NFL Nation: Clifton Ryan

The Arizona Cardinals have taken pride in finding strong values later in the NFL draft.

Breaston
Breaston
Steve Breaston was one of those strong values. The 2007 fifth-round pick earned a roster spot on special teams, worked his way into becoming a 1,000-yard receiver and typified the grittiness coach Ken Whisenhunt has sought to establish in Arizona.

Breaston's contract agreement with Kansas City, as reported by ESPN's John Clayton, has to sting Arizona even though the Cardinals knew the 27-year-old wideout might be leaving.

Breaston was a gamer. The touchdown-saving fumble he forced against St. Louis last season stands out as symbolic.

My recap at the time:
Breaston was everywhere for the Cardinals during their 17-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams. He hustled downfield to force a fumble just as Rams defensive tackle Clifton Ryan was about to score a touchdown on a fumble return. The Cardinals trailed by three at the time and they were struggling to get much going offensively. A Rams touchdown in that situation might have won the game for St. Louis. Breaston made another touchdown-saving tackle earlier in the game, bringing down Rams cornerback Bradley Fletcher after a 43-yard fumble return.

When the Cardinals needed Breaston on offense, he was catching each of the seven passes thrown his way, good for 132 yards. Six of the seven receptions produced first downs. Breaston had a 16-yarder on third-and-6, a 22-yarder on third-and-16 and a 35-yarder on third-and-10.

I understand why the Cardinals didn't go all-out to bring back Breaston. Andre Roberts showed promise at receiver last season. Breaston has had knee problems. Arizona still has Larry Fitzgerald. The team drafted a receiving tight end in Rob Housler.

Still, the Cardinals keep losing core players. They suffered significant personnel losses last offseason. Each one seemed defensible and even logical on certain levels, but the net losses have set back the team. Breaston will be missed.

NFC West free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC West team:

Arizona Cardinals

1. Sign or acquire a quarterback: You've heard all the potential names by now. Kevin Kolb, Kyle Orton, Carson Palmer, Marc Bulger and Matt Hasselbeck all could be available. The same goes for Donovan McNabb, but the Cardinals aren't interested in him. How much interest they have in the others remains less clear. They liked Bulger as an option last offseason, but the timing wasn't right. Kolb reportedly stands atop their wish list now, although price is a consideration. One way or another, the Cardinals will go into the 2011 season with fresh veteran blood at the position.

2. Firm up the offensive line: Left guard Alan Faneca retired. Center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui have expiring contracts. Brandon Keith showed promise at right tackle, but he's coming off knee surgery. A better quarterback would help take pressure off the line, but Arizona isn't going to find another Kurt Warner. The team has loaded up at running back, adding second-round choice Ryan Williams to an already crowded backfield. The Cardinals need to re-sign Sendlein. Letting Lutui depart would put them in the market for veteran help. I've looked through the free-agent lists for guards already familiar to the Cardinals. Pittsburgh's Trai Essex, a starter in 21 games over the past two seasons, played for Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm with the Steelers.

3. Work toward a deal with Larry Fitzgerald: Ideally, the Cardinals would have landed their next quarterback in March, then spent the offseason working toward extending Fitzgerald's contract beyond the 2011 season. Fitzgerald is an NFL rarity. He's in line to sign three massive contracts during the course of his career. He signed the first one as the third player chosen in the 2004 draft. That deal ultimately became untenable for the Cardinals, giving Fitzgerald the leverage to get $40 million over four seasons, plus assurances Arizona would not name him its franchise player once the deal ended. Fitzgerald, still only 27, will cash in at least one more time.

Top five free agents: Sendlein, Lutui, receiver Steve Breaston, defensive lineman Alan Branch, defensive lineman Gabe Watson.

