NFL Nation: Chike Okeafor
Kevin Kolb's arrival from Philadelphia gives the Arizona Cardinals renewed hope at quarterback and clear direction following Kurt Warner's retirement.
It provides a fresh start after a forgettable 2010 transition season for Arizona.
So much has changed for the Cardinals since their Super Bowl appearance following the 2008 season. Other rosters around the league have turned over since then, of course, but not every team was coming off a Super Bowl appearance.
Quite a few teams have sought change. For the Cardinals, it just happened.
Warner's departure, while easily the biggest change, was far from the only one. Between five and eight starters from that Super Bowl game project as starters in 2011, depending upon how many of the team's unrestricted free agents re-sign.
When Steve Breaston left the Cardinals for Kansas City this week, drawing attention to the cumulative effect of Arizona's roster upheaval, a Seahawks fan drew parallels between Seattle's post-Super Bowl decline and the Cardinals' plight last season.
"Don't misunderstand," Ricky Frey wrote on my Facebook wall, "I'm a Hawks fan, but it seems eerily familiar to watch this happen and know what happened to Holmgren/Mora. Writing on the wall?"
Not if Kolb has anything to say about it. Acquiring a relatively young, potentially ascending quarterback puts Arizona in position to avoid the decline Seattle experienced as a Matt Hasselbeck struggled with injuries while the roster around him withered away. The NFC West remains in transition overall, and the Cardinals know it.
"It’s obviously winnable, but it’s funny to think that everybody thinks you can just step in and win it," Kolb told reporters Friday. "You’re talking about NFL football teams here. I know last year 7-9 is what won it, but it doesn’t matter. ... The door is open, we know, and we’ll be ready to kick it in when it’s time, but it’s not going to be an easy task."
Larry Fitzgerald, Levi Brown, Darnell Dockett, Adrian Wilson and the recently re-signed Lyle Sendlein started for Arizona in the Super Bowl and remain starters in 2011. Another starter from that Super Bowl game, Gerald Hayes, was released this week. Three more are becoming unrestricted free agents: Deuce Lutui, Bryan Robinson and Gabe Watson.
Six Arizona starters from that game are retired or did not play last season: Mike Gandy, Warner, Edgerrin James, Terrelle Smith, Chike Okeafor and Monty Beisel. Seven more play for other teams: Reggie Wells, Leonard Pope, Anquan Boldin, Antonio Smith, Karlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle and the recently traded Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Some were role players. Others were tougher to replace.
Breaston was a backup on that team, but he played extensively as the third receiver and finished the season with more than 1,000 yards.
Kolb's addition headlined a flurry of transactions the Cardinals announced Thursday and Friday.
Sendlein, safety Hamza Abdullah, cornerback Michael Adams, tackle D'Anthony Batiste, center Ben Claxton, punter Ben Graham, fullback Reagan Maui'a and tight end Stephen Spach re-signed.
Five draft choices have signed. Guard Daryn Colledge, defensive end Nick Eason, tight end Jeff King, receiver Chansi Stuckey and linebacker Stewart Bradley have signed as free agents from other teams.
Re-signing Sendlein while adding Kolb, Colledge and Bradley suggests the 2011 team is still coming together, not necessarily falling apart.
They felt it, too.
Arizona finished with a 5-11 record largely because quarterback Kurt Warner retired. The team hoped it had enough veteran strength throughout its roster to keep the Cardinals competitive. A favorable schedule and division in transition made it seem possible.
Looking back, the roster turnover played a leading role in the Cardinals' fall, coach Ken Whisenhunt said from the Super Bowl media center Friday.
"What you lose more than anything is that equity buildup that you have had for a couple years," Whisenhunt said.
Specifically, Whisenhunt said the Cardinals too often couldn't draw on shared experiences -- say, adjustment that worked against an opponent the previous season.
"Even though you have a Kerry Rhodes, you have Paris Lenon, you have guys you are comfortable with that are good players in the league, they don't know what you have gone through to get to that point," Whisenhunt said. "To have those guys step up and say, 'Listen, we are not practicing the right way, we are not making these plays like we should be,' you don't have that history with them. You can get away with that if it is one or two, but if you have five or six -- especially if they are good football players -- that is hard to overcome."
The Cardinals parted with a long list of players featuring Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle, Bryant McFadden, Bertrand Berry, Chike Okeafor, Mike Gandy, Reggie Wells, Neil Rackers, Anthony Becht, Sean Morey, Jerheme Urban, Matt Leinart, Ralph Brown, Monty Beisel and Dan Kreider.
