NFL Nation: Paul Ferraro
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11:
Skelton's opportunity. Arizona Cardinals quarterback John Skelton steps up in class when he faces the San Francisco 49ers' defense. The matchup figures to be a tough one from a protection standpoint, but the Cardinals have found ways to strike for big plays this season. They have seven pass plays of at least 40 yards this season, fourth-most in the league behind Detroit, Green Bay and Houston. The 49ers have given up seven such plays, tied for fourth-most in the league. That gives Arizona a puncher's chance against the 49ers. And if Skelton can somehow pull out a victory, his stock will rise considerably.
49ers hold their ground. Every NFL team but the 49ers has allowed at least three rushing touchdowns this season. San Francisco has allowed zero. The 49ers are the first team since the 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars to go nine games into a season without allowing one, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Cardinals rank tied for 11th in the league with eight rushing scores, but they have zero in their past two games. Wells' injured knee has robbed power from him. Wells had only 10 carries for 29 yards against the 49ers last season. He did carry 15 times for 79 yards against them as a rookie in 2009.
Cornerbacks in focus. The St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks will play without cornerbacks Ron Bartell, Bradley Fletcher, Jerome Murphy, Al Harris, Walter Thurmond or Marcus Trufant, among others. The team best able to exploit issues in the secondary could prevail. Seattle feels better about its cornerback situation, but the raw talent is questionable. Two of the Seahawks' five players at the position were undrafted. Two others are rookies. None of the five was drafted earlier than the fifth round. That was partly by design, however. The team traded 2006 first-rounder Kelly Jennings and 2007 second-rounder Josh Wilson.
Explosive potential in return game. Patrick Peterson and Ted Ginn Jr. give the Cardinals-49ers game big-play potential on returns. Peterson has helped Arizona go from 27th last season to second this season in punt-return average. He leads the NFL in that category with a 17.6-yard average among players with more than 15 punt returns. His three touchdowns on punt returns also lead the NFL. The 49ers' Ginn ranks third in punt-return average and third in kick-return average among players with more than 15 returns in each category. He also has two touchdowns. The Cardinals' kick returner, LaRod Stephens-Howling, has been quiet this season. He scored three times on returns over the previous two seasons.
A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC West team:
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.
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.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Niners president Jed York and other leading team officials plan to take fans' questions during a 90-minute event for season-ticket holders Monday. Mike Singletary, Scott McCloughan and Andy Dolich will also be available. The team plans to stream the event live on its Web site.
McCloughan's mailbag features answers to fans' questions, including an explanation for the three-digit offense. McCloughan: "The digit system is a numbering system for routes in the passing attack. It's the same system Norv Turner ran. I believe that Raye and Turner learned it all from Don Coryell. It's a numeric system for the route ran on a particular play."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers were in no hurry to re-sign Roderick Green even before the pass rusher's recent arrest.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch provides an update on Steve Spagnuolo's first weeks on the job as Rams coach. Thomas: "Spagnuolo also clarified the job descriptions of three coaches who when hired were given generic titles of offensive or defensive assistants: Frank Leonard will coach tight ends, Paul Ferraro will coach linebackers and Andre Curtis will coach safeties."
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat says Spagnuolo is spending his time getting familiar with the Rams' personnel.
VanRam of Turf Show Times expects Spagnuolo's staff to avoid the types of differences that marked former coach Scott Linehan's relationship with former defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic quotes Kurt Warner's agent as saying the quarterback wants to continue playing. Contract talks have commenced.
Revenge of the Birds' Andrew602 singles out Steve Breaston as the Cardinals' most improved player during the 2008 season.
John Morgan of Field Gulls stands by the Seahawks' strength and conditioning coaches despite an injury-plagued 2008 season. He also thinks the Seahawks should have drafted a quarterback last offseason, even if the college crop appears worse now than it did in 2008. Morgan: "Seattle is again at square one in preparation for life after [Matt] Hasselbeck. It's not a great group of quarterbacks, and I think I overestimated them before getting a better look, but if Seattle's unwilling to take a plunge on a top quarterback talent, continually drafting marginal talent and seeing if one develops beats the hell out of effectively doing nothing."
There have been no announcements, but Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune reports Minnesota has a new special teams coordinator.
Brian Murphy, who spent the past three seasons as the Vikings' assistant special teams coach, has been promoted to replace the departed Paul Ferraro. Murphy spent 14 seasons as a college coach, the last six at Wisconsin. He did not cross paths with Minnesota coach Brad Childress at Wisconsin but was recommended by former Badgers coach Barry Alvarez.
Ferraro left the team last month to join St. Louis as its linebackers coach. The Vikings gave up an NFL-record seven touchdowns on special teams last season. It was the only significant change to the Vikings' coaching staff this offseason.
Continuing around the NFC North on this chilly Tuesday morning:
- Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy has finalized his coaching staff, according to Greg A. Bedard of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The final move: Scott McCurley was promoted to defensive quality control coach.
- Tampa Bay hired former Packers assistant Robert Nunn as defensive line coach, according to Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune gleans a few lessons from Super Bowl XLIII.
- Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times wonders if the Bears would be interested in defensive end Simeon Rice, a former pupil of current defensive line coach Rod Marinelli in Tampa Bay. Rice, who did not play in 2008, said recently he wants to play in 2009.
- Offensive lineman Ruben Brown, who played for the Bears form 2004-07, announced his retirement Monday, according to my colleague Tim Graham of ESPN.com.
