NFL Nation: Steve Keim

The more weight Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington puts on this offseason, the better for him and the Cardinals.

[+] EnlargeAndre Ellington
Jennifer Stewart/USA TODAY SportsCardinals GM Steve Keim is aiming for running back Andre Ellington (pictured) to share some of the backfield load with Stepfan Taylor in 2014.
He’s already gained 10 pounds in the two months since Arizona's season ended, coach Bruce Arians said Friday at the NFL combine. But if general manager Steve Keim has his way, Ellington won't be using that added weight to protect his body from carrying the ball 30 times a game next season -- even if Arians wants to build the offense around Ellington this season.

Keim doesn’t plan on Ellington being Arizona’s featured back in 2014. Then again, Keim doesn’t plan on anybody filling that role.

“I don't know that there are many featured backs in the NFL,” Keim said. "Adrian Peterson, those types of guys. Most teams use a platoon of backs and that would probably be no different than us.

“To say you're going to play him 25 to 35 snaps, pounding the ball between the tackles, you're probably leaving yourself open to injuries. So any time, we can take a young man like him, add some weight without losing his speed and movement skills, I think you're doing yourself a favor.”

Keim compared Ellington to Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson based on their physical similarities. And like those backs, Ellington’s strengths, Keim said, are his speed, acceleration and movement.

But the difference is that Charles and Johnson are featured backs.

Charles had 259 carries in 2013 for 1,287 yards. The next most carries were by Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. And Johnson had 279 carries for 1,077 yards -- 222 more than the next Titan.

After last season, Arians said Ellington could be a feature back if he’s used similarly to his role in 2013, which saw him evolve into a receiver. Arians said in December that Ellington’s receiving ability creates mismatches for defenses similar to tight ends like New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham or San Francisco’s Vernon Davis.

“I've never been around a running back who stepped on the field and tried to do things he's never done before and played wide receiver as good as he does,” Arians said at the combine. “He plays it as well as most of our starting wide receivers. He has a unique talent we want to look at and continue to build our offense around this year.”

Taylor
To save Ellington’s body from the daily beat down that comes with being a featured back -- just ask Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, who routinely sat out practices during the week to rest -- the Cardinals will be relying on Stepfan Taylor to pick up crucial third downs and important yards.

In 2013, six of Taylor's 36 carries went for first downs and he had a 40 percent third-down conversion percentage.

With Rashard Mendenhall an unrestricted free agent this year and his name rarely getting mentioned in Indianapolis, Taylor’s thunder to Ellington’s lightning could be the platoon Keim wants.

“He and Andre are really polar opposites, when you talk about perimeter runner than you have an inside pounder like Stepfan, who when the game was on in Seattle and we needed a first down to ice the game, we gave it to Stepfan and he had a 10- or 11-yard run to finish the game,” Keim said. “He's a guy we have big expectations for us. He's very smart. He's articulate. Great young man, works his tail off.

“I think the future is really bright for him."
TEMPE, Ariz. – While coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim are always on the lookout for ways to improve the Arizona Cardinals, they kept their finger off the trigger before Tuesday’s trade deadline.

In fact, Arians made it sound like they weren’t involved in any trade talks this year.

“We were status quo,” Arians said on his weekly SiriusXM NFL Radio appearance. “We’re always willing to listen. And Steve and I are always proactive in trying to see if something’s better for our organization and our football team, but I like our group of guys right now.

“We are who we are, and we’re finding out that we’re a little bit better than we thought we were.”

And that includes Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who was the subject of the biggest trade rumors this season.

Arians didn’t know about said rumors, which began Sunday morning, until he arrived at University of Phoenix Stadium for the Cardinals' game against Atlanta. He didn’t talk to Fitzgerald about the rumors, Arians said, and the potential of a trade never became a distraction, mainly because Keim quashed the idea early Monday morning.

“Larry’s a professional,” Arians said. “The one thing he knows is how we feel about him.

“He’s going to retire a Cardinal. I don’t know where it came from. We love him to death and he is the face of the franchise.”
TEMPE, Ariz. – Bradley Sowell had just finished lifting weights Wednesday morning when he looked at his cell phone. A text message was waiting. Sowell was needed in general manager Steve Keim’s office.

Sowell thought it could only mean one thing: his month-long run with the Arizona Cardinals was over. Why else would the GM want to see him other than to cut him?

As Sowell found out after he met with Keim, there’s another reason a general manager would summon a player to his office: to name him the starting left tackle.

Sowell will replace the recently traded Levi Brown on the Cardinals’ offensive line Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, with Nate Potter earning his paycheck as a versatile swing tackle and guard.

[+] EnlargeBradley Sowell
AP Photo/Bill FeigBradley Sowell (far left) will go from a spot down the Cardinals' bench to one on the offensive line Sunday starting at left tackle.
The undrafted free agent out of Mississippi had just three days to work with the first team, preparing for a front seven that’s given the likes of Seattle, Buffalo and the New York Giants fits.

“[I’m] as ready as I can be, I can imagine,” Sowell said. “I won’t know until I’m out there. All I can do is try my hardest and get out and see what I got.”

The Cardinals wouldn’t have made the Brown move on Wednesday if they didn’t think Sowell was ready, coach Bruce Arians said this week. He consulted with the veteran defensive players, who threw their support behind Sowell.

But Arians doesn’t hope Sowell will just be a stopgap at a position that’s plagued the Cardinals for years. Although he’s tied as the lowest-paid starting left tackle in the league at $480,000, Sowell is being given a chance to prove he’s worth an extension.

“That’s his opportunity right now, to prove to us come January, February that we don’t need to make that look behind door number two,” Arians said. “That’s his job right now, to take this opportunity like these other young guys have and run with them. And I expect he will.”