St. Louis Rams

1. Upgrade the run defense: The Rams could use another defensive tackle to take their promising defensive front to another level. Adding Fred Robbins in free agency last offseason was a good start. Barry Cofield (New York Giants) and Brandon Mebane (Seattle Seahawks) are scheduled to become free agents this offseason. Cofield played for Steve Spagnuolo and would transition to the Rams' system easily. The Rams could use an in-the-box safety, something they addressed later in the draft. They need to find one and possibly two starting outside linebackers. Chase Blackburn projects more as a backup, but he was also with Spagnuolo on the Giants. Blackburn has played all three linebacker positions. Minnesota's Ben Leber would make sense as well. Paul Ferraro, the Rams' linebackers coach, was with the Vikings previously.

2. Help out Steven Jackson: Adding a third-down back such as Darren Sproles would lighten the load for Jackson, who has played through several injuries in recent seasons. Jackson has 654 rushing attempts over the past two seasons despite missing one game and playing for a team that has often trailed its opponents. Only Chris Johnson (674) has more carries during that span. Sproles isn't the only viable potential option. Jason Snelling, DeAngelo Williams and Reggie Bush also could become available. Upgrading at right guard would also help out Jackson.

3. Figure out the situation at receiver. It's questionable whether the Rams will find any clear upgrades at receiver in free agency. That could lead them to stand pat at the position. They have quantity, but not enough high-end quality. Adding more quantity wouldn't solve much. Plaxico Burress gets mentioned as an option for his ties to Spagnuolo, but he's been out of the game and might not offer much. The Rams thought about claiming Randy Moss off waivers last season. Moss could make more sense for the Rams now that Josh McDaniels is offensive coordinator. He worked well with Moss in New England. Sidney Rice could also have appeal.

Top five free agents: receiver Mark Clayton, guard Adam Goldberg, defensive tackle Clifton Ryan and tight end Daniel Fells.

Seattle Seahawks

1. Sign or acquire a quarterback: Bringing back Hasselbeck remains an option. The team expressed interest in Kolb last offseason. The team could also add a lower-profile veteran to the mix -- perhaps a Matt Leinart type -- for an open competition with Charlie Whitehurst. That would not excite Seattle fans, of course. Getting a young quarterback to build around would be ideal, but the Seahawks are adamant they will not force the situation in the absence of viable options. They weren't going to do it in the draft, when they passed over Andy Dalton for tackle James Carpenter. They probably aren't going to do it in free agency, either.

2. Solidify the offensive line: Tom Cable's addition as assistant head coach/offensive line puts the Seahawks in position to court Oakland Raiders guard Robert Gallery in free agency. Gallery has said he's not returning to the Raiders. Seattle has drafted its starting tackles, starting center and starting right guard in the past few seasons. Max Unger and Russell Okung need better luck with injuries. Okung would also benefit from an experienced presence next to him at left guard. Gallery qualifies as such and he would fit the zone system Cable wants to run. Green Bay's Daryn Colledge could be available, too. He has ties to Seahawks general manager John Schneider. Former Seattle starters Chris Spencer, Sean Locklear, Chester Pitts and Ray Willis might not return.

3. Plug holes on defense. Mebane appears headed for free agency. The Seahawks want him back, but how badly? Mebane could fit better in a purer 4-3 defense. He also might command more money elsewhere. Injuries along the defensive front could also affect the Seahawks' needs. Red Bryant is coming off season-ending knee surgery. Injuries affected Colin Cole and Chris Clemons last season as well. Cornerback is another area to monitor once free agency opens. Does Marcus Trufant still fit at his relatively high price? The Cincinnati Bengals' Johnathan Joseph and other free-agent corners could appeal.

Top five free agents: Hasselbeck, Mebane, Locklear, linebacker Will Herring, defensive end Raheem Brock.

San Francisco 49ers

1. Re-sign Alex Smith: Smith and the 49ers renewed their vows informally this offseason. The official ceremony should come when free agency opens and Smith signs with the team. Smith's name continues to show up on free-agent lists in the interim, but there's no chance he'll sign elsewhere. He's given his word to the 49ers. The team, in turn, has entrusted him with its playbook. Smith even took the lead in teaching what he knew of the offense to teammates. Re-signing Smith takes pressure off rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick. With a new coaching staff, a young prospect in Kaepernick and no access to players during a lockout, this wasn't the year for San Francisco to make a bold play for a veteran passer from another team.

