NFL Nation: Rod Graves

Now that the 2013 NFL draft is in the books, the New York Jets are undergoing a major makeover in their front office.

The latest report comes from Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com, who reports New York will hire former Arizona Cardinals general manager Rod Graves to join the team's front office. New York also didn’t renew the contracts of former Jets assistant GM Scott Cohen and former director of football administration Ari Nassim this week, according to ESPNNewYork.com.

Changes to New York’s front office should not come as a surprise. First-year general manager John Idzik has made an immediate impact since joining the Jets. He started by cutting overpaid veterans to get under the salary cap. Then, Idzik made two major decisions: he traded star cornerback Darrelle Revis and cut popular backup quarterback Tim Tebow. Remaking the front office now is Idzik's next focus.

Graves brings a lot of experience to the Jets. He starting in the NFL in 1982 and worked with the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles and most recently the Cardinals.

Statements from Whisenhunt, Graves

December, 31, 2012
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The Arizona Cardinals have released the following statements from former coach Ken Whisenhunt and former general manager Rod Graves:

Whisenhunt

"Coaching the Cardinals has been an incredible and rewarding experience and I will always be grateful to Mr. [Bill] Bidwill, Michael [Bidwill] and Rod [Graves] for giving me that opportunity back in 2007.

"I’m very proud of what we as a team and as an organization achieved during that time. Collectively we accomplished some very special and unprecedented things. That’s a testament to the dedication, hard work and talent of so many coaches, players and people throughout the organization.

"But we all understand this business and when you don’t win enough games changes are made. That doesn’t mean it’s easy but you definitely don’t have to look far to find people that have it much worse.

"I want to especially thank Cardinals fans who treated my family and me so well and made our time in Arizona so special.

"While this chapter ends for us, we are hopeful that the ones ahead of us will be as enriching as this one has been."

Graves

"I am very grateful to Michael Bidwill, to his family, to the players and to the staff of the Arizona Cardinals for the opportunity to serve the organization. Working with talented others to build and enhance our brand over the past 16 years has been an awesome and totally enriching experience. It has been the opportunity that others only dream of. Every day I came to work I viewed it as the ultimate privilege and never once lost sight of that. My time with the Cardinals has ended but the organization and the people in it will always have a special place within me."

NFC West trade acquisition scorecard

December, 12, 2012
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Marshawn Lynch had quite possibly run his course in Buffalo. The production he has sustained since Seattle acquired him probably exceeds what the Bills would have gotten from him.

That makes it tough to criticize the Bills too harshly for making a move that could cost them when the Seahawks face Buffalo in Week 15.

I thought I'd use the occasion to review NFC West player trade acquisitions since early 2010. The time period dates to John Schneider's arrival as the Seahawks' general manager. It also covers Trent Baalke's stint in the role for San Francisco and Les Snead's hiring as GM in St. Louis. Arizona fans might find the subject helpful, too, as they consider whether longtime GM Rod Graves, perceived as relatively inactive, has been aggressive enough in procuring talent.

Seattle Seahawks

Players acquired: 12

Overall impact: Significant

Best acquisitions: Lynch, Chris Clemons, Leon Washington.

Worst acquisition: Charlie Whitehurst

Also acquired: Clinton McDonald, Kellen Winslow, Kentwan Balmer, Kevin Vickerson, LenDale White, Robert Henderson, Stacy Andrews, Tyler Polumbus

Comment: Lynch has 3,043 yards rushing since making his Seahawks debut. Only Arian Foster, Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice have more over that span. His 27 rushing touchdowns rank tied for fourth. Seattle got him for a 2011 fourth-round pick and a 2012 fifth-rounder. Clemons, acquired from Philadelphia along with a fourth-round choice for Darryl Tapp, has 31 sacks since Seattle acquired him. That ranks eighth in the NFL. Washington, acquired for a 2010 fifth-round choice, has four kickoff returns for touchdowns since the Seahawks acquired him. That is tied with Jacoby Ford for most in the NFL. He averages 31.2 yards per kickoff return this season, a career-high figure that ranks third in the NFL among players with at least 10 returns. The Whitehurst deal was a rip-off, but a least the Seahawks didn't commit too much financially. It's a deal Seattle won't hear about much if current starting quarterback Russell Wilson continues on his current course.

Arizona Cardinals

Players acquired: 4

Overall impact: Moderate to high

Best acquisitions: Kerry Rhodes

Worst acquisition: Kevin Kolb

Also acquired: Vonnie Holliday, Charles Scott

Comment: Kolb cost too much for what Arizona has reaped in return. The team was desperate for quarterback help at the time, however, and the move was defensible under the circumstances. Rhodes has been a solid starter since Arizona acquired him from the New York Jets for a 2010 fourth-round choice and a 2011 seventh-rounder. His fumble-forcing sack against Michael Vick triggered a blowout. His pass defensed in the end zone helped preserve a victory at New England. His interception against Miami set up the winning field goal in overtime. Rhodes also had two picks and a forced fumble against the Jets. He and Green Bay's Charles Woodson are the only NFL players with at least eight picks and four sacks since 2010.

San Francisco 49ers

Players acquired: 1

Overall impact: Moderate

Best acquisitions: Ted Ginn Jr.