Arians and offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin coached Sowell in Indianapolis, so both knew what they were getting when he was signed on Sept. 1. Sowell was thrown into the Colts’ playoff game last season in Baltimore at right tackle because of an injury (after he himself spent the week feeling ill) and was able to hold his own against Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger.

Sowell was surprised when the Colts released him after training camp, but when he started seeing who Indianapolis was drafting and signing, he figured he’d be a casualty of the numbers game. At that point, Sowell just hoped he would land in a good position.

He couldn’t have asked for a better situation -- rejoining the two coaches who mentored him during his first season and returning to playing left tackle, his natural position.

Keim doesn’t see a drop-off from Brown to Sowell.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a drop,” Keim said. “I think it’s going to either be maintained or it’s going to potentially have some growth in that area. I think Bruce hit on it. Levi was playing so inconsistent that I think Bradley can step in and play at least to that level, if not better.”

Especially against the speed rush, the one area that wound up being Brown’s kryptonite.

Ask Sowell and he’ll tell you he’s more of an athletic tackle than a power tackle.

Ask Arians and he’ll tell you Sowell has done well against the Cardinals’ speed rushers.

But ask Keim, and he’ll temper expectations of the young Sowell, preparing the fan base for the possibility of a rough few weeks with San Francisco, Seattle and Atlanta on tap after Carolina.

“I think the one thing you got to understand is there’s no question that all young players are going to take their lumps,” Keim said. “I don’t think that’s going to be any different for Bradley. We don’t expect him to jump in and look like [Cleveland left tackle] Joe Thomas Week 1. He’s going to have his issues from time to time, but what we’re banking on is a guy who’s going to continually grow and get better and a guy we can win with in the future.

“He certainly has all the physical tools, the size, the length, the athleticism. Now [it] comes down to putting it all together on Sundays.”

Whether Sowell is the answer will be seen Sunday against the Panthers at University of Phoenix Stadium. By nightfall, the pundits and critics will be able to label Sowell as better or worse than his predecessor.

But Goodwin already knows. Sowell is different, and sometimes "different" means "better."

“Different from the standpoint [of] fresher legs,” Goodwin said. “Obviously he’s younger, doesn’t have the wear and tear Levi had, and he’s eager. He’s a second-year player so he thinks he’s the best out there. So he’s got a chance to prove it now.”

But does Sowell really believe that, or is it just coachspeak?

“He better,” Goodwin said with a laugh. “When you play in the National Football League you better think you’re the baddest dude on the field at your position. I think, hopefully, he’ll be OK.”
TEMPE, Ariz. – The plan to move left tackle Levi Brown had been in the works since Week 1, Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said Wednesday.

He had multiple conversations with Cardinals president Michael Bidwill and coach Bruce Arians about Brown throughout the first four weeks of the season, culminating in a decision to move the former first-round draft pick this week, whether that was by trading or releasing him.

“I don’t think it comes as any surprise that Levi Brown was not living up to our expectations on the field,” Keim said. “At the end of the day we just felt like it was in the organization’s best decision and best interest to move on from Levi. When the opportunity arose with Pittsburgh to make a trade, we jumped at the opportunity.”

Arians said the Brown he watched on tape wasn't the same player he saw during camp. Arians kept referring to Brown’s performance in a 2011 game against New Orleans, but the Cardinals did not play the Saints that year. Brown finished the second half of 2011 on a strong note, earning a contract extension.

Soon after Arians was hired, he used to word “elite” to describe Brown, who missed of all 2012 with a triceps injury. But he first noticed Brown wasn't living up to those lofty expectations on the last day of OTAs this spring.

“I credited that just to a year off,” Arians said. “The tackle [we] got back isn’t the same guy.”

Brown allowed four sacks in four games this season, with three coming in the opener against St. Louis. His vulnerability was defending the speed rush, which exposed Brown’s lack of lateral movement.

Brown's inconsistent play ultimately cost him his job, Keim said, which will go to second-year left tackle Bradley Sowell. Arians and offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin coached Sowell last season in Indianapolis and claimed him off waivers on Sept. 1. Arians and Keim both felt he was simply their best option at left tackle.

“I don’t think there’s any risk because the problems that we’ve incurred, I don’t think would get any worse,” Arians said. “And hopefully they’re going to get better and not just in pass protection but in the run game also.”

Brown’s base salary this season was $4.75 million, and he was scheduled to earn $6 million next season and $5 million in 2015 and ’16. However, the remaining amount of his $7 million signing bonus, reported to be $4.2 million, will go against the Cardinals’ 2014 cap.

Sowell’s base salary this year is $480,000.

The chances of Brown making it through this week as a Cardinal weren’t very high, Keim hinted. Arizona wasn’t going to bench him, and if the Cardinals couldn’t trade him, he would’ve most likely been released.

“I think Bruce and I both agree that, at the end of the day, when you realize that he was not in our long-term plans, instead of belaboring the point and keeping him on our roster, that it was just in the best interest of the organization to move on,” Keim said. “And move on as quickly as possible.”
Thomas Dimitroff and Ted ThompsonUSA TODAY SportsThomas Dimitroff's Falcons and Ted Thompson's Packers have emphasized building through the draft.
These days, it's difficult to go more than a few minutes without hearing an NFL general manager utter a version of the newly relevant NFL maxim: Build through the draft.

When Dave Gettleman agreed to be the Carolina Panthers' general manager, he said: "You have to raise your own." Upon his arrival in San Diego, new Chargers general manger Tom Telesco pledged: "We're going to be a draft-driven team. Our main focus will be the draft." More recently, Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim told reporters he wanted "to build this team universally through the draft."