2. Make a decision on Aubrayo Franklin. The 49ers' plans on defense remain a bit mysterious. Coordinator Vic Fangio did not distribute playbooks to players. The team's needs could change based on whether Franklin, a solid nose tackle, leaves in free agency. Franklin's status as a franchise player last season raised the stakes for a new contract. What does Fangio think of him? What specifically does Fangio want from his defensive linemen? How much will Fangio change to suit the 49ers' personnel? How much new personnel might he want? General manager Trent Baalke said the 49ers will not be aggressive in free agency. The team has shown restraint on that front in recent seasons. Losing Franklin would hurt.

3. Figure out the secondary: The pass defense was problematic last season. Personnel changes in the secondary are on the way. Veteran cornerback Nate Clements stands to earn more than $7 million in base salary in 2011. That price appears prohibitive. The team could release Clements or find a way to keep him at a lower rate. Free safety Dashon Goldson does not have a contract for 2011. How much is he worth? Baltimore's Chris Carr is one free-agent cornerback with ties to the 49ers' staff. He and Fangio were together in Baltimore.

Top five free agents: Smith, Franklin, outside linebacker Manny Lawson, center David Baas, linebacker Takeo Spikes.

Rams back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Rams must acquire or develop starters at right guard, free safety, defensive tackle, outside linebacker, wide receiver and tight end. They need depth at running back. They've got work ahead, but most of the heavy lifting has been done. The Rams return their quarterback and most of their offensive line while enjoying continuity on defense through head coach Steve Spagnuolo and key players in the front seven. That gives St. Louis a head start on its division rivals even though the Rams will be breaking in a new offensive coordinator.

Biggest challenge: Pat Shurmur's surprise departure as offensive coordinator threw up a hurdle heading into the Rams' second season with Sam Bradford behind center. The lockout has prevented new coordinator Josh McDaniels from getting Bradford up to speed as quickly as the team would have liked. The situation at wide receiver remains unsettled. The most promising tight end on the team, Lance Kendricks, faces a learning curve as a rookie. Those factors create challenges as the Rams seek to build on Bradford's promising rookie season. There's no need to panic, however.

Ownership impact: The Rams still haven't gone through a free-agent signing period since Stan Kroenke became majority owner. There's no indication the Rams will become significantly more aggressive in free agency now that Kroenke has given them an owner with deeper pockets. They do have the wherewithal, however, and the Rams should have some flexibility from a salary-cap standpoint. None of the team's own free agents will command big money this offseason.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Receiver Mark Clayton, defensive tackle Clifton Ryan, tight end Daniel Fells, tight end Billy Bajema, guard Adam Goldberg, defensive tackle Gary Gibson, receiver Laurent Robinson.
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.

Alex Smith and Matt HasselbeckGetty ImagesAlex Smith and Matt Hasselbeck are both eligible for free agency this offseason.
It is possible, even likely, that the NFL and its players will continue their staring contest through the 2011 draft -- even with a ruling from U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson.

The appeals process could take weeks or longer, during which time it's unlikely the league would open for business. We're probably doomed to status quo, in other words.

But if ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson is correct, Judge Nelson will most likely end the lockout, leading to an immediate appeal -- a scenario I think would lead, eventually, to the league opening for business under 2010 rules while the sides continued their battle in the courts.

Those 2010 rules set the bar high for free agency. Only players with six accrued seasons would qualify for the unrestricted market. Starters such as Arizona's Steve Breaston, San Francisco's Dashon Goldson and Seattle's Brandon Mebane would lose leverage and most likely return to their teams under relatively modest one-year deals.

The players listed in the chart -- those with at least six accrued seasons and no contracts for 2011 -- would be free to explore opportunities elsewhere.

Options and implications for this type of free agency in the NFC West:

Arizona Cardinals

Overview: The Cardinals suffered more personnel losses than they could weather last offseason. They would benefit from a return to 2010 rules, however, because the restrictions would keep multiple starters off the market. Their list of potential free agents with six-plus seasons features no front-line players. The Cardinals would be better off focusing on a new deal with Larry Fitzgerald, who is entering the final year of his contract.