Worst acquisition: N/A

Also acquired: N/A

Comment: Ginn has two kickoff returns for touchdowns and one punt return for a touchdown since joining the 49ers. He has averaged 11.9 yards per punt return, second only to Patrick Peterson's 12.2-yard average since 2010 among NFC West players with at least 10 returns over that span. Ginn's kickoff return average with the 49ers (23.5) ranks below the NFC West average (24.6) since 2010. Ginn has not made a significant impact as a wide receiver.

St. Louis Rams

Players acquired: 6

Overall impact: Low

Best acquisitions: Mark Clayton, Brandon Lloyd

Worst acquisitions: N/A

Also acquired: Bobby Carpenter, Dennis Morris, Kevin Payne, Wayne Hunter

Comment: Hunter is the only veteran player acquired through trade by the Rams' current leadership. He has been better than Jason Smith, the player St. Louis traded away in the Hunter deal. Clayton was looking like a terrific last-minute acquisition in 2010, but injuries prevented him from making a sustained impact. Lloyd wound up being a short-term rental during a lost 2011 season. He did provide a needed upgrade. I didn't see any "worst" acquisitions for the Rams. These were small-stakes deals.
The joke from Arizona Cardinals general manager Rod Graves was that his team, without a second-round choice and having passed on Riley Reiff in the first round, would consider taking the Iowa tackle in the third.

Fleming
Graves knew Reiff would be long gone by then, but if he and the Cardinals were stressing over their perceived need for a tackle, they hid their discomfort well.

Using a third-round choice for Oklahoma cornerback Jamell Fleming, chosen 80th overall Friday, showed the Cardinals weren't going to reach for help at tackle.

The team liked its depth at corner and felt as though four of its players at the position could start: Patrick Peterson, A.J. Jefferson, William Gay and Greg Toler. But with Toler coming off knee surgery and valuable veteran Richard Marshall having left in free agency, necessitating the move to sign Gay, the Cardinals had room for another young prospect at the position.

Coordinator Ray Horton expects his corners to support against the run. Scouts Inc. Insider gave the 5-foot-10, 206-pound Fleming high marks in that area. Others weren't as convinced.

As for the need at tackle, consider that Kansas City selected Oklahoma's Donald Stephenson with the 74th choice, the first pure tackle selected since Cleveland chose Mitchell Schwartz with the 37th pick. The Cardinals aren't the only team avoiding tackles in this range of the draft, in other words. Arizona's next pick is 112th overall.

NFC West combine closing notes: Thursday

February, 23, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Four quick notes, one from each NFC West team, to cap a Thursday from the NFL scouting combine:
  • Arizona Cardinals: Coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves made it clear they'd like to bring back tackle Levi Brown. Whisenhunt has backed Brown publicly, so this was not exactly a revelation. Brown would return under a reduced contract. Graves: "Yes, we would love to have Levi back. Those discussions with his agent are ongoing and I hope to pick up the intensity of those discussions in the next few days and into next week. Obviously, our objective is to try get a deal in place with him to have him with us for an extended period." Brown could move back to right tackle if the Cardinals drafted a superior option for the left side.
  • Seattle Seahawks: GM John Schneider expressed strong appreciation for what defensive end Red Bryant adds in the locker room. He pointed to Bryant as a core player. Bryant could still consider opportunities elsewhere, but the fit is perfect in Seattle. Bryant should have more value to the Seahawks than to other teams, in my view. Schneider also said the franchise tag is an option for running back Marshawn Lynch in the absence of a long-term agreement. I considered that a given and arguably more appealing to the team than committing longer-term money at a position where durability can be fleeting.
  • St. Louis Rams: Coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead are on the media schedule for Friday. Fisher is set for 11 a.m. ET, with Snead three hours later. USC tackle Matt Kalil, a possibility for the Rams and other teams picking near the top of the draft, weighed 306 pounds Thursday. That was 11 pounds above his listed college weight. He appeared lean and indicated that would remain the case even if he put on additional weight. Fisher's teams have never drafted an offensive lineman in the first round, but the Rams do have obvious needs on their line.
  • San Francisco 49ers: Those hoping the 49ers will dive hard into the free-agent market for receivers might be disappointed. None of the unrestricted free agents the team signed from other teams last offseason earned more than $4.25 million per season. I asked GM Trent Baalke when the right time would be for the 49ers or any team to invest heavily in a free agent from the outside. Baalke: "There's reasons why we don't do it and I'm not going to get into those reasons of why we operate the way we do. It's just our own philosophy. But if you are asking me when is the right time, I don't know that there is a right time. It is really an individual question for the 32 people making the decisions across the NFL for their own team. ... The model that we use isn't much different than certain other people in the National Football League that have been successful. Does it guarantee us that we are going to have success? Each year is a new year. But we're going to be very consistent with how we operate."

Thanks for following along. NFL officials are about to close the media room at Lucas Oil Stadium. I'm going to find a meal.

Cards: Updates on Campbell, QB situation

February, 23, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Ken Whisenhunt and Rod Graves just passed through. Jim Harbaugh is within minutes of hitting the podium.

It's an NFC West free-for-all, with no time to catch up -- at least yet.

Graves, the Arizona Cardinals' general manager, said he thought the team would get a long-term deal with defensive end Calais Campbell. Graves chooses his words with care and tends to speak broadly. He called discussions "fruitful" and struck an optimistic tone, I thought.

