NFL Nation: Paul Boudreau

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For all of the bizarre things that took place in the past week to get offensive lineman Rodger Saffold back as a member of the St. Louis Rams and addressing the local media in a news conference Friday afternoon, the one move that really started it all happened Nov. 10.

[+] EnlargeRodger Saffold
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonSpending time at right guard opened up Rodger Saffold's options.
That was the day Saffold made his debut as a right guard against the Indianapolis Colts. It's hard to know for certain given the vagaries of the NFL but if that day had never happened, there's a strong possibility that Saffold wouldn't be a Ram nor would they have made much effort to keep him.

To that point, the 2013 season had been relatively tumultuous for Saffold. Given Saffold's injury issues in 2012, the team signed Jake Long to play left tackle and asked Saffold to move to the right side. It was a move he didn't love but never publicly complained about. Then, after early-season injury issues again popped up, Saffold found himself sharing the right tackle spot with Joe Barksdale upon his return from a Week 2 knee injury.

The previous three weeks before the game against Indianapolis, Saffold split reps with Barksdale. But the Rams wanted to get their five best offensive linemen on the field and with Barksdale and Saffold alternating at right tackle, they took one of those five off the field for chunks of the game. Long before that, there had been whispers that Saffold might be a better fit inside but it had never been tried because the Rams didn't have many options at tackle.

So it was that Saffold, in looking for a chance to be on the field consistently, and the Rams, looking to put their best line together, hatched the plan to put Saffold at right guard. Rams coach Jeff Fisher recalled the pivotal decision spurred by offensive line coach Paul Boudreau on Friday afternoon.

"Well, the conversation was initiated by Coach 'Bou'," Fisher said. " It’s hard to find a better one in the league than ‘Bou.' He just felt like with his understanding and his knowledge, the fact that he would line up next to Scott [Wells], and Scott could be of assistance to him and athletic ability -- it was an easy decision."

Saffold worked at guard all week leading up to the Colts game, an experience that was foreign to him. But nearly from the moment he jumped into the lineup at guard, it looked like a natural fit.

The pass protection part became easier as Saffold was no longer forced to cover so much ground against speedier rushers on the edge. He held up fine in that regard, but it was his ability as a run blocker that opened more than a few eyes to his potential inside.

Saffold's athleticism and size allowed him to become the prototype pulling guard as the Rams often got him on the move and allowed him to open holes for running back Zac Stacy. His second start, against Chicago, was the better highlight reel as he regularly was noticeable down the field creating space for the Rams to rush for 258 yards in a win.

Unfortunately for the Rams, Saffold's sample size at guard wasn't as large as they would have liked as injuries to others, especially Long, forced him to move outside. Make no mistake, that versatility also helped Saffold's value but it was the glimpse of potential that elevated Saffold from a "might keep" to a "must keep."

Saffold's production inside didn't just change the Rams' view of his future but also made a difference for Saffold himself. When he first made the move, Saffold discussed it with me and another reporter. He didn't have any trepidation about the move but it was clear he was a bit unsure of himself.

After tasting success at guard, Saffold said he regularly spent extra time critiquing his technique and working to refine the details of his new position.

"Once things started going good, I was happy but I was also very, very hungry and very, very strict on myself," Saffold said.

Saffold's work was enough to draw the attention of other teams as he headed to free agency and make him the Rams' top priority. Oakland and Tampa Bay put on the full-court press and both were at least open to the idea of Saffold playing guard though Saffold indicated Friday he would have played left tackle for the Raiders.

Looking back on his first opportunity to play guard, even Saffold himself is taken aback by the domino effect the move created.

"Now that everything else has happened, it was pretty much a surprise for me as well," Saffold said. "I know that Coach Boudreau definitely had a lot of confidence in me, as well as Coach Fisher about playing the guard position, and I didn’t realize it until I actually started doing it."

Now that he has, there's no turning back.

"He made the switch last year, a difficult switch," Fisher said. "He was very, very productive inside. Our plan is to play him at guard as we continue to fill the pieces around him."

It's a notion that a year ago seemed far-fetched. As of Friday afternoon, it's Saffold's new reality.
» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: Who should be the primary target (including trades) for each team when free agency begins?

Arizona Cardinals: This was a tough assignment because I'm not of the mind that teams should rush out to sign free agents at inflated prices. In most cases, NFC West teams should let the market settle before striking. My first inclination for Arizona would have the Cardinals seeking to stabilize the quarterback position. Much depends upon whether Kevin Kolb remains in the picture. Kolb is due to receive a $2 million roster bonus March 17. Free agency begins five days earlier, potentially giving Arizona some time to decide upon its course. Indianapolis' Drew Stanton is a free agent and would come to Arizona already knowing the offense coach Bruce Arians is installing. Miami's Matt Moore was someone I thought might project as a solid backup with the potential to start if needed, but he re-signed with the Dolphins. Not that Stanton or Moore would excite anyone, but after watching John Skelton and Ryan Lindley struggle last season, the Cardinals need to get better at quarterback as soon as possible. They need options.

St. Louis Rams: The Rams would be well served finding a right tackle in free agency, knocking off a clear need before the draft. The big question, as usual, is whether the price would make sense. But after using 16 starters on the offensive line over the past two seasons, St. Louis could justify the investment. New England's Sebastian Vollmer or Minnesota's Phil Loadholt would give the Rams an imposing presence on that side of the line. Both are proven and young, an ideal combination. Last offseason, the Rams spent big for veteran center Scott Wells, with underwhelming results. Wells was 31 years old at the time. He struggled getting and staying healthy. He had played 111 regular-season games when St. Louis signed him. Vollmer (51) and Loadholt (63) have played 114 games between them. They've got fewer miles. In looking through the available tackles, I also noticed Sam Baker, who played left tackle for Atlanta when Rams line coach Paul Boudreau was with the Falcons. Baker has been hurt, however.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers could use depth along their defensive line and insurance for Justin Smith while the All-Pro end recovers from arm surgery. Oakland's Richard Seymour has the experience, versatility and talent to instantly upgrade the 49ers' rotation. Signing Seymour to a short-term deal would be the goal here. San Francisco could address the line further by re-signing its own free agents and targeting a future starter in the draft. Signing Seymour would be a shorter-term proposition as the 49ers attempt to maximize their championship window. The team would be buying time to acquire and develop longer-term solutions along the line. General manager Trent Baalke did recently say he thinks the team has adequate depth along its line. He suggested that coaching philosophy explained why the 49ers used such a limited rotation last season. Whatever the case, San Francisco could stand to add defensive linemen. I can't endorse signing Seymour to a lucrative deal, but if the 49ers could get good value, the move could make sense.