What they really mean, of course, is that they want their players to be homegrown. The draft is the most visible device for that goal, but ultimately it doesn't matter whether their key players were drafted, signed as rookie free agents or acquired from another team's practice squad. More than ever, NFL teams want their personnel process to routinely bring them promising if unproven players who can become good enough to make their final roster.

Tight salary-cap space, the new scale for rookie contracts and the risks associated with free agency have worked to elevate this focus. So when reader @basilwillis3 forwarded me a revealing measure of the Green Bay Packers' work toward this goal, I thought it would be worth fleshing it out for the entire league.

The chart to your right reveals the number of players each NFL team had on its roster, as of Monday night, who had never appeared in a regular-season game for another team. The Packers were at 51 over the weekend, but by Monday the number was at 50 -- still tops in the NFL -- after the swap of quarterback B.J. Coleman for veteran Seneca Wallace. The point: While a few of their players have been on practice squads or in offseason camp with other teams, the Packers' roster is almost entirely homegrown.

Packers general manager Ted Thompson told reporters that he couldn't remember anyone bringing that kind of analysis in one of his personnel meetings, but I'm quite sure that plenty of teams measure their success in related ways. Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery, in fact, recited similar statistics while speaking to reporters this week.

Emery said he performed a mini-study of the NFC North to determine how many players from each team had been on the same roster their entire career, a slightly different measure. He found the Packers had 43, the Minnesota Vikings had 39, the Bears had 29 and the Detroit Lions had 27.

"I firmly believe the best way to build a team is your own original talent," Emery said. "Your draft picks, your college free agents. It helps you in several ways. It helps you manage the cap so that it gives you flexibility so that when you do need a dynamic player to help you fill in you are able to go and get them. You have the cap flexibility to go get that player which can add to the consistency of your team winning year in, year out. It also gives your team a home-grown flavor for your fans and it also allows those players to be together longer and to improve together and to play together as a team for a longer period of time and with more consistency."

I preferred our original measurement because it also takes into account the pro scouting part of a team's personnel department -- the people who are scouring practice squads and preseason tape to utilize another avenue of acquiring the same type of player. It casts a wider and more telling swath, I think.

The range for teams went from the Packers' 50 to Lions' 28. The average was about 38. A few thoughts on what these numbers do and don't mean, in my estimation:

  • Philosophy can beget results. If you are as opposed to signing free agents as Thompson is, you're by definition going to have more homegrown players on your roster. If you're the Denver Broncos, you might be a little less patient with unproven players when you have Peyton Manning, 37, at quarterback. The Broncos aren't necessarily worse at developing their own players. They are working in a tighter window.
  • In some cases, the failures of a predecessor are reflected in current statistics. When, say, Martin Mayhew took over as the Lions' general manager in 2009, he assumed control of an 0-16 team and a depleted roster. On the one hand, there was more opportunity for newly-drafted and/or unproven players to make the team. On the other hand, the Lions had so many weak spots that Mayhew felt compelled to use all available avenues -- including trades and veteran free agency -- to fill some of them.
  • The Atlanta Falcons have made some high-profile free agency moves during the tenure of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, from signing tight end Tony Gonzalez to running back Michael Turner to running back Steven Jackson. So from a national perspective, the Falcons' development of homegrown talent has fallen below the radar. Only the Packers had more such players on their roster by Monday night.

Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was chatting about his team on the sideline during a training camp practice when a wide receiver caught a pass in stride and pulled away from the secondary.

Except it wasn't really a wide receiver with the ball in his hands. It was cornerback Patrick Peterson, and the sight of him running with the football was compelling enough to redirect Keim in midsentence.

"He is so natural," Keim said. "Watch him running routes, particularly stops and digs. You watch him drop his weight at 219 and accelerate out of the break, that's not what cornerbacks do. He can come out here and just run a route, and you're just like, 'He looks like Percy Harvin running a route. How does he do that?'"

Keim has seen much more of Peterson at receiver in two-plus weeks of subsequent practices. He is now calling Peterson the closest thing he's seen to Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders in ability.

"From an ability standpoint, I've never seen anything like him," Keim told Robert Klemko. "He's the closest thing in the league to a Bo Jackson, a Deion Sanders. I've seen him stand on the field flat-footed and throw the ball 65-70 yards. He goes out to practice as a wideout, and runs a 10- and 15-yard out as well as anyone on our team. His value to our team is really unparalleled."

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesPatrick Peterson has earned Pro Bowl honors for his ability as a return man and a cornerback.
Peterson returned four punts for touchdowns as a rookie and earned Pro Bowl honors in that capacity. He earned Pro Bowl honors as a cornerback in his second season, picking off seven passes. Could Peterson, with only four receptions for 10 yards to this point in his career, become that type of contributor on offense? It's doubtful any cornerback could play enough snaps on offense while remaining an every-down player on defense, but if any current corner could do it, Peterson would be the one.

Jackson played football and baseball, but he didn't play two positions in the NFL. Sanders dominated at cornerback and caught 36 passes for the Dallas Cowboys in 1996. He had 188 career receptions, three for touchdowns. Peterson is much sturdier than Sanders, outweighing him by about 20 pounds while showing similar ability with the ball in his hands. Peterson would have a better chance at holding up physically. Arizona goes only three deep at receiver, so there could be opportunities for Peterson without forcing the situation.

I came away from Cardinals camp thinking Peterson would get enough snaps on offense to make his presence on offense more than a gimmick. Keim's latest comments reinforce that idea. At face value, the "unparalleled" comment means the Cardinals value Peterson more than they value any other player on the team, including receiver Larry Fitzgerald. That does not mean the Cardinals plan to pay Peterson the way they are paying Fitzgerald, necessarily. Fitzgerald leveraged an over-the-top rookie deal into two extremely player-friendly veteran contracts, to the point that the salary-cap consequences are burdensome. But when the GM is comparing a young player to Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders from an ability standpoint while calling that player's value to the team unparalleled, I'd imagine the agent is taking notes. Peterson is signed through 2014 and is earning $4.6 million per year as the fifth player chosen in the 2011 draft class.