Graves, mindful of speculation that the Cardinals could pursue Peyton Manning, said he thought the Cardinals were pretty much set at quarterback with Kevin Kolb and John Skelton.

"I think we are," he said.

Graves added the usual disclaimers about always wanting to upgrade at all positions. But he did not go out of his way to suggest the status quo could change.

Whisenhunt, now entering his sixth season as the Cardinals' head coach, said the team had not even discussed the $7 million bonus payment due Kolb on March 17. The overall tone from Whisenhunt and Graves did nothing to fuel Manning speculation.

According to Whisenhunt, Skelton would be competing to unseat Kolb as the starter.

So combine's top talent has some baggage

February, 22, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Imagine the scene if Peyton Manning lingered around the Indianapolis airport baggage carousel waiting for his luggage.

Fans would swarm the Colts legend within seconds.

Manning's potential successor, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, created no stir Wednesday upon arriving for the NFL scouting combine. He stood in plain view for 10-15 minutes without drawing a crowd, or even much notice.

Luck, presumed to be the Colts' choice with the first pick in the 2012 draft, left baggage claim the same way he had arrived: not yet the face of an NFL franchise. Luck carried a large duffel bag on each shoulder, plus a backpack, as he departed.

That was one visual to file away on the eve of the combine.

Bill Williamson, Kevin Seifert, Paul Kuharsky and I are the ESPN.com bloggers staffing this one. We'll be here through at least Sunday, with access to various team officials and the top college prospects in attendance.

Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves are scheduled for a media session beginning Thursday at 12:30 p.m. ET, followed at 2:45 by Seattle Seahawks GM John Schneider. San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke are also expected to make appearances Thursday. St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead are scheduled for Friday at 1 and 2, respectively.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is not on the schedule at this time. I'll update if that changes.

Leading Questions: NFC West

February, 21, 2012
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With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC West team upon beginning preparations for the 2012 season:

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Why so much hedging over the quarterbacks?

Team president Michael Bidwill and general manager Rod Graves are both on record as hedging their bets about Kevin Kolb returning for a second season with the team. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has recently made it clear the team would not make Kolb its outright starter for 2012, instead forcing him to compete with John Skelton.

The money Kolb would earn if he did return will guarantee him riches, but not a starting job.

The approach is vintage Whisenhunt. Now entering his sixth season with the team, Whisenhunt has remained consistently averse to anointing starters. The approach reflects his own NFL playing career. Whisenhunt stuck with Atlanta as a 12th-round draft choice in 1985, starting 43 of the 74 games he played over seven seasons. Nothing was handed to him and nothing will be handed to his players now.

The Cardinals' relatively noncommittal approach with Kolb has left the impression Arizona could go after Peyton Manning. That could be a difficult decision to make strategically, however, because Manning might need time to get healthy. Letting Kolb hit the market without knowing whether Manning could hold up would leave the Cardinals with Skelton as their fallback option.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

How can the Rams help themselves in free agency?

This is a tough one. Very few of the Rams' own free agents qualify as players the team must re-sign.

Receiver Brandon Lloyd is arguably the only clear starting-caliber player on the list. He is 30 years old and, by all accounts, hoping to catch on with Josh McDaniels in New England.

Teams with new coaching staffs often sign players with connections to various assistants. The Rams could follow that path.

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was in New Orleans, where cornerback Tracy Porter might be the most impressive defensive player scheduled to hit free agency.

Coach Jeff Fisher was with Tennessee when another potential free-agent corner, Cortland Finnegan, was building his reputation as one of the NFL's most hard-nosed defensive backs.

Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was with the New York Jets, but their list of offensive free agents features older players such as Mark Brunell, LaDainian Tomlinson and Plaxico Burress.

New general manager Les Snead has ties to the Atlanta Falcons' free agents, including 35-year-old center Todd McClure and 35-year-old outside linebacker Mike Peterson. Linebacker Curtis Lofton is only 25 and a productive player, but he has played the one linebacker position where the Rams are set, in the middle. Cornerback Brent Grimes is 28 and has a Pro Bowl on his résumé, giving the Rams a connection to another established corner.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

How much better can Alex Smith become?

The 49ers plan to re-sign Smith after the veteran quarterback finished the 2011 season with 17 touchdown passes, five interceptions, a career-best 90.7 NFL passer rating and a signature playoff victory over New Orleans.

It's easy to forget that rules governing free agents prevented Smith from participating in formal 49ers practices until Aug. 4, only five weeks before the regular-season opener. Smith nonetheless appeared in tune with new coach Jim Harbaugh and new coordinator Greg Roman. He did take too many sacks and, until the team's divisional playoff victory over New Orleans, became best known for avoiding turnovers.

Smith did seem to progress as the season went along. It'll be tough for him to match or improve upon his TD-to-INT ratio. Opponents will be better equipped to counter scheme advantages the 49ers enjoyed with a new staff fresh from the college ranks. Durability will be another concern if Smith takes another 44 sacks.

But logic also suggests Smith can continue to grow within the 49ers' offense. He proved skeptics wrong last season and appears positioned to do so again.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

What is the holdup with Marshawn Lynch's new contract?

Yes, the Seahawks want to bring back Lynch. His physical running style gives them an edge Seattle cannot realistically get from another back in 2012.