Seattle Seahawks: Again, there's no urgency to overspend early in the signing process. Seattle mostly needs to continue building through the draft. Targeting 49ers tight end Delanie Walker should appeal on a couple of levels, however. It would give the Seahawks a chance to weaken a division rival while helping their own offense and special teams. Walker matched or set career highs in receiving yards (344), receiving touchdowns (three) and yards per reception (16.4) last season. He's 28 years old and possesses versatility Seattle could use as the team continues to diversify its offense. Seattle has more pressing needs, of course. Defensive end is a position for the Seahawks to address while Chris Clemons recovers from knee surgery. I'm not sure the team should rush out to sign one of the older pass-rushing veterans such as John Abraham or Dwight Freeney. But if Seattle targeted a veteran pass-rusher early in the process, that would be defensible, too.
A few thoughts after checking out Todd McShay's latest first-round draft Insider projections for NFC West teams:

7. Arizona Cardinals: McShay sends West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith to the Cardinals even though he says Smith doesn't get a first-round grade. Mock drafts are mostly about filling perceived needs. Quarterback is more than a perceived need for the Cardinals. It's a real one. McShay was in a tough spot with this projection because no one knows how Arizona might address the position before the draft. Moves such as signing Kevin Kolb to a cheaper deal and/or adding a veteran such as Matt Cassel will determine how badly the Cardinals need a quarterback in the draft. Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger are the quarterbacks new Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has worked with most recently. Smith lacks the commanding physical presence those quarterbacks possess, but so do most prospects.

16. St. Louis Rams: McShay sends another West Virginia prospect to the NFC West by projecting receiver Tavon Austin as the Rams' choice at No. 16. This one makes sense on multiple levels. Austin has been a breakaway threat as a runner and receiver. The Rams could certainly use that element in their offense. Austin would provide some protection for losing receiver Danny Amendola either this offseason or in the future. He also has shown the shiftiness and acceleration to pump life into the Rams' weak return game. Austin is 5-foot-8 and 174 pounds, raising questions about durability. He has not missed a game to injury in college, however.

22. St. Louis Rams: Florida State offensive tackle Menelik Watson is the projection in this spot. The Rams do need help at tackle. Watson has played only one year at the major college level after growing up in England. This selection would take more projection than most. We've noted that Rams coach Jeff Fisher's teams have never used a first-round choice for an offensive lineman while Fisher was head coach. Line coach Paul Boudreau appears equipped to develop less established prospects. If the Rams feel great about a tackle in the first round, they should take one. But I also could see them leaning toward another position early, then adding line prospects later.

25. Seattle Seahawks: McShay goes back to Florida State, this time projecting defensive end Bjoern Werner to the Seahawks at No. 25. Seattle has done a very good job drafting linebackers and for the secondary. The team hadn't invested much draft capital in its defensive line before using its 2012 first-rounder for Bruce Irvin. Coach Pete Carroll uses the word "unique" quite a bit when describing prospects that appeal to him. Werner produced in college, but he doesn't seem to possess remarkable physical qualities in any one area. Seattle could buy some pre-draft insurance at defensive end by signing a veteran to a short-term deal.

31. San Francisco 49ers: McShay sends SMU defensive end Margus Hunt to the 49ers at No. 31. Hunt has some of the "unique" qualities I referenced in the Seattle breakdown above. He stands taller than 6-8, weighs 277 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.6-second range. The 49ers' general manager, Trent Baalke, recently suggested the 49ers had good depth on their defensive line. He said the team's use of a smaller rotation was more philosophical. Still, with two rotation players headed for free agency and Justin Smith coming off triceps surgery, projecting a defensive lineman to the 49ers at No. 31 is reasonable.

So much on the line for NFC West

August, 15, 2012
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The 2011 St. Louis Rams started three players at left tackle, two at left guard, two at center, three at right guard and three at right tackle.

So much for developing the continuity offensive lines need to play their best.

The Rams hope to avoid a repeat this season, and they still might. But it'll be a while before this line comes together.

Knee surgery has kept new center Scott Wells from practicing. Centers can be critical for handling protection calls. The Rams are hoping Wells can get on the field next week. The line won't have its leader until Wells returns.

Quinn Ojinnaka is working at left guard after rookie Rokevious Watkins, a player the team wanted to groom for the position, reported to camp out of shape.

At right tackle, Barry Richardson has supplanted 2010 starter Jason Smith in the lineup.

For more on the Rams' line, check out Tony Softli's recent interview with line coach Paul T. Boudreau (video here).

The chart shows how many starters NFC West teams used at each position on the line last season. Some players started at more than one position. For example, nine players contributed to the 13-starter total for the Rams. Adam Goldberg, Jason Brown and Harvey Dahl started at multiple spots.
Jason SmithJeff Curry/US PresswireJason Smith has had his hands full working against Chris Long (91) during training camp.
The St. Louis Rams hired Paul T. Boudreau as offensive line coach in part because they hoped he could help 2009 first-round draft choice Jason Smith realize his potential.

That remains the plan even though veteran Barry Richardson has started siphoning off first-team snaps from Smith heading into the Rams' exhibition opener Sunday at Indianapolis. Richardson, 26, started Kansas City's last 32 games.

The move to get more snaps for Richardson so early in the evaluation process affirms Boudreau's commitment to putting the five best linemen on the field no matter what. It's a bad initial sign for Smith, who has had his hands full in camp against defensive end Chris Long in particular. But it's a good sign for the Rams that their line coach isn't going to prop up a highly drafted player at the expense of the team.

"We're going to play the best five," Boudreau said during an interview at Rams camp last week. "Don’t matter if you're a draft choice, doesn't matter if you’re a free agent, doesn't matter if you've been cut by four teams."

Boudreau, who was with Atlanta through last season, drove home that message early in his tenure with the Rams. He pointed to Rams guard Harvey Dahl, one of his former Falcons players, as proof. Dahl and tackle Tyson Clabo became mainstay starters in Atlanta even though neither was drafted and both had been released repeatedly.

Smith's status as the second overall choice of the 2009 draft isn't going to get him anywhere. To win the starting job, Smith will have to improve in pass protection.

"His whole thing that he needs to work on the most is understanding angles in protection, understanding he has long arms but he doesn’t use them and try to get his length back in protection," Boudreau said. "Try to use his hands. He wants to hit a guy all the time and you don't have to hit a guy in pass protection. You just have to stay in front of him. When he does it right, you have to really emphasize it on the tape."

Smith, 26, started six games last season, missing the final 10 games after suffering a severe concussion while making a tackle following a turnover against Dallas in Week 7. He started 15 games the previous season and five as a rookie.

The Rams' previous leadership drafted Smith as a left tackle, but the right side is a better fit for players with limitations in pass protection.

Boudreau, who coached the Rams' line in 2006-2007 as well, put together an Orlando Pace highlight video for Smith to study. Pace, the first overall choice of the 1997 draft, was a seven-time Pro Bowl choice and five-time Associated Press All-Pro selection.

"I had a bunch of snaps of Orlando in one-on-one pass protection situations, showing him how patient Orlando was, and his angles, the things he did to just kind of ride a guy by the quarterback," Boudreau said. "He didn’t kill the guy. You don’t have to beat 'em up. It’s like playing basketball. Stay between your guy and the hoop. And so when I showed him Orlando and showed him how smooth he was, and it all was because of his patience, and I said we’ve got to slow this thing down for him. He's a work in progress."

Camp Confidential: St. Louis Rams

August, 2, 2012
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Jeff Fisher experienced plenty during 16-plus seasons as an NFL head coach, but his initial team meeting in St. Louis represented a career first.