Praise for Peterson is nothing new in Arizona. Here is what Fitzgerald said of Peterson last offseason:
"From a physical standpoint, he has no weaknesses at all. Most guys you go against, bigger guys, I can manipulate them on the field or physically. Patrick is just so different. He has the game-changing speed. He can run with anybody in the league. His ball skills are like playing with another receiver. He can tackle you in the run game. He knows what’s going on, is a student of the game.

"You want to draft a guy to carry the torch for your team, Patrick Peterson epitomizes that. Just his maturity. He’s 22 years old [now 23]. He just got married. His outlook on life, the way he carries himself, the way he performs, it’s like a 30-year-old. He just gets it. To get it at that young of age, that is a scary combination when you couple that with elite talent."

Also last offseason, then-coach Ken Whisenhunt called Peterson "the same creature" as Fitzgerald in terms of talent, community involvement and the will to be great. He pointed to a rough 2011 defeat against Cincinnati when Peterson had hurt his Achilles tendon. Logic said the Cardinals needed to be careful. The defeat had eliminated them from playoff contention. One game remained in the season. Why risk it?

"He came out and played the next week against Seattle," Whisenhunt said. "It was that important to him. And that was very Larry-esque."
A look at what to expect as the Arizona Cardinals begin the Bruce Arians era:

[+] EnlargeBruce Arians, Steve Keim
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsNew coach Bruce Arians and GM Steve Keim, right, have given the Cardinals' roster a major overhaul.
Biggest change to expect: The Cardinals, the only NFC West team with a new coach, were going to be better on offense this season even if they had retained the previous coaching staff. They have a chance to be much, much better with a more competent quarterback (Carson Palmer) and upgraded personnel on the offensive line. The scheme will change Insider as well even though Arians shares Pittsburgh roots with predecessor Ken Whisenhunt. Arizona will no longer play with a fullback, explaining why the team traded Anthony Sherman, who had been a draft pick from the Whisenhunt era. The offense will put greater emphasis on deeper pass routes.

What success would look like: Larry Fitzgerald smiling again. Running backs healthy enough to average better than 3.1 yards per carry. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles picking up where Ray Horton left off. Daryl Washington restoring the team's confidence in him. Tyrann Mathieu making his mark on the field, not off it. Patrick Peterson returning a punt for a touchdown again. Palmer reviving his career with a healthy Freddie Kitchens coaching him. Avenging 58-0.

Protecting the nest: Winning at home is where it starts for the Cardinals. They lost home games to Buffalo, St. Louis and a by-then-struggling Chicago team last season. The 2013 home schedule won't be easy with playoff teams such as Seattle, San Francisco, Houston, Indianapolis and Atlanta scheduled to visit. Two visiting teams with losing records last season, St. Louis and Detroit, also could be tough. There is simply no realistic way to compete without winning at home, however.

More or fewer wins? "More" is the answer reflexively given how bad the Cardinals were while falling from a 4-0 start to 5-11 last season. We figured Palmer could be worth another three victories over last season if he played about as well as he did with Oakland. Arians and general manager Steve Keim have turned over much of the roster, however, so we're still getting a feel for this team. I'm looking forward to visiting Cardinals training camp at University of Phoenix Stadium beginning Sunday.

On Ryan Swope's continued absence

June, 12, 2013
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The concussion-related symptoms that kept Cardinals rookie receiver Ryan Swope from practicing last month continue to sideline him, ESPN's Adam Schefter notes.

Coach Bruce Arians suggested nine days ago that Swope would be fine.

General manager Steve Keim compared Swope to Brandon Stokley when assessing Swope on draft day. The comparison seemed to emphasize their playing styles. Stokley has also had a significant concussion history.

Swope, who had two documented concussions at Texas A&M, was a sixth-round draft choice.

Keim acknowledged Swope's concussion history while noting that Swope had not missed much playing time, a positive in the Cardinals' assessment.

"Then to couple that with the amount of production he had, and then going into the combine, the guy has answered every test," Keim said. "His times at Indy were remarkable. He ran in the high 4.3s. His three-cone, which is one of my favorite drills, which judges a lot of the change-of-direction and movement skills, he ran a high 6.5, low 6.6 three-cone, which was easily one of the best times at Indy this year."

Eight in the Box: RB status check

May, 24, 2013
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NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each NFC West team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?

Arizona Cardinals: This is a transitional year at the position for Arizona. Free-agent addition Rashard Mendenhall gets a shot to revive his career following a disappointing finish with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's familiar with Bruce Arians' offense, giving him a head start over the competition. Ryan Williams has a shot at the job, too, but he's been injured and recently admitted to playing scared last season while trying to protect his surgically repaired knee. General manager Steve Keim was a huge fan of the speed and cutting ability Williams offered coming out of college. Knee and shoulder injuries have taken a significant toll. Can Williams bounce back? Arians wants his backs versatile enough to play on third down as well. The team used a 2013 fifth-round choice for Stanford career rushing leader Stepfan Taylor with that in mind.