There have been no hard reasons to get a deal done quickly, however. Seattle can name Lynch its franchise player, an appealing alternative for teams wary of how long running backs will hold up physically. Lynch has until March 13 before becoming a free agent for the first time in his career. His next long-term deal could be his final one. He'll want to get more than what Seattle would pay him in guaranteed money as a franchise player over the next couple seasons.

Lynch is 25 years old and has 1,280 career touches. Steven Jackson (2,507), Frank Gore (1,940) and Maurice Jones-Drew (1,762) are among the prominent backs with considerably more touches. Seattle should be able to get three more productive seasons from Lynch, enough to justify doing a multiyear deal with him.

But the franchise tag provides a tantalizing fallback.

NFC West Stock Watch

October, 25, 2011
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» NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Coach Ken Whisenhunt and GM Rod Graves. The men who got much of the credit for reviving a dormant franchise get most of the blame now that the Cardinals have lost five games in a row and 14 of their last 17 dating to last season. Ownership opened its wallet during the offseason, spending for Kevin Kolb and quite a few free agents. The product on the field hasn't improved sufficiently. The record has gotten worse. Kolb hasn't met expectations. A trip to Baltimore in Week 8 isn't likely to trigger a turnaround. Arizona lost seven in a row at one point last season, winning only when the dysfunctional Denver Broncos arrived. The current Cardinals have a home game against the Rams in Week 9 before a three-game road trip. This team could easily be 3-10 or 2-11 when Cleveland visits in Week 15.

2. Coach Steve Spagnuolo and GM Billy Devaney. The problems on defense stand out as most troubling for the Rams' coach and GM. Just about all of the free-agent additions on defense -- Justin Bannan, Quintin Mikell, Ben Leber, Brady Poppinga, etc. -- were supposed to help shore up the run defense. The Rams have only gotten worse in that area, maintaining their No. 32 ranking in rushing yards allowed after Dallas' DeMarco Murray set a franchise record with 253 yards Sunday. Spagnuolo's expertise is on the defensive side of the ball. Some drop-off in pass defense would be understandable given injuries at cornerback, but there's no way the Rams should be this bad against the run. The team's low-keyed approach to upgrading at wide receiver also backfired. Adding Brandon Lloyd could be too little, too late.

3. Charlie Whitehurst, Seahawks QB. Completing 12 of 30 passes for 97 yards against Cleveland left Whitehurst in dubious company. In Seahawks history, only Stan Gelbaugh ever had fewer yards to show for as many attempts in a single game. Whitehurst was inaccurate even on some of the passes he completed, including a sideline pass to Sidney Rice that should have gone for a touchdown. Whitehurst's throw was far enough outside to lead Rice right out of bounds, preventing him from reaching the end zone. This was a giant step backward for Whitehurst and the offense.

[+] EnlargeDavid Hawthorne
AP Photo/Tony DejakDavid Hawthorne was a bright spot for the Seahawks on Sunday.
RISING

1. David Hawthorne, Seahawks LB. Eleven tackles, one sack and one interception constituted a rebirth for Hawthorne, who seemed to play more freely than at any point this season. I was tempted to list teammate Red Bryant in this spot after Bryant blocked two field goal attempts and provided strong run defense, but Bryant was already regarded as one of the most important players on the team. His stock was already high, in other words. Also, the penalty against Bryant for head-butting Cleveland Browns tight end Alex Smith killed whatever fleeting hopes the Seahawks had for a last-minute comeback victory.

2. Braylon Edwards, 49ers WR. Edwards had only four receptions for 48 yards through the 49ers' first two games. A knee injury sidelined him for four games, but now Edwards appears ready to rejoin his teammates for practice this week. He'll step into an offense that has showed general improvement over the past month. Playing time shouldn't be a problem for him, either, now that starting receiver Josh Morgan is on injured reserve with a broken leg. Edwards and Michael Crabtree give the 49ers two big targets to pair with tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Edwards' ability to make plays downfield should help the offense.

3. LaRod Stephens-Howling, Cardinals RB. A hand injury had sidelined Stephens-Howling early in the season and limited him some during his return. That changed Sunday when Stephens-Howling turned a short pass into a 73-yard touchdown when the Cardinals were desperate for a spark. Stephens-Howling's role in the offense could grow with Beanie Wells suffering a knee injury.
Eleven thoughts after Arizona Cardinals president Michael Bidwill and Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald announced a new eight-year contract agreement for Fitzgerald:

