB Dre Bly, CB Walt Harris, T Tony Pashos, FS Mark Roman, T Barry Sims, LB Jeff Ulbrich (retired), LB Matt Wilhelm.

Restricted free agents: LG David Baas, LB Ahmad Brooks, CB Marcus Hudson.

Franchise player: NT Aubrayo Franklin

What to expect: The 49ers have largely turned their back on free agency now that they feel better about their roster. I would expect the team to lay low again when the signing period begins late Thursday night on the West Coast.

Draft Watch: NFC West

February, 17, 2010
2/17/10
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: biggest team needs.

Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals need to get younger in their defensive front seven while improving their outside pass rush. Bryan Robinson is still the most dependable nose tackle on the team. He turns 36 in June. At outside linebacker, 34-year-old Bertrand Berry is retiring and Chike Okeafor turns 34 shortly after becoming an unrestricted free agent next month. It's a tough situation for a team that could lose linebacker Karlos Dansby, 28 and in his prime, to free agency.

Arizona had the right idea when drafting outside linebacker Cody Brown in the second round last year. Brown spent his rookie season on injured reserve. The Cardinals need to get him on the field. They need to develop young linebacker Will Davis, who has shown promise. They need to supplement their front seven in the 2010 draft.

On offense, Kurt Warner's retirement reduces the margin for error. The Cardinals do not need to draft a quarterback early this year, but they do need to continue upgrading their offensive line. Drafting a tackle could make sense. Tight end was a need in the past, but the Cardinals seemed to get through that position OK once Ben Patrick returned from suspension last season.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers need to find a long-term starting right tackle, preferably in the draft. They're set at left tackle and center. Both guards showed improvement late last season. Right tackle has been a question mark for too long. Time to find the answer.

The quarterback issue lurks in the background because San Francisco still cannot count on Alex Smith. With two first-round choices, the 49ers could justify selecting a developmental quarterback early while still addressing a short-term need such as tackle. It's not a must, but it should be a consideration if any of the college quarterbacks appeals.

San Francisco is strong on defense, but every team needs pass-rush help and the 49ers are no different. They had 44 sacks, an impressive total, but 24 came against the Rams (two games), at Seattle and home against Jacksonville. And while it's natural for teams to rack up sack numbers against inferior opponents, the 49ers gain nothing from pretending they were a consistently great pass-rush team. Drafting an outside linebacker with a nose for the quarterback surely wouldn't offend defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.

The 49ers also could use an inside linebacker to pair with Patrick Willis, a strong safety to replace Michael Lewis and a cornerback to pair with Shawntae Spencer as the team transitions away from Nate Clements in the coming years.

Seattle Seahawks

Linebacker stands as one of the few offensive or defensive positions Seattle doesn't need to address in the draft, and even that position isn't as strong as it appears on paper. Leroy Hill, Aaron Curry and Lofa Tatupu made it through part of one game last season. They were never on the field at the same time after an opening-week victory over the Rams.

The Seahawks need to upgrade their offensive line to give Matt Hasselbeck -- or any quarterback -- a chance to function more consistently. They need a big-play threat at running back and receiver. They need to identify and acquire Hasselbeck's eventual successor. They need to get bigger at cornerback. They could use an outside pass-rusher to give them what Patrick Kerney gave them before injuries derailed him.

Seattle had zero sacks in five of 16 games last season. The offense's inability to score points created fewer situations ripe for effective pass-rushing, and the Seahawks could help their pass rush with additional scheming. It's also possible the new coaching staff will get more from Lawrence Jackson and Darryl Tapp. I just don't see how the Seahawks can count on these things. They need more raw pass-rushing talent.

St. Louis Rams

Coach Steve Spagnuolo recently reiterated his belief in building a team from the inside out, starting with the lines. The Rams can be good enough up front on offense when their line is healthy. They need more young talent on their defensive line to help Chris Long. They need to build around James Laurinaitis at linebacker. They could use another cornerback, too.

But anyone who watched the Rams last season realizes this team is going nowhere without an impact player at receiver and a quarterback the team -- and city -- can get excited about. Marc Bulger can be OK, but the sense here is that he's finished in St. Louis and the Rams need to find a stronger leader to rally around.

The Rams' draft position and long list of needs makes it tough to draft a quarterback early when there doesn't appear to be an elite prospect at the position in this draft. For that reason, the Rams might be wise to acquire a veteran such as Michael Vick or Chad Pennington to get them through the season while they continue to bolster the roster elsewhere.

