NFL roster cuts: AFC | NFC

NFL Nation: Marc Bulger

Dark cloud still hovers over Rams

August, 25, 2014
Aug 25
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- This year represents the 15th anniversary of the St. Louis Rams victory in Super Bowl XXXIV.

It was a magical season that appeared as if from nowhere led by an MVP quarterback coming from parts unknown. It was a team that had won a combined 15 games over the previous three seasons and hadn't been to the playoffs since 1989.

Suddenly, everything fell into place and Kurt Warner became one of the most beloved players in franchise history and the de facto conductor of the three-year run known as the "Greatest Show on Turf." It was perhaps one of the most entertaining teams (and certainly offenses) in league history.

[+] EnlargeKurt Warner
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceKurt Warner and 'The Greatest Show on Turf' is starting to seem like a mirage in snakebitten St. Louis.
But in retrospect, it's hard not to wonder if one of the team's then power brokers, someone such as president John Shaw or president of football operations Jay Zygmunt, made some sort of deal with the devil to create that perfect storm.

Because what's happened in St. Louis since, especially at the quarterback position, might change your stance on the existence of voodoo or magic or curses.

Over the past decade, much like the decade that preceded Warner and the Greatest Show, the Rams have been among the league's most futile franchises. They haven't had a winning record since 2003 or been to the postseason since 2004. They won just 15 games over a five-year stretch beginning in 2007.

Much of that failure had been self-inflicted through poor drafts, misguided free-agent signings and a lack of a plan or leadership at the top. And now, in 2014, when the young talent the Rams have accumulated in two seasons under coach Jeff Fisher and Les Snead looked poised to take a step, they lost quarterback Sam Bradford for the season after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee for the second time.

It was one of five injuries to starters the Rams suffered against the Browns and the biggest and most devastating of the five. Apparently, the nickname "Factory of Sadness" for FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland doesn't apply only to the home team.

"I was asked last night if I had experienced anything like we experienced in the first half and my answer was no," Fisher said. "It’s every head coach’s and general manager’s and player and assistant coach’s nightmare. We had five starters come out of the game and then not return. It’s a very, very difficult experience to go through in the preseason."

Difficult experiences have become old hat for fans of the Rams, especially during their time in St. Louis. They were teased with all of the greatness and Hall of Fame talent of the Greatest Show era, but other than that they've had nothing to cling to but hope.

Take the quarterback position as a prime example. In comparison to many teams around the league, it appears they've had quite a bit of stability at the position. Over the past 15 years, they've had just three quarterbacks as the primary starter: Warner, Marc Bulger and Bradford. On further inspection, that stability is merely a mirage.

Since 2002, the Rams have had a quarterback start all 16 games just three times. Injuries created the opening for Bulger to take over for Warner and eventually spelled the end for Bulger before the Rams drafted Bradford. It's somewhat ironic that Bradford, whom the Rams must now look to replace, is responsible for two of those seasons.

That isn't to say Warner or Bradford or Bulger was brittle so much as it's an indictment of the way the teams were built around them, including some particularly shoddy offensive lines. There's plenty of bad luck involved, too, considering how many quarterbacks take hits all the time and are able to avoid serious injury. Both of Bradford's injuries have come on fluke plays rather than bone-jarring hits.

With Shaun Hill as the starter, this season isn't lost. The Rams still have a talented defense and other young, ascending players. Hill should provide a steady hand for a run-first offense. But it was hard enough to imagine the breakthrough year the Rams hoped for in the rugged NFC West even with Bradford.

For those that have worked so hard to get the Rams back to prominence and the fans that have stuck with the team through thick and thin, Bradford's injury is devastating, but it's also nothing new for a team that once caught one of the biggest breaks of all and hasn't caught one since.

Ravens: Backup QB plan

June, 6, 2012
NFC Backup QBs: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Assessing the Baltimore Ravens' backup quarterback situation if Joe Flacco is injured and misses time.

