NFL Nation: Trace Armstrong
What happens to the offensive line?
We've been asking, answering and asking some more questions about the Cardinals' quarterback situation for months. Let's tap a few brain cells to discuss the guys up front.
Center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui are without contracts for 2011. Left guard Alan Faneca might retire. Right tackle Brandon Keith is coming off hamstring and knee injuries that shortened his first season as a starter. The Cardinals do not have fresh talent in reserve. They have drafted only one offensive lineman in the first four rounds since Ken Whisenhunt became head coach in 2007. Twenty-seven teams have drafted more. As much as the team trusts assistant head coach Russ Grimm to get the most from its offensive line, Arizona could use fresh young talent for him to groom.
The Cardinals went through the 2010 season with the NFL's oldest offensive linemen, counting backups. That wouldn't matter so much if left tackle Levi Brown were meeting the Pro Bowl expectations that came with his status as a top-five overall selection in the 2007 draft. Brown was underwhelming at right tackle to begin his career and a liability at left tackle last season. His salary balloons in 2012, so this could be his last season in Arizona.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Can the defense take the next step?
The Rams allowed 328 points last season, tied for the third-lowest total since the team moved from Los Angeles for the 1995 season. They allowed seven rushing touchdowns, their lowest total since 1999 and down from 50 combined over the previous two seasons. But with starting defensive linemen James Hall and Fred Robbins turning 34 this offseason, and with questions at linebacker, the Rams' defense will not automatically go from competitive toward dominant.
Hall will be looking to become the 14th player since 1982 (when the NFL began tracking sacks as an official stat) to collect 10 sacks in a season at age 34 or older. The others: Trace Armstrong, Chris Doleman, William Fuller, Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Tony McGee, Steve McMichael, John Randle, Warren Sapp, Bruce Smith, Michael Strahan and Reggie White.
Robbins is coming off one of his finest seasons. He joined Keith Traylor, Jeff Zgonina and Ray Agnew among defensive tackles to set career highs for sacks at age 32 or older in the free-agency era (since 1993).
Getting similar production and continued good health from two older players is no given. The Rams also need to find help at outside linebacker after losing 32-year-old Na'il Diggs to a torn pectoral muscle 12 games into the 2010 season. The Rams are set at middle linebacker with James Laurinaitis, but they could stand to upgrade around him.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
How well can Jim Harbaugh coach up a quarterback?
When the 49ers' new coach needed a quarterback at Stanford, he recruited one. Andrew Luck set records and led the Cardinal to national prominence. Recruiting isn't a significant part of the equation in the NFL, so Harbaugh will have to settle for the best quarterback he can draft or otherwise acquire. He might even have to give Alex Smith a shot.
The 49ers will need Harbaugh to do what his recent predecessors could not: get good production from limited or flawed talent at the most important position.
Rich Gannon was well-established as an NFL quarterback when Harbaugh arrived as his position coach in Oakland for the 2002 season. The pairing reflected well on all parties. Gannon set career highs for completed passes, attempts, completion percentage, passing yards and passer rating. Gannon was already a good quarterback and the Raiders were already a good team, so it's tough to measure Harbaugh's impact.
Gannon is long since retired. Harbaugh is back in the NFL for the first time since the two were together on the Raiders in 2003. The 49ers don't have a legitimate starting quarterback under contract. Harbaugh has been meeting with Smith and keeping open his options. The stakes are high in the short term because the 49ers have enough talent elsewhere on their roster to compete for a playoff spot.
Outside expectations for Smith are so low that Harbaugh could appear heroic if he could get even a 9-7 record out of the 49ers with Smith in the lineup.
How much more roster turnover lies ahead?
The Seahawks were fearless in overhauling their roster during their first year under general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll.
The team added Marshawn Lynch, Leon Washington, Chris Clemons, Stacy Andrews, Tyler Polumbus, Kentwan Balmer, Kevin Vickerson, Robert Henderson and LenDale White, though Seattle parted with Vickerson, Henderson, White and 2009 regulars Deion Branch, Julius Jones, Owen Schmitt, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Josh Wilson, Lawrence Jackson, Rob Sims, Darryl Tapp, Deon Grant and Seneca Wallace. The Seahawks watched a couple other starters, Nate Burleson and Cory Redding, leave in free agency.