"You can never go in and say, 'Gosh, woe is me because we lost those guys,' because you are counting on the other guys to step in and you always want to be positive," Whisenhunt said. "But you have to recognize it's a pretty big blow to lose [key] guys."
Whisenhunt called the situation a "perfect storm" with Warner retiring, key players hitting the market and the NFL heading toward an uncertain labor situation.
"There is no operating plan for what you do or how you do it," he said. "It doesn't really matter at this point. You just have to move forward."
Quite a few younger players gained more experience than anticipated. That could help Arizona build back some of that equity Whisenhunt said was missing. But so much comes back to the quarterback situation. An upgrade at that position would cover for imperfections elsewhere on the roster.
I've addressed the subject in depth across the division -- first May 26 and again July 30 -- and it's worth another look now that teams have reduced to 53 players for the regular season.
This time, I'm going to break down the changes by position, listing players no longer on the active roster at each main position group (with new players in parenthesis). Departures outnumber replacements because some players finished last season on injured reserve, meaning they were not part of the 53-man roster.
Some players no longer on the active roster remain with the team (they could be suspended, deemed physically unable to perform or part of the practice squad).
St. Louis Rams (34 off roster)
Defensive back: Eric Bassey, Quincy Butler, Danny Gorrer, Clinton Hart, Cordelius Parks, David Roach, Jonathan Wade (added Kevin Dockery, Jerome Murphy, Darian Stewart)
Defensive line: Victor Adeyanju, Adam Carriker, Leger Douzable, Leonard Little, LaJuan Ramsey, James Wyche (added Jermelle Cudjo, Fred Robbins, George Selvie, Eugene Sims)
Linebacker: K.C. Asiodu, Paris Lenon (added Na'il Diggs, Josh Hull)
Offensive line: Roger Allen, Alex Barron, Ryan McKee, Mark Setterstrom, Phillip Trautwein, Eric Young (added Renardo Foster, Hank Fraley, Rodger Saffold)
Quarterback: Kyle Boller, Marc Bulger, Keith Null, Mike Reilly (added Sam Bradford, A.J. Feeley, Thaddeus Lewis)
Running back: Samkon Gado, Chris Ogbonnaya (added Keith Toston)
Special teams: Ryan Neill
Tight end: Randy McMichael (added Mike Hoomanawanui, Fendi Onobun)
Wide receiver: Donnie Avery, Keenan Burton, Brooks Foster, Jordan Kent, Ruvell Martin (added Mark Clayton, Dominique Curry, Mardy Gilyard)
Seattle Seahawks (33 off roster)
Defensive back: Jamar Adams, Deon Grant, Ken Lucas, Josh Wilson (added Kam Chancellor, Kennard Cox, Nate Ness, Earl Thomas, Walter Thurmond)
Defensive line: Lawrence Jackson, Patrick Kerney, Cory Redding, Nick Reed, Darryl Tapp, Craig Terrill (added Kentwan Balmer, Raheem Brock, Chris Clemons, Dexter Davis, Junior Siavii, E.J. Wilson)
Linebacker: Leroy Hill, Lance Laury, D.D. Lewis (added Matt McCoy; note that Hill is suspended for the first regular-season game)
Offensive line: Trevor Canfield, Brandon Frye, Walter Jones, Damion McIntosh, Rob Sims, Steve Vallos, Ray Willis, Mansfield Wrotto (added Stacy Andrews, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Ben Hamilton, Russell Okung, Chester Pitts, Tyler Polumbus)
Quarterback: Mike Teel, Seneca Wallace (added Charlie Whitehurst)
Running back: Justin Griffith, Louis Rankin, Tyler Roehl, Owen Schmitt (added Quinton Ganther, Michael Robinson, Leon Washington)
Special teams: Kevin Houser, Jeff Robinson (added Clint Gresham)
Tight end: John Owens (added Chris Baker, Anthony McCoy)
Wide receiver: Nate Burleson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh (added Golden Tate, Mike Williams)
Arizona Cardinals (24 off roster)
Defensive backs: Ralph Brown, Bryant McFadden, Antrel Rolle (added A.J. Jefferson, Trumaine McBride, Brandon McDonald, Kerry Rhodes)
Defensive line: Jason Banks (added Dan Williams)
Linebacker: Monty Beisel, Bertrand Berry, Cody Brown, Karlos Dansby, Gerald Hayes, Chike Okeafor, Pago Togafau (added Paris Lenon, Cyril Obiozor, Joey Porter, Daryl Washington; Hayes can return from the physically unable to perform list after six games)
Offensive line: Mike Gandy, Herman Johnson, Reggie Wells (added Alan Faneca, Rex Hadnot)
Quarterback: Matt Leinart, Brian St. Pierre, Kurt Warner (added Derek Anderson, Max Hall, John Skelton)
Running back: Justin Green, Dan Kreider (added Jerome Johnson)
Special teams: Neil Rackers (added Jay Feely)
Tight end: Anthony Becht (added Jim Dray)
Wide receiver: Anquan Boldin, Sean Morey, Jerheme Urban (added Andre Roberts, Stephen Williams)