St. Louis Rams: Youth will be served in the Rams' offensive backfield now that Steven Jackson has left in free agency. The Rams could have kept Jackson, but they let him out of his contract with an eye toward building a younger roster. Rookie fifth-round pick Zac Stacy will get every chance to earn a prominent role on early downs. Isaiah Pead, a second-round choice in 2012, projects as more of a change-of-pace back. Daryl Richardson, a seventh-rounder last year, should also figure into the mix. The Rams anticipated moving forward from Jackson with a committee setup. It's an upset if one of the backs on the roster commands a huge majority of the carries. The Rams have assumed more of a fast-break look at the skill positions without Jackson as an offensive centerpiece.

San Francisco 49ers: Frank Gore remains the primary back at age 30 after holding up physically through a 19-game season in 2012. The 49ers have set up themselves for life after Gore by drafting Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore in recent seasons. The position has obviously been a priority for San Francisco. The 49ers know what the numbers say about running backs declining in their late 20s. Gore has resisted the trend to this point and doesn't seem to be declining. The dynamics behind Gore are fluid. Hunter could remain the No. 2 back if he can bounce back from ACL surgery, but James demonstrated during the playoffs why he should factor as well. Lattimore, a fourth-round pick this year, will get the full 2013 season to recover from a career-threatening knee injury suffered in college. This amounts to a redshirt year for him.

Seattle Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch blows off postgame interviews, shows up for the Seahawks' offseason program at his leisure and has a DUI case pending in the courts. He is even tougher to tackle on the field. The Seahawks know they have a great thing going with the hard-charging Lynch -- for as long as it lasts. They've been hedging their bets for two years running. Robert Turbin, a fourth-round choice in 2012, fits the power mold and has a promising future. The same goes for 2012 second-rounder Christine Michael. And if those picks weren't enough, Seattle used a 2013 sixth-rounder for Spencer Ware, who projects as a combination halfback/fullback. Lynch is arguably the best back in the division. Michael's addition gives the Seahawks outstanding young depth, too.
NFC West teams naturally expect more from earlier draft choices such as 2013 first-rounders Jonathan Cooper, Tavon Austin, Eric Reid and Alec Ogletree.

All four of those early choices could wind up starting in 2013. It's an upset if they do not.

Last year, 92 of the 135 players (68.1 percent) drafted in the first four rounds started at least one regular season. Twenty-five of the 118 players (21.2 percent) drafted in the final three rounds found their way into the starting lineup.

With that disparity in mind and with rookie camps having concluded Sunday, I've singled out five late-round picks from 2013 with a shot at making at least one start as a rookie, in my view. Who else comes to mind from your vantage point?
  • Jesse Williams, DT, Seattle Seahawks. Williams, taken with the fourth pick of the fifth round (137th overall), was the first player any NFC West team selected over the final three rounds. He has a relatively clear path to the starting lineup after the Seahawks decided against re-signing veteran Alan Branch. Seattle did select another defensive tackle, Jordan Hill, in the third round. However, Hill projects more as a pass-rusher at this point. Williams projects more as a run defender on early downs. Free-agent addition Tony McDaniel could be the player standing between Williams and the starting lineup. McDaniel has five starts in seven NFL seasons.
  • Zac Stacy, RB, St. Louis Rams. The Rams plan to use a committee of running backs. They traded two sixth-round picks to Houston for the fifth-round choice (160th overall) they used for Stacy. The team lacks an established starter after parting with Steven Jackson. Isaiah Pead, a second-round choice in 2012, projects more as a change-of-pace back. Daryl Richardson, a seventh-rounder last year, will also compete for playing time. There's a chance Stacy will emerge as a primary back on early downs. Terrance Ganaway would be the other power runner on the roster.
  • Luke Willson, TE, Seahawks. Wilson was the third of three fifth-round picks for Seattle and the 158th player taken overall. He is not going to beat out starter Zach Miller. However, Willson has a shot at emerging as the No. 2 tight end. And if that happens, he could find his way into the lineup for games when Seattle opens with two tight ends. Coach Pete Carroll singled out Willson as one of the more impressive players at the rookie camp.
  • Stepfan Taylor, RB, Cardinals. Arizona has Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams at running back. Both would presumably start ahead of Taylor if healthy. However, Mendenhall missed 10 games with Pittsburgh last season. Williams missed 11 games. So, at least on the surface, Taylor could have a shot at starting through injuries. He's the first running back the Cardinals have selected under coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim.
  • Spencer Ware, FB, Seahawks. Ware still has to earn a roster spot. There are no guarantees that will happen. If he does, however, Ware might be the only fullback on the roster, which would give him a clear path to the starting lineup whenver Seattle opened in a two-back personnel grouping. I wouldn't rule out Seattle finding a way to keep incumbent fullback Michael Robinson as well as Ware if the decision made sense from a special-teams standpoint and if the team felt it could go lighter at another position, such as linebacker. Carroll sounds high on Ware, but the team also values Robinson.
Twenty-three of the 38 players NFC West teams drafted in 2013 ran the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine in February.

The chart shows the times they recorded, providing a feel for the track speed teams from this division added through the draft.

Three of the six fastest times belong to players the St. Louis Rams drafted. The team drafted two wide receivers in the first three rounds, moves designed in part to improve team speed at the skill positions.

These and other NFC West draft choices sought to improve their 40-yard times at various pro days and private workouts. The times they recorded in those settings might have affected their draft stock. I chose to focus on the times collected under the same controlled settings.

The speed Ryan Swope displayed at the combine makes him an intriguing addition for the Arizona Cardinals in the sixth round. Concerns regarding concussions contributed to Swope's relatively low draft status.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians wanted to add a speed receiver in the draft. The Cardinals could have more in mind for Swope than would be typical for a player drafted so late. General manager Steve Keim said he and Arians had tracked Swope closely.

"We were extremely excited that he started to slide," Keim said. "He is a guy that not only can stretch the field vertically, but has some underneath quickness. He kind of reminds me of Brandon Stokley a little bit, someone you’re probably familiar with when he came out of a small school in Louisiana.