The Rams' new leader was addressing a room filled with players he didn't know.

"That was different, but you could tell within the first three minutes of him being up there, with his presence, that the team was his," assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said.

Fisher won over the Rams, and not with a fiery speech or with bold promises.

"It's something that you can't put your hand on and touch it, but it's palpable," McGinnis said.

It's called quiet confidence born of experience, and it's what the Rams needed from their next coach after posting a 15-65 record over their previous five seasons, all under less experienced leadership. There's an authenticity to Fisher that resonates. Quarterback Sam Bradford first saw it during a nearly two-hour meeting with Fisher, conducted before Fisher agreed to take the job.

"I think the biggest thing for me when we met was, there was no nonsense," Bradford said. "Everything that he has said has been valuable information. There is never that talk just to talk. That is what everyone really respects about him."

Thanks to Fisher, the feeling at Rams camp has shifted from "if" the team can right itself to "when" it will happen.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Jeff Curry/US PresswireQB Sam Bradford has some new young talent to work with this season at the skill positions.
1. Can the Rams help Bradford? It's easy to forget that Bradford had two 300-yard passing games in his first five starts last season. The high-ankle sprain he suffered in Week 6 changed the trajectory of his season. Bradford wasn't the only one hurting. The Rams suffered more losses to injury in a season than all but one NFL team since 2002, according to Football Outsiders. They had no chance.

The plan this season will be to take pressure off Bradford with a run-first offense. That approach represents a philosophical about-face from the thinking former coordinator Josh McDaniels promoted last season. McDaniels' offense would have worked better under different circumstances. In retrospect, the Rams lacked the personnel to make it work, particularly after losing key players to injury.

The offensive personnel could be better this season. Young prospects at running back (Isaiah Pead) and on the perimeter (Brian Quick, Chris Givens) give the team fresh options. But no one is quite sure what the team has at wide receiver. It's also unclear whether young tackles Rodger Saffold and especially Jason Smith can give Bradford the protection he needs when the Rams do put the ball in the quarterback's hands.

The Rams have additional first-round draft choices over the next couple seasons. There's a good chance they'll use them mostly to bolster the offense. In the meantime, they'll protect Bradford through the design of their offense.

2. Another year, another offensive scheme. The Rams are learning their third offensive system in three seasons. Last season, the idea was for Bradford to help get the Rams into the perfect offensive play for whatever defense the opponent was running. This season, Fisher and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer want the Rams to run the ball for the sake of running it, even against loaded fronts.

This could be the Rams' most run-oriented offense from a philosophical standpoint since the team moved to St. Louis for the 1995 season. Longer term, it's fair to wonder whether this is the best offense for a franchise quarterback to realize his full potential as a passer. For now, though, the philosophy will play to the team's offensive strength (Steven Jackson) while minimizing a primary weakness (pass protection).

"This offense is ground, pound and we’re in your face," Jackson said. "Regardless of how much a team studies about us, they are probably going to be able to tell, out of this formation, this is what they like to run. So now the mentality has gone from trying to be tricky or crafty to more so, 'This is my hole, this is where I’m going, stop me.' Completely different attitude."

3. Are the Rams OK at outside linebacker? St. Louis is set at middle linebacker with James Laurinaitis, a player the organization wants to build around (expect a new contract for him soon). The question is whether the outside linebackers -- Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh -- represent much of an upgrade for a team seeking to improve its run defense.

Another question: How much does it really matter? The league isn't exactly brimming with elite outside linebackers in traditional 4-3 schemes. The position has been de-emphasized. The Rams will run their defense through Laurinaitis. Dunbar will remain on the field with him on passing downs.

The Rams could use ascending young talent on the outside. They had too many more important needs this offseason to justify throwing precious resources at a position of lesser value.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeChris Long
Jeff Curry/US PresswireLeft end Chris Long, coming off a 13-sack season, anchors a promising young defensive line.
Head coach and quarterback are the two most important figures in a football operation. The Rams have the right people in those positions. That gives them a chance.

The Rams also have the pass-rushing talent Fisher needs to run his aggressive defense. Left defensive end Chris Long is coming off a 13-sack season. On the right, 2011 first-round choice Robert Quinn is serving notice, at least in practice, that he's the best pure pass-rusher on the team. His ability to close on the quarterback even when off-balance or falling sets him apart from most.

I wondered coming into camp whether last season inflicted irreparable damage to Bradford. That was not the case. There hasn't been a more impressive player on the practice field to this point. It's stunning, in retrospect, that a team with such a talented quarterback could suffer through a 2-14 season. So many things had to go wrong.

Day after day, play after play, Bradford impresses even the most seasoned observers. Receivers coach Ray Sherman, most recently with the Dallas Cowboys, has been around accomplished quarterbacks throughout his coaching career. The list includes Warren Moon, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Boomer Esiason, Randall Cunningham, Brett Favre, Steve McNair and Tony Romo. He used the word "special" to describe Bradford.

"His temperament is just so calm," Sherman said of Bradford. "He has a demeanor about him and Brett was like that -- when he spoke, guys listened. They tune in. They know, 'We take care of this guy, he's going to take us a long way. He's going to do some special things.'"

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Look at the schedule. Road games against Detroit and Chicago in the first three weeks. Green Bay, New England and San Francisco during a three-game stretch at midseason. Four of the final six games on the road. Only seven true home games overall, the New England game having been moved to London.

No one said this job would be easy for Fisher and his veteran staff.

Danny Amendola looks like the best receiver on the team. He's a terrific slot receiver, but with an 8-yard career average per reception, he won't strike fear into opponents. Quick and Givens, though promising draft choices, are rookies nonetheless. It's an upset if either becomes a force right away and a bonus if veteran Steve Smith fights through recent knee troubles to become a factor.

Bradford has the talent to rack up yardage when healthy, but he might not have the weapons to finish drives with touchdowns. Think back to the game at Green Bay last season. Bradford threw for 328 yards with a 64.4 completion rate at Lambeau Field, but the Rams still lost, 24-3.

Also, the Rams are going to a run-first offense at a time when the passing game is king in the NFL.

"Sitting in our first offensive meeting, it was made clear that our identity as an offense, we’re going to be known as being a physical unit that can run the ball versus whatever," Bradford said. "It doesn’t matter if people put 8-9 in the box, we’re going to run the ball. That’s what we’re going to do, and we’re going to pound them and we’re going to wear them out, and then we’re going to take our shots."