San Francisco 49ers (24 off roster)
Defensive backs: Dre' Bly, Walt Harris, Marcus Hudson, Mark Roman (added Phillip Adams, Tramaine Brock, William James, Taylor Mays)
Defensive line: Kentwan Balmer, Derek Walker
Linebacker: Scott McKillop, Jeff Ulbrich, Matt Wilhelm (added NaVorro Bowman, Travis LaBoy)
Offensive line: Tony Pashos, Chris Patrick, Cody Wallace (added Alex Boone, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati)
Quarterback: Nate Davis, Shaun Hill (added David Carr, Troy Smith)
Running back: Thomas Clayton, Glen Coffee, Brit Miller, Michael Robinson (added Anthony Dixon, Brian Westbrook)
Special teams: Shane Andrus, Ricky Schmitt
Wide receiver: Arnaz Battle, Isaac Bruce, Jason Hill, Brandon Jones (added Ted Ginn Jr., Kyle Williams, Dominique Zeigler)
The first chart shows how many players are back -- at least for now -- from Week 17 rosters and injured reserve lists. Seattle has the fewest number back with 26.
The second chart shows how many players each team has shed since Week 17 last season. This counts players who were on injured reserve. Teams with lots of players on injured reserve had more players to lose.
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- You know what the 2010 Arizona Cardinals are not.
They're not the team with Pro Bowl-caliber talents Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle. They're not the team with established veterans Bryant McFadden, Chike Okeafor, Bertrand Berry and Mike Gandy. They're not the team that won the past two NFC West titles and posted a 4-2 postseason record.
They're not dead, either. Who are these new-look Cardinals? A trip to training camp at Northern Arizona University provided some clues.
This team will be easy to underestimate for those analyzing from afar. What I saw up close was a team with strong leadership -- both vocally and by example -- throughout its roster. The Cardinals are accountable to one another. I saw an organization with a track record for developing young talent (think Calais Campbell, Steve Breaston and Early Doucet, to name three). I saw a head coach, Ken Whisenhunt, who loves a challenge and thinks the Cardinals will do just fine in one of their favorite roles -- underdogs.
This team has an edge to it. The Cardinals will compete and they can make another playoff appearance with a little help from their quarterback.
THREE HOT ISSUES
What's he saying now? Whisenhunt dismisses Leinart's shaky 2009 performance against Green Bay in Week 17 as a product of unusual circumstances (the Cardinals watered down their game plan with an eye toward playing the Packers in the wild-card round). He points to Leinart's performance against the Tennessee Titans last season -- 21 of 31 passing for 220 yards and an 88.1 rating -- as evidence the quarterback knows the offense well enough to succeed even without getting practice reps (Warner was scratched from the lineup shortly before kickoff). For that reason, Leinart will not get extra playing time during the upcoming preseason. Whisenhunt doesn't think it's necessary.
"I feel like there's a hurdle you have to cross as a young quarterback where no matter what situation you're thrown into, you have to perform," Whisenhunt said. "He is at a point with our offense where he is comfortable and he may not get the reps."
Leinart has four seasons in Whisenhunt's offense. He's playing for a new contract, backed by two productive running backs and one of the NFL's elite receivers in Larry Fitzgerald. Leinart will never be Warner, but he will not have to be. He'll be leading a re-made offense with increased emphasis on the running game. I'm not entirely sold. Leinart has much to prove.
"The last two years, I've learned really how to prepare mentally and studying and all that," Leinart said. "I finally get to take that to the field every single day and get the reps and make mistakes, but come back and learn from them. I worked extremely hard just to get to this point."
2. What does Joey Porter have left? The former Pro Bowl pass-rusher showed up for training camp in vastly better condition than he appeared during offseason minicamps. His speed and quickness stunned me during the Cardinals' afternoon practice Monday. Porter even kept pace with Fitzgerald on a special-teams coverage play 35 yards downfield. And he stayed home defending bootlegs.
The team's training camp practice jerseys do not feature players' names across the backs, and with so many new faces in camp, I double-checked the roster to make sure No. 55 was indeed the 33-year-old Porter. It was him.