The Ravens haven't been consistent in the amount of importance they've placed on the backup quarterback position recently. Baltimore went from having one of the most experienced and expensive backups in Marc Bulger in 2010 to a rookie sixth-round pick in Tyrod Taylor last season. Taylor has completed one pass in three brief appearances. To be fair, this spot has been irrelevant on the Ravens because Flacco hasn't missed a start in his four-year career (73 starts, including the playoffs) and has proven to be among the most durable quarterbacks in the league. The Ravens added more veteran depth by signing Curtis Painter this offseason, although it's unknown whether he'll beat out Taylor for the No. 2 spot. Painter played last season under new Ravens quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell in Indianapolis where he was benched after failing to win in eight starts.

Confidence rating (out of 100) if Flacco goes out for extended period: 18.
OK, Arizona Cardinals fans, time to back off a little.

Your team finally selected an offensive tackle in the 2012 NFL draft. Bobby Massie from Mississippi was projected as a second-round choice by some draft analysts; the Cardinals did not have a choice in that round, but they did have a need for a tackle (the headline was intended in good fun).

Massie stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 316 pounds. He projects as a potential starter for the Cardinals, presumably at right tackle, with Levi Brown the leading candidate on the left side.

Scouts Inc. Insider gave Massie above-average marks in most categories.

The Cardinals need to improve their pass protection for quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and John Skelton. They haven't used early choices for their line since 2007. Massie was a fourth-round pick, chosen 112th overall, two spots before Seattle selected Florida defensive tackle Jaye Howard.

"Above-average upside in this area," Scouts Inc. wrote of Massie's pass protection. "Sets too high and gets knocked off balance by power rush, but ability to recover from initial power surge and reset is excellent. Protects the edge well even though initial quickness is just average."

There was also this from Nolan Nawrocki, draft analyst for Pro Football Weekly: "A big, surprisingly athletic right tackle who appears to be more naturally suited for the left side. Flew under the radar in the fall, but has shown well against better competition."

That included what Nawrocki described as a pancake block against LSU's Michael Brockers, the St. Louis Rams' first-round choice.
The Baltimore Ravens are among three teams interested in Steelers free-agent quarterback Dennis Dixon, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The St. Louis Rams and Denver Broncos are also in the running for Dixon, who is not expected to return to Pittsburgh.

The Ravens have been inconsistent in how they've addressed the backup quarterback position recently. In 2010, Baltimore spent $3.8 million on Marc Bulger to have veteran insurance behind Joe Flacco. In 2011, the Ravens went with rookie sixth-round pick Tyrod Taylor.

One reason why the Ravens could go with Bulger in 2010 was the uncapped year, but it's definitely a major philosophical switch to go from a playoff-tested quarterback in Bulger to a raw prospect like Taylor. Of course, Baltimore hasn't needed a backup, because Flacco has never missed a start in his four-year career (64 straight, the third-longest current streak in the NFL). But the Ravens' playoff chances would get decimated if Flacco got hurt, and the team had to turn to Taylor for an extended period.

Dixon, 27, the No. 3 quarterback last season for Pittsburgh, has made three career starts in his four seasons with the Steelers. He has a 2-1 record, with one touchdown and two interceptions. Dixon's first start came against the Ravens in 2009, when his interception in overtime set up the winning field goal.

Here are the backup quarterback situations for the rest of the AFC North:

BENGALS: Cincinnati is set with journeyman Bruce Gradkowski. When Andy Dalton was hurt in last year's season opener, Gradkowski rallied the Bengals to a 27-17 win at Cleveland.

BROWNS: At this point, the Browns are going with Seneca Wallace, the team's backup for the past two seasons. But the depth chart could get moved around if Cleveland drafts a quarterback in the early rounds. If the Browns don't take a quarterback, Wallace won't be competing with Colt McCoy for the starting job, the team said.