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins might already be one of the three or four most talented players on the team. He's starting opposite free-agent newcomer Cortland Finnegan. "He is game-ready," Finnegan said. "I think he’s one of those special guys."
  • Brandon Gibson has been one of the better receivers in camp. That was the case a year ago, and it might have said something about the quality of the position overall. I'm looking at Gibson as a barometer for the position this season. It's good for the Rams if other receivers pass him on the depth chart.
  • The Rams won't know for sure until they put on the pads, but they're hopeful rookie defensive tackle Michael Brockers can be more than just a run stuffer. They need him to factor as an inside pass-rusher as well. Having three relatively recent first-round picks on the defensive line -- Long, Brockers and Quinn -- gives Fisher and the defensive staff talent to work with.
  • Speaking of the defensive staff, I never heard Gregg Williams' name come up once during the first four days of camp. The NFL suspended Williams before he could get much work done as defensive coordinator. Fisher has never been one to panic. He's as cool as they come. The Rams moved on long ago. McGinnis: "I've been with Jeff when we were 10-0, and I’ve been with him when we were 0-6 and came back and won eight of our last 10. He doesn’t change. That type of self-confidence is transferable to a group. It’s transferable to individuals. That excites me."
  • Jackson, down to 235 pounds with 5.1 percent body fat, appears fresh in camp at age 29. Thomas Jones was that age when he rushed for 1,119 yards in Schottenheimer's offense with the Jets. Jones followed up that season with 1,312 yards at age 30, and 1,402 yards at age 31.
  • Rookie running back Pead stands out as an obvious talent. He's shifty. The question is whether he can pick up the offense quickly enough for the team to trust him in pass protection. The academic calendar at the University of Cincinnati prevented Pead from participating in organized team activities. He's behind from that standpoint, but he's got talent, and Schottenheimer likes using two backs. Those Jets teams referenced above had enough carries left over for secondary backs to gain 400-500 yards per season.
  • Long and Quinn had their way with the Rams' offensive tackles in pass-rushing situations. That could change some once players put on pads. Offensive linemen can become more aggressive at that point. I would expect the trend to continue, however. I'm expecting Long and Quinn to reach double-digit sacks.
  • Defensive end Eugene Sims played 25 percent of the Rams' defensive snaps last season. Look for that number to rise in 2012. The Rams' new staff likes his athleticism.
  • Jason Smith needs to become more patient as a pass protector at right tackle. He too frequently wants to bury the opponent. That's not necessary in pass protection. It's dangerous, in fact. Line coach Paul Boudreau went into the archives to produce a highlight reel showing former Rams great Orlando Pace letting opposing rushers come to him. Smith lacks Pace's talent, but if he can emulate Pace's patience, the Rams will have a better chance keeping Bradford upright.
  • "Gee-zee" would be rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein. Some are calling him "Greg the Leg" as well, and for good reason. Zuerlein has been powering through field goal tries from the 60-yard range. He made 23 of 24 attempts at Missouri Western State last season, including all nine tries from 50-plus yards. We'll see how it translates to the NFL. For now, though, the Rams aren't missing veteran Josh Brown.
  • The Rams have the youngest roster in the NFL, including the youngest specialists. They could be counting on a rookie, Johnny Hekker, to punt away from Patrick Peterson. That sounds risky, and it is, but the results can only get better. Peterson returned two for touchdowns against the Rams last season.

Camp Confidential: Atlanta Falcons

August, 2, 2012
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- As you first watch and listen to the Atlanta Falcons in training camp, you quickly realize something is different.

They’ve got a bunch of marquee players (Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner, John Abraham and Asante Samuel), but the buzz isn’t about them. Instead, most of the talk is about two new assistant coaches -- offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. That’s understandable, because a lot of people thought the Falcons needed some major changes after they got thumped by the New York Giants in the first round of last season’s playoffs.

With offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey (now head coach in Jacksonville) and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (now defensive coordinator at Auburn) leaving, Koetter and Nolan are big storylines. They might not have star power all by themselves, but watch and listen a little more and you’ll see the two new coaches have plenty of star power behind them.

“Mike Nolan and Dirk Koetter have done a fine job of bringing their respective systems to the table and working with (coach) Mike Smith and the rest of the staff and developing a system that is melding well with all of our coaching opinions,’’ general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “It’s a collaborative effort. It’s not just one stamp from one coordinator or the other. It’s been really interesting seeing everyone come together on the respective sides of the football to develop this new system.’’

In conversations with Smith and Dimitroff, each repeatedly emphasized that key players (the guys listed above and a few others) have had extensive input into what the Falcons will do on each side of the ball. As soon as league rules allowed coaches and players to get together in the offseason, Ryan and Koetter began meeting regularly and discussing what the playbook should look like.

“There are a lot of things we’ve done well over the last few years, and the first thing Dirk asked me was what I liked and what I felt most comfortable with,’’ Ryan said. “Then, we took the things I said and looked at our production in those situations and some of it was surprising because we didn’t have as much success as I would have thought in some of the things I said I was most comfortable with, and we had some pretty good success with some of the things I didn’t necessarily think I liked.

"We also watched a lot of film of Jacksonville (where Koetter was offensive coordinator last year), and we talked a lot about why they did certain things at certain times. There was a lot of very good give-and-take. He’s extremely open to input, which is great for players, and I know he sat down and did the same thing with some other guys. But he also has his own opinions and is firm on his own opinions, and I like that about him.’’

The Falcons have been very public about some of the ways their offense will change. They said they don’t want Turner having to endure a 300-carry season. They said they want to use the screen pass more, after almost completely ignoring it in recent years. And they’ve made it very clear that they want to improve their downfield passing game.

What the actual playbook looks like is likely to be a combination of what both Koetter and the Falcons have done in the past.

The changes on defense are likely to be similar because Nolan also has consulted extensively with his key players. Nolan has spent 14 years as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, seven of them in the 4-3 defense and seven in the 3-4. The Falcons will continue to use the 4-3 as their base, but there could be some 3-4 looks and principles.

“We just have a lot of different things that we can do,’’ outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “We’re going to be aggressive. We’re not being passive at all. Our mindset is that we want to go out there and dictate. We don’t want to adjust to what an offense is doing. We want to put it on them to make changes.’’

That would be a change from the VanGorder days, when the Falcons had some individual talent and a fair amount of overall success, but never really had an identity as a defense. The Falcons will be different on both sides of the ball.

“When you have new eyes, so to speak, you get a different view,’’ Smith said. “We may have had a view that this guy’s strengths are A, B and C and his weaknesses are D, E and F, and a new guy comes in and, because he’s coming from a different perspective, he sees it differently. I think that’s interesting in terms of evaluating your roster because you have two new sets of eyes.’’

Maybe the eyes will have it. Maybe the new coordinators and new playbooks will be enough to help the Falcons win a playoff game for the first time since Smith, Dimitroff and Ryan arrived in 2008.

THREE HOT ISSUES

Jacquizz Rodgers
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireSecond-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers could play a larger role in the running game this season.
1. The running game with Turner’s limit on carries. Despite all the talk about the downfield passing game, I don’t think the Falcons want to suddenly just abandon the running game. Turner still is powerful and can help open things up for the passing game. The Falcons just don’t want to wear him out. They’ve used Jason Snelling at times to give Turner some rest, and Snelling will be involved again this season. But I don’t think he’s really the guy the Falcons are looking at to pick up a big chunk of Turner’s carries.

I’m almost certain they have big plans for second-year pro Jacquizz Rodgers, and I think those plans might be a lot bigger than people realize. That’s largely because Rodgers is bigger than the Falcons realized when they drafted him last year.