The Cardinals knew they were getting a fiery personality and potential mentor for some of their younger players. The first few days of training camp have given them reason to think Porter might have more left physically than first anticipated. He had nine sacks for the Miami Dolphins last season and 17.5 the year before. Arizona will put him on the same side as Campbell, who had seven sacks at defensive end. There's potential for Porter to help this defense more than expected. Let's see if he can sustain the fast start.
Hayes could return from back surgery by then. The Cardinals will find playing time for second-round choice Daryl Washington. They'll lean on veteran Paris Lenon. They'll move strong safety Adrian Wilson into the box for run support as needed.
It might not be enough.
Rashad Johnson. The second-year safety appears more physical and closer to contributing. His rookie season was a wash. Johnson might not be needed for extensive snaps, but they might not have to dread turning to him in a pinch.
Hayes' injury status. The Cardinals downplayed their key run defender's back situation during the early stages of the offseason. They hoped Hayes would overcome the back problems that slowed him last season. Hayes finally underwent surgery. He's a spectator and the Cardinals miss him.
- Guard Deuce Lutui was arguably the Cardinals' best offensive lineman last season. He could have a hard time staying active for games in 2010. Alan Faneca's addition at left guard sent 2009 left guard Reggie Wells to the right side at Lutui's expense. If Lutui fails to win back the starting job -- contract issues kept him away from the team this offseason and he reported to the team overweight -- his inability to play another position on the line could make it tough for the Cardinals to make him one of the two active backups for games. Jeremy Bridges can play guard or tackle. Rex Hadnot can play center or guard. Even Wells could play tackle in a pinch.
- This team has strong, outspoken leaders everywhere. Fitzgerald organizes offseason workouts with Cris Carter, Jerry Rice and various current NFL stars, setting a standard for receivers. Faneca provides the offensive line with a needed voice and identity. Wilson is the enforcer in the secondary and the most credible leader on the team. Porter adds veteran leadership and attitude at linebacker. Darnell Dockett holds the defensive line accountable.
- The Cardinals do not fear the truth. They confront issues directly. Free agent Kerry Rhodes came to Arizona with a reputation as Mr. Hollywood. Even Rhodes acknowledged that former New York Jets teammate Kris Jenkins was likely targeting him with comments suggesting the team had added "real men" to replace the "women" they had lost. Rhodes didn't like it much when Dockett questioned his work ethic amid globe-trotting tweets from the vacationing safety. Whisenhunt's response? No big deal. "Besides," Whisenhunt said of Rhodes' reputation, "our guys have been on him hard enough about it that they're not going to cut him any slack."
- Speaking of Rhodes, the Cardinals think he can be a good blitzer for them, particularly in combination with Wilson.
- Fitzgerald's capacity for self-motivation borders on the ridiculous, but it works for him. "I'm getting older. The window of opportunity is closing. I was sitting around talking to Cris Carter this offseason and it seems like seven years has gone by so fast. The hourglass is turned over on me now. The sand is going down and my career is on the downward side now. I have to really pick it up and try to help this team get a playoff win and win a Super Bowl."
- Faneca, 33, struggles in one-on-one pass-rush drills. The Jets released him even though his salary was guaranteed, making a strong statement as to what they thought he had left. The Cardinals couldn't pass up adding Faneca to their line. They can benefit from his leadership and experience. I just wonder whether he'll be one of the two best guards on the team this season, particularly once Lutui rounds into shape.
- Beanie Wells benefited from his first full offseason in the NFL. Graduation rules at Ohio State prevented him from joining the team until mid-June last offseason. Wells then reported to training camp slightly late and immediately suffered an injury. He appears much better prepared for the upcoming season. Wells is still fine-tuning some aspects of his pass-protection skills. He catches the ball well, though, and his running will set him apart this season. The versatile Tim Hightower remains the starter early in camp and Wells will have to beat him out. I expect that to happen.
- The Cardinals ran more four-receiver personnel groups than any team in the league last season. I noticed one four-wide play in five practices and that was with backups playing receiver. Teams tend to focus on base packages early in camp. That could partially explain the proliferation of two-receiver personnel groups. Still, the offense appears different from last season and that will carry over into the regular season.
- Arizona emphasized continuity over the past two seasons, particularly on its offensive line. Only the Seattle Seahawks have fewer players returning from Week 17 last season, however. Center Lyle Sendlein is the only starting offensive lineman returning at the same position.
It should come as little surprise, then, to see the Seattle Seahawks retain a league-low 66.1 percent of their players from last season. It should likewise make sense to see the NFC North champion Minnesota Vikings retain a league-high 94.4 percent over the same period.