STEELERS: Besides Ben Roethlisberger, the only quarterbacks on the roster are Troy Smith and Jerrod Johnson. The Steelers likely will bring back Byron Leftwich or Charlie Batch. The favorite to return is Leftwich, who reportedly drew interest from the Colts.
On the surface, Joe Vitt’s tenure as an interim head coach in St. Louis doesn’t look very pretty.

But dig beneath the surface a little bit and you’ll find a different story. I spoke with several people who observed Vitt’s time as the Rams’ head coach in 2005, and they said he did a nice job of weathering the storm.

Vitt will be taking over as the interim head coach of the New Orleans Saints on Monday when Sean Payton begins his season-long suspension. Vitt, who has been Payton’s assistant head coach since 2006, will run the team through the offseason program, training camp and the regular season. But Vitt will have to step away at the start of the regular season and serve a six-game suspension for his role in the Saints’ bounty program. After that, Vitt will return as head coach.

[+] EnlargeJoe Vitt, Sean Payton
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireJoe Vitt, left, who will lead the Saints while head coach Sean Payton serves a suspension, dealt with similar circumstances while with the Rams in 2005.
General manager Mickey Loomis will serve an eight-game suspension to start the season. The Saints also could have players suspended.

There are turbulent times ahead for the Saints, but Vitt has experience in handling situations like this.

Back in 2005, he was the assistant head coach and linebackers coach in St. Louis. The Rams already were ending “The Greatest Show on Turf’’ era. With Mike Martz as the head coach, the Rams got off to a 2-3 start and there was a well-publicized feud brewing between Martz and the front office. Martz came down with a bacterial infection in his heart after five games, and Vitt was elevated to interim head coach.

By that point, injuries already were piling up. With quarterback Marc Bulger injured, the Rams had to go through a lot of that season with Jamie Martin and Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce was dealing with injuries and near the end of his career, and nothing was easy. The Rams went 4-7 under Vitt, but several people that were associated with the team or observed the Rams closely in those days said Vitt made the most out of a difficult situation.

They said Vitt kept his players playing hard. He’s known as a motivator in New Orleans, and it was the same way in St. Louis. Vitt used to show the Rams a movie the night before a game, and it always was tied to a motivational message. One movie was “Gladiator,’’ which emphasized the importance of sticking together. Under Vitt, the Rams started off 3-3, highlighted by Fitzpatrick coming off the bench to rally them to a 33-27 victory against Houston.

After that, the Rams endured a four-game losing streak, but most of those games were close. The last two were a one-point loss to Philadelphia and a four-point loss to San Francisco. Vitt wrapped up his tenure with a season-ending victory against Dallas, a team that included Payton on its staff. After that, Payton got hired by the Saints, and one of the first moves he made was hiring Vitt.

On Monday, Payton will hand over his team to Vitt. It’s not an ideal situation by any means. But Vitt has made the most out of a tough situation before, and the Saints are counting on him to do it again.

Final Word: NFC West

December, 9, 2011
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:

[+] EnlargeBeanie Wells
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireArizona's Beanie Wells could be a tough matchup for the 49ers, who will be without linebacker Patrick Willis.
Putting streak on the line: The San Francisco 49ers have tied a franchise record by allowing no rushing touchdowns in their past 13 games. Since the 1970 merger, only the 1985-86 Chicago Bears have gone more games in a row (15) without allowing one. The streak began with a 38-7 victory against Arizona to close last season. It could end against the Cardinals as well. Beanie Wells has nine rushing touchdowns this season, tied for fourth-most in the league. The Cardinals have blocked well in the running game and they won't have to contend with injured 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis. Then again, the streak without allowing a rushing TD began the last time Willis missed a game.

Sweeps week: The 49ers-Cardinals series has been lopsided every year since 2004. The Cardinals swept the season series in 2005, 2006 and 2008. The 49ers swept it in 2004, 2007, 2009 and 2010. A victory by San Francisco at University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 14 would ensure an eighth consecutive season sweep for one of the teams in the series. The 49ers have won the past five.