- Detroit could do a lot worse than follow Arizona's blueprint for success, writes Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press.
It seems likely the Minnesota Vikings will be looking for a new special teams coordinator, possibly as early as Thursday.
Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune reports the team gave permission for current coordinator Paul Ferraro to interview with St. Louis, a move that would only occur if the Rams were serious about hiring him and if he wanted to move on. Otherwise, Vikings coach Brad Childress could have blocked the interview. Ferraro and new Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo were college teammates at Springfield (Mass.) College.
Childress said earlier this month that he had no plans to fire Ferraro after the Vikings set an NFL record by giving up seven touchdowns on special teams in 2008. But Childress obviously chose not to stand in the way of Ferraro leaving.
Ferraro would be only the third departure from the original staff Childress hired upon his arrival in 2006. Zulgad reports that assistant special teams coach Brian Murphy is a candidate to replace Ferraro.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times recalls the days when Todd Haley, currently Arizona's offensive coordinator, was the Bears' receivers coach from 2001-03.
- Bears defensive tackle Israel Idonije has changed agents and is now represented by Drew Rosenhaus, according to Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune. As a result, it's reasonable to assume Idonije will be seeking a contract extension this offseason.
- Veteran defensive line coach Bill Johnson turned down an offer to join Green Bay and took a job with New Orleans instead, reports Greg A. Bedard of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Former St. Louis assistant Brian Baker has recently interviewed for the position.
- New Detroit defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham disassociated himself with the Tampa-2 scheme he ran in Kansas City and said things will be different with the Lions, according to David Birkett of the Oakland Press. Cunningham: "People here in town knew that I was different than that. My idea is to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, always has been, always will be."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams have hired Pat Shurmur as their offensive coordinator. He also expects Ken Flajole to become defensive coordinator. The Rams have requested permission to speak with Vikings special-teams coach Paul Ferraro. Also, outgoing Rams offensive coordinator Al Saunders has an interview with the Raiders.
Also from Thomas: He checks in with USC linebacker Rey Maualuga, the type of player who could help the Rams become more physical.
Jeff Gordon of stltoday.com revisits what Rams owner Chip Rosenbloom said about Scott Linehan, Jay Zygmunt and John Shaw last offseason. Things change.
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat profiles new Rams coach Steve Spanguolo, who leans heavily on his Catholic faith. Spagnuolo recounts what it took to get married at the Vatican after initially planning to exchange vows in Rome.
VanRam of Turf Show Times expects the Rams to run more than the Eagles did when Shurmur was with Philadelphia.
Niners scout Todd Brunner checks in from the Senior Bowl. He likes quarterback Pat White.
Lisa Goodwin of 49ers.com relays players' thoughts about the King holiday and the presidential inauguration.
Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider says Jeff Jagodzinski's grounding in zone blocking schemes could make him a good fit for the 49ers as offensive coordinator.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee updates the 49ers' search for an offensive coordinator. Barrows: "The 49ers also have interviewed Indianapolis Colts wide receivers coach Clyde Christensen and former Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski for the job. The fact that neither candidate has been called in for a second interview -- as Linehan was last Thursday -- is telling."
Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers' search for an offensive coordinator appears stuck in neutral.
Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic has some advice for Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin. She thinks he needs to strike a conciliatory tone.
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says NBC's Cris Collinsworth backed off comments about the Cardinals being the worst team in postseason history.
The East Valley Tribune outlines 10 key moments in the Cardinals' season.
Revenge of the Birds' Hawkwind breaks down the Eagles' final two offensive plays against Arizona in the NFC Championship Game.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says the Seahawks could have a hard time keeping linebacker Leroy Hill. Farnsworth: "The club already has talked to Hill and his agent about signing a long-term deal, but all that did was show just how far apart the two sides are. And any time Hill has discussed the situation, he has sounded like a player who is eager to test free agency."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times revisits the Seahawks' and Steelers' Super Bowl lineups from after the 2005 season.
More from O'Neil: a statistical comparison between the Steelers and Seahawks, then and now.
Green Bay apparently has missed out on its top candidate to replace defensive coordinator Bob Sanders.
Mike Nolan, the first known candidate to interview for the job last week, will be hired as Denver's defensive coordinator under new coach Josh McDaniels, according to Adam Schefter of NFL.com. That means that Packers will shift their attention to former Jacksonville defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who also interviewed with Packers coach Mike McCarthy and likely is weighing offers from other teams as well.
According to Greg A. Bedard and Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Packers are also considering Philadelphia defensive backs coach Sean McDermott, who cannot be hired until after the Eagles' season ends.
No one is commenting yet on the Nolan situation. Did he turn down an offer from the Packers? Did McCarthy's interest cool after the interview? The answers to those questions are unknown. All we know for sure is that Nolan won't be the Packers' next defensive coordinator.
Continuing around the NFC North on a manic Monday:
- Interesting bit of speculation from Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune: The Vikings are not only at risk of losing defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who is a finalist for the head coaching job in St. Louis and also a candidate in Detroit. Special teams coordinator Paul Ferraro is close friends with New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and Zulgad reports there are many people associated with the Vikings who believe Spagnuolo will try to hire Ferraro if he gets a head coaching job.
- Frazier was the runner-up to McDaniels for the Broncos' job, according to Chris Mortensen of ESPN.
- Detroit linebacker Jordon Dizon will not have a bench warrant issued against him stemming from a drunken driving case in Colorado, according to Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
- Pittsburgh backup quarterback Byron Leftwich has interest in signing with Chicago this offseason, writes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times.
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