“Jacquizz is not little,’’ Smith said. “He’s short, but he’s thick. People projected him to be a third-down back, a change-of-pace back. I think the guy has the skill set to play on all three downs. One of the things that stood out to me more than anything is his ability to pass protect. A lot of times, your change-of-pace back, you’ve got to get him the ball and not ask him to be a part of the protection. I don’t think that’s the case with Jacquizz. I think Jacquizz is an all-around back that can play on all three downs.’’

Translation: The Falcons aren’t looking for Rodgers to be what Jerious Norwood once was. They want him to be more like what Warrick Dunn once was.

2. Positive reinforcement. I don’t know if they were veiled shots at Mularkey, VanGorder and former middle linebacker and defensive leader Curtis Lofton, but I think it was significant that Smith and Dimitroff repeatedly used the word “positive’’ when they talked about the coaching styles of Koetter and Nolan, and as they talked about the leadership qualities Samuel brings, and what kind of leader they expect Weatherspoon to become.

“Sean is such a positive guy,’’ Smith said. “He is vocal, but he’s never negative in the way he speaks. He’s always very positive.’’

Samuel was described in the same way. So were Nolan and Koetter.

I never sensed a lot of negativity from Mularkey, VanGorder or Lofton, but I also never sensed any of them were rah-rah guys. It sure seems like Smith and Dimitroff feel their team needed more positive reinforcement.

3. The pass rush. For far too long, Atlanta’s pass rush has consisted of Abraham and almost nothing else. Maybe fellow defensive end Ray Edwards steps up after an injury-filled season that limited him to 3.5 sacks. Or maybe reserves Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann produce more. But I get the sense Nolan isn’t looking to have only defensive ends rush the passer.

“The way practice is going right now, we’re really excited about getting the linebackers more involved in rushing the passer,’’ Weatherspoon said. “Even in seven-on-seven, we’re going. That will help those guys out there on the edge because now offenses are going to have to account for us all day. It’ll be better because we’ll be able to keep them on their heels.’’

And it won’t be just the linebackers. Look for the cornerbacks and safeties to also get plenty of opportunities to blitz.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Matt Ryan
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireIs this the season Matt Ryan puts it all together and joins the echelon of elite quarterbacks?
Time to fly. A lot of great young quarterbacks have seemed to hit a wall early in their careers. Even Peyton Manning had a reputation for not being able to win the big one early in his career, and look how that’s worked out. I’m not saying Ryan is going to turn into the second coming of Manning, but I think this is the year in which Ryan finally can earn a firm spot in the category of elite quarterbacks.

The guy has done some very good things in his first four seasons and he’s worked very hard to bulk up this offseason, so that he’s not worn down when the playoffs roll around. Ryan has a good arm, excellent mental skills and a strong work ethic. But, for some reason, he just hasn’t been able to take the next step. Last year, the Falcons brought in Jones to give him another weapon to go with White and Gonzalez. This year, they brought in Koetter, who has obvious instructions to get the most out of Ryan’s skills.

When you keep doing things the right way, sooner or later it’s all bound to click.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The offensive line. This was a big problem spot last year. Ryan frequently didn’t have enough time to throw the deep ball. The Falcons got rid of offensive line coach Paul Boudreau and replaced him with Pat Hill, who has a nice history with offensive lines. They also used their second-round pick on guard Peter Konz.

But were those two moves enough to bring dramatic improvement up front? Should the Falcons really be sticking with Sam Baker at left tackle? And even if they want to give Baker another shot, shouldn’t they at least have brought in a viable alternative in case he struggles?

I know a lot of fans think the Falcons should have done more up front. But the Falcons think they’ve done enough. We’ll find out who is right soon enough.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Falcons lost a steady return man when Eric Weems left as a free agent. They’ve thrown out a lot of names, including some undrafted rookies, as candidates to take Weems’ spot as the punt and kickoff returner. But this is a team with a lot at stake this season, and I don’t see the Falcons handing either job to an untested rookie. I think they play it safe and go with third receiver Harry Douglas as their punt returner. He could also be an option on kickoff returns. If not, reserve cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Christopher Owens, as well as Rodgers, could be possibilities.
  • Ever since he was drafted in 2010, I’ve been expecting to see some flash from wide receiver Kerry Meier. Part of that is because the Atlanta coaches still talk about the former college quarterback as a guy that can play just about any position. Meier missed his rookie season with an injury and didn’t get a lot of playing time last year. But I did see him make a couple of nice catches in camp and also saw him getting work as the backup holder on field goals and extra points. Meier may have a tough time getting much playing time at wide receiver because the Falcons are so deep. But Koetter might be able to throw off some defenses by lining up Meier at H-back, fullback and tight end at various times.
  • I don’t want to raise hopes artificially, but I saw defensive tackle Peria Jerry working with the first-team defense while I was at camp. He seemed to show a little of the burst that made him a first-round pick in 2009. But Jerry tore up his knee early in his rookie season and has been reduced to a role player. He’s getting the first-team work because Corey Peters is temporarily sidelined with an injury. Peters’ starting job will be there when he gets back. But the Falcons would get a tremendous boost if Jerry can give them some production as a backup.
  • Veteran center Todd McClure has been getting all the first-team work early in camp. But I think the Falcons would be wise to take a long look at Joe Hawley and maybe even start him in a preseason game or two. McClure is 35, and there is no question he’s slowing down. I can see a scenario in which McClure wears out or gets hurt as the season goes on, and Hawley gets thrown into the starting lineup. The better long-term approach might be to go with Hawley as the starter and have McClure as a fallback option.
  • I don’t know what the Falcons are going to do about a No. 3 tight end after Gonzalez and Michael Palmer. They have six tight ends in camp. At least while I was there, the one that seemed to stand out was Tommy Gallarda. He looks like he can catch the ball a bit. More importantly, he’s 6-foot-5 and 259 pounds and looks like he can block.
  • A lot of fans are excited about third-round pick Lamar Holmes. They believe he could end up beating out Baker for the starting left tackle job in training camp. That’s not going to happen. The Falcons are going to give Baker every benefit of the doubt. If he’s injured or really struggles, they’ll turn to Will Svitek. Holmes is viewed as a project, and it could be a couple of years before he gets on the field.
  • Since the arrival of Samuel, the common assumption among many fans is that Dunta Robinson will be the nickelback and Samuel will start opposite Brent Grimes. That’s not as automatic as most think. Yes, Robinson will play the nickel position, lining up inside against slot receivers on passing downs. But that doesn’t mean Robinson won’t be starting and playing the outside on running downs. Samuel’s age, 31, is a concern, and the Falcons may not want to overuse him. They may start Robinson and, when they go to the nickel package, insert Samuel on the outside and slide Robinson inside.

NFC West training camp battles

July, 2, 2012
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AFC camp battles: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Quarterback: Kevin Kolb vs. John Skelton.

The Cardinals have grown accustomed to quarterback competitions. This one has no clear leader heading toward training camp.

The pressure is squarely on Kolb to justify the Cardinals' investment in him. He's had time to get healthy and learn the offense. Kolb should be more confident and relaxed as a result. But he has yet to take charge of the team and command the respect that only comes through performance. He'll have an extended opportunity this summer thanks to an exhibition schedule featuring five games, one more than usual.