    [+] EnlargeLarry Fitzgerald
    Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireThe eight-year contract signed by Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald was a commitment made most significantly at the ownership level.
  • Watershed moment: Fitzgerald's signing was a referendum on how the Cardinals are doing business. Not how they have done business in the past, but how they are doing business right now. The team made a statement by spending big for quarterback Kevin Kolb and a long list of free agents this offseason. If anything, the Cardinals have erred on the side of overpaying this offseason. I doubt Fitzgerald would have re-signed at this stage in the absence of those moves.
  • A Bidwill production: Bidwill's profile has risen in recent years as he has taken more day-to-day control of the organization from his father. It was appropriate for him to be the one sitting alongside Fitzgerald at the news conference. This news conference was more about business than football. Everyone knows what the Cardinals' football people think of Fitzgerald. But when an organization commits as much as $120 million toward one of the most beloved players in franchise history, the commitment is made most significantly at the ownership level.
  • Eight years is a long time: The Cardinals surely paid a premium to re-sign Fitzgerald before his contract expired and before he reached the market in the absence of any team option to trade him or name him its franchise player. Fitzgerald gave up something, as well. Signing for eight years prevents him reaching the market as the NFL negotiates new, potentially more lucrative TV contracts over the next several seasons. Those contracts will affect revenues and, by extension, player salary allotments.
  • Incentives could be a factor: The fine print on Fitzgerald's new deal remains difficult to verify until the deal is on file with the league and NFL Players Association, at which point details figure to filter out. Initial reports suggest roughly $50 million of the $120 million comes with some measure of guarantee. I wonder to what degree incentives might influence how much Fitzgerald receives later in the deal. Did the Cardinals secure protections in case Fitzgerald's production declines significantly?
  • Lawrence mention: Fitzgerald credited various people inside and outside the organization for helping get this deal done. Paul Lawrence was one of the people Fitzgerald mentioned by name. Lawrence, one of his agents, died unexpectedly while playing basketball back in February. He was close to Fitzgerald and Cardinals teammate Adrian Wilson, among others. "I just feel like the work that was put in behind the scenes was tireless, and I am appreciative of that," Fitzgerald said.
  • Good news was welcome: The Fitzgerald contract agreement gave the Cardinals a welcome bounce after the team lost rookie running back Ryan Williams to a season-ending knee injury during its preseason game against Green Bay.
  • New WR pecking order: Carolina's Steve Smith had been the NFL's highest-paid wide receiver by average per year. The deal he signed in 2007 averaged $10.9 million per year. Fitzgerald's previous deal averaged $10 million while allowing him to hit free agency earlier. Calculating averages for extensions can be trickier than doing so for new contracts. It's also tough to know for sure how much any player will wind up receiving; backloaded deals produce misleading averages because teams can release players without paying future salaries. It's possible Fitzgerald's average will exceed $15 million by some measures.
  • Heavy lifting finished: The Cardinals have no more high-profile contracts requiring immediate attention. Their quarterback and star receiver are under contract for years to come. Their head coach and general manager are signed through 2013. By my count, 38 of the 89 players under contract have deals expiring after the 2011 season. The team holds rights to quite a few of them beyond 2011. Jay Feely and Deuce Lutui head a modest list of players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.
  • Boldin retrospective: The Cardinals traded longtime receiver Anquan Boldin last offseason in part because Boldin wasn't happy with his contract situation relative to the market Fitzgerald had set with his previous deal. Imagine how Boldin would have felt if the Cardinals had done this $120 million deal with Fitzgerald before they traded him.
  • Whether Arizona overpaid: The price for Fitzgerald was only going up as his contract neared its completion. Arizona paid a premium, as noted. In general, it's OK to overpay for quarterbacks. I'd create another category for "franchise icons who remain in their primes" because losing Fitzgerald would have set back the organization significantly. The Cardinals had to re-sign Fitzgerald. They knew it. Fitzgerald knew it. What's a few million dollars extra among friends? Letting this situation drag into the season would have complicated efforts to get a deal done.
  • It's about the money, sort of: Fitzgerald had plenty of money before signing this contract. For players in Fitzgerald's situation, it's often less about the money than it is about what the money represents. Making Fitzgerald the highest-paid wide receiver by a wide margin told Fitzgerald all he needed to know about where he stood in the organization's mind. Think back to Kurt Warner's situation a couple of years ago. The Cardinals wound up paying him handsomely, but they weren't willing to overpay for him. Warner took a somewhat undignified trip to San Francisco, visiting with 49ers brass in an effort to leverage a better deal. He wound up re-signing with the team, but I wonder, in retrospect, if he might have hung around for the final year of his deal if the Cardinals had made a stronger statement to him with a deal even more lucrative. It's a debatable point, but one worth considering, at least.

That's all for now. I'm boarding a flight from St. Louis to Seattle in a few hours and will likely check in from 30,000 feet, wireless permitting.
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The fans chanting Larry Fitzgerald's name as he approached on a Segway following practice Wednesday are not alone in their love for the Arizona Cardinals' receiver.

Team management might as well join in the chanting. President Michael Bidwill and general manager Rod Graves are not quite begging the Pro Bowl receiver to extend his contract beyond the 2011 season, but they're openly hoping. The ground beneath their feet appears more solid after Arizona moved aggressively in free agency and the trade market.

"I'm excited with the signings," Fitzgerald said Wednesday. "That is a step in the right direction. It's more active than we've been in the free-agent market during the eight years I've been here. That is really exciting, especially as bad as our division is. Any help is going to pay off big for us."

I thought the Cardinals would have won the division last season with even average play at quarterback. Their inability to compete for an NFC West title despite an easy finishing schedule precipitated recent moves to add quarterback Kevin Kolb, tight end Todd Heap, linebacker Stewart Bradley, guard Daryn Colledge and others. The team made those moves knowing Fitzgerald was watching to see whether or not the organization would create a situation he could embrace for the long term.

Fitzgerald holds the leverage. His contract features clauses preventing the team from trading him or naming him its franchise player. Arizona could not stop Fitzgerald from testing free agency if the receiver chose to go that route. But team president Michael Bidwill said he thinks the sides can reach agreement before the regular season.