But when the two-time defending NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals rank right behind Seattle and the Detroit Lions with a 70.2 percent retention rate, third-lowest in the league, we gain context for the magnitude of change in the desert. Anquan Boldin, Kurt Warner, Antrel Rolle, Karlos Dansby, Bryant McFadden, Mike Gandy, Chike Okeafor and Bertrand Berry combined to start 107 games for the Cardinals last season. All are gone.
Not that change is always bad, even for good teams.
The Indianapolis Colts (73.0 percent retained) and Philadelphia Eagles (74.6 percent) made quite a few changes this offseason. The Colts annually field one of the NFL's youngest teams while funneling massive amounts of cash toward their star players. The Eagles sought to get younger.
Rosters throughout the league will change significantly again as teams comply with 53-man limits in September.
The chart shows how many Week 17 starters, backups and players from injured reserve remain with their 2009 teams. The retention rate divides those totals by the sum of 53 plus all players who were on IR lists in Week 17. The starter totals can be somewhat misleading for teams that rested key players before the playoffs, but the retention rates apply equally. Every team had 53 players on its roster in Week 17.
In double-checking totals, I noticed that teams have parted with 107 of the 294 players listed on IR in Week 17. That works out to 63.6 percent retention for players who were on IR, compared to 82.1 percent retention for players who were on 53-man rosters. The total retention rate -- 79.4 percent -- reflects both sets of players.
The chart breaks down totals based on rosters I have updated through moves made Thursday. I also accounted for the Denver Broncos' reported release of quarterback Tom Brandstater, who was with the team in Week 17. I'm counting unsigned franchise players (Aubrayo Franklin) and unsigned restricted free agents as still being with their 2009 teams, based on the fact that their teams hold rights to them.
Update: I adjusted the San Diego Chargers' total and the Tampa Bay Bucs' total after accounting for trades involving Tim Dobbins and Byron Leftwich, respectively. San Diego dropped two spots. Tampa Bay dropped one spot. The overall retention rate fell slightly.
NFC West thoughts
San Francisco (.833): The 49ers like their team and they have been proactive in re-signing younger players. Continuity has been a top priority and that shows in the totals. The 49ers' retention rate fell because the team has not brought back five of the seven players it listed on IR in Week 17 (Thomas Clayton, Walt Harris, Tony Pashos, Ricky Schmitt and Jeff Ulbrich).
St. Louis (.773): It's a little surprising, on the surface, to see the rebuilding Rams rank second only to the 49ers in retention rate within the division. The Rams made massive overhauls last offseason, however, so there were fewer moves to make in recent months. Only the Lions and Baltimore Ravens brought back more players from IR, a total that could grow if Oshiomogho Atogwe re-signs. How well some of those players recover and hold up will be important for the Rams.
Arizona (.702): The turnover in Arizona has been documented thoroughly. Only Seattle has fewer players back from Week 17.
Seattle (.661): New coach plus new general manager plus a mandate for change leaves the Seahawks with only 39 players on their roster from Week 17 (counting those listed on IR). Every other team in the league has more. The league average is 49.4 players back.
The list of available inside linebackers with experience in 3-4 schemes appears weak.
I see none worth strong consideration on the updated list of unrestricted free agents, which I'll make available shortly.
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.
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.
Getting the information into a spreadsheet allowed me to break down those figures by team, position and starts.
The chart shows projected UFAs with at least nine starts last season, by position.
The Cardinals are tied for the league lead with five: nose tackle Bryan Robinson, linebacker Chike Okeafor, linebacker Karlos Dansby, left tackle Mike Gandy and tight end Anthony Becht.
Take away 15-game starter Kurt Warner, who retired, and it's clear this offseason could be very disruptive for the Cardinals. The team could also lose free safety Antrel Rolle, whose contract includes a $4 million roster bonus and $8.1 million salary.
Another key role player, Bertrand Berry, is retiring.
The Rams had four players make the list, but all four are older players nearing the ends of their careers (Leonard Little, James Hall, Paris Lenon and Randy McMichael).
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.
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.
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.
An early look at the free-agent situation in the NFC West.
Note: These projected lists reflect notable unrestricted free agents for each team. The NFL will not issue an official list of free agents until the signing period begins March 5.
Key figures: The more than $17.7 million Arizona has paid to Dansby over the past two seasons should suffice as a parting gift if, as expected, the linebacker leaves in free agency. Dansby could be leading an exodus. Okeafor turns 34 in March and could be on his way out. Berry announced his retirement. Morey has had concussion problems. Gandy's return probably depends on whether he's willing to stay for less than the $5 million he earned last season. Safety Antrel Rolle does not appear on the list, but he would hit the market when free agency begins if the Cardinals decline to pay a $4 million roster bonus.