Top priority: Finding a veteran quarterback. Derek Anderson isn't expected back. Marc Bulger's name is heard most frequently in connection with the Cardinals. He turned 34 this week and did not attempt a pass in a regular-season game while with Baltimore last season. Bulger struggled during his final seasons with the Rams, but the team was falling apart around him. He last finished an NFL season with more touchdowns than interceptions in 2006. The down year has surely helped him get healthy.

Players in flux: Breaston, starting guard Deuce Lutui and starting center Lyle Sendlein wouldn't have enough accrued seasons to become unrestricted under 2010 rules. The situation is particularly difficult for Breaston, who has battled through knee problems without getting a long-term deal.

Veteran variable: Starting left guard Alan Faneca has considered retirement. The Cardinals invested in veteran guard Rex Hadnot for depth last offseason. The team lacks young depth on the line, but if Lutui and Sendlein return, the Cardinals have some flexibility.

Name to keep in mind: Ike Taylor, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cardinals are hoping Greg Toler can build upon an up-and-down 2010 season. Taylor would give the team options. He played under new Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton.

St. Louis Rams

Overview: The Rams' most important players tend to be younger starters under contract for the long term (Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Rodger Saffold, Sam Bradford, Jason Smith). Most of their top veterans are also under contract (Steven Jackson, Fred Robbins, James Hall). Free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe is out of the picture after signing with the Washington Redskins following his salary-related release.

Top priority: The Rams could use a veteran guard with some nastiness. The team has invested heavily in its line, but this group could use more of an edge. Bringing back receiver Mark Clayton should be another consideration even though Clayton is coming off a serious knee injury. The rapport Clayton had with Bradford was strong.

Players in flux: Defensive tackles Gary Gibson and Clifton Ryan would remain property of the Rams under 2010 rules, as would cornerback Kevin Dockery and receiver Laurent Robinson. Gibson was the only full-time starter of the group last season. The Rams are expected to seek an upgrade at that position even with Gibson coming back.

Veteran variable: Adam Goldberg started all 16 games on the offensive line last season. The Rams could stand to upgrade, but I see value in bringing back Goldberg as a backup. He can play every position on the line but center. Goldberg has also taken an interest in mentoring younger players. His value off the field is a consideration.

Name to keep in mind: Daniel Graham, TE, Denver Broncos. Graham could make sense for the Rams in free agency. He played under the Rams' new offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, and could help upgrade the run blocking. Seattle has connections to Graham as well.

San Francisco 49ers

Overview: The 49ers signed some of their better young players to long-term contracts well before labor pains became so severe. Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Joe Staley come to mind. The lockout has made it tougher for the 49ers' new coaches to get a feel for players. The 49ers like their talent overall and haven't been big players in free agency over the past couple of seasons. That isn't likely to change.

Top priority: Finding a starting quarterback trumps everything else. Alex Smith can become a free agent. Backups David Carr and Troy Smith are not expected back. The 49ers aren't expected to use the seventh overall choice to select or acquire a quarterback. Coach Jim Harbaugh prides himself in coaching up quarterbacks, but he needs quarterbacks to coach.

Players in flux: Goldson, outside linebacker Manny Lawson and defensive lineman Ray McDonald are among the 49ers players that would fall short of the six-season requirement for unrestricted free agency.

Veteran variable: Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin played last season under a one-year franchise deal. The price tag for re-franchising Franklin appears prohibitive. The 49ers took a wait-and-see approach with Franklin because they hadn't seen him perform at a high level over the long term. They'll need a new nose tackle if Franklin departs.

Name to keep in mind: The 49ers' staff is coming mostly from the college ranks, so there aren't obvious connections to players from other NFL rosters. I expect the 49ers to focus more on re-signing some of their own players, from Spikes to David Baas and beyond.

Seattle Seahawks

Overview: The Seahawks have a long list of players without contracts for 2011. That was mostly be design. The team would like to continue turning over its roster without investing too much in older players such as Matt Hasselbeck, Raheem Brock and Olindo Mare.