Kolb now has 16 career starts. Skelton has 11. Neither has been consistent, but the team won more frequently with Skelton last season.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Left guard: Rokevious Watkins vs. Bryan Mattison.

The Rams are counting on offensive line coach Paul Boudreau to coach up the position at right tackle and left guard in particular.

Watkins is a rookie fifth-round choice with college experience at both guard and both tackle spots. He's listed at 338 pounds and has weighed considerably more, but the scouting reports question his strength. Mattison started four games for the Rams last season after two seasons in Baltimore as a backup. I've wondered whether Quinn Ojinnaka might project as the starter here, but he's more apt to play tackle. Barry Richardson could be a consideration as well.

Whatever the case, the Rams will likely be counting on an inexperienced left guard to help protect Sam Bradford and clear running lanes for Steven Jackson. It's important someone rises to the occasion.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Nickel corner: Chris Culliver vs. Perrish Cox.

The 49ers easily could have handed the job to Culliver after the 2011 third-round choice played better than 40 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Adding Cox creates competition and improves depth at a position that has become increasingly important as offenses more use additional wide receivers.

Cox started nine games for Denver in 2010 as a rookie fifth-round pick from Oklahoma State. He missed last season amid sexual-assault accusations, then signed with the 49ers following his acquittal this offseason. Cox played for 49ers secondary coach Ed Donatell in Denver, so the 49ers should have a good idea what he can offer.

Culliver seemed to fade some late in the season, no surprise for a rookie making a significant jump without the benefit of a regular offseason. He figures into the 49ers' plans no matter what, but will Cox siphon off some of his playing time?

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Quarterback: Tarvaris Jackson vs. Matt Flynn vs. Russell Wilson.

The Seahawks face a dilemma. Flynn, Wilson and Josh Portis are the quarterbacks they would ideally keep for the long term, but Jackson is the only one with meaningful experience. Jackson is the only one they know for sure they could trust to keep the team competitive right now.

Flynn and Wilson will earn roster spots. Jackson could win one too. He could even start, but so could Flynn or Wilson. Wilson made a spectacular first impression during organized team activities and minicamp practices. His natural leadership ability and drive showed up repeatedly in how he commanded the huddle and the way he kept pressing coaches for additional information on the offense.

While it's natural to assume Flynn will emerge as the starter based on his salary and Wilson's inexperience, the Seahawks' excitement for Wilson has been palpable at every turn. This should be a fascinating battle once training camp begins.

Rams: Dream/nightmare scenario

May, 25, 2012
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AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Rams in 2012:

Dream scenario (8-8): Sam Bradford takes every snap on offense for the second time in three seasons as the Rams protect their franchise quarterback with sensible play calling. It's the sixth time a Jeff Fisher-coached team finishes 8-8, but no one is complaining after the Rams' 15-65 run over the previous five seasons. Trusting offensive line coach Paul Boudreau to salvage right tackle Jason Smith becomes one of the surprise success stories of the 2012 season, and a critical one for the Rams' efforts to re-establish Bradford.

Turns out the Rams were not fibbing when they suggested Brian Quick, the receiver they took in the second round, ranked up there with first-rounder Justin Blackmon on their board. The constant threat of Steven Jackson and Isaiah Pead out of the backfield creates favorable matchups for Quick and the Rams' underrated receivers. Bradford publicly downplays a Week 2 victory over Robert Griffin III and Washington, but it feels good to win at home against the player St. Louis could have selected second overall this year.

Watching Janoris Jenkins score on a fourth-quarter punt return in Patrick Peterson's house improbably stakes the Rams to a 6-5 record, stirring visions of the postseason. It's certainly sweet to finally win within the division again. The Rams lose to San Francisco the following week and ultimately finish the regular season with a respectable defeat at Seattle, but the season is a success by any measure.

Nightmare scenario (3-13): Road games against Detroit and Chicago in the first three weeks expose Bradford to significant punishment as Smith and the line struggle to find their bearings. Bradford doesn't want to talk about the ankle injury he aggravated at some point in the season's first month, but it's clearly a factor. Facing Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh, Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, Julius Peppers, Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Cameron Wake and Clay Matthews in the first seven games leaves Bradford limping toward the bye week, his confidence shaken.

Steven Jackson continues to plug away, but we've seen this movie before and it doesn't end well for the Rams. The depth at receiver is indeed improved, but Bradford doesn't have any truly dynamic weapons. Quick understandably needs seasoning, but with Blackmon and Arizona's Michael Floyd challenging rookie receiving records, the Rams look bad for trading down. It's tough finding open receivers with Smith struggling at tackle, anyway.

First-round pick Michael Brockers and free-agent addition Kendall Langford upgrade the run defense, but life as an every-down defensive end is tough for Robert Quinn. The veteran outside linebackers signed as stopgaps represent only a minor upgrade from last season. Off-field issues dog Jenkins and the defense fails to meet expectations. Critics conveniently blame Gregg Williams' suspension, but the problems are more complex than that.

The Rams head into the offseason with another high draft choice, one they'll almost certainly have to invest in a playmaker of some sort.

Pressure point: Rams

May, 15, 2012
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NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the St. Louis Rams and why.

Jason Smith should be hitting his prime years as an offensive tackle for the Rams. There's a chance that will be the case, unlikely as it seems after three underwhelming seasons marked by injuries. The Rams reworked Smith's contract and will find out whether new line coach Paul Boudreau can help Smith, still only 26, fulfill more of his potential. Smith, limited to six games last season after suffering a concussion during a freak collision, will need better luck with injuries for that to happen.

It's instructive to recall the Rams' thinking when they made Smith the second player chosen in the 2009 draft. The feeling then was that Smith remained in the early stages of a transition from tight end to tackle, and that Eugene Monroe, selected eighth overall that year by Jacksonville, was more polished coming out of college.

"The way we look at it, he has played at a high level with only three years at the position," Billy Devaney, then the Rams' general manager, said of Smith at the time. "So you try to project a year or two down the road with that kind of development that we see, he’ll be that much better. If you take Monroe, he comes in and lines up on Sunday, if we're playing, at left tackle and plays. He's been there longer. Jason has been a right tackle and that’s what gives us flexibility. ... His production is good now and his potential is outstanding."

The Rams are envisioning more of a run-oriented offense this year. That could help Smith, their projected starter at right tackle, find his bearings. The schedule presents challenges, however. Smith opens the season on the road against Detroit and the Lions' franchise player, Cliff Avril. The Washington Redskins' Ryan Kerrigan is on the schedule in Week 2, followed by matchups against rookie first-round picks Shea McClellin (Chicago) and Bruce Irvin (Seattle). Green Bay's Clay Matthews is also on the schedule in the first seven games.
Peter KonzJeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe Falcons bolstered their offensive line with the addition of Peter Konz in the second round.

As it turns out, the Atlanta Falcons aren’t planning to jump over that playoff hurdle that’s been talked so much about.

They simply plan to plow right through it. The latest evidence came Friday night when the Falcons used their second-round draft pick (No. 55 overall) on Wisconsin center (more on that in a moment) Peter Konz.

It would have been very easy for the Falcons to overreact and do something crazy after an embarrassing January playoff loss to the New York Giants. Yeah, they could have made a leap in free agency for defensive end Mario Williams, which seemed to be the preferred rout by 99 of every 100 Falcons fans.