"He does a nice job working the middle, can play slot, can play the outside, and will also be able to help us on special teams."

Keim pointed specifically to Swope's time speed as part of the receiver's appeal.

"His times at Indy were remarkable," Keim said. "His three-cone, which is one of my favorite drills, which judges a lot of the change-of-direction and movement skills, he ran a high 6.5, low 6.6, which was easily one of the best times at Indy this year."
Good morning, NFC West. I've had a chance to run through Mel Kiper Jr.'s 2013 NFL draft grades Insider for the NFC West.

As Mel notes, "Everybody knows you can't grade an NFL draft on performance the day it ends. You can't do it for years, which is part of the reason why I audit old drafts. What I do here is assess three main things: How much overall talent did a team add based on board position? How effectively did they address key personnel needs? How efficient were they in maneuvering on the draft board?"

With those things in mind, let's take a peek at Kiper Jr.'s grades and offer some initial thoughts. The comments I've included from Mel represent a small sampling of his overall thoughts for each team.

St. Louis Rams

Kiper Jr.'s overall grade: A-minus

Kiper Jr.'s give: "I really liked this draft, and found myself in agreement with my colleagues. Oh, and they still have an extra first-rounder next year. The NFC West arms race is not just a two-team affair."

Sando's take: The Rams set up themselves to succeed in this draft when they traded the 2012 second overall choice to the Washington Redskins. I loved the way they emerged from the first round Thursday night with the most highly rated skill-position player (Tavon Austin) and the same number of total picks they brought into the process. The Rams also addressed immediate needs with most of their picks, which always looks good on paper when a draft concludes. However, St. Louis emerged from this draft with only seven players overall. Eighteen teams drafted between eight and 11 players. The Rams had the two early picks, so they got quality. But a home run for me would have included getting quality and quantity. The Rams had only 52 players on their roster coming into the draft. All those open roster spots made it easier for St. Louis to land more attractive rookie free agents, at least.

Arizona Cardinals

Kiper Jr.'s overall grade: B

Kiper Jr.'s give: "Nothing remarkable about this class, but Carson Palmer's chance to succeed has improved with the presence of Jonathan Cooper, and there's plenty of sleeper potential."

Sando's take: The Cardinals came away with nine players after entering the draft with seven picks. The team had never drafted more than eight players in any year since 2001. The more picks a team has, in general, the more chances to acquire a long-term contributor. Coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim came into the draft saying their offensive line was going to be OK, particularly at tackle. The team still used the seventh and 116th overall choices for guards, an indication Arians and Keim agreed with public concerns there. I thought Arizona would have been more aggressive in targeting a safety, but the team expects Tyrann Mathieu to provide some flexibility at that position. Adding a couple running backs later in the draft made sense. Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams have breakout potential, but neither has been reliable lately.

San Francisco 49ers

Kiper Jr.'s overall grade: B

Kiper Jr.'s give: "I'd like this draft a little more if they got a safety I had rated higher, but they did well, just as you figured they would."

Sando's take: Analysts are going to disagree about the value of specific players. Kiper Jr. didn't like safety Eric Reid so much. Another analyst, Nolan Nawrocki of Pro Football Weekly, ranked Reid as the 14th-best player in the draft on his overall list published in March. I often prefer revisiting player grades issued well before the draft. I'm skeptical when grades change in the absence of actual football being played. Reid comes to the 49ers as a lower-cost alternative to Dashon Goldson. The 49ers came out of this draft with a likely immediate starter in Reid while addressing needs that might not become acute for another year or so. General manager Trent Baalke likes to say he's in it for the long haul. This draft addressed longer-term needs on the defensive line (Tank Carradine) and at running back (Marcus Lattimore) in particular. Getting a 2014 third-round choice from Tennessee was another long-term move.

Seattle Seahawks

Kiper Jr.'s overall grade: B

Kiper Jr.'s give: "I don't know that Seattle added a starter among their picks, but they certainly added one in Percy Harvin."

Sando's take: The Seahawks have earned the benefit of the doubt in the draft after hitting home runs with Russell Wilson and other players selected over the past three years. I think analysts would be harsher in their day-after-draft analyses if they hadn't been forced to eat their words regarding Wilson in particular. The Seahawks have proven they know what they're doing. Including Harvin in the analysis changes the overall feel for this draft. Otherwise, we could reasonably say the team came away with a backup running back, depth at defensive tackle and a complimentary wide receiver. I can see why the Seahawks wanted to have so many seventh-round picks (four). One, the team has come away with potential starters in that round previously, including J.R. Sweezy. Two, Seattle has relatively few openings on its roster, making it tougher for the team to recruit undrafted free agents. Those seventh-round picks gave Seattle a jump on priority free agents.

NFC West draft analysis

April, 27, 2013
4/27/13
5:51
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The NFC West has been gaining on the two-time defending division champion San Francisco 49ers.

The Seattle Seahawks nearly caught the 49ers in the division race last season before adding Percy Harvin. The St. Louis Rams more than tripled their victory total from 2011 while going 1-0-1 against San Francisco. The Arizona Cardinals will almost certainly get better after acquiring quarterback Carson Palmer.

The 49ers, with arguably the NFL's strongest roster and best coaching staff, had nowhere to go but down. How general manager Trent Baalke used the 49ers' NFL-high 13 draft choices was going to be critical for the 49ers to maintain their standing atop the NFC West.

"Trent Baalke has to be on his 'A' game," coach Jim Harbaugh had said. "This could make you. You could be the next Bill Polian, the next Ozzie Newsome. It all hinges on this draft. So, it's exciting."