The draft board might dictate selecting a defensive lineman first overall, and that's OK. But this team badly needs a playmaking receiver to give the offense punch beyond Steven Jackson. The Rams were unable to address that need in the 2009 draft, but they need to find a way this time.

It's a bonus if the Rams also come out of this draft with a change-of-pace back and an all-around tight end.

Quick Take: Packers at Cardinals

January, 3, 2010
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Three things to know about the Packers-Cardinals wild-card game:

1. The Cardinals have a few injury concerns.

The knee injury Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie suffered Sunday appeared serious at first, but the team called it only a contusion, listing his return as questionable. That suggests Rodgers-Cromartie could be OK for the playoffs. The Cardinals will need him against the Packers' talented receivers.

Ankle and knee injuries forced receiver Anquan Boldin from the game. A thumb injury could affect defensive end Calais Campbell's status.

Arizona removed some starters early in the game Sunday. Others did not play. Antrel Rolle, Dan Kreider, Ben Patrick, Sean Morey and Bertrand Berry were not even active. Adrian Wilson, Darnell Dockett, Karlos Dansby, Kurt Warner and other key players did not stay in the game long.

Berry had 3.0 sacks in his previous four games. He is 34 years old, though, and has not played at a high level consistently this season. The time off Sunday should help the Cardinals' pass rush, which will be a critical element against the Packers. Green Bay significantly reduced sacks allowed in the second half of the season.

2. For Arizona, this matchup beats one alternative.

The Cardinals could have faced Dallas in the first round under one scenario. That matchup could have been tough for Arizona because the Cowboys' Jay Ratliff and DeMarcus Ware can be so disruptive.

The Packers are very good on defense as well and they can win one-on-one matchups against the Cardinals' offensive line. But Green Bay is less dynamic in its front seven after Aaron Kampman's season-ending injury.

Green Bay has a game-changing defensive back in Charles Woodson (a shoulder injury he suffered Sunday could affect his status). The Packers could be vulnerable against three- and four-receiver personnel, however, because nickel back Jarrett Bush has struggled in an expanded role since Al Harris' season-ending injury. Arizona can spread the field with three receivers even if Boldin is limited.

Warner and his deep fleet of receivers have a chance to exploit that matchup.

3. The Week 17 result means what?

Arizona is an all-or-nothing team. The Cardinals have often been at their best when the stakes were highest. They had little to nothing on the line Sunday and it showed. They'll hear about it all week. Expect a much better effort when it matters.

That doesn't necessarily mean the Cardinals will prevail. Their starters struggled against the Packers in the third week of the exhibition season, falling behind 38-10 at halftime. The Cardinals fell behind right away Sunday when both teams still had quite a few starters on the field.

Arizona has something to prove.

Counting changes for Cardinals, 49ers

December, 12, 2009
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Steve Breaston/Michael CrabtreeGetty Images/Icon SMIMuch has changed for the Cardinals and 49ers since their Week 1 matchup, including the availability of receivers Steve Breaston and Michael Crabtree.
The Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers might not recognize one another during their Week 14 matchup on "Monday Night Football" (ESPN, 8:20 p.m. ET).

So much has changed since the 49ers upset the defending NFC champions, 20-16, in the season opener at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The 49ers' philosophical shift on offense -- the most profound in-season reversal I can recall -- demands the most attention from a long list of changes since the teams met in Week 1. Coordinator Jimmy Raye has channeled his inner Mike Martz since switching quarterbacks, passing the vast majority of the time even in close games. It's a transformation no one could have anticipated to this extent.

This Cardinals-49ers rematch amounts to a last stand for the 49ers. They have lost six of their last eight games in falling to 5-7 and nearly out of the NFC West race. The Cardinals, 8-4 for the first time since 1976, can claim their second consecutive division title by winning this game.

"In my mind, it's not over until it's over," 49ers coach Mike Singletary said.

With that, we take a closer look at 11 significant changes differentiating this matchup from the season-opening one:

Smith
Kyle Terada/US PresswireAlex Smith took over as starting quarterback in Week 7.
1. Alex Smith is the 49ers' quarterback.

The 49ers knew Smith might emerge as the preferred quarterback if Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis played well enough to demand prominent roles in the offense.

They also liked what Shaun Hill was giving them, to a point.

Hill's fourth-quarter leadership was the difference for San Francisco during that Week 1 victory. He passed 13 times during the 15-play winning touchdown drive. But with the offense bogging down by midseason, the 49ers gave Smith another chance to fulfill his first-round draft pedigree.