But the fact is, if the Falcons had landed Williams back in March, they wouldn’t be as good a team as they are today. Seriously.

Yeah, I know it sounds a little ridiculous to say the Falcons are better off without a guy who could have brought them double-digit sacks. But it’s the truth. Had the Falcons signed Williams, they would have had to gut their existing roster.

The salary-cap space Williams would have taken up would have prevented the Falcons from keeping guys like receiver Harry Douglas, safety Thomas DeCoud, defensive end John Abraham, center Todd McClure and running back Jason Snelling. They might not have been able to fit cornerback Brent Grimes under the salary cap with the franchise tag. Even if they did, they would have had to have made some dramatic moves -- like releasing receiver Roddy White, running back Michael Turner or fullback Ovie Mughelli.

Any or all of those moves seemed possible in the immediate aftermath of the loss in New York. But owner Arthur Blank, who earlier in his tenure may have been prone to overreacting, sat down with coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coolly came up with a plan on how the Falcons can take the next step.

Smith and Dimitroff have had four straight winning seasons, but have yet to win a playoff game. When you’ve had four straight winning seasons, you don’t blow a team up. You keep it together and fix the things that are wrong.

Without flash, that’s precisely what the Falcons have done and Friday night was just another step.

“We were really honed in on the offensive line as you can imagine,’’ Dimitroff said, moments after selecting Konz. “We need to get more stout on this offensive line.’’

There’s no doubt about that. Let’s consider this item from ESPN Stats & Information: The Falcons were one of 10 teams to average less than 4.0 yards per rush between the tackles last season. That came despite the fact they have a bruising runner in Turner.

The Falcons also didn’t do a great job of protecting quarterback Matt Ryan. That failure was the major reason why all the downfield passing we heard about after the Falcons traded up to draft Julio Jones didn’t fully materialize last year. The Falcons were soft up front and it cost offensive line coach Paul Boudreau his job.

Other than left tackle Sam Baker, a first-round pick in 2008, the Falcons really haven’t made huge investments in their offensive line. The arrival of Konz changes that.

Although he played center at Wisconsin, Dimitroff said “we’re listing him as a guard/center right now’’.

It’s no big secret McClure is at the end of his career. He’s 35 and it shows. The Falcons brought him back as insurance, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be their starting center on opening day. Guard Joe Hawley also can play center. Hawley also could factor into the situation at guard, where he played last season along with Justin Blalock and Garrett Reynolds. Add Konz to that mix and it’s pretty clear the Falcons are going to throw all their guards and centers onto the field in training camp and the preseason and see which of the three emerge as the best trio.

“Let’s come in here and have some great competition and see who can protect Matt Ryan the best,’’ Dimitroff said. “We want production and we want guys who can finish. In Peter, we have a guy who can do both of those.’’

Look, I’m not saying a guard/center from Wisconsin is going to come in the second round and push right through that hurdle all by himself. Konz is just a part of the puzzle and maybe fans can finally see that picture coming together now.

There’s a reason why Atlanta didn’t have a first-round pick this year. Jones was the first-round pick for last year and this year and he’s better than any receiver in this year’s draft. There was a reason why the Falcons didn’t make to splurge in free agency. They didn’t have the salary-cap room to do it without ripping a good team apart.

Little by little, they’ve made moves that have them gaining speed as they head for that hurdle. Just this week, they traded a late-round draft pick for four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel and quickly signed him to a cap-friendly deal.

In theory, Samuel should team with Grimes and Dunta Robinson to give the Falcons one of the league’s best cornerback tandems. In theory, Konz should team with all those other offensive linemen to make the Falcons tougher up front.

Yeah, there still are a few needs -- the pass rush, depth at tight end and maybe some more help on the outside of the offensive line. The Falcons are well aware of all that. They’ll address those needs in the rest of the draft and after it when the time and the price are right. But, now, you can see their offseason plan taking shape.

If the Falcons had gone out and paid a fortune for Williams, they wouldn’t be making solid, safe picks like Konz because they’d be desperately trying to repair all the other damage they did to their team.

NFC West: Free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
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AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Arizona Cardinals

Key free agents: DE Calais Campbell (franchise tag), CB Richard Marshall, OLB Clark Haggans, WR Early Doucet, T Brandon Keith, G Deuce Lutui, K Jay Feely.

Where they stand: A strong finish to the 2011 season on defense gives the Cardinals a glass-half-full feel heading into free agency. Going from 1-6 to 8-8 was an impressive achievement. Arizona does have serious concerns on its offensive line. The situation at tackle is particularly questionable even if Levi Brown returns (and maybe especially if he returns, depending on your view). The line concerns might actually dissipate some if the team lands Peyton Manning, a quarterback with the ability to beat pressure with quick throws. But tackle is still an area that needs addressing for the long term. Injuries throughout the offensive backfield raise questions about that area as well. Kevin Kolb (concussion), Beanie Wells (knee), Ryan Williams (knee) and Anthony Sherman (ankle) missed extensive time or played at a diminished level for stretches.

What to expect: The Cardinals are one of the teams chasing Manning. That pursuit could consume them for the short term. Landing Manning would signal the end for Kolb in Arizona. The Cardinals have until March 17 to exercise a $7 million option on Kolb, the quarterback they acquired from Philadelphia for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a fat contract. I'm expecting a resolution to Manning's situation before the Kolb bonus comes due simply because interest in Manning should be high enough to accelerate the process. The Cardinals had about $3 million in salary-cap space entering the week, according to ESPN's John Clayton. That figure could increase substantially once the team releases Brown or reworks his contract. Arizona still has strong coaching ties to Pittsburgh on both sides of the ball, but it's an upset if the Cardinals seriously pursue any of the aging veterans recently released by the Steelers. Developing young talent is the priority now. Re-signing Marshall, who fared well at corner, should be a priority. Does free-agent linebacker Stewart Bradley still factor prominently into the team's plans, particularly at such a high price?

St. Louis Rams

Key free agents: WR Brandon Lloyd, G Jacob Bell, CB Justin King, OL Adam Goldberg, LB Chris Chamberlain, G Tony Wragge, TE Billy Bajema, WR Mark Clayton, DT Gary Gibson, P Donnie Jones.

Where they stand: The Rams have no interest in staying the course from a personnel standpoint after going 15-65 over the past five seasons. They will seek fresh talent almost across the board as Jeff Fisher's new coaching staff seeks players for its schemes. The Rams are seeking playmakers in particular, starting at wide receiver. The offensive line needs addressing, although the Rams might try to minimize the turnover at offensive tackle for the short term, figuring they cannot afford to create new needs. But former starting center Jason Brown, benched last season, appears unlikely to return. The team also needs two starting outside linebackers, starting defensive tackles and perhaps two starting cornerbacks on defense.