San Francisco 49ers
Unrestricted free agents: WR Arnaz Battle, CB Dre' Bly, NT Aubrayo Franklin, CB Walt Harris, RT Tony Pashos, FS Mark Roman, LT Barry Sims, LB Jeff Ulbrich, LB Matt Wilhelm, CB Keith Smith.
Key figures: The 49ers have been proactive in re-signing their own players. That explains why relatively few big names appear on this list. The franchise tag appears well suited for Franklin, the only marquee UFA on the 49ers' list this offseason. Tagging Franklin at the $7 million franchise rate makes sense heading into labor uncertainty. Why spend lavishly on a long-term deal? Franklin has played at a high level consistently for only one season, and a lockout could keep him off the field in 2011. Re-signing Sims for depth would make sense. Ulbrich, meanwhile, has retired and joined the Seahawks' coaching staff.
Unrestricted free agents: DE Cory Redding, CB Ken Lucas, K Olindo Mare, LB D.D. Lewis, FB Justin Griffith, LT Damion McIntosh, SS Lawyer Milloy, LS Kevin Houser, LS Jeff Robinson.
Key figures: New coach Pete Carroll is on the record saying he likes what he's seen from Redding. Mare is coming off an outstanding season. Lucas has the size Seattle's new leadership wants in its cornerbacks. Milloy played for Carroll in New England. There isn't much more to say about this relatively nondescript group, and it's unclear how much the new regime will value these UFAs. Unrestricted free agency isn't the only road out of Seattle this offseason. The team will probably part with a few established players who haven't lived up to their salaries because of injuries and other factors. Patrick Kerney and Deion Branch come to mind.
St. Louis Rams
Unrestricted free agents: DE Leonard Little, DE James Hall, LB Paris Lenon, QB Kyle Boller, S Clinton Hart, LS Chris Massey, TE Randy McMichael.
Key figures: Boller, 28, is the only player on the Rams' list younger than 30. Franchise player Oshiomogho Atogwe and starting tackle Alex Barron become only restricted free agents under rules governing the uncapped year, explaining their absence from the Rams' UFA list. It's unclear how seriously Little and Hall figure into the team's plans for 2010. Chris Long's emergence late last season should make it easier for the team to move on without them, but the aging defensive ends did combine for 27 starts and 11 sacks last season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Cardinals play their exhibition home opener against the Chargers in a 10 p.m. ET kickoff from University of Phoenix Stadium. A few things I'd like to see:
- The backup quarterbacks. Matt Leinart fared better than Brian St. Pierre in the first exhibition game. He can tighten his hold on the No. 2 job behind Kurt Warner. Fourth-stringer Tyler Palko looks like an exciting prospect, but he has virtually no shot at earning a roster spot in Arizona.
- First-round choice Beanie Wells. The rookie running back could make his exhibition debut. He probably will not play extensively, but let's see what he does when he's in the game and how he holds up physically.
- Backup receivers. Early Doucet has moved past a shoulder injury, but he hasn't yet validated his status as a third-round choice in 2008. The Cardinals don't really need him after Steve Breaston developed into a solid third option, but they would like to know Doucet can step up if a need does arise. Lance Long and Onrea Jones might also be fighting for a roster spot. Veteran Sean Morey's prowess on special teams might set him apart from the other receivers fighting for roster spots.
- Rookie tackle Herman Johnson. He impressed against the Steelers last week. Another strong showing at tackle in a backup role would be welcome for Arizona. Depth at offensive tackle is a luxury in the NFL. Johnson is 380 pounds. His continued development -- as a tackle, not a plodding guard -- could help this team long term. The Cardinals will become more of a power team once Kurt Warner retires in a couple of years.
- The pass rush. The Cardinals know what Chike Okeafor, Darnell Dockett, Bertrand Berry, Adrian Wilson and Clark Haggans offer in terms of getting after quarterbacks. They would like rookie Cody Brown to provide an emerging option in that area.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Anquan Boldin reported late to training camp after doubling back to pick up two teammates' whose vehicle had broken down. Does the collective bargaining agreement allow him to submit for mileage reimbursement?
Also from Somers: All Cardinals players made their weight targets, including Alan Branch. Tight end Stephen Spach has been cleared to practice once a day following ACL surgery.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the mood was light as players reported for camp, with coach Ken Whisenhunt and quarterback Kurt Warner exchanging friendly banter in front of reporters.