Top priority: Figuring out the quarterback situation. Hasselbeck is headed for free agency and could leave if another team gives him some of the longer-term assurances Seattle has resisted. The Seahawks have shown some interest in Philadelphia Eagles backup Kevin Kolb, a player they inquired about last offseason. They still have Charlie Whitehurst. They could draft a quarterback early.

Players in flux: Defensive tackle Mebane heads the list of Seattle players who would not reach free agency under the rules used in 2010. General manager John Schneider called Mebane a "steady pro" when asked about him at the combine. That sounded like faint praise and an indication the Seahawks are not yet prepared to pay top dollar for Mebane if, and when, he hits the market.

Veteran variable: The Seahawks have a few of them, including Mare and Brock. But let's focus on offensive linemen Sean Locklear and Chris Spencer. They combined for 31 starts, but neither appears to be a priority for re-signing. Stacy Andrews is a candidate to step in for Locklear at right tackle. Max Unger could replace Spencer. Coach Pete Carroll thinks the team has upgraded its young depth on the line.

Name to keep in mind: Robert Gallery, guard, Oakland Raiders. Tom Cable's addition as offensive line coach makes Seattle a logical destination for Gallery, who has declared his intention to leave the Raiders.
ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Rams' decision to name Steve Jackson active against Seattle despite a strained groin leads to the next question: How much and how well will Jackson play?

Receiver Laurent Robinson, safety Darian Stewart, tight end Billy Bajema, linebacker Chris Chamberlain, tackle Renardo Foster, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, defensive tackle Clifton Ryan and defensive tackle Darell Scott are inactive for St. Louis.

Jackson jogged lightly during warm-ups and did not simulate game situations. The Rams obviously expect him to play, and he's listed as the starter. The threat of Jackson helps their offense. The Seahawks should find out early whether Jackson can play at his usual high level.

Jackson showed tremendous toughness and heart playing through a back injury last season. The strained groin he suffered against the Washington Redskins in Week 3 presents different challenges, as Jackson discussed Friday.

"This is a little different," Jackson said then. "Last year’s injury was more dealing with the nerve and there's no really pain medicine for that. It’s just your threshold of pain, where a groin injury is somewhat like a hamstring, soft tissue. It’s really hard. It’s really hard to deal with because certain things are just so limited because of the injury."

Rams won't have to worry about Seymour

September, 19, 2010
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OAKLAND, Calif. -- The St. Louis Rams might be catching a break in Week 2.

Starters Robert Gallery, Michael Bush and Richard Seymour will not play for the Oakland Raiders. Gallery's absence weakens an already suspect offensive line. Bush, who would share time with Darren McFadden, remains sidelined. Seymour is the most established player on the Raiders' defensive line.

The Rams will be without starting defensive tackle Clifton Ryan, who did not make the trip after experiencing migraine headaches.

Inactive for Oakland: Walter McFadden, Hiram Eugene, Travis Goethel, Chaz Schilens, Seymour, Gallery and Bush. Former Rams backup Kyle Boller is the third quarterback.

The Rams released third quarterback Thaddeus Lewis to help them juggle injury issues in the secondary. Cornerbacks Justin King and Kevin Dockery are inactive, as are Fendi Onobun, Chris Chamberlain, Brandon Gibson, John Greco, Michael Hoomanawanui and Ryan.

NFC West High Energy Player of the Week

September, 14, 2010
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NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Receiver Steve Breaston was the difference for Arizona in Week 1, even on a day when safety Adrian Wilson became the first player in franchise history with two interceptions, a sack and a blocked field goal in one game.

[+] EnlargeSteve Breaston
Scott Rovak/US PresswireSteve Breaston's forced fumble prevented a Rams touchdown by Clifton Ryan.
Breaston was everywhere for the Cardinals during their 17-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams. He hustled downfield to force a fumble just as Rams defensive tackle Clifton Ryan was about to score a touchdown on a fumble return. The Cardinals trailed by three at the time and they were struggling to get much going offensively. A Rams touchdown in that situation might have won the game for St. Louis. Breaston made another touchdown-saving tackle earlier in the game, bringing down Rams cornerback Bradley Fletcher after a 43-yard fumble return.