"I’m optimistic," team president Michael Bidwill told reporters Tuesday. "I think Larry wants to get it done. We want to get it done. We’ve got the cap space. We’re looking forward to working with him."

Getting a deal with Fitzgerald before the season is the hope.

"I think you can get contracts done very quickly when two people are motivated," Bidwill said. "I think we’ve got a lot of motivation. I know Larry wants to get it done, too."
Adam Schein of Sirius NFL Radio and FoxSports.com is back with his third annual NFL organizational rankings.

The Seattle Seahawks have overtaken the Arizona Cardinals for the top spot in the division based on ownership, quarterback, coach, front office, coaching staff and intangibles. Schein values each of those categories the same for the purposes of his evaluation, scoring teams on a 10-point scale and allowing, in some cases, for expected moves to influence rankings.

I had fun breaking down his second annual rankings a year ago.

The division has welcomed one new owner since last offseason. Quarterback situations remain unsettled. The Seahawks' playoff success lent credibility to coach Pete Carroll even though the team finished with a 7-9 record during the regular season. The lockout has subsequently made it tougher for teams to help themselves. Some of these grades could change based on how teams proceed during free agency, particularly in relation to the quarterback position.

A look at Schein's rankings and comments for NFC West teams, followed by my own thoughts:

12. Seattle Seahawks (37.5 of 60 points)

Schein: The facilities are state of the art. The home-field advantage with the '12th man' is significant. Coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider inherited a total mess. They were super-active last season, bringing in different combinations of players, leading to a street free-agent gem like Mike Williams. Hiring Tom Cable to coach the offensive line was a great move. Seattle, finally, has a good structure in place.

Sando's thoughts: The Seahawks' ability to resolve the quarterback situation will determine whether they remain on an upward trajectory. Paul Allen is an owner with plenty of resources. He stays out of the way on football decisions. The team would benefit if Allen were more involved at the league level, but that is not his style. Qwest Field provides one of the strongest home-field advantages in sports when there's something to cheer about. Schneider seems to work well with Carroll, creating a positive front-office culture. They fared well in patching holes with Chris Clemons, Raheem Brock and Leon Washington, among others. Replacing the retired Alex Gibbs with Cable stands out as a strong recovery.

16. Arizona Cardinals (36 of 60 points)

Schein: The Cards cut pay for employees across the board during the lockout. That smells of the Cardinals in the past. But Arizona’s track record of churning out excellent drafts under Rod Graves and Steve Keim is sensational. Ken Whisenhunt is the perfect coach for the Cardinals. The stadium is beautiful. The Arizona public relations staff knows how to promote the product and is regarded as top-notch. I give the Cards only a 4 at quarterback because right now Kevin Kolb is a very educated guess. If it wasn’t for that potential, it would be a minus-4.

Sando's thoughts: Ken Whisenhunt scored eight points from Schein, more than any other coach in the division commanded. That is fair based upon the Cardinals' playoff success alone. The Cardinals have a beautiful stadium, but they're in a market heavily on transplants, making it tougher to develop the loyalty other teams enjoy. Schein's nine-point score for the Cardinals' front office reflects his high opinion of the team's recent draft classes. There have been successes, no question, but the grade appears generous. Seven of the nine players Arizona drafted in the first three rounds from 2007-09 have arguably failed to meet expectations (Beanie Wells, Cody Brown, Rashad Johnson, Early Doucet, Levi Brown, Alan Branch and Buster Davis). Other teams in the division haven't fared appreciably better, but nine points on a 10-point scale seems high under the circumstances.

19. St. Louis Rams (33.5 of 60 points)

Schein: Finally, optimism! Coach Steve Spagnuolo and QB Sam Bradford changed the culture in St. Louis. The ownership issue has become a back-burner topic.

Sando's thoughts: The Rams scored only three points from Schein for ownership. I would give the Rams the benefit of the doubt in that category based on Stan Kroenke's record as a franchise owner in other sports. Kroenke gives the Rams an experienced billionaire owner with a long history in the NFL. The other NFL owners were quick to welcome Kroenke as majority owner, a positive sign for the Rams. The front office scored only five points from Schein, but it's looking like that ranking will rise in the future. Bradford, Chris Long, James Laurinaitis and Rodger Saffold have become impact players as high draft choices. The team scored big in free agency with Fred Robbins last season. Long-term stadium questions persist and the Rams need to maintain their recent improvement to climb the rankings.

24. San Francisco 49ers (28 of 60 points)

Schein: It appears that the Niners have cleared redevelopment hurdles in preparation of their move to Santa Clara in 2015. And not a moment too soon. Jim Harbaugh, Jed York and Bob Lange are major upgrades for head coach, owner and PR director in recent years. The Niners have done a nice job this year with social media. Mike Singletary was a train wreck, more punchline than coach, and Harbaugh will live up to the hype.

Sando's thoughts: The 49ers scored only one point for quarterback and four for their front office in this survey. That is a bit surprising on the quarterback front given the hope San Francisco holds for rookie Colin Kaepernick. In courting Alex Smith, the 49ers might be betting too heavily on Harbaugh's coaching powers. The improvement from Singletary to Harbaugh in dealing with quarterbacks and establishing a modern offensive philosophy has to pay off. Schein gave five points to York for ownership. That score will hinge on whether York was right about Harbaugh and whether the team secures a new stadium as desired. Silicon Valley player Gideon Yu's addition to the front office seemed like an enterprising move.
The Arizona Cardinals have dropped strong suggestions that they will not draft a quarterback with the fifth overall choice in the 2011 NFL draft.