So, how did Baalke do? With all those picks and relatively few openings in the lineup, Baalke needed to be aggressive. He needed to move up for specific players when appropriate and parlay picks into 2014 capital.

Baalke did those things. He moved up 13 spots to select LSU safety Eric Reid with the 18th overall pick. There's more than one way to judge whether the 49ers fared well in getting the 18th pick from Dallas for the 31st and 74th selections. A rival executive told me he thought the 49ers got a great deal. In 1995, Jacksonville packaged the 31st, 97th and 134th picks with a future fourth-rounder to acquire No. 19 -- a higher price.

The 49ers had the capital to move around the board and target needs. San Francisco addressed its top three needs with its top three picks, landing a safety (Reid), defensive lineman (Tank Carradine) and tight end (Vance McDonald). Baalke acquired a 2014 third-rounder from Tennessee as well.

So, the 49ers got what they wanted now while planning for the future with that 2014 pick and Marcus Lattimore, the running back they hope can contribute in 2014. Carradine could be needed to take over for Justin Smith in another year. The 49ers added receiver Quinton Patton in the fourth round -- no big deal, perhaps, but with a decision on Michael Crabtree's contract looming, insurance at that position made sense longer term as well.

BEST MOVE

There were a few worthy candidates. A double move the St. Louis Rams pulled off in the first round stands out. We cannot say with any certainty whether the players St. Louis or any team selected will become outstanding ones, but we can evaluate the process, at least. The Rams had more at stake in the first round than any team in the NFC West. Their thinking and execution through that portion of the draft appeared sound.

Moving up eight spots to select wide receiver Tavon Austin delivered to St. Louis the skill that player evaluators were most excited about in this draft. The cost was high, however, and the Rams had lots of needs. Their move to recoup picks by trading back eight spots to No. 30 with their other first-round selection gave them the best of both worlds.

The Rams entered this draft with eight total picks and what seemed to be primary needs at safety, receiver, guard and outside linebacker. They needed depth at corner, too.

Sending the 16th, 46th, 78th and 222nd picks to the Buffalo Bills for the eighth and 71st picks left the Rams with just six selections in the draft. That wasn't going to be enough for coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead to build sufficient depth. But with Snead having come to the Rams from Atlanta, the second-year GM put to use his relationship with Falcons counterpart Thomas Dimitroff, restoring needed picks to St. Louis.

The Rams then sent the 22nd overall choice and a 2015 seventh-rounder to the Falcons for the 30th, 92nd and 198th choices. That left St. Louis with its original pick count, eight, and the same number of first-rounders. Note that the picks St. Louis wound up using in the first round -- Nos. 8 and 30 -- averaged out to the picks the Rams held originally (16 and 22).

The Rams emerged from the first round with the first skill-position player selected and the first 4-3 outside linebacker selected.

RISKIEST MOVE

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
AP Photo/Michael ConroyWith strong locker room leaders, Arizona GM Steve Keim said he feels confident in drafting defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.
Risk can be good sometimes, and I'd say the Arizona Cardinals made a calculated one by using their third-round choice for Tyrann Mathieu, the LSU defensive back Bill Polian had called a "poor teammate and a poor risk" during ESPN's draft coverage. Polian, a six-time NFL executive of the year, made those comments before the Cardinals selected Mathieu (Polian and Cardinals coach Bruce Arians worked together in Indianapolis years ago).

Mathieu, nicknamed "Honey Badger" for his aggressive coverage tactics, had been kicked off the team at LSU for violating substance-abuse rules. He had admitted to having a problem eliminating marijuana use from his life. A strong endorsement from Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson helped Arizona feel better about selecting Mathieu. The two starred together at LSU and are looking forward to reuniting.

"We will probably start him at weak safety and then with our defense, with the way it’s structured, he can slide into the slot as a free safety -- basically playing with three corners, but one of them is also a safety," Arians said. "He gives that flexibility where we wouldn’t have to substitute."

Mathieu said he'll submit to regular testing, counseling or anything else the Cardinals might have in mind. He sounded sincere.

Meanwhile, general manager Steve Keim pointed to strong leadership in the Cardinals' locker room as another reason the team might be able to keep Mathieu on the right side of the NFL's policies. Keim singled out Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and Daryl Washington as players "you feel can help keep some structure in place."

Those players might indeed serve as fine leaders. However, the Cardinals did reportedly levy a six-figure fine against Dockett for insubordination last season. Washington is scheduled to serve a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.

"We made two selections, our first two selections, with guys that have impeccable character," Keim said of Jonathan Cooper and Kevin Minter. "You don't want to build your locker room of 53 players with risk.

"If you feel like you have a strong core of solid veteran leaders -- guys like Dockett, Calais Campbell, Daryl Washington -- who you feel can help keep some structure in place, I think that you have a chance to occasionally take a risk. That's if you have that instinct or that gut feeling that this player is committed to making a change."

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

The Seattle Seahawks used the last choice of the second round to select running back Christine Michael even though the depth chart was stacked with Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin, both of whom are signed for the long term.

The Seahawks did not have glaring needs entering this draft. They had flexibility to make a move such as this one. They also had an opening at running back after releasing Leon Washington. Unlike Washington, however, Michael doesn't factor as an explosive kickoff returner. He doesn't qualify as a change-of-pace back. He would seem to give the Seahawks more of the power running they already have in abundance.

The most surprising move in the division could still be a good one. As coach Pete Carroll pointed out, the team used a third-round choice for quarterback Russell Wilson last year shortly after signing Matt Flynn to a three-year, $19.5 million deal. The team found a starting quarterback when no one thought it needed one.

FILE IT AWAY

The landscape at running back continues to change in the NFC West. Every team in the division selected at least one in this draft.