When the Cardinals needed Breaston on offense, he was catching each of the seven passes thrown his way, good for 132 yards. Six of the seven receptions produced first downs. Breaston had a 16-yarder on third-and-6, a 22-yarder on third-and-16 and a 35-yarder on third-and-10.

"The one that really stands out for me was the forced fumble on the turnover because that’s a game-changing play for us," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt told reporters Monday. "When you talk about kids watching this game and how it should be played, if you want to point to one thing, that play is what you point to. ... He had a very good game as an offensive player, but that play really distinguished who Steve is and what he means to our team."

First impressions from Rams practice

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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Thoughts after watching the St. Louis Rams practice Monday for the first time since their exhibition opener Saturday night:
  • The only breaks the Rams seem to catch on their offensive line are the ones they find through X-rays. Starting left tackle Rodger Saffold was the latest victim. He left practice Monday with a back injury of unknown severity. A teammate fell into Saffold's back while Saffold was blocking. Trainers tended to Saffold while the rookie sat on the grass with his legs outstretched. They brought him to his feet and then wrapped his midsection (presumably with ice). Saffold walked off the field slowly and appeared to be favoring his left side (he wears a knee brace on his right leg).
  • Bradford
    Bradford
    Sam Bradford's timing and accuracy jump out right away. Seven-on-seven drills look like an extension of his pro day. Sometimes the ball arrives on target before the safeties can turn around. There is no pass-rush during seven-on-seven drills, of course.
  • Bradford and veteran A.J. Feeley split the first- and second-team reps equally, a slight change designed to get more work for Feeley as the season progresses.
  • Defensive end Victory Adeyanju did not finish practice after injuring his left knee. The severity of the injury was not yet known. Adeyanju is a strong run defender.
  • The linebackers fared better than the running backs during blitz-pickup drills.
  • Veteran safety Oshiomogho Atogwe spent extra time after practice working on catching the ball. He dropped one potential interception and failed to fully break up another pass (the ball bounced into the arms of its intended receiver, Darcy Johnson, for a touchdown).
  • Coach Steve Spagnuolo focuses on much more than just the defense. He was in the offensive huddle between plays during a goal-line period. He was also taking a special interest in pass-protection work after the line struggled to protect Bradford during the game Saturday night.
  • Rookie receiver Mardy Gilyard did not play for the Boston Celtics during the 1980s, but the Larry Bird shorts he wears during practice would have fit in back then. Gilyard has his own style and flair. He's been hurt recently, but he was practicing Monday and looks the part (minus those shorts).
  • Players benefited from temperatures in the 80s, some 20 degrees cooler than highs earlier in camp. Temperatures on the artificial field can hit 140 degrees when the St. Louis weather is at its hottest.
  • Despite the favorable weather, Spagnuolo said he thought the team was still a little sluggish. That is typical for the first practice following a game.
  • Running back Steven Jackson is moving well. I could see no evidence of the back surgery he underwent this offseason. If anything, Jackson appears even fresher than normal. He did not play Saturday night and the team has limited his full-contact work. Jackson looked great catching a one-handed pass over the middle in stride.
  • Two outstanding individual plays I saw: guard Roger Allen III putting defensive tackle Clifton Ryan on his back, and rookie defensive end Hall Davis pushing down tackle Eric Young (to the point that Young fell into Feeley's legs, forcing the quarterback to move).
  • Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis stood out with an interception off Feeley early in practice and a successful pass-rush battle against running back Kenneth Darby.

The Rams have two practices Tuesday. I'll be at both and hope to get a better feel for the team as the week progresses.
Though NFL owners would like to curtail spending for the very earliest rookie draft choices, quite a few young players outperform their rookie deals.