They have set the bar high for any quarterback drafted that early. They have suggested the current crop of quarterbacks might not measure up to established standards.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt followed up on the subject during the Cardinals' pre-draft news conference Thursday. Before laying out those comments, I'd like to revisit what Whisenhunt told XTRA910 radio in Phoenix late last month:
"There is nobody that really stands out like Sam Bradford did last year. There are a lot of guys that are intriguing athletically like Blaine Gabbert, like Cam Newton, because of the skill set, some of the things they can do. But I don’t think they have shown the ability to do some of the things that you have seen in the past by some of these guys like a Matt Ryan or, obviously, like a Sam Bradford."

That seemed like a reasonable thing to say based on the evidence. It did not mean the Cardinals had ruled out selecting a quarterback fifth overall -- they were still gathering information at that point, anyway -- but it suggested the team had at least some reservations.

Now, on to what Whisenhunt said Thursday:
"When I made the assessment that I didn’t see a Sam Bradford-type player early in this [draft], I was talking more about what he had done on the college level, from the consistency, from the number of years of experience that he had played. When you talk about Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert, those are both guys that I think played very good football for their teams, but there is not a lot to base it off of other than this year.

"That is what I meant when I compared them to a Sam Bradford. Do I think that these are talented football players? Yes. I have been impressed with both of these young men because I have spent time with them. Like you all know, we have worked out them out, seen them work out, and spent time in an interview with them. They are talented football players and I think that they are going to be good quarterbacks in the league."

Despite what Whisenhunt said previously, plenty of mock drafters think the Cardinals will select Missouri quarterback Gabbert. Rob Rang, Nolan Nawrocki, Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay all sent Gabbert to Arizona in recent mock drafts.

Whisenhunt's initial comments seemed to reinforce what regular followers of the team -- myself, Arizona Republic reporter Kent Somers and azcardinals.com reporter Darren Urban -- already thought about the situation. We've all downplayed the idea that Arizona would likely select a quarterback with the fifth overall choice.

I'll stick with that thinking based on overall feel more than anything Whisenhunt has said specifically. Not that any of us will know anything for certain until next Thursday night. The Cardinals might not even have a final decision at this point.

Draft Watch: NFC West

March, 31, 2011
3/31/11
12:00
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» NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: decision-makers.

Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals' leadership team remains basically unchanged for a fifth consecutive offseason.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt is the face of the organization, even during the draft, in part because general manager Rod Graves keeps a low profile. Both earned contract extensions last offseason. Whisenhunt was coming off back-to-back division titles and had been to a Super Bowl at that point, so his profile within the organization was growing. One losing season hasn't changed that.

Whisenhunt, Graves, team president Michael Bidwill and player personnel director Steve Keim are the primary decision-makers. Whisenhunt appears most prominent among them.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers pulled a surprise of sorts when they named Trent Baalke general manager and made him the No. 1 personnel decision-maker in the building.

The feeling previously had been that the 49ers might have to hand over personnel power to their next head coach if they were serious about landing Jim Harbaugh or another top candidate. That did not happen. Baalke, whose profile became more prominent following Scot McCloughan's departure from the organization one year ago, will make the call during the draft.

The rapport between Baalke and Harbaugh appears much stronger, by all accounts, than the relationship between Baalke and former coach Mike Singletary. That is natural because Baalke played a leading role in hiring Harbaugh; he wasn't part of the process when the team promoted Singletary.

Seattle Seahawks

Coach Pete Carroll has the final say on personnel matters. It's in his contract, but not something he flaunts. Carroll played a role in hiring John Schneider as general manager last offseason. Their personalities mesh and the two worked together well in making multiple draft-day moves in 2010.

This is the Seahawks' most comfortable front-office arrangement in recent memory, largely because Carroll and Schneider were brought in together. Each is invested in the other to a degree that did not exist when Mike Holmgren was working with Bob Whitsitt, Bob Ferguson and Tim Ruskell over the years.

The Seahawks' decision-making process has more clarity heading into this draft now that Alex Gibbs has retired as offensive line coach. Gibbs' strong preference for a very specific type of offensive lineman affected how the team approached personnel decisions, especially at guard. His retirement has freed the team to more comfortably pursue the bigger guards its personnel department preferred.

St. Louis Rams

The Rams have new ownership with Stan Kroenke purchasing a majority stake, but the day-to-day decision-makers remain in place for a third consecutive offseason.

General manager Billy Devaney takes the lead in personnel matters with input from coach Steve Spagnuolo and executive vice president/chief operating officer Kevin Demoff.

Kroenke hasn't said whether the team will eventually hire a president. It doesn't matter heading into this draft.

The organization is coming off a transforming 2010 draft in which it landed quarterback Sam Bradford and left tackle Rodger Saffold with its first two choices. Two other recent high picks, Chris Long and James Laurinaitis, are also working out well.