Revenge of the Birds' Hawkwind singles out Chike Okeafor, Lyle Sendlein and Gabe Watson as Cardinals players entering pivotal seasons.
Chris Sullivan of Seahawk Addicts expects Josh Wilson to compete hard for the starting job at right cornerback even though Ken Lucas is the heavy favorite to emerge in the No. 1 role.
Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com examines changes to training camp as the team holds its first one at its new facility.
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com checks in with second-round Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis, who was happy to sign in time for training camp. Laurinaitis: "You don't want anyone to think of you as that guy holding out. You don't want that label on you and I am just glad it's all over with. A lot of guys do mean it when they say they want to be in camp on time. You are missing a lot of football, a lot of good teaching if you hold out."
Also from Wagoner: audio from his conversation with Bernie Miklasz of 101ESPN St. Louis. Wagoner points to Daniel Fells, Roger Allen, Phil Trautwein and Larry Grant as lesser-known players who could make an impact in training camp.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch expects the Rams to reach agreement with first-round choice Jason Smith in the near future. That would probably help the Seahawke define the market for Aaron Curry. Smith and Curry were the only non-quarterbacks drafted among the top four overall choices.
VanRam of Turf Show Times points to Mike Karney's addition as an important offseason move by the Rams. Might Karney help in the red zone?
Patrick Hooper of 49ers.com passes along Demetric Evans' thoughts on playing in Greg Manusky's defense. Evans: "[Manusky] told me that the 3-4 they run is not the typical 3-4, where you are just holding blocks. They allow the d-linemen to get up the field and make plays."
John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle offers Mike Singletary's reflections on missing training camp when Singletary was a player. Singletary: "I'm a guy of principle. I was prepared to sit out for the whole duration. It worked out."
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat details the 49ers' roster moves and says the team expects to sign a defensive lineman while Michael Crabtree's absence leaves open a roster spot.
Bob Padecky of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat assesses Alex Smith's chances to right his career. Smith says he's throwing the ball effortlessly, a big change from his injury-plagued past.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says 49ers rookie Ricky Jean-Francois is suffering from a stomach ailment. The note allowed Barrows to work in a rare reference to Pannel Egboh.
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News poses five questions facing the 49ers this summer. Can the 49ers field a top-10 defense? I think they can with some help from the offense.
Andrew Davidson of Niners Nation assesses the fantasy prospects of 49ers players. Davidson: "Let me begin by saying do not draft Shaun Hill if you are playing in a standard league. ... A player like Shaun Hill won't serve a lot of fantasy purpose, mainly because there are 32 starting QBs in the NFL, and you'll be fighting for one of the top 12. It is safe to say Shaun Hill is not a top 12 quarterback in fantasy football (or the NFL)." Will Hill start?
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Larry Fitzgerald also seemed worthy after posting three 1,400-yard seasons and staking the Cardinals into a late lead with a dramatic 64-yard touchdown reception in Super Bowl XLIII.
"I'm hard pressed to come up with [a tight end] better than Vernon Davis," wrote regular blog contributor Mind of no mind. "But if there is nobody better, then maybe we should drop the TE from the team and go with 3 WR with Bruce."
Such was the give and take as I sifted through nominations left on the blog and on my Facebook page. One request I couldn't quite accommodate: finding a spot for the legendary Kim Il Zong, a ka The Zonger.
A position-by position look at my NFC West all-decade team follows. Thanks to Adam from Mesa, Ariz., for getting the conversation started (download his suggested team here).
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams have no interest in former Giants receiver Plaxico Burress. Miklasz: "When new head coach Steve Spagnuolo was hired, he stressed the four pillars of his leadership, the four pillars that would rebuild the franchise: (1) Faith; (2) Character; (3) Core Values; (4) Team. Does that sound like Plaxico Burress to you?" Burress could be facing jail time.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says bouncing between nose tackle and three-technique tackle hasn't helped first-round choice Adam Carriker. Thomas: "Carriker's first two seasons were slightly disappointing, but in his defense he was bouncing around [from] NT to UT. He's more suited for UT, or 3-technique, it seems, and if he's left there, he might come around pretty quickly. [Clifton] Ryan has been pretty solid in the middle. The rest of the rotation is pretty much up in the air at this point. Rookie Darell Scott probably will be in there, and Orien Harris, too. As for [Claude] Wroten, I expect the Rams to release him as soon as he's reinstated. Of course, I could be wrong about that. But he doesn't seem to fit the Spags profile."
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Spagnuolo is stressing penalty reduction. Also: "Larry Grant worked with the first unit at strongside LB on Tuesday. That spot is open following the release of veteran Pisa Tinoisamoa. With second-round draftee James Laurinaitis still with the No. 2 unit, Chris Draft was at MLB with the ones."