The NFC West has its share of bargains, most priced at less than $1 million this season. The 49ers had fewer candidates than I might have expected, a reflection of the progress San Francisco has made in extending contracts for young core players:

[+] EnlargeCalais Campbell
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesCalais Campbell tied for the team lead with seven sacks last season.
1. Calais Campbell, Cardinals defensive end. Campbell produced 7.0 sacks in his first season as a starter, more than predecessor Antonio Smith has ever managed in a season. Sacks aren't everything, particularly for a 3-4 end, but Campbell is already better than some veteran starters. He'll earn $470,000 in salary this season on a deal averaging $726,250 per season.

2. Josh Wilson, Seahawks cornerback. Like Campbell, Wilson entered the NFL as a second-round draft choice. His base salary is $550,000. Wilson is an opportunistic, fearless corner with value as a kickoff returner. He has six interceptions, four touchdowns and two sacks in three pro seasons.

3. Tim Hightower, Cardinals running back. Beanie Wells projects as the long-term starter, but Hightower has shown value as a good all-around player and short-yardage runner. Hightower has 18 touchdowns in two NFL seasons and his 2010 salary is $470,000. He has run with the starters this offseason.

4. John Carlson, Seahawks tight end. Carlson provides more evidence that the second round can be a prime place to find bargains. He has 106 receptions for 1,201 yards and 12 touchdowns in two seasons. He'll earn less than $600,000 this season.

5. James Laurinaitis, Rams linebacker. Four of the top five bargains were second-round choices. Laurinaitis' deal averages about $1.2 million annually. He improved as a rookie last season and projects as a leader for Steve Spagnuolo's defense.

6. Adam Goldberg, Rams offensive lineman. Goldberg is earning more than $1 million this season, good money for a backup. But he has started 20 games over the past two seasons while providing leadership and stability to an offense lacking in both areas. Goldberg is also versatile enough to play guard or tackle.

7. Lyle Sendlein, Cardinals center. The Cardinals could have new starters at four of the five spots on their offensive line. Sendlein, tendered at the $1.684 million level, is one lineman expected to remain in his previous spot. That says something about his value. Centers can be overlooked, but lots of things go wrong if a team has a bad one.

8. Justin Forsett, Seahawks running back. Go ahead and move Forsett up this list if he emerges as Seattle's starter in 2010. Forsett averaged 5.4 yards per carry on 116 attempts despite all sorts of offensive problems around him last season. A seventh-round choice in 2007, Forsett's deal pays him $475,000 in base salary this season.

9. Brandon Mebane, Seahawks defensive tackle. His salary is north of $1 million, but that's still a relative bargain based on what Mebane provides. The Seahawks had lots of problems on defense last season, but their situation at tackle wasn't one of them.

10. Donnie Avery, Rams receiver. The 2008 second-round choice has 100 receptions and eight touchdowns in two seasons despite injury problems and the Rams' overall offensive malaise. The Rams are scheduled to pay him $547,500 in salary this season.

The fine print: As noted, the 49ers have rewarded quite a few of their younger players. Others, including Vernon Davis, are earning good money this season. Manny Lawson, Josh Morgan and Dashon Goldson were considerations, but each had a chance to earn more money through escalators. The Rams' Clifton Ryan was a consideration at $1.684 million.

Earlier: overvalued players in the NFC West.

NFC West: Free-agency primer

March, 3, 2010
3/03/10
6:17
PM ET
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.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Rams' roster requires additional study after a thorough house-cleaning this offseason. With so many new faces, I feel less familiar with the Rams than with the other teams in the division. This initial look at the roster will hopefully help bring some focus.

Donnie Avery's injury and overall health concerns at receiver could influence how many players the Rams carry into the season at the position.

Marc Bulger's broken pinky shouldn't affect the roster as long as he recovers on schedule. Teams must reduce to 75 players by Sept. 1 and 53 players by Sept. 5. Those initial 53-man rosters sometimes change by Week 1 kickoffs. For that reason, I've been focusing on Week 1 rosters when setting baseline expectations for each position.