Gaining momentum: The 49ers and Cardinals are among 11 teams with at least four victories apiece in their past five games. They are the only such teams playing one another in Week 14. The AFC East, AFC North and NFC West are the only divisions with two such teams. Pittsburgh, New England, Miami, Baltimore, Houston, Denver, Dallas, Green Bay and New Orleans are also 4-1 or better over their past five games.

Prepping for the Steelers: The Cardinals provide the 49ers with a good test run for San Francisco's looming Monday night matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15. Arizona and Pittsburgh use the same defensive scheme. Ray Horton, the Cardinals' first-year defensive coordinator, spent the previous seven seasons with the Steelers under longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. So, while Pittsburgh has 11 days to prepare for San Francisco following a Thursday night victory against Cleveland, the 49ers have been preparing for the Steelers' defensive scheme even longer.

Yes, the Rams and Seahawks play, too: The Monday night matchup between the teams marks the third week in a row with a prime-time game featuring at least one NFC West team. We'll preview that game in greater detail Monday. For now, though, consider this: The 137.0 NFL passer rating Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson posted against Philadelphia last week was higher than any single-game rating by a Rams or Seahawks starter since Matt Hasselbeck's 147.7 against Tennessee in 2005. No Rams starter has posted a single-game rating above 137.0 since Kurt Warner's 145.6 against New Orleans in 2001. Marc Bulger never had one that high as a starter. Hasselbeck had just that one.

48 NFC West starters since Manning debut

September, 8, 2011
Cool note from ESPN Stats & Information: First-year San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is the last quarterback other than Peyton Manning to start a regular-season game for the Indianapolis Colts.

That will change when Kerry Collins replaces an injured Manning in the Colts' lineup for Week 1.

The first preseason game I covered as an NFL beat reporter featured Manning making his first start against the Seattle Seahawks in the Kingdome. His very first pass found Marvin Harrison for a 49-yard touchdown. Preseason games are generally without much meaning, but could there have been a more fitting beginning for Manning?

For a fuller appreciation of Manning's durability and consistency in starting 227 consecutive games, I went through Pro Football Reference counting how many quarterbacks had started for current NFC West teams since Manning made his regular-season debut. There have been 48. That figure includes 14 for the St. Louis Rams, 13 for the 49ers, 11 for the Arizona Cardinals and 10 for the Seahawks.

A few notes on the 48 players to start for current NFC West teams since 1998:
  • There have been two Brocks (Berlin, Huard), two Charlies (Frye, Whitehurst), two named Chris (Chandler, Weinke), two Jeffs (Plummer, Martin), three Johns (Friesz, Navarre, Skelton), one Jon (Kitna), two Matts (Hasselbeck, Leinart), two Shauns (Hill, King), three Steves (Young, Bono, Stenstrom) and two Trents (Dilfer, Green).
  • Two, Young and Warren Moon, have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame since Manning's streak began.
  • Dilfer and Warner started for more than one current NFC West team since Manning's streak began. Warner started 57 games for Arizona and 50 for St. Louis. Dilfer started 12 for Seattle and six for San Francisco.
  • Hasselbeck has the most total starts for current NFC West teams with 131, followed by Marc Bulger (95 for St. Louis), Jake Plummer (73 for the Cardinals) and Jeff Garcia (71 for the 49ers).
  • Smith -- Alex, not Troy -- owns the most starts among current NFC West players with 50, all for San Francisco.
  • Eight of the 48 were one-and-done as starters: Berlin, Scott Covington, Ty Detmer, Glenn Foley, Friesz, Frye, Navarre and Weinke. Nineteen have made at least 10 starts.

The NFC West will have two starters new to the division in Week 1: Tarvaris Jackson and Kevin Kolb.

The chart shows start totals by team for the 48. The NFC West changed membership with realignment in 2002. I'm going back to 1998 for the four teams currently in the division.