The clock ticks loudly for older backs in the NFL.

Steven Jackson was one established back to depart the NFC West this offseason, leaving the Rams in free agency after eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for the team.

St. Louis traded into the fifth round to select Vanderbilt's Zac Stacy, a power back standing 5-foot-8 and weighing 216 pounds. Stacy will join Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson in the committee setup Jackson resisted.

Frank Gore's time with the San Francisco 49ers is not yet up. He remains effective and hasn't shown obvious signs of slowing. He's one of the most productive and respected players on the team. He also turns 30 next month, a bad number for running backs.

The 49ers used a 2011 fourth-round pick for Kendall Hunter and a 2012 second-rounder for LaMichael James before using a 2013 fourth-rounder for South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore. The team is preparing for life without Gore.

The Cardinals already released 2009 first-round pick Beanie Wells. They signed Rashard Mendenhall before drafting Stanford career rushing leader Stepfan Taylor in the fifth round and another back, Andre Ellington of Clemson, in the sixth.

Michael's addition in Seattle wouldn't appear to change much over the next year or two. I wonder what it says, if anything, about the team's faith in Lynch holding up through the remainder of his contract, which runs through 2015.

Seattle added another running back, Spencer Ware of LSU, late in the sixth round.

Kiper mock 4.0: Cardinals thoughts

April, 13, 2013
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Our look at Mel Kiper Jr.'s fourth 2013 mock draft Insider continues with projections for the Arizona Cardinals.

We previously considered projections for San Francisco and St. Louis. The Seattle Seahawks do not have a first-round choice. They do have a second-rounder, however. Back in a bit with some thoughts on options with that selection.

7. Eric Fisher, T, Central Michigan

Kiper's give: It's true the Cardinals saw their offensive line improve over the second half of 2012. But they also just acquired Carson Palmer, who has all the maneuverability of a Brink's truck. They need to be able to form a pocket on a consistent basis in 2013, and that means even if Fisher is off the board here, they could still look to a tackle such as Lane Johnson. They also have a need at guard, so the presence of Fisher could allow them to move someone inside. Yes, they have other needs, but keeping Palmer upright should be the top priority.

Sando's take: Kiper is right about Palmer lacking mobility. However, mobility is not a prerequisite for avoiding sacks. Palmer ranked seventh among qualifying quarterbacks last season in sacks per drop-back. Palmer has shown he'll risk interceptions to get the ball out before pressure arrives.

This is the second time in four mocks Kiper has sent Fisher to the Cardinals at No. 7. It's the third time in four mocks Kiper has projected an offensive lineman to Arizona. Guard Chance Warmack was the projection in Kiper's initial mock for 2013. Quarterback Geno Smith, Kiper's much-debated choice for Arizona in his third mock, went fourth to Philadelphia in this one. He wasn't going to be a consideration this time, anyway, after the Cardinals acquired Palmer from the Oakland Raiders. Warmack was available this time, but Kiper went with the tackle instead.

Teams traditionally value tackles more than they value guards. The Cardinals arguably have a greater need at guard than at tackle, particularly if coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim are right in their public comments about the state of the line.

Arians has called incumbent left tackle Levi Brown an "elite" player at the position. Keim has suggested Bobby Massie could take another step forward at right tackle after improving significantly in the role as a rookie in 2012. As we discussed Friday, drafting for the offensive line could represent the best value for Arizona even if perceptions about need are overstated.

Pass-rusher could be another logical consideration this early in the draft if the Cardinals have questions about O'Brien Schofield's durability and/or Sam Acho's long-term outlook. Ezekiel Ansah and Dion Jordan were not available at No. 7 in this Kiper mock. Barkevious Mingo (ninth) and Jarvis Jones (15th) went a bit later. We should remember that Arizona, despite not having a single elite outside rusher, ranked sixth last season in sacks per opponent drop-back.
The San Francisco 49ers eagerly upgraded at right guard last offseason. They were happy to move the untested Alex Boone into the lineup while watching 2011 starters Adam Snyder and Chilo Rachal leave in free agency.

The fact that Snyder and more recently Rachal have signed with Arizona strengthens perceptions that the Cardinals have serious problems on their offensive line.

How serious are those problems? Are they overstated? Are draft analysts right when they almost universally project offensive linemen to Arizona with the seventh overall pick in the 2013 draft?

Those were some of the questions on my mind during a phone conversation Friday with ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. The Cardinals will provide their answers as general manager Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians reshape the roster over the next couple seasons. McShay has them using the seventh pick Insider for Oklahoma tackle Lane Johnson, but he doesn't think the decision is crystal clear.

"The problem with them is, they don't have any necessarily glaring needs, but there are a lot of positions where you could upgrade," McShay said.

The Cardinals' line improved as the 2012 season progressed. Some of that improvement shows up in the sack numbers I've provided in the chart. Arizona ranked 13th in sacks taken per drop-back from Week 9 through season's end, up from 32nd through Week 8. Quarterbacks and other non-linemen affected those numbers, but such dramatic change reflects well on the line without much question.

Left tackle Levi Brown and center Lyle Sendlein are returning from injuries. Bobby Massie and Nate Potter improved at tackle late last season. Brown, Sendlein, left guard Daryn Colledge and Snyder are combining to count more than $20 million against the 2013 salary cap. The combined hit is scheduled to remain in that range for 2014, although much could change by then.

Adding a starting-caliber tackle with the seventh pick would give the team a lower-cost alternative.

"I just don't know who you are going to get at No. 7 that fits a need for Arizona that is a bigger one than offensive tackle," McShay said.

Keim has said he could justify selecting a guard that early if the player were talented enough. McShay projected Alabama guard Chance Warmack to the Buffalo Bills at No. 8.

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