St. Louis Rams
Week 1 Roster
Counts since 2003
QB RB WR TE OL DL LB DB ST
Fewest 2 5 5 2 9 8 5 8 2
Most 3 7 6 4 10 9 7 11 3
Average 2.8 5.5 5.5 3.0 9.2 8.3 6.3 9.7 2.7
Currently on roster
4
7 10 5 15 13 9 14 3

The chart provides a framework for how many players the Rams might keep at each position heading into the regular-season opener against the Seahawks.

Here's a quick look at which Rams players I might keep on the cutdown to 53 players:

(Read full post)

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

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic puts the Kurt Warner retirement talk in perspective. Warner is not going to retire on his team during the season. But at age 37, he does tend to be more reflective when things go wrong. Performances like the one he enjoyed against the Bills make Warner feel like playing forever.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com explains why Warner contemplated his future recently. Anquan Boldin's injury, coupled with the pressure accompanying a poor performance, made Warner think about life after football. Retirement is something Warner plans to think about after the season.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals are hoping their fans won't sell tickets to Cowboys fans this week. Warner thinks the Cardinals have fought hard for a home-field advantage and he hopes they can enjoy one against Dallas.

Scott Allen of RaisingZona.com does his part in a look at each team in the NFC West heading into Week 6. At least the Cardinals have something to feel good about.

Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren isn't focusing only on offense this week. He met with defensive coaches and players in an effort to fix what ails that side of the ball. The team might "condense some things" this week.

Also from Farnsworth: Holmgren was somber one day after the Giants pounded his team, 44-6.

Greg Johns of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says the Seahawks might have to bail on their pass-first identity in favor of running the ball.

Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune also expects Seattle to emphasize the run. That's tough to do when the other team is scoring at will.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times traces the Seahawks' defensive problems to late last season. Pass defense is a primary concern: "Seattle allowed 11 passing touchdowns in the first 15 games last season and has given up 16 in the seven games since."

Also from O'Neil: Matt Hasselbeck should be able to practice this week.

John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle assesses Frank Gore's skills as a receiver after the 49ers' running back caught a touchdown pass against New England.

Also from Crumpacker: Niners coach Mike Nolan says the team should have a better record because its personnel has improved. Gore says the team will be "fine" this season.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Vernon Davis' lack of production as a receiver isn't the 49ers' biggest problem, but it's still an issue.

Also from Barrows: Linebacker Patrick Willis keeps the faith.

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat looks at the 49ers' draft choices since 2005. It's never a good sign for a team when beat reporters start analyzing past draft classes in October.

Also from Maiocco: Gore and Patrick Willis had little to say after the loss to New England even though both are young leaders on the team.

Dan Brown of the San Jose Mercury News thought Nolan was blaming players when he said execution was the 49ers' problem against the Patriots.

Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News says the clock is ticking for Nolan after the 49ers dropped to 2-3 heading into tough games.

Bill Coats of Around the Horns sees a couple of former Rams putting up numbers elsewhere in the division. Kurt Warner and Isaac Bruce are enjoying strong seasons. Also, Clifton Ryan remains the starting defensive tackle for St. Louis, ahead of La'Roi Glover.

Also from Coats: The Rams appear to be responding to Jim Haslett in practice. Linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa cramped up after practicing all-out.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says 2008 has gone from a likely breakout season to a breakdown season for Randy McMichael. The tight end landed on injured reserve.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

After benching Marc Bulger and releasing Fakhir Brown, the Rams charged ahead with more potential changes in practice Wednesday. As Bill Coats of Around the Horns noted:

Adeyanju is the Rams' best defensive lineman against the run. The Rams just allowed 245 yards rushing to Seattle in Week 3. Adeyanju's starting status in practice (at left end) might mean nothing if Leonard Little returns from a hamstring injury.

Culberson had started one NFL game before this season. Draft is a highly experienced veteran. He should also be relatively fresh.

Glover seemed perplexed by the Rams' use of a three-man line at times against Seattle. He has been a very good player for a very long time, but sometimes veterans have a hard time following along blindly when things aren't working. Glover has long been known for his relentless, all-out style. Ryan is also known as a high-effort player.

These moves, justified or not, definitely qualify as hitting the panic button. That's what teams do when they allow 763 more yards than they gain through three weeks.

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