NFC West prospects for 'elite' QB play

September, 1, 2011
John Clayton's annual NFL quarterback rankings are out, based on a simple criteria.

"To be elite," Clayton writes, "a quarterback must have 4,000-yard potential, complete 60 percent of his passes and score more than 20 points a game."

Enforcing that criteria strictly, NFC West quarterbacks have produced four qualifying seasons since 2000: Jeff Garcia with the San Francisco 49ers in 2000, Kurt Warner with the St. Louis Rams (2000) and Arizona Cardinals (2008), and Marc Bulger with the Rams (2006).

Matt Hasselbeck, the most consistent quarterback in the division for several years, never posted such a season. He fell just short in yardage for the 2004 and 2007 seasons, but likely would have been "elite" in those years given Clayton's call for 4,000-yard potential, not just 4,000-yard production.

"Although I am criticized for putting a Matt Schaub or a Joe Flacco in the same category as a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning, I do it for a reason," Clayton explains. "Elite quarterbacks are the ones who usually make the playoffs, so I categorize the elites as the ones who give their franchises the best chance. The league has 12 playoff spots, and usually 10 or 11 of the elite quarterbacks fill those positions."

Clayton ranked the Rams' Sam Bradford 14th overall and just outside the elite group, with a good chance of getting there in the not-too-distant future. He ranked the Cardinals' Kevin Kolb 18th and has him ascending also. The 49ers' Alex Smith (28th) and the Seattle Seahawks' Tarvaris Jackson (30th) stand ahead of just three ranked quarterbacks on Clayton's list.

Not that fans in San Francisco or Seattle needed any reminders. Perhaps Smith or Jackson will exceed expectations. One of them is likely to open the season 1-0. Their teams face one another in the opener.

The offseason favorite to land the backup quarterback job with the Baltimore Ravens this summer was Marc Bulger. He held the spot last year, enjoyed his time with the Ravens and didn't appear interested in competing elsewhere for a starting job.

But Bulger retired Wednesday after an 11-year career, ESPN's Adam Schefter reports. Bulger thanked his former teammates and says he's going to focus on his charity work.

This leaves Baltimore empty-handed in its search for a No. 2 quarterback. Joe Flacco is the starter and rookie sixth-round draft pick Tyrod Taylor is second on the depth chart.

The Ravens like Taylor. But realistically, Baltimore is trying to make a Super Bowl run this season and needs veteran insurance in the event Flacco is injured for several games.
Rumors swirled in recent seasons that Marc Bulger, former Pro Bowl quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, was contemplating retirement.

Bulger had taken so much punishment during his final years in St. Louis, the thinking went, that he had lost the will to continue in the game. Bulger hung around for one last season, spending 2010 as a backup with Baltimore. But he was indeed finished.

Bulger's retirement plans, revealed Wednesday by ESPN's Adam Schefter, come one year after the Arizona Cardinals considered bringing him in as a stopgap starter.

At his best, Bulger was a highly accurate passer and competent heir to Kurt Warner as conductor of the Greatest Show on Turf in St. Louis. He once completed 36 of 48 passes for 453 yards against San Diego, tossing four touchdown passes without an interception. He had four other games with at least 440 yards passing. But the Rams posted only a 1-2 record in the playoffs with Bulger. The team and organization began deteriorating around him as the years progressed, exposing Bulger to repeated beatings.

Bulger finishes his career with 122 touchdown passes, 93 interceptions and an 84.4 rating. The Rams were 26-10 when Bulger started from 2002-04, his first three seasons with the team. They never posted a winning record with him in the lineup thereafter. Bulger finished his career with a 41-54 record as a starter, including 5-30 over his last three seasons.

Tight end Anthony Becht, Bulger's teammate on the 1-15 Rams of 2009, blamed the Rams organization for Bulger's demise as a player. He said the team was unwilling to spend on its offensive line, exposing Bulger to punishment that left the quarterback without the necessary drive to continue.