Mike Swift of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers have reached agreement with Santa Clara on financing for a new stadium. Mayor Patricia Mahan: "I believe we have negotiated as far as we can, and we are ready to bring it to the public." The public could get a look at the deal next week.
Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle sizes up the 49ers' stadium efforts this way:"In this corner, there is Jed York, born to the purple and working on behalf of mom and dad to get the Santa Clara deal moving. In the other, there is Carmen Policy, Eddie DeBartolo's old wing man, working on behalf of Lennar, the folks who are trying to make the 49ers a new home at Hunters Point if the Santa Clara thing collapses. And in the middle -- leaning toward Jed -- is Eddie, who is about to be inducted into the 49ers' Hall of Fame, largely on Jed's initiative. We're sure the development is entirely coincidental and meritorious."
Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers' other receivers seem to be embracing first-round choice Michael Crabtree, viewing him more as a threat to opponents than to their own playing time. If veteran Isaac Bruce is concerned, it's not showing. He has skipped the voluntary workouts to this point.
John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says 49ers players keep getting hurt during organized team activities (OTAs). Crumpacker: "The early diagnosis on [Walt] Harris was a sprained knee, with further evaluation to come. The 49ers are not deep at cornerback. Behind Harris on the depth chart is Tarell Brown and after him, there's Shawntae Spencer, who is coming off a 2008 knee injury that cost him 14 games."
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the best-case scenario for Alex Smith and the 49ers would be for Shaun Hill to open the 2009 season as the starter. I think that depends on how the quarterbacks look during the offseason, specifically during the exhibition games. Is there a chance Smith wins the job and plays well for 16 games? Also, just to be clear, the 49ers also have no interest in Burress.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers' depth at receiver is being tested with Bruce away, Crabtree rehabilitating a foot injury and Jason Hill suffering a sprained ankle in practice.
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says new Cardinals running back Jason Wright is embracing the opportunity in Arizona. Wright: "It's an offense that puts players in the best position to win. It's an attacking offense, aggressive and it's not reactive. I love that about this offense. It's forward moving and it's very efficient. In fact, I was amazed during our first minicamp at how many completions there were and how few dropped balls and mental errors I saw. That's really rare. But they've got something really crisp going on."
Also from McManaman: Karlos Dansby expresses confidence in the Cardinals' ability to reach a long-term agreement with him.
Carrie Watters of the Arizona Republic details Arizona's failed bid to land the 2013 Super Bowl. New Orleans was more than a sentimental favorite.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Adrian Wilson, Sean Morey, Kenny Iwebema, Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor did not attend OTAs Monday. Urban expects them to show up later.
Revenge of the Birds' Hawkwind sizes up Cardinals sixth-round choice Will Davis. Hawkwind: "It wouldn't be surprising at all, given the current depth at OLB, for Davis to spend the season on the practice squad. He has zero experience in space [and] his transition to OLB will be more difficult than second round pick Cody Brown. When you add in that he also needs to get stronger and possibly drop some weight, a year on the practice squad seems to make sense. If he does find his way onto the roster, it'll likely be because he's made a name for himself on special teams."
Gregg Bell of the Associated Press says Bryan Pittman's agent confirmed the long-snapper's contract agreement with the Seahawks.
Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com says vice president Joe Biden, speaking at Wake Forest's commencement, pointed to Seahawks linebacker Aaron Curry as reason for optimism. Biden: "As a student of history, it's the history behind me and the people in front of me that give me such a degree of optimism. ... It's about Aaron Curry, a scrawny freshman linebacker recruited by only two schools, who worked his rear off, became a Top 5 pick, and is walking off this stage into an opposing NFL backfield. Aaron, I heard you wanted to go to law school -- you were considering going to graduate school. I also heard that your fellow draftees have taken up a collection encouraging you to go. So I'm sure there's a scholarship there if you want it."
John Morgan of Field Gulls outlines 10 keys for the Seahawks on defense. Darryl Tapp's emergence tops the list.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Cardinals have re-signed four of their own unrestricted free agents after Clark Haggans accepted a three-year deal.
The other NFC West teams have each re-signed two UFAs.
Haggans, 32, provides depth and leadership at linebacker. He is also coming off a foot injury that ended his 2008 season early.
The chart lists the Cardinals' linebackers from oldest to youngest.
Chike Okeafor's ability to stay healthy proved important for Arizona last season. He started 16 games after missing the 2007 season. He previously had not missed a game since 2001.
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