What to expect: Mass roster turnover. I could see the team retaining as few as one or two players from its list of 21 projected unrestricted free agents. The Rams have a disproportionate amount of their salary cap tied up in recent high draft choices Sam Bradford, Chris Long and Jason Smith. The rookie wage scale will provide them cap relief even if the team remains among the teams picking very high in the 2012 draft. Bradford and Long are cornerstones. Smith could stick around at a reduced rate. The team still has hope for him under new offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan and defensive lineman Jason Jones, both free agents from Tennessee, have ties to Fisher and could make sense for the Rams. Despite the need for playmakers on offense, the Rams did not use the franchise tag on Lloyd, their most talented receiver. Questions persist about how effective Lloyd might be outside Josh McDaniels' offense.

San Francisco 49ers

Key free agents: QB Alex Smith, CB Carlos Rogers, FS Dashon Goldson (franchise tag), G Adam Snyder, WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Josh Morgan, G Chilo Rachal, FB Moran Norris, LB Blake Costanzo.

Where they stand: Coach Jim Harbaugh has said it's a bit unsettling heading through the offseason with his starting quarterback unsigned. Smith and the 49ers are expected to reach agreement eventually. This relationship will almost certainly continue even if Smith does reach free agency without a deal in place. Smith would not fit nearly as well anywhere else. Harbaugh likes to use the word "equity" when describing players he wants to keep. The 49ers would rather bring back Smith than invite the disruption that Manning would bring, were they able to land him. The team needs help at wide receiver and possibly cornerback, depending upon what happens with Rogers. Getting Goldson at the relatively reasonable franchise rate ($6.2 million) was a plus for the 49ers' continuity in the secondary.

What to expect: Not a whole lot, most likely. The 49ers were a good team last season after taking a low-keyed approach to the free-agent market. They will presumably show interest in Vincent Jackson, Mike Wallace and any high-profile, productive receiver with the talent to upgrade their offense. It's a small upset if the 49ers land one of them, however, because their philosophy is built on a measured approach resistant to overpaying. They will have to address the receiver position in free agency one way or another, however. Re-signing Morgan would help. Pierre Garcon, Marques Colston, Mario Manningham, Plaxico Burress and Robert Meachem are among the other options in free agency. An upgrade at right guard would help the line, but the 49ers might be apt to develop 2011 draft choice Daniel Kilgore after investing first-round choices in their left tackle (Joe Staley), left guard (Mike Iupati) and right tackle (Anthony Davis).

Seattle Seahawks

Key free agents: DE Red Bryant, LB David Hawthorne, LB Leroy Hill, OL Paul McQuistan, DE Raheem Brock, DL Tony Hargrove, FB Michael Robinson, RB Justin Forsett, QB Charlie Whitehurst, LB Matt McCoy, TE John Carlson, LB Heath Farwell.

Where they stand: The Seahawks' long-term quarterback situation hangs over them as they head toward the 2012 draft with only the 12th overall choice. The team has built up the rest of its roster to a point where sticking with Tarvaris Jackson as the primary starter could hold back the team to a degree it did not through much of last season. Upgrading the pass rush is another priority for the Seahawks. With defensive end Raheem Brock publicly stumping for Seattle to land Manning, his former teammate, I couldn't help but wonder which one of them had a better shot at earning a roster spot with the team in 2012. It might be Manning, even if the Seahawks are relative long shots for his services. Brock failed to provide the pass-rush push Seattle needed opposite Chris Clemons. Linebacker is another position the Seahawks need to address, whether or not Hawthorne and Hill return.

What to expect: The Seahawks have roughly $30 million in cap space, according to Clayton, and will make every effort to land Manning. They feel they've got a shot as long as they can persuade him to get on a plane and check out what they have to offer in terms of the roster, coaching, facilities, ownership and more. If Manning goes elsewhere, I would expect the Seahawks to consider Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn. Securing him at a price lower than what Arizona paid for Kolb would be the goal. As badly as the Seahawks want to upgrade the position, they have said they will not panic. Overpaying for Flynn could represent panic in their eyes. On the pass-rush front, I'm increasingly skeptical the team will shell out for Mario Williams. The price could be too high for a player Houston has decided to let hit the market. Re-signing Bryant is a priority, but using the franchise tag for him was never an option given the $10.6 million price. A deal slightly north of the one teammate Brandon Mebane signed seems likelier if Bryant returns.
The Atlanta Falcons, who are bound to have some offseason changes on their offensive line, started the process Saturday night.

Hill
The team just announced it has hired Pat Hill to be the offensive line coach. Paul Boudreau, who had been with the Falcons throughout the tenure of coach Mike Smith, was not retained after the 2011 season.

Hill spent 15 seasons as the Fresno State head coach and compiled a 112-80 record while leading the Bulldogs to 11 bowl games. But Hill also has a solid NFL background. He spent five seasons coaching tight ends and the offensive line in Cleveland, when Bill Belichick was the Browns’ head coach. He also coached tight ends and offensive line for the Baltimore Ravens in 1996 before moving on to Fresno State.

Boudreau’s line had a rough 2011 season, especially early on. The Falcons were breaking in a new starting guard, Garrett Reynolds. After Reynolds struggled, the Falcons replaced him with Joe Hawley. Left tackle Sam Baker got off to a bad start and missed time with a back injury. He was replaced by Will Svitek, who remained the starter even after Baker got healthy.

The team may part ways with Baker, a first-round pick in 2008, and almost certainly will be looking for help at left tackle. Veteran center Todd McClure also is scheduled to become a free agent and the Falcons could look to get younger at that position.

Falcons' coaching shakeup continues

January, 23, 2012
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After a playoff loss to the New York Giants in early January, it became obvious the Atlanta Falcons would have some major changes in the offseason.

That process continued Monday as the Falcons announced defensive backs coach Alvin Reynolds has been released from his contract. Reynolds joined the Falcons in 2008 at the same time coach Mike Smith was hired.

But Smith’s staff, which had remained largely intact through his tenure, is going through a major shakeup. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey left to become the head coach in Jacksonville, and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder left for a job at Auburn.

Mike Nolan has replaced VanGorder, and Dirk Koetter has taken over for Mularkey. The Falcons also parted ways with offensive line coach Paul Boudreau.
The Atlanta Falcons just sent out a very short release announcing offensive line coach Paul Boudreau is leaving the team.

“We would like to thank Coach Boudreau for his contributions to our team over the past four seasons, and we wish him well in his future endeavors,” coach Mike Smith said.

Consider Boudreau another scapegoat for a team that went 10-6 in the regular season, after going 13-3 last year, and got bounced in the first round of the playoffs.

Boudreau joined the Falcons in 2008 and, for his first three seasons, I thought he was one of the best offensive line coaches in the league. He got a unit that didn’t have a lot of high draft picks to overachieve.

But Atlanta’s offensive line suffered a noticeable drop-off in 2011. Left tackle Sam Baker and center Todd McClure were banged up early. Baker struggled mightily and eventually lost his job to journeyman Will Svitek. The Falcons also let Harvey Dahl go in free agency and, at first, replaced him with Garrett Reynolds. But Reynolds played his way out of the lineup and was replaced by Joe Hawley.

Atlanta’s pass protection struggled early in the season, and that was a big reason why the Falcons weren’t as successful in the deep passing game as they had hoped. The Falcons hired new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter on Sunday, and it's likely he'll have a big say in hiring the next offensive line coach.

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