"Congrats, my friend, on a spectacular career that could have been that much better," Becht wrote.

Thoughts on the Arizona Cardinals' trade for Kevin Kolb and contract agreement with veteran center Lyle Sendlein (thank you, ESPN's Adam Schefter).

More thoughts:
  • Challenging perception: The Cardinals have taken criticism for what has been portrayed as unwillingness to pay Marc Bulger last offseason after reaching agreement with Derek Anderson. To review, the timing worked out poorly for Arizona. The team considered acquiring Charlie Whitehurst, then decided to sign Anderson while he remained available. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Rams were waiting to release Bulger, a player the Cardinals otherwise would have targeted. After adding Anderson, the Cardinals weren't going to pay similar money for Bulger, despite apparent pleas from coach Ken Whisenhunt. Whether or not the criticism was valid, the Cardinals aren't holding back now. Perhaps a 5-11 disaster season gave Whisenhunt the power he needed. Whatever the case, if the five-year, $63 million contract Kolb plans to sign does include more than $20 million in guarantees, as advertised, it's tougher to say the organization is afraid to spend on a quarterback, even an unproven one.
  • Offensive focus: Arizona is transforming its offense. Third-round pick Rob Housler projects as a receiving tight end. Veteran Jeff King, who agreed to terms with Arizona recently after beginning his career in Carolina, projects as more of a blocker. Ryan Williams, a surprise pick in the second round, projects as a running back with big-play ability. The offense has evolved significantly. The team could use a speed receiver after Steve Breaston left for Kansas City, but San Diego's Malcolm Floyd apparently isn't on their radar, Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic noted.
  • Jump start?: After a quiet start to the negotiating period, the Cardinals appear to be operating with urgency as the signing period approaches Friday. Kolb's addition was a big step. Keeping Sendlein was a key for a line that needs to move forward, not take steps in the other direction. Sendlein has quietly become a consistent, solid contributor on the line. He and newcomer Daryn Colledge, formerly of Green Bay, should help the line develop more of an enduring identity. I still think the Cardinals could use help at tackle, but that doesn't appear to be a priority.

The Cardinals also reached agreement with former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Nick Eason. His ties to new defensive coordinator Ray Horton made this a natural fit. Eason, 31, has started five games in each of the last two seasons.
Anthony Becht closed out his 10-year NFL career with the St. Louis Rams (2008) and Arizona Cardinals (2009). He knows the NFC West.

Count the veteran tight end among former Arizona employees taking shots at the team's approach.

The Twitter account for Becht described the Cardinals as "sweating" and the Philadelphia Eagles as "in control" during trade talks for quarterback Kevin Kolb. There was praise for other teams as "proactive" in their quarterback searches after having months to formulate plans. The were harsh words for what was characterized as an unwillingness to pay for Marc Bulger last offseason (Becht and Bulger were teammates with the Rams).

Former players sometimes carry grudges. That could be the case here. Arizona cut Becht before last season. But these criticisms against the Cardinals have become familiar. The organization earned a negative reputation over the decades and hasn't fully shaken it despite clear progress in recent seasons.

Rather than rehash the merits of those criticisms in general, I'd like to consider the Cardinals' approach to Kolb in particular. My take Tuesday night was that Arizona should take its time in courting Kolb because the Eagles appeared to have few, if any, additional suitors for him. I thought Arizona would be wise to consider pursuing Kyle Orton and free-agent quarterbacks such as Matt Hasselbeck, if only to drive down the price for Kolb.

But Becht brings up good points, too: Getting the right quarterback is ultimately the most important thing, and if the Cardinals lose out, then what? Hasselbeck has already agreed to terms with Tennessee. The price for Orton could be higher than the Cardinals want to pay.