Their offense is not recognizable from the one the Cardinals faced in Week 1.

2. Steve Breaston is available to the Cardinals.

The Cardinals built their Week 1 game plan under the assumption Breaston would play a more prominent role. Starter Anquan Boldin was the one whose injury status had played most prominently into the coaches' thinking.

That's why Arizona wasn't prepared when Breaston's knee acted up during warm-ups, landing him on the inactive list unexpectedly. Boldin, slowed by a hamstring injury, was limited. The team moved Jerheme Urban, then its fourth receiver, into the "Z" receiver position.

Quarterback Kurt Warner never appeared comfortable.

Boldin and Breaston are much healthier now. Early Doucet has replaced Urban as the fourth receiver. Larry Fitzgerald is starting to make more big plays.

Warner is looking comfortable. With a strong showing Monday night, he can become the only player in NFL history to post a passer rating of at least 120.0 in five consecutive games.
Staley

Staley

3. 49ers left tackle Joe Staley could be available.


Staley hopes to return from a knee injury against the Cardinals.

If he does return, he'll face an improved and more seasoned Calais Campbell.

An ascending second-year defensive end, Campbell was making his first regular-season NFL start in Week 1. Campbell has 1.5 sacks in the Cardinals' last two games.

4. Cardinals left tackle Mike Gandy has been injured.

Arizona has valued continuity on its offensive line, but backup left tackle Jeremy Bridges provided an upgrade at the position with a surprisingly strong relief showing against Jared Allen and the Vikings in Week 13.

Gandy, slowed by a pelvic injury, practiced this week. He had been part of an offensive line that started the same players for 31 consecutive games, counting playoffs.

But Bridges looked good against Minnesota. Perhaps Gandy could use another week to recover, if you know what I mean.

5. Crabtree is playing for the 49ers.

The rookie first-round draft choice has produced steadily, if not spectacularly, since joining the team for its Week 7 game against the Texans.

Crabtree has caught between four and six passes in six of his seven games. He has one touchdown grab, a 38-yarder against Green Bay.

Expect a breakout game for Crabtree at some point this season.

6. Isaac Bruce is a non-factor.

The potential Hall of Fame receiver has not been active in three of the last four games.

The 49ers have phased him out.

They're going with Crabtree and Josh Morgan primarily. Jason Hill has generally served as the third receiver.

Bruce, 37, appears to be finishing his career quietly.
Patrick

Patrick

7. Ben Patrick is available to the Cardinals.

The starting tight end served a four-game suspension to begin the season.

The Cardinals played 32 snaps with four wide receivers and only nine snaps with two tight ends against the 49ers in Week 1.

Arizona has been using two tight ends far more frequently in recent weeks. Expect that to continue.

The Cardinals used their four-receiver offense 23.4 snaps per game over their first seven games. That has fallen to 13.2 snaps per game over the last five.

8. Vernon Davis is now a legitimate Pro Bowl-caliber tight end.

The Cardinals know the NFL's fastest tight end can hurt them.

Davis caught an 18-yard touchdown pass over safety Adrian Wilson during the teams' Monday night game in Week 10 last season.

Davis has 10 touchdown receptions this season. He has become the best player on the 49ers' offense.

Tim Hightower
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireTim Hightower has over 900 rushing and receiving yards combined.
9. The Cardinals are seeking balance.

Arizona averaged 64.8 yards rushing per game in its first seven games. That average has risen to 135 yards per game over the last five.

Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells are looking more like Frank Gore than Gore himself. They're running hard and generally running effectively. Both have to make an effort to limit fumbling.

10. Nate Clements isn't playing for the 49ers.

The 49ers have generally done a good job limiting Fitzgerald's production since Clements signed with San Francisco before the 2007 season.

Clements remains sidelined by injury.

Shawntae Spencer, Dre Bly and/or Tarell Brown face a difficult challenge, particularly if Warner has time to throw.

Clements, one of the best tackling cornerbacks in the league when healthy, might also be missed in run support.

11. Gore might be an afterthought.

The former Pro Bowl running back has only 32 carries in his last three games.

The Cardinals will be ready for him in case the 49ers suddenly go back to Gore, but San Francisco appears likely to stick with its passing game.

"We're going to go forward with it and continue to have Alex Smith do the things that he’s been doing, trying to continue to get the timing of the receivers down, getting a rhythm for our offense, finding out what is the right balance," Singletary said, "and we really won’t know what that is until we get into the game and find out how Arizona plans to attack what we’re doing."

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