That has to work in Devaney's favor as Kroenke assesses where the organization stands.
Ted ThompsonKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesTed Thompson's team-building philosophy will likely be popular around the league this offseason.
The Green Bay Packers ended the 2009 season with short- and long-term needs at both offensive tackle positions. Their ensuing plan was never in doubt. The Packers re-signed both incumbents, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, and then sat tight until the April draft -- where they patiently waited for Iowa tackle Bryan Bulaga to fall to them at No. 23 overall.

Clifton started all 20 games of the Packers' run to the Super Bowl XLV championship, while Bulaga replaced an injured Tauscher for the final 16. It was a routine example of the Packers' team-building philosophy: Develop your own depth, promote from within and spend free-agent money to retain your own players.

Around here, we've gone around and around on the Packers' recent unwillingness to supplement their roster with veteran free agents. It's hard to argue with the results this season, and now it's time to find out how -- and if -- the rest of the NFL implements "The Packer Way."

The methods of all Super Bowl champions are scrutinized and often copied the following offseason. But this year, the Packers' competitors aren't likely to have a choice. The impending lockout will wipe out free agency, at least for now. Although the market will eventually open when a collective bargaining agreement is reached, it's quite possible the timing will be reversed.

The draft will come first, followed by free agency, rather than the other way around. Teams will not have the luxury of making draft decisions based on the results of free agency. Without a hard plan in place, they must, in the words of Arizona general manager Rod Graves, "approach the draft as if that's the only thing we have to focus on."

We needn't waste much time on the background. You know it well. Of all the players currently on the Packers' roster, only three -- cornerback Charles Woodson, defensive end Ryan Pickett and linebacker Brandon Chillar -- were signed as veteran free agents. Three more were acquired via trade: running back Ryan Grant, along with safeties safety Derrick Martin and Anthony Smith. The rest were either drafted by the Packers, signed as undrafted rookies, claimed on waivers or signed off another team's practice squad.

The intriguing issue is whether the Packers are uniquely equipped to navigate the offseason as it crystallizes for all NFL teams. From the outside, it sure seems that way.

[+] EnlargeBryan Bulaga
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonThe Packers waited for Bryan Bulaga to fall to them in last year's draft, and the offensive tackle was a starter most of the season.
"I'd say that our football team represents what you can accomplish building through the draft," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "That's a credit to [general manager] Ted Thompson and our personnel staff. We're a draft-and-develop program, we have been for the last five years, we'll continue to do so, and this is a very important draft class for our football team to keep the competition at a high level in the locker room, to keep the depth of our football team as deep as possible. The lesson we learned going through this past season is a very good experience to draw from, so we believe in the draft. That's important to us."

As he has in past years at the scouting combine, Thompson found himself answering questions last week about his approach to free agency and the draft. This year, however, there was no tinge of derision. Instead, Thompson was asked to explain how he stocked his team so well while largely eschewing a primary source of talent.

Thompson credited former Packers general manager Ron Wolf for being a "strong believer that you build the core of your team around the draft" but otherwise said: "Our guys do a lot of work."

Thompson said: "Most of our entire staff and personnel was trained by Ron Wolf and he believed very strongly in scouting and going to see players and doing due diligence and working just as hard on the seventh-round guys and the free agents as we do on the first-round guys. That's just the way we do business."

It's not as if other teams don't try their best to draft good players. But the Packers have two factors working in their favor that some others do not:

  1. A proven system for scouting, evaluating and valuing potential draft picks
  2. A single-mindedness about the draft that, without the crutch of free agency, forces them to keep looking until they find what they want

It was interesting last week listening to the disparate viewpoints of NFL general managers. Some were clearly relived to see two draft-first teams, the Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, advance to the Super Bowl.

"Oh man, I love it," said Billy Devaney of the St. Louis Rams. "Isn't that awesome? I think both teams combined maybe had four starters that they got through free agency. The vast majority were draft picks, a couple of street free agents here and there, but those two organizations -- they've done it the way that everybody else aspires to do it. Putting it together with the foundation of hitting on their draft picks, and doing a great job keeping their guys."

The truth is, not everyone does aspire to it. Two disciples of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick suggested it's wrong to ignore any avenue for improving their team.

"I think you truly believe that you need to compare both sides going into every year and decide where the strengths are and where the weaknesses are and if you can fix them in the draft or in free agency," said the Atlanta Falcons' Thomas Dimitroff. " I know that was something that I was very particular about coming into Atlanta to make sure that I didn't get pigeon-holed as one type of team builder."

GM Scott Pioli of the Kansas City Chiefs suggested that patience will allow teams to stay true to their core values, whatever they may be.

"Everybody is going to build their team the same way that they believe," Pioli said. "You're going to have the draft. You're going to have free agency. None of this is going to go away. At some point everything is going to be done."

But if nothing else, the uncertainty about the timing and nature of this year's free-agent market seems likely to make the draft each team's first stop for offseason upgrades. You don't have to look any further than the NFC North to find recent examples where teams were able to focus their attention elsewhere in the draft after making inroads in free agency six weeks earlier.

The Chicago Bears, for example, signed free-agent defensive end Julius Peppers in March and then focused on safeties at the top of the April draft, eventually landing expected 2011 starter Major Wright. The Detroit Lions signed receiver Nate Burleson in free agency, relieving a primary roster need and freeing them to pursue running back Jahvid Best and safety Amari Spievey in the draft. Both players are likely 2011 starters.

This spring will be a guessing game -- for most teams. For the Packers, it will be business as usual.

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