For now, we do not know for sure what Arizona is offering for Kolb. We only know the Cardinals need another quarterback, the Eagles need to trade Kolb or risk getting nothing for him next year, other teams are addressing the position and market forces could influence the price Kolb ultimately commands.

The Cardinals should not rush into a costly deal with Kolb as long as other options remain available to them. There's a right time to act and I'm not convinced that time has passed. But if the Cardinals wait too long and miss out on a viable quarterback, Becht and other critics will have an even easier time saying the team lacked a plan all along.

Note: I've reached out to Becht and hope to follow up with him. I've also confirmed his Twitter identity through 1040 AM ESPN Tampa Bay, which has employed him recently.
The Arizona Cardinals were prepared to "make a move quickly" for Kevin Kolb or another quarterback once the lockout ended.

That might not be necessary.

"I would be surprised if something happened today," Whisenhunt told reporters Tuesday after the trading period opened without fanfare.

The Cardinals can afford to wait if they're confident in their ability to land Kolb or if they're comfortable with options in free agency. They've spoken to the Philadelphia Eagles about Kolb and to the Denver Broncos about Kyle Orton, while also reaching out to Matt Hasselbeck and Marc Bulger, according to Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic.

How strong is the market for Kolb outside Arizona? A little time and a few phone calls could provide answers. Playing the field gives Arizona options and leverage.

Also, if the Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles have already agreed to something in principle for Kolb, rushing into a formal trade could fuel tampering perceptions.

Contract considerations also come into play on trades for quarterbacks.

So far, teams have appeared more focused on subtracting players than on adding them. Along those lines, Arizona plans to release linebacker Gerald Hayes and quarterback Derek Anderson, players made vulnerable by high salaries and diminished roles.

NFC West free-agency breakdown

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

A look at the free-agent priorities for each AFC East team:

Buffalo Bills

1. Add new blood: For the most part, most of the Bills’ free-agents-to-be would not be big losses. Buffalo should have plenty of money to spend once free agency does finally open. Obviously, this has been a losing franchise for some time now, and transforming the roster and changing the culture of the organization should be a very good thing. The Bills did take a fine step in the right direction in the 2011 draft, taking several prospects from big-college programs with winning histories.

2. Keep Paul Posluszny: Although inside linebackers generally are not difficult to find, Posluszny is the type of guy Buffalo needs to keep within the organization. He is productive, tough and able to lead the defense on every down. Last season wasn’t his best, but Posluszny was fantastic in 2009, and I fully expect him to get back to that form, especially playing behind what should be a vastly improved young interior defensive line.

3. Eliminate needs: I list the Bills’ three greatest needs as left tackle, outside linebacker and tight end. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but if Buffalo could knock out one or two of these needs in free agency, it would go a very long way in its rebuilding process. Jared Gaither or Doug Free could potentially fill Buffalo’s left tackle position for years to come, while Matt Light could hold down the fort and provide leadership until Chris Hairston or a future draft pick is ready. An outside linebacker such as Manny Lawson, Matt Roth or Mathias Kiwanuka could also be money very well spent to pose an edge presence opposite Arthur Moats, whom I featured in my Soon to be Stars series. Zach Miller is really the only free-agent tight end who would qualify.

Top free agents: Posluszny, Donte Whitner, Drayton Florence

Miami Dolphins

1. Add running back help: Miami used the 62nd overall pick in 2011 to select Daniel Thomas, a big, bruising runner with a lot of ability. But of course, Thomas is going to be a rookie this season, and fully counting on him to carry the load and learn the pass protections would be foolish. Miami needs a backup plan. Bringing back Ronnie Brown, or more likely, Ricky Williams, wouldn’t be a terrible situation. But just adding Brown or Williams wouldn’t be enough. Snatching up Ahmad Bradshaw or DeAngelo Williams would obviously be a huge addition and would push Thomas to backup status. Even bringing in a reliable back like Joseph Addai or Jason Snelling might do the trick as Thomas develops. Another option is to add a specialty player like Darren Sproles.