If those were the moves the Seahawks felt comfortable making right away, I figured there would be quite a few to come after the team's new leadership watched players for a full season. And there still could be, but similar wheeling and dealing could be impractical or even impossible if the current labor standoff continues deep into the offseason.
Teams cannot make trades without a new labor agreement. They cannot know for sure whether or not a salary cap will come into play as part of any new deal. It's just tough to act as decisively as Seattle acted last offseason without knowing the rules. That's a disadvantage for Seattle and other teams with much work to do this offseason.
It also highlighted the significant contributions St. Louis is getting from two defensive linemen thought to be past their primes.
Defensive end James Hall, 33, collected 1.5 sacks Sunday, giving him 10.0 for the season.
Hall joins a short list of players to reach double-digit sacks at that age since sacks became an official stat for the 1982 season. The others: Trace Armstrong, Rob Burnett, Richard Dent, Chris Doleman, William Fuller, Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson, Leslie O'Neal, John Randle, Warren Sapp, Bruce Smith, Michael Strahan, Jason Taylor and Reggie White.
Robbins, signed in free agency from the New York Giants, joins Keith Traylor, Jeff Zgonina and former Ram Ray Agnew among defensive tackles to set career highs for sacks at age 32 or older in the free-agency era (since 1993). The Rams are not particularly deep at defensive tackle. Their defense would have a hard time holding up without Robbins, in my view.
The team needs to draft fresh talent at the position. In the meantime, Robbins is providing the steady play Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo sought when he reconnected with Robbins, a player he coached with the Giants.
Robbins has also set a career high with seven passes defensed.
If Chicago officials are looking for a blue-chip quarterback, they weren't likely to find it at the Senior Bowl this week, reports Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Two of the top quarterback prospects, Georgia's Matt Stafford and USC's Mark Sanchez, didn't attend and thus couldn't be evaluated. Mulligan suggests the Bears remain most likely to seek a mid-level veteran quarterback this offseason to back up Kyle Orton rather than draft a high-caliber rookie.
Free agents Chris Simms and Byron Leftwich are two likely targets, with Simms the "clear leader," Mulligan reports. The Bears are certain to allow Rex Grossman to depart via free agency.
Continuing around the NFC North on a Friday morning:
- Two ex-Bears, Jimbo Covert and Trace Armstrong, are among the finalists to replace the late Gene Upshaw as executive director of the NFL Players Association, notes Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune.
- Detroit seems unlikely to pry Brian Schottenheimer away from the New York Jets to be its offensive coordinator, reports John Niyo of the Detroit News. Might be a good thing. Lions coach Jim Schwartz said he is looking for someone to "execute his vision" of an offensive scheme rather than asking his next coordinator to implement his own.
- Former Utah State defensive backs coach John Rushing is joining Green Bay as an offensive quality control coach, reports Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. The Packers also have an interview scheduled with former Oakland coach Keith Millard, likely for their defensive line position.
- There has been no contact this offseason between Minnesota and the agent for center Matt Birk, whose contract expires next month. Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune updates the situation.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
In his Q&A on what's next for the NFLPA, John Clayton mentions several potential candidates to replace Gene Upshaw, including former NFLPA presidents Trace Armstong and Troy Vincent. He also brought up former Vikings running back Robert Smith and current union president Kevin Mawae.
Another name that has been mentioned today is former Cowboys fullback Daryl "Moose" Johnston, who has been very outspoken on behalf of retired players over the past couple of years.
And if you want another outside-the-box guy, I'm hearing some talk that super-agent Tom Condon could receive consideration. He's a former player (Chiefs) and he's worked with Upshaw in the past. He's obviously no stranger to players since he and his staff at CAA represent about 120 of them. And he's used to going toe-to-toe with owners. The more I think about this name, the more sense it makes.
The players should consider every option, and that includes someone from outside the football fraternity. If you were worried that Upshaw had been too close to the owners in the past, maybe you consider someone from Major League Baseball union chief Donald Fehr's staff (Michael Weiner). I know that sounds like an awful idea, but a lot of players have wanted the union chief to have a more adversarial relationship with the owners.
If that's truly what they want, now's the time to speak up.
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