2. Find competition for Chad Henne: Personally, I am not ready to write off Henne. I believe in the approach that Miami has taken this offseason. The Dolphins have surrounded him with pieces to make his life much easier. But still, adding a veteran signal-caller seems like a must at this point. Suitable options include Marc Bulger, Donovan McNabb or even Vince Young, who is soon to be released by Tennessee. If quarterback remains a problem after this year, then Miami needs to sell the farm to draft its next franchise quarterback. But in the meantime, this would be my approach.

3. Make a splash on D: To me, the Dolphins’ three biggest needs are quarterback, running back and then free safety. Even if Miami didn’t add a defender of any sort in free agency, I would rank its 2011 defense among the best in the NFL. I am that high on this group. But what if the Dolphins could land a real talent at free safety? Imagine the possibilities. This is a deep free-agent class of safeties. I would love to see the Dolphins sign someone like Michael Huff or especially Eric Weddle. Even adding a solid player with upside like Brodney Pool would be helpful here.

Top free agents: Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Tony McDaniel, Richie Incognito, Tyler Thigpen

New England Patriots

1. Lock up Logan Mankins: Because the Patriots designated Mankins their franchise player, I didn’t include him among their top free agents. But New England does have to get him locked up. Mankins might just be the best guard in all of football. With Matt Light potentially leaving town, the Patriots cannot afford additional unrest along their offensive line. Mankins would be the ideal player to line up next to Nate Solder to help the rookie’s transition to the NFL.

2. Find a pass-rusher: I see outside linebacker as New England’s greatest need, followed distantly by wide receiver and defensive end. Although I expect Jermaine Cunningham to develop quickly into a solid starter, adding one more edge player who can be disruptive on throwing downs is something that still needs to be addressed after the team curiously ignored it in the draft. The name I like best for the Patriots here is Mathias Kiwanuka, if his health checks out. He is smart, versatile and has some experience at linebacker. Two other players who fit the bill are Matt Roth and Manny Lawson.

3. Acquire a deep threat: I am not as sold as most that New England must add a wide receiver who can stretch the field. But this is a tremendous organization, and the Pats just don’t have many needs, so picking up such a luxury player could be the difference between a Super Bowl championship or another early exit in the postseason. My favorite fit for the Patriots is Braylon Edwards. Edwards is immensely talented, and if submersed in this environment with Tom Brady throwing him the ball, he could quickly rank among the top wideouts in all of football.

Top free agents: Matt Light, Gerard Warren

New York Jets

1. Make critical decisions on their own players: The Jets have a lot of free agents, and they are one of the teams in the league with the least amount of money to spend as it stands today. New York has come very close to its goal the past couple of seasons, but this free-agency period is absolutely critical to staying among the best teams in the NFL.

2. Address wide receiver: Considering who is up for free agency, wide receiver has to be the biggest worry for the Jets right now. I greatly respect Braylon Edwards’ abilities, but Santonio Holmes is just the better player right now. In fact, I see Holmes as a top-10 wide receiver. He is incredible in the clutch. Mark Sanchez needs quality options to throw to at this point of his young career. If the Jets brought back Holmes, increased TE Dustin Keller's role and also found a bargain at wide receiver late in free agency (maybe Randy Moss or Chad Ochocinco), then I think they would be OK.

3. Don’t forget about the trenches: The Jets are a physical team that is strong on both lines of scrimmage. Two of their starting offensive line spots are uncertain at this point. And although they drafted Muhammad Wilkerson and Kendrick Ellis, rookie defensive linemen rarely make a major impact -- especially in a 3-4. Shaun Ellis is probably going to be playing elsewhere, and New York doesn’t have a high-end outside linebacker. So there are concerns up front. The Jets will have to sign some cheaper veteran options -- probably to one-year contracts -- to shore things up.

Top free agents: Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Shaun Ellis, Antonio Cromartie, Brodney Pool, Brad Smith

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.